"No good sittin' worryin' abou' it," Hagrid said. "What's comin' will come, an we'll meet it when it does. Dumbledore told me wha' you did, Harry."
Hagrid's chest swelled as he looked at Harry.
"Yeh did as much as yer father would've done, an' I can' give yeh no higher praise than that."
Rubeus Hagrid, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Disclaimer: I do not own the Potterverse; I merely hitchhike through it.
Author's Notes: This story is still an AU, OotP-independent account of Harry's fifth year. As I barely have time to write new chapters, let alone rewrite old ones, I will stick to the plan I made three years ago; since I do not own a copy of OotP, I will not try to incorporate any canon information (not even Thestrals or OWL levels) into NHP.
To my immense surprise and gratification, "No Higher Praise" won the Pass Me a Tissue Award for Best Angst from Twisted Colours Awards a few months ago.
This chapter has taken too long (insert apologies and groveling here). In fact, I am still not satisfied with it, but I am posting it regardless. Suffice it to say that it's here now.
NO HIGHER PRAISE:
"Trying not to think about it, are we?" said Malfoy softly, looking around at all three of them. "Trying to pretend it hasn't happened?"
"Get out," said Harry.
He had not been this close to Malfoy since he had watched him muttering to Crabbe and Goyle during Dumbledore's speech about Cedric. He could feel a kind of ringing in his ears. His hand gripped his wand under his robes.
"You've picked the losing side, Potter! I warned you! I told you you ought to choose your company more carefully, remember? When we met on the train, first day at Hogwarts? I told you not to hang around with riffraff like this!" He jerked his head at Ron and Hermione. "Too late now. Potter! They'll be the first to go, now the Dark Lord's back! Mudbloods and Muggle-lovers first! Well - second - Diggory was the f-"
Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter, in The Goblet of Fire
The day of the Sorting Feast finally dawned, cool, overcast, and horribly dull. Harry eventually found himself slumped on the damp stone steps just outside the entrance hall, waiting for the carriages to appear on the distance drive. Busy as the teachers were, they had not been too busy to thwart his final, frustrated attempt to get into the dungeon room where James was still immured.
The two long weeks since his scorched and tumultuous return to Hogwarts had been full of disappointments. The professors – and Sirius – looked glummer every day, and each time Harry inquired if they had made any progress in breaking, or even in understanding, the spells on James, he received a long-winded explanation that basically amounted to one simple word.
Not that Harry actually had that many chances to ask. The Hogwarts staff had all the academic preparations for the coming year to handle, in addition to the new defenses Dumbledore had ordered set up. Lupin spent his every waking moment on fruitless research, which all too often took him outside Hogwarts. Harry had an uncomfortable suspicion that Lupin was avoiding him, which hurt more than he would have expected. And even Sirius spent ridiculous amounts of time off running errands for Dumbledore, not to mention that he was far too complacent about the stupid, stupid delay in letting James out.
Since the staff had further compounded the problem by refusing to allow him access to the Quidditch pitch, Harry retired into the empty Gryffindor dormitory to sulk and study. Sirius and Remus had brought back his trunk and broomstick from the Dursleys', but he had managed to get out for only one short flight before Hooch chased him down on her own broom, shouting indignantly, and hustled him back inside where it was safe.
Everyone was far too concerned about his safety, Harry thought bitterly, and not nearly concerned enough about whether he was going to explode from sheer frustration. He had tried eleven times to bypass the obstacles before James's door, and each time he had been thwarted. His father had been back at Hogwarts, alive, for two weeks, two whole weeks, and Harry had not caught a glimpse of him since the first day. Danger or no danger, it just wasn't fair.
The first time, Sirius had caught him less than nine steps away from the infirmary door and hustled him back in with a half-sympathetic, half-reproachful suggestion to wait. All right, fine. He had waited three days, and no-one had accomplished anything. So he kept an eye on the Map, and tried again. This time he got nearly to the door before Flitwick shot around a corner, summoned his invisibility cloak right away from him, and gave him a high-pitched lecture on patience, caution, and consideration. The third time, Harry ended up setting off some sort of proximity alarm on the door, and an elderly gray-haired man who seemed to consider the whole matter a brilliant joke had to unstick him from the suddenly taffy-like floor. This new guard introduced himself cheerily as Vindictus Viridian, the new Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, and added with jovial camaraderie that if he caught Harry trying to further You-Know-Who's insidious plots (whatever they might be) again, he would give Harry an early introduction to the hexes the fifth-year class would be studying.
He did it, too. And no matter how far away the Map might show the staff when Harry started out toward the dungeon, one of them (all too often Viridian) would come rushing in his direction as soon as he got close to his goal. They were probably watching Dumbledore's copy of the Map, Harry finally realized, and gave up his project in disgust … for a little while.
Well, he'd have to give it up altogether now. Sirius had made it quite clear that if students spotted Harry evincing too much interest in the dungeons, someone would eventually catch on to the fact that strange matters were afoot – and if anyone found out about James's presence, there'd be a bloody mess.
Harry caught sight of the carriages a few moments before the fleet of boats hove in view across the lake. He wound his Invisibility Cloak tightly around his rumpled robes, and waited. With any luck, he could join the other Gryffindors unnoticed and avoid awkward questions as to what he was doing there already.
Who was he fooling? He snorted softly to himself as the first students came hurrying up the steps, exclaiming in disgust over the muggy weather. Of course there would be questions. The whole wizarding world wanted to know every little detail of Harry Potter's life. Hadn't Rita Skeeter proved that already?
Maybe he should give them something to talk about. "Oh, sure, I've been here all summer. See, the Ministry's going to have me expelled, so I'm training to be Filch's assistant caretaker…"
Or maybe "Professor Trelawney foresaw a terrible death for me if I didn't manage to closely befriend the Giant Squib before classes start …"
"Well, don't you know, Madame Pince and I have fallen violently in love and we thought Hagrid's empty hut the perfect place for our honeymoon…"
Harry grinned under his cloak and sidled carefully into the stream of hurrying, chattering students, nearly treading on Dennis Creevey's toes.
He maneuvered his way up behind his friends, and heard Hermione whispering in an angry, strained voice, "…know you're worried about Harry, but I can't believe you did that, right in front of the first-years, too!"
"The filthy little shite had it coming," Ron snarled, and when he turned his head Harry glimpsed a spreading purple bruise on his jaw. "You know he did!"
"But there are rules, Ron, and I'm a Prefect now –"
"Well, term hadn't started yet, so you couldn't take points!" Ron said triumphantly.
"Oh, honestly! Of all the !" Hermione turned to glare up at Ron, stopping so abruptly that Harry walked right into her. She gave a strangled squeal of surprise and whipped around, already opening her mouth for a spell.
"Don't!" Harry whispered frantically. "It's me, Harry! Don't make a scene, please."
"Harry?" Hermione lowered her wand, relief lighting up her face like a spell.
Ron shuffled closer, peering vaguely over Harry's invisible right shoulder. "All right, mate? Why weren't you on the train? Are you wearing the – you know?"
"Just a second," Harry muttered. He inched to the side so that Ron and Hermione stood between him and the oblivious students, then tugged the Cloak hastily off.
Ron broke into a grin as he appeared. "Ha! I knew it."
Harry grinned back at him, feeling a curious lightening of his spirits. He eyed the shining badge pinned on Hermione's robe, and gave her a broad smile. "That's great, Hermione – congratulations."
She blushed a little, and gave the badge a fond glance, while Ron snorted. "Oh, like it's any surprise."
"You're not actually planning to take any points off Gryffindor, right?" Harry said hopefully, and affected not to notice Hermione's sudden indignation. "Say, who's the other prefect?"
Ron blinked. "Isn't it you, then?"
"Er, no." Taken aback, Harry glanced between his friends' surprised faces. "At least, I don't think so. Why?"
"Oh, we just thought it … might be, you know," Hermione said quickly. "Your marks really aren't so bad, except in Potions, you know. But if you haven't heard, of course you aren't. My badge came in my Hogwarts letter."
Harry shrugged, suppressing an odd pang. He had completely forgotten about the prefects … Would his dad be disappointed he hadn't gotten the badge? "It must be Dean, then. Er, how was the train ride?"
The last students trailed by, giving them curious looks, and the three Gryffindors hurried after them.
"We spent most of it looking for you," Hermione said reproachfully. "We thought you would be there. You haven't written for nearly three weeks, you know."
Harry affected interest in the crooked hat of a passing Hufflepuff. He had started to write more than once, but without mentioning James's return, what was there to say? And he couldn't bring himself to talk about that just yet. Maybe in a few days, once he'd thought of the right way to say it. He didn't think he could bear Hermione's flood of sympathetic advice or Ron's awkward pity. "Well, it's … it's all been pretty dull, really," he said vaguely. "I, er, I've been here for a bit. Spent some time in the library. Nothing to write about, really." He lowered his voice. "Only I've seen Snuffles. He's well."
"Oh, Harry, that's wonderful!" Hermione squeezed his arm excitedly. "But of course you were right not to write that. People can tamper with owl post quite easily, you know."
Ron did not appear to find the explanation satisfactory. "You could at least have met us at Diagon Alley," he complained. "They had a whole display on Firebolts up! And the twins were selling some of their prank sweets on the street until Mum caught on and made them stop. They were spending loads of money on ingredients and such," he added, sounding grudgingly impressed. "They even got me some new dress robes, much spiffier than the ones Mum found."
They slid onto the bench at Gryffindor's table, and Harry managed a weak smile at Ron's remark. "That's great," he said honestly. "I wish I could have been there, but it wasn't as if the Dursleys were going to drive me up to London." He pulled a face, and added with feeling, "The gits."
"Tought luck," Ron sympathized, then began to reminisce wistfully about the long-lost Ford Anglia.
Harry listened, grateful that his friends were willing to pretend, at least for a few hours, that nothing had really changed since the previous year. While Ron launched into an account of his dad's unsuccessful attempt to replace the vehicle, Harry let his gaze wander down the Gryffindor table. It seemed that an awful lot of his classmates were carefully looking away from him. Against his will, he glanced over at the Ravenclaw table, but one glimpse of Cho's bowed head sent his eyes darting back to Ron and Hermione.
" … and Mum was dead wrong. It would've been just fine if we'd added a few charms to make the things that make the car stop work right. We're wizards anyway, what do we need seatbelts for?"
"It's against the law for minors to ride without seatbelts –"
"Not for wizarding people!"
"All right, Harry?"
Harry looked up hastily, and found Neville Longbottom smiling at him from Hermione's other side. "Hi, Neville," he said in relief, sure that the round-faced boy would not ask any awkward questions. "Er, did you have a good summer?"
Neville's cheeks reddened slightly. "Well, yes –"
"Hey!" Ron's pointing finger nearly jabbed Harry's nose. "Hey, Neville's the other prefect!" He looked far too astonished for good manners, and Neville fiddled nervously with the badge.
"Er, yes. At least, I guess so." He glanced at Harry anxiously.
Harry reached around Hermione – who was still searching for words – to thump Neville encouragingly on the shoulder. "Way to go, Neville!" he said. "Ha, bet Malfoy didn't see that coming." He looked across at the Slytherin table, and located Malfoy at once; the glint of metal on his robes suggested that he, too, had a prefect badge. Harry found himself smirking at the thought that Neville Longbottom, of all people, could now take points from Malfoy's house. Then he realized that Malfoy was staring at him, and as he met the Slytherin's eyes, fury welled up in him. He could hear Malfoy's snide voice ringing inside his head, Muggle-lovers and Mudbloods, and he wanted to choke it into silence.
"Psst, Harry!" Hermione's sharp elbow dug into his ribs. "Who's that sitting by Professor Flitwick?"
Harry blinked, disoriented, and quickly looked across to the staff table. "That's Viridian, the new DaDA teacher. Yes," he added, hastily forestalling her next remark, "the one who wrote Curses and Countercurses and all that lot."
Hermione frowned. "I think I read that he was considered a lightweight in his field, more interested in curses and dueling than in solid theory." She eyed Viridian critically. "But I suppose he can't be worse than Lockhart."
"Changed your tune on dear old Gilderoy since second year, haven't you?" Ron teased.
"Here come the first-years," Neville interjected quickly. "They're all wet and shivering. Say, did we look that scared when it was us down there?"
The Sorting Hat sang its song, the first years scurried to their places, and Headmaster Dumbledore introduced Viridian to the assembled students. Then, in a clear, challenging voice, he reminded the whole school that Voldemort had returned.
Harry hunched his shoulders, staring fixedly at his empty plate. He could feel hundreds of eyes resting on him, and he tried to shut his ears to the rest of Dumbledore's statement. Unity, strength, courage, wisdom to know the truth and do what was right ... Harry thought desperately about Quidditch, and at last Dumbledore's voice fell silent, to be replaced by the agitated murmuring of the students. When Harry risked a quick, nervous glance around the Hall, he was struck for the first time by the fact that many seats were empty which had not been the previous year.
In a grim effort to regain the previous casual mood, Harry shoveled potatoes into his mouth and asked with forced cheerfulness, "What did you two do this summer, aside from Diagon Alley?"
His friends glanced at each other quickly, and Ron gave an unconvincing grin. "It was a great summer – the Cannons won a game! Didn't you hear about it? I've got a new poster –"
Ron rattled on at a great rate about gnomes and explosions in the twins' bedroom, and began to rant about the prattishness of Percy before falling into confusion and hastily shoving a bite of roast into his mouth. Hermione instantly picked up the thread of conversation, describing her preliminary studies for the OWLs and an absolutely fascinating book on Animagi which she had found in Diagon Alley. "Just think what an interesting Transfiguration project that would be!" she enthused. "They give credit for Animagus transformations in the OWLs and NEWTs both, you know, and Professor McGonagall is qualified to tutor students through the process, and really quite a few people not much older than us have done it before! Of course studying for the OWLs themselves is ever so much more important, but I'm sure I'll have time to at least start on this, and –"
They're hiding something, Harry thought in dismay. Was it something that had happened on the train, or were they really angry at him for not writing – or was it something worse? Did they blame him for what had happened at the Tournament? Appetite gone, he crumbled a roll in his fingers and let the clamor in the hall wash over him.
While Hermione and Neville led the over-excited first years away, Harry trudged beside Ron up to their dormitory, half-listening to Seamus's account of his trip to the Orkneys, on which he had apparently managed to fall into the water and nearly be eaten by various water-monsters no less than three times. They passed the twins, who looked as if they were getting over some sort of nasty flu but still waved cheerily – and Ginny, who was staring at the floor so intently that she did not even notice Harry's greeting.
"Is something up with your family, Ron?" Harry asked curiously.
Ron gave a violent start. "No! Er, no, why? I mean, what makes you think that?"
Harry scowled at him. "Oh, come on, Ron! The twins and Ginny all look like they've just gotten over being petrified, and you don't look all that fine either, not to mention that you've got that bruise on your face –"
"Oh, this? That was on the train," Ron said quickly. "And me and Ginny and the twins had, er, a cold, you see – we were out in the rain playing Quidditch and … well, you know, we all spent loads of time practicing flying 'cause Gin and I want to try to get on the team." He shifted his weight nervously. "Think I could make Keeper?"
Harry shrugged angrily and turned away. Ron said nothing else.
Although Harry lay awake in the darkness for nearly an hour, until he drifted off he could hear Ron shifting restlessly in his own bed.
The next day started poorly when Harry and Ron both overslept, and got worse when they remembered that they had Double Potions with the Slytherins that afternoon. Ron seemed to be sulking over Harry's snub the previous night, but Harry was still certain that something was wrong. Briefly, it occurred to him that being upset with Ron for hiding something involving family was hypocritical in the highest degree, but he shoved the thought away before it could fully form. Instead, he watched the Weasley twins out of the corner of his eye during the meal, and found it highly suspicious that no-one in their immediate vicinity was changing colour, sprouting feathers, or otherwise falling victim to their absent high spirits.
At lunch, Harry overheard two fourth-years whispering that he had spent the summer in St. Mungo's, being treated for his mental health. He went to Potions in a foul temper, which deepened when Snape – who had sweeping about the castle in an even blacker mood than usual for the past few days – chose to glare pointedly at Harry and Ron while remarking that he expected many of his students to fail their OWLs. If they did so, his tone implied, he would consider it a good riddance.
Harry began brewing with a firm determination to keep his head down and avoid trouble (he had quite enough problems without losing points or annoying Snape further), but apparently fate had other plans. Just as he brought his potion to the perfect shade of slate grey – and just when Ron was right at the other end of the classroom collecting ginger roots for the final step – he turned his head away for fewer than five seconds, and something fizzed into the mixture, bubbled, and exploded.
The potion boiled up in a mass of spitting foam higher than Harry's head, then slopped gracelessly to the side and spread out in a colorless flood across the floor of the classroom. Harry blinked in shock.
"Five points from Gryffindor for mindless incompetence, Potter," hissed Snape, inevitably looming up behind him. "And a detention tonight, I think … with Filch." When Harry made no answer, Snape added malevolently, "Once again, Potter, you surprise us all. Somehow, you have managed to wring a messy disaster from a simple brew that even Longbottom has merely rendered ineffective." He gave the blue liquid in Neville's cauldron a hard stare, then stalked away to reduce Lavender and Parvati to shame-faced confusion.
Ron slowly set the ginger roots down on a dry corner of the desk. "Guess we won't be needing these then, huh?"
Harry sank into his seat and glared across the classroom. He was sure, absolutely sure, that this was somehow Malfoy's fault – Malfoy, who was carefully stirring his own cauldron without so much as a smirk on his face. That proved he was guilty. If Harry had ruined the potion himself, Malfoy would be dancing with glee, if not openly mocking.
Ron looked peaked and exhausted after class. He tumbled down on his bed and fell asleep the moment dinner was over, and didn't stir even when Harry loudly announced that he was off for his detention.
He made a detour by the room Sirius had last been staying in, but although he knocked for a good five minutes and called Snuffles, Snuffles through the door, no-one answered. Sirius must still be off on the errand Dumbledore had sent him on four days before.
Gloom settled around Harry like a black pall. He scowled at every portrait or ghost he passed on his long trek down to meet Filch, and the caretaker's sullen face only brought to mind the old saw Misery loves company. With many a snarl, Filch deposited Harry in the Potions classroom with a bucket of water and vinegar, to scrub up the dried gunk of his own spilled potion. Afterward, there were encrusted cauldrons to clean; evidently Snape had left Filch with a long list of tasks for Harry to do. But finally, finally, Filch took the bucket and sent Harry off with a growled warning that just because he'd been allowed to lounge around the castle in August, he'd better not even dream of special treatment from the staff.
Flexing his sore fingers, Harry trudged through the dungeon corridor, thinking only of soft pillows and quiet sleep. He was in no mood to be disturbed, so when Draco Malfoy stepped suddenly out from behind a suit of armor, Harry went instantly for his wand.
"Jumpy, Potter," drawled Malfoy scornfully, but he eyed the wand warily. "Did you enjoy your detention?"
"It was great," said Harry through gritted teeth, "right until this slimy little ferret started yapping at me." The longer he looked at Malfoy, the angrier he felt, and his voice was hot with rage when he added, "You did something to my potion, didn't you? You threw something in it, or –"
"Not me." Malfoy dredged up a superior smile. "No, you managed to ruin that simple brew all by yourself, you – er." He halted in sudden strange confusion and cleared his throat. "Ah, look, Potter, I didn't come here to have a spat. I just need to talk to you, all right?"
"And I need to not talk to you," Harry spat, "so get out of my way."
Malfoy caught Harry's right arm as he started to shoulder past. "No, wait a minute, I –"
A dozen different frustrations merged together into one sudden loss of temper, and as Harry wrenched free, he struck Malfoy right in the middle of his pointed face. The contact sent a jolt of pain through Harry's fist, but was still astonishingly satisfying.
The Slytherin reeled back, clutching at his nose, and fell against the wall. He stared up at Harry, eyes watering, and blood began to trickle out through his fingers. "My God, Potter, are you some kind of lunatic?" he demanded in a choked voice.
Lunatic? Well, the Daily Prophet certainly thought so. Harry tightened his fingers around his wand until the slender stick bent as if it would crack. "You'd better get out of here, Malfoy," he hissed, "before I get angry."
Malfoy started to take his hand away, but a fresh spurt of blood down his chin made him hastily clamp it back. "I didn't even do anything!" he protested edgily. "I just wanted to talk to –"
"What, thought of some other snide remark you can make about C – about the Tournament?" Harry demanded furiously. "Well, guess what, Malfoy, I don't think you're funny! The only ones who ever laugh at the stupid things you say are Crabbe and Goyle, and everybody knows you pay them to do it, because even they aren't dumb enough to want to be around you otherwise, and since they're not here now, I guess they've finally got fed up with you, right?" He wanted to hex Malfoy, or to throw another punch into that pointy, pale, bloody face, but something held him back. Instead, he gave Malfoy his best Snape-imitation sneer. "Better go find yourself some new bodyguards, Malfoy, because it's pretty obvious you need them."
Malfoy's face – what was visible of it – went an angry pink. "Just because you have to pay your friends doesn't mean everyone else does, Potter," he said snidely. "You've no room to talk anyway, yours aren't here either. And I could have stopped you from hitting me perfectly well if I –" He stopped abruptly, and the pink subsided, leaving him even paler than before. If Harry hadn't known better, he would have thought the expression in Malfoy's eyes was fear.
Harry leapt into the silence. "Then you'd better get ready to stop me, because if I can still see you in ten seconds, you're going to get worse than a bloody nose!"
Fumbling with his robes, Malfoy staggered up. "Listen, Potter, I –"
Harry's wandtip leapt up, almost without his conscious command. "Ser –"
Malfoy's hand jerked out from inside his sleeve. There was something in it. Harry leapt backward, and changed his spell in mid syllable. "Expelliarmus!"
The thing shot into Harry's hand, and Malfoy's head and arm snapped back against the wall as if he had been struck by a giant fist. He gave a winded gasp, and collapsed back into a sitting position, wheezing frantically for breath.
Harry ignored him. Malfoy hadn't been brandishing a wand; he'd been brandishing a letter. A letter with Harry's name written on the front in a curving script at once unknown and strangely familiar. He turned it over, his fingers sliding across the smooth parchment and the green ink – and there, on the back, was a black seal with the faintest suggestion of an S-curve imprinted on it. When Harry brushed his fingertip across it, the seal sparked faintly under his touch and suddenly came loose.
Malfoy had caught his breath. He was pulling himself back to his feet, watching Harry warily over his bloody fingers. Leveling his wand again, Harry snapped, "Stay right there!"
Malfoy froze. "Make up your bloody mind, Potter," he muttered. "A minute ago you were telling me to get out."
"That was before you started waving around a letter with my name on it." Holding the envelope shut, he shook it at Malfoy. "What is this? What's it supposed to do, kill me?"
"It has your name on it?" Malfoy looked bewildered. "No, it's blank, it – oh." He swallowed. "It's – uh – it's for you. I was going to give it to you. That's why I –" He cut off with a squeak as sparks shot from Harry's wand, flaring dangerously near his face.
"What is it?" Harry demanded. The sparks had been unintentional, but if Malfoy was scared, so much the better.
"It's …" Malfoy hesitated. "Look, Potter, I don't know. I didn't even know there was writing on it, it's spelled so only you can open it and - there's another. Let me get it out of my pocket without trying to hex me, and maybe it'll explain things."
"Hand it over, then." Harry waited, suspiciously, while Malfoy extracted another letter, holding it by one corner as if he thought it might bite him. He snatched it, and glanced quickly at the front. It was blank. "Where did you get these?" he growled. "Are they cursed? Who are they from?"
"I don't know," Malfoy repeated obstinately. "But I wouldn't go running off to Dumbledore with them if I were you, because –"
Harry missed the rest of Malfoy's words. He remembered now why the writing was familiar; he had last seen it snaking across the blank pages of Tom Riddle's diary. Harry's hands began to shake.
Hurriedly shoving the letters inside his robes, he rounded on Malfoy and whispered in a dangerous, no-quite-level voice, "Shut up and sod off. And if you – if you ever dare – if you –"
Malfoy had gone pasty white behind his mask of blood. He moved his mouth mutely, gulped, and managed only a strangled, "Right, Potter," before Harry turned unceremoniously away and dashed up the corridor.
Halfway to Gryffindor Tower, he made an abrupt right and plunged into an empty classroom lit brightly by the waning moon. With fingers that had gone cold and stiff, he unfolded the parchment and held it in the light.
My dear grandson …
END OF CHAPTER SIXTEEN
Coming up in Chapter Seventeen: the full text of Voldemort's letter to Harry and Harry's reaction thereto.
Many thanks to the reviewers who kept reminding me to get back to work.