Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
The Hogwarts Express shuddered into motion, beginning its long journey northward. Harry, Ron and Hermione window-shopped for a suitable compartment until they found Neville alone in one and slipped inside.
"Hey, Neville," greeted Harry.
"Harry!" said Neville, pulling his gaze away from the rolling countryside and wearing a broad smile. "Hi, Ron, Hermione."
"How was your summer, Neville?" asked Hermione.
"Not very good actually," said Neville. "Grandma had some fit so we had to take her to St Mungo's. But she's back home, healthy and all—alive and kicking."
"Kicking in your direction," Ron muttered, whereupon Hermione jabbed an elbow into his side. "I mean, glad to hear she's doing well," Ron coughed. Miss Longbottom was a ferocious witch who wore with a stuffed vulture on top of her hat.
The door slid open and Dean and Seamus entered.
"Hey, Harry!" Dean said cheerfully. He darted forward and lifted Harry cleanly off the floor; Harry's head barely missed the overhead compartment.
"Jesus, Dean!" breathed Harry as his feet found the floor again. "What the hell have you been doing to yourself, mate?" He gave Dean an awed once-over and rapped on his broadened chest. Seamus looked away hastily.
Dean was doubtlessly blushing but his dark complexion was also coming in handy. He smirked down the query, obviously wishing to maintain the mystery about his new handsome build.
"Now I know how you feel with Ron over here, hey, Harry," said Seamus wryly as he shook Harry's hand.
"Blimey, mate. What were you doing to get those? Pushing coal stoves?" said Ron, marvelling at Dean's growth spurt which had left Seamus miles behind. "You better start being careful ducking the Fat Lady's hole, yeah."
Foreheads twitched at the odd ring of these words. Dean smirked proudly again.
Not used to Dean's new form, Harry found Dean's descent into the seat beside Seamus almost epic to watch.
"Why don't you sit here on my lap, shorty?" Dean boasted to Seamus.
"Argh, fuck off!" Seamus said playfully, pushing Dean away. "Get over yourself, mate. You're not that handsome!"
Several foreheads twitched again. Harry was not sure where Dean's handsomeness came into it, and he gave Seamus a sidelong look. Ginny gave her previous boyfriend a final, grudging once-over of appreciation before she looked away out the window proudly.
"So!" Ron announced to the compartment, one eye darting towards Hermione. "Anyone excited for fifth year?"
A round of despondent noises filled the compartment, but Hermione had suddenly activated.
"I just skimmed through our textbooks just to see what we'd be covering this year," she said as she jumped to her feet and reached over into her bag, which was resting in the overhead compartment. "It's going to be so exciting! Finally, some real work for a change! It's kind of a huge step-up from the previous years! Well, that speaks for most of the books we have this year, I think."
She pulled out a dark-blue, royal-sized book entitled, in silver type, Defensive Magical Theory by Wilbert Slinkhard and returned to her seat. "We're going to start learning stuff that's now actually useful! It's an OWL yeah, goodness!"
"McGonagall is so gonna be a pain in the arse right now," Harry concluded with a groan. The chance that he and Ron could skate Transfiguration with the skin of their teeth diminished with the square root of Hermione's level of excitement, which was expressed in the total amount of pages of reading required this year.
"As she well should be," said Hermione strictly. "You have no idea how important your OWLs are. They can practically change the course of your entire academic life!"
"I'd rather die than have an academic life," Ron said dryly.
"And then what job would you look for, if I may ask?" enquired Hermione. "Ollivander's assistant?"
Ron's eyes lit up. "Oh, I've never thought of that!"
Hermione scoffed witheringly and threw open the cover of the book in her lap. "I'm still trying to figure out if this book is worth the paper it's made with," she said, turning its pages aimlessly.
"You couldn't even if you want to, mate," Harry laughed. "Your mum would fry your bits!"
"No grandkids for her, then," retorted Ron.
"And you can't wank anymore," Harry pointed out kindly.
Ron's mouth twitched. "Yeah, that's no funny that," he snickered. His smile faded as his eyes found Hermione's book, at which point he looked away with tepid restraint as though it were an object of a religion different to his own (as were its owner) and something incompatible with his own beliefs and capacities and with which he need not concern himself.
"You wank, Harry?" asked Neville, his eyes growing big and round.
There was an extremely awkward pause in the conversation.
"Um," said Harry in the absolute quiet. He saw Ginny and Hermione throw Neville looks of disbelief, cheeks scarlet. Feeling hot in the face himself, Harry was so desperate to escape the moment that he even attempted begging Malfoy telepathically to barge into their compartment sooner than usual to perform his traditional taunts.
"I'm going to the bathroom," Harry suddenly announced. He came to his feet and hurried towards the door. He dove for the bathroom door before the towering trolley of snacks and candy crashed into him as it was so stacked the lady pushing it would not have seen him through the mountain of candy. He shut the door behind him, took care of business, washed his hands and waited doing nothing until he was sure he could return to the compartment having lost all his self-consciousness and Neville the little courage he had mustered to ask him such a personal question.
But then with horror Harry realised how his visit to the bathroom could be construed back in the compartment. Looking to pre-empt any suspicions, he bolted out the bathroom back into the corridor and suddenly caught a glint of platinum: Malfoy was entering a separate compartment from which came a great upswing of raucous noise and applause. Soon afterward Harry heard Malfoy's familiar drawl. The new amounts of uppishness and conceit in his voice were so unbearable to Harry that he lost all sense of urgency, rolled his eyes and was glad to shut the voice out when he closed the door of his compartment.
"Relieved much?" asked Ron as he failed to contain his huge grin.
Mortified for the second time and with as much intensity, Harry took his seat and pressed his face into the window, resolutely staring outside and trying to ignore the snickers from the other boys.
It was not as though they did not do it as well, Harry thought indignantly. It was unfair he was singled out.
Where's Malfoy when you bloody need him?
After some time Harry did not find it hard to block out the noises from his companions, for sleep was wooing him insistently; his eyes drooped and a trickle of saliva slid down the window from his hanging mouth. He jerked himself awake and wiped the window as surreptitiously as he could without alerting Hermione. If he were to doze off now in front of her, it would lead to questions about why he was not getting enough sleep. Only Ron knew the answer, and Harry would like to keep it that way. In any event, he knew that if he let the temptation of sleep mount, the rest would be all the more enjoyable when he finally obliged.
Nevertheless, it broke the routine nicely though inconveniently that Malfoy did not pitch up in their compartment. And it rather lent a spring to Harry's step as he fought his way through the throng of students towards the horse carriages, which, if his memory had not failed him, were supposed to be horseless. But he was bundled into the carriages by Hermione before he could ask any questions, and they were jostled along the rocky route with their friends towards the towering castle. Harry put the mystifying picture of the skeletal horses to the few hours of sleep he had managed to catch ever since he returned to the Dursleys after Cedric was killed and Voldemort reborn.
He still could not look his friends in the eye following that wounding, even if innocent, enquiry from Neville. But the sight of the jutting turrets and glowing windows looming towards him as he and the other students made their way to the Entrance Hall was soothing, and he forget the incident. That feeling he knew so well and loved so much grew stronger with each yard the castle came closer.
A few minutes later they entered the Great Hall and took their seats. Golden goblets and plates appeared on the tables, mercilessly dangling the prospect of the feast at them. Harry managed to hear Ron's stomach growl on top of the excited chatter and scraping chairs. Professor Dumbledore slipped into the Hall from a door behind the High Table, took his throne-like seat in the middle of it and began making conversation with the professors around him. Anticipating the meal as eagerly as his students were, he threw his waist-length beard over his shoulder and held his knife and fork at the ready.
When Harry caught sight of Dumbledore for the first time, a thrill of emotion seized him. It surged in spite of whatever new terrors and triumphs the new year might bring forth. As he sat at the Gryffindor table, familiarised himself again with acquaintances and pleasant strangers, as his feet recalled that lovely and worn track from the gate to the Entrance Hall, and as he revelled in that profound and ancient magical spirit the immensity of the Great Hall called upon, that pulsating feeling that had been with him since they approached the castle matured and spilled over in a warm and profound moment of exhilaration. A huge, painful grin which he shared only with himself slowly spread across his face. In that moment, he knew he was home again.
Professor McGonagall marched through the great doors leading a long line of first-years. When the Sorting was over a few minutes later and the line had assimilated into the four Houses, McGonagall took her seat at the High Table and settled into a rather expectant posture as she eyed Dumbledore sharply. Short of slapping Professor Snape's arm, Dumbledore was adrift in gossipy ecstasy: he made a noise of disbelief at Snape after the Potions teacher muttered something to him. Dumbledore swiftly turned to face McGonagall with the jumpiness of a mischievous child when she tapped him on his shoulder. McGonagall cleared her throat, which ended his riveting chat with Snape, who, though as sullen and sallow as ever, looked quite relieved.
"Oh, dear. A speech before we banquet, yes," said Dumbledore, preparing to rise to his feet. "Er, thank you, Minerva." He tapped his goblet with a spoon to get the attention of the Hall and spread his arms wide. "Welcome to another year at Hogwarts! I would especially like to welcome our new recruits! Eh, forgive the war-speak," Dumbledore chuckled as his crinkled eyes fell on Snape, "and my cynical use of it during these… interesting times. Hem hem, there's nothing quite like first experiences," he continued, "and I would wish to call upon the older students to make the first-years' maiden strides here at Hogwarts as pleasant as possible."
Dumbledore continued with the usual announcements about rules and details about the upcoming Quidditch season. Not long after the speech, Harry's stomach leapt at the sight of the golden cups filling with pumpkin juice and Hogsy and their plates with everything from shepherd's pie to beef casserole. Ron moaned in pleasure as he started pulling dishes towards him. It was only after a silent ten minutes (the "marathon minutes" as Harry called them when it was best to leave Ron alone) that Ron was sated enough to notice the ghost in their midst.
"Hi, Nearly Headless Nick," he burped. "I can honestly say that I miss you."
Ron tended to become disarmed and sentimental when his stomach was full. Nick did a double take.
"You missed him," corrected Hermione.
"That's what I said."
"No, you said you 'miss' him. He's here in front of you, isn't he? You don't miss him anymore."
Ron's face screwed up as though he thought Hermione came from some other planet. "Hermi—what you on about?"
"Never mind, Ron," sighed Hermione exasperatedly. "I'll leave you to your afterglow."
"I scarcely believe I'm hearing this," Nick remarked. "Your kind sentiment rather makes up for your crude jokes around this time of the year. I for a second thought you were that enduringly gay Stephanie Harlem coming onto me."
Hermione heaved suddenly in her chair. She wiped her nose after she apparently snorted up her pumpkin juice. Her face seemed undecided between amusement and strict reserve.
Ron twitched his eyebrow at Nearly Headless Nick licentiously. "Oh, you were having a few ideas? But I can't imagine how it would work out between us..."
"Who's Stephanie Harlem?" Neville enquired. Harry, to whom Neville's innocent questioning was growing less cute, was slightly repulsed with the sight of him dressed so sharply even before the first day of school and holding a fork and knife in his hands as though he had a room at Buckingham.
"A knob skipper from seventh year that smiles at anything she can bed," Ginny replied. Hermione heaved again and wiped her mouth, throwing a load look at Ginny. "What?" Ginny said indignantly at her. "It's Ron's word."
"Why am I not surprised?" Hermione harrumphed.
Nearly Headless Nick adjusted his ruff uncomfortably. Even though he could not blush, his ghostly cheeks grew denser and whiter. "Er, I should be trying to find the Grey Lady—no one should be permitted to feel down tonight at least! Hogwarts is open again!" He floated off.
"Good luck with that, mate!" Dean called rest of the table laughed.
"This is the day I saw a ghost blush!" giggled Hermione. "Ron, you're so evil!"
Ron stood up and made suggestive hip gestures and showed his leg off on his seat. "You can call me Lady in Gryffindor Red. You know you want some, too, Hermione."
Hermione threw her head back in laughter and nearly fell over.
"Ron, you're special, you know that?" said Ginny, wiping her tears.
Feeling pleasantly drowsy and cheeks stinging from laughing so hard, though his limbs felt leaden, Harry made his way with Ron and Hermione to Gryffindor Tower. They found the dormitory as cosy and welcoming as the day they left it. For the rest of the night the students touched base again. The Gryffindor common room soon became a hive of bustle, banter and chatter.
Hermione was over at a corner talking with Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown. Harry was appalled to see that she had woven her web on them already: lessons had not even started yet and but there was a piece of parchment on their table and quills in both Parvati's and Lavender's hands.
Harry dove back into the Quidditch conversation with Ron, Neville, Dean and Seamus. During a lull in the conversation, Dean observed, "Hermione's looking super-nice this year, hm?"
Seamus chuckled forcefully.
"What's that sweep you mentioned, Harry?" said Ron, suddenly irritated.
"The Flog Sweep," answered Harry, smirking.
"Damn, even Lavender. What is she doing different?" Dean went on. Seamus chuckled again.
"Lavender?" said Ron, his irritation suddenly vanishing as he craned his neck to see over the fireside armchairs across the common room. "You're high on something, mate—she's still a man-eater."
Seamus chuckled still harder.
Dean tilted his head and squinted at the girl.
"I wonder where Ginny is," said Ron after a moment, looking around.
Harry needed to turn his head only slightly to catch Ginny's loud, ginger hair. He dwelled on her face, which was beaming at her friends, before turned back to the table. But it seemed Ron had timed Harry's glance perfectly, for he caught it. And when their eyes met, Harry felt his face burn.
"Yeah, but don't you think her friend is hotter, though? Parvati?" Ron went on. There was something new and lofty about his voice and something like hope in his face.
Dean appraised Parvati accordingly but then looked around the entire common room. "Where was I when all of these wicks became shaggable? Even Erma has a banging chest now…"
Seamus chuckled again. His chuckles sounded increasingly unamused.
Mortified again, Harry wanted to remove himself. It must have shown in his face because Seamus took one look at him and suggested they go upstairs. Harry sprung to his feet without a second invitation and left the rest of the boys to talk about the opposite sex. Neville did not want to find out whatever Neville might contribute to the conversation.
"So how were your holidays?" asked Seamus casually as they bounced through the door of the dormitory of the fifth-year boys and settled down on Harry's four-poster bed.
"Different year, same yoke," Harry replied and reclined on his continental pillow. "You?"
"Nah, not too bad..."
Seamus was a poor actor; it could not have been plainer that he had something on his mind, something perhaps he was too shy to share. Harry, however, was not a Hermione who could pick up on other people's emotions quickly.
"Did your aunt Mauve visit with her cat and give you trouble this holiday?" asked Harry with a grin.
"Oh, yeah," said Seamus with a lame chortle as he drew patterns on Harry's bedspread.
"Excited about Quidditch? Going to try your luck at the tryout then? You should get yourself in my goods books, you know, starting now even—I might just swings things for you."
Seamus smiled wanly and cast his eyes down to the duvet. "Haven't ever been much of a Quidditch player, though."
This was true.
"Ah, you could probably do well," said Harry bracingly. "There really isn't anything to it."
"Of course you're going to say that," Seamus said to the duvet as he drew patterns on it. "You look magical on a broomstick. It's like just going to the toilet and sitting on it for you—doesn't take a lot of effort but you do it so well."
Harry looked down and starting drawing patterns, too. His face was suddenly hot.
"You just get on a broom and try and look busy," muttered Harry at the duvet, which he twisted between his fingers awkwardly. "That's what McLaggen does, doesn't he? And he's not so bad." The compliment to Cormac McLaggen, an incredibly arrogant Gryffindor who has tried out for every team Harry has captained, left a bad taste in his mouth.
Seamus shrugged. "So... keeping your eye on anyone this year? The Great Hall was packed with hot wicks today."
"Not anyone in particular," answered Harry with a caution he would normally employ when speaking to people like Rita Skeeter; it was not a question typical of Seamus to ask. Now that Harry thought about it, he finally realised Seamus was indeed acting strangely.
"Oh, come on, Harry. When are you going to get interested in someone? The whole school's waiting on ya!"
"Well they'll have to wait forever, then."
"Then you shouldn't blame anyone but yourself when they finally resort to Love Potions and stuff. It would give me the greatest pleasure in saying 'I told you so.'"
"But I have good friends like you to help me out if I do fall under a Love Potion, right?" said Harry with a winning smile. "And after you can tell me 'I told me so.'"
"Might depend if I still have any scruples left," murmured Seamus.
"Then you don't qualify to be in Gryffindor. You have to change House!"
Seamus remained silence as he bit his lower lip.
"What?" prodded Harry.
Seamus bit harder into his lip until Harry feared he would bite it off and choke on it. The Irish wizard took a deep breath, held it and closed his eyes.
"Seamus," said Harry a little sternly, now worried.
"He's so fucking hot, Harry..." whispered Seamus, exhaling finally, his eyes rolling dreamily, appearing to have been dying to admit this to someone. "I can't fuckin—I can't handle it..."
Harry kept quiet for several seconds as his brain worked on whether Seamus had used a wrong pronoun or it was something else. He could not say anything.
"I want us to fuck so bad! I'm not even gonna lie, Harry! Fuck! I just wanna—have him all over me! Every part of him!"
Harry continued to hold his silence, eyes swollen, but Seamus was on an unstoppable roll. He was releasing whatever seemed to have been buried deep inside him for who knew how long and did not need Harry's encouragement any longer.
"I know, I'm just revolting, aren't I? But I can't help it! I'm thinking with my fucking prick… Every time he's around me… I get all shaky and light-headed for no fucking reason…! I can't even get a fucking conversation going properly with him anymore!"
Harry's eyebrows had climbed his forehead higher and higher until they were perched on top of his fringe. He had only heard more expletives in a complete sentence from Malfoy once when they both spent a detention scrubbing cauldrons with toothbrushes. As he listened with one ear to the confessions from Seamus's tapped keg, he found the words the other boy used to describe one of his friends not quite to his taste. His mind lapsed into a ceaseless loop around one question: When the fuck did Seamus become gay?
"Merlin, what's wrong with me? I'm going to hell, aren't I? If he finds out, he won't want to be friends anymore—he'll hate me."
Harry was so floored and curious that he did not bother being sensitive when Seamus's voice broke at that point. "Wait—I mean—did you just—how does it—Did you choose to—But no of course you didn't choose; who would want to be gay? But then does it, like, then you just turn gay and you look at a bloke or-?"
"Look," said Seamus, cutting across Harry's ramblings, "I can't speak for everyone and I'm also new to this. I don't know how it happens. I just know that I'm really, really, really into him. Like badly—dream-about-him-every-night badly. When I stand next to him—just stand next to him, it's almost enough! When we talk and I have an excuse to look him in the eye... the way I feel when I look at him, it's almost worth being this confused... I don't know..."
This was all coming too fast for Harry; he felt as though he had been unfairly ambushed. "But," he spluttered. He scanned Seamus from top to bottom as though looking for signs that indicated his orientation. "When did you become a—like...?"
"A bufty?" Seamus finished heatedly.
Harry pretended to appreciate the social weight of the word, which was entirely new to him. "Um, I was going to use the word… homos—No, no," Harry amended, switching course as he read Seamus's reception to his terms. "A gay person… A person of alternative orientation."
Seamus stared at Harry with a blank face until a twitch developed at the corner of his lips which preceded an amused smile.
"Homosexual is fine," said Seamus finally, disarmed by Harry's determination not to offend him. He began speaking and rushing over his words again as though against his will, as though he were looking for any avenue to release his emotions. "I think it's his whole growth spurt of his that got me going. I mean, he became fucking gorgeous overnight practically!" He directed his expression of amazement at Harry, trying to garner his agreement. When Harry stared back at him non-committedly, Seamus continued, "Or maybe it's just my hormones going all haywire. I mean, this is puberty, right?"
"Er, sure, I guess..."
"Yeah," said Seamus, sounding as though he was trying to convince himself. "And aren't you supposed to be trying to get laid, too?"
Harry went from green to red lightning-fast. "I'm not interested in a relationship," he said in the colourless voice of a spokesperson reading a press release.
Seamus whooped with amusement. "It doesn't have to be a relationship!" He framed the r-word with two quotation marks, speaking in a mocking tone that suggested sleeping around outside relationships was a long-standing practice, to which Harry had been completely oblivious. What happened to the usual plan? Get married, then have sex? Harry felt as old and outdated as Mrs Figg.
"I'm not really sure about any of it," replied Harry uneasily. He felt exceptionally awkward, and Seamus talking about heterosexual matters when he had confessed himself otherwise was not helping. Suddenly the Irish jokester looked different in Harry's mind. But Harry had never thought himself homophobic. In fact, given that he knew what Dudley did to "skippy ponces" at his primary school whenever he and his gang found one, Harry would be disappointed in himself if he was.
"All right. It's up to you, I guess," said Seamus. "But... so... what do you think of... you know... my situation... of me...?"
Harry translated the question correctly for what it was really asking. "You're still my friend, Seamus, no matter what," he declared with his warmest smile. He could practically see the stress rolling off Seamus's shoulder. Seamus nodded and looked down at the duvet.
"D'you think Dean would like me in that way? He'll hate me, won't he?"
That crossed a line for Harry. Seamus was a very good friend but Harry was not sure he was comfortable chatting about these kinds of things with him just yet. Things were going to be so awkward between them that he almost rued Seamus's confession to him.
"Er... hard to say..." answered Harry, growing scarlet rapidly again.
"Would I like who in what way?" called Dean as he bounded into the room with Ron and Neville.
"Angelina Johnson," replied Seamus with impressive nonchalance.
Dean entered into a long and detailed discussion with Ron about the merits of dating Angelina Johnson, ranging from her "soft skin" to her "soulful eyes." When they eventually finished half an hour later, Seamus looked more despondent than ever.
"Ron, where's your Ages book?" asked Dean. Harry saw Seamus pull a face behind Dean's back conveying his disgust with the boyishness of Dean's desire to read a sports book.
"Er, somewhere in my trunk," Ron replied, watching lazily as Dean stood up and burrowed through his trunk.
Harry's day could not have turned out more perfectly, in aggregate. He was back together with his best friends, going to enjoy carefree chats with the ghosts, suffer McGonagall's rigidity and celebrate every quirk of the castle from its deceptive stairs to giggling doorknobs. It was perfect even after the unexpected curveball Seamus had thrown at him. He sank into his covers elated to be back at Hogwarts.
"No... don't... Don't kill him... please..."
"Harry?" whispered Ron. The redhead slipped out of his bed and cautiously came over to Harry's bed and pulled back the curtains. Harry was gripping his sheets as though his life depended on it. His arm gleaming with sweat and beads of it peppered his forehead, which was furrowed and troubled.
Ron sat on the bed and tried to pry Harry's hand from the sheets. "Harry, it's okay. Relax. Shush..."
"Don't do it... Please don't it..."
"Harry, please wake up..." Ron shook him, at which point Harry almost catapulted himself off the bed. "It's just a dream," Ron whispered to him. "Just a dream. You're all right."
"Yeah. I'm here."
Harry's damp pyjama-clad chest rose and fell rapidly as he threw his widened gaze around the room. His green eyes were brilliant in the moonlit darkness.
"Go back to sleep," said Ron. "We've got lessons tomorrow."
"Thanks..." Harry pulled off his wet shirt, tossed it aside and did not bother throwing his covers on again.
Ron removed his touch from Harry only when he was sure his friend was calm. He stood up, looked down at him and his lips twisted grimly. He closed the curtain and muttered a Silencing Charm at them, returning to his bed. But Harry woke up again half an hour later, sleepy and frustrated. He sat staring at the window for several minutes as his sweat evaporated. Shortly afterward he climbed out of bed, quietly hauled out his Invisibility Cloak from his trunk and took out his Marauder's Map. He shoved his feet into his trainers, put his arms through the sweater Mrs Weasley had made him and left Gryffindor Tower.