A/N: Ahem. This chapter became ridiculously long. I even had to move a huge scene over to the next one. I considered splitting it in two, but that's not where I want to leave you at, dear reader. And you deserve a treat ;). It's not beta-read, so proceed at your own risk…

Chapter warning: some male/female action ahead. In case you require a bit of reassurance: as I mentioned before, any parings in this fic concerning Harry are non-permanent - they are plot twists meant to push the character and his struggles forward. The core of this story is and will always be the interaction between Harry and Voldemort (all right, and a couple of other delicious characters in Rowling's universe).

Chapter 26

Skeeter was surprisingly pleasant during Harry's interview, which she held in a brightly-lit office of the Daily Prophet building. There was no Quick-Quotes-Quill in sight.

She was still Rita though, which meant she had gone straight for the drama: was he still grieving Ginny? And would he say that they had been star-crossed lovers from the start? It took him quite a bit of effort to keep his mouth in check but he did, aware of Watanabe watching them nearby.

When the owls flew in the next day at breakfast, he felt jittery all the same.

Malfoy was in a foul mood. He followed him up to the Great Hall and grumbling at Harry to stick with the Slytherin table this time. He wasn't aware that anyone actually cared where he sat, but he didn't comment – Ron was out on grounds duty anyway.

He snagged the Daily Prophet from Draco's owl the moment its wings touched the table, browsing towards the third page.

Reinventing the hero, it said. Harry Potter starts Magical Rights Foundation.

Harry skimmed the introduction, restraining the frown that wanted to escape. If his own thoughts were still not entirely clear, well, Rita Skeeter was there to clarify his goals for him and her many readers.

All magical blood was precious, he was quoted as saying, be it human or creature. That was alright, but then she explained in his voice that the precious 'true blood' had to be protected from Muggle intrusion. It was the old blood craze, except with a dash of Muggleborn rights. He closed the paper, making sure his face was calm.

She knew him too well: it sounded like something he could say, alright. He noticed he was shaking a little, and quickly pushed his elbows down on the bench to quell the movement. He felt strangely numb. Was it deliberate, or did she really believe he felt that way now?

Malfoy noticed something and smirked. He tugged the paper close. When he caught Harry's eyes his own were shining with repressed glee. "Not what you were expecting?"

"Shut up Malfoy," Harry grumbled, pushing away from the bench. As far as his stomach was concerned, he was finished.

"Wait a second," Malfoy sputtered, dropping his spoon. "I'm not done yet." Harry sent him what he hoped was a doubtful look. Neville came up to their part of the table then, folded pancake in hand, gesturing towards the doors. Harry followed, glad to get out.

"You're not his guard, Longbottom," Draco sneered after them. Daphne covered a grin, while Pansy bend towards Draco to whisper something in his ear.

"Got it, Malfoy," Neville threw back.

The two of them walked the grounds without a destination in mind. A cold wind immediately cut into their cloak-less shirts and whipped at their ties. He was still edgy.

After a while he felt Neville's gaze.

"You're not happy about it."

Harry studied the razor-like outline of green that marked the edge of the Forbidden Forest. He wondered for moment if Rita was allowed to use her animagus form now. "The way Skeeter describes it - that's not what I want to do. She's twisted my words."

There was a dusty betrayal at the back of his tongue, but it had nothing to do with the reporter. He wondered how he could have failed to see the trap that Watanabe had lured him into. Had he learned nothing, he thought as he clenched his wand through his clothes.

These people did nothing for free. He remembered Watanabe telling him it was perfectly understandable to want to stop the torture: it wouldn't even contradict Voldemort's plans for him. How could he have bought into that?

Near Hagrid's hut a few untended pumpkins braved their way through the soil. They walked passed it in silence – no Fangs and no Hagrid to greet them.

Watanabe expected him to feel honoured, surely. And if his own words were being stretched until they fit right into the regime's mould, that was the way of things now, wasn't it? More importantly, was he that obvious to figure out?

Neville swallowed a bite of pancake to say: "Just forget about that article. It's your Foundation, you get to decide what to make of it."

Harry shook his head. He was strangely glad that Neville could still be so hopeful. "You've read it. I'm just there as a puppet, to say what they want me to say." He huffed. "At least the whole thing makes sense now."

Neville frowned at him. Harry went on, gesturing towards the castle: "They were waiting for me to ask for something, like equal rights for Muggleborns, just so they can twist it for their own ends." He chuckled, although nothing about this was even remotely funny. "And for a little while I bought into it."

"I'm not sure," Neville said thoughtfully with a shake of his head. "Perhaps they are offering you a way to get involved, and this is just how they make it look from the outside: some kind of pureblood nonsense."

Harry shrugged. They resumed walking along the forest edge.

"You're still called the Chosen One you know." He frowned. "Again, I should say. Ever since you returned from the hospital."

Harry threw him an incredulous look.

"Dunno how that happened," Neville went on with a shrug, sounding stubborn now.

Harry let his hands drift along the bark of the first row of trees. "A name means nothing. I think I've proven that by now."

"That's not true. Everyone sees you're free to do what you want, as much as we're allowed to do anything at least. And… Riddle hasn't exactly gone out of his way to condemn you or anything."

"Yes, everyone is suddenly dying to please him."

Neville came to a halt to study a white-flowered plant. He rubbed a stem carefully to smell the aroma, then resumed pace. "We're seventeen this year. That's an important age in our world. Our magic will be nearly mature, we'll decide on our profession." He went on in a murmur: "It's not as exiting now, but I think a lot of doors will open for you, Harry."

He blinked hard, struggling with a reply. It was hard to believe that Neville of all people could be so optimistic.

"McGonagall thinks you'll be helping in negotiations with the Order and the rebels at some point." Neville looked up at the sky then, shivering. "Rain's coming."

Yes, I'm sure we'll be fine Death Eaters when the time comes, Harry thought.

Neville bit his lip in the silence. "I want to understand where they´re coming from, you know? Why is this man the answer for so many witches and wizards. I've been asking my gran how things were before the ministry barred a lot of magic – the advanced stuff that's not practiced with wands. And Riddle, he's offering the purebloods back their rituals, their… heritage."

Harry watched him closely. His friend was saying these things – spewing these half-truths – because he was just trying to accept the new reality, where his parent's torturer was now probably heading the Dark Lord's army. He didn't need Harry telling him that Voldemort could shit lies by the dozen.

Neville's gaze drifted back to a nearby rosebush. "It's a kind freedom, I think, that he gives them. Freedom to celebrate magic, not hide it."

The first raindrops started to fall. Not a day for flying. Harry cast an impermeable charm over the both of them. As if reading his thoughts, Neville turned back towards the castle and quickened pace. They ran the last stretch of open ground through the downpour.

Back inside they came to a stop in the entrance hall. It was empty of students. He wondered where Ron was at. Probably hiding from the storm in one of the greenhouses.

"I haven't seen you at the junior meetings, did you manage to get out of them?" he said to change the subject.

After a beat Neville replied: "I asked Snape if I could help out in the greenhouses instead. Since I'll be assisting Professor Terrance with Herbology classes, I figured she could be my mentor for this year. I hope she'll keep me on as a trainee. That way I could stay at Hogwarts, keep an eye on things."

Harry clasped his friend's arm. "That sounds great, Neville."

Neville pulled his wand. A wind pushed out, warming their spot in the hall.

"Thanks," Harry said, then lowered his voice to mutter: "I won't go through with this foundation nonsense, that's for sure. Voldemort can find himself another figurehead."

Neville's face twitched a little. "Perhaps you shouldn't say the name," he whispered.

Harry felt his lips twitch. "Never thought you'd say that."

"No really, if you do, the Snatchers will come to take you to court."

"Let them," he murmured, studying the great hall doors, one of which stood open. As much as it was pouring out there, he didn't want to leave the entrance hall, didn't want to see the faces of his classmates and hear their questions or taunts because of the article. The whole day was a nightmare: he had a junior meeting until three and Dark Arts training with Snape at five. He raised his brows. "You've just been convincing me that I'm free to do whatever I want, right?"

He realised his thoughts were his own, which hadn't really happened since, well, since Voldemort had fucked up the candy-floss spell, which had somehow fused together his and Tom's consciousness, or whatever. His anger at Voldemort and Watanabe was his own, he was sure. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes to release it slowly.

"Do you want me to go with you?"

He smiled. Shook his head. "No that's alright."

He'd better go before he'd make a late entrance.

"Oh before I forget," Neville looked around, but the space was completely empty, with only the sound of the rain intruding. His smile was mischievous. "We're having a party. You should come."

'Oh?" Harry whispered back with a smirk.

"Yeah," Neville bend towards him - he'd gotten taller – to say: "Next Saturday, in the Room. You know which one."

The feeling of lightness in his chest vanished. "I don't know Neville, shouldn't you keep the Room a secret? He sometimes… reads my mind," he finished carefully.

To his surprise Neville just wagged his brows. "All the better. He'll see it's nothing for him to worry about – just a bunch of students having a good time."

Harry felt his cheeks grow warm for no reason at all. He bit his lips before they could burst into an all-out grin. "Wicked."

888

Snape's assignment was waiting on his desk on Saturday when he came back from his weekly inspection of the grounds. His plants were enjoying a good rain after a dry week. Leaving his cloak to dry near the fire he sat down, taking a moment to enjoy the dark and quiet.

His lip curled thinking back on Weasley's attitude that morning when the boy plodded through his greenhouse chores: jaw clenched, gaze fixed into a permanent scowl. He'd have thought the importance of the work – harvesting potion ingredients for the hospital wing – would temper the boy's wilfulness. But Weasley was similar to Potter in that regard. Longbottom on the other hand showed some promise overseeing the group of Muggleborns and so-called blood-traitors. Being a pureblood, Longbottom was exempt from manual labour, but he didn't get lazy like some of the Slytherins did: he now had an informal job as assistant to Sprout's replacement – whatever her name was.

His eyes caught the length of the scroll in front of him. The less savoury his Lord's business, the more tidy the paperwork. Snape waved the flames in the hearth higher and set to reading the transcript of the first and second interview. They were conducted by Mulciber before he had the sense to escalate to his superiors.

8:20 pm. Suspect treated with Coercive Concoction. Starts to vomit. Repeated with same results.

He wasn't a complete fools at least.

8:32 pm. Suspect pressed with threats of physical harm, no response.

8:47 pm. Imperio resisted, Crucio yields no result. Suspect faints. Go figure, Snape thought.

9:06 pm. Suspect Ennervated. Questioner takes five.

Reading further into the second interview, Snape was starting to dread the identity of the tortured soul. A member of the Order, the Dark Lord had said, and had there been a glint of anticipation in those devilish eyes?

Voldemort knew well his passion for torturous concoctions, which along with their shared interest in spell craft had fostered a sense of camaraderie between them over the years. It had the added benefit of keeping him above suspicion despite his scarce use of the Dark Arts. Since he couldn't risk triggering the man's paranoia, he had continued their analytic exchanges, even after Albus had granted him clemency – although his enthusiasm for the subject was somewhat dampened by the image of Lily's dead body fresh in his mind.

He blinked.

This guest must be a gift – his Lord's gift to him for services rendered.

888

Lucius stood to walk over to a windowsill framed with peacock drawings. A later addition to the interior, Snape figured – it couldn't have been earlier than the 19th century.

During the course of their luncheon they'd gone over Draco´s preparation for N.E.W.T.S, the continuing efforts to retrieve the artefacts removed from the Department of Mysteries, and the performance of the seventh year 'Young Bloods' – the new name for the soon-to-be junior Death Eaters.

He'd rather they remain nameless, except that the Dark Lord had suggested it, and it meant that Snape could gleefully turn down Slughorn's horrid suggestion of 'Excellentia'. Meanwhile the Death Eaters had been restyled the 'Knights of Walpurgis' – less aggressive, more wizarding tradition. A dusty title fifty years ago. Snape sometimes wished he could laugh about these things.

Lucius dropped his arm, shaking his head. "I am in need of some advice. There is a... traitor among my diplomatic team. He or she has left no trace."

It was a rare thing to see the man's posture unravelling. Snape scanned his face for subterfuge, but didn't find any yet.

"You will agree I cannot let this stand."

The duck had turned cold. Snape put his utensils away and took a sip of his wine – beverages were standard fare at the Malfoy's from eleven o'clock onwards. "Are you sure there is no other explanation?"

"Quite," Lucius insisted. He looked to be resisting the urge to fidget under his bland scrutiny. Snape couldn't be bothered to feel pity for Malfoy's unfortunate track record where the Department of Mysteries was concerned. He felt a ghostly twinge as he recalled Voldemort's anger that night.

Lucius threw his head back, gesturing with his wine glass: "I don't have the time to flush them out myself."

"And your current list of suspects for this… false intelligence?" He didn't bother to hide his disdain.

Lucius quirked a smile though, used to his barbs. He strolled back to the table. "I'd rather you tell me."

Apparently he was seen as trustworthy, or Lucius wanted him to think so. He filed this away for later study.

"I'm busy Lucius, in case it slipped your mind. Put someone else on the task."

"Ah. But this is just the thing for you, Severus."

"And you imagine I have time to spare?"

Lucius was silent for a beat, studying him. "Perhaps no longer. Your name is carrying weight now."

"I'll be sure to ask for a raise," he drawled to distract himself from the absurd pleasure flitting through him at those words.

Malfoy well-groomed eyebrows climbed upwards. "Don't be so modest, Severus. You and I both know Hogwarts is his pet project. You have earned the title."

It was true that Tom Riddle was showing a disconcerting amount of interest in the curriculum.

He was saved from answering by the doorbell. He glanced at the clock: their guest had arrived.

"Speaking of those skills…" Malfoy stayed unmoving, presumably letting the elf take care of guiding said person to the dungeons.

Snape swung back what was left of his wine and stood, padding his coat and feeling the bottles inside. "I will contact you if I find something," he conceded coolly.

Lucius raised his glass by way of reply.

Snape took his time getting to the lower level. Downstairs the air was cold and damp. One guard stood at attention, consuming a cigarette of all things, eyes tracking his form.

As he stepped into the dungeon cell he waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. There was a gleam of metal where chains hung at intervals on the wall caught the light of the chandeliers. Even the floor had a shine to it. The new elf here was either very grateful, or very afraid of their employer.

He sat down in the bolted chair opposite the youthful, dark-skinned prisoner, who didn't look up yet. A sheen of sweat on his skin hinted at his earlier torture. The man's gaze seemed far away as he stared down at his shackled hands, the tips of his fingers meeting. Snape's jaw dropped slightly in surprise at the gesture – luckily there was no one around to see it. When the prisoner looked up all doubt left Snape's mind, despite the man's appearance.

A shock passed up his legs as he met unfamiliar brown eyes, unconsciously searching for a flicker of blue that wasn't there.

Blood dripped from his mentor's wand hand and arm where his plain prisoner cloth was ripped open. The unfocused eyes revealed the pain from the torture curse up close.

He put on a vaguely disgusted air in case Lucius was listening in, folding his hands in his lap and tilting his head. All the while his lungs screamed the man was insane.

He felt along the inside of his mouth for the procedural words, nodding a greeting.

"I am here to administer a healing potion." Normally this was the moment when he'd place his first torturous creation on the table – the lie meant to start things off in a constructive manner. He now wished he did in fact carry a healing potion. "Then I will ask you a few questions."

The stranger's mouth curled slightly.

"Swallow," Snape deadpanned after counting four seconds, while they both sat quite unmoving. Snape felt strangely exposed under his friend's scrutiny.

"I will now silence the area, in case of listeners." He flicked his wand to utter his most thorough silencing spell, trusting that were Malfoy in fact listening, he would chuck it up to a security level above his station. This was something only Voldemort could verify, which meant it would remain unverified.

"Albus," Snape whispered.

The unfamiliar hand clasped one of his. "My boy."

"You are incorrigible," he managed to speak, feeling a strange pull at his midsection.

The lines around the man's eyes crinkled. Then Snape noticed the hand that was gleaming silvery-white where the hidden one should be black and rotting – a gleam that had somehow remained after the polyjuice transformation.

"Have you managed to…" he trailed off, not daring to believe it.

Dumbledore studied his hand. "Hagrid's work. Only a delay, I'm afraid."

Snape scrutinized the skin. He couldn't recall having seen such a treatment before. Certainly not one that showed through the disguise. But Voldemort's good mood earlier was more urgent.

"Does he know?"

"No. He is convinced along with Mr. Mulciber that I am Remus Lupin at the moment."

"How?" he asked. Polyjuice over polyjuice was impossible...

"An experiment of mine," Albus said airily, and followed with: "It is mightily good to see you. How have you been?"

Snape sneered. "Just jolly. Haven't you heard? I finally got the position I always dreamt about." He leaned in. "What about you? Discovered any new flavours of Bertie Bott's Beans recently?"

"Can't say I have," Albus chuckled, eyes gleaming.

"We don't have much time." Snape said tersely. He found himself checking the walls for anomalies, as he would during an Order mission.

Albus leaned back in his bolted chair like it was one of his plush creations. "I am being a particularly contrary delinquent at the moment. I dare say we have all the time in the world."

"Albus," Snape gritted his teeth. "What-"

"Has Tom been giving you much trouble?"

Snape pressed his lips to keep them from twitching. Tom. Albus always managed to make the Dark Lord sound like an errand child.

"Aside from the main trouble you mean? Not much. I am mostly left to my own devices to perform my Headmaster duties. He meets with his Inner Circle once a month. I am included in these discussions. Main point on the agenda is the broadening of the Muggle-free zone in London. I gather you've noticed global warming is used as explanation towards the Muggle authorities?"

When Albus nodded, he continued: "Crouch junior is in charge. I hope he'll stick to the current method of flooding, since it is the least violent option. We also discuss the hostile situation oversees as regards to our dwindling allies. Although it seems the Dark Lord has gotten a foothold in Austria and Ukraine. I believe he first wants his internal skirmishes sorted out before he acts on his international ambitions."

"And the students?"

"Well, considering. The Muggleborns are allowed into a few classes and put to work the remainder of the time. Mostly gardening for the boys, filing paperwork for the girls – unpaid work for the Muggle-Born Registration Commission, specifically the relocation of the Muggleborn children under the age of ten that go to Zemers Institute. On a similar note, Filch imagines he has free reign now to use those decrepit devices of his. I disavowed him of that notion." He thought a moment. "Though the number of injuries from fights have increased. I can't protect the students from their own viciousness," he added as an afterthought.

"Yes, of course."

"I hope you didn't bring a wand." It would be in Mulciber's collection by now.

"An orphaned one," Dumbledore waved dismissively. The man regarded him fondly, seeming to feast on his appearance. Snape again felt the pull of something.

"I hear he visits the castle often. What does he do on these visits?" Albus inquired.

"He was seen by Filch wandering the third floor corridor yesterday evening. He came up to your study afterwards- "

"Your study now, Severus."

Snape rolled his eyes and continued. "We played chess. He asked after Potter."

"To what purpose?"

"Unclear. I'm tutoring the brat, I intend to find out then."

"How is Harry?"

Snape scowled. "Glorying in his fame as usual. Giving interviews. Playing that dunderheaded sport even though I've explicitly forbidden it this year. Taking even more liberties now that he's seen as the Dark Lord's protégé. He accosted Draco last week in the entrance hall, the nerve of him..."

"Really? That sounds unlike him."

Snape was gratified to see the interest turn into a frown. He gave a thin smile. "Threatening with more violence, I heard. Unhinged, really."

"Unhinged you say?" Dumbledore tilted his head. "I heard from Minerva his behaviour is exemplary in all his classes."

"Quite. I believe Ronald Weasley getting the Dark Mark is proving too much for the poor golden boy."

"Severus," Albus scolded. Snape sat back, feeling energized.

The man regarded him with a searching look. "His protégé status, would you say that is something Tom is encouraging?"

"Just before Weasley was branded, Potter seemed to negotiate with the Dark Lord in Parseltongue. I wasn't present but heard from Draco there was a kind of familiarity between them. Of course the Dark Lord does nothing without deliberation." Except when he got mad with rage, he refrained from adding.

"Anything else that struck you as unusual?"

Snape thought for a moment. "One of my students heard him hissing to himself in Parseltongue in one of the dungeon corridors."

Dumbledore raised a brow. "I hope you're attention goes out to all the students now, not just the Slytherin ones."

Snape's eyes narrowed. Oh. "Of course. Do you know what's happening to Potter?" he asked, curious despite the subject matter.

Albus' eyes turned colder. "I believe Tom is using a new form of Legilimency on Harry, through his curse scar. He now has the ability to access his thought and speak to him directly, wherever he is."

The idea left Snape feeling a bit queasy. He spoke his next words carefully: "I hope you don't intend to draw him back into the fold, in that case."

The brown eyes zeroed in on his own.

"Well, he is now more a liability than ever," Snape spat.

"We need him back, Severus. He cannot remain under Tom's influence, as well you know. And when we've got him back, we have to find a way to inure him to the mental intrusion. I am counting on your considerable expertise." Albus leaned forward now. "You have not forgotten I hope, how vital the boy is to our efforts."

Snape unclenched jaw after a moment. "Certainly not."

Dumbledore sat back as if to say, well then.

"May I inquire about your theories regarding this new level of intrusion?" he prodded.

"I am not at liberty to share them at this time with anyone, Severus."

Snape nodded, keeping his annoyance well hidden.

"How is Minerva's network coming along?"

"She's found five students willing to report back possible disturbances, mostly older years."

Snape proceeded to explain the instances where transgressions – mostly Slytherins or teachers – had been reported and successfully deterred. His reputation as one of Voldemort's favourites was helpful in keeping the sadistic new colleagues in line.

Albus rubbed his hands enthusiastically. "Excellent. Now. What else can you share?"

Snape longed to ask the same question, but he had learned long ago to be content with whatever Dumbledore thought prudent to share.

"Arthur has kept you up to speed about his plans to 'cleanse' the Ministry I suppose?"

Albus nodded. He went on: "Muggleborns have been fired from all the important managing positions – the Auror Division, Treasury, Wizengamot seats … The Sacred Twenty-Eight are squabbling like children on how to divide it all." He smiled. "At the moment the argument is down to who has the oldest family versus who is the most loyal. Keeps them busy. Congratulations on the Department of Mysteries by the way – Lucius is out of favour, again."

Amusement shimmered in Dumbledore's gaze. Snape continued:

"Speaking of, rumour has it the Dark Lord abducted Ollivander and tortured him for information, here in this cellar."

"I can verify that."

"I heard from Takumi that Ollivander is still in chains to assist the Dark Lord, something to do with wandlore in any case. Ollivander is allowed to resume his work under strict supervision. Making wands, that is, not selling. Each week his assistant takes the new wands to the Ministry, which, well, you know about the new laws on wand possession.

He took a breath. "Let's see... Dolores Umbridge managed to develop quite a creative system for the Muggleborn workforce before she was killed –"

"She was killed?" Dumbledore frowned slightly. "By whom?"

Snape felt suddenly at a loss for words. "By Potter. He was forced to kill her, since the Dark Lord can be... persuasive."

His mentor sagged. The stranger in front of him lowered his head into both his hands and closed his eyes.

"Not the Avada," Snape hastened to add. "Nothing pretty, though."

Brown eyes peaked out between black fingers.

"Ms. Granger was the leverage, I assume?"

Snape nodded.

"Fortunately we already have plans in motion to get him out within a fortnight."

Snape curled his hands into fists on the table. "I see. Am I to assist in these plans?"

Dumbledore's eyes narrowed, a needle of a gaze. "What is it, Severus?"

"I don't see how you could smuggle him out of Hogwarts without alerting the guards. Not to mention you just suggested the Dark Lord could be watching it all from inside Potter's head."

Albus tilted his head, studying him. Snape scowled, sitting back and folding his arms. It was true, he wasn't usually so… inquisitive in their meetings, but this might be the only chance they got to speak in a while. And he was Headmaster of the place now, for god's sake. Was he not entitled to know everything there was to know?

"You may trust that I have taken into account any contingencies," the man replied at length.

Apparently not.

The scrutiny didn't abate. Snape repressed the ridiculous urge to fidget.

"Do you and Tom still partake in your common… interests?"

Snape wished the ground could swallow him, chair and all. "Our discussions on spell invention, you mean?" Dark Arts, his thoughts mocked him. What are you, ten, that you can't say it out loud?

"You make them sound so theoretical."

"They are. His visits are short and to the point nowadays."

"Get him to share on this level with you again, Severus. Feed his appetite."

"Are you telling me to indulge, Albus?" Severus whispered back, leaning forward with a cutting smile. He felt his nails biting through his cloak beneath the table. "Find myself a creature to play with? Or a muggle, why not -"

Albus leaned forward. "Of course not. I am merely imploring you to do what is needed to keep earning his trust."

"What is needed?" he hissed. "I am the Headmaster of Hogwarts, for crying out loud. Evidently I've done my part to entertain him."

"You know even better than I it's in his nature to always be restless, whatever his accomplishments. You both share an eagerness to push the boundaries of magic. Find a form that's not harmful, but still holds his interest."

Snape gave a stiff nod, doubtful he could find anything harmless that would hold Voldemort's attention for long.

A bit of blue bled through the brown. "You should go," he said urgently.

"Somewhere inside Harry's trunk you'll find a shard of glass," Albus uttered carefully. "I'd like you to take it and keep it on your person. It's a safe way for us to communicate."

"Safer than letting yourself get caught and tortured, you mean?" he asked, raising a brow.

Albus smiled. "Precisely. Now, I really have to be getting a move on." It sounded like the end of a night in the pub instead of the heavily warded Malfoy dungeon. "When I leave, Mr. Goyle will appear here in my place. He is unconscious at the moment. We've had to Obliviate him, unfortunately."

Snape wasn't aware the man was even missing.

Albus continued: "The batch we used is your own quality brew: now in its twentieth hour," he confided with a smile.

Snape nodded to acknowledge the underlying compliment. Dumbledore stood.

"I will now share with you my memory of these hours so that you can leave an imprint on his mind." Albus came to stand close and Snape lowered his Occlumency shields obligingly.

He flinched involuntarily at the sheer violence in the memory of Mulciber he was forced to witness.

When he was finished, his mentor raised his good arm. Snape knew what would happen next.

"Take care, my boy. We will speak soon."

And he vanished in a burst of Phoenix fire that left a green print on the inside of Snape's eyelids.

888

The junior meeting was a waste of time, Harry thought. Even the Slytherins seemed to think so, staring ahead in varying levels of boredom. The set-up was that of a regular classroom this time. They were subjected to the latest political drivel about the annulment of magic-controlling regulations. A woman taught them today. She looked very bored with it all.

At least the current company offered him a reprieve from the looks he got walking to the classroom. The students already felt conflicted about him before the article that morning, so what would they think now? The problem wasn't even the Foundation idea itself: the problem was what it said about his level of freedom that he was allowed to speak with the national press.

If only they knew, he thought darkly as he bored his quill into the parchment in front of him, ripping up the sheet.

The bad weather drew Neville, Dean and Ron away from grounds work. It was a brilliant opportunity to enjoy a long game of Exploding Snap in the Great Hall after lunch. At five o'clock he reluctantly left the others laughing on the bench to climb all seven floors for his meeting with Snape.

Twenty minutes into his Dark Arts training, Harry considered it a win that he was still standing. He put his head between his knees, breathing hard. He had practiced a handful of rare spells just for this occasion and one of them had even managed to catch Snape off guard, though his shield easily blocked the curse.

He knew he should've kept away, should have flat out refused to take any more lessons from the man. Somehow, he couldn't. He wanted to get stronger. And he had always loved duelling. Even with Snape as his duelling partner, it was almost enjoyable. His mind was clear, sharp, silent…

He just wanted normalcy back, yearned to go back to just being a student in a school. And since Snape would never go away, since he couldn't keep him out of his life, it was… easier, to play along, not antagonize the man any further when there was something to be gained – learning wandless magic was always bound to be useful. He was completely stuck anyway. The last time he had tried to refuse one of Voldemort's 'lessons', Hermione had suffered for it. Thinking about it still made his chest lurch painfully.

Harry's next stunner came out feeble when he tried it wandlessly. Snape scowled, throwing his wand back at him. "A month of reading and you haven't gotten past the basics, I see," he sneered in his usual drawl, referring to the book Harry had borrowed from Voldemort's library.

He thought about that time when he'd slammed Tadders into the wall. His magic pushing out of his hands, it felt like. And he recalled the fireplace exploding into crawling snakes of fire, with Bellatrix... There was a hum of magic in those moments hovering right over his fingertips. Like it was always there but now he could see it, use it.

"I have." He swallowed the 'sir' but it was a near thing – what was the matter with him? "I've done more than this. But I can't summon it at will."

Snape considered him. "What were you thinking about, when it happened?"

He remembered Tadders refusing to say where he had Banished Harry's pouch to. And Bella was torturing him…

"I was angry, I guess. It felt like a layer of energy on my skin, a layer of magic. Does that make sense?"

"It's something at least." Snape stowed his wand away. He was watching him with an unreadable expression. "You will practice each evening this week after finishing homework. Imagine dummies, like so."

Snape closed his eyes for only a second. Suddenly there were two bright red doll-like figures on the other side of the Room, the size of a grown person, complete with limbs but lacking facial features.

Snape threw something orange. The figure absorbed the curse and appeared to come alive, throwing out a grey spell of its own. Snape flicked it to the side where it dissipated into the wall.

"The figures move as well. They will get more sophisticated the higher the level of skill shown. That is assuming you do improve…"

His tone told him that was an unlikely event.

"The room will remember the properties of the dummies the next time you conjure them. Now..."

Snape was suddenly there, tilting his chin back to hold his gaze. He wanted to jump away but the grip only tightened. The man's black eyes seared into him, and by then it was too late-

In the memory that sprung up he woke in front of a fire, a large snake in his lap and a Dark Lord across from him. Snape watched his exchange with Voldemort, then extracted himself. Harry didn't miss the flinch before Snape's face smoothed out.

"Something is pressing onto your memories. A spell or a foreign presence, perhaps."

Harry blinked. Snape didn't usually volunteer information.

His teacher studied him. "You were aware of this?"

Harry narrowed his eyes, or tried to – but his posture loosened instead.

"Yes," Riddle answered for him. Snape nodded after a beat and left him standing there to wonder what had just happened.

888

Dinner was the usual gossip hive. Despite this, Ron and Neville had cajoled him into sitting at the Gryffindor table. Along with Lavender, Dean and Parvati they formed a tight group, chatting like it was a regular day. The girls' attitudes surprised him, until he noticed Lavender's fascinated stares in Ron's direction whenever his friend was looking in a different direction.

Feeling the pressure of homework on top of the training time Snape demanded, he decided on the library for study. Malfoy walked off after a quick whisper in Blaise's ear, who proceeded to trail Harry through the hallways like a shadow.

After two hours of quiet study he rolled his eyes at Blaise that it was fine by him if he left. His roommate didn't budge though. He was browsing a nearby shelve and wondering how he could shake him off – to look for McGonagall again – when a figure shot past to the exit, her tied bun bouncing left and right with each step.

Harry froze in his tracks. Zabini, noticing this, looked up.

"Isn't that Cho Chang?" Blaise was saying unnecessarily.

"Yes," Harry said. "I need to talk to her a sec." He waved him off. "See you back in the dorm."

The black ponytail had vanished around the corner. He sped up and caught her halfway up the stairs. She turned with a book on defensive spells in her hands.

He tried to slow his breathing. "You're, ah- still taking classes here?"

Could he sound any more moronic?

"Yes. I didn't get all my grades last year," Cho said, combing a hand through her hair. "End of year exams were not a good study period." She smiled a little melancholy. "I'm also doing a traineeship. I want to become a teacher."

"Wow, I didn't know that." Really smooth, he thought to himself, forcing a smile out of his gritted teeth.

"Yes, well, I realised it just last year. It was professor Dumbledore actually, who inspired me. He was – is – very committed to this school."

There was a long silence in their part of the hallway after her words.

"Anyway, how have you been Harry?"

He shrugged. "Good, I guess."

"Things have changed alright," she commiserated, shoulders hunching. "I heard about Ron…"

"You want to teach at Hogwarts, then?" he cut in after a suitable pause to avoid her stare.

Her mouth formed a grim line. "I just couldn't imagine any other place I want to be. Here is where I can help the most. I'm doing work for the Infirmary now, assisting Madame Pomfrey. I'm allowed to now that I'm of age." Her eyes flicked to her book for a beat. "Oh Harry, I'd love to catch up some time but I've got to go. Say, let's meet up for a lunch in Hogsmeade? For old times' sake?"

Harry cocked his head. "They still allow that?"

She smiled wryly. "They do if an adult accompanies you."

"Right." He felt a burst of annoyance, but then figured it must be Riddle's since he wasn't bothered at all by this fact. "See you soon, then."

They parted, Cho going up to her dormitory and Harry descending into the Slytherin domain.

"Bummer, huh?"Harry said to himself as he strolled through the dim dungeon.

Something snapped his jaw shut. He grinned through it. "You're just so easy to rile up, it's adorable," he went on in a whisper, just in case there was anyone nearby. It no longer felt crazy, talking to himself. "A bit childish, actually."

He received a sharp burn along his forehead in response. Harry cursed, rubbing the spot viciously. He quickened his pace. The common room was suddenly too loud. He opened his dormitory door with a sense of relief. There he stopped abruptly.

Nott, alone. Reading.

He silently cursed his luck. The place was usually deserted this early on a Sunday evening.

Theodore watched silently as Harry walked passed to sink onto his mattress. He stared Nott down until the boy turned back to his book. The text looked to be long strings of formulas, probably Arithmancy homework.

He was glad he'd kept a hold of his expression. But really he shouldn't have worried – the more at edge he felt around people, the more tranquil Riddle made it look. It was perhaps the only thing Riddle was useful for, he thought scathingly.

He smoothed a thumb over his wand, its familiar grains and spots. Come to think of it. Perhaps he and Tom needed to talk. Set a few things straight. Some ground rules for cohabitation, as it were.

"Say, Potter-" Nott's face leaned towards him, eyes focused on his forehead.

"Yes," he hissed, jerking back. The boy was standing too close.

Nott was about to continue, when Harry's left hand found the inside of his sleeve.

Riddle had taken the initiative, quite beyond Harry's will, nearly cutting off Nott's circulation so strong was his grip on the Mark. Harry's attention was automatically caught by the boy's magic, like a restless tickle underneath his fingertips. He waited a beat but his host's control had left again.

He swallowed. What if he… Just to see what would happen…

He pushed.

The tension inside lessened, like taking a calming draught. The cloying lethargy behind his eyelids vanished. Nothing mattered except the heady thrum of blood in his ears, the widening of his lungs...

Yes…

An intake of breath took him back to the room. Nott´s gaze was unfocused, his nostrils flaring, head trembling slightly. He didn't try and pull away, to Harry's surprise. The sight of his enemy so pliant made a thrill flit through his stomach. Taking in the boy's glazed expression, a sudden doubt took hold, that perhaps this wasn't painful at all…

A chuckle cut off that thought.

Harry barely refrained from jumping out of his skin - that hadn't been Nott's voice.

"Ah, I just wanted to point out," Nott finally spoke softly, brushing a thumb over Harry's scar, "that you have a bit of blood there."

They both looked down at the red smear that came off. Theodore shot him a thin smile. Harry realised he was still gripping the Mark. He let it go as if burned.

Something was burning all right. The skin around the Mark was angry and swollen, like it was sunburned. If it wasn't for Riddle, his mouth would have dropped open at the sight.

Nott straightened. His gaze was flat as he walked back to his own four-poster without another word. The boy grabbed his book, lying down and browsing to the correct page. Harry blinked at him, feeling like he was missing something. He also had to fight the urge to put his head on his pillow.

You need sustenance, Riddle prodded. Go on, a bit more, you were doing so well...

Get lost will you, he bit back. So that's what this was about.

Have you forgotten how they let him off with just a slap on the wrist?

He stroked the soft fabric of the duvet to distract from the memory. But it played behind his eyelids: a boot hurling down on his face with a cracking sound. Nott tugging at his body to give Zacharius better access.

An urge to flee crawled over him, to get as much space as possible between himself and Nott. Stop sending me these memories, he bit out.

Ah, that was just you.

I know what you're trying to do.

A chuckle behind his left ear. So smart, Riddle mocked.

He watched the way that Nott's back moved slightly with his breathing. He wished he could just ask the boy outright why he had done what he had.

Riddle, damn the man for staying so near his thoughts, actually snorted.

Let's not.

He considered asking after Zacharius, but he didn't want to mention that night ever again. Nott's breathing was steady and deep now. He stood slowly to get a better view. His classmate had fallen asleep right into the pages. Already? Riddle's vague contentment oozed behind that thought.

That's not because of me, right? he thought at him, even though he tried holding it back – but that was the trouble with thoughts.

Riddle of course had no such qualms. You drained him quite nicely. Leave him for now, he has no reserves left to give. A bit of restraint would be wise next time, or you won't be able to use him ever again.

Harry felt shivers crawl over his back. I don't want to use him, I don't want to use any of them! He hurled back, twitching for an escape that wasn't possible.

Oh, please do, Riddle was saying. It's the easiest thing in the world. Besides, you need to keep your magic brimming if you intend to practice wandlessly every night, like Snape wants you to, he finished in a melodic sing-song tone.

He was reminded of that moment when Voldemort had steadied him against the wall after his head had been sliced up, and drizzled power into his scar...

Tomorrow you can use Malfoy. He's begging for it really, with that attitude. It'll speed things up. I should know, I became a master of raw magic around the age of sixteen.

He stood, hurrying away from the suffocating air and into the hallway – as if he could escape his tormentor that way. It occurred to him he had never held such a long conversation with Riddle before. His eyes found the common room entrance and he snug past the odd late-night student. He needed to be with his friends.

Hmmm. The red-head is better fuel, I suppose, Riddle supplied.

Leave me alone, he returned. Someone was calling his name. He turned. Malfoy was standing just outside the common room entrance.

He felt like tearing some hair out. "I'm just taking a walk, Malfoy," he threw over his shoulder, continuing his pace.

"I'll be reporting it."

"You do that," he muttered, taking the steps two at a time.

He kept pace all the way to the seventh floor, until the Fat Lady threw him for a loop. The Lady's cheeks wobbled left and right in a firm no, even after his third plea to at least let him to put his head through the door to call for something. It was still before bedtime though. After waiting mere minutes, Neville came up to him. He looked grubby and tired, probably from working in the greenhouses, but brightened when he spotted Harry.

"She's stubborn that one, right?" he said cheerfully, then spoke the password – Muggleborn.

It was like a shockwave went through the Gryffindor common room when his feet hit the other side of the wall. Right. He'd forgotten.

"Come on," Neville said, irritated, taking his hand to pull him towards the hearth near the middle of the room. Neville was also blissfully free of Dark Marks.

An advantage of his bad publicity was being able to chase away people with merely his gaze. Sinking into his favourite seat in front of the fire was pure bliss. He closed his eyes, musing how Nagini would enjoy it here.

"Hi mate!" Ron grinned, coming over to drop onto the nearby couch. "Way to get the best seats."

"Well we're seventh years now, we should get the best seats," Lavender said, joining them on the couch.

888

Malfoy was fuming delicately Sunday morning at breakfast. Harry took a seat next to him with a grin.

"Why the long face?"

"I warned you, Potter..."

Harry scooped scrambled eggs on his plate. "What's your point," he said in a bored tone he knew would drive him up the wall.

"I don't know," Draco mused in a fake tone. "Perhaps I'll just let Snape deal with you."

He longed to tell him where to shove it, or better yet, yank that Dark Mark scratching at his senses from across the table, but there was no guessing how Malfoy would react in such a public place. Besides, he should stay clear of that, if only because Riddle wanted him to – Nott had joined the table and it already took some effort not to look his way, to see if there was anything different about him.

"Blaise can accompany me again today. Right Blaise?" he asked the boy across from him.

"Sure. I'll be taking my homework to the Quidditch pitch though." Zabini's eyes went from Harry to Draco, mischievous. "Guess you'll be joining us then."

"In the stands, yes," Draco said airily, but Harry noticed his shoulders tensing slightly.

"Urquhart will be announcing the team today," Pansy explained to him.

Harry watched Malfoy coolly. "Wouldn't want to miss such an important event, of course."

Malfoy looked to be grinding his teeth, but stayed silent. He had kept their interactions business-like ever since their little spat in the dormitory, which suited Harry just fine. There were better persons to spend his time and energy on.

Their group trudged towards the Quidditch pitch after lunch. Harry took to the stands along with Blaise and a smattering of students from other houses who had come to watch. Urquhart was already there, along with most of his classmates from sixth year, carrying the large crate with Quidditch supplies onto the field. Ramone Urquhart was a stocky, muscled sixth year, and when he turned to the players they all fell silent.

"Our new positions," he said, without preamble. "Samuals and Harper as beater."

A smattering of applause – Harper scowled, obviously expecting a different position.

"Myself, Vaisey and Chang as chaser." More applause.

Harry looked up to see Cho smiling politely. Assisting wounded students who'd fallen prey to Slytherin bullies and joining the Slytherin quidditch theme? Interesting.

"As for Seeker…" Urquhart could never be accused of subtlety: his gaze left Malfoy to trail towards the stands.

"Well, Potter?" Nott called, his voice carrying towards his seated form, making heads jerk towards him in surprise, "Want to join? We're all dying to hear."

Harry blinked, caught off guard by the amused tone. Nott looked like he was enjoying himself immensely. No one would be able to guess that last night, Harry had practically abused him. Malfoy seemed to be wrestling with his anger: he jerked Theodore by the tie to snarl something in his ear.

Urquhart stayed silent, obviously waiting for his answer. Harry stood, considering his options. He wasn't sure whether he wanted to continue with this farce if it meant actually having to join the team.

Malfoy let go of Nott's tie in favour of balling his fists at his side.

If he joined the team it would strengthen his position, which would help his chances of pursuing his own agenda in the future. If he stayed on as Seeker for Huffinclaw on the other hand, there were no extra benefits, except quality time with people he actually liked.

Ron might not understand, though.

"All right," he finally said.

Urquhart smiled slowly. "Good. Malfoy," he called and waited for Draco to turn his way. "You're Keeper, in that case."

Draco's expression looked like it could slay a Blast-Ended Screwed.

Harry's gaze found Cho, whose expression lit up as she joined in the clapping. They exchanged grins, which made him feel strangely light about his decision. Perhaps this wouldn't turn out so bad after all.

888

That light feeling vanished quickly when Ron found him the next day after breakfast. Harry had taken to walking with Zabini as his guard. His easy manner was preferable to Malfoy's company any day. Besides, Malfoy was carefully avoiding him at the moment. That was likely as much to Harry's benefit as his own, since he was probably resisting the urge to bash Harry's skull in.

"Harry," Ron said. Blaise waited at a tactful distance.

"Yes."

Ron looked haggard as always. "I heard..." He stopped, then tried again: "Why?"

"I don't want to leave Cho alone with a team full of Slytherins," he whispered, thinking on the spot.

Ron frowned, stepping closer – close enough to feel the now-familiar buzz of his Mark. A sense of vertigo seeped into his temples. He scowled inwardly as his fingertips found a wall, steadying him. He couldn't imagine why Voldemort would think this tapping into someone else's magic was fortifying, when all it did was bring him out of balance.

"So that's what this is about," Ron went on slowly. "You still have feelings for her?"

"What?" Harry jerked back, denial on the tip of his tongue before he saw a glimpse of sympathy in Ron's gaze.

He ducked his head instead. "Yeah." He hastily added: "I mean, Ginny will always be-"

Ron's eyes narrowed, biting his lip. "No of course, I don't mean- Merlin, I know that. Of course you can…" he trailed off, turning his head towards the nearby gargoyle.

"Right," Harry said into the silence. He punched Ron's arm. "Besides, you have a killer team now. And you know I don't care about Slytherin winning. Hey, how about if I catch sight of the snitch I just… look the other way."

Ron chuckled. "Don't do that on my account. I want to win fair and square."

"Because the Slytherins are such fair players."

"That article this morning," Ron said suddenly, "I don't believe any of it. And I'll tell everyone who wants to hear how ridiculous it is."

"Thanks Ron," Harry smiled, grateful.

Katie Bell and Demelza Robins presented the next hurdle to overcome at lunchtime.

Harry sat down at the Ravenclaw table, which was filled with students from all the houses, when he saw the pair of Chasers stalk towards him from the other end.

"Oh, oh," Ron murmured.

The eyes of both witches flickered to the Quidditch captain and their steps faltered a moment. Harry waved cheerily.

"Harry," Katie said briskly as she sat down across from him, leaning in. "Can you explain to me why you are deserting to the other side?" She waved to his friend. "Apparently Ron gets this, but please explain it to me."

"Well," Harry said slowly to stall, "I've come to the conclusion that-"

"It's more strategic for him to Seek for the Slytherins," Ron finished for him. "You know how the git is, demands a spot on the team with daddy on the Board of Governors. So the only thing Urquhart had left to offer him was the Keeper position. And you know what that means." His smirk widened. "It's going to be a great year for Quidditch."

Ron was really getting a flare for this, Harry mused. Perhaps this was all some kind of grotesque chess game to him as well.

888

During Transfiguration that afternoon he imagined explaining his situation to McGonagall after class.

Professor. I have the young version of Voldemort in my head, hearing my thoughts. It means Voldemort will stay immortal for as long as I live. Any advice on how to deal with that?

She wouldn't be able to help him anyway. There was also the risk of her sharing too much with him about the Order. And Tom. His unwanted guest was quiet ever since their talk last night - a discussion he definitely didn't want to revisit ever again.

McGonagall's gaze stayed on him a little longer when she dismissed her class.

It seemed the amount of homework kept growing, to the point that after dinner everyone scurried off to their dorms just to get started early. It had its perks: when he told Blaise he was off to train for his specialty the Slytherin waved him off, without even pausing to look up from his Charms homework. Malfoy was ignoring him categorically now, which meant no one stopped him from going up towards the Room of Requirement on his own.

Walking the hallways alone after so much time in company felt like a balm to his senses: finally there was no one around to talk or snap at him. Snape had told him to practice after finishing homework, but he probably assumed Harry cared about such things the same way he cared about becoming stronger.

In the Room he concentrated for a moment and was relieved when the dummies sprung back to life. They stayed blissfully silent as well as he threw random spells at them. They would block the spell, then send something similar his way. It was a mindless and pleasant repetition.

He practised a round of curses. Then he tried them wandlessly. This only got him into a sweat as he stared ahead to will the magic to appear, to form a layer against his skin like it had when he'd bested Bellatrix. He almost wished for a Mark nearby, just to get that feeling of magic unseen waving against his skin.

It's a form of wandless magic, Riddle offered.

Harry cursed loudly the Muggle way – it was still hard to get used to that voice. Riddle went on, unperturbed:

They can help you tune in, so to speak. Another reason why it's wise to make use of them at this stage in your training.

Harry growled. "I told you I'm not going to do that."

The rest of the training proved as fruitless as his first attempt, evaporating his earlier good mood.

888

There was a party Thursday night in the dorms, on accounts of Malfoy having smuggled in a stash of liquor. The timing was either very fortunate or unfortunate, depending one's view.

"So let me get this straight," Ron said during afternoon break, eyebrows raised. The weather was pleasant enough for them to meet in the courtyard: he had just washed the mud from his hands and was now chewing with gusty on a pumpkin pie Harry had brought from the kitchens. "First you're going to the Slug Club, with, you know, the wine. And then onto the booze in the dungeons." He shook his head, finishing the second piece in record time. "Boy I could use me some of that."

Harry chuckled. "Well, come along then. It's not just the Slytherins you know." He straightened on the stone bench. "Actually, that's a good idea. Let's crowd it up a little."

Ron wiped the crumbles from the bench. They caught the eye of a nearby robin, which tilted its head at the tiny particles.

"Nah, don't really feel like the company."

"All the more reason to annoy him."

His friend turned to regard him, expression serious. Harry felt his smile slip a little.

"You know what he did to Neville the other day?" Ron murmured, as if the birds were listening in. "Every week after classes on Monday he counts the yields in the stockroom, right. Don't know how the git's caught wind of it, but he came down and he knocked the ink jar all over the place. Neville had to start all over. He sometimes pushed him around, I think, but Neville isn't saying."

They watched as more robins joined the first.

Perhaps Malfoy still felt cheated out of harassing Neville a week earlier in the entrance hall, Harry considered. He loosened his jaw enough to ask: "Does that happen a lot?"

Ron laughed, sitting back against the old stone wall. "What, Malfoy being a git, or Slytherins in general?"

He shrugged. Either.

"Well, it's mostly Malfoy and Nott being general douchebags. And Pansy. She's Head Girl."

"Who's Head Boy?"

"Terry Boot. He's fine, not too bright though, always mouthing off to the Carrows when they single out the Muggleborns. By the way, did you know Cho is doing a traineeship here? That's why she's back, I heard. Don't know why she's still putting up with that Michael Corner, that one. She could have about anyone she likes."

"Yeah, I heard." Harry swallowed, distracted by thinking of her long black hair, and Corner touching it. He paid for it with a shove to his midsection.

"Ouch!"

Ron's grin was shit-eating. "Thinking of making a move? You have a good shot, you know."

Harry scoffed, feeling his cheeks burn. Shit. He'd already claimed to have feelings for her, to cover for his switching sides on the Quidditch pitch. Not that he didn't think she was attractive, mind - they had dated for god's sake – but…

"She wants to become a teacher, she told me," he said just to say something. "Transfigurations."

"See?" Ron said, like Harry just made his point. Harry punched him on the shoulder. The bell signified the last class of the day, and he left Ron laughing silently on the bench.

888

Ron had been right about the wine: it was ridiculously good.

"It's Amarone," Slughorn nodded towards him from where he sat at the head of the table when Harry paused to savour his first nip. As if that was supposed to mean something to him. Perhaps Voldemort would know, he thought flippantly, but going back to those blood-soaked memory doors wasn't his idea of a good time. He nodded his appreciation.

The first course had been served twenty minutes ago, but his stomach still rumbled. It was clear everyone was hungry from the long day.

Two places over Malfoy narrowed his eyes. "Isn't that, like, Muggle?"

Slughorn winked indulgently. "They make the best sort, dear boy."

"I'm not taking this shit," Draco whispered to Pansy beneath his breath.

"Take a sip, Malfoy," Harry ordered in a flat voice. Their part of the table quietened.

Malfoy hid his reaction quite well – there was only a slight tension to his eyes. He drank deeply in response, never taking his eyes off of Harry.

"And?" Harry asked.

Draco's mouth twisted. "Tolerable." Which they all knew was high praise for someone with access to a wizarding wine cellar. Malfoy's gaze flickered to his own glass. "You're full of shit Potter. You haven't even taken a proper sip yourself."

He had a point there. Harry barely kept himself from glancing at the wine in his own glass. He wasn't feeling too sure about splurging on beverages, now that Riddle had shown he could force his actions. Alcohol didn't seem to be a good way to cope with that.

"It tastes better when combined with food," Harry told him.

"True," Pansy nodded unexpectedly. When Draco threatened to continue he knocked back a large swallow, which tingled at the back of his throat, then quickly turned to listen in on Cho discussing the wins of the new season with Michael Corner.

"I don't think it's worth it in the end. He's bound to fly slower next week, due to the recovery time."

Corner tilted his head: "I've seen him come back from worse."

Their heads were close together now. Corner slipped a hand underneath the table inconspicuously.

Harry took another gulp.

"Say Potter," Pansy said softly. "I heard Filch telling one of the teachers that the Dark Lord was here last Friday. Did he pay you a visit?"

Harry felt the buzz from the wine hitting the back of his mind, and remembered his own advice from seconds ago. Luckily, the main course sparkled in right then: a spicy Moroccan dish. The sound of cutlery and conversation filling the room gave him time to consider an answer. At least it would get him pointers with this crowd...

"Yes."

Pansy twisted a lock behind her ear, appearing nervous. "How is he? In person, I mean."

"Oh he's a right darling when nobody's looking."

Pansy barked a surprised laugh. Nott choked on something and had to cough loudly a few times.

Inside his mind it was quiet. That's right, Harry thought half to himself, though unsure whether Riddle could hear it all. I'm endearing myself, which is what you like to see.

"Do tell us," Daphne insisted next to him.

To Harry's right, Malfoy was deep in conversation with Slughorn and a flask of Crystallised Pineapple exchanged hands.

"He's bossy," he said for lack of anything to say that didn't involve the man's despicable character.

That earned him another laugh. He took a few bites, recalled the Vow he'd taken, which would prevent him from spilling the man's secrets.

He blinked as he caught the various fascinated gazes turned his way.

"He's impatient," he offered next. "He's very quiet – you never know when he walks into a room. I like his snake better, really," he concluded, which earned him another round of snickers.

"That's right, you're a parselmouth," Nott drawled. Harry still couldn't figure him out, with his flat, polite smile.

"Say something in Parseltongue," Daphne ordered again. His eyebrows raised as he turned to regard her. Clearly she was used to getting her way. He felt Cho's gaze burn on his left cheek, now that she was finished with her Quidditch talk.

He dropped his voice playfully. "Well, what do you want me to say?"

"Tell me I'm pretty."

"You're spoiled," Harry hissed instead. A chuckle sounded in his mind, making him clench the tablecloth.

Her admittedly pretty red mouth opened a little in wonder.

Terry Boot rolled his eyes at them both. He looked uncomfortable with the current company, which he normally took care to avoid, and Harry wondered why he'd bothered to come at all. Strange how a dinner invite from a scheming teacher could change that. Neville, although invited, was absent.

When the course was finished Slughorn clapped his hands to get their attention: "My dear ladies and gents, a toast. To you, a promising new generation of witches and wizards."

They clinked their glasses obligingly. Slughorn went on to ask Malfoy about the next Quidditch game. Harry had to smother his grin at the way Malfoy's jaw clenched: clearly Slughorn hadn't caught up with the latest twist. This was the man who had led Tom Riddle down the path of immortality. Many months ago Dumbledore had told him this, before their private lessons were abruptly cut off. How would he ever get to that vital memory now, he wondered.

The party in the dungeons later that night meant a break from thinking altogether: the music was loud, the conversations were stilted, and the booze near the back wall seemed to be working on a permanent replenishing charm.

Harry choose a red drink that looked familiar, and which turned out to be the strawberry one he'd enjoyed before. He kept to superficial talk with the Slytherins. He was glad to see that the common room filled up with students from other houses after a while. Ron and Neville were absent of course, but Luna and Padma were there along with a girl named Su Li, as well as Justin Finch-Fletchley and Anthony Goldstein.

When everyone started dancing properly, Harry took a seat in a fauteuil in front of the fireplace, where Daphne joined him on the sofa, sipping what looked like something warm. He studied his next glass of strawberry stuff thoughtfully. This one tasted different somehow. He shrugged, setting is aside – enough alcohol for today.

"Too sweet, I take it?" Daphne asked loudly to be heard.

He shook his head. "Enough for one night I think."

She raised her glass and took another sip.

"What is that?" He pointed for clarification, because the beat was low and wonky.

"Tea!" she shouted back. When she saw his slight surprise she stood to lean over him. "I never drink anything else after a good wine," she said into his ear.

He nodded. From his position below her, he could see she was strapped into a tightly fitting, gothic-looking bodice. It clung high to her neck, but gravity caused part of her breasts to become visible on either side of the bodice.

She wasn't wearing a bra then, he mused.

A laugh above him drew his gaze back to her face. He felt his cheeks grow hot at once. He averted his gaze. "Sorry."

Her head lowered again, but not to his ear.

She kissed him.

He jerked, mouth opening in what would've probably been an embarrassing squeal, if her tongue hadn't chosen that moment to make a gentle push inside. Her hesitance while she was pushing him down into the seat was a heady combination, and he kissed her back, with a fleeting thought that not-thinking was turning out to be quite pleasant.

Daphne's legs came up to wrap around him in the seat, which was big enough for the both of them. His arms burrowed in her robs, his hands coming to rest over her bottom. The fireplace behind them shaped shadows on their faces.

She drew back. Then she kissed him again.

And then she was moving.

She wore a skirt, and there was only a thin layer separating him from her skin. She was rubbing him just there, making his eyes close at the pleasure piercing sharply through the slight buzz of alcohol in his limbs.

A grunt escaped him at the next grind. Holding her close, he pushed her against the ache to create delicious friction. Her red mouth formed a little oh as they parted to catch their breaths, eyes glazed.

He couldn't believe this was happening, right here, in the middle of the common room. He tugged a nearby duvet around them to cover their twined forms. As his arms slipped below he hoped the dark green would cover their movements.

Did he want this to happen right now in the middle of the common room? Daphne leaned down to bite lightly into his neck, stealing his trail of thought. This allowed him to see the rest of the room.

Girls and boys were dancing close together, limbs gyrating to the music. Malfoy was entangled with Pansy on the left. Two girls sat trading kisses in a corner nearby. He recognised the dark skinned form of Zabini to his right, holding Cho close to a wall as he whispered in her ear. She laughed, spilling punch over her glass. She was wearing knee-length boots and a dark blue skirt, which Blaise was stroking. The fabric had risen slightly to reveal a milky thigh…

He felt another jolt of pleasure as Daphne's breathing became laboured, the angle of her hips deepening into him. And then he was twitching, and his eyes were rolling back -

He pounded in earnest now, as waves of pleasure pulsed out of him-

"Ah-ahhhhhh-"

Harry pressed her to him mindlessly, chasing each wave until he was a boneless puddle.

It took him a few seconds to feel steady enough to open his eyes. When he did she was watching him with a heavy gaze. Harry held that gaze with a will, hoping she didn't notice his blush

He became aware of his hands burrowed into her like claws. With a jolt he realised his nails had ripped through the fabric of her skirt. He took a few steadying breaths, then pulled back slightly to study her.

"Are you all right?" he asked loudly, gesturing to clarify over the loudness of the music.

She nodded.

He closed his eyes in relief, rubbing them hard to fight off a sudden bout of sleepiness. Then he snapped them open again. "You want me to…"

"That's all right," Daphne said breathlessly. Her lips twitched in a mischievous smile. "You can make it up to me some other time."

He stared up at her for a moment. "Right."

He looked around. The music was thumping, bodies were still moving.

"I don't think anyone noticed," Daphne said into his ear, stroking the side of his face.

Well.

She straightened, unwinding elegantly. He must look like a dork in comparison. She stood and pulled at his arm.

"Want to dance?"

Harry's deepened breathing turned into a fit of chuckles. He had to lean forward for her to hear, holding back a grimace as this caused him to feel the dampness in his shorts. "I think I'll pass, not sure if I can stand just yet."

Daphne laughed as well. He felt a tension he wasn't aware of leaving his shoulders. He grinned, waving her off. "Go, have fun."

She melted easily into the sea of dancing figures.

He waited a beat before climbing form the chair on trembling legs, keeping close to the wall as he set a controlled pace for the privacy of the dorms.


Love to hear your thoughts.