Back to the Future of the Previous Past
They had not made eye contact for the hours that passed during the night. Harry lay under the covers, head tilted upwards to watch through the window the sky above the canopy line brighten with every minute. He then turned his gaze onto the gelled cap of white-blond hair peeking out from the emerald covers. He was certain Draco had not slept either. Had the Slytherin managed to do so, the Glamour of his hairstyle would have run its course and Draco's full head of locks would be sprawled around him disorderedly. The source of their torments was one.
"Do you believe me now?"
The other boy's head shifted slightly but Harry was not able to see his features. "That I came here to warn you that you were going to die?"
The head turned again, this time until Harry had full view of Draco's bewildered frown. "If you've mentioned it before I must've missed it – that's the first I've heard of dying."
This was, to Harry's shock, perfectly true: whenever Harry had broached the subject of Draco being killed by his best friend Blaise Zabini, Draco would react with disbelief, forcing Harry to use the Time-Turner and try again at a more suitable time when Draco was more pliant. In the end Harry achieved not telling Draco anything, a realization which caused him pause.
"I'm probably going to anyway," Draco said quietly, turning his bloodshot gaze away and up at the ceiling.
"I mean, okay," said Harry. "Look, I think I know how this goes." Draco turned his attention back on him. "Voldemort gave you an impossible mission last night, one you will fail." Harry paused here expecting Draco to ask him how he knew he would fail but Draco's silence told him the Slytherin had already accepted the truth and his fate. "Because you failed, Voldemort wants you dead. Blaise kills you."
Draco eyed him for a long while, his reddened, slightly washed grey eyes bouncing between Harry's own eyes, searching him. "How do you know this?"
"Because I come from the future. Term already started where I come from – or when I came from. Whatever. You're hugely popular in Slytherin now and the whole school's trying to figure out why. Then three weeks into term Blaise and a couple of other Slytherins take you to the seventh floor and kill you. Blaise casts the Killing Curse on you and the other Slytherins stuff you in a cupboard in some ancient classroom. I came here to try to tell you that. Right now you're rotting in that cupboard and Blaise just recently visited to try to cover the smell up with vanilla essence, I think it was."
"Stop," Draco pleaded in a voice suggested it caused him a great deal of effort to speak. He sighed heavily, wiped his forehead and frowned up at Harry. "Where did you—How are you even coming up with all of this?"
"Listen, I have a Time-Turner I used to go back in the past. I have it in the opposite room in one of the drawers. Dumbledore does jack for you, all right? That's the truth."
"That's only natural. He only cared about you; why would he check for a Slytherin?"
"It's not because you're Slytherin, he was just preoccupied with a lot of stuff. And I—I wasn't forceful enough in getting his attention. Fudge was also demanding his time."
"So you're saying my dying is your fault."
"No! I never cast the Killing Curse on you – Blaise did. I just didn't get the message out there in a way that was believable. And Dumbledore had to take care of the Azkaban break-out disaster."
Draco stared at him with an expressionless face for a few moments before he put his hand to his forehead and gave an odd but serene smile and shook his head in what seemed a moment of realization.
"The disaster when Voldemort breaks out his Death Eaters like he said last night?" he said.
Draco continued to shake his head, still smiling, and rubbed the bulges of his closed eyes. The smile flickered before he turned back to Harry. "So am I really going to die?"
"So it's settled then." Draco rose from his bed. "I have to find a way to kill Dumbledore."
Harry's mouth fell open. He lifted himself to his haunches as well. "You're not going to. Aren't you listening?"
"I wasn't going to a second earlier when I didn't know I wasn't going to. Know that I know I'm not going to, I'm going to make sure I do."
In the time it took Harry to try to work out this parable Draco had crossed the floor over to his bookstand and was perusing the spines of the books tightly packed on it.
"Draco, you're not going to kill Dumbledore," Harry said firmly.
"He doesn't have to be prepared. He doesn't have to see me coming. I'm sure I can nick him with a Killing Curse behind his back on some random patrol of his."
"Draco," breathed Harry as he climbed off the bed. He felt short of breath and could not believe Draco was attempting to plan his mission and change his fate. "Do you understand you're not going to do it? Otherwise I wouldn't be standing here in your room right now because you'd still be alive." Draco did not reply but continued pulling books off the stand and browsing them. "Draco!"
"What do you want me to say, Harry?" Draco said quietly.
"I—I-" stuttered Harry, who was stunned by both the placid way in which Draco spoke and his use of his first name at this time. "I want you to say… I want you to say you'll stop what you're doing and go into hiding with your parents under the protection of the Order."
Draco gave a soft chortle. "Did you just make that up?"
Harry almost did not believe himself either. "Okay, I made it up – not the Order, it does exist. But the protection can exist, too, if you want it to. We'll fly over to Hogwarts and tell Dumbledore."
"It's no use. He'll find me – he'll find me and my family sooner or later. He has people everywhere, or he will at least. You heard in the meeting, they are close to toppling the Ministry. He'll be everywhere and he'll be able to find us anywhere. I have to do this."
"You're acting fuckin' crazy now, all right, mate!" Harry shouted as he snatched a book from Draco's hands. "D'you actually think—Please, tell me, what are you going to do then?" Harry asked matter-of-factly as he clutched the book he had grabbed from Draco between his folded arms.
"That's what I'm trying to figure out with these books, if you don't-"
"You think books are going to help you kill the cleverest wizard of all time?"
"I sincerely doubt he's the cleverest wizard of all time. Last time I checked Vantage Quarterly or other major magazines they only listed the richest and most influential people in the country, not the cleverest. And, like everyone else, he sleeps."
"Oh so you're going to sneak into his private quarters and kill him while he's sleeping? Wow, Draco, for an A-student that's incredibly stupid."
Draco watched Harry with his head tilted to one side as he leant on the bookstand. There was a small upward curl to one side of his lips, a half-smile, a shadow of the unfathomable and serene expression he had given Harry earlier.
"I don't see you coming up with any brilliant solutions either."
"I said you could go into hiding!"
"I said he'll still find me!"
Finally there was life in the pale body.
"The Dark Lord might not be able to see into Dumbledore's mind but I doubt the other members of this 'Order' aren't as skilled as he is! It's only a matter of time before the Dark Lord finds out who they are, reads their minds and figures out where I am!"
"I—I-" But Harry had not rebuttal to this. He had not considered that the other members of the Order of the Phoenix in all likelihood could not match Dumbledore's skills in Occlumency and that the total strength of the Order was just as likely little more than that of its head. "He won't find the other Order members," Harry countered in a slightly feeble way.
Seeing that Harry was unconvinced even by his own words, Draco turned back to the books he had pulled off the bookstand and threw them on his escritoire. Harry thought very hard and very quickly but he was out of good ideas. He finally sighed and stepped closer towards the other boy, sincerely extending a hand. "Draco, look. We'll find a way to get you out of this. Killing Dumbledore isn't an option – at least not with me. And you can't-"
"What if it is with me still?" Draco asked in a quiet but defiant tone.
Harry closed his eyes and, before he could finish counting to five, burst into speech. "IT ISN'T! It will never be! It can't be because I've seen you! You're gonna go on a sorry little drinking binge and sing to your mother about how kisses can't save you! Hush, my dragon. Don't cry so much. Morrow I promise, fun we'll have much!"
Something within Draco had flickered and frozen. There was a brief pause after Harry's rendition of the song Draco had sung when Harry had found him sitting on the cobblestone along the corridor at Hogwarts, self-pitying and giddily drunk. A pair of widened silver eyes pierced him back. But then, when Harry had prepared himself to catch the other boy before he collapsed to the floor in woeful resignation, Draco shook his head, his lips formed a thin, incredulous line and he took half a step backwards.
"I don't know where you come from or what you're playing at, but you need to leave."
Harry thought his ears had malfunctioned. "What?"
Draco moved away from him urgently and padded towards the door. "You need to go away," he said calmly. Harry's feet carried him towards the other boy while he struggled to make sense of what had just happened.
"Draco," Harry whispered, "what are you doing? What are you talking about?"
But Draco was already crossing the passage and entering the room opposite. He swept his gaze across the room before he slipped out again.
"Get your broom and your Invisibility Cloak."
"Draco, I can't leave."
"Yes you can," Draco said softly as he stopped in the middle of the hallway and folded his arms, staring at Harry with business-like expectation. "You didn't come with anything else. I can grab some rations for you for the way home."
Harry stared at the mild expression on the Slytherin's face, utterly shocked and not knowing what next to do. He could not leave like this. "Draco…"
When Draco twitched at hearing the sound of his name through Harry Potter's lips it was as though everything that had happened between the moment they laid eyes on each other for the first time since the summer began and a few minutes ago when they had lain on the bed together was reversed, as though they had never been that close.
"What are you doing…?"
"All this should never have happened. We can't be like that together. We're not meant to be friends. All of this can't be."
"I don't care about the friends part. I care about the fact that you're going to die if you keep it up!"
"You need to go."
"And you're not listening to me! How many-?"
"Because I don't have to. You can keep telling yourself your stories all you like. I just want you out of here right now," Draco said coolly.
Harry gaped in front of the Slytherin in complete shock. "Draco-" Another twitch. "-we're not talking about being friends here anymore. That's fine, you don't have to care about that. But we're talking about you dying because Voldemort gave you an impossible thing to do."
"I understand that. I'll make my own devices, like he said," Draco replied quietly, a tear glinting in one eye.
"Whatever your 'devices' are they're not going to work, Draco!" Harry begged desperately. "Please! I'm telling you, you don't succeed! Dumbledore's still alive as we speak!"
"GET OUT!" Draco boomed suddenly, startling Harry. "GET! OUT! Or I'm calling Mother!"
For a moment Harry considered reasoning further with the other boy, taking another step forward, making his expression more open and sincere. But something came over him and he burst out into a random fit, throwing his limbs in every direction. He took off into Draco's room, grabbed his Firebolt and Invisibility Cloak and, without another word and biting hard on his jaw to prevent himself from screaming wildly at the naïve species he was raging past, stomped down the passageway.
"Fine!" he bellowed from the other end of the corridor and standing before the grand staircase, unable to help himself. "See if anybody else cares about you! Your own father obviously doesn't because last night he basically just handed his only son to a vile snake he calls his master without so much as batting an eyelid! And your own mother doesn't hang around here long enough to see how stupid you've grown! Have a great life, Malfoy! See if I care! Just see!" He raced down the staircase clumsily with his Firebolt hitting the railings. In a few seconds he was out of the double doors and back in the sky, flying somewhere he had not yet figured out.
Why should he care so much for someone who clearly did not care as much for himself? Someone so stupidly and unnecessarily naïve that he allowed his fear to consume him and seal his fate when it did not have to? When he had his ready-made hero standing in front of him, waiting to save him? The very hero he was committed to creating in every question he asked Harry, in every awed utterance of "Wow, Harry, you're amazing!"
Harry, as amazing as he was, did not care anymore. He did not care about someone who was beyond reason, piece of proof after piece of proof. Draco Malfoy was a mere student at Hogwarts School in his fifth year. He was no special boy, not bound to a legend that would decide the fate of the entire Wizarding world. He was no one important, just a privileged heir-apparent to a fortune. Just the last male of an old family. A pureblood out of many. His death was but remote. The school and the parents will weep. The headmaster and possibly the Minister will say a few solemn words like those spoken two months ago after Cedric's death. And life, as ever, will persist.
CALLS FOR DUMBLEDORE'S RESIGNATION MOUNT
As Hogwarts death toll climbs, many are demanding the famed headmaster step down
LONDON – THE MURDER of the sixth student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, fourth-year Gryffindor Anthony Rathbone, has sparked questions about Dumbledore's fitness to run the prestigious school.
Head of the Department of Law Enforcement Auror Caput Aubrey E. Unterhalter is the latest voice but the first high-profile figure to join the chorus clamouring for the beleaguered headmaster to step down.
"Dumbledore has proved himself incompetent in dealing with the urgent situation at Hogwarts. It's time he retired after a long and illustrious career," Unterhalter said at a press conference at the Ministry of Magic yesterday afternoon. Among other reasons he listed as part of his official recommendation to the Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge to begin the process of reviewing Dumbledore's office, Unterhalter said that Dumbledore was, according to his own admission, made promptly aware of the first murder – that of entrepreneur and advertising mogul Lucius Malfoy's son Draco Malfoy – and did not act immediately was the most shocking and damning.
Unterhalter noted that his words may not be in line with popular sentiment, particularly among middle-agers and the older demographic that attended Hogwarts during Dumbledore's tenure after his ascent from Transfiguration professorship. But he urged the public to consider "the facts laid bare before them and make up their minds reasonably".
"The current headmaster has been on a downward spiral for a period now and shows no sign of picking up," Unterhalter concluded. "He's exhausted the patience of my Department and I'm certain of the majority of the nation, or at least those who lost children under his watch."
The official recommendation from the HOD of Level Two forces the Minister to act and break his silence. Minister Fudge, who has remained mum about Dumbledore's handling of the murders at his school, will publicly decide whether he dismisses the recommendation – with good reason – or hands it over to the Board of Governors, the body that oversees the running of Hogwarts.
The latest murder is the sixth in as many days at the troubled school, with a murder happening each day. Dumbledore has called "misguided" attempts by commentators to draw patterns in the killings based on the fact that a murder has occurred every day, that four out of the six victims were Gryffindors and that the crimes were perpetrated by the same group of Slytherin referring to themselves as the Black Snakes, according to some Hogwarts students. Adding to Dumbledore's woes are rumours circulating at the school that Harry Potter is missing. Dumbledore denies this.
Several Hogwarts students from whom the London Courier managed to glean comment in spite of Dumbledore's sincere efforts to restrict access to his school are adamant the curse-happy gang is specifically targeting Gryffindors because of the age-old rivalry between the two Houses. Dumbledore has also refuted this and insisted the murder were likely arbitrary, adding that reducing the deaths of the fallen students to mere casualties of a petty rivalry between Houses was insulting to their memory and their parents.
Dumbledore also warned the mediaagainst calling the murderous Slytherins 'Death Eaters,' 'neo-Death Eaters,' 'junior Death Eaters,' 'Death Eater wannabees' or 'Death Eaters-in-training' as that "would only beatify them" if their extreme ambitions are indeed to join the ranks of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. The Daily Prophet yet again slammed Dumbledore for continuing to spread "subversive rumours" that the Dark leader of the terrorist group has returned to life. And the paper has almost exclusively referred to the Slytherin gang as 'neo-Death Eaters,' suggesting that the murderers are not attempting to earn their way into the Death Eater ranks but are merely belatedly posturing in a post-Dark Lord era and trying to capture the Death Eaters' terrible mystique. The Daily Prophet has had close leanings to the Ministry in recent years.
Two weeks ago on September 23rd twelve convicted Death Eaters escaped from Azkaban Prison. There has been no spike in crimes for the week ending October 3rd. The Courier has exclusively established that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named intends to infiltrate the Ministry in order to use it as part of his machinery to impose his regime.
Harry dropped the paper on the bed and stared between his knees at the morning sky outside the window of his decrepit room. The spires and rooftops of several stores jutted in from the bottom edge of its frame. There was a soft ring of bustling noise in his ears from the rowdy business Tom was conducting downstairs at the Leaky Cauldron. The owner, with whom he was familiar and whom he told the grey colour on his skin was expired Floo powder upon the man's enquiry, was kind enough to agree to let him pay later for his room (not that Tom would have had any space for his cash in his cash register, which had looked unusually full).
After reading his paper Harry was not amazed any longer why he had not fielded questions about why he was not at school. Tom had told him that he was not the only Hogwarts student rooming at the Leaky Cauldron and that many of his schoolmates were staying just for a few hours or a night until their parents fetched them. Business was booming – he was only too glad to give Harry free board Harry was tempted to knock on doors and see if he recognized some of the students.
A few minutes ago he had turned the hourglasses again after he had squeezed himself into the closet of the same room and returned to his original timeline. In spite of this his instincts were to keep his footprints as small as possible and had decided against seeking out other students.
It was so enormously refreshing to be in the right time that he had not known how much. He had felt the insidious grip on his insides lift instantly. He had not been aware that he had been labouring under a silent, oppressive force. Its most obvious sign of departure was the retreating sea of grey on his skin. In the cloudy mirror he had found in a ludicrous location at the back of the closet he had noticed that his forehead was mostly back to normal, with the greying approaching his hairline. And after half an hour his hands and wrists, which had been completely grey, had cleared. Even now he saw the minute edge of his grey complexion recede very slowly from his wrists.
But as relieved as he was, the reversing of the phenomenon proved that its existence was a consequence of time-travelling, a deeply troubling thought when Harry knew, in the deepest place of his soul, in his heart of hearts, despite his boiling anger, he was going back to try to save Draco again: he was burdened with the knowledge of Draco's fate and the knowledge that he had the means to change it. His conscience would allow him no rest if he looked the other way. And his heart would break.
Things in his original timeline were much worse than he anticipated. He almost wished he had picked up a copy of the Daily Prophet, which he could trust, as the London Courier implied, to be sparing with the truth and soften the blow. Harry was shocked so many more murders had taken place after that of Draco. Were the perpetrators the same students who murdered Draco? Were Blaise Zabini and his company of Slytherins the Black Snakes? If they were, surely Draco would have known that his best friend was part of it. But then Harry reminded himself that Zabini and Draco had grown apart during term as more sycophantic Slytherins flocked around the latter. Not to mention that he had not seen much of Pansy Parkinson, Crabbe and Goyle either. Zabini would have had no reason at all to tell Draco he had joined some evil gang if he had.
The only good thing to come out of the article was that he now knew Dumbledore had not resigned as he had told Harry he would the last time they spoke. Hogwarts, Harry believed, would have been in much worse shape. It needed Dumbledore. Dumbledore must have known this.
Harry glanced at the screaming headline on the newspaper again. Tom had handed it to him, saying it was a new paper barely a week old trying to make out a name for itself by flooding the main centres of business, including Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, with free copies. As he had not done so because he had stopped at the first page, which was hard to miss, Harry opened the paper and casually browsed the rest of it.
For one thing, the articles were much meatier than those he would normally find in the Daily Prophet (Harry had a sudden flashback of Uncle Vernon one day having a fit over a copy ofthe Independent. He all but tore the newspaper apart as he stomped into the kitchen in complete silence and returned empty-handed to his spot on the couch in front of the television box. Before the mood settled again and Harry resumed surreptitiously watching TV from the top of the stairs, Uncle Vernon completely unabashedly declared he had thrown the paper out not because he despised lengthy, analytical, in-depth reading but that the paper had grown too – at this point he waved his hand wildly above his head with a childish sneer on his face – and sinfully unpatriotic in its attempt to emulate the New York Times). For another, the paper had basically taken for a fact Voldemort had returned. Just that made Harry extremely happy with the paper.
That was, however, before he caught sight of Rita Skeeter's name further back in the paper in the lifestyle section. He was so shocked to see the name he had to page back to the front and check the name of the paper again. His mouth fell open. The fact that she did not make it as a proper news journalist on a newly established and seemingly high quality paper but relegated to near that part where one found crossword puzzles and columns like "Agony Aunt" did not elate Harry when he saw her biting headline: "Tired of kings and castles? Maybe you're French," it read, with the same brand of tart, incisive journalism in which Skeeter specialized and which burned Harry.
He skimmed through the article with half a mind and gathered, as he had suspected, it was basically an advertorial for Beauxbatons Academy of Magic for parents who were fed up with fearing the worst for their children every other year at Hogwarts (which Harry grudgingly admitted was true, recalling the Basilisk attack in his second year, the Dementors in his third because it was believed a mass murderer Sirius Black was hanging around Hogwarts, and Cedric's murder in his fourth).
Skeeter spared no compliments for the French school. She described it as "that magazine all women love to look at," full of gorgeous men – boys in this case – for potential sons- and daughters-in-law with good genes. And she completely downplayed the fact that it was a school that taught in French. According to her, "some" of the subjects were offered in both English and French.
Harry flung the paper across the room. The article was so infuriating Rita Skeeter must have done something right. He knew it was unkind of him to wish continued unemployment on someone, but he still felt some people deserved it more than others.
He climbed off his bed, crossed the room and looked out over Diagon Alley. The face of the handsome, slant-eyed Italian still lingered in Harry's mind, despite Skeeter's article. All of this was Blaise Zabini's fault. He was furious with Draco because of Blaise Zabini. Dumbledore was getting close to being sacked because of Blaise Zabini. Draco was dead because of Blaise Zabini. The expression on the Slytherin's face when Harry caught him in the classroom in which they had concealed Draco's body, illuminated by the narrow beam of light from his wand, refused to leave him. And now his mind was coming up with all sorts of fantastical images: Zabini posing like an anime villain in front of group of comically smirking Slytherins sporting a cool haircut and uniquely wearing a robe, which clearly signified he was the leader, and showing off the Dark Mark below his tanned wrist.
He had to get out of there; the room was too small. He felt alone. He had a sudden urge to be with Ron and Hermione. The very thought of them sent a cold wave of longing through his chest. They would have been so great on his time trip. They could all have deliberated on what to write in the next missive to Draco from the room opposite him, snuck into the kitchen and grabbed some food instead of having the uninspired idea of making Draco ask for the food from his attendant house-elf. They could have invisibly explored the manor and the country around it. They could have all had the opportunity to become Draco's friends and share in in the beauty of his wit and his moments of awe as his brilliant silver eyes lit up and his smirks and his flowing white hair and his beautiful feet.
You're being disgusting now, Harry.
Yes, perhaps he would not have felt the feelings he had felt being around Draco had Ron and Hermione been as well.
And perhaps with the help of his friends he would have done a much better job at Malfoy Manor.
But perhaps he should not simply dismiss the laughably comic images of Blaise Zabini in his head. Perhaps he should listen to his mind: perhaps the answer was Blaise Zabini indeed. Perhaps he should work around Draco. Perhaps he had tried to convince the wrong person. Draco had not heeded his timely warning and would continue as he had before he was killed. Perhaps the only way for Harry to save him was to convince Blaise not to kill him. Or, if that did not work, remove him before he got rid of Draco.
Harry watched the bustling narrow street winding through the tightly packed shops. He journeyed downstairs and explored them. He had left the Leaky Cauldron with no money in his pockets since Hagrid had his key to his Gringotts vault, but to his great surprise he returned with bags full of candy in which he could fit two Quaffles each: the storeowners had been so happy to see him that most of them had let him shop for free. "Don't blame you for ditching that hell hole there, son," Florean Fortesque said breezily to him as he handed him his favourite Berry Blizzard cone. "I'da high-tailed it myself if I saw kids snuffin' it around me too." And it was the first time he had heard the term the "Chosen One" spoken in the same kind of whispers in which he had heard people call him the Boy Who Lived in the Leaky Cauldron four years ago.
If he were honest with himself, the desperate plea for him to save them in their acts of generosity and in their beaming faces did not renew the feeling of impotent rage he usually felt, but rather saddened him a great deal. They all knew Voldemort had returned. They were not blind to the signs: the deaths all over again, the mass breakout at Azkaban, an agitated Ministry of Magic…
Harry emptied the bags on his bed and attacked the small mountain of bright packaging one candy at a time until the square patch of sunlight on the wooden floor glowed at its brightest, heralding the afternoon. He tried his hand at the crossword puzzle in the London Courier and just before the boredom turned fatal caved and in spite of his misgivings headed back to the streets and stopped by Fred and George at their joke shop, which he had made a point of foregoing in his first trip.
"Hey, Fred, George," said Harry as he approached the pay counter, behind which stood George, manning the till. Fred on the other end was reaching for some item at which a boy of about six years old was pointing with a stubby, purple-stained finger, which he thrust back into his small packet of powder candy. Harry hoped for the boy's sake he had not bought it from Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes. He was impressed by how much business the twins were having.
Fred seemed to have recognized his voice because he jerked and the contraption he had been pulling off the shelve fell on his head before there was a loud explosion. He disappeared behind a wall of exploding shiny colours and noise while his twin brother gaped wordlessly at Harry.
"Merlin's foreskin. Is that you, Harry?" George whispered.
"Yup. Harry," replied Harry with a heavy sigh, his words weighed down by the knowledge of what he needed to do.
"Fred, are you seeing this?" gasped George.
"I thought I did a second ago," said a distance voice before Harry caught a hand valiantly waving through the colourful dust to clear it. When Fred finally emerged, all the colours on him, including the colour of his hair and his complexion, had inverted: he was now blue complexioned with a slight wash of white. "Sorry, big man, we're out of stock on those, I'm afraid," Fred trilled to the boy, who was now rolling on the floor in stitches and whose mother was trying to pick him up and persuade him to look at other, less violent toys. "Hiya, Harry!" Fred rushed over the counter and grabbed Harry's hand. He looked around Harry as if expecting Ron and Hermione to be standing behind him. "Where's the rest of the gang?"
"Still at Hogwarts," Harry answered with a certain amount of guilt. He was uncertain why he felt guilty until he remembered that while he was out here relatively safer, Ron was still at Hogwarts and the media were having a field day over the controversies springing from there. More than ever before the school was a gift that kept on giving. As George spoke about how good it was to see him, a small lump was forming in Harry's throat. Even though it looked like students were leaving Hogwarts in droves, he knew Ron and Hermione would hang around until he returned to them and could be risking their lives doing so.
"Yeah, good to see you, mate," Fred said as he slapped Harry's shoulder in a sadly cheerful way.
"So how's business?" Harry asked, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
Fred and George simultaneously gestured broadly at the milling store with a pair of huge grins. Harry laughed. He also noticed the chubby twins' wider midsections.
"D'you see us complaining?" Fred said in a smirking voice. "Depression is good for business. Everybody's fretting about You-Know-Who and stuff and Diagon Alley and us score!"
"I reckon he should stick around more often and help out small businesses and start-ups," George suggested with political sagacity. "Who wants to think about the next kin they're going to miss when they can play…" He reached around Harry and picked up a random package from the stack decorating the counter. "…Quest Lore!"
"Kidding," Fred pointed out when he noticed Harry's plastic smile. "Mostly, at least. I'm sure Ron and Hermione know what they're doing… I guess we shouldn't be asking you why you aren't at Hogwarts like them."
Harry looked away and watched another, older boy shake a product he had taken off a shelve. Next thing an army of fur balls were engulfing him as his friends tried to attack them with spells. "I'd rather not explain."
Fred and George nodded. "Is it something to do with the Order?" George asked.
"Yeah," Harry lied. The least he could do was give the twins the impression he was doing something worthwhile towards making Hogwarts safer.
"Be careful, Harry," Fred said.
"Yeah," Harry said shortly. "D'you mind if I, um, take a couple of things on credit?"
"Sure. Knock yourself out! You're family!" the twins chorused.
"Thanks. Oh, and, do you by any chance know if there's a way I can get to Hogsmeade from here?"
The twins' expressions darkened before their lips slowly lengthened up their faces in a pair of mischievous smirks.
"Something tells me he already knew the answer to that," George muttered.
"We might just yet adopt him for ourselves, Freddy."
"There's a shop," Fred began with a grand twinkle in his eye, "if you go upstream and turn left on Court that used to sell the kind of stuff we do before the owner realized he was no competition for us and started peddling food spells. The sorry bugger, I almost feel sorry for him sometimes if I let myself. Before the cackling horde of housewives that now hang around there-"
"With due respect to our mother, hem hem," George interjected.
"-That's right. He used to attract customers of our age. Before we came along he was the only game in the Alley, and his toys were quite uninspired. We had to scout the competition obviously and you can't just open a shop packed with merchandise. Great inventions take time… we might have nicked some of his stuff, wholesale, to fill up the store. I'd like to point out that we gradually filled up these shelves with stuff from our own pure genius, thank you very much-"
"To the point, Fred," George urged.
"Er, right. So the shop is called Wrigley's Meal-in-a-Jar. Argh, now I really do feel bad. His name was so perfect for a joke shop: Wrigley's Fun Works. And he's such a sweet fellow… I mean, George, we basically made the guy go from joke shop to selling jars of potion that spring into ready-made meals like take-away…"
Fred's voice trailed off and George turned thoughtful as well. Harry had an inkling the twins were contemplating stealing from Mr Wrigley again.
George was first to snap out of his reverie. "Yeah. So, Hogwartans used to want to come to his shop for the stuff they couldn't find at Zonko's during their Hogsmeade weekend. So somehow he figured out a way to convince Zonko's to make some kind of portal between them and another, competing joke shop – like the same thing between Hogwarts and Honeydukes. Mental, right? Why would Zonko's do that? We figured Wriggly over there either Imperioed the Zonko's chaps or makes his shop look like some bland house-and-home, draperies-slash-event gowns and robes shop or whatever every time Zonko comes over. Anyway, so yeah, you usually find a kid or two our age walking in and out of there. Remember, up the street, turn left, Wrigley's Meal-in-a-Jar. Ask if you can use the toilet."
"Um, right. Thanks," said Harry vaguely; he had forgotten what he had asked in the first place. He scoured the joke shop for a good while before he returned to the pay counter. At this point he remembered he did not have to pay, shook his head and made a ceremony of leaving the shop so the twins had ample opportunity to stop him if they had changed their minds about giving him their products free of charge. He returned to the Leaky Cauldron, where, thanks to some of his haul from the twins' shop, the hours went by faster than those he had spent looking out the window and filling in the crossword puzzle.
When the digits on his wristwatch read "17:02" he dumped the rest of his candy, the toys and the newspaper in a plastic bag, threw his Invisibility Cloak over his neck, grabbed his Firebolt, went downstairs, gave his thanks to Tom and left the Leaky Cauldron. In the dimming sunlight he walked up the street, took a left on Court Avenue and continue down the lane, scanning the name of every shop he came across in whatever creative way it was presented: painted letters on a window, a sign hanging from above the shop, or a strip of golden letters grandly perched above the front of the store.
The store he was looking for was thankfully unmistakable – unmistakable in its drab window display of jars of powder in every conceivable colour and combination thereof. And indeed when he entered, its customer base seemed to comprise middle-aged, rather motherly looking women. There was a small spattering of men, usually attached to their wives. As instructed he kindly asked to use the bathroom and the owner lazily pointed him towards the back of the shop. A few minutes later he was sneaking out of the storeroom of Zonko's Joke Shop under his Invisibility Cloak. Fortunately Harry had arrived when the very last few customers were checking out at the counter. Quietly under his Cloak he snuck out of the door and headed for Honeydukes.
It, unfortunately, was closed and Harry had to wait almost three quarters of an hour before the street cleared. Of all shops, a store selling candy should be the shop to close the latest, he thought irritably. "Alohamora," he whispered and slipped inside, locking the door. He headed to the storeroom and seconds later emerged on the third floor of Hogwarts. It was entirely empty but he still remained under his Cloak and headed for a less trafficked floor. On the sixth floor he found an unused classroom quite easily and entered its storeroom. He leant his broom against a corner, dropped the plastic bag and pulled the Time-Turner from his pocket.
Hearing his breath more audibly in the small dimness of the room, he pulled out his wand from underneath his shirt, muttered, "Lumos," held it between his teeth and angled it down at the three linked hourglasses. After a whole minute's careful thought he turned one hourglass after the other: first the largest one in the middle, which operated on the order of days, then the rightmost one, which was for hours, and finally the smallest one so he could arrive exactly when he wanted, the first day of school, to the minute.
"Back again in this crumbling rock for another year," Pansy sighed. She was lying on Draco's four-poster bed in the fifth-year boys' dormitory, holding the massive forehead that gave her her scrunched-up, pug-like face. Tight golden-blonde ringlets shot out above her hands.
"Durmstrang would've been great," Draco muttered wishfully as he leant against his pillow. Blaise sat on the edge of the bed between him and Pansy. It was a few minutes after the Start-of-Term Feast and students were hanging around either in the common room or their dormitories. There was no homework to complete, hence Harry could hear the soft buzz of noise in the common room from inside Draco's dormitory.
"You say the same thing every year, Draco," Blaise drawled, rolling his eyes to the ceiling as a soft and practiced smirk played on his lips. It stayed there for nearly the entire time he, Draco and Pansy – and occasionally Crabbe and Goyle – chatted. Harry had countered the hours.
Harry once again felt childish in his astonishment that neither speaker had brought up any topic about their mischievous or even evil plans for the year – a brainstorming session at the top of the term on possible pranks and new ways to embarrass people or get them in trouble. The three of them were, again naively astonishingly to Harry, quite normal. Draco interacted with his friends as Harry would with Ron and Hermione. And occasionally Pansy or Zabini would say something that amused Draco, who would give them the sweetest, purest, most honest smile Harry had thought Draco had given and would give only him. But it was nothing that special.
After what seemed a long time, the stream of students entering and exiting the dormitory began to slow until the room remained with only the students who were supposed to be there. Harry established they were Draco, Blaise, Crabbe, Goyle and another boy Crabbe had called Nott but to whom neither Zabini nor Draco bothered to speak. Draco had received a rather high number of visits, the majority of which were in congratulatory tones. The casual way in which the visitors spoke about killing Dumbledore told Harry either that these were kids who did not know what they were really talking about, or Harry had woefully underestimated Slytherins. He was inclined to believe in the former. Did they really think a mere teenage student was capable of murdering Albus Dumbledore?
Pansy finally left the boys' dormitory, Blaise returned to his bed and Draco began preparing for sleep. Crabbe and Goyle were playing a board game on Goyle's bed while Nott was engrossed in some magazine.
"Merlin, is this what it's gonna be like from now?" Blaise moaned, stretching and opening his covers before sitting on his bed again. "Before the first week is out your head'll be so big you'll barely get it through the door. Oi, you two, it's lights out," he said to Draco's cronies.
"Don't worry, I won't let all the attention get to my head," Draco assured him with a snort, facing Blaise from his own bed. That's exactly what you do, thought Harry, appalled. "Try not to be jealous if you can." Blaise snorted. "I'd gladly change places with you."
There was a brief pause before either of them spoke.
"It's kinda—I mean, it's a big ask, huh?" Blaise finally said.
Draco snorted again as he stared through Blaise in the distance. "Kinda."
They then stripped off all of their clothes. Before Harry could even catch another breath a throbbing wave of lust went through his body and lingered at his groin as his eyes bounced between a naked Zabini and Draco slipping into their sheets, his mind freezing the moment just before Draco's bum disappeared into his covers, the candlelight casting a slice of shadow of the left bum cheek onto the right one. So brief… It was so unannounced it was downright rude. Just cruel. Crabbe's and Goyle's states of nudity shortly after were pure horror. A minute later when everyone was inside their curtains Nott, too, stripped down to nothing, closed his curtains and put out his candle.
Was sleeping naked a practice among Slytherins? Or purebloods?
This was going to be a long mission.