Chapter 34: Time Out to be a Teen
Harry was more completely exhausted than he had ever been in his life. Added to his usual workload, which was considerable in and of itself, were twice-weekly attempts to breach Voldemort's defenses. He and the others used the Floo Network to travel to Grimmauld Place on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings, but so far, his attempts had always ended the same as they had the first time, with Harry being pushed back by some invisible barrier.
Harry and the other Gryffindor D.A. members were heading back from their usual meeting at about nine Wednesday night when they saw the notice for the customary February Hogsmeade visit posted on one of the school notice boards.
"What do you reckon, Harry?" Ginny asked as they continued down the corridor walking a few feet behind the other D.A. members, who were now happily making plans for the day away from school. "Do you want to go, or do you want to stay here and rest?"
"I think we're supposed to go to London that morning," Hermione interjected quietly after checking to make sure that no one was listening.
"We always go early enough that we could still make it to Hogsmeade after," Ron noted. He, of course, always took note of the hour at which they left the school, being denied his usual Saturday morning lie-ins. To his credit, he had never once complained, but that did not mean that he hadn't noticed.
"Yeah," Harry agreed, although he wasn't actually sure whether or not he wanted to go into Hogsmeade with the rest of the students. Since he had begun attempting to break into Voldemort's mind, he had found himself becoming inexplicably more negative towards things he had always enjoyed, and going to Hogsmeade was no exception. He and his friends supposed that it was due to exhaustion that his outlook had darkened.
Lately, Ginny had been the only person who could snap him out of one of these moods, and noticing his reticence, she said, "I'd like to go, Harry. I think it would do you some good, too, but it's up to you." She squeezed his hand lightly, and he once again felt as though he had been touched by a cool, refreshing breeze.
"I think you're right, Ginny," he said, suddenly decisive. "It's high time we had a bit of fun."
Hermione and Ron grinned at one another. They both loved that Ginny was able to make Harry see past the hardships in his life, and Hermione secretly wished that Ron would look at her in the same adoring manner as Harry looked at Ginny. She couldn't put her finger on a reason for it, but since Christmas, they had somehow seemed closer than they'd ever been.
Hermione sighed. Ron was caring and affectionate in his own way, but he had not changed from his old habit of being rather thick when it came to women. She smiled fondly at him as this thought ran through her head. She had known what she was in for when they had started dating, and she didn't think she would have changed him even if she could have.
The foursome got to the portrait hole a bit behind the others and quickly gave the Fat Lady the password. All of them, especially Ginny, had loads of homework to do and they began work, not speaking much as their quills scratched busily into the night. By the time he went up to his own dormitory and lay down in his four-poster, Harry had no thoughts in his head but that he wanted nothing more than a good night's sleep, for tomorrow was to be another full day.
Draco Malfoy used his invisibility cloak to follow the two Weasleys, Potter and Granger back to Gryffindor tower every Wednesday night after their stupid Defense meetings, even though it meant that he had to stay in his practice Quidditch robes and find a way to get up to the castle away from his teammates and under his Invisibility Cloak before the D.A. meeting was over. Usually, his quarry did not talk about anything of interest, but tonight they had broken away from the group to discuss the upcoming Hogsmeade weekend, and Draco had heard Ron mention going to London.
His interest piqued, he had gotten as close as he possibly could to them without revealing himself, but he had heard nothing more of interest besides the fact that Potter had been completely bowled over by his blood-traitor girlfriend. Draco had been hoping that Potter would not go into Hogsmeade, as it would mean another tedious day of following him and his stupid friends around. As soon as Ginny had said she thought he should go, however, he had agreed just like the weakling he was, and the young Death Eater was condemned to spend another day vanishing his footprints from the snow and watching the pathetic Gryffindors shop and make eyes at one another. He found the whole thing to be rather disgusting.
Draco walked slowly down the marble staircase and towards the dungeons, taking care to remain completely under his cloak lest he be seen. After descending the stone staircase into the damp underbelly of the castle, Draco proceeded more quickly down the corridor and glanced around carefully before opening the entrance to the communication chamber in which he had been contacting Lord Voldemort all year.
"My Lord?" Draco asked in what he hoped was a suitably humble voice.
"Ah, young Mr. Malfoy," hissed the evil voice. "I trust you have something to report?"
"I do," Draco answered, his knees already beginning to ache from the cold, rough stone of the floor. "Potter and his friends have been going to London on Saturday mornings."
"London?" the Dark Lord asked, and Draco was pleased to hear a note of interest in his voice. "And have you found out why they have been going to London?" he asked, his voice growing dangerous.
"Not yet, My Lord," Draco answered. "They didn't say anything else tonight, but I will find out."
"See that you do, young Malfoy," Voldemort hissed, sounding more snake-like than ever. "This interests me greatly. You will find out where they go and why, immediately."
"I will," Draco said, his voice betraying his relief that Voldemort did not seem displeased with his efforts. In fact, he had seemed to gain some favor in the Dark Lord's eyes after his success with the giant, who had been caught by some of the Death Eaters near his clearing in the forest the day after the attack and was now being trained for use as a member of Voldemort's army.
"I will expect a new report soon, young Malfoy," Voldemort said, and the menace in his voice was unmistakable. A moment later, the chamber was silent, and Draco Malfoy knew he was alone once again.
"Expelliarmus!" Harry cried after wandlessly casting a leg-locker curse at his teacher. Kingsley Shacklebolt's wand flew soundlessly out of his hand and Harry caught it neatly and stowed it in his pocket. Harry had improved immensely over the past few weeks. As his ability to use wandless magic had increased, so had his dueling skill. He won nearly half of the practice duels with the Auror now.
"That was excellent, Harry," Shacklebolt said after Harry had lifted the leg-locker curse and returned his wand. "You have been practicing nightly, I assume?"
"Yes," Harry said. He was covered in sweat and he knew he would be sore in the morning, but his breathing was not labored in the slightest. He and his friends were in better shape than they had ever been, mostly due to the twice-daily runs and the practice duels every evening, and it was showing in their progress. Harry, Ginny, Ron, Hermione and the other sixth and seventh years were dueling faster and harder than ever before.
Kingsley arched his eyebrows at his student, who had taken a seat at the table opposite him. "Very well, then," he said seriously. "I believe that with the training you have been receiving in Defense Against the Dark Arts and your progression in wandless magic, we are ready to move to the next step."
"The next step, sir?" Harry inquired.
"You give the enemy too much notice of what you are going to do," Kingsley said.
Harry stared at him. "I don't see how I can go faster."
"You can't," Kingsley replied. "Your reflexes are good, and with a little more honing you will be as fast as any Auror I've trained. No, what you need to learn now is how to perform soundless magic so your enemy will not be aware of your spell until it hits him. This, combined with more training in wandless magic, will make you a formidable opponent indeed."
Harry could not believe he had never considered this before, and as he packed up his bag and prepared to go to his Defense Against the Dark Arts class, he once again felt slightly overwhelmed. He had never practiced soundless magic before, and he felt as though he were barely hanging onto the skills he had already learned. Not for the first or the last time, he wondered whether or not he would be able to master all that had been required of him.
"Harry!" Ron called as they approached Tonks's classroom. "How was your lesson with Kingsley, mate?"
"Fine," Harry answered shortly. He was exhausted and his mood had only grown fouler as he had walked through the corridors full of chattering students.
"Are you all right, Harry?" Hermione asked perceptively as she joined them, her overflowing book bag slung over her shoulder and weighting her right side down slightly.
"I'm fine," Harry repeated. "Only now Kingsley wants me to learn how to perform magic without saying any of the spells."
"Soundless magic?" Hermione replied, sounding impressed. "That's above N.E.W.T.-level, you know."
"So's wandless magic, Hermione, and Harry's done that," Ron replied, looking at his friend with a slightly awestruck expression on his face. They had only recently found out about Harry's ability to do magic without a wand. Harry hadn't told them about it before, feeling uncomfortable with the fact that he was practicing magic that was leaps and bounds above that which his friends were learning.
"That's different, Ron," Hermione said. "Wandless magic is an innate ability. Anyone can do soundless magic if they learn the skill. Will you teach us, Harry?"
"I don't even know how yet, Hermione," Harry answered irritably as they chose seats along the sides of the large classroom and waited for their instruction to begin.
"Lay off it for now, Hermione," Ron whispered, catching the look on Harry's face. It was apparent that he was in one of his moods again, and Ron and Hermione had learned that it was best to leave him alone until Ginny could deal with him.
Just then, Tonks came into the room from her office, a cheerful smile on her face, her black hair tied back in a tight bun much like the one Professor McGonagall usually wore. She had not revealed her status as a metamorphmagus to any of the other students, and Ron, Harry and Hermione had grown quite used to her normal appearance.
"Right, everyone here?" she said, scanning the room as she always did. "Good. Good afternoon, you lot. Are you ready to work?"
The class nodded their assent and stowed their belongings safely under the long tables. Everyone liked Professor Tonks's classes, as they were action-packed and involved very little bookwork.
"I see that we have a few students opting to miss the mandatory daily runs," Tonks said, looking at a long piece of parchment critically. "Draco Malfoy?" she called. Draco gazed at her sullenly. "Daily workouts are a requirement for this class, Mr. Malfoy," Tonks said severely, and Hermione snickered behind her hands. They had learned early on that Tonks could be as severe as McGonagall if she felt it necessary, and it always tickled Hermione when she did so.
"I shall be assigning you detention, let's see…" Tonks continued, looking at another piece of parchment on her desk, "on Monday through Thursday of next week. In addition to your normal required runs, Mr. Malfoy, you will spend four three-hour periods with me doing extra physical training to make up for your recent absences." Draco looked supremely disdainful, but Tonks did not seem concerned as she continued, "I believe the north tower stairwell would be a most appropriate place for this detention. Joining Mr. Malfoy will be…" she checked her list. "Well, I see that I was mistaken. Mr. Malfoy seems to be the only member of this class who has taken it upon himself not to perform as required. I will see you on Monday," she finished, fixing Malfoy with a stern stare.
"Now that has been taken care of," she said, looking back up at the rest of her class. "We shall continue where we left off last lesson. Please pair with your assigned partners."
As the class paired off, Tonks came up to Harry. "Ready to assist again, Harry?" she asked cheerfully.
"Sure," said Harry, shrugging. He had gotten so far ahead of the rest of the class that it had become unfair to pair him with any other student, so Tonks had made him her unofficial assistant, calling on him to help with demonstrations and to assist his classmates as they practiced.
Tonks easily caught the disgruntled look on his face. "What's eating you, kid?" she asked quietly.
"Nothing," Harry answered, and he was spared further questioning by an increased amount of confusion in the room as his classmates began practicing. After Christmas, Tonks had begun teaching them offensive and defensive uses of some of the charms they had learned in their first five years of school, and they were now practicing combinations of spell-casting and physical moves.
Tonks looked at Harry critically, but there was not time for a talk at that moment. "Right," she said. "Harry, go around the class and make corrections. There's a lot of sloppy technique out there."
Harry nodded and began his rounds, much as he did during the D.A. meetings. Tonks was right, there was quite a bit of sloppy technique going on as his classmates forgot what they had learned about maneuvering in the excitement of finally being able to cast spells at their opponents. The double period went by quickly as he stopped duel after duel, reminding the other students of their dodging maneuvers and demonstrating the correct technique.
Hermione seemed to be having more trouble than many of them, and she had confessed to Harry and Ron just after Christmas that this was the first time in her life she had been required to perform large amounts of physical activity. Although her coordination was a bit off, she learned quickly and the physical exercise requirements had toned her body and made her, in Ron's opinion, even more beautiful. She listened intently as Harry described the roll-and-attack combination they had learned the week before.
"My body just won't do that," she said in frustration after bruising her shoulder in another attempt.
"It will, Hermione," Harry insisted none-too-kindly. "You only have to pull your shoulder down like I showed you before you drop into your roll. You're too afraid of hitting the ground to let your body relax properly."
"I'm trying, Harry," Hermione responded, her feelings hurt.
"Well, you'll need to try harder, won't you?" Harry said meanly.
"Harry," Ron began, his voice harder than usual. "You don't have to talk to her like that."
"Ron," Harry spat, turning on his friend, "if Hermione tries that move in any kind of battle, she'll be killed. Is that what you want?"
Ron and Hermione stared at Harry for a moment before glancing at each other, turning, and walking to the other side of the room where Tonks was critiquing some other students. Harry watched them go with the now-familiar bubble of rage and irritation fighting its way into his throat. Couldn't they see that he was only trying to make them stronger and to prepare them for what they all knew was in the not-so-distant future?
Harry tried to shake off the feeling that he had done something wrong as he continued around the room for the rest of the period, demonstrating the correct technique time after time.
Ron and Hermione left the room as quickly as they could when the bell sounded, and Harry was on his own as he picked up his own things and prepared to go to the Great Hall for dinner.
"Could I have a word, Harry?" Tonks asked just as he reached the door.
Harry sighed and turned around. "Sure," he said, trying not to sound as disgruntled as he was feeling.
"What's going on with you?" Tonks asked directly as Harry came back in and sat down. "I've never seen you in such a bad mood. Is something the matter?"
"No," Harry said. "Everything's brilliant." He couldn't keep the sarcasm out of his voice, and his mood grew even blacker as Tonks frowned at him.
"Look, kid," she said without preamble, "Your friends are trying their hardest. You know that. It's your job to help them, not cut them down."
"My job, is it?" Harry said bitterly, and all that he had been thinking over the past weeks came spilling out all of a sudden, as if a dam had broken. "Everything's my job, isn't it? It's my job to teach everyone else how to survive when I'm not even sure how I'm going to survive myself. It's my job to learn magic more advanced than even the Aurors know, and it's my job to break into bloody sodding Voldemort's head so I can tell the Order what he's planning. Every bloody thing is my job and I'm tired of it. I didn't ask for this!"
Tonks gaped at him. "You're doing what?" she whispered.
"Oh, is that another one of Dumbledore's secrets?" Harry demanded, even though he realized immediately that Tonks had never been told about his Legilimency attempts on Voldemort. "Yeah, suppose no one told you that twice a week I have to –"
"Shhh!" Tonks interrupted suddenly, glancing suspiciously toward the back of the room. She got up from the table and rushed down the center aisle, grabbing at the air in front of the door. To Harry's great surprise, he heard a muffled yell and a moment later saw the pale face of Draco Malfoy as his invisibility cloak slipped off.
"Malfoy," Harry growled, raising his wand.
"Harry, stop!" Tonks cried before he could do anything. "Don't start a fight!"
"Why not?" Harry asked, his eyes never leaving the blonde Slytherin.
"What are you doing, eavesdropping on personal conversations?" Tonks gave Malfoy's shoulder a shake when he didn't answer. "Twenty-five points from Slytherin!"
Harry gaped at her. Twenty-five points? That was all?
"I'll be confiscating this as well," Tonks said, snatching the invisibility cloak, and Harry thought he detected a flash of outright fear on Malfoy's face, but he didn't say anything. "And as for what you heard…" Tonks broke off and looked around the room, still holding Malfoy tightly by the shoulder. "Obliviate!" she said, pointing her wand at him.
Tonks released her hold on his shoulder and backed away from him. After a moment had passed and Malfoy's expression became a bit clearer, she said in her normal tone, "Did you forget something, Mr. Malfoy?"
Malfoy looked around in confusion. "No," he said in a slightly bemused voice.
"Then I would suggest you leave my classroom immediately," Tonks cautioned him. "I will see you on Monday at seven for your first detention."
"Monday at seven," Draco echoed, and he turned and left, seeming more than a bit disoriented as he opened the heavy door and went out into the corridor.
Tonks turned back to Harry, who was staring at her incredulously. "Did you just erase Malfoy's memory?" he asked.
"Just the last half hour or so of it," Tonks replied matter-of-factly.
"But Tonks, he's a student," Harry said, noticing as he did that he sounded a bit like Hermione. "Won't you get into trouble?"
"Harry, what he just witnessed was a matter of Order security," Tonks said. "What I did was necessary, and if anyone were to find out about it, the reasons I performed the charm would be quite understood."
Harry couldn't believe it. He was used to a playful, clumsy and girlish Tonks or an occasionally strict Professor Tonks, but the woman who stood before him was every inch an Auror.
"Kiddo," Tonks continued, and Harry was still too astounded to notice that she had used Sirius's nickname for him, "Were you serious when you said that you were attempting to break into Voldemort's mind?"
Harry snapped back into the present and nodded at her.
"Okay," she said, trying to hide her distress at this news. "I can understand why you're feeling overwhelmed and tired, then, but in future please try not to take it out on your friends. We're here for you, Harry, anytime you need us. Always remember that."
Harry nodded again, still speechless.
"Right, go and have your dinner," Tonks told him, waving him toward the door and turning back toward her desk, Malfoy's invisibility cloak held tightly in one of her hands. Harry was so distracted by all that had happened that he didn't notice how pale she had become, or the fact that her hands shook as she sat down at her desk and took out a clean sheet of parchment and a quill. She briefly considered sending the Order's signal to Grimmauld Place, but in her current state, she was afraid she would alarm everyone.
Remus, she wrote, trying to figure out exactly how to phrase what she was thinking.
I'm concerned that everything is becoming a bit much for Harry, and I do mean everything. Please contact me as soon as possible.
As she folded and magically sealed the bit of parchment, stowing it in her pocket until she could get up to the owlery and send it with one of the school's barn owls, Tonks wondered how much Harry could be expected to take before he lost sight of himself completely.
After another unsuccessful attempt to breach Voldemort's mental defenses, Harry was left as tired and as pale as he usually was. He allowed Mrs. Weasley to fuss over him for a few moments as the others prepared to return to Professor McGonagall's office at Hogwarts, and when he took his own handful of Floo Powder and stepped into the grate, it was with a very tired and slightly hoarse voice that he said, "Hogwarts!" and spun away out of sight.
As Harry stepped out of the grate in McGonagall's office, Ron, Hermione and Ginny were waiting for him, brushing the ash off their cloaks.
"Are you all right, Harry?" Hermione asked anxiously as Ginny approached him and wrapped him in a tight hug.
"I'm okay," Harry said wearily, leaning into Ginny's hug as though she were the only thing keeping him standing. The truth was, he felt as though he had been in half a dozen duels in the space of just a half an hour and all he wanted to do was sleep.
"You still up for Hogsmeade, mate?" Ron asked. By now, they had all grown used to Harry's exhaustion after his Legilimency attempts and they knew the best way to deal with it was just to give him some time and space, and not to treat him as if anything was wrong.
"Yes, he is," Ginny answered for him, grabbing Harry's hand and giving it a quick squeeze before he could protest. "He just needs some time to rest first. What would you three think about resting for a bit before we go?"
Ron glanced at Hermione, and Harry could tell that he was reluctant to wait even for a little while. Ron loved Hogsmeade, mainly for Honeyduke's sweet shop and the Three Broomsticks pub, which boasted fresh butterbeer and a curvy barmaid called Rosemerta. Harry also knew that Ron was itching to have some time alone with Hermione, but he had been waiting for an opportunity to talk to all of them about what had happened with Tonks and Malfoy the previous day, so he said, "I wouldn't mind resting a bit, if that's okay. Can we just go to the common room for a while before we leave?"
"Of course, Harry," Hermione said, standing on Ron's foot. "It should be pretty empty in there on a Saturday morning."
She was right. Besides a couple of second years playing a game of wizard's chess in the far corner, the common room was deserted. Harry supposed that everyone had either gone on to Hogsmeade or was in the library or on the grounds.
After they had settled in their usual spots and checked to make sure no one was listening, Harry filled them all in on what had happened with Malfoy in Defense Against the Dark Arts.
"Tonks obliviated him?" Hermione asked, looking as though she couldn't decide whether to be horrified, amused, or deeply impressed.
"Yes," Harry said. "She said it was a matter of Order security and I reckon she was right. What was Malfoy doing, anyway, hiding under an invisibility cloak and listening in on us?"
"Likely he wanted to see what he could find out to tell his father," Ron suggested.
"Or Voldemort," Harry said.
"Harry, we've been through this. You really think Malfoy is a Death Eater?" Hermione asked exasperatedly.
"Yes, I do," Harry said, and at that very moment he was struck with a thought. "Malfoy has an invisibility cloak," he said, thinking hard.
"Of course he does, Harry, if Tonks took one away from him," Ginny said.
"What if Malfoy's the one who gave Grawp that club?" Harry asked.
"How would Malfoy even know about Grawp?" Hermione asked. "Dumbledore didn't even know about him."
"What if he's been following us all year?" Harry responded.
"When would he have time?" Ron pointed out. "He's got a full load of classes just like all of us."
"But you told me what happened in Tonks's class," Ginny interjected. "He hasn't been doing his running. I wonder why?"
"If he wanted to follow Harry, he'd have been doing his physical training," Hermione pointed out. "We all go every morning and evening."
"I think he has been going," Harry said flatly. "I just think Tonks can't count him because she can't see him."
"Don't you think you're getting a little…well, a little paranoid, Harry?" Hermione asked tentatively. "There's no way Malfoy's been following you all year. It's just not possible."
"And why isn't it possible, Hermione?" Ginny broke in aggressively. "We know he has an invisibility cloak. Merlin knows I've heard enough about you three's exploits under Harry's cloak to believe that they make a lot of things possible."
"Malfoy's a Death Eater and he's following me and reporting to Voldemort," Harry repeated with even more conviction. "And I bet he's the one who got Grawp to attack Hagrid."
"Harry," Hermione said, ignoring a warning look from Ron, "it just doesn't make much sense, that's all I'm saying."
"It makes as much sense as anything any of the rest of us has come up with," Ginny said staunchly. "Why don't you two go on ahead?" she continued. "Harry and I will catch up with you for lunch at the Three Broomsticks, okay?"
When Hermione looked like she was about to continue the argument about Malfoy, Ron gave her a significant glance and said, "Come on, Hermione, I want to get to Honeyduke's before they run out of sugar quills." With one final glance back at Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione climbed through the portrait hole and left for Hogsmeade.
After they were gone, Ginny reached over and gently pulled Harry down so that he was lying on the sofa, his head in her lap. For a few moments neither of them spoke. They just sat quietly, Ginny running her hands through Harry's hair as he reclined with his eyes closed and the ghost of a smile on his face.
Ginny finally broke the silence. "I think you're right about Malfoy," she said quietly. "Have you told Dumbledore?"
"Not yet," Harry said, and it felt good to be talking with someone who was not challenging every word he said. "You think I should?"
"Yes," Ginny said simply. "I think you should."
They sat in silence for a few more moments, Harry enjoying the rare sensation of resting and of being cared for. He had never had anyone in his life like Ginevra Weasley, someone who put him first, no matter what. He sat up slowly, warmth spreading through his body, and without a thought of who might be watching, he pulled her to him and kissed her.
Ginny kissed him back, but after only a short time, she pulled away, glancing around the common room. "What do you say we get out of here and go on to Hogsmeade, Harry?" she whispered, her breath tickling his ear.
"Sure," he said. "Let's go."
They got up and put their cloaks on quickly, ignoring the giggles of the chess-playing second-years as they left the common room and headed toward Hogsmeade, arriving two full hours before they were to meet Ron and Hermione for lunch at the Three Broomsticks.
"Where do you want to go first?" Harry asked as they walked with their arms wrapped securely around each other's waists.
"We've been everywhere a million times," Ginny said, looking up and down the busy street. "Why don't we head up to the Shrieking Shack?" she suggested, grinning at him with a gleam in her eye.
Harry couldn't help but grin back. It was the first time since Fred's death that he'd seen her in such a playful mood. "Sounds good," he said, and they headed up past the stile and around to the back entrance of the ramshackle old house.
"Secret Unsecured," Harry said, tapping his wand to the rickety gate. He heard the click of the locks, and he and Ginny ran up to the house, laughing.
"Secret Secured," Harry said as soon as they had gone into the back door of the house. As he heard the locks click behind them, he turned to Ginny, who wasted no time in pulling him into a hard and passionate kiss.
"Don't you want to go someplace more, erm…" Harry began, blushing furiously in spite of himself.
"More private?" Ginny supplied helpfully.
"Er, yeah," Harry said.
"Lead the way, Mister Potter," she said cheekily.
Draco Malfoy couldn't find his invisibility cloak, and he was panicking more than slightly as his roommates and fellow Slytherins prepared for the day at Hogsmeade. He had to find that cloak; without it, how was he supposed to trail Potter? Last time they had been given a Hogsmeade weekend, Potter had told his friends that he was the subject of a prophecy. Draco couldn't afford to miss another revelation of that magnitude.
After twenty more minutes of increasingly frantic searching, he gave up knowing that if he was going to have any chance whatsoever of following Potter, he would have to leave soon. I will simply have to be more careful, he reasoned, trying to quell the growing panic settling into the very pit of his stomach. He resolved to do his best to follow them without being seen.
Draco walked alone to Hogsmeade, although Pansy Parkinson, who had still not given up on the idea of dating the Malfoy heir, kept trying to wave him over. Crabbe and Goyle, who had been excluded from most of Draco's activities over the year, had already gone ahead.
"No doubt they're already stuffing their faces at Honeyduke's," Draco muttered with disdain. He would not have admitted it to anyone but himself, but he would have preferred their company to no company at all.
"Stop thinking like that, Malfoy," he grumbled, kicking a small rock out of his path. "You have a job to do, and having those two goons hanging around wouldn't help matters."
"Talking to yourself, Malfoy?" Dean Thomas jeered as he, Neville, and Seamus passed him on the road.
"Sod off, Mudblood" Draco responded fiercely, pulling out his wand. He was not in the mood for this today.
"Oooooh, we're really scared," Dean said tauntingly, ignoring the reference to his Muggle parentage though all three Gryffindors had also drawn their wands.
"I'd put those away if I were you," the pompous voice of Ernie MacMillan broke in.
"What's it to you?" Seamus asked, continuing to point his wand at Malfoy.
"I am a prefect," Ernie reminded them, sticking out his chest in a way that would have reminded Harry forcibly of Percy Weasley. "As are you, Draco. I would advise you all to watch yourselves unless you would like a detention."
Malfoy did not waver, but Dean, Neville and Seamus reluctantly stowed their wands and continued down the road, talking angrily to one another.
"What's gotten into you, Malfoy?" Ernie asked after the others had gone. "I would hope I need not remind you of your duties as a prefect. The professors have entrusted us to –"
"I am more than aware of my duties, MacMillan," Draco answered in what he hoped was a menacing voice. "So I'll tell you what I told those pathetic Gryffindors: sod off."
Ernie looked properly horrified at Draco's tone but chose not to pursue it, perhaps because the ill-tempered Slytherin's wand was now trained upon him. Shrugging slightly and making a mental note to keep an eye on Malfoy, he continued down the road, catching up with some of his Hufflepuff friends who had gone ahead of him.
Malfoy refrained from muttering to himself the rest of the way to Hogsmeade. He had lost his cool and he knew it, and as he began to search the village for Potter and his friends, he was starting to wonder whether he was losing his own sanity. No sooner had this thought crossed his mind than his Malfoy pride slipped firmly back into place. Of course he was not losing his mind, and the fact that he had separated himself from the rest of the students only emphasized the fact that his station was now so much greater than anyone else's at Hogwarts.
I serve Lord Voldemort, Draco reminded himself as he looked into each of the shops. When the new regime is in place, I will be honored above all of these pathetic do-gooders.
After an hour of looking into all the usual haunts of the Hogwarts students, Draco was forced to consider the possibility that Potter and his girlfriend had not come to Hogsmeade at all. He had seen Ron Weasley and the know-it-all Mudblood Granger in Madam Puddifoot's, but they had not been discussing anything of interest to him. Just as he was about to head back up to the castle, Draco caught sight of his quarry just coming into the village.
Taking care to track them without making himself seen, Draco followed as they walked up the long main street, and he continued behind them as they took what he recognized as the trail to the back entrance of the Shrieking Shack. He made a face of disgust as they ran to the door, hand in hand, laughing like idiots, and he took a moment to ponder his next move. Without his invisibility cloak, he knew he would have to be more careful than he had before. While they were at the school or in the village, it would be easy enough to pretend his presence was mere coincidence, but if he got caught in the Shrieking Shack Potter would know he was up to something, and being detected was something he had to avoid at all costs.
Draco weighed the possibility of getting caught against Lord Voldemort's anger if Potter and Weasley were discussing the reasons for their mysterious trips into London and he missed it. A few moments later, he decided the greater risk was of missing the information, and he carefully tapped the rusty old gate and whispered, "Secret Unsecured."
It seemed that the click of the lock on the gate and the back door was louder than usual. Draco froze, feeling very exposed without his cloak. It was not that he was afraid of Harry Potter in particular, but that he was afraid of Voldemort's reaction if his mission was discovered. After a minute had passed and no one had appeared to investigate the noise, Draco proceeded quickly through the back garden and to the door, which he eased open as quietly as possible.
He did not relock the door owing to the fact that he needed to be able to leave quickly if he thought he was about to be discovered. He proceeded cautiously through the front of the house and then up the creaking staircase, taking each step as quietly as possible.
When he reached the landing, he saw the flickering light from a fire in a grate, and he put his back against the wall and slowly inched towards the open door to listen. He had only gotten about halfway to the open door, however, when he stopped and his face contorted with revulsion. Potter and Weasley were not discussing anything of import. In fact, they were not discussing anything at all. The sounds coming from that room were of an entirely different nature.
Feeling as though he had been branded with a hot iron, Draco hurried as quickly as he could down the stairs and out the back door, where he stopped and leaned against the house, breathing heavily, disgust rushing through every part of him. When he had regained his breath sufficiently, he walked out of the back garden, turned to the gate and said, "Secret Secured." As he walked away from the Shack, he found himself to be extremely glad that no one would ever know he had been there.
"Harry, the Snitch is right below you!" Ron called from the goalposts at their final Quidditch practice before they played Hufflepuff that weekend. "Wake up, mate!"
Harry's mind had been wandering back to his most recent attempt to perform distance Legilimency on Voldemort. There had been something different the previous Tuesday evening; it was subtle, but Harry could feel it all the same. He knew he had gotten closer to breaking down the Dark Lord's defenses - he wasn't sure how he knew, but he knew. There had been just a little bit of give before he had been pushed back this time, and as Harry sat on his broom in the middle of a rather chilly Quidditch practice, he was trying to figure out what he had done differently so that he could expand upon it and try again on Saturday morning.
At Ron's exasperated shout from the end of the pitch, he snapped back to attention and saw the Snitch hovering about fifteen feet directly below him. As Harry gave chase, it sped off toward the opposite end of the pitch, but his Firebolt made excellent time, and he had the struggling Snitch in his hands within the minute.
The rest of the team cheered for him as usual, but he noticed that Ron was glaring at him from the goalposts. Ron didn't say anything, though, until practice was over and they had changed back into their regular school robes.
"Harry, you have to pay attention on the pitch!" Ron said loudly as he, Ginny, and Harry walked back toward the school. "When you're playing Seeker, you have to be focused on –"
"He knows, Ronald," Ginny said. "You already said it a million times. I think Harry gets the point."
"Ginny, the Snitch is worth a hundred and fifty points, in case you don't remember, and it ends the game!" Ron exclaimed.
"Does it really, Ronald?" she asked sarcastically. "Only I reckon if I'd forgotten that, you'd have to chuck me in St. Mungo's for memory loss."
"Harry," Ron said, ignoring his little sister. "You just can't let your concentration go like that, mate. This game should be an easy one, but I need my Seeker to –"
"Catch the Snitch?" Harry suggested, even though he was already thinking about Legilimency again and had barely caught most of the conversation.
"Exactly," Ron said. "And you're not going to catch it if you –"
It was probably lucky for Ron that Hermione showed up at that very moment, because it looked as though Ginny was about to interject again. The tips of both their ears were beginning to turn red, which was never a good sign.
"Ron, Ginny, Harry!" Hermione exclaimed, her cheeks pink from late winter chill as she hurried to meet them. "Hagrid's gotten out of the hospital wing, and he's gone back home!"
"Did they fix his house?" Harry asked, changing directions to head towards the gamekeeper's hut. They had all been to visit Hagrid in the hospital wing as often as they had been allowed to, and they tried as best as they could to cheer him up. The betrayal of his half-brother had hit him hard.
"I think so," Hermione answered. "I haven't been there yet. I was going to go up and visit with him while you all were at Quidditch practice, but Madam Pomfrey said he'd been allowed to leave this afternoon."
"That's great!" Ron said.
"We'll have to hurry if we want to make curfew, though," Ginny observed, "unless you brought your cloak, Harry?"
"No, I didn't bring it," Harry answered, "and besides, there's no way it would cover all four of us."
"We'll just have to make it a quick visit, then," Hermione said decisively, striding forward to lead the way on.
"Right," Ron said, catching up to her and grabbing onto her hand.
When they reached the gamekeeper's hut, they saw that it looked exactly as it had before Grawp's attack, and Harry figured that Dumbledore had probably done the repair work himself.
As they reached the door, it suddenly swung open to reveal Hagrid, looking as large and as healthy as ever. Without a word, he seized all four of them in a hug that knocked their heads together and threatened to crack their ribs.
"Yeh came," he said. "Yeh came ter welcome me back! Knew yeh would!"
Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny glanced at one another uneasily. They had known Hagrid would be glad to see them because he usually was, but he seemed a little too effusive in his greeting. It seemed as though he had seriously considered the fact that they wouldn't come, that he would be left alone.
"Of course we're here, Hagrid," Hermione said quickly. "We're glad you're out of hospital now. Everything okay?" She peered at him anxiously, but relaxed when she saw no sign of injury left on the gamekeeper.
"Righ' as rain," Hagrid said, but there was a definite note of sadness in his voice, and they had all heard it before. He still could not believe that his brother had turned on him. "Why'd Grawpy do that?" he asked suddenly. "Why'd he want ter be Gurg so bad? I kept tryin' to explain ter him that we didn't need a Gurg when it were just the two of us in the Forest, but 'e said I was Gurg anyway. I reckoned it weren't no harm in lettin' him if it made him feel more secure, you know, like 'e was with his own tribe."
Harry glanced at Ginny, who shook her head slightly, indicating that she did not think it was a good idea for Harry to confide his suspicions about Malfoy to Hagrid at that very moment.
"We don't know," Harry answered, feeling like a liar.
"We're so sorry, Hagrid," Hermione said sympathetically.
"S'not yeh lot's job ter know," Hagrid said roughly, wiping at his eyes with his enormous hands. "Where're me manners?" he continued, trying to sound more cheerful. "Here yeh are, visitin' me house, and I 'aven't even offered yeh summat to drink."
"It's okay, Hagrid," Ginny said immediately, sharing the other's suspicions about anything that the gamekeeper might serve to them. "We can't stay, really, we'll miss curfew."
"Yeah," Ron agreed, although Harry strongly suspected that he had only done so because he wanted to hurry back to Gryffindor Tower and break into his hoard of Honeyduke's sweets.
"Alrigh'," Hagrid answered sadly. "I knew yeh couldn't stay. You'll come back soon, won't yeh?"
"Of course we will," Hermione answered kindly, and he patted her on the head gently, causing her to struggle to retain her balance.
"Thanks," Hagrid said, once again wiping at his eyes. "It's jist so lonely out here now, without Grawpy…" His eyes filled up with huge tears.
"Oh, Hagrid," Ginny said, turning back to him. "We'll be back, we promise. You know we will."
"I know," Hagrid muttered, blinking. "Bein' silly."
"Try not to worry," Hermione said kindly as they prepared to leave.
"You lot be careful goin' on up ter the school," Hagrid cautioned in a more normal voice as he held the door to his hut open for them.
"We will," they promised, and set off back up the hill. They barely made it to Gryffindor Tower before curfew, and the Fat Lady clicked her tongue at them as they entered.
Lupin sat tiredly in the armchair in his bedroom at Grimmauld Place. He was worried about Harry. He had talked with Tonks at great length about Harry's recent behavior at school, and he had noticed how much strain the repeated attempts on Voldemort's mind were causing him. He wondered for the umpteenth time whether they were placing too much responsibility on one so young, but he reminded himself that Harry had taken all of it on willingly, even gladly, and he knew that if they tried to stop him, he would only attempt to do it on his own. The results of that could be disastrous.
He sighed. He really wished that he could spend some time face-to-face with Harry, but he knew he was busy with school, and Lupin himself was busy trying to bring some of his fellow werewolves onto the side of the Order in the war. That was proving difficult, as Fenrir Greyback, the most menacing of his kind, was threatening anyone who joined Dumbledore.
Something had to be done about Harry, though, so Lupin checked his watch. It was just after nine in the evening, and he knew that curfew had passed for the students. He pulled his amulet from underneath his robes and held onto it tightly, feeling it warm in his hands as it connected with the one Harry wore at school.
At Hogwarts, Harry felt the warmth of the tiny bottle that was concealed under his robes and kissed Ginny quickly, excusing himself to go up to his dormitory, which he hoped would be empty. Although his friends all knew about the amulet by now, he still preferred privacy when he was talking to his guardian.
"Hi," Harry thought, concentrating on the connection between the warm charm in his hands and the one held by Lupin.
"Hello, Harry," Lupin replied warmly, but Harry could feel his concern. "How are you holding up?"
"All right," Harry said, wondering where this was going.
"Listen, Harry, I know that you probably have homework to do, but I was hoping we could talk for a few minutes."
"Sure," Harry replied.
"Tonks told me about your talk after Defense Against the Dark Arts last week," Lupin said. "She said you've seemed tired and irritable lately. Want to tell me what's going on?"
"Nothing, really," Harry replied, wishing once again that the adults in his life would not discuss him behind his back. "I'm just tired, that's all. I've got a lot to do this term."
"I know, Harry, and I wish more than anything that you could have a normal life," Lupin said with some regret.
"I will after he's gone," Harry thought fiercely, and on the other end of the connection, Lupin started a bit. It was apparent that Harry was taking his role in the war extremely seriously, and he had made what peace he could with the fact that in the end it would be his duty to rid the world of Lord Voldemort forever.
Lupin thought for a moment before he replied. He had been intending to offer Harry one more chance to back out of his Legilimency assignment, but it was clear that not only would Harry not take the chance but he would probably be offended by the suggestion. He changed his tactic somewhat and said, "Are you getting any closer to succeeding with your Legilimency?"
"I was closer on Tuesday than I've ever been," Harry said with some frustration. "But I'm not sure what I did differently, so I don't know how I can repeat it."
"Harry, listen to me," Lupin said, not liking the amount of pressure Harry was putting on himself. "What you are attempting has never been done before. Time and space are important in Legilimency, as you well know, and it is phenomenal that you can even make this attempt. It's going to take some doing to get it right."
"I know, Moony, but the longer it takes me to get into his head, the more plans he can make," Harry thought in frustration. "Whatever he's planning, it's big and I don't want anything else to happen."
"I know, Harry, but you are doing everything you can do right now. Just keep practicing, all right? How are your lessons going with Kingsley?"
"I raised a shield charm without saying 'Protego,'" Harry said, "But I can't do it wandlessly and soundlessly at the same time." Again, frustration was evident in his voice.
"Harry, you've accomplished a great deal in a very short amount of time," Lupin complimented him. "If you keep progressing at this rate, you will be more than a match for any Auror out there before the end of term."
"We don't have that long," Harry responded.
"You are doing everything that you can do, Harry," Lupin repeated firmly. "I'm proud of you, and your parents and Sirius would have been bursting with pride as well at the man you are becoming."
Harry didn't know how to respond to this, so he changed the subject. He and his guardian chatted for a few more minutes before Lupin regretfully had to cut off so he would not be late to an appointment with a reclusive werewolf who had shown interest in working for the Order.
Harry briefly considered going back downstairs to finish an essay for Professor Flitwick, but as he lay in his comfortable bed, the allure of a good night's rest overcame him. When Ron came up at nearly eleven o'clock, Harry was fast asleep.
Author's Note: I'm sorry that my updating schedule has lagged. As some of you know, I'm a doctoral student in English, and this is the part of term in which papers and finals loom quite large over head. I'm going to do the best I can for the next couple of weeks; after that, you will see the quick updates you have become accustomed to. For those of you who are still with me - thank you and I hope you continue to enjoy!