Disclaimer: I do not own Poppy Pomfrey. (No one owns Poppy Pomfrey. She's a BOSS.)
Sorry about the belated reply. We were on a 'business trip' for the past few days. The mutt is doing much better and sends his love.
Yes, we both caught that piece on the Tournament in the Prophet, but the picture it painted was woefully incomplete. The mutt had half a mind to come to Scotland, and might have done so if not for your and Dumbledore's letters. The Headmaster is reluctant to share details, but assured us that he will keep us informed of the investigations through Minerva. And while I know you don't like him and he is admittedly eccentric, Moody is also staunchly opposed to Voldemort. Work with him even if you don't like him.
I have to say this and the mutt agrees with me: do NOT go gallivanting around, looking to solve this like you did last year. Let Dumbledore handle this.
Onto other topics. I understand your frustration, but the truth is, incorporating Transfiguration into duelling is exceptionally difficult. While it is certainly true that this branch of magic can be useful in combat, any use of it beyond the most elementary (conjuration of fire, etc.) also demands a lot of the user. It also has some glaring weaknesses. One, it takes time to transfigure an object for offensive use: the time it takes to complete one complex transfiguration can be used to cast several curses. Two, likewise, it requires a lot of concentration and control to use Transfiguration in battle effectively. Three, Transfigured objects are physical attacks, and can be easily repelled by competent wizards. Most only ever use these for diversionary or defensive purposes.
Frankly, I doubt there are more than a dozen people on the British Isles right now that can use Transfiguration in duelling to the extent you described. Perhaps you should discuss this with Professor Flitwick: he is a former duelling champion, after all.
As for casting your spells faster, the best way to do so at your stage is to learn silent casting. Yes, I know that Hogwarts does not teach this until sixth-year, but I think you can do it. There was an excellent book, Adalbert Waffling's Magical Theory, which helped your father learned to do magic silently by the middle of his fifth year; you may want to look it up.
I have only read of spell-chains in passing, so I'm afraid I cannot help you in that regard.
I am glad that you haven't lost interest in Defence despite your issues with Moody, although to be honest I am a bit surprised that he was willing to take the post at all; from what the Headmaster told me he didn't agree to taking the position until a few days before term began.
Madam Puddifoot's offers a more romantic setting, while the Three Broomsticks is more casual. The latter is a better choice if you want to play it safe.
As for your other problem—
Harry sighed and put down Remus' letter, next to the copy of Magical Theory (Third Edition) he had taken out from the library. The missive from his former professor had arrived on Monday, far too late for that last bit of advice to be of use. He picked up his wand, and concentrating very hard tried to will the quill to float. His focus was broken by a shout from the doorway.
"Potter! Aren't you brewing Pepper-Up Potions?" Adrian Pucey, the Slytherin sixth-year that was Harry's partner for the day, took a look at the boiling cauldron and bellowed in alarm. "The water's boiling! Have you added the Mandrake root yet?"
"Oh bugger." Harry cursed under his breath. Hastily he threw the cut-up mandrake root into the brew, and the Pepper-Up Potion changed color, though it was not as brightly orange as it was supposed to be. To his relief, the mistake was easily rectified: Harry simply poked his wand at the fire and set it blazing for a while. He counted himself fortunate that the mishap happened at a less important point of his brew. Had it occurred during a more important juncture—say the next step, which was the addition of bicorn horn powder—the potion would be completely ruined. Not taking his chances, he placed a Timer Charm on the cauldron and set it to fifteen minutes.
Seeing that things should be fine for a while, he sat down again. He gave the piece of parchment a weary look before stuffing it into his bag. Outside the window the sun was setting, its last rays illuminating the grounds. The weather was great, chilly but better than one would expect at the verge of winter. A number of students were returning from the grounds, many of them in pairs, probably couples that had been getting their backs grassy.He could so easily have been among them; part of him still wondered whether he was really making the right choice, choosing to preserve a friendship over pursuing something more. It had been nearly two weeks since his talk with—
"Hermione." Harry sighed, feeling both wary and nervous. "I guess we need to talk."
She nodded her agreement, and side by side they walked down the path toward the lake.
After a rather awkward minute Hermione broke the silence. "Hagrid said you were helping him on something."
"Tiffany the Thestral, yes," Harry said, quickly latching onto the seemingly safe subject.
"Oh?" The witch's curiosity was piqued. "What do these Thestrals look like?"
Harry shrugged apologetically. "I have no idea; I can't see them. They can only be seen by people who have seen death, or so I'm told."
Hermione blinked in surprise. "You can't?"
"Like I said—"
"You have to have seen death, yes, but I thought you may be able to because of… well, first year." Her voice faltered a bit at the end, and Harry understood quickly.
"Quirrell." He said, and she nodded. "I didn't really see him die, I kind of blacked out when tussling with him."
"Oh." Her eyes softening, Hermione took Harry's hand in hers and gave it a squeeze. "I'm sorry I brought it up, Harry."
"It's okay." Replied Harry. He looked down at their linked hands. He had hoped to delay this, so that he could get some words of advice from Sirius and Remus before this, but it seemed his hand was forced. He must do this now.
"Hermione," he began, turning so that they were now facing each other. She looked up with her brown eyes, bright and hopeful, and Harry couldn't bear it; he had to look away. "What happened this morning, I… I didn't know you feel this way. About me, I mean."
"Now you do." She said, her face turning slightly pink, though whether it was a blush forming or the cool breeze he couldn't tell.
"Yeah, well, but," Harry ran his free hand through his hair. "Why me? I mean, I'm just—"
"Just Harry, I know." A half-smile formed on Hermione's lips, and Harry was reminded of the taste of strawberries. "Just Harry, who went off to save a little girl from a troll even though he couldn't stand her, and befriended her shortly after. Just Harry, who is a natural at flying and enjoys every second of it. Just Harry, who stopped a Dark Lord's return to power. Just Harry, who is lousy at chess but plays it because his best friend is so good at it and he wants his friend to be happy. Just Harry, who looked for acromantula in the Forbidden Forest and slain basilisks in secret underground chambers. Just Harry, who still has atrocious handwriting even after all these years."
"Hey!" Harry exclaimed, indignant, but Hermione placed a finger over his mouth, silencing him immediately.
"Just Harry, whose greatest fear is fear itself. Just Harry, who won his first Quidditch Cup after three years. Just Harry, who fought off a hundred Dementors to save his godfather. Just Harry, who studies Potions harder than ever, even though he loathes the professor, because he wants to become a Healer and help people. Just Harry, a scrawny boy with green eyes, who perseveres despite everything the world throws at him. Just Harry, the boy I kissed this morning." She murmured, her face inches from his, and shifted her hand so that it now cupped his cheek. There was a breathless quality in her voice that was strangely seductive, and he could practically smell the strawberry flavour on her lips. "Just Harry, who I'm in love with…"
She was so close now, so very close, and Harry could see that she was growing into a pretty, if not exactly beautiful, young woman. And she had just poured her heart out to him. And he did like her, and care for her. It would be so easy—all he needed to do was close his eyes and lean in and kiss her and she would be his—
"No." He took a step back, and she blinked at him, surprised. He looked down at their linked hands. He had to say it, to put a stop to it now, because it would only hurt her that much more if he didn't. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry Hermione.
"I'm sorry. But I don't love you."
Ignoring the chiming sound of the Timer Charm, Harry concentrated on stirring the simmering concoction—four times clockwise and three times counter-clockwise for twenty rounds, for a total of one hundred and forty strokes—while the powdered bicorn horn was sprinkled into the cauldron. The Pepper-Up turned a dangerous crimson for a moment, but Harry was unconcerned; in about five minutes the potion would return to its usual orange color, indicating that it had stabilized enough for bottling. In the mean time, Harry decided that he could really use a break. Sniffing the air, he thought he caught the aroma of coffee, and grinned.
Over the summer, while Harry studied under Madam Pomfrey, the matron introduced the young wizard to coffee after witnessing him struggle through a lesson in a stupor (Harry worked till three that morning on a five-foot essay, discussing the symbolic magic conveyed onto an important date, such as the solstice, by Arithmancy). He found himself liking the strong-flavoured beverage, and while he wouldn't admit to being an addict, he had taken to start each day with a cup of steaming coffee, and sometimes a second cup in the afternoon if he needed an extra jolt. Which, he mused, he totally deserved after his hard work.
That Madam Pomfrey happened to have her own private stock of premium Columbian coffee beans was, of course, a complete coincidence.
The school nurse was in her office taking a fire-call, leaving the Healer trainees to watch over the hospital wing; Harry opted to work in the potions lab while Pucey dealt with visitors. He was tending to a tiny firstie Harry recognized as Nigel Wespurt, a Gryffindor who was rather well-known for sharing Colin Creevey's passion for photography. The boy had a nasty-looking bruise mark on his forehead; Harry suspected that the extraordinarily clumsy boy tripped on something again. He was about to duck into the storage room but Nigel spotted him.
"Wotcher, Harry!" The boy said cheerfully. His grin quickly turned into a grimace however, as Pucey rubbed healing salve onto his forehead: the anti-bruise salve was very effective, but also stung mightily during those first minutes of application.
Had it been anyone else, Harry would merely nod in acknowledgment before retreating to the storage room. But he remembered Nigel sitting next to Katie Bell that night, showing support for the unwillingly-entered Triwizard champion, even though Harry hardly knew the younger boy at all; the least he could do was show some courtesy.
"Hi Nigel. What happened to you?" He paused before adding, "This time?"
"Tripped by a suit of armour. At least Colin's camera is okay." The younger boy shrugged, gesturing to the muggle device hanging from his neck.
"Why did you have Colin's camera?" Harry asked.
Nigel grinned, sticking out his chest proudly. "I'm now Colin's assistant for the Headliner. Hermione Granger interviewed some Beauxbatons students earlier today and I took pictures. Do you know she speaks fluent French? She's brilliant!"
"Err," Harry found himself staring into his mug, momentarily flustered at the mention of her name. "I mean, yes she is. Brilliant."
The world seemed to have stopped for all but the two of them. Even the wind died down and the trees stopped rustling, though the cold remained, biting at their exposed faces. And yet Harry was certain that wasn't the cause of Hermione's sudden paleness or quivering lips. A mixture of shock, fear and hurt invaded her eyes as his words sank in. Harry braced himself for the questions he knew were coming.
"Is it Bones?"
"Sue?" Harry knew that Susan fancied him, and he wasn't sure exactly where he's going with the Hufflepuff girl himself, but she wasn't the reason he was spurning Hermione. He shook his head. "I like her well enough, but no, it has nothing to do with her."
"But you're going to Hogsmeade with her. On a date, no less." A hint of bitterness entered her voice.
"Just as friends. And it wasn't my idea in the first place. And it was planned ages ago." Harry countered.
She flushed a dark red before turning away. "Why? Why can't it be me, then?"
It was a side of her Harry had never seen before: anger, jealousy, and desire for him. It was at once disturbing, heartening, and thrilling. And the truth was, there were so many reasons he could've fallen for her.
But love did not work like that.
"Hermione… I'm flattered, really. And I do like you; you are my best friend. Please don't take this the wrong way, but the thing is, I see you as a very dear friend—like the sister I never have, in fact—and nothing more."
"A very dear friend." She echoed, her expression unreadable. "A sister."
He took her hands in his and squeezed them gently. Hermione looked up, her brown eyes glistening, her lips trying to form a smile but failing. She pulled her hands out of his grip and turned her back on him. "I don't want to be just your friend or your sister."
"I'm sorry." What else could he possibly say?
She ran a hand across her face. "Give me some time, Harry." Hermione said in a constricted voice. "I need some time alone. Please?"
For one brief moment, he wanted nothing more than to pull her into his arms, to wipe away her tears and sooth her with kind words, but he couldn't—because he'd be doing the right things for the wrong reasons, and it would only hurt them both all the more.
"Of course." He said at last. "I'll… I'll see you later, Hermione."
With one last look at her shaking shoulders, he turned resolutely away and headed back to the castle. He couldn't help thinking that he might have just made a terrible mistake, wondering—knowing—that things between the two of them would never be the same again.
Harry took a deep breath and began casting as quickly as he could. A Vanishing Charm emptied the cauldron of all residues. A single Pack put the utensils away. A series of Banishers sent the bicorn horn, the mandrake root and the other leftover ingredients back to the cupboard. A dozen sealing charms had the potion bottles airtight and with one final, fluidic movement he cast two Summoning Charms, stacking the dozen vials of freshly-brewed Pepper-Up neatly in a box and bringing the Magical Theory to him. He couldn't help cheering up a little as the book smacked into his outreached hand; while the spells were nothing amazing or spectacular, doing magic was a joy unto itself. Shouldering his school bag, he picked up the box of potions and left for Madam Pomfrey's office.
Flames, no longer the bright green of floo-fire, crackled merrily in the fireplace while the nurse sat at her desk, amidst stacks of receipts, catalogues, scrolls and notes. She had been busy with the paperwork all day, filling order forms for potions, ingredients and the like for the next school term. Harry knocked on the door before entering. "Madam Pomfrey? I'm done."
The matron nodded as Harry put the box of Pepper-Up on her table. She picked one out and examined the potion for a moment. "The coloration is a bit off but otherwise this is exemplary work: in an academic setting I'd score it an Exceeds Expectations. Correct those little mistakes and you can improve to an Outstanding. Well done, Harry—you've come a long way."
"Thank you." He said with a smile, but Madam Pomfrey did not return it.
"On the other hand, I have to tell you that as much as I'd like to, I won't be supervising the rest of your detentions. The Headmaster is most insistent that you serve them with Professor Moody." The nurse scowled, not at him but for him. "Even though you should never have gotten them in the first place."
Harry snorted. "Tell me about it."
Harry entered the Great Hall to find it nearly deserted, but it was not exactly surprising given the time. Dinner was almost over and most had returned to the common rooms, although there were a few students milling about. At the Ravenclaw table a Slytherin and a Beauxbatons student were just beginning a game of wizard chess. Harry thought he caught glimpses of gold and silver and wondered if some of the spectators were betting on the outcome. Over at the next table, several Hufflepuffs were talking over desserts. One boy, whom Harry recognized as Wayne Hopkins, gave Harry a thoroughly unpleasant glare before muttering to his cohorts in a low tone; Harry scowled back in turn.
He had hoped that Dumbledore's speech on his behalf would nip in the bud any resentment the Hufflepuffs might felt toward him for "stealing the glory" of their champion, Cedric Diggory. What he did not expect was that they saw it as yet more proof of preferential treatment for the headmaster toward his favourite pupil—that Dumbledore not only turned a blind eye toward Harry's cheating, but was even now covering for him.
The Lion House as a whole suffered as well. The normally amicable Badgers turned remarkably cold toward them after Harry's friends declared openly their belief in his innocence. Harry suspected that, given his less-than-friendly relationship with the House of Snakes, someone might be manipulating things against him from the shadows.
Then there was the reaction of two particular Hufflepuffs. The fact that Cedric Diggory hadn't made any attempt at reconciliation wasn't lost to him. In fact, Harry had begun to wonder if he had made a mistake considering the other boy a friend in the first place. And then there was his other girl problem.
The two of them hadn't spoken for days, ever since his name came out of the Goblet of Fire. At first he wondered if she, too, thought he had cheated his way into the Tournament, but that idea went out the window when he saw her in Herbology class that Monday morning. She was utterly miserable and, with Padma Patil's help, Harry found out why: she caught a lot of heat from her housemates after she tried to defend Harry in the Hufflepuff common room. His heart went out to her while at the same time his annoyance with the Badger house grew.
Harry pushed all that out of his mind however, when he reached the Gryffindor table and found two familiar faces doing something quite out of character.
"Hey guys." Harry drew his wand and cast a diagnostic charm first on Ron, then Neville. "That's strange."
"What is it?" Ron asked, looking up from the parchment in front of him. "Is something wrong?"
"I'm still trying to figure it out." Harry glanced at Ron, who had the opened The Dark Forces: A Guide to Self-Protection in front of him and was obviously working on his DADA essay, then at Neville, who was cramming kidney pie into his mouth. His lips twitched into a smile. "You see, it's not every day I see you doing homework without prompting, or Neville doing a passable imitation of you at the dinner table."
Ron snorted. "I have Quidditch practice in twenty minutes, and Angelina won't let us go till ten thirty." He grumbled. "Bloody slave-driver, she is."
"Someone should check with Puddlemere United. Oliver Wood must've died and possessed her." Harry said dryly. He turned to Neville. "And what's your excuse?"
Neville, having finally swallowed his mouthful of food, spoke up."These are the end times, Harry. Deal with it."
Harry simply shook his head in amusement, and began piling mashed potatoes onto his plate. Ron scratched his chin absently. "Hey mate, you're good at this. Name three or more differences between the blasting spells Confringo and Expulso."
Harry rolled his eyes but took pity on his friend. "The Confringo: an area spell, causes its target to explode in flames, and generally more powerful. The Expulso: blows up target object, doesn't, and can be scaled down to act as a Banishing Charm."
"Harry! I need three inches for that!"
He smirked. "That's three differences you want. You turn it into three inches." Ron stuck his tongue out at him, but Harry ignored him and poured himself a cup of chilled prune juice. He and Neville talked Quidditch and other things for a few minutes until the blond boy said, in a strangely serious voice, "Mind if I ask you something, Harry?"
Harry raised an eyebrow. "Of course."
"Hermione was eating with the third years instead of with us. She's been doing that quite often lately." Neville said. "You wouldn't happen to know what's going on, would you?"
Harry grunted. He too had noticed Hermione's absence—how could you not, when one of your closest friends was avoiding you? "Business with the Headliner, I suppose."
"She sat with Ginny, not Colin."
"Maybe she wants to recruit her for the paper?"
"She refused to look our way."
"I blame it entirely on Ron. You know how she's always nagging him for his table manners. It must have pushed her over the edge at last." Harry suggested.
"Oy!" Ron looked up, annoyed. Neville rolled his eyes.
"And the other night when she did sit with us, you weren't."
"Hospital wing. One of the volunteers needed time off, so I offered." Harry explained. "There's nothing going on, Neville."
The blond boy gave him a pointed look. "Right, sure." He said at a last.
Harry glanced at Neville curiously. Something was going on, yes, but he didn't expect anyone to notice this, least of all Neville. Was he always so observant? It was as if this was a different Neville from the previous years. Ron's friendship must have really opened up the timid boy, he decided. Which reminded him—"You should get going or you're going to be late, Ron."
"Merlin's balls!" Ron swore, dumping his unfinished assignment into his bag and rushed off.
The remaining two boys exchanged a smile. Harry finished his drink and gestured to Neville. "Let's go."
The two of them departed for Gryffindor Tower, walking past a fidgeting Hannah Abbott. She knocked her bag off the bench when the boys walked by, but Harry simply walked around the mess and ignored the Hufflepuff girl. She looked slightly panicked for some reason; Neville sent a backward glance at her but followed Harry out of the Great Hall.
"What was that about?" He asked Harry as they began climbing the main staircase.
"Nothing." Harry answered testily. They turned on the third landing for a shortcut to the tower. Neville, clearly not satisfied with Harry's answer, opened his mouth—and promptly dropped to the floor.
"What—" Harry caught a flash of red at the corner of his eye. Even with his reflexes he couldn't duck out of the way in time, and he was forced to use his school bag as a makeshift shield. He staggered under the force, but the move nonetheless bought him precious seconds, allowing him to draw his wand and cast a shield just in time as multiple Stunners arrived. The combined force nearly, but couldn't shatter the defensive barrier, although Harry knew it was only a matter of time; his battered shield wouldn't survive another onslaught like this. A swish of his wand and the shield disappeared, as Harry quickly contemplated his next move. The Stunners had come from two directions—
"Homenum Revelio!" Like a radar, a wave of magic swooped over the surrounding area. A counter appeared in the back of Harry's mind. One, two, three… seven. "Oh bugger."
Had things been otherwise, he would have congratulated himself for his foresight. In this case however, he simply got ready to curse. There were seven people in his vicinity; excluding the (presumably) Stunned Neville that would give him six assailants. The odds were not in his favour.
Spells were sent flying his way again, but Harry did not strike back, instead focusing on a Banishing Charm that pushed Neville away from the crossfire. He dodged the spells as best as he could, but one of them grazed his left shoulder and tore off a strip of his robe. Harry recognized it as a Severing Charm and while not a combat spell, it could still cut flesh and could have seriously injured him. He seethed.
"Who the hell are you?" Harry shouted, but got no response. He thought they were male, but between their muffled voices, oversized robes, gloves, shrouded hoods and charmed-to-black ties, it was hard to be certain; they had ensured he could not identify them easily.
"Densaugeo! Expelliarmus! Everte Statum!" Harry roared, hoping to force an answer with a volley of spells. His mind was racing. His opponents were prepared, organized, had superior numbers, and given their height, were possibly senior students. Did he really have a chance to win?
Did he have to win?
There was a portrait about twenty yards back the way he came. If he reached it, he could get it to call for help, and his assailants just might be forced to escape—but could they have anticipated that as well? They had chosen this section of the castle, a shortcut to Gryffindor Tower and relatively clear of portraits, for their ambush. They knew he would use it and that, given the hours, it was unlikely others would happen upon them by chance.
And even if he did call for help, it would be some time before anyone could arrive at the scene. They could still curse him senseless before making their getaway. Last but not the least there was Neville: Harry knew he was the target, but could he run off and leave his friend behind with these people? Would they take it out on Neville if Harry managed to get away? Dare he risk it?
A wave of spells from his attackers clinched his decision.
No. He couldn't.
A chill went down his spine. Adrenaline coursed through his veins. The corners of his mouth lifted, turning his gritted teeth into a feral grin. It was strange… for he wasn't afraid at all. He would stand his ground and fight, whoever these people were.
Because sometimes, a man just had to do it, despite the impossible odds.
Iit's not like he hadn't done that before.
"Hey Alicia, Lee." Harry said wearily, looking the pair of sixth-year students up and down. Madam Pomfrey had dismissed the trainees for the night and he was just getting ready to go when the Gryffindors wandered in. He drew his wand. "Is there anything I can help you with?"
Lee rolled his eyes. "You know exactly what we're here for, Harry."
"Since we're the prefects you're most familiar with, we've been given the unenviable task of walking you home." Alicia said, eyeing the phoenix-and-holly wand apprehensively. Harry groaned.
"Is this really necessary? I'm not going to get lost and found my way into the Slytherin dorms, you know." He complained.
"We know you can handle yourself." Alicia said in a pacifying tone.
"We're here not to keep you safe from the idiots. We're here to keep the idiots from you, before you put them in the hospital wing." Lee explained. After a pause he added, "More of them, I mean."
Harry sighed. "Let's go."
A flash at the periphery of his vision alerted him of an incoming Trip Jinx, but he batted it back the way it came. There was a surprised gasp as one of his attackers stumbled, but before he could take advantage of it two of his opponents combined for a barrage of jinxes that forced Harry into a defensive position. Harry raised his shield for a second, angled in such a way that most of the spells were deflected instead of blocked, so as to conserve strength. His tripped opponent got back to his feet and rejoined the fight.
Harry had to revise his some of his earlier assertions. The first was that individually, his assailants were fairly competent duellists; he drew that conclusion through their spell repertoire. The second was that while his opponents worked together, they did not work together well. While these observations shed light on the identity of his attackers and from that, a possible motive for their attack, it was the third assertion that was the most important: they were trying to duel him, instead of fight him.
As much as he hated to admit it, Moody was right about one thing: Harry was really good at fighting, especially in an unlimited, 'anything that goes' setting. And that was what fighting was like in real life, anything could be used, there were no rules, unlike duelling. That fundamental difference would be his key to victory.
But first he needed to channel the Weasley twins and create some chaos. "Avis! Avis! Avis! Avis!"
One of the biggest disadvantages Harry faced was that he was fighting six people at once. He had to divide before he could conquer, and to divide he needed to distract some of his attackers. The two-dozen-strong flock of tiny red birds bursting from his wand was meant to do that, and while several of them were immediately struck down by stray spells, the rest scattered and zoomed off at Harry's command. The flock dived at the closest of his opponents, who began to cast a wide-area Banishing Charm, but at the last minute the birds changed directions and attacked the others instead. Caught casting a now-useless spell, the boy couldn't react in time as Harry blasted a Stunner directly into his chest, and the boy crumpled to the floor in a heap.
The rest of his opponents finally managed to Vanish Harry's squad of angry birds, but they were too late to help their fallen ally. Sidestepping a Jelly-Legs Jinx Harry bellowed, "Incarcerous! Mobilicorpus!"
The first spell created ropes that wrapped around his Stunned opponent; he was swiftly bounded from head to toe. The second sent the bound body flying straight into another assailant, knocking the breath out of him. With a well-aimed Summoner and Disarmer apiece Harry relieved the two of their wands. A Body-Bind Curse was thrown at him, but Harry swung his wand like a Beater's bat and redirected it into his wandless opponent, who landed on the floor rigid as a board. Harry's spirit soared; he had successfully taken out two of his six attackers.
Reinvigorated, he turned his wand at the one who was nearly undone by the rebounded tripping jinx, sensing that he might be the weakest link in the remaining quartet. His opponents had regrouped however, and with less strayed spells flying they were actually more focused. Harry quickly realized that when one of them landed a dark-blue curse on his left leg—a Bone-Breaking Curse. He hissed in pain as bones shattered, but wasted no time as he turned his stumble into a dive, moving out of the way of two converging curses. They collided and exploded into a million brilliant violet sparks over him.
"Ossio Emendo." Harry said through clenched teeth. Immediately he could feel the bones setting and mending, although it would still be a few vital seconds away before they healed enough to support his weight. His four attackers, sensing weakness, sought to capitalize on his immobility: Harry barely finished incanting the Shielding Charm before the first curse slammed into his magical barrier. They were not taking chances, he realized, as his attackers pinned him down and began breaking through his defence with pure, overwhelming firepower. It was time to pull something else out of his sleeve.
"Defodio! Defodio! Accio debris!" The pair of Gouging Spells did their jobs, removing some of the stones and mortar from the wall he targeted. As debris flew toward him he focused hard, visualizing the trajectory he intended for them. "Depulso!"
People often forgot that the Banishing Charm wasn't merely the opposite, but also an equal of a Summoning Charm. A well-cast Summoner had enough precision that it could take a vial of potions out of the cupboard without knocking another one over. Similarly, a well-cast Banisher could be used to send an object around obstacles—in this case, stone and mortar around Harry's shield. His opponent never saw it coming as the piece of debris slammed into his back. He dropped to the floor and did not get up again.
The briefest of distractions among his opponents allowed Harry, leg newly fixed, to move from his vulnerable position. Utilizing his trademark Disarming Spell again Harry obtained a third wand from his opponents; three down, three to go.
And that was when everything went black.
Alicia and Lee's wands appeared in their hands as if conjured, but Harry was even faster and his wand was already raised. The boy's hands shot up quickly.
"By Salazar, Potter! It's me!" Adrian Pucey said, looking genuinely scared.
"You shouldn't try to sneak up on us like that, Pucey." Harry huffed and pocketed his wand, but Alicia and Lee did not let their guard down.
"I did not!" The Slytherin protested. "I'm just good with walking quietly."
"What do you want, Snake?" Lee said frostily.
Pucey narrowed his eyes at the Gryffindor senior, but collected himself. "I just want a word with Potter."
"Make it quick." Alicia ordered, looking up and down the corridor. Pucey nodded and turned to Harry.
"Listen, I know it's hard to believe, but there are some of us in Slytherin who don't hate your guts." Despite Harry's snort he continued. "Well yes, you are a Gryffindor and Dumbledore's favourite and the Boy-who-lived and seeker on our rival Quidditch team, but all that only makes people dislike you. It's Malfoy and his people who're stirring things up and turned it into hatred."
Harry could see the sincerity in Pucey's eyes, and after working with the Slytherin for two months both in the hospital wing and on the Quidditch field he thought of the other boy as a friend, not just an acquaintance. His thoughts were also drawn to the Greengrass sisters, Daphne quiet and determined and Astoria bubbly and cheerful, both as passionate about Quidditch as he was.
"I know, but you have to admit, aside from you, Astoria and her sister I don't know any 'good' Slytherins. I think you're the exception rather than the norm." Harry said.
Pucey sighed. "There're more of us than you think—we just don't want to speak out and make ourselves targets in our own house. Look, I'm not defending Malfoy's actions. I'm just asking that please, please don't view every Slytherin as Dark-wizard-in-training and don't insult and make an enemy out of our entire house. That'll only push more people to Malfoy's side, and it is the last thing you want."
"I… understand." Harry nodded after a moment. "Thank you, Adrian."
Pucey looked slightly taken aback, but pleased at the Gryffindor's use of his given name. "You're welcome, Harry." He paused before adding with a small smile, "By the way, good job. You really did a number on them."
Anger flashed in Harry's eyes. "Believe me when I say, that they deserved every bit of it."
Harry leaped into action, or sideways in this case, before the shock sank in. Everything's gone dark! He couldn't see a thing! What spell was he hit with? Harry's senses tingled and he ducked again; he could have sworn that a spell just past him by. The smell of ozone told him that it was likely a fire-type curse. He had been hit by some kind of blinding curse! He only knew for certain that it wasn't a Conjunctivitis Curse, since despite his blindness he wasn't exactly in pain. But more importantly, how was he going to fight?
Oh, of course.
The Solar-Flare Charm couldn't help him regain his vision, but it levelled the playing field somewhat by robbing his opponents of theirs. Judging from the sound of their howls, it worked. Judging from the continued incantations however, they had decided to keep attacking. A random thought entered Harry's mind, as he wondered what a sight it must be to see four blinded wizards do battle. He was snapped out of his musing in a painful fashion, courtesy of a Cutting Curse across his back.
As he dropped to his knee in pain Harry berated himself: when did they flank him? Or had he turned around by accident and exposed himself? Why had he let his guard down, even for a second? He stopped himself from continuing further, for now was not the time to analyze his mistakes. It's time for action. "AquaEructo!"
For water conjuration most would use the more common spell Aguamenti. In this case, however, the Water-raising Charm Aqua Eructo was more suitable to Harry's purpose, for the water it created could be controlled by the caster's will. As he was blinded for the time being, he had to aim not with his eyes but with his mind, his intent. Channelling everything he had he focused on a single thought.
Enemies of Harry Potter, begone!
As if acting of its own accord Harry's wand rose, dragging his arm along for the ride. Harry felt a pressure on his arm and sensed moisture on his face, as water poured out of his wand like a water cannon. There was a yelp and a heavy thud, and Harry knew that one more of his opponents had been defeated. Swinging his wand he tried to turn the torrent of water against his remaining foes, but hit neither. What's more, they had begun their counterattack, using the water Harry conjured no less, with the twin screams of, "Glacius!"
From the sound of their voices Harry could tell that they were on opposite sides of him. They might also not have regained their sight yet, because instead of outright cursing him they were employing the Water-Freezing Charm—a wide-range spell—in order to turn Harry's magic against himself. Nonetheless, the new offensive was very effective. Harry dispelled his water cannon but at this rate, he could very soon be frozen by the water-turned-ice he conjured. Something came to mind, a spell that Hermione used on him last year during that game in the storm, when he lost his faithful Nimbus. Turning his wand on himself he roared, "Impervius!" and rushed at one of his opponents.
He could only guessed at his target's position, based on the sound of his spell and the direction the wave of freezing magic was travelling in. Water splashed and ice formed but neither touched him as his hastily cast Impervius Charm held. There was a sharp pain in his left eye and on that side of his face, as his opponent reacted with a curse that blew off Harry's glasses and sliced open his cheek, but it did not impede his charge. With a beastly snarl he jumped and took down his opponent in a flying tackle. They crashed into the floor with Harry on top, and while a part of him registered his quarry's body as distinctively female he did not let up. He raised his fist and, despite the pain from all over his body, pounded on her with all he had.
Harry had never been a violent boy and usually chose flight over fight given the chance. Nonetheless, he knew how to handle himself in fistfights—years of unwilling participation in Dudley's Harry Hunting games saw to that. Slamming down hard he felt a satisfying crunch beneath his fist, and the girl whimpered piteously, her nose messily broken. He reached for her wand but before he could snatch it, he was blasted off the fallen witch by a Bludgeoning Curse, courtesy of his last standing foe. He willed himself to get up, but his body couldn't obey.
He was about to be defeated.
He refused to be defeated.
"Carpe Retractum." Harry croaked and pointed his wand in what he hoped was the witch's direction; a choked 'oof' indicated that the magical ropes he conjured hit its mark. He yanked his wand hard and dragged the bound girl in front of him. The girl suddenly shrieked, and his last opponent screamed in horror. In the back of his mind Harry realized that she had taken a curse for him, and wondered how badly she'd been hurt. On the forefront, however, he concentrated on the horrified cry so that he could aim his next, last spell: "…stupefy."
Dimly he registered a thud in the distance. He had defeated his last enemy.
The next thing he knew, he was face down on the floor. His back felt like it's been lit on fire, his cheek was caked with blood, and his shoulder, his arms—or more accurately, everything—hurt. He needed Madam Pomfrey… the others too, and Neville… everything hurt so bad…
"What's going—by Morgana it's—"
…He couldn't fight anymore…
"Oh my gods—"
"Quick! Someone get Madam Pomfrey!"
"Don't be an idiot! We'll take them to the hospital wing now! Mobilicorpus!"
…He felt his wand slipping from his hand…
"Easy now… I got you, Potter…"
...There was light again, he could see again… he looked up…
…Then everything faded to black once more.
A/N: Events in this chapter take place between November 1st and 12th, 1994. The framing scenes are set on Thursday Nov 12th, the flashbacks with Hermione are on Sunday Nov 1st, and the ambush takes place on Wednesday Nov 4th.