A/N: Well this has been a very long time coming hasn't it. This chapter took a couple of turns I wasn't expecting, I hope you like it. See the note at the end for how updates are going to go from here.
"What happened with the wormwood?" the Dark Lord asked. His high pitched voice scraped against the insides of Augustus' skull. He had been dreading the question.
Bellatrix turned a murderous look on Dolohov. Augustus for his own part was happy enough not to be the one to answer that question.
"It- It may not have been stored properly, my lord," Dolohov said hoarsely. "We discovered that it has been taken by rot."
"Bellatrix," was all the Dark Lord said.
"Crucio," Bellatrix spat. Dolohov writhed on the ground, a faint gasp of air the only indication that he was screaming. It didn't last long.
It wasn't specifically Dolohov's fault. They had all worked on harvesting the wormwood, on acquiring enough for the ritual. But fault didn't always matter with the Dark Lord.
"Muggles use wormwood, my lord," Augustus said cautiously, it was always best to be the one who arrived with a solution, but he would tread lightly suggesting a muggle solution.
"Do they harvest it under the light of a moonless night?" Bellatrix asked scathingly.
"They harvest it under daylight, of course," Augustus said. "They'll grow it in fields though, we could harvest all we need in one night instead of scavenging in the dark for months."
The Dark Lord nodded. "What's next?" he asked.
"Someone tried to kill the Weasley boy," Dolohov said, glassy eyed. Dolohov after the Cruciatus wasn't all that different from Dolohov before the Cruciatus. "He was supposed to retrieve his sister from the bottom of the lake for the second task, but someone had charmed her to attract all of the creatures in the lake after he got her. The Prophet reports that there aren't any leads."
"He should die," Bellatrix said. "Blood traitor filth that interfered with our plans."
"We don't need investigators poking around Hogwarts," Augustus said.
"Has Crouch sent a message?" the Dark Lord asked.
"He has not, my Lord," Augustus said. "Of course, there is always the possibility that he was the one who attempted to kill the boy."
"He knows better than to endanger the mission," the Dark Lord said. "Determine where their investigation is the next time you question your Auror friend."
"Yes, my Lord," Augustus said, a bit reserved at the reminder of that task.
"Why do you hesitate?" the Dark Lord asked.
Augustus paused, it was always best to not bring problems before the Dark Lord. "My memory charms are, of course, perfect, my Lord," he said. "But every time I set my trap, it seems as though he begins to anticipate it. I have had to change my setup multiple times to consistently ensnare him for my interrogation."
"The memory charm does not erase trauma," the Dark Lord said with a smile that threatened to scramble Augustus's brain. "Associations form, even if he does not remember why. Reduce the stress of the encounter and he will become less likely to anticipate anything."
"Thank you for your wisdom my Lord," Augustus said. Of course, winding up Norman during his visit was the highlight of his week. He supposed there was nothing for it, though. It wouldn't do to be caught just because Norman was waiting for something to happen.
"What's next?" the Dark Lord asked.
"There was another article about Potter in Witch Weekly," Bellatrix said.
Augustus sighed quietly. If they were getting into gossip, then the meeting would be over soon. Afterwards would be another trip to question Norman just to find out once more that the Ministry still wasn't anywhere near catching them.
Not that they hadn't already been a major topic of conversation among the student body before the second task, but three days later and they were still getting comments from students from all walks of the castle. There were people who wanted to congratulate Ron for his score and the show he had put on, there were people who wanted to comment on the fact that Hermione hadn't been Ron's hostage, and there were of course people who wanted to talk about the Witch Weekly article that had come out the following day to announce the Hogwarts Champion's coming out, but what most people wanted to talk about was the fact that someone had clearly been trying to kill either Ginny or Ron.
People who had never even talked to them before seemed comfortable walking up and asking about what had happened, asking questions as though they had answers and had just been keeping them to themselves until just the right person asked. The thing was, though it was very clear that someone had tried to sabotage the second task, there was no clear motive; or at least, nothing the adults had passed on. Harry, of course, wanted to know who had almost killed his best friend.
Harry remembered the weeks after Ron and Hermione had been kidnapped and he had felt anxiety every time they were apart, as though something horrible would happen while he was away. That feeling had never really gone away, only lessened. So now, as school life returned to normal and Harry had classes without his friends and had all of the myriad of trainings and study sessions away from them, the feeling was back with a vengeance and Harry found himself coming close to a panic now and then with the thought that something terrible could be happening just that moment. It was a thought just like that that sent Harry running back to the dorm after another lesson with Victoria, a mental image of Ron dying, writhing on the floor just like Greyback had died, in his mind's eye.
"Why are you out of breath?" Ron asked, when Harry came in.
"Just, um," Harry panted. He really was out of breath; there were too many stairs in the castle. "Just wanted to get back to work on my project."
Ron gave him a skeptical look. Harry shrugged. "I just wanted to check in on you."
Ron nodded. "I figured," he said. "I haven't worked on my project in a while, come to think about it."
"Wanna play chess and call it work?" Harry asked.
"Sure," Ron said. The board was pulled out and the chess pieces set up with a bit of fanfare from one of the bishops and a couple of pawns.
"Where are you in your project?" Harry asked, as Ron quieted his pieces.
"I've managed to make a Knight that moves properly," Ron said, starting the game. "But I can only get one piece tied to the board at a time, and then I have to delimit every square every time I want to try something new."
"What's the next step?" Harry asked.
Ron shrugged. "It's not a straight line. There's like a hundred different next steps. I can't even keep track of it all."
"It probably feels a bit overwhelming," Harry said.
"Yeah," Ron said. "But, luckily, I've got better things to worry about. So how are you doing?"
"My project's doing alright. I don't know if I'll finish it by the end of the year, but it's moving along."
"I meant more about everything else," Ron said. "You know, the whole running all the way to the dorms thing."
"Oh," Harry said. "Yeah, I might be a bit worried about things."
Ron leaned closer and put his hand on Harry's knee. "I'm right here mate, and I'm not going anywhere."
In spite of the topic of conversation, Harry melted just a bit, Ron's hand feeling like fire. He had the sudden urge to lean forward and wrap his arms around Ron and never let go.
"Can't you do, like, your mental stuff and make it go away?" Ron asked.
Harry would need to occlude every time he was around Ron, but that wasn't what Ron was talking about.
"I could mask it, I couldn't just get rid of it," Harry said. "Besides, someone tried to kill you. This isn't some irrational fear. If you get rid of every worry you're just going to find yourself forgetting to be afraid of things that'll actually kill you."
"Someone maybe tried to kill me," Ron said.
"There wasn't much ambiguity there," Harry said.
"Does your Dad tell you stuff?" Ron asked.
"They don't know anything," Harry said, frustrated.
"I bet Snape did it," Ron said with a conspiratorial whisper.
"Are we seriously joking about this right now?" Harry asked.
"There's nothing else to do about it," Ron said. "Besides, someone has to."
"Let's leave that to the twins," Harry said.
"Oh, Fred told me today that they were planning my last birthday party," Ron said. "I mean, I hope that was a joke." His birthday was in two days.
"Why aren't you more upset about this?" Harry asked.
"Oh, I am," Ron said. "Whoever they were trying to kill, they almost killed Ginny. So if we find whoever it was, I get first dibs, yeah? But there's, like, at least thirty suspects, and you know, we've got actual Aurors investigating this time around, so right now I'm worried about you losing sleep worrying about me when I'm still here."
"For all I know you won't be when I open my eyes," Harry said.
"My bed's warded," Ron said. "No one's touching me while I sleep." He spoke with a lot more confidence than he normally seemed to have since Greyback.
"I was sort of expecting you to be more…"
"More of a mess?" Ron asked.
Harry shrugged. While he hadn't exactly been doing great in the aftermath of the second task, Harry had rather been expecting him to act somewhat the way he had after he had first been rescued last year.
"It was pretty terrible," Ron said. "But I had my wand, and I… I protected Ginny until she was able to protect herself. That mattered. Checkmate, by the way."
"Already?" Harry asked, looking at the board.
"You played better in first year," Ron said.
"That mattered?" Harry prompted.
"Yeah," Ron said. "I wasn't… I wasn't the victim, I wasn't watching from the sidelines, I did something. I accomplished something. If I'd died down there, I would have died saving my sister, not uselessly trying to protect someone when I was powerless to do anything."
"Hermione says you protected her," Harry said.
"Not as far as I'm concerned," Ron said a bit darkly.
"Hm," was Harry's response. "Do you think…"
"What?" Ron asked.
"Do you think this has all been good for you?" Harry asked. "Like, competing in the tournament."
"You mean besides almost dying?" Ron asked.
"Maybe, because you almost died and you showed death who's boss," Harry said.
Ron shrugged. "Maybe. I guess… After the dragon I really felt like I'd done something, you know? Before, I'd really felt like I was never really going to come back from… You know?"
"Yeah," Harry said. "I'd say you've made a comeback. Silver lining, I guess. How's Ginny doing?" he asked
"She's…." A bit of a ruckus at the door cut him off. Seamus and Dean came in, roughhousing a bit. Seamus had Dean in a headlock while Dean was laughing and shouting out, "not taking it back, not taking it back." That stopped when Seamus saw them glancing their way, he let go of Dean, straightening up with a bit of a scowl appeared on his face as he walked forward and passed Ron's bed, refusing to look at the both of them. Dean was left standing in the doorway, watching his best friend's change in demeanor with a pained look on his face.
"Hey," Dean said awkwardly.
"Not taking it back?" Ron asked.
"The snitch doesn't make sense," Dean said. "Totally ruins the game," he called it out, like he was hoping Seamus would rise to the bait.
"It's the best part of the game," Harry said.
"Sure," Dean said. "If you're the Seeker."
"Did you want to work on Divination?" Seamus asked.
"Oh," Dean said, looking a bit deflated. "Yeah, just a minute."
Ron rolled his eyes. Dean grimaced. Harry frowned.
Lately, things had seemed less hostile and mostly just awkward, with Seamus largely just ignoring the two of them. He hadn't even commented on Ron's coming out.
"Talk to you guys later," Dean said, stopping by his bed to get his Divination book out along with a quill.
"Do you have to?" Harry heard Seamus mutter when Dean settled down for homework.
Dean shrugged. Harry turned his attention back to Ron who was looking at Dean with a concerned look on his face.
"I'm getting ready for bed," Harry said. Getting out of the awkward air of the dorm seemed good.
"Yeah, me too," Ron said.
They grabbed their shower things and headed to the bathroom. Out of habit, Harry peeked under his robes at his shoulder before he pulled them off. He'd need to reapply the Second Skin potion the next evening, but just then all he saw was smooth skin, no indication of the pitted scaring left behind by Greyback.
"Okay," Ron said. "Honest opinion. How am I doing here?" He was standing there in front of one of the shower stalls in just his pants with his right arm flexed.
"Um, a bit bigger," Harry said; a white lie. He felt a bit awkward, though not because he minded the invitation to look.
Ron frowned. "Charlie and Bill put on a lot of muscle when they were in fourth year," he said.
"It's not a race," Harry said, glancing behind him at the mirror where he could see his own frame, which, while more toned than Ron's, was even scrawnier.
"Spring's just around the corner," Ron muttered, stepping into the shower a moment later.
Ron had previously promised to teach Harry to swim once the weather warmed up enough, and with a bit of a deadline on the horizon he had just one worry over the whole thing.
"You know, you could just wear a shirt," Harry said.
"Yeah," Ron said. "Then she's going to know there's nothing to look at."
Harry would disagree, but even though they were both out, Harry wasn't about to say that. Harry finished getting undressed and quickly stepped into the adjacent shower stall, taking a moment to fiddle with the curtain. He turned the water on and enjoyed the magical plumbing that made sure that the water never needed time to heat up.
"I don't think Hermione's going to care," Harry said.
"I want her to care," Ron said.
"I mean, I think Hermione's dating you for reason's other than your physique," Harry said. "Not that there's anything wrong with your… I mean, you know. Don't worry about it."
He decided it was about time to try and work some knots out of his hair that had been accumulating, and started working some soap into them. There was probably a spell for that. To be honest, he was thinking of getting it cut. He'd always gone the school year without, and the first thing Petunia would do when he got home for the summer was to shear it off. Haircuts were a Dursley thing and living with his Dad the previous summer he'd just let it keep growing. It was getting difficult to manage now, though.
There was a bit of silence between the two of them before Ron changed the subject. "You know I think Anderson was checking you out when you were flying earlier," he said.
"People stare at me all the time," Harry said.
"Yeah, but maybe this was different," Ron said.
"Anderson from Slytherin?" Harry asked.
"What? No," Ron said. "His cousin, in Ravenclaw. He's a fifth year."
"With the blue streak in his hair?" Harry asked.
"Yeah," Ron said. "That's him."
"Well, I'm pretty sure he's not into me."
"He broke up with his girlfriend a couple weeks ago," Ron said. "Maybe he's looking for a rebound."
"I don't want to be… Wait, how do you even know he just broke up?"
"You know," Ron said. "People talk."
"George was telling me all about Phil Whitaker earlier, and Hermione kept trying to get me to talk to Damien what's-his-face in study hall."
"Is there some sort of plot to get me a boyfriend?" Harry asked.
"Well I wouldn't call it a plot," Ron said.
Harry rolled his eyes. "I'm out of the closet. Besides you and Miller, every other gay boy… and bi boy, is in the closet. The ball's sort of in their court at this point."
"Talking to people can't hurt," Ron said.
"I don't need a boyfriend right now," Harry said.
"Sure," Ron said. "But some day."
"Some day," Harry agreed. Some day he could settle for someone who wasn't Ron.
"What makes you think they'd be interested in a guy in the first place?" Harry asked.
"Oh, nothing really. You just never know, do you? Really, the only criteria is that they're good enough for you."
"Good enough for me?" Harry asked.
"Sure," Ron said. "Wouldn't try to set you up with just any bloke now would I?"
"So, Anderson?" Harry asked.
"Friendly; outgoing; cute," Ron said, and Harry could imagine him counting things off on his fingers. "Tutors third years in Arithmancy."
"Huh," Harry said. "I don't know, what if they want to kiss me or something?"
"I think that's like, half the point," Ron said. "Do you not want to kiss anyone?"
Harry thought about it. "I don't know," he said truthfully. "I mean, sure I think about it, a lot, but it's also pretty gross, don't you think?"
"Gross?" Ron prompted.
"You know," Harry said. "Faces smashed together, swapping spit, can't breath properly."
"I think you're just going to have to give it a chance, mate," Ron said.
"So what about you," Harry said. "What's kissing like for you?"
"Who says I've kissed anyone," Ron said, his voice a bit high.
"You're dating Hermione," Harry said, and at that point he was morbidly curious to know about the boy he was into making out with their best friend.
"I can't tell you about that!" Ron said, scandalized.
"You have no problem telling me you wank but you can't tell me about kissing a girl?" Harry asked.
"A gentlemen doesn't kiss and tell," Ron said.
"Oh, so you're a gentleman now, huh?" Harry asked.
"That's right," Ron said. "So if you need any advice on gentlemanly behavior, I'm your guy."
After that they wound up talking boys for a bit until the door opened and they weren't alone. They both finished their showers in silence after that, even after whoever it was finished up and left.
"You going to sleep alright?" Ron asked later as they stood in front of the sinks.
Harry rinsed the toothpaste out of his mouth. "I should be asking you that."
Ron shrugged. "Same old. You're the one who ran all the way to the tower.
"Yeah, well, you're alright, so I'm alright," Harry said.
"What? Alright? Me? Yeah, you're setting that bar way to high," Ron said.
"Oh yeah?" Harry asked. "So where should I set the bar?"
Ron made a show of thinking about it.
"How about, somewhere between not currently in mortal peril and not currently having a flashback in the middle of the hallway?"
"Well, if you want to set the bar that low, I guess we're doing all right," Harry said. "Assuming you're not currently in mortal peril now."
Ron shrugged. "We'll see what the twins have planned for my birthday."
It was still pretty early, they stayed up for a bit after that with a book of mystery riddles Charlie had sent Ron from Romania. When he tried to go to sleep that night, though, there was only one mystery that was left on his mind, but it held far greater stakes than the riddles from the book. Whoever had tried to kill Ron was still out there, and Harry wouldn't sleep easy until that was taken care of. It took him a long while to fall asleep, and he resisted the urge to go see if Ron was still awake.
When he dreamed that night, he dreamed that he was a detective, hunting down a jewel thief that always left behind a clue. When he finally caught the culprit, it was Malfoy, wearing a ridiculous green outfit.
"I got you this time," Harry told dream Malfoy, but he only smiled.
"You're missing the obvious here, Potter," he said. "You're just seeing what you expected to see."
"So what am I missing?" Harry asked.
"Well there's this, for one," dream Malfoy said, and suddenly Harry was on his back with Malfoy pressed on top of him, their arms tangled together as Malfoy's grey eyes looked into his as his face lowered. Harry felt warm breath on his lips before he woke up very suddenly with a gasp.
"What the fuck?" Harry uttered. He let his head flop back to his pillow as he waited for his racing heart to slow down. He took a few deep breaths as he felt around real quick to make sure that his dream hadn't left a mess in his pants. That was what he got for staring at Ron's naked torso and talking about boys and kissing right before bed.
"Bloody Malfoy," he muttered to himself as he turned over onto his side and tried to get back to sleep while his lips still felt like they were tingling.
Though it certainly hadn't been the most graphic dream he had ever had, the memory of Malfoy's lips on his own stayed with him the next couple of days. Ron's birthday party after classes on Monday was a welcome distraction. The other three champions showed up and it didn't take much for Ron to talk Cedric into organizing another quidditch game the following weekend. Harry would later blame the dream for his sudden fantasy of making out with Cedric. He distracted himself by playing the game of noticing who wasn't there and wondering if they were absent because Ron had come out. He didn't have too long to wonder, though, because there were party games, and plenty of sweets, that were mostly harmless.
It took him a while to notice that Ginny had, for the most part, been staying to the background of the party. Ron had been spending more time with his sister since the second task and Harry knew that he was worried about her. Harry hadn't told him about anything she had said on the shore of the lake.
"Hey," Harry said.
"Hey," Ginny said.
"How's, um, everything?" he asked.
"How's having some memories of the worlds most evil wizard left over in my head?" Ginny asked.
Harry looked around to make sure there wasn't anyone else who could hear and set up a quick privacy ward.
"Something like that," Harry said.
"I'd seen a mind healer for a bit, after first year," Ginny said. "She helped me come to terms with everything that had happened, but there wasn't anything to get rid of the remnants Tom left behind. It wasn't anything to heal, so she just tried her best to help me deal with it, you know? I'm not supposed to ignore the things that come from Tom, but by acknowledging them when they come up I can contextualize them and put them to the side."
"Should you go back to see her?" Harry asked.
Ginny shook her head. "It's just going to be the same advice. This whole thing just brought everything up to the surface. I just need to work on taking care of myself."
"So why did you volunteer?" Harry asked.
"Well ideally, nothing was supposed to go wrong," Ginny said. "Besides, Hermione's trauma was more recent, and someone is probably still trying to kill you, so I didn't think it would be best to send you down there."
"But then someone tried to kill you two," Harry said.
"Can't even say which one of us they were after," Ginny said. "I've wondered before if he knows about what happened to his diary, or if he knows what got left behind."
Harry hadn't even considered that. Harry's leading theory was that someone was trying to get to him by going after his friends.
"The question is, who would he be working through," Harry said.
"Someone from the ministry is my bet," Ginny said. "Either that or Professor Moody."
"He's an Auror," Harry protested.
"From the ministry," Ginny said.
"He lost limbs fighting against Death Eaters," Harry said.
Ginny shrugged. "I wonder what he'd do with someone who's mind has been tainted by You-Know-Who."
"Your mind hasn't been tainted," Harry said, forcefully.
"That's nice of you to say," Ginny said. "It's not true, but it's nice to hear."
"Do you think I've been tainted?" Harry questioned her.
"Of course you have been," Ginny said, sort of shocking Harry. "It doesn't make you a bad person, but do you think you're the same person you would have been if you didn't carry a part of him?"
"Changed doesn't mean tainted," Harry said, a bit put off at the description of his lycanthropy as carrying a part of Greyback.
"All right then," Ginny said. "You've been changed. Let's say I took it all away. Would you take it back if you could?"
"Of course not," Harry said. "But just because you were changed, just because you wish it never happened, that doesn't mean you've been ruined or something. Everything changes you. But you're still you. You didn't let him turn you into a bad person. You're not ruined, and neither am I. I'm still me, even if I've been changed."
"I know you're not ruined," Ginny said. "But we both cary evil with us. We didn't choose it, we didn't want it, he left us with it and we can't just get rid of it, so I can't think of a better word to describe it. Now, who's been giving Ron trouble since he came out?"
Harry frowned, but not knowing what else to say to her, he let her change the subject.
"Just some snide comments here and there. Why, are you going to beat them up?"
"I could do it," Ginny said.
"I know you could," Harry said. "But I think Ron gets something out of feeling like he's dealing with it himself."
"You know he'd do something if someone was giving me a hard time," Ginny said.
"Big brother's prerogative?" Harry suggested. "Is anyone giving you any trouble?"
"Some questions about curses I shouldn't know," Ginny said. "I think I gave too much of a terrifying performance for anyone to try and start anything. Tom likes it when… Tom would have liked people being afraid of him, but I'd rather my classmates weren't afraid of me."
"I think it's helped, since I came out, having more people who I've gotten to know, or who've gotten to know me."
"Not sure how many people want to get chummy right now," Ginny said.
"What about your dorm mates? Harry asked.
Ginny shrugged. "We've never clicked," she said. "I'm going to be alright, Harry. Just keep me in the loop with the whole investigation."
"There hasn't been any progress as far as I can tell," Harry said.
"What about Malfoy?" Ginny asked.
Harry thought about it, even though he had been trying not to think about Malfoy for the past couple of days. "I actually don't think he's behind it this time."
Ginny shook her head. "He's got connections. I doubt he'd tell you lightly, but your Dad's not the only one with a Slytherin perspective on things."
Harry actually thought it wouldn't be too hard to get Malfoy to talk to him.
"Can't hurt to try, I guess," Harry said.
"That's not true," Ginny said. "Just keep me in the loop. Come on, Butterbeer pong looks like fun."
"It sort of looks gross, but okay," Harry said.
The party was nice, though Harry supposed that compared to the chaotic events of recent past, any sort of party would have made a nice change of pace. It being Monday evening, it didn't last too long and before long Harry, Ron, and Hermione were studying in the common room. Both Ron and Hermione seemed to be in good spirits, so the party was a success in Harry's mind, and even Hermione was praising the twins for having planned it.
"Maybe they can go into party planing if the whole joke shop doesn't work out," Hermione said.
Harry resisted the urge to remind her of the time the twins had planned him a party that had ended with him almost being murdered.
"I think they should stick to jokes," Ron said. "They can never resist the urge to turn everything into one. Though they managed not to have any surprises tonight."
Ron should have remembered not to test fate, though the twins joke didn't strike until later that night when they went to bed.
Harry received quite a shock when Ron got blasted back away from his bed that night and fell to the floor, petrified. Harry had already reached for his wand, the thought that Ron had been replaced with an assassin in his head, when he remembered exactly what the twins' age line was supposed to do. Ron had turned fifteen that day, and he could no longer cross the ward surrounding his bed.
Harry groaned and removed the curse.
"What the bloody fucking hell," Ron exclaimed the moment he was able to move again.
"Are you all right?" Harry asked.
"Yeah, I'm alright," Ron said. "Now I just need to go murder my brothers."
"Maybe we give them a chance to fix it before we murder them?" Harry asked.
"We give them a chance to fix it," Ron said. "And after they do, then we murder them."
"Alright," Harry said.
Unfortunately, the twins weren't in their dorm.
"So I know a thing or two about wards," Harry said.
"You think you can fix it?" Ron asked.
Harry shrugged. "Maybe with a bit of study," he said. "But I know enough that it isn't something we're going to fix tonight."
Ron worried at the hem of one of his sleeves.
"Maybe we could switch beds?" Harry said. "I don't turn fifteen till the summer."
Ron nodded, though he looked pensive. "I haven't slept without that ward for a while," he said. "And now someone might actually be trying to murder me."
Harry nodded. "I could keep watch," he suggested.
Ron shook his head. "I should be done with people keeping watch over me while I sleep," he said.
"There's no 'should be,' here," Harry said.
"I'll take your bed," Ron said. "You'll take mine. I'll deal with it."
"Well wake me up if you can't sleep," Harry said. "Or, no, you can't, can you. Huh."
"I'll be fine, Harry," Ron said.
Harry hoped he would be.
Ron didn't have a chance to yell at the twins until later the next day. The twins, as it turned out, had been trying to play wingman, back when they'd initially drawn the age line.
"What the fuck?" Ron asked.
Fred was struggling to keep in his laughter, so George answered.
"Well, we thought you two were into each other back then," he said. "So when you guys started fighting, we figured if it took you both too long to make up, well here would be an excuse for you two to have to share a bed or something."
Harry's jaw dropped.
"Of all the asinine… We just switched beds you bloody gits. We didn't sleep together. I mean it might have made sense if Harry were older than me, but then I could have just switched with Dean or Neville."
"We might have also thought that you can't hide behind an age line forever," Fred said.
"Someone literally just tried to murder me," Ron said.
"Yeah, well that was a week ago and we drew up that ward back in November," said George.
"Also, we might have actually forgotten about this one," Fred said with a shrug.
"Complete accident," said George.
"I mean we straight up told you no one older than fifteen could cross that line, I think this is really on you here," said Fred.
"Can you bloody well fix it?" Ron asked.
"Sure," said George. "It'll just take a bit."
"Did you sleep at all?" George asked.
"Just fix it," Ron said, storming off. Harry waved to the twins before following after.
"So did you get any sleep?" he asked, though he didn't really need to, for the look of how Ron was doing.
"A bit," Ron said. "Don't worry about it. The twins'll fix things and then I'll be fine."
"Do you want to try and get a bit of sleep now?" Harry asked.
"I could read you a bedtime story," Harry suggested.
"Make it your Transfiguration notes," Ron said. "I couldn't pay attention and they'll put me to sleep besides."
"I'll read them in my most boring Bins voice," Harry said.
"How've you been sleeping lately?" Ron asked.
"Pretty good lately," Harry said. "I clear my mind before I go to sleep and that helps a lot." He'd actually had a pretty horrendous dream the night before but he didn't need Ron worrying about it. He'd gotten enough sleep and it wasn't something they hadn't already talked about during some late night chat months ago.
They went up to the dorm and Ron settled on Harry's bed.
"So you'll stick around?" Ron asked.
"Definitely," Harry said.
"Okay," Ron said. "I was spacing out all day, so start from the beginning."
Harry tried his best to lecture from his notes in a constructive fashion, but he doubted Ron got any more than he'd gotten in class that day. He fell asleep about a quarter of an hour after Harry started reading. Gingerly, Harry got off the bed and drew the curtains, casting a silencing charm on them to make sure Ron didn't get woken up. He settled on Ron's bed to do some homework of his own.
Dean came up alone, not too long after that.
"Hey," Harry said.
"Hey," Dean said, looking around. "I thought I'd find Seamus up here; not sure where he's gotten to."
"Right," Harry said.
"But you don't care about that," Dean said, a bit sadly. He went over to his trunk and pulled out some of his drawing things before settling on his bed. It seemed he was done looking for Seamus.
"What are you doing up here all alone?" Dean asked.
"Ron's taking a nap," Harry said, gesturing to the other bed.
Dean did a double take between Harry's bed with it's curtains drawn and Ron's bed with Harry sat on top of it.
"Didn't the twins ward it with an age line against anyone over fifteen?" Dean asked.
"That would be the sum of it," Harry said.
"Huh," Dean said.
"Should we be whispering?" Dean asked.
"Silencing charm," he said. "So I've been meaning to, um… I haven't said thank you, for, um, for trying to get Seamus to come around. I don't need everyone's approval, you know. If he doesn't like me anymore, then he doesn't like me, but still, it's nice that you'd go to the trouble."
"It's not just for your sake though, is it?" Dean said, sounding a bit morose.
There was a silence between them then as Dean made sketch marks on his paper.
"Do you, um, do you like Seamus?" Harry asked.
Dean snorted, but nodded his head.
"Oh Merlin, that sucks so much," Harry said.
"You would know, wouldn't you," Dean said. "It's sort of obvious you like Ron."
"Obvious?" Harry said, in a bit of a panic, glancing at the other bed that he was doubly glad was silenced.
"Obvious to someone else who's pining after their best friend," Dean said. "Also, for all that Ron figured me out ages ago, he is pretty clueless."
"Hey," Harry defended. "Wait, he figured you out? Oh, hey, yeah, he keeps giving you sad looks ever since this whole thing started."
"He figured out back in October, or at least, that was when he asked me about it," Dean said.
"I had no idea," Harry said, surprised that Ron had known that Dean was gay before he had known that Harry was.
Dean smiled. "I asked him not to tell anyone. So how are you doing crushing on your best friend?"
Harry sighed, even though it was nice that he had someone to talk to who got it. "I kept feeling hopeless, having a crush on someone who's very clearly into someone else, but Seamus? He's so homophobic."
"He gets that from his mum," Dean said, looking down. "I think he's coming around."
"Still," Harry said. "I mean, you're… gay?" He didn't want to make assumptions.
Dean nodded. "Super gay," he confirmed.
"And you have to listen to him say bad stuff about you," Harry said.
"We mostly don't talk about it," Dean said. "I mean, it's not like he knows I'm gay. Most of the time we just hang out like normal."
"Still," Harry said. "It's got to feel like shit when he says homophobic stuff."
Dean nodded. "He's still my friend," he said, his voice sounding fragile. "And maybe he'd change his mind if he knew."
"Who does know?" Harry asked.
"You, Ron, and my family," Dean said.
"You told them?" Harry asked, because his Dad was the last person he had told.
"Oh, I wasn't careful on the computer," Dean said. "My sister's a few years younger than me, so, when my mum saw that someone had been looking at, um, naked pictures of guys online, she sort of figured it was me?"
Harry blushed at Dean's admission. He'd never used a computer outside of some typing lessons from primary, but he had a basic understanding of some of the stuff that could be found on the internet. "How'd that go?" he asked.
"My mom's a civil rights lawyer," Dean said. "And well, she wasn't too psyched about the porn, but she'd been on board with the whole gay rights movement since before I was born. My Dad though? He took a bit. But he's a biologist, so he went out and pulled just about every study ever written on homosexuality."
"So he came to the conclusion that we aren't hellspawn bent on the collapse of civil society?" Harry asked.
"I don't think he ever thought that," Dean said. "But basically, yeah." He considered Harry. "So, I know you grew up muggle, but you can never be sure, do you know what genes are?"
"No, like DNA and stuff," Dean said.
"Oh, yeah," Harry said. "I mean, I never got that far in muggle school, but I think I've got the gist of it. It's like the instruction manual for a person."
"Basically," Dean said. "So, a lot of scientific studies focus on men, and my mom has a few things to say about that, but anyway, most of the studies they've done on being gay's been centered on gay men, but they think they've found a gene that makes a guy more likely to be gay."
"Doesn't that stuff get passed on?" Harry asked. "If most gay guys don't have kids, doesn't that mean it'll just disappear over time?"
"Well that's the cool thing, because it also turns out that women who get the same gene tend to have more children," Dean said. "But also, it's one of these special sorts of genes that, like, have an on and off switch, which, I forget what that's called. But, so, you've got a bunch of genes, and sometimes they're on and sometimes they're not, but some of them either get switched on or off when you're in the womb and then they stay that way, and they think this is one of those genes.
"So then there's this idea that this popped up in nature as a way to make dudes who would be able to focus on helping the extended family instead of having their own children, because like, from an evolutionary stand point, you're just as successful if you help a couple of nieces or nephews survive as if you'd had one kid of your own."
Harry looked at him blankly. "How exactly?"
"Well like, it's not about if you have kids. It's all about the DNA getting passed down. So, one way to do that is to have kids. But your siblings have half your DNA, so keeping your brother's and sister's kids alive works out the same."
"Huh," Harry said. He thought he understood the gist of that. "So what turns them on?" he asked. "The genes, I mean."
"That's what I'm getting at," Dean said. "So a lot of the theorizing goes back to this being something that was helpful when we were like, cavemen, and it's more about probability than a definite cause and effect, but it looks like it comes down to two things. One is the… fraternal birth order theory, which says that the more sons a woman has, the more likely that their next son is going to be gay. And then there's like this stress theory, where if the mom's under a lot of stress, like physical stress, during the pregnancy, the baby's more likely to turn out gay. So there's this idea that it's a survival adaptation where the gay son can help the tribe survive without adding to the number of mouths to feed and if that means a bunch of his nieces and nephews survive, then he's basically passed on his own genes. Of course, society's different now, and it isn't really survival of the fittest anymore, but it really just shows that we're exactly what nature intended for us to be. Even if we can still wind up having kids of our own now."
Harry thought about it all, or rather, the parts he understood. "I don't think we need an excuse to exist though," he said. He rather didn't think that the bigots were going to sit down through a lecture to hear it either.
"Sure," Dean said. "But science doesn't look for excuses, it looks for reasons. This is just a reason."
Harry thought about himself. He didn't have any big brothers, but his mum had almost died when she had been carrying him, not to mention the whole years in stasis part.
"What about you?" he asked. "You've never mentioned having older brothers."
"Well, again, it's all about probability," Dean said. "Fraternal birth order, and maternal stress just increase the odds, and their absence just decreases the odds. Either way, there's still some probability that the switch gets turned on or off. But me? My mom went through chemo when she was pregnant with me."
"Your mom had cancer?" Harry asked, alarmed, for all that he knew that Dean's mom was alive all these years later.
"Yeah," Dean said. "But she kicked it's ass."
"So, what?" Harry asked. "Did your Dad make you read all these studies?"
"Oh, no, he just excitedly told us all about it at the dinner table," Dean said. "I think it was his way of saying sorry for taking time to come to terms with it. But yeah, I totally have to read all sorts of stuff over the summer. My parents aren't exactly thrilled with our curriculum, so I've got to keep up on science and math and literature. I get a crash course in what I've missed every summer. I just count myself lucky that they don't mail me homework when I'm here."
"That's rough," Harry said. He thought he remembered Dean mentioning something like that before.
"It is what it is," Dean said. "Makes me more well rounded or something. So I've actually got this theory about the war."
"Yeah?" Harry asked.
"I sort of figure that with all the shit that was going on, there was probably a lot of stress and whatnot, so maybe the proportion of gay students at Hogwarts is higher for our year and up, since we were all born during the war."
"You think so?" Harry asked.
"Well, no good way to find out," Dean said. "Unless you have a lot of veritaserum and no compunctions about using it liberally."
"Let's not," Harry said. "So what are you going to do about Seamus?"
Dean frowned. "Keep working on him, I suppose."
"Just because he stops being homophobic doesn't mean he's going to suddenly be into dudes," Harry said.
"I know," Dean said. "But look at you, your guy is into dudes, what are you going to do?"
"He's dating our best friend," Harry said.
Dean shrugged. "Sometimes there isn't anything to do but enjoy the misery," Deans said.
Harry laughed at that.
"Okay," Dean said. "I've been dying to ask."
"What?" Harry asked.
"I mean, I'm not trying to be accusatory or anything, if you say you're just hanging out, I believe you, but before Ron started dating Hermione… All that time you two spent alone together on each other's beds, behind closed curtains, you never made out or fooled around or anything?" Dean asked.
Harry blushed. "I didn't even know he liked blokes back then," Harry said, trying to keep the sense of a missed opportunity out of his voice. "Erm, besides, I'm pretty sure I would have freaked out if anything like that had ever actually been on the table."
"That's too bad," Dean said, and he actually looked like he was sorry for Harry.
"So what," Harry said. "If Seamus came in here and was all…" Harry wasn't sure how to finish that sentence or if he could if he did.
Dean put on his best Seamus impression, "Hey, Dean, let's have a spot of fun."
"Yeah," Harry said, blushing furiously. "That. You're saying you'd just… you know."
"Yeah," Dean said. "I probably would."
Harry looked at him, a bit surprised by the admission.
"I'm not going to apologize for knowing what I want," Dean said.
"I wasn't trying to, like, shame you or anything," Harry said.
"I know," Dean said. "And I guess I shouldn't act like there's something wrong with not being ready for that either."
Harry shrugged. "It's fine," he said.
"I shouldn't think about doing stuff like that with Seamus," Dean said. "It's just going to lead to frustration. I need a distraction."
That made Harry's heart skip a beat as he thought about what sort of distraction Dean could want to keep his mind off of Seamus. His lips tingled as remnants of his dream of kissing Malfoy surfaced.
"Want to look at what I've been drawing?" Dean asked.
"Oh," Harry said. Simultaneously relieved and disappointed that Dean wasn't suggesting some other manner of distraction from thinking about their crushes. "Sure," he said. "What've you got?"
"Well I've been trying to get shark headed Krum just right," Dean said, holding up his sketchpad.
"Well you've got those abs right," Harry commented.
Harry himself had a bit of trouble sleeping that night, not because of bad dreams though, but rather because of thoughts of his conversation with Dean running through his head. Fantasies ran wild though his brain for a good long while before he reminded himself that he needed to get some sleep, so he cleared his mind and calmed himself down and drifted off. The next morning though, it was back in his head and he found himself debating the prospect of just walking up to Dean and asking him if he wanted to go somewhere and make out. At lunch, he made a mental list.
Pro, Harry thought, it's supposed to be a lot of fun.
Con, Harry was pretty convinced that it was gross.
Pro, at least Harry would figure out which one it was.
Con, Dean is not Ron.
Pro, maybe if he makes out with Dean, he'll get over Ron.
Con, what if Dean wanted to do more than just make out?
Did Harry want to do more than make out? Bad question. Was he ready to do more? He bit his lip as he tried to answer that question for himself but had no idea how to go about it.
Pro, Dean's actually pretty cool and maybe there could be more to them than just being dorm mates who occasionally made out.
Con, Harry could very easily die some time soon and that wouldn't be very fair to Dean.
Pro, Harry could very easily die some time soon and maybe it'd be nice to do more than just think about these things.
Consideration: he'd literally told Ron a few days prior that he didn't need a boyfriend and then one steamy dream and a suggestive conversation had him contemplating hooking up with his dorm mate.
Pro, maybe if he got it out of his system, he wouldn't need to occlude just to pay attention in class.
Con, all of it was a distraction from figuring out who had tried to kill his best friend.
He closed the book on his mental list and did his best to deal with the frustration while he tuned back into the conversation Ron and Hermione were having about Arithmancy.
"I'm thinking of tailing Karkaroff around for a bit," Harry said.
"I really don't think he's the culprit," Hermione said.
"Most everyone else who could have done it is back at the ministry," Harry said. "So he's about the best bet we've got."
"Best bet for you being alone with a Death Eater," Ron said.
"I'm not alone with him if he doesn't know I'm there," Harry said.
"Sure," Ron said. "Malfoy catches you when you're invisible. Karkaroff's the headmaster of Durmstrang and a Death Eater, I don't like your odds there."
"Ludo Bagman's the one who took Ginny down to the lake," Hermione said. "He had the most access."
"But anyone could have gone down there afterwards," Harry said. "Anyone who knew what the second task was and where the hostages were going to be. That's a short list, and Karkaroff's still on it, and also, yeah, he is a Death Eater."
"But what's his motive," Hermione said. "He sold out other Death Eaters, he's not going to get back into Voldemort's good graces by killing Ron."
"What?" Ron asked. "You don't think I'm worth killing?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "It just doesn't make sense. He might try killing Harry; he could think that that could save him from being killed if Voldemort ever came back, but Ron?"
"Well what's Bagman's motive?" Harry asked. "He seemed excited in the beginning, like it was all some lark that there was going to be a fourth competitor. He's friends with Ron's Dad even. Why kill either of them?"
"I don't know his motive," Hermione said. "I'm not even saying it's likely him, I'm just saying he would have had the easiest time laying a trap like that."
"Also, he was a pro-Quiditch player who went into the ministry for sports," Harry said. "Do you think he could have pulled off a powerful beast summoning tied into a delayed depth trigger?"
"He got an outstanding NEWT in Charms," Hermione said. "It was in his team bio."
"You're reading old quidditch books?" Ron asked.
"I'm doing my research," Hermione said. "Besides, you could easily become a pro quidditch player and you do well enough in class, so don't make assumptions."
"Besides which, he's one of the few people who knew what the task was going to be well enough in advance to plan something like this," Hermione concluded.
"I still think Karkaroff is more likely," Harry said.
"And I think Dumbledore's probably got his eye on the guy," Ron said.
"He lives in a boat on the lake where you almost died," Harry said.
Hermione sighed. "I get to check your silencing charms before you leave," she said.
"That's fine," Harry said.
"Would your Dad tell you if he knew?" Ron asked.
Harry thought about it. "Sometimes I get the idea that if my Dad found out about some sort of threat out there, it would just quietly disappear."
"Good to know," Ron said.
"Maybe you should run this by him," Hermione said.
"He'd just try and stop me," Harry said, though he figured that was why Hermione had suggested it in the first place. "I'll be careful, he won't catch me."
He got caught. Instead of a murder attempt though, it just lead to a trip to Professor McGonagall's office, a detention, and being in a bit of hot water with his Dad. He did learn that Karkaroff was heavily paranoid and was concerned about the Dark Mark on his arm. Harry would probably have an awkward conversation with his Dad about that in the future.
Time went on, their investigation, such as it was, went nowhere, and he struggled with the idea that there was a clock ticking down until there would be another attempt and he didn't know how much time was on it. The twins fixed the ward around Ron's bed and a lot of things went back to normal. Classes were attended, they avoided nosy classmates, he crushed on Ron; the whole while he felt like he was in limbo. The only time he felt like he was moving forward was when he trained with his Dad. Stopping Voldemort would stop everything, Harry told himself. Ron would be safe when Voldemort was gone. Harry just had to be ready.
Quidditch was a welcome distraction. The weather was decent considering that it was winter, and Harry managed to beat Victor Krum to the snitch one of the times they actually got paired up. He almost wished it had been caught on camera. Ron also was doing a bit better than he had the last time they had played, and Harry was happy to cheer him on when he was sitting out on the sidelines. He still had a ways to go before he'd be ready for the team the next year, but Harry was confident. It was when the game was over that some of the realities of the recent past came back to get in the way.
Harry had been planning on just showering back at the dorms, but Ron just headed for the locker room when everything was done and Harry wasn't going to let him walk in there alone. Except they weren't alone, of course. There were fifteen other boys in there with them and Harry kept waiting for someone to say something. Ron kept up his usual chatter, speculating with Cedric about the next task, and Harry tried to focus on that. He understood Ron's perspective, that they shouldn't have to trek back to the tower in their sweaty robes when there were showers right there, but Harry would have rather not had to worry about their fellow players.
He grabbed a towel from the bin and disrobed and wrapped up quickly. He was definitely getting looks and Harry felt especially self conscious and unaccountably guilty. He stayed close to Ron and made a point of not looking at anyone else. Ron was still talking to Cedric, who didn't seem to be bothered by their presence, but Harry just wished he'd hurry up. Finally, Ron was ready and they headed to the showers.
Harry definitely favored the sectioned showers that were in the dorms to the group showers in the locker room. He chose a spigot that let him face the corner and cleaned himself up as quickly as he could, feeling the eyes of others on his back. The twins, like Ron, didn't seem to think that group showers were a time for awkward silence and kept up their own banter. He knew none of the Weasleys were capable of a very quick shower so Harry abandoned Ron in favor of getting back into some clothes, knowing that at least Ron would have his brother's for backup.
It wasn't until Harry went back towards the lockers that he realized that a good portion of the other boys appeared to be waiting to start changing. He felt his cheeks warm and focused on trying to remember how to do the freshening charm that Cedric had done on his robes for him the last time they'd all done quidditch. It felt awkward trying over and over to get the spell right while he stood there naked with a towel around his waist and the hostile eyes of everyone who had decided they weren't going to change in front of the gay boy on his back.
He really wished that he'd actually planned on showering after the game and had just brought something to change into. He did manage the charm eventually though, and he tossed on his shirt and robes before he ditched the towel and finished getting dressed. Still unwilling to leave Ron in such a hostile environment though, Harry just kept facing his locker and went through the motions of doing broom maintenance.
Ron finished up eventually and, completely ignoring everyone else, got dressed as if he wasn't catching glares.
"You know that that was awkward, right?" Harry asked as they left.
Ron shrugged. "Let them just sit there in their sweaty robes," he said. "We're not second class students, we get to shower just like everyone else."
"I figured," Harry said.
"Besides," Ron said. "It's a good way to know who's on your side and who isn't."
Harry was glad he wasn't the only one who was keeping track. Interesting enough, Malfoy had not been among those who had waited for Harry and Ron to leave before he started changing.
March's full moon came in on a Wednesday and Harry missed astronomy while his Dad returned to the castle to impersonate him, leaving him in Professor Lupin's care. He enjoyed his time the following day when he had Professor Lupin to himself and he could talk to him about his boy troubles.
Malfoy, unfortunately, often worked his way into Harry's mind as March became April. His odd acolytes had grown in numbers by a few and, oddity of oddities, Malfoy had added some of Harry's criticisms to the whole ideology. Harry told himself he had more important things to think about than Malfoy, but still felt like he was a second year and had to brew Polyjuice potion to uncover his plot. The thing was, was that Malfoy was getting more and more popular in the school. He seemed to be all over the place, talking politics here, organizing a study group there, working out problems that never involved him in the first place.
"He's going for Prefect," Hermione said, when Harry brought it up, but Harry was certain Malfoy had had Prefect in the bag a long time ago.
"Maybe he fell down the stairs and got the evil knocked out of him," Ron said.
Whatever Malfoy was up to, Harry didn't have time to worry about it. He remembered though, Ginny's suggestion that he ask Malfoy. It wasn't as though Malfoy would really have anything useful to add, or that he'd tell Harry if he did. Harry tried to keep an eye on him, but with everything else, it wasn't very high up on his list of priorities.
By the time April's full moon arrived, it had been more than eight weeks since the second task and with no one seeming to have attempted to kill Ron or Ginny since, and without any progress in the case, Harry was starting to feel like it was all a waiting game until the third task.
"I'm just worried we're going to go into the third task without anyone having been caught and then I'll just be sitting there waiting to find out if someone's going to try and kill Ron again," Harry told Professor Lupin the afternoon after the full moon. Professor Lupin was once more keeping an eye on Harry while his Dad returned to the castle to teach his classes.
"There's going to be a lot more security for the third task," Professor Lupin said.
"That's what my Dad said, but we're sort of working under the idea that what happened with the second task was an inside job, so who knows."
"I suppose you've been trying to solve the mystery," Professor Lupin said.
"Well yeah," Harry said. "But we're not getting anywhere."
"That must be frustrating," Professor Lupin said. "I'm sure you're very worried about Ron."
"Well, yeah," Harry said.
"Come on," Professor Lupin said. "Today's a recovery day. Nothing to do right now, let's talk about something less stressful."
"What else did we talk about last night?" Harry asked. Ever since Professor Lupin had started staying over after the full moon, Harry had asked him to tell him everything he had forgotten from the time before their transformation.
"You did bring up Mr. Malfoy," Professor Lupin said.
Harry nodded. "My usual complaints?" he asked.
"Well yes," Professor Lupin said. "Though you might have mentioned that he was ridiculously good looking."
Harry groaned. "He is though," he said. "And it's not fair. He can actually be charming, you know, and he's playing this whole reformed act, like everyone's going to forget that he's an evil little snake. Except a bunch of people have forgotten that he's an evil little snake."
"So he's good looking and charming," Professor Lupin said. "Do you have a crush on the Slytherin bad boy?"
"What? No!" Harry said. "He's horrible. Besides, I still have a crush on Ron. I was even considering making out with one of my classmates to see if that would help me get over him. Oh, did I tell you one of my classmates came out to me?"
"You told me last month," Professor Lupin said. "I take it you decided against it?"
Harry shrugged. "I figured I didn't need the distraction while someone's trying to kill my best friend."
"Harry, even at the height of the war we took time for ourselves," Professor Lupin said.
"So you think I should see if he want's to make out?" Harry asked.
"No, I think you shouldn't let what happened during the second task affect your decision."
Harry thought about that for a bit. "So what if I might also be worried that he'd want to do more than just make out?" he asked.
"Well do you want to do more than make out?" Professor Lupin said.
"Well sure," Harry said. "I just don't know if I should."
"Because you're not ready?" Professor Lupin prompted.
"Because… because a lot of things," Harry said. "Which probably mean's I'm not ready?" He cast a curious glance at Professor Lupin.
"Well I can't tell you if you're ready or not," Professor Lupin said. "This is really something you need to decide for yourself. Trust your instincts."
"My instincts are telling me two different things," Harry said.
"So does that sound like you're ready?" Professor Lupin asked.
Harry frowned. "No," he said, disappointment and relief in his voice. "But it's really frustrating."
"I'm sure it is," Professor Lupin said. "Just remember that it's not a race. There's no rush."
"See, I know that," Harry said. "But I feel like there is." It wasn't just the rush of hormones and the sense of lingering possibility, it was the thought that there could very well be a limited window of opportunity to enjoy any of the thrills of puberty before he had to face Voldemort and maybe never have an opportunity after that.
"There's plenty of time," Professor Lupin said, though he looked down, sadly, and Harry knew he didn't need to ask how much time everyone else he had grown up with had gotten.
"I also feel like everything would be better if I stopped having a crush on Ron," Harry said.
"And what makes you think that making out with another boy will solve that?" Professor Lupin asked.
Harry shrugged. "You don't think it will?"
"It sounds like it would be a temporary distraction," Professor Lupin said. "Unless you're looking for a deeper relationship with this other boy."
"I mean, he's nice and all," Harry said. "I don't know. Having a boyfriend really would be more of a distraction than I need right now."
"Well even if it isn't making out with some boy, I hope you're finding some form of distraction," Professor Lupin said. "You should have more in your life than just school work, transformations, and worrying about murder plots."
"What about you?" Harry asked. "Any distractions lately?"
"I've been writing," Professor Lupin said.
"What, about your travels?" Harry asked.
"Someone thought it would be a good idea," Professor Lupin said. "Of course I'm really just writing it down for myself. I don't think the market's ready for Travels of a Werewolf."
"Well you don't need to tell them about that," Harry said. "I think it could really sell. What else? When's your next trip."
"July," Professor Lupin said. "There's some rather interesting areas in Madagascar I'd like to see for myself."
"Oh, I met a nice muggle man at the library last week," Professor Lupin said. "Though he seemed put off when I told him I didn't have a cell phone."
"Middle-school's when a lot of kids get theirs, and I was sooo worried I was going to be the only one who didn't have one," Harry said. "Not that I had anyone to call, but you know…"
"You didn't like sticking out," Professor Lupin said.
"Of course sticking out's all I've ever done," Harry said. "Did he ask you for your number?"
"He did," Professor Lupin said. "Still though, I've got a date on Saturday."
"That's cool," Harry said.
When he returned to school later that evening he wound up glancing at Dean out of the corner of his eye, wondering what it would be like to go out on a date with him. It was Ron, of course, who held most of his attention.
"So can you tell me what the third task is?" Harry asked his Dad. It was a Saturday night, and Harry had spent the majority of the afternoon dueling with his Dad. Now, covered with perspiration and out of breath, Harry was ready to call it quits and head back to the tower.
"Well," his Dad said. "While I can't tell you what the task is, I can tell you that Hagrid has been busy procuring more magical creatures than one would anticipate he would need for the last two months of term."
"Multiple magical creatures?" Harry asked.
His Dad shrugged. Harry's frustration with the lack of progress into the case surrounding the second task had been growing and, with the start of May, Harry felt like time was running out to try and figure out who had sabotaged things and almost killed Ron. He was very worried that the third task would start and he'd still be worried that there was someone waiting for a second chance. If they couldn't figure out who had been behind it, then at least they could make sure he got through the third task as quickly as possible.
"Security will be a lot tighter for the third task," his Dad said. "Chances are, there won't be any opportunity." His Dad didn't need to ask what Harry's biggest worry was.
"Well, no one needed to sabotage anything for that dragon to almost kill Ron in the first task," Harry said. "Besides, all the security in the world might not help if it's an inside job."
His Dad gave him a hug, which was awkward since Harry was definitely too gross to hug at the moment. Harry thought that this was the part where most parents would say that Harry had nothing to worry about, but his Dad wasn't most parents.
"We cannot completely eradicate the possibility that some tragedy will occur during the third task," his Dad said. "But we will do everything we can, as will you, and Miss Granger, and Mr. Weasley's own siblings. Mr. Weasley himself, I am sure, is going to do everything he can to make it out in one piece."
"I just don't know what I'd do if he doesn't," Harry said. His world wouldn't make sense without Ron in it.
"It is a terrible pain," his Dad said. "To lose someone you love. But you would have me, and Miss Granger and many others. You would not be alone in it. Yet still, there is a very good chance that he will survive the third task with no serious injuries. You would do better now to focus on preparing Mr. Weasley, than you will worrying about his demise."
Harry nodded. He tightened his arms around his Dad briefly before stepping back. "Is it alright if I cancel dinner tonight?" he asked.
"Yes," his Dad said. "Go spend time with your friends."
'While you still can,' Harry added in his head.
"See you tomorrow," Harry said.
"Enjoy Hogsmeade tomorrow, stay safe," his Dad said. "I love you."
"Love you too," Harry said walking out.
Now, out of the halls of the dungeon Harry started walking towards the Great Hall where he would have dinner with friends. It was where the corridor that led to his fathers quarters intersected with the path that led to the Slytherin dorms that he crossed paths with Malfoy. Of course, he wasn't alone; he never was these days. Daphne Greengrass, Tracy Davis, and Blaise Zabini where the only Slytherins from his year that still hung out with Malfoy, but there were a number of students from the other years and a few from other houses who seemed to have gravitated towards him. There was a group of about 10 of them walking with Malfoy just then, and Harry had the distinct feeling that he was out numbered, even though he was wearing his invisibility cloak.
"Now make sure you don't forget about the younger years," Malfoy said. "Moraga's got his OWL's to worry about, but the rest of you could really earn us a few more points by helping out. Slytherin's got the cup in the bag this year."
"Assuming Potter doesn't snipe it away from us again," someone from the group said.
"There's no predicting Potter," Malfoy said. "So don't worry about him."
"That's rich, coming from you," Daphne said.
Malfoy laughed along with everyone else.
"Well I suppose we just have to find a basilisk to slay and we'll be shoe-ins," Malfoy said.
There was more laughter.
"Oh hey, I left the potion going," Malfoy said. "You run ahead, I'll catch up in a bit."
"How much are you selling that for?" Someone asked.
Malfoy grinned. "Enough. I'll see you."
Harry debated with himself on whether he should go or if he should stay. There were no leads, and Harry was getting desperate. Desperate enough to talk to Malfoy about it. The rest of the Slytherins walked away, leaving an invisible Harry alone with Malfoy. Malfoy wasn't moving anywhere, so Harry was pretty sure the other boy knew he was there.
"Come on, Potter," Malfoy said.
Harry pulled the invisibility cloak off. "I was completely silenced," he said.
"Have you been working out or something?" Malfoy asked, with a smirk.
Harry discretely smelled himself. "Or something," Harry agreed, he would need to take a quick shower before he joined his friends for dinner.
"Following me around again?" Malfoy asked.
"No," Harry said. "I was just visiting my Dad."
"Fair enough," Malfoy said. "Are you heading to dinner?"
"Eventually," Harry said. There was a brief moment where they just stared at one another.
"Come on then," Malfoy said.
They walked in silence for a while, until Malfoy brought up the Harpies latest game. That carried them for a while until Harry had to ask. "Do you know anything about the second task?" he asked.
Malfoy stopped walking. "I didn't have anything to do with it, if that's what you're asking."
"You've got a lot of contacts," Harry said. "I thought maybe you might have heard something."
"Well, I haven't," Malfoy said. "And if by contacts you mean Death Eaters, I don't exactly keep in touch. Though it wouldn't really make any sense for it to be any of them. The Dark Lord wants you dead. If he wanted to torment you by killing off your friends, it wouldn't be anonymous, it would be very obvious and very personal."
"Right," Harry said. He'd known that asking Malfoy would be a long shot.
"Of course it's probably something much more pedestrian," Malfoy said, looking thoughtful.
Harry shot him a look. "What do you mean?"
"Revenge, anger, jealousy, greed, fear," Malfoy said. "There are plenty of reasons for people to kill people. So why would anyone have motive to kill a Weasley? Now, after the first task, there were plenty who might have worried that he could actually win, but sabotaging him to lose would have been a lot easier than the stunt that got pulled, a lot less obvious, and a lot less likely to bring in an investigation from the ministry. Revenge? Well I couldn't think of anything there. Plenty of people still consider the Weasleys to be blood traitors, so it's a toss up, but there are plenty of better targets if anyone's trying to make a statement. Again, the lake was very impersonal, very cold blooded. Makes me think of greed."
"What could anyone get from killing Ron?" Harry asked.
"There are, of course, a number of bets going on over the outcome of the games," Malfoy said.
"What, so someone bet on Ron loosing and decided to make sure it happened?" Harry asked.
"Maybe," Malfoy said. "But like I said, easier to sabotage him than to kill him. Avoids a heated investigation into the death of a couple of students. You ever hear of a dead pool, though?"
"People bet on who's going to die?" Harry asked, aghast.
Malfoy shrugged. "It's illegal, of course, but it does happen. I'd imagine someone thought it a rather sure thing, that a fourth year facing a dragon probably wouldn't make it, but then he got the highest score. If it was a sizable bet, of course, that could be all the motive in the world."
"So they'd definitely try again," Harry said.
Malfoy shrugged. "Sure, if the reward outweighed the risk, and it's a lot riskier now that they've failed once."
"So how do I find out if someone bet on Ron?" Harry asked.
"You, don't," Malfoy said. "No one's going to tell the Boy-Who-Lived about their dead pool. Definitely no bookie is going to talk to you."
"So what do I do?" Harry asked.
"What would you do for the information you're looking for?" Malfoy asked.
Harry gave him a look. "I've got money, if that's what your looking for."
Malfoy shook his head. "You might have to get your hands dirty," he said. "Though money would help too."
"I've gotten my hands dirty before," Harry said.
"Good," Malfoy said. "Do you have a disguise?"
"Polyjuice," Harry said.
"I'll take that," Malfoy said. "You keep the cloak. The only thing I need now is for you to trust me," he said, holding out his hand.
Harry glared at it before he took it for a perfunctory shake.
"I take it we're leaving the castle," he said.
"Well the answers you're looking for aren't here," Malfoy said. "Of course there's no guarantee that we're even on the right track, but I think it's the best bet." He grinned like he'd made a joke and Harry rolled his eyes.
"How are we getting out of the school?" Harry asked. He'd rather not give up a secret tunnel if he didn't need to.
"We're not going now," Malfoy said like Harry was daft. "We get to go into Hogsmeade tomorrow; there's no need for some escape."
"Right," Harry said. He definitely wanted to go now.
"Come on, then," Malfoy said. "My friends are going to wonder what's taking me so long."
They walked the rest of the way to the Great Hall, agreeing to meet the next day outside of the Shrieking Shack. Harry threw on his invisibility cloak before they got to dinner so no one would see them appearing together.
Hermione called the little curio shop in Hogsmeade the personification of a snake oil salesman. Though she would amend that snake oil actually did serve a purpose in several potions. It seemed odd, to Harry, that even in the wizarding world, that there were things that were considered to be impossible and that there were people willing to sell you the impossible. They sold potions that were supposed to make you smarter, or a charm that was said to bend odds in your favor. Harry usually liked stopping at the curio shop, if only for a bit of amusement; he wasn't expecting to have to drag Ron out.
"Piece of shit," Ron yelled over his shoulder. They got a few looks from students passing by.
Hermione looked more worried than angry. "Are you alright?"
"I don't need to be fixed," Ron said.
"Well I know that," Hermione said.
Harry hadn't known what to say when the proprietor had offered up a potion that was promised to make him straight. Ron hadn't been speechless though.
"Stuff like that makes me so angry," Ron said.
"He's just a conman," Harry said. "Come on, let's stock up on chocolate."
"Why aren't you angry?" Ron demanded.
"Harry doesn't owe you anger," Hermione said.
"No," Ron said. "But he can be angry for his own right."
"This isn't new, Ron," Harry said. "People say shit to us all the time. At least this guy wasn't calling me a fairy."
"No," Ron said. "He was just offering up some bullshit cure like we're diseased; trying to profit off of bigotry."
"He's a despicable person," Hermione agreed. "Are you alright?"
Ron seemed to notice for the first time that he was shaking. Harry noticed how worried Hermione sounded, how she wasn't quite standing too close to Ron.
"Yeah, Hermione, I'm alright," Ron said quietly. "I'm fine really. Sorry…"
"You don't need to apologize for being angry," Hermione said.
"Doesn't mean I need to yell," Ron mumbled. He was still shaking.
Hermione stepped forward and embraced Ron.
"You're fine just the way you are," she said.
"Mmm, you're perfect," Ron said.
"Okay," Harry said, taking the opportunity. "So I think it's lunch time, so, why don't you two have a date or something. We'll catch up later tonight."
"You don't have to go," Ron said.
"I should though," Harry said. "You two have couple time."
"Are you alright, mate?" Ron asked.
"Yeah," Harry said. "Just, you know. I sort of expect people to be dicks, you know?"
"Well go find the twins or Ginny or someone," Ron said.
"Wear your cloak," Hermione said. Harry was already pulling it out.
"Have fun," Harry said, wishing that he didn't have to do this during a Hogsmeade weekend while his friends were out without him to watch their backs.
He hadn't told them that he was going to have an excursion with Malfoy, they would have definitely tried to talk him out of it, or tried to come along. Harry did some spellwork to make sure he was silent and odorless and wouldn't leave any footprints and set off to the Shrieking Shack. On the way he mentally catalogued everything he had brought with him. Potions bandolier? Check. Zonkos products for a distraction? Check. Shrunken broom? Check. The twins invention for going through walls? …Check. He had debated bringing the patches. It wasn't that they weren't useful. But he had killed someone with the thing, and he hadn't used it since. Still though, better safe than sorry. He was ready for whatever this mission would entail.
It was worth getting hexed to prove that he could sneak up on Malfoy.
"Well that was stupid," Malfoy said, as Harry cleared up the Tonge Lock hex Malfoy had gotten him with.
"You had no clue I was there," Harry said. Was he slurring?
"Yes, yes, very good," Malfoy said. "I still hexed you when you were invisible. Do you have your broom?"
Harry nodded and pulled it out of his pocket, removing the shrinking sticker.
"Where are we going exactly?" he asked.
"Knockturn Alley," Malfoy said. "Though we're just flying to a cottage nearby that my family owns. We'll flu from there."
"No one's going to be there?" Harry asked.
Malfoy shrugged. "It should be empty. It's more of a summer country getaway," he said. "I guess if mother's there I'll get in a right bit of trouble. Come on then."
"Where's your broom?"
"Didn't bring it," Malfoy said. "We're flying tandem."
"Why on earth would you want to fly tandem?" Harry asked.
"Well your invisibility cloak isn't going to cover the both of us if we're on different brooms."
"Oh, and here you'd been acting like you could do a proper disillusionment charm," Harry said.
"I can," Malfoy said, defensively. "Enough to fool a muggle at least."
Harry rolled his eyes and mounted his broom. "Well get on then," he said.
'This is awkward,' Harry thought as he positioned the cloak over the both of them. It felt even more awkward when Malfoy wrapped his arms around Harry's middle. He was glad Malfoy couldn't see him blush.
"Head East for now," Malfoy said, and Harry kicked off, feeling Malfoy's arms tighten around him as they accelerated. Harry caught himself wondering what it would be like to sit behind Malfoy and press up against him like that. He got rid of that thought and thought about riding tandem with Ron instead.
Malfoy's directions became more specific the further they went and eventually Malfoy was directing Harry down below the tree line and they passed through an illusory veil to reveal their destination. What Malfoy had called a cottage, Harry was pretty sure was more like a country manor. Malfoy did a double take when they walked in though.
"Fifi," he commanded. A house elf appeared in front of him.
"How can Fifi be serving Master Draco?" Fifi asked.
"You can tell me where everything's gone," Malfoy said.
"Mistress has put it all in the manor, Master Draco," Fifi said. "The cottage is to be sold."
Malfoy cast an embarrassed look at Harry. "I see," he said. "Is anyone coming here today?"
Fifi wrung her hands. "Fifi is not knowing, Master Draco. I can be finding out if you would be liking."
"No," Malfoy said quickly. "No, that's fine. Do you have instructions to tell mother if I come here?"
"No, Master Draco, Fifi has no such instructions."
"Good," Malfoy said. "Do not tell her or anyone that we stopped by."
"Yes, Master Draco."
Malfoy started walking out of the entryway.
"Can Fifi be making lunch for Master Draco and his guest?"
"No," Malfoy said. "We're in a hurry. Though maybe a snack for when we return."
"Oh, yes, Fifi will be making all of your favorites, Master Draco."
"Good," Malfoy said. "Come on Potter."
There was a fireplace a few rooms in and Malfoy lit a fire.
"Don't you dare try setting her free, you hear?" Malfoy said.
"Fifi's a lot different than Dobby," Harry commented, making no promises.
"Dobby's an anomaly," Malfoy said.
"I meant she doesn't look chewed up and bedraggled," Harry said.
"Never knew why father didn't make him a kitchen elf. Dobby wasn't really suited to be his valet. It doesn't matter. Fifi was my minder when I was much younger. She's never really interacted with father."
"How do you mind someone who you have to obey?" Harry asked.
"She obeyed mother over me," Malfoy said, shrugging. "And mother gave her very careful instructions. She doesn't need saving Potter."
"Have you ever asked her?" Harry asked.
Malfoy shook his head and grabbed the floo power off the mantle.
"Time to put your cloak on, Potter."
Harry threw his cloak on again and cast all of his masking spells.
"Grab onto my arm," Malfoy said, holding his arm out like a falcon was supposed to land on it. Harry grabbed on. Malfoy threw the powder into the fireplace and they stepped in as green flames roared to life around them.
"Knockturn Alley," Malfoy said and the two of them were pulled off into the strange world of in-betweens that looked in on flashes of fireplaces throughout Britain. Harry managed to land on his feet as they were expelled from the fireplace, but only because he had a tight grip on Malfoy's arm, which he dropped suddenly like it was a hot poker.
They were in Borgin and Burkes, the same shop Harry had come out of on his first misadventure with floo powder. Harry looked around at the creepy artifacts that sat on cushions or behind glass cabinets.
"Young Mr. Malfoy," the shops proprietor, Mr. Borgin, said, coming out from behind the counter. "I did not expect to see you any time soon. Certainly not in the middle of the school year."
"I had some business I needed to attend to," Malfoy said. "It's a bit time sensitive, so I'm here now."
"We were of course terribly upset to hear about what the Ministry did to your father," Mr. Borgin said. "I suppose you're here to dispose of some more items, then?"
"I'm not here to sell anything," Malfoy said. "I'm here to spend some actually."
"And how can I be of service to the noble house of Malfoy?" Mr. Borgin asked.
"I'm looking to place a wager," Malfoy said. "I thought you might point me in the right direction."
"There are certainly plenty of bookies in the alley," Mr. Borgin said. "But then I suppose you're looking for something more."
Malfoy smiled. "Weasley's doing well in the tournament, but a blood traitor relying on a halfblood and a mudblood to keep himself afloat won't last. In fact, I suspect he won't survive at all."
Mr. Borgin sported a sly smile at this. "Most bookies wouldn't take a bet like that," he said. "A bit more than a slap on the wrist if you're caught making such a wager."
"Yet surely a knowledgable man such as yourself would know where I can find what I am looking for," Malfoy said.
"Perhaps," Mr. Borgin said. "But information costs money."
Malfoy's face tightened, and Harry wondered if he had been banking on using his name to get what he wanted.
"Of course," Malfoy said, reaching into his cloak. "I trust this will handle matters."
Mr. Borgin eyed the gold shrewdly. "You must be fairly certain of the Weasley boy's fate," he said.
"Come now," Malfoy said. "This is a business transaction after all. You can't expect me to give anything away."
Mr. Borgin scooped up the money and it was gone from sight in a moment.
"Kurstif runs a wares stand next to Merkins Potions. Most of it's junk, but I think she might have something that would interest you."
Some more gold was pressed onto the counter, and this time there was considerably more of it. "I was never here," Malfoy said.
"I certainly didn't send you anywhere," Mr. Borgin said. "Tell her Marvin sent you, one of her business associates."
Malfoy nodded and headed to the door. He opened it and made a bit of a show of throwing the hood of his cloak over his head while Harry slipped out. Once outside Malfoy sat on a bench a couple of storefronts down. Harry sat down next to him.
"Polyjuice potion," Malfoy muttered.
Harry pulled it out and handed it to him under the cloak. Malfoy handed him a very small camera, about the size of his palm.
"When the book comes out, start taking pictures and don't stop until it's closed," Malfoy said. "And don't worry about the gold. You can pay me back later."
Harry didn't bother responding. Malfoy couldn't see or hear him. Malfoy downed the potion and kept his head down as his face morphed behind the hood of his cloak. They got up and started moving down the alley; Harry keeping behind Malfoy to reduce the risk of having someone run into him. Malfoy was taller now, and now looked rather plain.
Kurstif turned out to be a goblin and her wares stand was situated in a narrow space in-between two storefronts.
"What do you want?" Kurstif said.
"Marvin said I could place a bet here," Malfoy said.
Harry moved around the low counter so he'd be positioned to take pictures.
"And what did you want to put money on?" Kurstif asked. Here she tapped a trinket with one of her fingers and Harry felt some sort of ward go up. Probably a privacy enchantment. Harry looked around for a book. That was when he saw the cat.
"The French Muggle Election," Malfoy said, pulling out another bag of gold. "Holland to loose."
The cat was big and orange, and it was looking right at Harry.
"Three to one," Kurstif said.
"It's a longer shot than that," Malfoy said.
"Sure, but I have to factor for the risk," Kurstif said. "Wagers on muggle politics are illegal."
The cat had that look where it was crouched down with its tail wagging back and forth.
"Seven to two," Malfoy suggested.
"Three to one, take it or leave it," Kurstif said.
Malfoy shrugged, and dropped the gold onto the counter. Kurstif bent down and pulled a book out from underneath. The cat's haunches started wiggling.
The book was placed on the table and Harry tore his eyes off the cat and started to get the camera ready. Kurstif drew one pointy finger down the front of the book and then turned over the cover.
"What name do you want this under?" Kurstif asked.
Harry was just about to start taking pictures when suddenly the cat was on his back and there was a loud yowl.
Kurstif gave out a squawk, turning around to see what the commotion was. Malfoy grabbed the book. "Run!" he yelled.
Harry didn't need to be told twice. He knocked over the stand getting out while trying to get the damned cat off of him. On instinct, he threw up a shield. A bolt of light splashed against it a moment later. The alley was narrow, but Harry was used to running away.
Finally, the cat gave up and Harry didn't have to worry about being the obvious invisible guy with a cat clinging to him. He caught up to Malfoy quickly and grabbed his arm, dragging him into a store. He ignored the proprietor behind the counter and threw the cloak over Malfoy. He quickly dipped the toe of his shoe into the floor.
"Hug me tight," he told Malfoy.
Malfoy thankfully didn't argue and did what Harry said. Harry put one foot on either side of Malfoy's"
"We're going to fall now," Harry said. He activated the patches in his shoes, one hand fisting into his cloak to make sure it came with them and the other making sure Malfoy's head was tucked close to him. They fell through the floor and landed in a heap in a dimly lit basement. Malfoy pushed Harry off of him.
"What the hell was that?!" He sounded panicked.
"No time," Harry said. The cloak had fallen off when they fell. Harry got up and pulled Malfoy to him and threw the cloak back over the two of them. He could feel that the silencing spell had broken when the cloak had gotten thrown off, he reapplied it quickly. A moment later, a door at the top of the stairs opened. It was the proprietor from behind the counter. He looked around, cautiously walking down the stairs with his wand drawn. Malfoy pulled Harry towards the wall. The proprietor started searching around when he got down the stairs.
Harry pointed his wand at the stairs and silenced them. As soon as the spell left his wand, Malfoy was dragging him up the stairs. There was a crowd outside the door to the shop. Once again, Malfoy dragged Harry over to a wall and they laid up flat against it.
A few moments later, the proprietor was back upstairs looking confused.
"Alright, Everett?" someone from the crowd outside asked.
"I think 'e must 'av left," Everett said.
"Well keep an eye out."
The crowd outside seemed disappointed, but they all meandered off. The door was still open. Malfoy squeezed his arm and they started walking out.
Harry saw Kurstif searching the alley when they walked out, but luckily there was no sign of the cat. Carefully and slowly, the two of them walked out of Knockturn Alley and into Diagon Alley.
"What's the plan?" Harry asked.
"We'll stay under here until the Polyjuice wears off," Malfoy said. "I'm definitely not showing this face off anywhere anytime soon."
"What about Mr. Borgin?" Harry asked.
"He'll keep his mouth shut," Malfoy said. "He won't want that goblin knowing it was him who sent us her way. Though, I don't think he'll want to see me in his shop anytime soon."
"So how do we get back?" Harry asked. "I don't really want to fly from here to Scotland."
"Same way we got here," Malfoy said. "We'll just use the Leaky Cauldron's Floo. Are you any good with glamours?"
"Enough so you won't look like a Malfoy," Harry said.
"Good," Malfoy said. "Let's just find somewhere to wait out this potion."
They started looking around, careful to stay practically glued together. Fitting multiple people under the cloak wasn't as easy as it had been when he was eleven.
"Merlins beard," Malfoy said. "When that kneazle jumped you I thought we were dead. How do you do this sort of thing on a regular basis?"
"It just sort of happens," Harry said. "You can either deal with it or you can get cursed by a goblin in an alley."
"I'm pretty sure at this point you can't just say that these things just happen to you," Malfoy said.
"You shouldn't hold that book like that," Harry said by way of response. Malfoy was holding it splayed open by one cover.
Malfoy shook his head. "Did you see how she opened it?" he asked. "I don't think we'll get it open again if we close it."
There was a space in between the ice cream shop and the pet shop and they camped out there, sitting on an empty crate, huddled together under the cloak. Now that they were out of danger and cooling off, Harry found himself once again distracted to be pressed up against the other boy.
"Quidditch," Harry said suddenly.
"What?" Malfoy asked.
"We should talk about quidditch, or something," Harry said.
"So have you figured out what the third task is yet?" he asked.
"No," Harry said. "Why? Have you?"
"Haven't heard a word," Malfoy said. "But you have a way of figuring out things you aren't supposed to have."
"Oh," Harry said. "No, though if I had the opportunity to figure it out, I'd definitely take it. We'll need all the time we can get to prepare."
"I wonder if Diggory has a team like your Weasley does," Malfoy asked.
"Hufflepuffs stick together," Harry said with a shrug. Cedric was a seventh year. Harry was sure he would be fine.
"You have to wonder," Malfoy said. "What sort of stunt are they going to pull if they've already had dragons and underwater battles?"
"Ron joked about a nundu," Harry said. "And I'm sure they wouldn't, but who knows."
"I've always wanted to see one," Malfoy said. "Maybe I'll get my wish." He sounded hopeful.
Harry elbowed him in the tight confines of the cloak and he chuckled.
"Okay, so let's talk quidditch."
It didn't seem like an hour had passed when Malfoy started shrinking and his face went back to normal. He pinched a lock of his hair and pulled it down so he could look at it with his eyes rolled up.
"Back to platinum," he said with a somewhat relieved smile. "Come on now, let's see how good your glamours are. Now don't make me a hag or I'll hex you again."
"I'll glamour your face," Harry said. "But you never know if someone will be able to see through it, so I'm going to transfigure your hair, and you're going to wear my glasses, just in case."
Malfoy nodded, though he looked wary of letting Harry use transfiguration on him.
Harry gave him short red hair and freckles and hoped he didn't blush for it. He also glamored him wider lips and gave him a broader chin and jaw.
"Do you have a mirror?" Malfoy asked.
Harry shook his head.
"Alright," he said. "I'm trusting you here." He handed Harry the book, still splayed open and used a couple of charms to change the color of his robes and get rid of the trim.
Malfoy ducked out from under the cloak and left the alleyway without a backwards glance for Harry. At this point, Harry would be following his lead. Not that either of them should be leading the other. Without his glasses, Harry was having a lot of trouble, and wearing Harry's glasses, Draco was also surely having trouble.
No one tried to stop them as they made their way out of the alley and Harry felt a wave of palpable relief when they crossed into Diagon Alley. Malfoy didn't waste any time and went directly to the Leaky Cauldron. Once inside, he paused by the fireplace and Harry grabbed his arm. Putting a sickle in the box by the fireplace, Malfoy grabbed a handful of floo powder and the both of them entered the flames. Much like Harry's own home, Malfoy's cottage didn't have a name, but rather an alpha numeric code.
"You made me a fucking Weasley!" Malfoy accused. There was a mirror over the fireplace.
Harry pulled off the cloak. "I figured no one would suspect a Malfoy would disguise himself with red hair and freckles." He tried his best to sound earnest.
Malfoy rolled his eyes and pulled out his wand. The glamours removed and the transfiguration undone, he carefully examined himself once more in the mirror.
"I didn't make you look like a hag," Harry said.
"Yeah, is that what you're into? A strong jawline?"
Harry flushed. "What? No," he said. "I guess we should…" He gestured towards the door.
"Hold on," Malfoy said. "Fifi."
Fifi appeared in the room with a soft pop. "How can Fifi be helping Master Draco?" she asked with an obsequious bow.
"The dagger that's on the mantle in my room," Malfoy said. "Go ahead and get that for me."
"Right away Master Malfoy."
"Dagger?" Harry asked askance.
"It's magical," Malfoy said. "Goblin made, should slice that book's cover right off. I don't want to have to worry about it closing on us."
"Right," Harry said. "Shouldn't we just read it."
"First thing's first," Malfoy said.
Fifi reappeared before Malfoy and bowed while simultaneously holding up the dagger in front of her. Harry was surprised she didn't overbalance.
"Excellent," Malfoy said, taking up the dagger. He held out his hand for the book.
Harry passed it over and watched as Malfoy sliced off the bindings. The dagger was razor sharp and didn't meet any resistance.
"Nice dagger," Harry said, as though his training made him any sort of authority on the matter.
Malfoy smirked and sheathed it before handing it over to Harry.
"What makes it special," Harry asked.
Malfoy shrugged. "A bunch of enchantments they won't tell you about, probably some sort of gold, silver, steel alloy to handle all the charm work."
Harry almost dropped it when Malfoy said silver, but of course, he didn't need to worry about that when he had the second skin around his hands. He unsheathed it and tried out it's heft and balance, flipping it in his hand to feel the weight of it smack his palm as he switched for a reverse grip.
"Showing off?" Malfoy asked.
"Just testing it," Harry said.
"It's not for fighting," Malfoy said. "It's for rituals."
"You do rituals with this?" Harry asked scandalized, suddenly feeling as though the silver was indeed burning him. He glanced at the blade as though he were going to find blood.
"Well, no," Malfoy said. "But I could. It's been in the family for generations. Got any goats? I could show you."
Harry looked at him in horror.
"Oh, don't act like you've never helped that… Hagrid… feed his carnivores."
"Yeah, the stuff's already dead," Harry said, sheathing the dagger.
Malfoy gave him a supercilious look. "Well, relax, I was teasing. I don't like to get my hands dirty. I doubt this thing's even been used in the past century."
Harry wouldn't bet on it.
"Fifi, send this to the incinerator," Malfoy said.
A snap of Fifi's fingers vanished the book cover.
"I suppose we should go," Malfoy said.
"Oh, Master Draco, I is making a late lunch for you already," Fifi said. "I is making your favorites."
"I thought we agreed on a snack," Malfoy said.
"Master Draco is a growing boy," Fifi said. "Mistress is telling Fifi to take good care of Master Draco when he is in my care."
Malfoy blushed, the color stark on his pale skin. "Fifi there isn't even any furniture here to eat lunch on."
"There are being blankets," Fifi said. "And the grounds are being charmed for the weather."
Malfoy hesitated before shrugging. "Yeah, why not, we've got time," he said. "Who wants to fly on an empty stomach."
"Are we having a picnic?" Harry asked. He'd been very aware the entire time they had been gone that he had left Ron and Hermione back in Hogsmeade and he didn't really want to have another distraction.
"Yes we are," Malfoy said.
"I thought today wouldn't get any weirder," Harry said. He wasn't going to tell Malfoy that he wanted to go back to check up on his friends.
"Put the dagger back, Fifi," Malfoy said. "We'll set up lakeside."
Harry didn't think when Malfoy said lake that he would be staring at a massive lake in the 'cottage's' back yard. He also didn't expect said cottage to be the only home in sight.
"Does your family own a lake?" Harry asked.
"For now," Malfoy said with a bit of a grimace. "I guess we should enjoy it while we've got it."
"An entire lake," Harry said. "This huge ginormous lake."
"Well it isn't as big as the one at the manor," Malfoy said.
"Two lakes," Harry said. "Your family owns two lakes."
"It's completely covered in wards, isn't it," Harry said. "No one else can even get close to it."
"Well we can't just have muggle hikers showing up, now can we," Malfoy said. "I wouldn't be able to fly. Besides, I bet Professor Snape's got your place warded just the same."
"We didn't gobble up an entire lake," Harry said. "Two lakes."
Malfoy just laughed.
There was already a blanket set out with way more food than the two of them could possibly eat.
"Well let's see what your favorites are," Harry said turning his attention to the food. Malfoy wasn't the only one who was starving.
The answer it turned out, was ridiculous rich person food. There was caviar and sea urchin, gold leaf topped pastries, and Kobe beef carpaccio, among other things. Harry found himself drawn to the blood red meat. The full moon was less than a week away.
The weather on the grounds really was pleasant and Harry followed suit when Malfoy shed his robes and undid his collar. Harry wasn't really sure how to picnic but just copied Malfoy when he lounged down on his side and started picking at the finger food.
"Should we read the book?" Harry asked.
"Potter, you're probably eating the best food of your life right now, how about you enjoy it," Malfoy said.
"You're making some assumptions," Harry said. "You've never eaten Mrs. Weasley's meat pies."
Malfoy laughed. "Are you serious?" he asked. "Try the caviar, it's beluga. The black garlic takes it to another level."
Harry tried it, and yeah, it was ridiculously good for fish eggs, but, "Nope, meat pies," Harry said. "This is good though." He went back to the carpaccio.
"What am I going to do with you?"
Harry shrugged. "Something that doesn't involve dungeons or poison, I hope," he said. "Or ritual daggers."
"Well you're no fun," Malfoy said. He lay back then and seemed to just enjoy the sun. With the air charmed to be warm, it really was very pleasant to be outside. When the beef was gone and he had sampled everything else, Harry lay back too and tried to just enjoy it. Let himself be convinced for a moment that everything they were looking for was in that book and that Ron would win the tournament hands down and they'd all get to go home safe for the summer, and they'd see each other whenever they wanted and everything would be perfect. It was a nice daydream.
"So how was your first adventure?" Harry asked.
"Excuse you?" Malfoy said. "The forbidden forest in first year was my first adventure, though this was about as nerve wrecking." Both hands came up to cover his face. "Seriously, that was horrible."
"Well when you get back to the castle you can curl up by the fireplace with a hot coco and destress," Harry said.
Malfoy hummed. "Fancy a swim?" he asked.
Harry's eyes popped open.
"The lake's not charmed, is it?" Harry asked.
Malfoy laughed. "No, I can guarantee you that unlike the air, the water is definitely freezing this time of year. After today though, I could use a bit of a jolt."
"That's what coffee's for," Harry said. "No more jolts, there've been too many jolts today."
Malfoy was already taking off his shirt.
"You're serious," Harry said.
"Always," Malfoy said.
"You don't have a swimsuit," Harry said.
"There's no one else around," Malfoy said.
"Bashful?" Malfoy asked. "I can have Fifi bring you some trunks."
"The water's freezing," Harry said, and suddenly Malfoy didn't have a shirt on and Harry thought suddenly that cooling down might do him some good.
"Well if you don't think you can handle it," Malfoy said, a bit of challenge in his voice as he undid the laces on his shoes.
"I can totally handle it," Harry said, indignantly.
"Well?" Malfoy asked, shucking his trousers.
"I can't swim," Harry said.
"Oh, I can teach you," Malfoy said.
"Ron's going to teach me," Harry said. "When the lake's a sane temperature. Also, that would take forever, and I'm not spending forever in that lake." Definitely not naked while Malfoy helped him paddle or whatever.
"It's shallow enough near the shore," Malfoy said. He turned around and dropped his pants before calmly walking towards the water. Harry was sure that he tried to wade into the water in a dignified manner, but by the time he was up to his knees he started tensing up and he wound up just diving forward. He came back up a moment later with a gasping 'whoop,' now standing with the water up to his chest. "Merlin, it is in fact freezing. It's great. And see?" he said, gesturing around him. "No swimming required." There was a challenge in his eyes and a smirk on his lips.
Harry found himself heavily conflicted. 'You only live once,' he reminded himself. He ignored the fact that Malfoy was watching him about as well as he ignored the water dripping from the other boy's hair. With his heart pounding in his chest, and feeling a good deal bit warmer than the weather should allow, Harry started taking off his shirt. For all the bravado he was feigning, Harry was really wishing he'd gone first; Malfoy had gotten to turn around before shucking his pants, but Harry wasn't about to walk backwards into the water.
Harry wondered if occluding would allow him to manage the calm walk into the water that Malfoy had failed. The answer was that he could, up to a certain point just below his waist when an involuntary yelp escaped his mouth.
The ride back was all the more awkward with Malfoy holding on to him after he'd just seen the boy naked, but Harry managed to make it back to Hogsmeade without having a heart attack.
Finally, when they were back they had a look inside of the book. Harry wasn't completely surprised by what was inside. Malfoy did some weird charm on the book and Harry left to give it to the Headmaster, who wasn't terribly surprised that Harry had gone on a field trip. At Malfoy's request, he didn't mention the other boy at all in the retelling of the story.
It was Ginny and the twins he ran into first as she made her way back to the tower with a bag from Honeydukes in hand.
"You let Ron and Hermione have a date?" she asked.
"Yeah," Harry said.
"Don't worry," said Fred. "We teased them."
"I wasn't worried," Harry said. "Um, so, I told you I'd tell you if anything developed," he said to Ginny.
Ginny was suddenly serious.
"Who?" she asked.
"Ludo Bagman," Harry said. "I mean, I don't know he did it, but I know he placed a two thousand galleon bet with a shady bookie that Ron would die in the tournament."
"Has he been arrested?" George asked.
Harry shrugged. "I don't know," he said.
"What do you know?" Fred asked.
"Literally everything I just told you," Harry said.
"How did you find out?" Ginny asked.
"I just saw Dumbledore," Harry said. "I'd gone to badger him about it actually. Have you seen Ron and Hermione?"
"They were ahead of us," Ginny said.
"Cool," Harry said. "I'll see you."
"Perhaps a bit later than expected." That was his Dad. Harry turned around and it only took one look to know that his Dad knew exactly what he'd been up to that day.
"Hey, Dad, I was, um, planning to talk to you later," Harry said.
"Were you indeed?" his Dad said. "Well I suppose now is as good a time as any. It is almost time for dinner.
Harry turned back to the Weasleys. "We'll let them know you're indisposed," Ginny said.
"See you," Harry said, trying not to sound like he knew he was in trouble.
"Am I in trouble?" Harry asked, when they were down the hall and out of earshot.
"What do you think?" his Dad asked.
Harry sighed. He'd known that if they'd found something that it would have wound up in front of some authority, but after leaving the Headmaster's office without so much as a slap on the wrist, Harry had been hopeful. He supposed that the Headmaster had just decided to leave it to Harry's Dad.
"To be honest I don't think there's any point," his Dad said.
"What?" Harry asked.
"Detention, essays; they're not going to change your behavior," his Dad said.
Harry kept his eyes forward. "So you're going to try something else?"
His Dad frowned and stopped walking, waiting until Harry looked up at him.
"My promise to never use physical punishment has not changed," he said. "It's never going to change."
"Right," Harry said. "Yeah. Sorry."
"You don't need to apologize for being worried," his Dad said, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Right," Harry nodded. "Thanks, for um, yeah, okay, so about punishment."
His Dad gestured down the hall and they continued down the hall, his hand still on Harry's shoulder as they walked. "What I meant, was that the consequences of last year haven't changed your behavior, and I don't expect anything really will. If you were frivolously endangering yourself, I believe I could correct it, but when you think someone needs saving, when Mr. Weasley needs saving, I'm very certain that there isn't any real way to discourage you."
"So why'd you look upset when you found me just now?" Harry asked.
"Harry, my son just went in secret to Knockturn Alley and stole from a goblin," his Dad said. "Just because I am resigned doesn't mean I can't be worried or upset."
"Did it occur to you to bring your hypothesis to Dumbledore?" his Dad asked. "There are Aurors investigating the case."
"Sure," Harry said. "But they have to follow rules. They can't just go up and steal something."
His Dad gave him a look with a raised eyebrow.
"Well yeah, I should follow rules too, and not steal stuff, but if she's taking bets on Ron dying I think I'm in the right," Harry said.
"Merlin preserve me," his Dad said. "Come on then. You can tell me all about it over dinner, and then you can run wand drills until you're good and exhausted."
"I thought you weren't going to punish me," Harry said indignantly.
"I should hope that you don't see my training you to survive as a punishment," his Dad said. "If you are going to continue to run headfirst into danger, I will have to make sure you are ready for it."
Harry sighed, a bit petulantly. Then he said, "There is something I won't tell you about today." Much as he hated to admit it, he did owe Malfoy, and he wasn't about to get him in trouble.
"Be assured," his Dad said. "I already know of your involvement of an unusual ally."
Harry got back up to the tower right before the fifth year curfew, when he was good and exhausted. Not for the first time, Harry wished that his dorm and his Dad's quarters weren't about as far apart as you could get in the castle.
He found Ron sitting on his bed with a mystery novel Bill had sent him from Egypt. He looked distracted though, and when he saw Harry, the first thing out of his mouth was "Ludo Fucking Bagman."
"Yeah," Harry said, kicking off his shoes, and climbing onto Ron's bed.
"I've had tea with the guy," Ron said.
"Yeah," Harry said.
"He's friends with my Dad," Ron said.
"That really sucks," Harry nodded and Ron sighed and rubbed vigorously at his face.
"At least it's over now," he said. "At the very least, I can tell myself I don't have to keep looking over my shoulder. I mean, I'm still going to do it, but now I can tell myself I'm being stupid."
"You're not stupid," Harry said.
Ron gave him a half smile.
"It's over now," Ron said. "I just have to survive the third task, and hopefully no one will be trying to kill me. Hey, do you think maybe he was the one who put your name in in the first place? Maybe he was going to bet on you or something."
Harry shrugged. Wouldn't that be a nice wrap-up to it all. "How was your date?" he asked.
"The twins found us," Ron said.
"I heard," Harry said. "They didn't ruin it did they?"
"Well, no," Ron said. "It was nice actually. It was really nice. We held hands all day."
"Held hands did you?" Harry asked waggling his eyebrows.
"Yeah," Ron said, making no further comment on it. "So what did you do for the rest of the day, besides badgering Dumbledore about my would be murderer?"
Since Malfoy had made him promise not to tell anyone about his involvement in the day's capper, Harry had found himself having to decide which part he wanted to tell Ron about. Because if he told him that he'd gone out to Knockturn Alley and stollen the book, he wouldn't be able to tell Ron…
"I went skinny dipping with a cute boy from our year," Harry said.
Because if he told Ron both of those things, then Ron might put two and two together. Also, Harry didn't want to give Ron another reason to feel beholden to him, so really, his skinny dipping adventure was all he really felt like talking about.
"You did not," Ron said, a look of absolute disbelief on his face.
"I did," Harry said. "I really really did."
"For real?," Ron said.
"For real," Harry said.
"Naked?" Ron asked.
"Naked," Harry agreed.
"Where?" Ron asked.
"Lake," Harry said, not specifying which one. "A secluded bit, of course."
"You can't swim," Ron said.
"Just waded in a bit," Harry said.
"It's fucking freezing though," Ron said.
"Yes it fucking was," Harry said. "Which is why it was more of a dare than anything else."
"You went skinny dipping in the lake on a dare," Ron said.
"An implicit dare," Harry said.
"It just doesn't seem like you," Ron said.
Harry frowned. "You don't think I should have done it?" Harry asked.
"What? No," Ron said. "I mean it's great, you went out and had fun and stuff, you know, freezing your nuts off, I'm just… pleasantly surprised."
"Me too, actually," Harry said with a bit of a shy smile. "I mean, I do adventurous stuff now and then, but this was like, socially adventurous. A bit mortifying, but it was fun. Even though, yeah, I totally froze my nuts off."
"So, you do anything besides skinny dipping?" Ron asked, taking his turn at wriggling his eyebrows.
Harry sputtered. "What, no, nothing like that. We just had a picnic, I guess."
"Oh, a picnic huh," Ron said. "Sounds like a nice date. Are you going to see him again?"
"What?" Harry asked. "Date? No, it wasn't a date. Like at all. It just sort of happened."
Ron looked at him skeptically. "You went on a picnic at a secluded part of the lake and went skinny dipping alone with just another guy and it just sort of happened."
"Well, I mean, when you put it like that, you could make anything sound like a date," Harry said.
"I just told you exactly what you told me!" Ron said.
"Okay, well, it really did just sort of happen," Harry said. "It definitely wasn't a date."
"Are you sure he didn't think it was a date?" Ron asked.
"Definitely," Harry said. "I don't even know if he likes guys."
Ron gave him a look. "So do I get to find out who this mystery guy is or is it a secret?"
Harry bit his lip. "You can't tell anyone," he said.
"Lips are sealed," Ron said.
"Promise," Harry said.
"Absolutely," Ron said.
"Not even Hermione," Harry said.
"I will take it to my grave," Ron said.
"You absolutely can't tell anyone," Harry said.
"Harry, I promise I won't tell anyone who you went skinny dipping with," Ron said.
"Okay," Harry said, drawing the curtains and then his wand for some privacy charms. Rita Skeeter seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth, and Harry couldn't really be bothered to care, but just in case, he still took precautions.
Ron looked at him expectantly.
"Are you ready for this?" Harry asked.
"I think I'm good," Ron said patronizingly.
Harry bit his lip.
"Draco Malfoy," he said.
Ron gasped. "No freaking way," he said.
"Yes," was all Harry said.
"Just by random happenstance you had a romantic picnic with Malfoy," Ron said.
"It was not romantic," Harry said, though now he wasn't so sure.
"And then the two of you got naked," Ron continued.
"You are taking that way out of context," Harry said.
"And splashed around in the lake," Ron said.
"We were splashing each other to be jerks, Ron," Harry said. "It was freezing, we were splashing each other with freezing cold water. It was not romantic."
"Uh huh," Ron said.
"You sound like you want there to be something between me and Malfoy," Harry accused.
"No, no," Ron said. "I mean you could do better, but hey, he is good looking, and you're not going to go make house with him or anything, so why not."
"You've got to be kidding," Harry said.
Ron shrugged. "I mean, he hasn't done anything evil for a while."
"You were literally just saying last week that he's up to something," Harry accused.
"Well sure," Ron said. "Like normal rich pureblood stuff, they're always up to something. Not necessarily evil take over the world something, but you know, something."
"I feel like I've jumped into an alternate reality," Harry said.
"I mean you can totally do better," Ron said.
"But you're really just saying that to be nice, and you really think Malfoy's my only hope for romance here."
"No," Ron said. "Not at all. Just… I don't know. Did you have fun?"
Harry thought about the day he'd just had. Besides all the terror and sitting around in a dirty alley… "Yes," he said.
"Well there you go then," Ron said. "Make out, go on some dates, figure out what his wicked plans are and voila, you've had your first boyfriend and your first breakup."
Harry rolled his eyes. "It still wasn't a date," he said, now wishing he could tell Ron the whole story so he'd get that it totally wasn't a date.
"You keep telling yourself that," Ron said.
"And you can't tell anyone," Harry said.
"Yeah, I'm really regretting that one now," Ron said. "Not that I'd out anyone, but I really really want to tell everyone that Malfoy took you out on a date and you didn't realize it."
"You suck," Harry said.
"I suck?" Ron protested. "You're the one who told me the juiciest story I've heard in a long time and made me promise not to tell anyone."
"The sacrifices we make for friends," Harry said sagely.
"Invite me to the wedding," Ron said, though Harry was certain Ron would not be so cheeky if something actually serious developed between him and Malfoy.
Harry snorted. "Absolutely nothing romantic happened."
"I'm sure Malfoy would be crushed to hear that," Ron laughed.
Harry threw himself back onto Ron's pillow and covered his face with his hands. "I shouldn't tell you these things."
"Mate you can tell me anything," Ron said. "Just, you know, don't tell me how good Malfoy is at making out, I really don't need to hear that."
Harry threw the pillow at Ron's head.
"My pillow," Ron cried out.
Harry got teased a fair bit more before they decided to start a project for Transfiguration together. The curtains were opened and the both of them got their books out. Neville waved at them from his bed, having arrived some time when they had been cloistered.
"We're doing transfiguration," Harry said.
"I finished with Hannah earlier," Neville said. "Though if you want to look at it when your done with yours that would be nice."
"Sure," Harry said.
They didn't get far when Dean and Seamus walked in. Dean was clearly teasing Seamus about something, but Seamus elbowed him when he spotted Harry and Ron looking their way. Seamus walked silently into the room towards his bed while Dean was halted in the doorway.
"It's been months," Dean said.
"What?" Seamus asked.
"It's been months," Dean said again. "Why are we still doing this?"
"Exactly," Seamus said. "Just drop it."
"No," Dean said. "I can't just drop it. You're being a dick. I know you know you're being a dick. You know there's nothing wrong with them. So why can't you just apologize and we can stop being all awkward around each other."
"You seem to think you know an awful lot about what's going on in my head," Seamus said angrily. "You don't know anything."
"I know you can't keep hiding behind shit your mum says," Dean said
"Don't talk about my mum," Dean said.
"Why not?" Dean said. "She seems happy talking trash about your friends."
"They're not my friends," Seamus said.
"I'm your friend," Dean yelled. "You're my best friend and I couldn't just tell you I was gay because I had to worry about whether or not you'd still bemy friend if you knew."
"What? No. Fuck off, don't even…" Seamus said. "I know you're not fucking gay. That's a stupid way to win an argument."
"Yes," Dean said. "I am, Seamus. I'm gay. I've known I was gay since I was twelve, and I've listened to you make jokes about… about me as long as I've known you."
"Fuck off," Seamus said, angrily. "Look, Weasley can go ahead and date girls and be straight and just decide to jump on the gay bandwagon because he thinks it's cool, but if you expect me to believe you've been gay this whole time, you're a nutter."
"Gay what now?" Ron asked in anger.
Dean, however didn't have anything else to say. He stormed over to his trunk and dug down deep, pulling out one of his sketchpads. He shoved it into Seamus's hands and started walking out of the room. "Yeah, I'm fucking straight," he said. "Why don't you look in there and see how straight I am." He stormed out.
Harry, Ron, and Neville were left staring at Seamus who seemed frozen for a moment before he looked down at the sketchpad in his hand. Flipping through it, his hands started shaking before he stopped on one page, staring at it dead eyed.
"Fuck," was all Seamus had to say.
"Yeah, fuck," Ron said. "Good fucking job, you fucking asshole. Now I don't know about you, but I've got a gay friend I need to talk to right now."
Seamus didn't say anything as Ron walked out, Harry right behind him. When they got to the bottom of the stairs, Harry realized that Neville had followed them also. Luckily, Dean wasn't exactly hiding, he was in the back corner of the common room on one of the couches as Elanor Doogle, a seventh year prefect, was checking up on him.
"You're sure you're all right?" she was asking. "You looked pretty upset."
"Yeah, um, I'm good, really," said Dean, who looked decidedly not good.
"Hey, we've got this," Ron said.
Elanor gave them a suspicious look, but Dean nodded and she turned back to him.
"I'll be studying over there if you need anything," she said.
"Thanks," Dean said.
They all sat around him, trying to gauge how he was doing.
"Did he say anything after I left?" Dean asked.
"He said 'fuck,'" Neville supplied. Harry wondered if he had missed the part where Neville was cursing now.
"Like, 'fuck' as in…?" Dean prompted.
"I don't know," Ron said. "I could tell you it was a 'fuck, I've been a bastard,' but it could just as easily been a 'fuck, those gays are everywhere.' I don't want to get your hopes up that you're going to go back up there and he's not going to be a, you know, a bastard."
"I shouldn't have told him," Dean said. "I really shouldn't have shown him those sketches… did he look at them?"
"Yeah, that's where the 'fuck' came from," Harry said. "But, you know, whether he accepts you or not, I don't think it was a mistake, telling him. And if you want to, you can hang out with us, if you can't hang out with Seamus anymore. We talk about boys all the time, it's fun."
"Me too," Neville said. "I mean, the hanging out bit, I don't know that I really have anything to contribute to the boy talk."
"Thanks," Dean said. "That means a lot, all of you."
"Yeah," Neville said. "Um, actually, I really do need to finish my divination homework before tomorrow, so I'll…"
"Night, Neville," Dean said.
"Thanks for coming with us," Ron said.
"Yeah," Harry added.
"Night," Neville said.
"Just make a bunch of stuff up," Dean said. "It always works."
"Make stuff up?" Ron asked.
"She eats it all up," Dean said. "Neville spends so much time trying to get his star charts right."
"So…" Ron said. "What was in the sketchpad you showed him?"
Dean groaned. "It's embarrassing."
"Can't be as embarrassing as Harry here going out on a date and not realizing it," Ron said.
"You promised," Harry said, scandalized.
"No, I promised I wouldn't tell who you went out on a date with," Ron said. "Plus, we're cheering up Dean now.
"Yeah," Harry said, now resigned. It was for a good cause.
"So how'd you not know it was a date?" Dean asked.
"It really wasn't," Harry said.
"Well according to Harry, 'it just sort of happened,'" Ron said. "But get this-"
Harry groaned. Ron looked at him expectantly.
"Well there was a picnic," Harry said.
"A secluded lakeside picnic," Ron added.
"Very romantic," Dean said.
"Followed by, wait for it…"
Harry covered his face with his hands. "Skinny dipping in the lake," he mumbled through them.
Dean gave a surprised laugh.
"It was a dare," Harry said quickly. "Because of how cold it was."
"Yeah," Dean said. "But you're the guy who's always changed behind his curtains. You're telling me you went skinny dipping in broad daylight?"
"We didn't have trunks," Harry defended, not mentioning the fact that they'd been offered.
"I'm pretty sure you can do a drying charm on your pants," Dean said.
"It just sort of happened," Harry said. "And it was a dare."
"Well if you go out on a second date, Harry, you're really going to have to up your game, because this guy's smooth."
"And good looking," Ron said.
"No second date," Harry said. "There was no first date, everything's just way out of context."
"Yeah yeah," Ron said. "Okay, so Harry got embarrassed, so spill about the sketchpad."
"Woah, woah, woah," Harry said. "I think if we're all sharing embarrassing stories, you should share first if you want Dean to spill. I mean, I've got a few suggestions if you can't think about anything."
"Oh Merlin," Ron said. "I guess I walked right into this one… Okay, so you know how I went on a date today with Hermione, and how both of us totally knew we were on a date?"
"Yes," Harry said. "I do recall."
"Well, what I didn't tell you was that I was leaning in to kiss Hermione at the end, when some pillock set off a Zonkos firecracker. So I turn my head to see what the commotion is, meanwhile I'm still leaning forward, and I end up mashing the side of my face into Hermione. Like, her nose was in my ear."
"For real?" Dean asked.
"For real," Ron said.
"And here I thought you didn't kiss and tell," Harry accused.
"Well there wasn't any kissing after that, now was there," Ron said.
"I don't know, Ron," Harry said. "That wasn't exactly the most embarrassing thing in the world."
"Oh, I didn't think we were going for the most embarrassing thing in the world," Ron said. "What did you have in mind?"
"That thing you told me about, um," Harry suddenly blushed, feeling second hand embarrassment. "You know, that thing that happened a few summers ago, when you thought you were home alone."
"What? That?" Ron asked with a laugh. He turned to Dean. "My mum caught me wanking. Thought she'd be in the garden all morning, next thing I know she's asking me if I want to help her make preserves. We got a pretty solid door knocking policy after that."
"How is that not more embarrassing?" Harry asked.
"Well it was embarrassing in the moment," Ron said. "But everybody does it. Now striking out with my girlfriend? That's embarrassing."
"I'm pretty sure everybody strikes out at some point," Dean said.
"Yeah, I guess," Ron said. "Now, not realizing you're on a date? Pretty sure that's just Harry."
"Was not a date," Harry said.
"Sure Harry," Ron said patronizingly.
"So are you going to be alright?" Harry asked Dean.
"Yeah," Dean said. "This has sort of been coming for a while, I guess. I'll probably come out to the school later this week or something. Seamus was the main reason I haven't up till now. Assuming he doesn't just tell everyone tomorrow over breakfast."
"He better not," Ron said darkly.
Dean shrugged. "So, sketchpad," he said.
"Anything risqué?" Ron asked.
Dean wiggled his hand in the 'so-so' gesture. "Remember that Witch Broomstick article about Dereck Bittle from the Eagles?"
"Oh, yes, I do," Ron said. "That shirtless photo."
"I drew that," Dean said. "And a bunch of other stuff. A lot of my favorite football players. But, the worst is probably the one's I drew of Seamus."
"You've got dirty sketches of Seamus in there?" Ron asked.
"Not dirty," Dean defended. "Just… cute. Like, drawings of him and me being… together. It was stupid."
"It's not stupid," Harry said.
"Yeah," Ron said.
"Showing him was stupid," Dean said.
"He's the one who's being stupid," Ron said.
"Yeah," Harry said.
"Well you're the one who goes for the smart ones," Dean said.
"I sure do," Ron said.
"So are you going to talk to him?" Harry asked.
Dean shook his head. "I've said what I've got to say, the sketchpad says the rest. If he wants to talk- well, the ball's in his court."
"Well I have to say, you're handling this a lot better than I did when Ron and I were fighting."
"Just come hang out with us if you want to," Ron said. "Hermione doesn't bite, but she might make you study."
"Are you going to go up, or are you going to stay down here for a while?" Harry asked.
"I'll stay down here for a bit," Dean said.
"Cool," Harry said. "I'll just go get some school stuff."
"It's late," Dean said. "You don't need to stay up with me."
Harry shrugged. "When Professor McGonagall asks us how our projects are going tomorrow, I want to at least have made a bit of headway." He went up stairs real quick. Seamus's bed curtains were drawn, and Harry could see the sketchbook placed on top of Dean's trunk. He gathered up his school stuff and went back down stairs.
Harry was pretty sure Dean and Seamus didn't talk the next day, and he wasn't surprised when Dean joined them for homework after class. Dean did wind up coming out later that week; Seamus hadn't said anything. There were some comments about it being catching or that the twins were testing their experiments on the underclassmen in the dorm, but besides that it was largely a nonevent.
Having Dean hanging out with them might have added just a bit more to the difficulty later that week when Harry ducked out for the full moon. Luckily though, it was a Friday, and he could use the excuse of a weekend away with his Dad. It was also a good opportunity to talk to Remus about all the drama that had sprung up in his life. He told him about the date that wasn't a date, but this time with the context of the mystery boy who had helped him pull off a caper in Knockturn Alley. Even still though, Remus thought it sort of sounded like a date. Which it totally wasn't. Harry'd been finding himself eyeballing Malfoy from time to time.
The news broke over the weekend about Bagman's arrest, the whole sordid tale of debt and gambling and attempted murder coming out in the Sunday edition of the Prophet. Much like Ron had said, it did feel like the danger was passed, even though there was still the third task, and no one had told him if they thought that it was Bagman who'd put Harry's name into the cup in the first place. Harry still wasn't sure if that had been some sort of plot of the Headmaster's that involved Voldemort somehow.
Voldemort was definitely still after him. Maybe he had paid Bagman to enter him into the contest or something. It didn't matter really. What mattered was that no one was actively trying to murder Ron. They just had to get him ready for the third task and everything would be fine.
Of course, there was still whatever was going on with the Headmaster's plan. All the way back in October, the headmaster had told Harry that he would have to face Voldemort within a year. Of course that could extend all the way to the first term of the next school year. Harry could easily have another summer to get ready. But somehow he doubted that whatever was going to happen was going to wait that long.
At some point during the following week, Dean stopped hanging out with them and he and Seamus were often not to be found at about the same time. Harry didn't think too much of it. He was glad the two were still friends, and if Seamus wanted to avoid him because he felt like an ass, that was fine with Harry. He shouldn't have needed his best friend to come out to realize it. Tensions in the dorm at least seemed to go down, and it wasn't exactly like it had been before Skeeter's article had come out, how could it, but it was better. Harry and Dean were better friends now, and Dean had thanked them for being there when he needed them but he wasn't saying anything about Seamus. A week later, when Harry walked in on the two of them making out, pressed up against the wall by Dean's bed, all he did was think to himself 'oh,' and walk back out. They didn't see him.
He felt numb to it for a few moments before he really started to think about it. Was that what it had all been about? Harry wondered. Was Harry just supposed to ignore everything that had happened before now? He had had his own self recriminations when he had first realized he was gay. He'd had his own baggage and misconceptions from the Dursleys, but he hadn't made that anyone else's problem. For whatever reason, the thought of Seamus upstairs happily making out with Dean really bothered him. He hadn't ever even apologized to Harry or Ron for all the stuff he'd said about their sexualities and now he had a boyfriend or something? He wondered when exactly he'd started thinking that someone might owe him an apology for anything. Harry didn't tell Ron about it.
Harry's own love life was even more confusing. There were a couple of times he interacted with Draco since the caper, and Draco was friendly, but he definitely wasn't acting like they'd gone on a date or anything. It was just this little smirk of a smile that he flashed Harry now and then that left his mind wondering. Ron was getting into his head. He definitely wasn't into Draco anyways, so it didn't matter.
At the end of the month Ms. Cooper came and pulled all the champions away to explain the final task: a maze with a bunch of obstacles, magical beasts and charms and curses. They'd already been studying as much as they could to get Ron ready, and knowing this didn't help much. There was still such a broad area of knowledge that Ron would need, but they added a couple of spells they thought would help deal with the maze to the list of things Ron had to learn. There was less than a month left.
"You look good, Norman," Carole said as Norman walked into the office. "You been sleeping more?"
"Yeah," Norman said. "A bit I guess. Anything big happen on your watch."
"Nothing much," Carole said. "You ready for this meeting?"
"Oh, I love starting my day off with this cloak and dagger stuff," Norman said. "Even Bagsworth doesn't know what this is about. Bones hasn't called a meeting like this since the war, I don't think."
"Well lets hope we're just throwing a surprise party for Jenkins," Carole said. "It's his birthday next week."
The look on Bones' face when they walked into the briefing room told them that this wasn't a surprise party. There were only a dozen of them in there. Bones activated the security charms on the room and then added a good dozen of her own.
"I have summoned you all here because you are my most trusted Aurors," she began. "Besides those of us in this room, the only other person who knows about this meeting is Chief Mugwump Dumbledore. This is beyond secret. Not even the Minister for Magic will know of this mission until it is being carried out. Anyone who would like to can leave now with a memory charm. Everyone who stays will be checked with veritaserum before they leave after the briefing."
She paused. There were no takers.
"We are preparing for a mission that will take place June twenty-fourth. Our two objectives will be rescuing Harry Potter, and killing Voldemort. Please hold all questions until the end."
The dungeons were usually where Harry ran into Draco, and this time was no exception. Of course Harry usually had his invisibility cloak and Draco usually had a posse. Harry was good enough now at silencing everything that Draco no longer knew when Harry was walking by, but sometimes, he'd tap him on the shoulder.
"Actually," Draco was saying to the older Slytherins he was walking with. "I've got a project going in the potions lab, I'll catch up to you in a bit."
"How many projects do you have going?" one of them asked.
"Too many," Draco said.
They waited until everyone else was out of earshot.
"I actually should go to the potions lab," Draco said.
Harry pulled off his cloak and started shoving it into his pocket.
"What are you working on?" Harry asked as they started down a different corridor.
"Trying to see if you can replace bot fly larvae with dragon scales in a hiccup relief potion."
"You know what?" Harry said. "After seeing what you like to eat? Sure, why not replace a common ingredient with a super expensive ingredient in a potion that should only cost you a sickle."
"It's a proof of concept," Draco said.
"Are you proving it?" Harry asked.
"I'm getting there?" Draco said.
There were a few different potions left to simmer in the potions lab. Draco went over to one in the far corner and looked at an hourglass that had been left next to his cauldron.
"That's about right," Draco said and added a pinch of something to the potion before resetting the hourglass.
"So I don't know if you heard," Harry said. "But Bagman got, like, sentenced today, so, well, thanks for, you know."
"You're welcome," Draco said. "It was a nice adventure, wasn't it?"
"Uh, sure," Harry said, and here now was the place to ask what he'd been wanting to ask for a while. "Was that why you did it?"
Draco shook his head. "I told you, I see problems, I fix them."
"But why though?" Harry asked. He didn't even know what he'd do if it somehow actually turned out that Draco had plotted out some covert date.
"Now that's the question, now isn't it," Draco said. "Have you ever heard of the social contract?"
"No?" Harry said, very confused and unsure of how to feel about the lack of confirmation.
"It's this old idea that tries to explain why societies form and stuff. It's all mostly about government and whatnot, but I've been reading and I think there's just this truth that they gloss over."
"What's that?" Harry asked.
"That a strong just society is a benefit to everyone in it," Draco said.
"This is you talking?" Harry asked.
"You can see it as a selfish viewpoint if you want," Draco said.
"Okay, so your goal is to what? Make society as good as it can be?" Harry asked.
"Essentially, yes," Draco said.
"When did you become a completely different person?" Harry asked.
"It's hard to say," Draco said. "Some time last year, I suppose."
"Okay," Harry said. "But why? How do you actually benefit from it?" Harry asked.
"I get what I want," Draco said.
"Which is?" Harry asked.
"A legacy," Draco said.
"You want to be remembered?" Harry asked.
"Like Merlin," Draco said.
Harry shot him a skeptical look.
"When I die, I want to be remembered as the most important wizard of the millennia, the wizard who brought our world into a new golden age and ushered in a new era of prosperity and equity."
"What, like new world order?" Harry asked.
"No no no," Draco said. "This isn't some coup or war, or anything like that. It's more like the renaissance. I want to change the way people think, the way things get done. That's what I've been doing around school."
"So you want to be remembered, by improving society, by changing the way people think," Harry said.
"Something like that," Draco said.
"So with Bagman," Harry prompted.
"Well that was a bit more of a direct action, but come on. Corrupt politician trying to kill people," Draco gave a thumbs down. "He's not exactly what I'm going for."
"So this little philosophy you're spreading around is supposed to change the world?" Harry asked.
"It's a start," Draco said. "There's way more to it. This is like, a life's work, you know."
"Just so you can be remembered?" Harry asked.
"So like, someday, instead of people saying 'oh Merlin,' you want it to be 'oh Malfoy.'"
"That would be nice," Draco said with a coy smile.
"You realize if that happens then someday there's going to be Hogwarts students using 'Malfoy's sagging balls,' as an expletive."
"Still worth it," Draco said.
"And you don't want to purge a bunch of people or anything?" Harry asked.
"Net loss of human capital to society," Draco said.
"Huh," Harry said. "So Sunday in Knockturn Alley was all just part of this broader plan?"
"Sort of," Draco said. "Like I said. Corrupt politicians are bad, killing people for greed is bad, I saw an opportunity in front of me and I took it."
"But you didn't want credit for it," Harry said. "Wasn't that the point? And also, why are you telling me all of this?" he asked. "Aren't you worried I'm going to sabotage you or spill your secrets or something?"
"Well to answer your first question, I got the credit with the person I wanted credit from, now didn't I. I don't need Ministry scrutiny right now. As to you telling? You won't," Draco said. "We aren't competitors. I'm also pretty sure you're going to like the world I have in mind."
"We're not competitors?" Harry asked.
"You're probably going to kill the Dark Lord someday, right?"
"Um…" was all Harry could say.
"Great service to society, to be sure, you'll do it because it's the right thing to do, but what do you think you'll do afterwards?"
"Assuming I'm not dead?"
"Assuming that, yes," Draco said.
"I don't know," Harry said. "Potions, Quidditch, something like that."
"You going in for some global leadership role?"
"God no," Harry said.
"No competition," Draco said. "And like I said, stopping You-Know-Who, great service to society, I'm all for it. He's definitely the worst thing to happen around here for a long time, and of course it's personal for you, you'll go down in History books for sure, but then, so do lots of people. There's only one Merlin, Potter. No competition."
"No," Harry agreed. "You're only competing against Merlin himself."
"What can I say," Draco said. "I'm ambitious."
"So what about after Knockturn Alley?" Harry asked, finally asking what he actually brought Draco aside to ask him. "Was that part of some plan?"
"After Knockturn Alley?" Draco asked.
"I mean," Harry said. "Well, it all seemed so spur of the moment and all, but then I thought afterwards, you know, Malfoy's got plots within plots. Maybe it wasn't all so spur of the moment."
"I'm confused," Draco said.
"Was it supposed to be a date?" Harry asked.
"The picnic?" Draco asked.
"And the flying tandem part," Harry said, blushing. "And the, um… and the skinny dipping."
"Huh. Well it wasn't planned," Draco said, the tops of his cheeks now a bit red. "Fifi's just like that."
"Okay," Harry said.
"Did you want it to be a date?" Draco said. "I suppose it would have been a nice one, wouldn't it have been?"
"Um," was Harry's response.
"I could have planned a better one though, if I'd been trying," Draco said, pushing himself up from his position of leaning against the lab table.
"Really?" Harry asked. "I mean it was pretty nice, wasn't it. Did you, um, did you want it to be a date?" Draco was crossing the room towards him.
"I asked first," Draco said, standing in front of Harry with a smirk on his face.
"Well," Harry said, now not really sure what he was expecting to happen after he'd asked. "I mean, I don't even know if you like guys or not."
Suddenly, Draco was leaning into his personal space and Harry found himself leaning back just a bit against one of the lab tables.
"Was that a question you wanted me to answer?" Draco asked, his eyes cast down just a bit, and Harry might have laughed at the way Draco had tried to deepen his voice when he said that only to have it crack midway, if not for the fact that Harry's heart was beating rapidly in his chest and he wasn't sure he could even form words just then.
He was pretty sure you were supposed to close your eyes when someone kissed you; Draco's eyes were closed, Harry's own eyes were wide open, and he was trying to unfreeze his brain enough to figure out what to do with his lips or his hands, which were still pressed down on the table behind him. Before he could figure it out, it was over, and Draco was pulling back with a sort of wide eyed, somewhat panicked look on his face.
"Um," was all he had to say, and Harry thought it was the only time he had ever seen the other boy look like he wasn't far too sure of himself. If the kiss had been as awkward for Draco as it had been for Harry, then he definitely understood his sudden apprehension. This definitely didn't do anything to dispel his idea that kissing was probably gross, but he didn't really think they'd done it right, and he had come for some answers.
"Well, your answer wasn't very clear," Harry said. "Um, maybe you should try again."
He'd figure it out this time.
Augustus had almost forgotten to sweep Norman's apartment for evidence of his regular interrogations that night as he'd rushed to get back to the Dark Lord. It was no good. So many months of planning, and they knew.
Returning to the decrepit manor house, he made his way straight upstairs to his master's chambers. Bella was outside. He would have to hope that she wouldn't be ordered to punish him for delivering bad news.
Bella didn't ask any questions when she saw him. She knew where he had just been, and if the look on his face communicated any of the dismay he felt just then it would be obvious something was up.
He knocked on the Dark Lord's chambers and tried to collect himself in the long moment that passed before his master's voice bade him to enter.
"My lord," he said, kneeling in front of the chair in which the Dark Lord sat in his diminutive state. It was never good to bring bad news before the Dark Lord, but keeping secrets could be death.
"Tell me," the Dark Lord commanded.
"The Aurors know everything," Augustus said. "Crouch must have been discovered. There is a plan for the Aurors to kill you."
Bela let out a shriek, but it was the "No," that the Dark Lord intoned that shook Augustus to his core.
"I have come too far for those damned fools to ruin everything," the Dark Lord said.
"My lord," Augustus said. "They believe they have a weapon that can kill you."
"Kill me? They do not even know what I am," the Dark Lord said and Augustus felt a chill travel down his spine.
"They know about the ritual," Augustus said. "And they believe they have found a way to kill you after you have been reborn."
There was a pause.
"After I have been reborn?" the Dark Lord asked, his tone now soft.
"Yes, there's…" and here Augustus paused, for surely if he were wrong…
"Tell me," the dark lord commanded.
"Their mission is to kill you, my lord, on the night of the third task, and to rescue the Potter boy."
There was a moment where his words settled upon the room. Then the Dark Lord began to laugh.
A/N: Hey, so Draco, huh? Dean and Seamus has been coming for a while, but Draco was a bit of a recent thought.
That stuff Dean was talking about, with the DNA, that's from a great Ted talk titled Homosexuality: It's about survival - not sex by James O'Keefe. You can check it out on youtube if you want.
So this chapter's been on the back burner for a while. Sorry about that, I've been in Grad School and I did not get nearly as much done over winter break as I wanted. The end, however, is in sight. You may have noticed that I replaced the ? for number of chapters with the number 28. Two more chapters to go. This last one has been largely plotted out for a long while now, so I'm hoping it will go a bit more quickly. Also, I'll try super hard to get stuff done over spring break. We'll see. As always, please leave a review if you have any comments.