Disclaimer: Nothing belongs to me, except the plot. :-)

Note: Hello again, and sorry for the long wait! Your reviews and your support are awesome! I don't really know what to write except saying 'Thank You!' over and over again. You're the best!

Unfortunately my private life has gotten a bit busier lately and so it may take a long while until the next chapter comes out. I apologize in advance because I know how hard it is to wait endlessly. Im very sorry and I try to work on this story regardless, even if it's at a snail's pace.

After confessing this, I only have to thank the best beta in the world, the wonderful Licelli. Sorry for making you wait, I'll work hard, I promise!

And now have fun reading! This is new, even for the die-hard members of ETC. :-)

Please let me know what you think. I'm very anxious since there are several months, even years, between this chapter and the last.



- Chapter 13 -

The next week flew by very quickly. To Harry it seemed as if time itself couldn't await the arrival of spring and warmer weather. Malfoy sent Harry a book about wizarding oaths and other bonds that settled contracts and promises between two or more wizards. The haughty note just told Harry to use his brain for once and actually learn something worth his wile, if only to save him the humiliation of botching something up again.

Given that their truce worked out rather well until now, Harry saw no reason to object. True, he and Malfoy were still far from being friends but at least they weren't at each others' throat anymore, which was a tremendous success in Harry's opinion.

Ron, Hermione and others soon noticed that their level of animosity had come down but with everything happening so fast outside the walls of Hogwarts nobody complained about the reprieve. Basically, Harry and Malfoy left each other alone.

Shortly before Hermione's detention was about to end on Saturday night, Harry's two-sided mirror buzzed and chimed softly in his robe's breast pocket. Instantly Harry was alerted and spun on his heel, heading hurriedly back to Gryffindor Tower. Sirius was calling.

While he was storming through the eerie corridors, Harry pressed his hand to his chest and glared left and right at the peeking inhabitants of the portraits that lined the walls. Fortunately he hadn't been that far away from his common room, and the Fat Lady didn't put up much of a fight, either, when he hissed the password at her.

The common room was already empty with the sole exception of Ron who looked expectantly at him as soon as he entered. Without bothering to take his cloak off Harry pulled the mirror from his pocket and activated it.

"I'm here, Sirius, you can speak now," he said impatiently.

Sirius' happy, frostbitten face appeared and grinned up at both Harry and Ron. "Took you long enough!" he complained cheerfully. "We just wanted to let you know that we arrived safely you-know-where and dropped off you-know-who. He certainly seems happy to be back."

"Where exactly are you?" Harry asked.

"Don't bother coming to us, Harry," replied Sirius. "We're coming in. Let's meet down in the kitchens in fifteen minutes. Remus and I could both do with some hot chocolate."

"Alright, I'll see you there, then. I'll bring Ron and Hermione." Harry quickly ended the call when Sirius had agreed and proceeded to drape his cloak more comfortably around his shoulders.

"Are you sure you want 'Mione and I with you?" Ron asked. "I'd understand if you'd want some time alone with them."

"Nonsense, Ron." Harry smirked at his best friend and pointed at the Marauders' Map that was lying on the table. "I know you watched the map to wait up for Hermione. We might as well get going and meet up with her. I already told Sirius we would bring her, anyway."

Relieved, Ron dispelled the surface of the map and then put it back together, taking it upstairs to their dorm where he undoubtedly stored it in Harry's trunk. He came back, clad with his own cloak and scarf and ready to leave.

Thankfully the Fat Lady didn't put up much of a fight, just let them pass with a frown. Harry didn't have the late shift tonight and they all knew it; Ron and Harry were almost sure that Dumbledore was well aware of who was visiting the castle tonight.

Together they slunk through the castle, the invisibility cloak tightly secured under Harry's arm. They'd use it if they had to but they could walk faster without it. Snape was still busy with Hermione; Ron had seen it on the map, so they weren't concerned about being caught by him. All the other teachers would let them off easily once they heard that Remus and Sirius were dropping by, although they wouldn't approve.

The trek down to the kitchens was uneventful, however. Nobody stopped them, not even the nosy portraits on their way who were never shy to make smart comments.

Tickling the pear on the entrance portal to the kitchens, they finally got out of the dreary and dank dungeon corridors and slipped into the welcoming heat of the huge kitchen.

Instantly they were greeted by a crowd of eager House Elves who were happily offering their services. Harry paid them no heed, however. Sirius and Remus were already sitting at a table and sipping something hot from large mugs, beaming at him and Ron.

"Hello, Dobby," Harry said and hastily got over to his two godfathers.

"Harry!" Sirius exclaimed. As soon as Harry was close enough he engulfed him in a strong, loving embrace and squeezed for all he was worth. "Oh, it's so good to see you again."

"How was your trip?" Harry managed to wheeze out when he was passed on to Remus who was squeezing him only a little less tightly.

"Bloody difficult!" said Sirius loudly. "Buckbeak insisted on flying day and night to get back here; the bloody thing knew where we were headed as soon as we left the attic with him. If Remus hadn't kept him in check the Ministry might have caught us in our first hour out."

"Thankfully everything went well," said Remus, sighing in exasperation. "That blizzard last Friday was a blessing in disguise. We had to land because somebody spotted us but the snow covered all our tracks and allowed us to pass a good part of the way on foot with no one the wiser."

"How good to hear that, Lupin," said a chilly voice from the doorway. Snape stood there, Hermione in tow, and sneered at them in a most unpleasant way. "With all the racket you make I wonder how it is possible that the rest of your … gang isn't up yet to celebrate this little get-together."

"Snape, always the most cheerful person at a party," said Sirius sarcastically. "Do tell, what are you doing down here with us lowly worms?"

Snape's eyes glittered in malicious amusement as he measured Sirius. "Oh, you know, just escorting Miss Granger here to her common room. Dumbledore doesn't deem it safe for her to wander the halls alone after curfew."

"Does he now?" Remus asked with a frown.

Harry thought it impossible of Dumbledore to entrust Snape with a student at all, and especially if said student was one of his best friends.

"Dumbledore is exaggerating as always," said Hermione, sounding rather tired and put out. She stepped into the kitchen which made several House Elves twitch nervously. "Oh, please. All I want is a decent cup of tea!" she snapped.

Without showing his nervousness Harry stepped up to her and hugged her shortly. "We'll go back soon, 'Mione. We just wanted to make sure Sirius and Remus are all right."

"I don't doubt you can watch out for yourself, Miss Granger," said Snape silkily. It sounded somewhat ambiguous. "I was more concerned about Mr Potter and Mr Weasley. They obviously have a most unfortunate penchant for getting in trouble."

Harry, who was still having an arm around Hermione's shoulders, noticed how tensed up Snape was, despite his cutting amusement.

"That's nothing new," he said challengingly.

"I see that you're making progress, Potter," drawled Snape darkly. "Knowing your faults and flaws is the first step to improvement." He sneered. "Although I find it difficult to see that working for you."

"Snape," growled Sirius. He was obviously annoyed about Snape's presence. In fact, the man didn't seem as if he had the intention to leave soon. "What, exactly, do you want? If you're here to berate the boys– "

"Oh, it's nothing of the sort, Black," said Snape and picked a bit of lint off his black sleeve. "I was merely escorting Miss Granger, as I said. The headmaster, however, decided to inform me five minutes before the detention was over that you were stopping by. How could I ever refuse his suggestion of reuniting you lot?" His tone was cutting and bitter, full of fatigue and anger and resignation.

"Well, you escorted her, now you can leave. Good night, Snape," said Sirius sharply.

"Sirius!" hissed Remus, very obviously appalled at his lack of manners. "This is Hogwarts, you can't just throw him out!" He looked up at Snape grimly. "Please stay, Severus, and have a cup of tea. We had a long week."

"I know, Lupin," replied Snape flatly. "I assume you can take care of Miss Granger, Potter, Weasley?"

Harry and Ron nodded, looking warily at Snape who looked quite ready to bite their heads off. Hermione in Harry's arm was stiff as a board and a bit pale. The detentions were taking a toll on her; even with her free days in between she wasn't nearly sleeping as much as she should.

Snape's brooding stare was resting on Hermione's tired form, not glancing left or right at the nervous House Elves that were uncertainly shuffling closer, wanting to know what they could do to serve. With visible effort Snape got out of his contemplation. This time, his voice had an air of finality to it.

"Miss Granger, see that you go to bed soon, you'll need your rest. I don't fancy having my lab swamped without reason." With that Snape turned briskly and exited the kitchen. The portrait quietly clicked shut behind him.

The second he was gone Hermione slumped bonelessly against Harry's chest and clung to his cloak.

"Oh," she sobbed, "he-he is-"

"Ssh," Sirius said softly, "I know he's a bastard but don't let him get to you." He patted her head but wasn't very successful in making her feel better.

Harry sighed. He really got a feeling that Snape wasn't such a bastard as he led people on to believe. After all he'd just permitted Hermione to use his lab. For her it had to be a great achievement.

Of course, telling Sirius such a thing was out of the question, at least right now. He wouldn't understand the drive between Snape and Hermione, that they were constantly going at each others' throats. Harry had known the signs as soon as he heard about it: both Snape and Hermione were trying to best each other and had yet to find solid ground to tread on to even try. It was scary and in his opinion everybody else should stay away until the fight was over. And knowing Hermione's stubbornness it could take a while.

Dobby was the only House Elf brave enough to bring Hermione her requested cup of tea. Remus was angrily berating Sirius for his treatment of Snape while Ron looked a little bit green around his eyes. Harry grimaced. This night certainly wasn't what he had hoped it would be.

Hermione was slowly getting back her wits and wiped her eyes resolutely. "Thank you, Dobby," she said. Her voice sounded determined.

"Dobby is trying to please Harry Potter Sir's friends," replied Dobby modestly and shuffled off to help the other House Elves prepare the big tea kettles for breakfast.

"You really shouldn't insult them by trying to free them," said Sirius once Dobby was out of earshot. He looked distinctly ruffled and chastised but that didn't lessen the humour in his voice. "House Elves are very proud to work for us humans."

"I can't believe they like being treated as slaves," said Hermione stubbornly.

"But they do," said Ron in exasperation and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Don't get started on it again, 'Mione. Hogwarts needs the House Elves and you know it."

Harry was inclined to side with Ron on that. Still, it was too late to argue about such trivial things. "Come on, let's spend some quality time," he said, successfully breaking up the impending argument.

They settled at the table and drank their tea and ate little pastries that Dobby had left for them.

"So, do tell, how are you doing with school?" Sirius asked as soon as he had sat down. "Anything new we should know?"

"Not really," said Harry. "I resolved my … business with Malfoy and everything is fine now." He threw Hermione a nasty glance. "After I had to break my first wizard's oath I had with him we finally sorted everything out."

"What business?" Remus asked, mildly interested. "You weren't fighting again, were you?"

Harry had the grace to look ashamed. "Well, we got in a scuffle and my scarf got burned, so we agreed upon him getting me a new scarf and me getting his as compensation for a week." He felt even worse for lying to Remus and Sirius than he had to Ron and Hermione. Which was astounding since he had felt quite bad about that already.

Remus sighed. "As much as I'd like you to have fun, be careful with who you argue, all right?"

Harry and Ron nodded while Hermione seemed rather smug that they got a lecture.

Frowning, Sirius leaned over the table and looked intensely at Harry. "Somehow I don't think that this is all, my dear godson. Care to finish the tale?"

Harry scowled. "That's none of your business. All you need to know is that Malfoy and I agreed to a truce. No sniping, no fighting. Everybody is happy."

"How did you manage that?" Hermione asked, a curious frown etched onto her face. "You didn't exactly tell us how. We only notice that he's keeping out of our way. For once," she added as an afterthought.

Harry blushed and had no way to hide it. "You don't want to know."

Remus and Sirius raised both eyebrows while Ron was gagging slightly.

"Don't tell me he actually does fancy you," he choked, turning rather red.

Harry sighed. "Of course not. Look, I just recited that sonnet to him and-"

"You did what?" Sirius and Hermione roared.

"A sonnet. I recited it to him," said Harry patiently as if talking to dumb children. "You knew I planned that."

"We never thought you'd really do that!" yelped Ron in outrage. His healthy, pink face had once again gone rather white.

"Honestly, Harry, a poem?" Hermione huffed. "I thought Katie had delusions when she told me that you actually got that book from her." She looked shrewdly at him. "I guess I underestimated you and your impulsiveness once again."

"Oi!" said Harry, feeling rather put out that she didn't think him able to get through with a promise. "It worked, didn't it?"

"I don't want to know how," muttered Ron. "Hopefully you didn't seal that achievement with a kiss. That would just be too much …"

"Actually-," Harry started but was cut off by Sirius clamping his hand over his mouth.

"Whatever you did do, keep it to yourself," he said sternly. "We don't need to know how. It's yours, Harry."

Harry was seriously confused about Sirius' insistent voice. He tried to flatten his wayward hair with a sweaty hand when he was released but wasn't very successful.

Remus looked at him carefully, almost scrutinising him. More than once Harry had a feeling that his eyes flickered down to his right hand. The kiss mark had vanished, finally, but even though Harry hadn't worn gloves all the time to hide it nobody had commented on it. Could it be that nobody had even seen it? That would be too weird. And yet Remus seemed to know exactly that something was up with him.

"Harry, are you afraid to tell us something?" Remus asked quietly. "You practically reek of fear and nervousness. Whatever it is, we won't bite."

Snorting, Harry shook his head. "It's nothing, really." Nothing you could stomach, anyway, he thought grimly. Being accosted by both Malfoys in only two days was certainly nothing he could easily stomach himself.

Sirius snorted in kind. "Whatever, Harry. Just don't do something stupid." He relaxed in his chair and raked both hands through his long hair. "By the way, we found some trustworthy Wiccans and contacted them. There is one witch, Diane Lovegood, she practically jumped at the chance to ask for asylum at Hogwarts. She said that she'd bring her coven with her. Seems like the Death Eaters became aware of them lately."

"That must be Luna's gran," said Ron in excitement.

"Do you think Dumbledore will let them in?" Hermione asked sorrowfully. "All I can think of is Fudge and Umbridge. They'll try to forbid it."

"Fudge and Umbridge are powerless when it comes to Hogwarts," said Sirius with a dark voice. "They may infiltrate its walls and place stupid restrictions on the teachers and students, but the castle itself will never bow to them."

Remus was absently scratching Sirius' back when he nodded. "And the rights that enable a headmaster at Hogwarts to make certain decisions definitely overrule that of the Minister, strange as it sounds. Asylum always was a right everybody could call upon, especially in times of war or the ostracism of minorities. Dumbledore won't let Fudge get away with his ideas a second time, you'll see."

"And we promised to help him," said Hermione, sipping her tea thoughtfully. "When do these Wiccans arrive?"

"Oh, I don't know for sure," replied Sirius with a wink, "but it will be soon enough to bring some fresh air into the castle."

"We hope so," said Harry and Ron in unison and chortled about it.

Remus and Sirius asked several questions about the DA training; thankfully Hermione and Remus thought about putting a silencing bubble up to keep the House Elves away. Harry did most of the talking and he was, although he didn't really like doing it, censoring what he told them.

He explained his two godfathers everything about the DA, and that Cho and Corner had left the group. He didn't tell them about his secret attempts to gain access to Voldemort's mind, or that he planned his own little ploy to prepare for the new attack.

Sirius and Remus listened attentively and didn't ask too many questions. Everybody was tired and so the conversation finally turned to much safer topics, like grades and homework and possible secret crushes.

"I don't have one and I don't want one," said Harry firmly when Sirius' goading became too much. "We're all tired, we should go back."

Hermione and Ron grinned meaningfully and were not doing a very good job of hiding it behind their hands. Remus chuckled and stood.

"Harry's right," he said, "you should go to bed. Sirius and I have yet to see Dumbledore to get a portkey back to you-know-where. And I guess Snape is just waiting for you to come out so he can get a few points out of this."

"Yeah, sounds like him," growled Ron. He snatched the last pastry on the plate and ate it.

"Well then, let's go," said Hermione with a tired sigh. She stood and brushed her skirt off. "I'm glad we can sleep in tomorrow."

Harry offered her his arm, receiving a scowl from Ron in return. He smirked over her head and raised both eyebrows. Sirius and Remus snickered; sometimes Ron was too obvious for his own good.

They shuffled out of the kitchen and waited in the corridor until everybody was out. Remus patted Ron's and Harry's shoulder and petted Hermione's hair and Sirius hugged them all before he closed the kitchen portrait behind him and shut the warm, welcoming light out.

"Go quickly, and take care of her," he said warmly before he ruffled Harry's hair one last time. "Oh, and here is a little something from Jerold and his girlfriend. You remember the young werewolf from the holidays?"

"Of course," said Harry, startled. "Whatever could he be giving me?"

Sirius laughed. "I believe he gave you some private lessons, lad. It's something to get you back on track."

Harry took the offered, shrunken parcel in wonder and turned it around curiously. "Well, tell him thank you from me. I'll write him a letter later, if that's all right."

"Of course," smirked Sirius. "My, my, Harry, you're barely out of your nappies and already you have admirers knocking down your door."

Hermione and Ron tittered at that, throwing Harry meaningful looks.

"Yes, anyway, it was nice to see you two. Now it's time to part and whatnot. Get back safely, goodbye," Harry rushed to say. Everybody laughed. Sirius poked Harry lightly in the shoulder and then it really was time for them to go.

Remus smiled at them while Sirius grinned. They linked their hands before they strode off in the opposite direction. Harry started to walk, too, dragging an almost dozing Hermione with him. Ron followed like a shadow, watching out carefully if Peeves or Snape were close.

They reached Gryffindor Tower without incident and scrambled to bed as quickly as they could manage. Harry only got to take his memories out of his head and into the Pensieve before sleep grasped him powerfully and he was dead to the world.

The next few weeks passed with no change. Around the beginning of February Luna was again seen picking things from the Room of Requirement. When Harry asked her she explained that she wanted to celebrate Imbolc and was preparing for a ritual in honour of Brigid, the goddess that stood for home and hearth. Harry knew that Luna would make it a feast but he was too shy to ask her if he could possibly partake.

This didn't mean that he wouldn't notice the outcome, though. It was February the second, Monday night. He, Hermione and Ron were sitting in the Great Hall and just waiting to escort Hermione to detention, when they felt it: a surge of warm, flittering magic raced through the Great Hall and touched every student and teacher before it breezed through the thick, ancient walls and was gone again.

Gasps and small cries were heard from all four tables, and for a second most teachers looked in bewilderment at their hands and around the hall. Dumbledore remained calm, however, and only smiled at a furiously whispering Professor McGonagall.

"Luna is getting stronger," said Hermione and ate her buttered bread thoughtfully. "To help her honour Brigid we could eat a bit of that stew. It has lots of strong spices in it. And drink some milk." She helped herself to stew and milk and started to eat hungrily.

Ron's eyebrows rose. "You really believe in this, don't you?" he asked, half in awe and half in amusement.

Hermione smiled leniently. "It's different. And a whole lot more logical than the Christian beliefs. At least for me. I think I'll ask Luna if she can introduce me formally to Wicca."

Harry wondered if he should do that, too. It sounded promising, and a lot of the Wicca techniques he could also use for Occlumency and Legilimency. The only setback was their lack of time. He was finally out of detention because Crabbe and Goyle were (actually Snape had thrown them out in frustration as it didn't seem as if Crabbe and Goyle were even attempting to work) but he found he missed the quiet hours to do some legitimate cramming.

"It's almost time," Harry reminded her. "I'll walk you down to Snape's office."

"Thank you." Hermione looked gratefully at him and seemed rather nervous. "It's my first night in his lab. I hope I'm not going to do anything stupid in there. I don't want him hating me again. We just came off of that inane I-loathe-you-so leave-me-the-hell-alone rubbish."

A few minutes later Ron and Harry had escorted Hermione to the dungeons. Snape was raising both eyebrows at them, clearly inquiring about their protectiveness of Hermione. He didn't say anything, though, just slammed the door in their faces. Ron returned to Gryffindor Tower, but Harry wasn't really up for company. Instead he wandered through the halls, the invisibility cloak in his pocket, just in case.

His feet carried him to the Room of Requirement on their own volition, not that Harry minded. At once he saw the door in the long stretch of wall and decided to pay Luna a little visit. He knocked loudly to warn her before he pushed the heavy, wooden door open and stepped through.

The room looked so magnificent that Harry couldn't quite keep his stunned gasp back. Candles were everywhere, illuminating the dark room romantically. The walls were decorated with large hams in nets, bindings of grain, tapestries showing grand meals of roasted meat, milk and bread, spinning wheels and a lot more things that represented home and hearth. On the ground candles were forming a pattern, resulting in a large circle. In its centre Luna sat and meditated.

"Hello, Harry," said Luna absently, smiling vaguely. "What brings you here?"

"I-er," Harry stuttered. "Well, I hoped you'd still be here but I don't want to disturb you or anything."

Luna opened her pale, misty eyes and her smile widened. "Of course you can stay. Come sit with me." She took a small knife with black handle, got up and cut into the air where her circle was drawn. To others it might have looked strange but Harry thought he saw a flitter of gold along the cut-edges. "Come through this door."

Harry unconsciously toed out of his trainers and followed the invitation. He was too transfixed by the whole thing to resist his curiosity. And hadn't he wanted to partake in the ritual? Carefully he stepped through the entrance Luna had made for him. Now he really saw the golden light zip along the edges. When he was through she closed the entrance again with a soothing motion of her hand.

"It's nice of you to come and visit," she said happily.

"We all felt a funny energy in the Great Hall," said Harry carefully. "It felt good though."

"Brigid is a very generous lady," replied Luna softly. "I asked her to bless Hogwarts, to give it a bit more protection against evil and she did. I owe her my gratitude."

Harry knew that Luna was right. A lot of children, including himself, considered Hogwarts their home, and they had to be grateful for any support they got.

"Do you want to feel her, too?" Luna asked invitingly. "You can, you know. Just clear your mind, ground and centre and let her come to you."

Harry nodded, too stricken for words. He settled comfortably next to Luna, closed his eyes and almost immediately drowned in a trance that was unlike anything he had ever felt before. He saw the elements rushing by, greeting him merrily, and then he connected to Hogwarts and to the earth, feeling the incredible, indescribable power flood him like a high tide, rendering him breathless with its beauty. He thought of Brigid, thought of thanking her for her help and felt a warm, soft hand caress his heart in a motherly touch. His mind was racing, he was craving that warm lap to snuggle in, to fall asleep and let her take his worries away.

When Harry woke up from his jumbled, feverish dreams, his lashes were wet. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve, noticing how shaky his hands were. Luna was regarding him calmly in silent understanding. Her pale face glowed in the darkness, caressed by the golden shine of the nearly burnt-down candles.

"She felt like my mother," Harry choked out when he could finally talk. "I remember sitting on her lap when I was a baby. Oh God …"

"Our mothers never really leave us," Luna explained gently when Harry had recovered a bit. "It's why I love Imbolc so much."

"Thank you so much," said Harry hoarsely. He felt too exhausted to be embarrassed. Luna inched closer and stroked his arm reassuringly, and in the spur of the moment Harry reached out for her and pulled her in a tight embrace. "Thank you."

"You're very welcome, Harry," whispered Luna back, rubbing Harry's back comfortingly.

Later, when Harry was lying in his bed, he thought about that sensation again, of the warm, loving touch he had felt. It had been better than anything he had ever felt before and his heart swelled with love for the parents he had never really known. In his mind he embraced them both tightly before sleep claimed him and made him forget any grief for the night.

The days passed by with alarming speed. Valentine's day came and went and Harry, Ron and Hermione went to Hogsmeade together, making use of the opportunity to see Fred and George again. Katie and Angelina joined them, giggling excitedly and whispering to each other. They had lunch together in the Three Broomsticks and talked a good deal about the DA and their plans but soon it was obvious that Fred and George wanted to spend some time with their girlfriends, so Harry, Hermione and Ron left them and wandered aimlessly around for the rest of the afternoon.

Harry shuddered when they passed Madame Puddifoot's café, and Ron gagged when they stumbled upon Blaise and Seamus snogging in a back alley and cooing sweet nothings at each other.

"It sure is disgusting," said Hermione reasonably when they had also seen Hannah and Ernie making out behind a shop, "but at some point we'll all want for something like this."

Ron gagged again, but Harry had to admit that Hermione was right. At some point, he was sure, he was going to look for the right person.

Other than this Valentine's day, however, they didn't have much time for such musings on life. Soon it was already the end of February and the first, tentative signs of spring could be seen. The days got longer again, and the chirping of birds seemed louder when the students went outside for Herbology, Care of Magical Creatures or Apparating class.

Harry, Ron and Hermione had had DA meetings even on weekdays during the past month and tried to teach as much as possible. Harry had tried to get tuned to the Dark Lord's moods. He didn't have a feeling that it had worked, he only knew that he was tired like never before since his attempts usually left him too weak and agitated to sleep. In return, he was feeling even more repercussions of Voldemort's nightly doings than usual, which put him on edge as well. If it hadn't been for Luna and her help he would have long since snapped at someone.

It was Friday and Snape had been in a particularly vicious mood. Blaise and Harry had boils covering their arms while Hannah Abbott was sporting a shiner from a ladle that had accidentally come to life and had hit her in the eye. Malfoy's hair looked pinkish; his potion had actually exploded before eating its way through the table, and Luna had burns on her hands because she had tried to save the cauldron from tipping over completely. Even Hermione and Terry had messed up; Hermione had only turned for a second to help Blaise treat his wounds and then it was already too late, Terry had stirred wrongly and their potion had bubbled over merrily. The only one unharmed was Ernie McMillan, and considering the black look Snape was giving them all he wouldn't be for long.

All in all it was the most horrible lesson they had had since the beginning of the school year. Snape was glowering at them through narrowed eyes and deducted points left, right and centre.

"I can't believe you, you imbeciles!" he snarled angrily. "Never in my time as teacher have I seen such all-encompassing ineptness, not even with Longbottom in class! All four potions ruined! Rare ingredients wasted! I dare not ask what had you distracted!"

Eight pair of eyes looked meekly at ruined tables. For once nobody could blame Snape for erupting like that.

"Detention for all of you!" hissed Snape. "Without exception," he added menacingly when he spotted Malfoy's rebellious glare. "Abbott, McMillan and Boot, you will report to Filch. Malfoy, Granger, Potter, you are going to Hagrid. Lovegood and Zabini, you'll serve detention with me." He prowled to Hermione's table and prodded the garish liquid with a ladle, making it sizzle ominously. "Miss Granger, you have one chance to brew this correctly, otherwise it'll be a zero for you."

"Thank you, Sir," said Hermione, sounding equally grateful and angry.

"Why can't we try again, too?" Ernie asked angrily. "Why does only Hermione get another chance?"

Snape smirked unpleasantly. "Because I know for a fact that you'd mess up anyway, McMillan. I'd rather not waste my time and resources."

With that Snape threw them out of the classroom and slammed the door after them. Nobody could really argue with Snape's reasoning, but it was still unfair. Dejected and downcast, they split up and made their way to their respective common rooms to get cleaned up.

"People could really think he's favouring you, however stupid that is," said Harry reasonably when Hermione wouldn't stop ranting about Ernie's words.

"Yes, but Ernie doesn't know that I brewed the same stupid potion already in detention," said Hermione in agitation. "Snape knows I can do it, that's why I got another chance!"

"Which is still nicer of him than just giving you a zero," replied Harry. "I guess he's going soft on you after two months of detention."

"Oh, don't you start with me now, Harry Potter! Fluffy Puff!" cried Hermione, slamming the portrait of the Fat Lady open with some force. "He knows exactly what to expect from me when he's getting unjust again, but that has nothing to do with 'becoming soft'. He's just worried that Dumbledore will put us together for another two months, and we both can do without that!"

Harry watched in morbid fascination how Hermione pulled at her hair and paced like a cat in a cage. "It's your last day tomorrow, isn't it?"

"Yes, and I'm not looking forward to it," growled Hermione. "The git has such a huge library and I didn't get to see everything, even though I tried. I think I might have to go back every now and then and see if I can borrow some books."

"Don't count on it," said Harry. He waved his wand over his robes and cleaned the spillage of the lesson. He then put his heavy book bag down. "I better get going to the infirmary to get these healed," he said, looking at the angry welts on his forearms. "They hurt like a bitch."

"I'll come with you." Hermione cleaned her robes as well, raked both hands through her hair to make it look more orderly and then swung her bag over her shoulder. She, of course, would go to the library later.

Madam Pomfrey wasn't too happy with Harry for showing up yet again. In the back of the large room Harry spotted Blaise and Malfoy sitting on a bed, talking with each other. Blaise's arms were covered in thick bandages. Luna was sitting by herself, staring at her burnt hands as if hypnotised. Hannah was nowhere to be seen, maybe her eye had already been healed.

"What are you doing in class?" Madam Pomfrey asked when she was coating Harry's forearms in a violently neon-blue paste. "Didn't Professor Snape watch out for you lot? Honestly, one of these days someone will lose and eye, or some fingers!"

Harry turned green at the thought. After witnessing Wormtail cut his own hand off he was a bit squeamish about such things. Madam Pomfrey wound his arms in bandages and told him strictly to keep them on until tomorrow. Then he was to come back for examination.

"There, that went better than anticipated," said Hermione. "Can you hold your wand?" When Harry nodded, she said, "Excellent. Maybe we can go to the Room of Requirement for some training. I'll just go a bit later to the library."

They skipped lunch and Hermione told the other members of the DA via the fake galleon that there would be an impromptu meeting for some extra training. It was gratifying to see that almost everyone turned up, ready to practice some more.

After last month's strict tutelage everybody in the DA was able to do most basic spells soundlessly. Some were even able to summon things wandlessly, or to switch the lights on and off. Once again Neville was improving greatly, giving Seamus and Dean and even Ron a good run for their money. Everybody was spurred on by their achievements, and the hope was burning in them to actually matter, to be able to change things for the better.

Harry went early to dinner. He was ravenous, and he also had Occlumency with Snape tonight, meaning he would need his strength to fend the man off. After today's Potions lesson he was ready for anything Snape might throw at him.

That Harry was alone for once attracted the attention of many students. Harry could feel their eyes on him and he glanced up occasionally, catching Cho and Malfoy in the process. Cho looked away, blushing, but Malfoy was staring imploringly at Harry, not even pretending to be ashamed. Only after Harry had left the Great Hall he realised that Pansy Parkinson hadn't been sitting next to Malfoy this time.

Deep in thought, Harry ventured down to the dungeons, his feet carrying him there without problems. He didn't notice the shadows following him, but even if he had, he wouldn't have worried. After training with the DA for so long he trusted his abilities and his instincts.

Arriving at Snape's door, he noticed that he was a few minutes early. Instead of fidgeting or waiting like usual he just knocked and waited for Snape's callous invitation.

Upon entering Harry already saw that Snape was looking ill and pale, as if his health had gone downhill rapidly in the few hours between their lesson and now. His black eyes glittered dangerously in the dim lamp light but his stance was defensive, not as confident as usual.

"Evening, Professor," said Harry carefully, eyeing the man closely. Was that sweat on Snape's forehead?

"Wand out, Potter," said Snape hoarsely; even his voice had lost its silky quality. "Let's get this over with as quickly as possible."

Harry decided to throw caution out of the window. "Are you feeling all right, Sir?" he asked, making sure not to sound too concerned.

"Well enough to have this lesson," sneered Snape, although his sneer lacked its usual fervour. "I said wand out." He brandished his own wand. "Legilimens!"

Harry blocked, almost shocked at how easy it was. Something was definitely not right with the man, and he was determined to find out what. Without any scruples whatsoever he forced Snape back a few steps and then shouted, "Legilimens!"

As if sucked into a dark tunnel Harry flew into Snape's mind, and what he saw shocked him. Snape was troubled beyond the usual, deeply troubled if the jumbling mess of conflicting pictures and images was any indication. All of Snape's defences were down, and Harry had a sense of overwhelming guilt and fear.

He picked one of the pictures and entered it, freezing when he saw Lord Voldemort featuring it. His cold, high voice boomed in the vastness of Snape's mind, "It must be done! Either you or the other, I don't care, just do it soon!" Suddenly there was a shabby door in front of Voldemort and Harry couldn't explain its sudden appearance. He stretched out his hand to open it but an invisible force pulled him away.

Harry was propelled out of the thought and quickly turned to another, only to witness Snape screaming in agony when Voldemort cursed him with the Cruciatus Curse.

Another thought, Snape was rigid with fear and loathing, but opposite of him stood Dumbledore, not Voldemort …

Harry sifted through many thoughts and memories, feeling sick and angry and helpless all at once. At moments he pitied Snape for everything he had to endure, and sometimes he wished that he'd gotten even more. In situations like these he was absolutely conflicted about whether he hated the man or felt with him. Perhaps it was both.

The last image Harry saw, out of Snape's point of view this time, was the ceiling of the infirmary and an all-encompassing feeling of resignation and depression, feelings so strong that Harry believed that Snape might have wished to die just then.

After that Harry didn't want to see more. He left Snape's mind and was just quick enough to catch the man's falling body. Snape's heartbeat was erratic, and he was sweating out of stress. Harry wondered how he could have ever thought of fighting against him in this state.

"Potter, you ungrateful-," Snape hissed, trying weakly to wrench himself out of Harry's firm grasp.

"Shut up," said Harry coolly. "I'll get you to the hospital wing and I'll get Professor Dumbledore. I think you need to talk to someone."

"Not Dumbledore," rasped Snape, clawing at Harry's arms. His skin looked so ashen that Harry feared he would faint on him for real. "Just leave me be, Potter."

"Like hell I will," retorted Harry and proceeded to drag Snape in the general direction of the door. "And if you continue to dig your heels into the floor like a stubborn mule I'll get them both here."

Snape looked as if he had difficulty breathing, so Harry loosened his collar and then dragged Snape out of his office. Now he had at least marginal support from his charge, and the trek was soon over. He dumped Snape on a bed, drawing a deep breath. Snape didn't look it but he was quite heavy. Madam Pomfrey came over in a rush as soon as she had spotted the pair and was making a great fuss over Snape.

"What happened, Potter? Did you two get into a fight again?" she asked shrilly, waving her wand over Snape's prone body. Against the white infirmary sheets he looked even sicker than before, and his black eyes were alight with fever.

"No," replied Harry defensively. "He already wasn't feeling well when I came to his office around eight. I think he's stressed out but I wouldn't know why." Snape's glare was designed to kill and Harry just knew that, had Snape his wand right now, he would have been cursed for that comment.

"Too much adrenaline, racing heart, constricting stomach-," Madam Pomfrey clucked disapprovingly and went to fetch a bottle.

"Potter, you'll pay for this," Snape ground out between laboured breaths as soon as she was gone. "Don't stick your nose into things that aren't your concern!"

Harry sat in a chair, coolly ignoring Snape's threats. "You know, whatever Voldemort wants you to do, you could talk to Dumbledore about it. He'll help you."

"You know nothing, stupid boy," panted Snape, now holding his stomach in obvious pain. "Nothing at all!"

"You shouldn't talk so much, Severus," chided Madam Pomfrey, stepping up to them. She unscrewed a large bottle and poured a healthy amount of the contents into a glass, shoving it under Snape's prominent nose. "Drink up, my boy, and it'll get better."

Harry chortled about Snape's predicament and rose. "Well, I've got to go. Get better soon, Sir, and don't forget to talk to Dumbledore." He left the infirmary slowly, hoping to pick up something interesting. On his way out he heard Madam Pomfrey activating the fireplace with Floo powder, probably informing the headmaster that Snape was ill.

Sighing, he stepped into the cold corridor and decided to go back to Gryffindor Tower. There was much left of the evening and he had a small mountain of homework to finish. While walking Harry was thinking about Snape's thoughts. Something bad had happened, of that he was sure. Either Snape was forced to do something dreadful by Voldemort, or he was worried about failing what Voldemort had told him to do. Whatever it was, it was making him sick.

Harry couldn't claim that he trusted Snape, although the last few months had been a bit more tolerable than the years before. There had always been the option that Snape really was a loyal spy for Voldemort, and nothing Dumbledore said could ever convince Harry of the contrary.

Still, what he had seen today was shocking, and he was truly worried about Snape. Hopefully he would get better soon.

Hermione and Ron were suitably surprised to have Harry back so soon. After putting up a silencing barrier around their sofa he told them quickly what had happened, and to their credit his friends seemed just as shocked and affected as Harry had been. Especially Hermione looked worried and downcast.

"Do you think he will, you know, die?" Ron asked into the uncomfortable silence that had settled between them.

"Don't say that," said Hermione quietly. She looked ready to cry. "I don't want to think about that. He can't die. Hogwarts wouldn't be the same without him." Her wet eyes settled on Harry. "And we need him."

Harry sighed and scooped her into his arms. "What worries me most is the possibility that he's still loyal to Voldemort. We can't ignore that. I know what I saw and felt."

Hermione shuddered and sobbed into his shoulder. Alicia, Katie and Angelina worriedly looked over to them but Harry motioned for them to let them be. Reluctantly they sat back, chancing a last look at Hermione's small figure before returning to their homework. Others, who had seen the exchange, also turned away.

Ron seemed at a loss how to deal with Hermione's tears and looked at Harry, searching for help. "He wouldn't, would he?" he asked quietly. "Dumbledore offered him a job and a new life, didn't he?"

Harry just shrugged. "I never know with Snape," he said, defeated. Hermione's weight in his arms made him sad, because he knew how she believed in Snape. No matter how prickly the man was, she was still convinced that he was on their side. Harry just hoped that Snape wouldn't disappoint all of them.

"It will be okay," he murmured into her hair and softly stroked over her back. "You'll see, he was just stressed out."

Hermione just buried her face deeper in the folds of Harry's pullover, clinging to him. Ron scooted closer and awkwardly petted her hair, looking distraught and insecure.

For a long while they just sat there, cuddling with each other and searching comfort in each other. Nobody thought of homework, and when it was time to go to bed Harry did so with a hollow feeling in his chest.

That same night Harry didn't try to avoid Voldemort when he had put his memories in the Pensieve. In fact he even encouraged all his thoughts about him to come on to him. He wondered what could possibly prompt Snape to return to that monster, and to serve him faithfully instead of trying to live his own life. What had convinced Lucius Malfoy to follow Voldemort? Such a proud and arrogant man bowing to someone like Voldemort seemed preposterous to Harry, if not sick and twisted.

Pictures of his arch nemesis crashed down on Harry, beckoning him in. Harry followed the flow and dove deeper into the abyss that opened before him. The pictures changed, now they didn't only show Harry's memories of Voldemort but also Voldemort's memories of his doings.

In the back of his mind Harry was appalled that it should be so easy after all his efforts, but the thought quickly vanished when he saw the memory of his parents' death. The picture of the Dark Lord staring at his mother grew larger and larger. With zooming speed Harry raced directly into Voldemort's hooded face and delved into the dark shadows.

It was like falling into the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland: Harry fell through a tunnel that was stuffed with the strangest things. Old umbrellas, toasters, shabby curtains, old, mouldy schoolbooks and even a chandelier floated upwards among a million other things while Harry fell downwards. The dim light changed every now and then, wrapping Harry in shadows before spitting him out into lamplight again.

Finally, after a small eternity, Harry left the tunnel and unconsciously took a deep breath. Only now he realised what a bad stench had been in that tunnel. The air now was only marginally better, but at least it was cool and crisp. He stopped falling and was now merely floating, like a ghost.

Shadows shrouded the room in darkness which was only illuminated by some weak torch lights. Through a window wane moonlight filtered into the room. It was disrupted every now and then from quickly wandering clouds. White masks and pale faces glowed and vanished again with that light. Harry felt floaty inside, seeing all of this from above. He was cold with fear and disgust, like always when he was forced to witness Voldemort during his nightly meetings.

"Nott is stationed in St Mungo's, in the intensive care unit," a hooded and masked man said in a monotone voice. It reverberated in the vast room. "He's alive, but only barely so."

A high, brittle voice laughed shrilly. "Very good, Avery, very good." Voldemort, dressed in a red cloak, got up from his chair. "Be sure, my dear friends, that each of you will face the same fate if you fail to do my bidding." He glared along his ranks and then sneered. "I do not take kindly to traitors and failure." He turned around and turned his terrible, red-eyed gaze on Wormtail, who had been hiding behind his chair. "Wormtail! Why is Severus absent?"

"I-I don't know, Master," squeaked Wormtail in his disgustingly oily voice. "He should be here, he knew of this meeting …"

Maybe this meeting was the reason why Snape is sick, thought Harry hatefully. He really couldn't blame the man; Voldemort reeked of foulness and death.

"Silence, you idiot!" shrieked Voldemort. "See that you find out why he didn't come! I need to speak with him soon!"

Wormtail cowered. "Yes, Master, of course, as you wish." He bowed, although he couldn't get much closer to the ground in his already kneeling position.

"Master, why do we need Snape? I know of several Potions Masters who would gladly join our course," a man with a rough, snarling voice asked.

Voldemort turned back to the assembled group. He had his wand in his thin, pale fingers. His expressionless face gave nothing away, but the small whisper of, "Crucio!" and the following screams showed that he was angered.

"Idiots, all of you!" he snarled when he had finally released his victim from the curse. With a few steps he advanced on his gathered followers, only to have them retreat a foot in sheer terror. "Severus is the only one with access to Hogwarts' most precious bits. He will find them and he will work to destroy them."

"And what about Dumbledore?" a young female voice asked defiantly. "Snape is Dumbledore's little pet, I doubt that he's unscrupulous enough to go and find the ground stones for you." She sneered. "He wouldn't dare."

Harry froze. He knew that voice. Oh, he knew it well enough because it had threatened him several times in the last months.

Pansy Parkinson had joined her parents in Voldemort's ranks, and she was reporting to him.

Even if this was a dream and he had no body Harry felt as if his insides had turned into ice, ice colder than anything he could ever have imagined. With her inside of Hogwarts Voldemort did stand a good chance of turning the powers in his favour. Harry wanted to scream about it all. The plan, Voldemort's real plan, seemed ridiculously unimportant right now, although this in itself was enough to make him ill.

"Don't fear, my dear Pansy. Severus will do his part. I know him too well." Voldemort's lipless mouth stretched into an eerie smirk. "Maybe he tasted the freedom for too long, but he will return. He always does."

The moonlight was back and now Harry could see Pansy's cold, sneering face. Gone was the hysterical girl from school, in her place now stood a cold and calculating woman who would do anything to get what she wanted. The light wandered and crossed other Death Eaters. Some were still with mask but most of them were without. Among them, in the first line, stood Lucius Malfoy and his wife. While Lucius' face betrayed nothing Narcissa's gloating smile made Harry's non-corporeal hair stand on end.

"Ah, Narcissa, now tell me what Dolores is doing right now," demanded Voldemort softly, gliding over to where the Malfoys stood. "Is everything going according to plan?"

"Certainly, my Lord," replied Narcissa in her smooth voice. "Dolores is excited to come back to Hogwarts. She's very grateful that you granted her a second chance." She curtsied elegantly and smiled. "And she has everything planned out to keep the students in line this time. Everything is done, now we only have to wait until Fudge has gotten his will through." Her smile vanished. "The Wizengamot has turned a bit rebellious, I'm afraid."

"I'll grant the time," said Voldemort. His pale finger traced Narcissa's cheek, and then he turned around and glided back to his chair. "But do tell him that I want to see some results soon."

"Of course, my Lord," said Narcissa and curtsied again. A row behind her Bellatrix glared at her sister.

"And Lucius," said Voldemort in a soft voice, "if he needs longer than until the Easter holidays you'll give him a bit of a push."

"Gladly, my Lord," said Lucius evenly. His voice was void of emotion, just like his face.

Harry wished to be very, very far away from here. He was feeling sick. There was no triumph over being right about Voldemort having a second plan. Frantically he searched for a possibility to get out of this nightmare. He barely listened when McNair reported that more Wiccans had been found who were willing to aid Voldemort with his plan, there were just too many names.

With everything he had he concentrated on the Triwizarding Tournament, on Cedric's death and the terror he had felt then. His rage and fear flooded him hotly like a tide of lava, he saw Cedric's body lying on the ground, pale and surprised and lifeless. A sharp, painful tug catapulted Harry out of this dream, and the last thing he heard was Voldemort's high-pitched cackling.

"Oh! Our Harry has a little nightmare!" crooned Voldemort sweetly when he noticed the strong emotion coming from Harry. Death Eaters laughed sinisterly, jeering wickedly.

With a scream Harry woke up.

"Ron! Ron, wake up, damn it!" yelled Harry, roughly shaking Ron by the shoulders. "Ron!"

"'M awake," mumbled Ron thickly after a minute or two. Two unbearable minutes for Harry. "Harry, what's up?" He struggled to sit up.

"I had a vision!" whispered Harry furiously. "Voldemort! I need to talk to you and 'Mione. Now!"

Ron was awake at once. "I'm coming," he said quietly. He got out of his bed and pulled a robe over his gangly body. "How do we wake 'Mione?"

"Dobby," said Harry at once. "I already sent him. Let's go down to the common room."

Ron followed, yawning mightily but nonetheless fully alert. Hermione sat on the couch closest to the fireplace. A fire was burning already, warming the chilly air. Dobby stood next to her, looking concerned.

"Dobby brought tea and sandwiches, Harry Potter Sir," he squeaked. "I is hoping that Harry Potter is all right."

"Thank you, Dobby," said Harry, smiling tightly at the House Elf. "Please go now, and don't tell Dumbledore, okay?"

"Dobby will do as Harry Potter wishes," said Dobby. He bowed and then popped away.

"Harry, what happened?" Hermione asked worriedly. Her face was a bit swollen from sleep, and she looked haggard from the pressure everything and everybody seemed to place upon her. "You look dreadful!"

Harry ushered Ron to sit down on the couch, then he sat himself. They all covered themselves with the thick blankets that had been lying on the sofa, and only then did Harry feel calm enough to tell them what he had seen.

He told them his dream and what he had learned. He tried to tell them every bit as he had seen and experienced it, and their terrified faces were only confirming what he already knew: they were doomed.

"We need to go to Dumbledore!" said Hermione resolutely. She was pale and her lips were pressed together in a thin line.

"And we need to call a DA meeting," said Ron hotly. "In fact we should forget about Dumbledore and only have the DA meeting."

"I can't believe that Parkinson actually is a Death Eater," Hermione whimpered. "Oh god, if she is, how many more are already inside of Hogwarts?"

"I doubt that she has the Dark Mark," said Harry. An eerie calm had taken hold of him. He was beyond fear, now he was planning. "Just like Crabbe and Goyle. We'll have to inform Blaise." He sipped on his tea and closed his eyes for a moment.

"What about Dumbledore?" Hermione asked quietly. "We really should tell him. Voldemort has another plan, that alone is important enough."

"We were right, weren't we?" Ron looked grim and burnt out. He didn't even flinch anymore when Harry or Hermione said Voldemort's name out loud. "It really doesn't surprise me, though."

"Yes, Voldemort is rather unimaginative, isn't he?" said Harry with a sneer. "But what can we do about Hogwarts' ground stones? Nobody even knows where they are, or why they are so important."

Hermione smiled tiredly. "If only you would finally read Hogwarts: A History, it would save you so much trouble. The book doesn't tell where to find them, of course, but everybody who read it knows that the ground stones are the four anchors of Hogwarts. They hold the magic that provides the castle with energy, so to speak. If they are damaged or even destroyed all of Hogwarts' wards would fall in a second, leaving it unprotected. Forever. These wards can't be replaced."

"I assume that the four founders set the stones," replied Harry. "And that they are well hidden."

"Yes. It is said," Hermione stressed that, "that the ground stones are really some personal object of the four founders, something that has absorbed a great deal of personal magic."

"But nobody knows for sure?" Ron asked. Hermione just shook her head, looking defeated once again. "Damn. We can't just go to Dumbledore or the other teachers and ask. They'd get suspicious."

"I have an idea," said Harry slowly. "Do you remember that Remus gave me equipment for making a new Marauders' Map? He also explained to me how they made the Black Trap Map. They needed bits of the ground stones from Grimmauld Place for the ink …" He trailed off, and his suggestion hung heavy in the silent room.

"We will ask them," whispered Hermione, awed.

"Yes, but you have to do that alone," said Harry immediately. "I shouldn't know anything about this, in case Voldemort manages to get to me at last."

Ron shuddered. "All right, mate. 'Mione and I will contact them first thing tomorrow. You can fill in the others."

"Sounds like a plan," agreed Harry. "And if they get suspicious just tell them that we finally want to draw our own map, because the old one is falling apart."

They agreed on that and then just sat there. Oppressive silence hung over them. Only the cracking of the fire distracted them every now and then from their troubled thoughts. One by one the sandwiches disappeared from the plate, the tea was downed, and then they all decided to go back to bed, although Harry knew that there was no getting back to sleep for him.

Ron and Hermione had called Sirius and Remus first thing in the morning, just as they had said they would, and they had gotten their answers from the unsuspecting duo. For once they didn't suspect anything untoward for which Harry, Ron and Hermione were very grateful. In fact, Sirius had all but encouraged them.

The whole Saturday passed in a flurry of hectic meetings and whispered conversations in dark corners where no portraits hung and could listen in to what the members of the DA had to say. Harry told them all to redouble their efforts because things would get ugly soon. Everybody, even Smith, was determined to even triple their efforts and, to quote Ron, "Kick some stupid Death Eater asses good and hard."

The next thing on Harry's agenda was writing a letter to Fred and George. He did that with great relish, asking them for their inventions and if the DA could still count on their support.

In the evening Hermione made to leave the Great Hall right after lunch.

"But the greasy git is still in the infirmary," protested Ron hotly. "You don't have to go to detention tonight."

"Of course I'm not going to detention," said Hermione tartly. "Don't be stupid, Ron." She turned to Harry. "I'll see you both later. Do your homework for a change."

Harry and Ron watched her as she left. Ron was scowling and Harry fought back a grin that threatened to break on his face. She was so obvious sometimes, and Ron so incredibly slow on the uptake. He smothered his laughter manfully and turned back to his food.

That night he snuck out of the common room to enjoy the last minutes before curfew. Lately he didn't have much time for himself, and although he didn't mind he wanted and needed those few moments just the same.

The corridors were empty already, only a few last stragglers wandered slowly back to their common rooms to enjoy the evening with company. He bade everyone he met a good night and continued his walking. Feeling rather restless, he decided to go for a walk tomorrow and visit the Kneazles and Garden Gnomes. It had been quite a long time since he had last seen them and he knew that he needed to train his summoning skills some more before he really needed them.

Deeply in thought, he rounded corner after corner and slunk along darkened, empty hallways. Portraits silently watched him but none of them commented on his prowling after curfew. He passed the library but it lay dormant, dark and uninhabited even by the faithful Madam Pince. The next stop was the entrance to the dungeons but Harry didn't feel up to sneaking around the Slytherins. Besides, he wasn't out for trouble so he turned around and walked away.

His feet carried him to the main corridor that led to Hogwarts' main entrance portal. The portal where Lucius Malfoy had accosted him so shamelessly weeks ago.

Harry stopped at the doors, taking a deep breath. Standing here and remembering that scene sent inexplicable shivers through his body. Those dreams he had been having during the last weeks - he had an inkling about what, or rather who, had triggered them.

A new shudder ran through him, this time in a mix of arousal and disgust. Liking boys was one thing, he knew that and was fine with it, but getting turned on by Draco Malfoy's father, however subconsciously it might be, was just disturbing. The man was admittedly very good-looking, still Harry couldn't believe why he was fancying such a 'type' of man. Didn't he have enough evil to last him a lifetime already? Beauty was not everything, he knew that as well. And yet the older Malfoy obviously stirred something in him that made him nervous and, well, hot and bothered.

Sighing, he leaned against the door and closed his eyes for a moment. He couldn't believe that he even had this discussion with himself. Magic and a faint tingle stole over his neck, caressing him in a mockery of that touch that had him swooning so. Heat and memories shot up, streaming from his belly into his toes, fingers and head. Suddenly Harry didn't only feel lips on his neck but also the strong hands of his dream lover on his skin. He bit his lip and tried to fight the images back but they were overwhelming in their intensity.

Just what, he asked himself, has that bastard done to me?

Breathing heavily, he gave in to his overactive imagination and let the lustful feelings take their curse through his body. He was only sixteen after all; he couldn't just ignore desire when it sprang up on him like this.

It was uncanny how those hands knew just where to touch him, squeeze demandingly into his flesh and grab him roughly. Harry's reality blurred for a second or two, leaving him helpless and vulnerable to the fantasy. He felt so hot inside but at least his fantasy was merciful and undid him quickly.

Shuddering, Harry tried to recollect his bearings afterwards. He felt angry and embarrassed and dissatisfied, although he was astounded at how much his own imagination was apparently able to come up with, even if it involved unknown men and Lucius Malfoy. He cleaned himself up with a whispered spell and adjusted his clothes as well as his glasses. Someday soon he was going to scream, he just knew it.

Gently tapping sounds of footsteps jolted Harry out of his angst. Whoever was coming, he was not interested to meet them, so he whisked away like a shadow and hid behind the nearest corner. It was all he could do not to be noticed and he hoped dearly that his own footsteps hadn't given him away. Besides, he was curious who was out and sneaking around at this time of the night.

"… and it's all her fault anyway," said a voice quietly that Harry recognised at once. It just wasn't his day. "Why must she always interfere? It's becoming annoying, Father."

Harry peered carefully around the corner. There they were, Draco Malfoy and his father. Both walked closely together and talked in rather hushed voices. Despite his current issues regarding the older Malfoy Harry couldn't tear his eyes from them. Draco looked so much like his father that it was spooky, and every time he saw them he could only marvel about this fact once again.

Draco's hair was loose and had the same colour as his father's, although It didn't match in length, of course. The eyes, the strong jaw and the elegantly curved eyebrows were very similar, though, almost as if Draco was a younger carbon copy of his sire. Around his neck he wore the green scarf Harry had given the elder Malfoy. They had obviously solved the issue, because Lucius Malfoy wore a white scarf, and Harry was sure it was the one Lucius had given him that night.

"She's dangerous, so keep watching her," said the elder Malfoy in a low, demanding voice. "She was there, and she wants to make truth of her words."

They reached the portal and stopped. Draco leaned in and embraced his father, a sight that shocked Harry in more ways than one. Maybe he shouldn't have witnessed this in the first place, he fretted; it made the Malfoys seem much more human. Not so evil even. Besides, he started feeling queasy for some inexplicable reason. It was the same feeling he had had the last time he met either of them, only that it was much weaker now.

"Shall I keep an eye on Potter, then?" Draco asked after a few moments. He seemed reluctant to let his father go.

"Yes, that would be wise," replied Lucius. "Stay clear of that woman and write me as soon as you know more."

Draco nodded and finally stepped back. "She's rather unpleasant and hard to bear. If only she was a bit more my type …" He leaned against the door and took a deep breath, sighing. "By the way, Father, doesn't it smell like …" He tapped against his scarf.

The older man inclined his head. "I noticed. He was right here." He inhaled deeply. "And not long ago."

Suddenly both were quite intent on sniffing the air and the portal with utmost care. Harry's heart pounded violently in his chest, and his hands were ice cold and clammy with fear. How was it even possible that they could smell him out in a school full of students at all? He was shaking with his suppressed desire to run like a hare, and yet he couldn't tear his eyes from that peculiar scene.

"Oh Merlin, it's divine," moaned Draco, leaning heavily against the door and stroking it slowly. He took deep breathes of air and looked quite flushed.

His father made a deep, purring sound which carried over to Harry's hiding place and made his hair stand on end. He was embarrassed beyond everything he had ever felt and thought was mortification. This was torture, especially because he had lost it at that portal. He wished the floor would open up and swallow him whole.

"Well, I must, my dragon," said Lucius finally after long minutes. He adjusted his cloak and cleared his throat. Harry thought he sounded rather hoarse but maybe he was only starting to imagine things. The blood was still rushing madly in his ears, nearly drowning the voices out. "But I'll make sure to visit you soon."

"You just want to sniff on Potter again," replied Draco. He sounded petulant, almost like a pouting child.

"First of all I have to keep that impossible Parkinson girl off your back," said Malfoy senior in his velvety voice. "She was quite adamant on marrying you if she should manage to do the Dark Lord's bidding."

"Ew!" said Draco, and Harry had to agree. "This is all Mother's fault. She should never have betrothed me to her in the first place." He raked a hand through his longish hair. "I guess I should be thankful that she never wrote that down in blood."

"Even though, I wouldn't willingly give you up to a Parkinson of all people," said Lucius softly. "Bear it a bit longer, son. Everything will turn out fine."

Harry was too far away to really be able to decipher the look Draco was giving his father but it must have been full of feeling and hidden messages because Lucius was pulling his son into another embrace. They whispered to each other, and then Draco opened the portal and watched his father go.

How Harry had come back last night he didn't know. When he woke up the next morning, however, he felt drained, so drained that he ignored Ron's demands for him to wake up and have breakfast. When Ron had finally gone off in a huff, Harry got up, took a shower and tried his best not to think about that strange scene yesterday night.

Well, he mused, it was strange to interact with the Malfoys at all, other than insulting and trying to make their lives difficult. And it was still beyond strange to be so irrationally close to them, be touched by them, even kissed.

Yes, in Harry's rather subjective point of view, fate had thrown him in for a loop and sent him on a ride that left him spinning and without any sense of orientation, and that didn't even include Voldemort and his perfidious plans.

He dressed and went outside. His mind was set on summoning the Kneazles and playing with them for a bit before it was time for lunch and his homework. March was only a few days away and he couldn't wait to see the snow melt away. Apparating lessons were progressing nicely for him and the others and it would be nice to get out of the castle for those lessons too.

On his way he wondered if the Sandwolves were still there, in the Forbidden Forest, or if they had wandered off to another territory. He remembered their sleek bodies and curious shading and the way the intelligence shone out of their eyes. Hopefully Buckbeak would be okay in the forest with them, them and those other beasts Hagrid had spoken about months ago. Beasts that were so terrible and mysterious that no one even knew their names.

Sighing, Harry admitted that all of this was not really important right now. The only thing that he really needed was the almost-warm sunshine on his chilled face, the spell to call the Kneazles and, hopefully, some nice company for some time.

He muttered the spell and waited patiently. He knew that he had neglected the Kneazles quite a bit but hoped that they were like all cats and had enjoyed their independence rather than waiting for him to visit. Harry was surprised to see that Crookshanks actually led the small troupe of Kneazles on as if he was their leader. One of his followers was the fat, fluffy Kneazle lady he had been wooing before the holidays. She seemed to have gotten even bigger and Harry could imagine why. All in all it was very funny to see her waddle through the nose-high snow, shaking her paws after every other step in disgust.

Harry laughed and scratched Crookshanks behind his ears. The other Kneazles soon crowded around him, cuddling close and waiting for their turn to be petted. Harry saw to them all, gave them a bit cream and left with a feeling of regret when time for lunch rolled around.

Ron and Hermione greeted him warmly when he showed up and they easily fell into a conversation about everything and nothing. Today's meeting was scheduled for three o'clock in the afternoon. Hermione had decided to teach the illusion charms, deepening their knowledge from Professor Flitwick's classes. Her reasoning was that it might be easier to mislead enemies than actually fight them, especially when they didn't know as many curses as they did.

The meeting seemed to Harry as if all of his friends had caught on his strange, serene mood. They were determined yet relaxed – strange when they were facing a threat more dangerous than anything they had ever faced before. Still, it was a good atmosphere for training, and they got a lot done. Hermione was smug when she scribbled their doings into the logbook. Its pages filled more and more, and with the random revising they did at the beginning of each meeting Harry was confident that a lot of it stuck with his friends now.

Later, just before curfew, Harry was lying sprawled on a sofa in the common room and thinking of his recent, crazed life. It was all such a mess, really, and somehow, inexplicably, funny.

Hermione and Ron eyed him carefully, but since he had done all of his homework under Hermione's strict supervision they obviously saw no reason to disturb him. Ron was playing chess with Dean, with Ginny watching interestedly. Seamus was off with Blaise and Hermione was writing in a small, black book. Harry watched her scribbling tirelessly into the book, wondering what was so important. Perhaps it was just a diary, but even if it was, she obviously had a lot to write down.

He looked at her a bit longer, the affection for her warming him up from inside. Gods but he loved his friends. Without them and their help he would be nothing, and he knew it. In moments like these he knew exactly why love was such a strong force, and maybe he could even fathom why Voldemort feared it so much.

Sighing, he finally took his notes for DADA and started reading. He had another hour to kill before he went to bed. He'd rather study than ponder over the strange things that were happening lately; and so he did just that.

The next week started out peacefully enough. The weather got better still and Madam Hooch allowed each Quidditch team time on the pitch for some warming up. Harry and Ron were all for it and practically ran out into the sun as soon as Transfiguration on Tuesday was over. Even Hermione came out of the castle and spent some time reading on the stands, every now and then looking up at her whooping friends.

In the Great Hall dinner progressed into a feast. Each house was unnaturally loud, voices and laughter sounded through the ancient hall. Even though the sun had set early it had been a great day with bright sunshine and the first, warming breezes.

Harry found that his appetite had returned full-force. He shovelled food into his mouth, easily rivalling Ron. Hermione watched them amusedly, not even pretending to read her book that was standing propped up against a large goblet.

"You two are such hyenas," she said after a while. She pushed a large bowl of chocolate pudding in Ron's direction and another to Harry. "Spring must've started already, the way you're behaving."

Ron grinned with his mouth full, and Hermione snorted with laughter. Harry watched Blaise at the Slytherin table. They had told him what Harry had seen Friday night and the boy had promised to watch Pansy very closely. Malfoy next to him stared back at Harry, curling his lip slightly. Whether it was a sneer or just an expression of disgust Harry didn't know, but he didn't let it perturb him either way.

A bit later Dumbledore rose from his seat at the teachers' table and tapped his wand against his goblet for attention.

"Dear students," he said into the reluctant silence that was occasionally broken by a whisper or a giggle. "As you might have noticed, the weather has turned out better than anticipated after the snow storm, and the weather forecast promises stable weather until April. On that account it was decided to start the Quidditch season early to make use of this rare occurrence."

He had barely ended when the whole school erupted into loud cheering. Players on all teams jumped up and hugged each other, shouting obscene threats at the other teams.

"The first match will take place on the first Saturday of April, so prepare well. Ravenclaw will play against Hufflepuff, and I expect each team to try their best," said Dumbledore. His amplified voice easily drowned out the cheers of the students. "Well, and now I wish all of you a good night." He hastily left the table, with McGonagall not far behind him.

"Somehow old Snape is missing" said Seamus when almost all of the teachers had gone. "It's not the same when he's not glaring at us as usual."

"Well," replied Hermione, "then you'll be happy to hear that he'll be back tomorrow. I went to Madam Pomfrey and asked her. We have our exams coming up, we can't afford to miss more lessons."

"Oh, come off it," said Ron. He sounded put out. "I liked our free classes."

"Of course you did." Hermione's voice was curt and her face prim. "I'm just glad he's better." She took her bag and stood up from the table.

"Hermione-," Ron tried, but she left in a huff without turning around again.

"Wonderful, Ron," said Harry quietly. "You know how worried she's been. Sometimes you're really behaving like an insensitive ogre."

He stood up and went after her. Truth to be told, he worried about her and her attachment to Snape. It was true that the man was under a lot of stress, not only because of Voldemort but because of the students as well. And it was seemingly also true that he did a lot of work for, well, both sides. Fact was, she respected him, and that alone was enough for Harry.

He found Hermione in the Room of Requirement, furiously pacing back and forth, all the while muttering angrily under her breath and ignoring the rows and rows of books that were stacked along the walls of the room. Deciding to leave her alone for a bit so she could let off some steam, Harry chose a book from one shelf that looked interesting and settled in a chair to read.

It didn't take very long until Hermione joined him on the arm of the plush chair. "I don't care what Ron and the others think," she said in a determined voice. Harry noted how pale and bitter she seemed. "I won't give him up."

Harry stroked her back and hair and only looked at her. He was beyond judging now, he just wanted Hermione to feel better about it all.

"I know he's not bad," Hermione continued, sounding defiant, as if she thought she had to defend her decisions in front of Harry. "There must be something to keep him here, with us. Something to make him want it …" She fell silent, and all of her anger and furious determination dissolved into helpless anguish. "Why can't it ever be easy?"

Hushing her gently, Harry wrapped her in his arms and hugged her tightly to his chest. "You'll find a way, I'm sure," he muttered. And he meant it. If there was someone who could make Snape see reason it was Hermione, because Dumbledore obviously had failed if that what Harry had seen in Snape's mind was any indication.

"Stop flattering me," sniffled Hermione, but she was smiling again.

After Hermione had wiped her wet eyes they got up and decided to go back to Gryffindor Tower. Hermione, being who she was, took several books for later, and Harry let himself be talked into taking one as well.

"Don't you think that it feels … strange somehow?" Hermione suddenly asked on their way back. It was dark in the corridors, with only torches illuminating the path.

"Strange how?" Harry replied. But he admitted that Hermione was right; now that she mentioned it he realised that it did feel strange. It was nothing he could pinpoint or describe, it was just there, and everywhere around them. At least it didn't seem threatening, for which he was thankful. The last week had been mostly pleasant, and he could do without a bad surprise right now.

She shrugged. "I don't know. I guess it's in the air, like a thunderstorm is coming up."

They continued to walk towards their common room, consciously looking for signs to prove that feeling. Harry thought he could feel the castle itself vibrate under the soles of his feet, and Hermione touched the old, cool walls more than once.

Passing the Charms corridor, Harry spotted Malfoy standing with Blaise near a window and bathed in moonlight, quietly talking to each other. Blaise, who stood with his back turned to the hallway, didn't notice a thing, but Malfoy's eyes shot up and looked directly at Harry with a silvery, penetrating stare.

Harry swallowed. Malfoy looked so otherworldly just now.


He winced. As much as it entertained him perversely to have such thoughts about Draco Malfoy of all people, it would be better to keep his mouth shut around his friends. He didn't want to provoke trouble, and most certainly not about this.

Still, he felt that Malfoy's action deserved a response, so he nodded shortly at him before he followed Hermione's resolute strides. The Fat Lady let them in without much protest, although she frowned slightly at their tardiness. He and Hermione had only a few minutes to get ready for the Prefect meeting, and they hurried to find the others. It was easy to forget those when you were occupied with much more important things.

An hour later, when he was lying in bed and waiting for sleep to come, Harry wondered how it was possible that Hogwarts felt so different. In the corridors it had been only a whisp, but now the air itself seemed thick with something. He sighed and closed his eyes. Whatever it was, it didn't hinder him to fall asleep quickly …

Humid air danced around Harry in a hot breeze, teasing his bare calves and arms and upper body. His hair was wet and he raked his hand through it, wiping it out of his face. He was overlooking a large lake, but Hogwarts was nowhere in sight. Only exotic, colourful plants were there, transpiring in the sweltering heat.

Soft footsteps sounded from behind Harry, and he knew who it was. But he was too lazy to run now, too content to give the feeling up for the thrill of excitement. The steps were slow, almost as if they were stalking.

"You're not up for play tonight," a deep voice whispered from behind in Harry's oversensitive ear. The soft, controlled breath tickled Harry's hair and neck.

Arms wrapped around Harry's torso from behind, and hot hands stroked his belly gently.

"No," Harry agreed. His eyes looked over the lake, admiring the pink sky and the first stars that were starting to show. "I'd rather just enjoy your company."

"Is that so?" the voice purred, and the hands glided deeper, stopping just above Harry's hipbones.

"Oh, yes." Harry closed his eyes and moaned softly. Those hands were starting to stroke him, and this time they didn't stop. A hot tongue traced the skin of his neck and played with his ear, and when another pair of lips was demandingly covering his mouth, Harry sighed happily. He had missed the other one - one alone was somehow wrong.

Two half-naked bodies against his aroused Harry like nothing ever had, and he tried to give his two pursuers back what they offered him. The one in front of him growled in Harry's embrace, insistently pushing against him, letting him feel everything of him, while the other from behind was pressing against him and touching him so shamelessly, so greedily.

It was so hot, really sweltering, and the two gods of nature, as Harry had termed them, made short work of Harry's composure, sending him reeling. Harry clawed at the broad back of his second capturer, digging his fingers into feather-soft skin. A gasp escaped him when he came, and for the first time since these strange encounters had started, Harry felt this explosion with the awareness of someone who had discovered that sex could be, and, in his case, was something wonderful.

Before he came down from his high he kissed them both on the mouth, staring into their light eyes as he did so. "Thank you," he said huskily, licking his wet lips.

Just then he started to wake up like he always did, and he felt cold, seeing the masked faces of those two gods slowly vanish in the darkness of wakefulness.

It was pure torture to see Ron's face instead, looming over him and shaking him awake uncaringly. Harry swatted his hands away and turned around, trying to burrow himself deeper into his comforter and pillow, but Ron wouldn't let him.

"Get up, Harry! It's a wonderful day outside!" he chirped in an obnoxiously happy voice.

"Get lost," grumbled Harry, but Ron only laughed and manhandled him out of bed and pushed him into the shower.

A little bit later he was ready to face the day, and he even forgave Ron his wake-up call when he saw the sunrise outside. The sky was clear and baby-blue with pink clouds and golden sunlight. Humming happily, he skipped down to the Great Hall. Other students seemed to be equally chipper, and seeing Hermione without books at the table made him smile.

Harry and Ron shovelled food onto their plates and then into themselves, all the while chatting with their friends and basking in the shy sunlight that was pouring through the owl windows of the Great Hall and from the enchanted ceiling. After looking at the other houses' tables Harry was sure that the other students were having an equally enjoyable morning, even the Slytherins.

When breakfast was almost over, a sudden thrum went through the tables and benches, shaking everybody and everything up. Goblets tipped over, cutlery clattered on plates, children squeaked in surprise. Dumbledore stood up at once, with the other teachers by his side. As soon as the strange surge had come up it died away, leaving a flabbergasted silence in its wake. Dumbledore raised his hand and the main portal that led directly outside, flew open.

Still stunned, the whole student body watched as a flock of maybe twenty witches of all ages and looks swarmed into the Great Hall. Magic was swirling around them, vibrating in the sunny morning air. The whole group marched through the corridor between the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw table until they stood in front of the High Table.

"Headmaster Dumbledore, Diane Lovegood and her Coven humbly ask for asylum in the sacred halls of Hogwarts!" an old witch called loudly into the silence. She seemed to be the leader of the group.

"Who is threatening you that you have need of asylum here?" Dumbledore asked in an authoritarian voice.

The witch looked him square in the eyes, and a grim smile crooked her lips. "Why, Lord Voldemort of course."

After that admission, all hell broke loose. Students started to talk heatedly with each other, and the noise was getting out of hand. Luna ran to greet her grandmother. Both witches hugged tightly and spoke to each other in hushed voices while Dumbledore left his place at the teachers' table to join the newcomers.

"Silence!" shouted McGonagall finally. She held the tip of her wand to her throat, having cast Sonorus to be heard over the commotion. "Students, as interesting as it must seem, I insist that you go to classes. Now. Tardiness will be punished as usual. You will hear about this later. And now off with you."

Nobody dared to contradict her, so the students hastened to get their things and go to classes. Harry was excited to finally meet Luna's grandmother but on the other hand it had a stinging feel to it. The Wiccans' arrival here meant that Voldemort was getting restless. It meant that time was running too quickly.

Potions was strained but not unbearable. Harry and Blaise worked together silently, sharing meaningful looks and a few reassuring touches that comforted them more than they wanted to admit. Malfoy looked at Harry strangely but his glare was not up to its usual force. Harry could see that he was just as nervous as the rest, so he smiled reassuringly at him, consequences be damned.

Snape was menacing as always but his comments lacked their usual barb. He still looked tired and worn out and not up to his usual mean behaviour. Every now and then Harry snuck a look at Hermione who did her best to keep Terry from messing their potion up.

He bristled silently. How Terry had managed to get into the class was a mystery to Harry. At least Harry was learning, which didn't seem to be true for Terry. He kept making the same mistakes again and again. And Snape obviously knew that too. Most of his insults were directed at the Ravenclaw, and for once Harry had a wicked feeling of satisfaction.

After their double period Hermione stayed back. "Professor, may I have a word with you?" she asked in a tight voice.

"If you must," replied Snape caustically.

Hermione's eyes flashed and she looked ready for battle. Harry hurried to get out, alongside the others. Nobody wanted to be in a room with Hermione when she was about to argue with Snape. Blaise shut the door after him and grinned at Harry.

"We should leave the lovebirds to themselves," he said with a wink.

Malfoy grabbed Blaise's arm. "Don't be obnoxious, Zabini," he said dryly. "You spend way too much time with Gryffindors." He dragged Blaise off to their next class, bristling with embarrassment when Harry blew him a mocking kiss.

Blaise pouted. "Awww, come on, Draco. They are good company. Really."

Chuckling, Harry made his way to greenhouse three. Herbology would be fun, now that the sun was shining again and without having to worry about their hands freezing on the gardening tools.

Class started and Hermione hadn't come. Madam Sprout seemed unconcerned, however, knowing that Hermione was usually on time. When Hermione finally joined them she had a pass to excuse her tardiness, and her face was glowing.

"How the hell did you get Snape to give you a pass?" Harry hissed at her when they were busy trimming Biting Bushes.

"He didn't," replied Hermione. A smug smile graced her face. "I met Professor Dumbledore on my way, and when I told him why I was late he gave me a pass. That was really nice of him."

"Why did you stay behind anyway?" asked Ron from the other side of the bush. "Did Snape do something again?"

"Oh, don't worry," said Hermione dismissively and cut off a rather large branch of the bush. It shivered and tried to shy away from her scissors. "It was kind of personal."

"Personal?" Ron asked with a slightly panicked edge to his voice. "'Mione, what in the seven hells could you discuss with him that is personal?"

Hermione only smiled. "Don't bother, Ron. It wasn't important, anyway."

Harry glanced at her. Of course he didn't believe her, and Ron didn't, either. Both were clever enough to let it rest, though. For the remainder of their double period they entertained themselves with talking about the Wiccans. Madam Sprout kindly pretended not to hear the gossip and didn't take points for talking during class and the students pretended not to notice how she tried to listen in.

During lunch the group of Wiccans and Dumbledore were still absent and the students were getting restless. Harry pushed his food around, staring at the empty seat at the teachers' table. He couldn't wait to hear what Dumbledore had to say about the whole situation. The bickering of his friends wasn't satisfying in the least, although Hermione's arguments seemed logical.

"Ron, didn't you listen to Snuffles the other night? There has never been a case where wizards and witches who asked for asylum were turned away," Hermione explained impatiently. "Especially not when a Dark Lord was out there."

"Yeah, but where will Dumbledore let them live? And how does he know that they aren't infiltrating us?" Dean asked. Other boys nodded in agreement.

Hermione snorted. "Why do I even have to tell you? You of all people should know that Hogwarts certainly is big enough to house at least three hundred more people." Ron, Dean and Colin had the grace to look properly chastised. "And as for how he'll know … use your head! He's not the most powerful wizard of our time for nothing. I'm sure he has his ways to determine if they're on our side or Voldemort's."

"But he still manages to employ a fraud as DADA professor every single year," challenged Ron.

Hermione flushed. Harry grinned and patted her hand. "Don't worry about our DADA teachers. With them we've had our fun so far, and Blackadder won't be an exception." He smirked. "And I doubt that there'll be one that is worse than Umbridge, anyway."

"Speaking of her, did you read the Prophet this morning?" Hermione asked.

Parvati nodded. "Yeah, they wrote that Fudge is trying to convince the Wizengamot to let her have her post as school governor back." She frowned. "If they allow that I'll officially declare them incompetent."

Hermione smirked. "Incompetent and idiots, really. But you just said that you'd have fun with her. I know I will."

"Hermione!" said Lavender in a mock-scandalized voice.

"Oh please, we all know that Fudge will get this through, it's only a matter of time. Voldemort unfortunately does have his people everywhere."

On that note lunch was finished, and Harry, Ron, Dean and the other Gryffindors went to get up to the north tower in time for their Divination double period. Firenze had caught a cold which Hagrid treated and so they had Professor Trelawney again. Hermione told them sweetly to have fun before she left the Great Hall for Arithmancy.

"Sometimes I hate her," muttered Ron, gasping for air on the impossibly steep stairs. "And then I wonder why I haven't dropped this subject ages ago. With Firenze it's almost okay, but with her? Yuck!"

Harry laughed breathlessly. Together with Blaise, Hannah and all the other unhappy students they stumbled into the tower room at last, holding their aching sides and cursing Trelawney profusely. The silver ladder was already there, awaiting their entrance into the classroom.

When nobody moved to be the first to go up, Crabbe pushed Harry hard, almost causing him to stumble into Ron. "After you, Potter," he said meanly.

Harry unhurriedly pulled out his wand and shoved it right into Crabbe's face. "No, after you," he replied in kind. "Don't try this shit on me, you'll most certainly regret it." His wand shot off green sparks, causing the others to take a step back.

Crabbe seemed to be taken aback by this rather violent reaction and didn't argue. Grunting, he climbed up into the classroom, followed by Goyle who was glaring menacingly at Harry. Silently, Malfoy went next, with Pansy hot on his heels.

Harry and Ron exchanged a dark look before they went up as well. At least Professor Trelawney was her usual empty-headed self, proclaiming dark times and a violent death for Harry. Later, when they were trying to read from soggy coffee remains, Harry watched Crabbe and Goyle talking quietly with each other, every now and then breaking out into hissing laughter. Malfoy, who had been so unfortunate to end up with Pansy, was sitting next to them, his face empty and his saucer untouched.

"Well, this says that Amor will come to you soon," said Ron, turning the saucer this way and that. He grimaced. "How is this any different from reading tea leaves?" he asked mutinously. "Anyway, the ruddy stuff says that there'll be romance and even passion during the next few months." Ron waggled his eyebrows. "Is it someone I know, Harry?"

"Very funny," retorted Harry, flushing brightly. The coffee wasn't that far off if he counted his dreams. He flushed even brighter; he liked those dreams, a lot. To shut Ron up he took his saucer and started reading from the coffee as well. From the corner of his eyes he watched how Pansy made eyes at Malfoy, simpering and cooing at him. He shuddered.

Thankfully classes were over soon, and Trelawney even let them off without homework. Harry and Ron hurried to get away from the thick, sweet smoke in the classroom. Neville, Seamus and Dean were following them to the common room and it was decided to make use of the fine weather. Hermione huffed but came along anyway when the boys shouldered their things for a Quidditch game.

When time for dinner came, everybody was eager to go to the Great Hall early. Harry was ascurious as a bunch of cats about what Dumbledore would say about the Wiccans and their request for asylum. Hermione and Ron walked next to them, their faces eager and no less curious than Harry's. Dinner was served first, though. Aggravated, the students ate as quickly as they could to move Dumbledore to tell them sooner. At last the plates vanished and the table was cleared.

"Dear students!" called Dumbledore over the noise in the Great Hall. His eyes were twinkling and he smiled broadly. "Please listen, and then your pudding will be served."

Ron twitched. "Is this a new form of torture, making us wait for dessert?" he complained. He glowered when Dean and Seamus guffawed at that.

"As you all know," said Dumbledore now into the pin-drop-silence, "there was a request for asylum this morning. I decided to grant it after much consideration. However, I must ask all of you to mind a few new rules. First of all, please don't disturb the members of the Coven when they do magic. It's very disrespectful and will bite you … so to speak." His eyes twinkled even more. "Also I must ask you to leave any paintings, signs or runes alone that appear on Hogwarts' walls. They are part of Wicca magic, thus you'd be disturbing the magic if you disturb the paintings. And at last I ask you to give the witches of the Sunrider Coven a warm welcome. Answer questions when they're asked and show our guests the way, should they get lost in the castle. Thank you."

Dumbledore sat down and McGonagall rose from her seat. "The Coven has decided to dine here in the Great Hall with the students, so you should show some table manners and respect when they join you." Her strict face twitched a bit. "If you feel some slight disturbances in your surroundings or your magic it is most likely the answer to their Wicca magic and shouldn't frighten you." With that said she nodded curtly and swept from the room.

On the tables appeared puddings, tarts and creampuffs, just as Dumbledore had promised. Ron started to stuff himself at once, but Harry and Hermione looked at each other in silent understanding. Their appetite was gone, instead Harry felt anxious and worried, and he could see his sentiments mirrored in Hermione's pale face.

After dinner Ron and the others wanted to go to the Quidditch pitch again to train for a bit. Harry declined the invitation to come along. He had some Potions homework he needed to do, and besides, he wanted to talk to Blaise.

For once, the dark haired boy was alone. Since Seamus had gone with Ron, Harry had been right in looking for him in the library.

"Hi," said Blaise quietly. He sat alone at a table, lots of books stacked around his parchment.

"Hi. Do you have a minute?" asked Harry. He looked around, and then pulled out his wand. After casting a silencing and an obscuring charm, he looked firmly at his friend. "I wanted to ask you a favour."

"A favour?" replied Blaise, puzzled. "If it's something for the DA you just have to ask, you know that."

"It is for the DA, but it's still a favour," said Harry. He raked a nervous hand through his hair. "I need to know how Parkinson is getting information out of Hogwarts. I don't think she's doing it by owl, that's why I need your help. You don't have to do it, of course, it's dangerous after all."

Blaise's eyes shimmered softly. "I'll see what I can do." He smirked. "Really Potter, I'm flattered that you care so much for my well-being."

Harry first hit him over the head and then ruffled the long hair affectionately. "Don't get caught, it's not worth it."

Blaise smiled. "Of course it is. Now get lost, I have things to do."

Being shooed off, Harry took down the wards and sauntered out of the library. It was time to face his dreaded homework.

A few days later the students had mostly adjusted to the presence of the new inhabitants. The Wiccans sat at all tables during mealtimes, often changing houses to get to know all the students. Even the Slytherins showed hospitality, if only to satisfy their curiosity. On the walls of Hogwarts there had indeed appeared a few drawings, mostly runes and symbol, which, as Luna explained, portrayed several pagan deities. Her grandmother had talked a lot with Harry, Hermione and Ron; the instant sympathy had gotten her an invitation to the next DA meeting. She had promised to come, and to bring any members of her Coven who were also interested.

Of course, some students wouldn't let the Wiccans be in peace. Pansy Parkinson had removed some of the paintings already, and her sneering face promised more trouble.

"She just can't keep it to herself, can she?" hissed Hermione when she and Harry came from Advanced Potions the next Wednesday, exactly one week later.

And indeed, having had just two free periods, Pansy busied herself gleefully with scrubbing away a drawing at a prominent crossing.

"Stop that, Parkinson," demanded Harry. Since she was a prefect he couldn't take points from her, but he had his ways to make her regret her doing. "I'll inform Dumbledore about your behaviour. Perhaps he'll finally see fit to take your status as prefect and give it to someone who actually deserves it."

"Ha, you wish," retorted Pansy smugly. "Last year Dumbledork couldn't do anything either, and why should that change with how things are now?" She stepped away from the wall and pushed Hermione, hard. "As if some little Mudblood and her dorky, Muggle loving boyfriend could stop me, or our Lord."

"Take that back," hissed Hermione dangerously. She dropped her bag and pushed Pansy back. "That slimy bastard may be your lord, but don't associate him with us!"

"He will be your lord, whether you want it or not." Pansy glared maliciously at Hermione, seizing her up condescendingly. "Of course, a dirty Mudblood like you won't be living long after he's taken his rightful place."

"Oh, you-" Mad with rage, Hermione tackled Pansy, threw her to the ground and started bitch-slapping her. It looked like a dream come true for her.

Harry wisely kept out of it, but he did worry about Hermione. Pansy, of course, was retaliating, and not just with fists. After only two minutes of fighting, both girls sported scratches on arms, necks and faces. Pansy in addition had a swelling eye, whereas Hermione's hair was wilder than ever because Pansy had pulled on it viciously.

After a last, successful (and rather satisfying, Harry thought) punch to Pansy's face, Hermione got up and smoothed her hair down. From the dirty floor, Pansy glared at her from her good eye, pulled her wand and muttered a curse.

Harry jumped and knocked Hermione out of the way, but it was too late for her bookbag. Flames quickly consumed her Potions book, her notes, the quill her parents had given her for her birthday, and, at last, the bag itself.

"That's it," said Harry sternly. "You two are coming with me, right now. Parkinson, if I hear one word from you, I'll gag you and tie you up until we've reached Dumbledore's office, is that understood? Expelliarmus!" He snatched Pansy's wand and put it away.

"Why are you only taking my wand?" Pansy shrieked. "She started it!"

"You were the one who burned her bag, so shut the hell up," growled Harry. "Up, and go quickly."

Furious, he marched the two girls to Dumbledore's office. The headmaster was suitably surprised to see Harry bring his best friend. After a short description of what had transpired, Dumbledore took twenty points from each house first, then another twenty from Pansy for trying to hex an unarmed fellow student, and then he told Pansy to pay for everything Hermione had lost.

"But that book costs a fortune!" Pansy complained heatedly.

"It's not just a book you'll have to replace," Dumbledore reminded her mildly. "Perhaps you'll think more about your actions before you carry them out. If Miss Granger doesn't have her things one week from now I'll have to notify your parents, Miss Parkinson. And now off you go. Mr Potter, Miss Granger, please stay behind for a moment."

Fuming, Pansy stormed from the office. When the door clicked shut, Dumbledore sighed tiredly. "What had you really going, Hermione? Usually such barbs don't quite test your temper, do they?"

"Yes, they do," said Hermione quietly. "But until now I could keep from hitting someone." She looked Dumbledore square in the eyes; Harry wondered if she knew that Dumbledore was a Legilimens and would probably make use of that opportunity. "We are all on edge, and I admit that I'm afraid. She could be working for Voldemort right under our noses and we could never prove it."

"I admit that it is conspicuous how she disrupts the Wiccans' work," said Dumbledore, steepling his fingers together in thought. Fawkes trilled his agreement from his perch. "And there has been leakage of certain information that can't be explained. Mr Crabbe and Mr Goyle are closely watched, so they're not the ones who did it." He sighed again, showing his true age and then some in that second. "I'll keep an eye on Miss Parkinson, that much I can promise. Don't worry too much, you two. Enjoy the last weeks of school. Sooner than you think it's time for the exams and you will want to be fit, don't you?"

Harry and Hermione recognised it as the dismissal it was and went back to class. Madam Sprout wasn't impressed but since they had a pass let it slide without much complaint. Ron was ranting the whole time once he had heard what had happened.

"It can't be helped," sighed Hermione. Class was over and students started to put their scissors and gloves back on the rack before leaving happily for their next class. "I have to go to Madam Pince and ask if she can lend me a replacement until Parkinson has bought a new Potions book for me."

"Do you think she'll do it?" Ron asked doubtfully. "I mean, wouldn't it kind of make her parents proud if she managed to get one over you?"

Hermione shrugged half-heartedly. "Probably. Anyway, I can't work without book. Do your homework without me for once, all right?"

Harry ruffled her hair affectionately. "Don't worry so much, 'Mione. And don't think so much, either." He didn't like the signs of weariness around her eyes. It made her look so sad, somehow. "We will survive one evening without you."

The way up to the castle was strenuous since the ground was still partially covered in snow and ice whereas other parts were already muddy and slippery. Thankfully the green houses were just around the corner. A trip up from Hagrid's hut would have been another thing altogether.

During lunch all the Gryffindors congratulated Hermione on slapping Pansy. The twenty points she had lost didn't count in anyone's eyes and were well worth it. Still, Harry was worried that Pansy would try to retaliate. It was unacceptable, of course. It seemed like he had to ask Blaise for another favour.

After lunch they had two boring hours of divination, again with Professor Trelawney. Harry sincerely hoped that Firenze would get better soon. He missed the gentle centaur and his calm way of teaching.

"Good afternoon, dears," said Professor Trelawney in her whispery voice. "Today we will return to crystal balls." The majority of the class groaned audibly. "I know that many of you still haven't grasped the delicate but effective art of scrying, so please pair up and get a crystal ball."

The students scurried to team up with their friends. Once again Harry watched Malfoy as he tried to evade Pansy, and within a second he had made up his mind.

"Ron, I'm going to partner with Malfoy today," he whispered. "Get Blaise."

Confused, Ron just nodded and snagged Blaise right out from Millicent's grasp. Satisfied, Harry went up to Malfoy. Pansy sneered when she noticed him.

"Sod off, Potter, Draco is going to partner with me." She arrogantly flipped a strand of her long, blond hair back.

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe you should let him decide for himself?" Harry turned his gaze to Malfoy, who looked at him disbelievingly. "How about us today, Malfoy? I promise that I'll behave."

Smirking, he noticed the faint flush on Malfoy's cheeks. Although the blond boy was more than two inches bigger than him it was remarkably easy to get him flustered.

"I think not!" cried Pansy angrily. She tried to grab Malfoy's arm, but he was quickly side-stepping her.

"You get the crystal ball, Potter," he drawled.

"Okay. Go find a seat for us." Harry turned and only then allowed himself a smirk. So it was like that, wasn't it? Malfoy was choosing him over Pansy.

It was odd how satisfying this was.

When he returned, Malfoy had occupied a seat close to Trelawney's desk. Pansy sat a few seats down, fuming and glaring daggers at Harry. She had partnered up with Millicent Bulstrode, seeing that Blaise had teamed up with Ron.

"What are you up to, Potter?" said Malfoy, as soon as Professor Trelawney had told them to start.

"Such a harsh tone, and that after I've rescued you from your evil fiancée. I'm hurt." Harry sighed dramatically.

Malfoy gritted his teeth. "Look, Potter, I may like you better than her, but that doesn't mean we're friends. What do you want?"

Smiling, Harry pushed the crystal ball from Draco's place to his own, making sure to touch his fingers lightly. "Nothing really. Just seeing how our truce is faring."

Malfoy snatched his hand back as if Harry's touch had burned him. "I'm keeping quiet, am I not?"

Harry chuckled at the insulted tone. "Yes, you are. Thanks, by the way." He slanted a sly, inviting look at the blond boy. Where he got the courage or the playfulness he didn't know. Right now he didn't much care, either. It just felt good. "But I miss talking to you."

How Malfoy did it, looking blank and flushed at the same time, Harry would never know, but he did. His face was twisted in an entertaining mix of incredulity and embarrassment, and also a slight twinge of hurt.

"We've never talked," hissed Malfoy quietly. "And I'm sure we never will."

"Hmmmm," said Harry uncommunicatively. "But we're talking now."

Malfoy pursed his lips. "Yes, admittedly. Because you cornered me. What a Slytherin thing to do." He sighed. "Look, let's just get this lesson over with. I'm not keen on talking to you."

Shrugging, Harry pushed the small pang of disappointment back. Since Malfoy was so keen on doing something in this class, Harry might as well look into the crystal ball.

As usual it took a while but by now Harry was used to seeing things, even though he never had during the last years. He had accepted it; it wasn't as if he ever saw something important.

Right now he saw his meadow again, from his perspective it looked as if he were flying over the green, lush grass, towards the fringe of the woods. On and on it went, into the forest, deeper and deeper until he dove into shadows and then he was following a lone corridor, dark and musty and dank. A door loomed at the end. He knew that door, he had dreamed about that door. A hand stretched out to touch the door knob, but it wasn't his hand. It was a large, pale hand with long fingers and carefully filed nails.

With a gasp Harry shot out of his vision. With wide eyes he was looking at Malfoy who was staring back. Without thinking Harry grabbed the other boy's right hand, examining it for a second.

"Shit," he cursed.

"What?" Malfoy asked, looking shaken and uncertain. "What did you see?"

Harry groaned. "Later," he sighed. "I didn't need that!"

Anxiously, Malfoy dropped his haughty act and searched Harry's face with a penetrating stare. "I'll hold you to that," he murmured, so Pansy, Crabbe and Goyle wouldn't hear.

Sighing again, Harry pushed the crystal ball over to the blonde. "Here, have a look. The lesson is long."

Giving Harry a look that was almost as withering as when Hermione wanted to know something, Malfoy accepted the crystal ball and positioned it right in front of himself.

Soon he was lost into the scrying, his silvery grey eyes fixed onto the crystal and not wavering. Despite himself Harry watched him, noting how handsome his old school nemesis had become. And he was getting more handsome each day, as far as Harry was concerned.

Fate truly was mean if it kept throwing him and Malfoy into impossible situations. They had kissed so often during the last months, it already weighed all of Harry's dates up.

Nothing could come of this, Harry was sure, but it was even harder when you somehow had the feeling that the object of your fascination wasn't so bad anymore. That he was human and had qualities you might come to like, not only a handsome face.

Not that Harry had any intention of ever approaching Malfoy. Their dislike of each other was too deeply rooted, and even though he regretted this, he felt that it was Malfoy's decision to either take Harry up on his teasing or reject him completely.

Although Malfoy was scrying for almost fifteen minutes it was too soon for Harry to have the blonde back with him.

Feeling sorry for himself (and boy, these conflicting feelings were distracting at best), Harry looked expectantly at Malfoy.

"And? How did it go?" he asked curiously. He bit his lip to hide his smirk when Malfoy blushed a rosy red. "That bad?"

"Shut up, Potter," mumbled Malfoy, mortified.

"Look, I'll tell you my vision and you'll tell me yours. Deal?"

Malfoy sighed and refused to look at Harry. "Do I have to?"

"If you want to know mine, then yes."

Face heating up again, Malfoy stared at the table cloth. "Then forget it."

"Are you sure?"


"Well, dears, what have you seen?" asked Trelawney, startling them both as she glided up to them. She leaned forward and looked into their crystal ball with huge, rapidly blinking eyes.

"Nothing, Professor," Harry lied easily. "Perhaps I'm not up to it today."

"Pity," she sighed. "And you, Mr Malfoy? What have you seen?"

"I think Potter is contagious. I haven't seen anything either."

"Oh!" Professor Trelawney pushed her bangles up her bony forearms and sat on a free, overstuffed chair. "This gift, or the lack of it, is not contagious, Mr Malfoy. Now let's see if your crystal ball is working properly."

With much humming and murmuring she positioned the crystal ball in front of herself, lowered her face until her nose was almost touching the glass and looked into it. Her huge eyes never blinked and her mouth dropped open. Through the ball Harry had trouble keeping the hysterical laughter in that desperately wanted to come out. Professor Trelawney's distorted face simply looked hilarious! And not even Malfoy could keep his smirk back completely.

She scryed for a few minutes, murmuring under her breath. Then, as if bitten by a Garden Gnome, she jerked back, colouring lightly.

"Oh dears, I'm so sorry! I didn't know that you were ... never mind." Professor Trelawney got up abruptly, brushed off her dress and hastily went away.

"What. Was. That?" asked Malfoy, gaping after her.

Harry knew that he probably looked just as stupid, so he quickly shook himself out of his stupor. "I would like to know, too," he said. "I think I'll go ask her after class."

"Do you think she'll tell you?"

Harry smirked. "Where's your sense for adventure? I bet she will."

Malfoy looked Harry up and down in an obviously condescending manner. "Oh, really?"

Leaning back, Harry decided to play a bit with Malfoy. "Yes, really."

They were silent for a few moments but then curiosity prompted Malfoy to speak again.

"If she tells you, will you let me know?" He looked uncomfortable but Harry didn't intent to let him off the hook so easily.

"I don't think so. After all, if you won't tell me your little vision, why should I tell you mine or Trelawney's?"

"Because it was obviously about me, too," said Malfoy angrily.

"In that case you can just stay here and listen," replied Harry, shrugging slightly. "I'm not your messenger boy, in case you have forgotten."

It amused him that Malfoy ground his teeth in frustration; it was high time that he learned that Harry was not a push-over.

"I never said you were," Malfoy ground out. Huffing, he raked a hand through his hair. "It just would have been nice, you know."

"Are you trying to play the guilt card, Malfoy?" asked Harry with a snicker. "Sorry, but I don't find you cute enough yet to let you get away with it."

A muffled snort from the next table caused Malfoy to blush yet again. "Do you have to say things like that?" he snapped irritably.

"Why? It's the truth." Harry tried to sound wounded and flirtatious at the same time, a thing he pulled off rather well if Malfoy's flushed cheeks were anything to go by. He winked. "But you're headed that way fast. I really like it when you let your hair down."

Two things happened at once then: Ron roared with laughter (and Malfoy's formerly pale complexion now resembled a brick) while Pansy got up from her seat, charged at Harry and slapped him squarely across the face. The whole classroom went silent at once.

"How dare you flirt with my fiancé, you men-stealing whore!" she screeched. "Keep your hands off him or you'll regret it!"

Stunned, Harry touched his stinging cheek. That girl had a mean right hook, that was for sure!

"Miss Parkinson!" cried Professor Trelawney, her tone scandalised. "One hundred and fifty points from Slytherin for threatening and attacking a fellow student! You will report to Professor Snape, and believe me, I'll hear if you did or not!"

"He threatened me!" said Pansy, still in a fury. "He's obviously trying to steal my fiancé! It's in my rights to defend my relationship!" Her pale cheeks were flushed in an angry red and her chest was heaving.

But Trelawney was having none of it. "Silence, young lady! You hit a fellow student and therefore you'll be punished accordingly! Whether or not Mr Potter was 'trying to steal your fiancé' is of no consequence! We do not condone violence at Hogwarts. Are we understood?"

Her steely voice surprised all of the students. Even Pansy looked at her in disbelief.

"And now, off you go. Find Professor Snape and tell him what you did. I'll ask him later what he has decided for your punishment. And you better believe that Professor Dumbledore will hear about this!"

And that was Professor Trelawney's last word. Still snarling, Pansy left the classroom and stomped her way down the ladder. How she managed it no one knew but it was impressive all the same.

"Potter-," said Malfoy, but Harry beat him to it.

"I'm sorry, Malfoy. Really, I am. I didn't know how serious it was between you two. I'll try to keep it down, all right?" Harry sighed. He took his wand and pointed it at his left cheek.

Eyes steely and face unreadable, Malfoy pushed Harry's wand down with the tip of his own. He then performed a healing charm. Harry allowed it, it felt good, soothing and gentle.

"Thanks," he said softly. "I'm still sorry."

Malfoy put his wand away. "Forget it. She's overbearing. And I'm not, I repeat: not going to marry her." The corner of his mouth lifted in a brief if somewhat crooked smile. "Thank you for protecting my virtue."

Just in that moment Professor Trelawney came up to them, asking if Harry was all right.

"Yes, everything's fine, Professor," he replied. When she wanted to leave, he hurriedly asked, "Professor, may I ask what you've seen earlier?" He pointed at Malfoy and himself. "I mean, you obviously saw us both ..."

"Oh yes, dear, I did, but I fear it wouldn't be right for me to tell," she fluttered excitedly.

Biting his lip, Harry tried to look as interested as he could. "But you see, Draco and I, we are really curious."

Professor Trelawney preened under his inquiring stare. "Are you?" she breathed. "Well, it was very private and I don't know if I would do you a favour by telling you ..."

Malfoy rolled his eyes. "If the vision was about ... Harry and I then you can tell us. I doubt it will shock us." His raised eyebrows spoke volumes but obviously his manners forbade him to say more.

Being stared down by two more than curious boys, Trelawney finally caved. "If you're sure ..."

They nodded their consent. Professor Trelawney came closer, so close that Harry could feel her soft breath on his freshly healed cheek.

"In that case ...," she said ominously.

Harry was about to burst from impatience. Eagerly he leaned forward, staring into Professor Trelawney's wet eyes.

"I saw you kiss, gentlemen." She took a huge breath of air. "It was a wonderful kiss, and you looked to be enjoying it very much."

"You saw us kiss?" asked Malfoy too calmly. His skin was almost white, his face void of emotions. "Merlin help me."

He got up without another word, took his book bag and made to leave the classroom.

Mouth hanging open, Professor Trelawney looked after him.

"Why is he upset?" she asked uncomprehendingly. "I thought you both didn't have a problem with it?"

"Everything's okay. He's probably just going to talk with Parkinson," lied Harry. He was confused himself but he managed to keep his wits together enough to get rid of Trelawney. Blaise and Ron threw him suspicious looks but Harry ignored them in favour of staring into his crystal ball until class was over.

The Gryffindor common room was very loud on that evening. The younger years were still celebrating Hermione's fight with Pansy, while the others who were in the DA did their homework together and practiced the light spells they had studied during the last meeting.

Harry found it hard to concentrate on his homework with all the noise the others were making. He even contemplated going to the library but finally he settled for a silencing barrier around his small table.

But it wasn't only the noise. There was something else that bothered him.

Hermione wasn't with him.

Of course, usually this wasn't a reason for concern but tonight he thought differently about that. She had gone to get a replacement for her burned potions book. Harry wondered when she had gone to the library. Knowing her she had made a beeline as soon as Arithmancy had been over but that had been four hours ago. Considering the fight she had been in earlier it wasn't all that far off to think that Pansy Parkinson might have attacked her again.

Harry nibbled on his quill, pondering the matter until it was time for dinner. Sighing, he packed his things away and followed Ron and Neville to the Great Hall. He hoped that Hermione would be there when they arrived.

The Great Hall was filled with laughter and talk, as usual. Still feeling uneasy, Harry sat down, looking for his friend. Ron, who sat next to him, shovelled food onto his plate and immediately started eating. Harry knew that Ron was just as worried, he just didn't let his worries compromise his appetite.

That thought made Harry smile but it faded and changed into another frown when it became apparent that Hermione wouldn't show up.

"Shit," he mumbled, pushing his plate away and getting up. "Im going to look for Hermione," he said to his friends.

Everybody around him nodded. Neville even offered to come with him.

"No, thanks. If she wants to be alone it would be better if we didn't come as pack," replied Harry with a weak smile. "I'll see you later."

He left the hall and hurried to get to the library. Harry was almost certain that he would find his best friend there but he hurried nonetheless. If something had happened to her he would never forgive himself.

He was deep in thought but not enough not to notice the steps that followed him. When he reached the hallway of the library a few minutes later he whirled around and promptly spotted Ron and Dean who had followed him, despite his declining. They smiled a bit helplessly at him and Harry was touched that they cared so much for Hermione and his wellbeing.

Harry motioned the two boys to stay back and entered the library. It seemed empty at first; the students were in the Great Hall, after all, but Harry silently prowled through the room, carefully looking for hidden persons. Sometimes students came here to snog or simply hide from others and he didn't want to disturb anyone who needed their peace and quiet.

Finally, at the very back of the library, in a dark corner that was lit by only one, tiny lamp, he spotted a lone figure that sat miserably in a large wingback chair.

Of course it was Hermione, he recognised her instantly by her bushy hair.

Harry let out a sigh of relief and went up to her, walking a bit louder than usual so she would hear him and not jump in fright.

"Hullo," she greeted quietly when he sat on the small table in front of her. "Sorry for not showing up."

Smiling crookedly, Harry petted her small hand. "It's okay. Ron and Dean are waiting outside. We were just worried." Changing the topic, Harry pointed to the open book on Hermione's lap. "Some light reading?" he joked. Her drawn face and troubled eyes worried him, and her usually rosy lips looked pale and chapped as if she had bitten them too often.

"Hmmm, more or less," she said tonelessly. "It's my replacement potions book. Madam Pince told me to choose from the stack so I did. It's ... interesting."

Something in her voice and bearing alarmed Harry but he didn't dare ask just yet.

"Oh? I thought you had memorized the textbooks already?" he quipped, smiling so she would know that he was teasing her.

"Of course, but this is ... another edition." Abruptly Hermione closed the book and got up. "Let's go, I'm hungry. And I'm sure the others will want to make sure that I haven't been killed and dumped into a pit."

Harry was almost sure that she wanted to sound ironic but it came out entirely too serious. He stood too and simply took the small girl in his arms before she could vanish again.

"If you want to talk you know that you can come to me, don't you?" he asked, frightened about the weakness in his voice. She was one of his weaknesses but he wouldn't change that for the world.

Wrapped up tightly, Hermione nodded, sighed and hugged Harry back. "I know. I will. Just not tonight."

"S'alright." Stroking her wild hair, Harry allowed his worries to finally ebb away. A great sense of calm washed over him and his heart ached. He loved Hermione, loved her beyond anything or anyone he had ever thought he loved. He couldn't bear to see her so distraught and so alone in her distress. "Come when you're ready."

"Yes ..."

The library was still dark and it still smelled like old books and leather but neither disturbed their embrace. It just felt good to stay like this for a bit longer, to make sure that, if not with the world, at east everything between them was alright. The potions book that was trapped between their bodies felt hard, but not even that could diminish the soothing comfort of their friendship.

End of part 13