Morning at the top of Gryffindor Tower was heralded with contagious bouts of yawning as the boys jostled each other at the sinks and tried to shake off the last tags of sleep. There was an uncharacteristic air of contemplation replacing the usual morning banter.
After two minutes, Dean asked quietly, "Did anyone else have vivid dreams last night?"
Seamus regarded at the other wizard over his face cloth; Dean was looking pale under the dark tones of his skin. "Aye, I did. Dreamt I was back home and me and me mam were fishing. She was talking to me."
Dean stared. "So?"
"Mam won't go in the boat, it's always me dad that takes me fishing."
They both turned to Neville, carefully smoothing a thin layer of potion over his face. "Does it do that? This lavender stuff? Give you dreams?"
Neville shrugged eloquently, not wanting the potion to drip. "S'possible, s'pose," he mumbled trying not to move his lips. "Harry awake yet?"
"Yeah, Harry's awake," another voice grumbled.
Turning, the other seventh years found Harry scratching through his hair and leaning against the doorjamb, towel trailing along the floor. 'Awake' looked like a gross overstatement; his eyes were open, Neville allowed that much, but they were dull, with little interest behind them.
"Did you sleep?" Ron asked, soaping his flannel and applying it vigorously.
"Kind of," Harry muttered. "I was dreaming." He raised his eyes to the watching faces surrounding him expectantly and was relieved when there were no more sideways grinning glances.
"Go on," Ron said encouragingly.
Chasing the itch down his neck and scratching across his chest, Harry said, "Someone was holding a mirror up to me but I had no reflection. I was just an empty outline. Wonder what Trelawney would make of that?"
Harry dissolved into a lengthy yawn so fierce that it made him shudder. He didn't see the dorm mates look between each other worriedly and turn to Neville.
"Perhaps two plants is too much," Neville muttered. "I'll take one away, put it in one of the Greenhouses."
Ron nodded and tried not to look too thankful. His sense of smell had gone and his nose felt stuffed. He beckoned Harry forward. "Come on, Harry, hurry up or we won't have time for a decent breakfast." He grinned at the memory of what Hermione had told him last evening.
By the time they were seated at the Gryffindor table however, Ron had no heart for poking a little gentle fun at Harry's new nickname for Professor Snape. The Daily Prophet was full of news of more attacks and deaths. One of the younger Gryffindors had been sent a cutting from a Muggle paper where the same incident had been reported, and it had been passed along the table for the seniors to peruse. The 'head-on train collision' was being blamed on a terrorist attack.
Harry's grey-faced expression did not falter as he read the details of the dead and injured with Ginny and Neville, on either side of him, reading over his arms.
"Terrorists. Sounds about right," Neville muttered in disgust. "Another bunch too cowardly to show their faces and stand up honestly for what they believe in!"
"They don't know the meaning of the word, Nev," Harry said tonelessly.
"They think they've got away with it," Ginny said quietly. "They think we're all quaking in our boots and wondering when the next explosion is going to be." Then she smiled; it was a feral smile. "But one of these days, we're going to turn the tables and get the last laugh."
Harry stared at her, feeling her assurance flowing through his veins as easily as his blood. Hadn't she said something along the same lines recently? He watched the velvet bow of her mouth moving as she spoke.
"The Muggles have a saying; 'if you don't learn your lesson, you're doomed to repeat your mistakes until you do learn it…' I've read the texts about the Grindelwald years. The wizarding world reached breaking point, decided they had taken enough and rolled up their sleeves to dole out some punishment… Tom and his gang of little shadows haven’t learned their lesson… Yet."
“Tom?” Neville repeated. “Who’s Tom? I thought we were talking about Voldemort?” Although he used the name, he kept his voice down.
“Tom Riddle was his real name, the one his mum gave him. He told me that in the Chamber,” Harry said without thinking.
Harry heard Hermione mutter something and Ginny retort back, "I'm not a child!"
As Hermione drew breath to expand on her statement, Harry interrupted. "Leave it, Hermione," he said quietly, staring at the newsprint. "Let Ginny make her own choices. It's not like she's incapable."
Beside him, Harry could feel Neville nodding sombrely. "That was how grandad was killed. I asked Gran to tell me about the last time, you know,” he said with a sidelong glance at Harry. “She told me it took two of the Black Robes to kill him."
Ginny nodded and reached out compassionately to curl a hand over his forearm for the space of a few heartbeats and then her back straightened. "But the Aurors brought them in for it and they were sentenced to the Dementor's Kiss, weren't they?" She snorted but Harry saw she was fiddling with something under her robe. "Madam Bones should do the wizarding world a favour and order it for the Malfoys… Mind you, if you stuck a Dementor in front of them, I'm not sure there'd be a soul to suck out. I'll bet their souls ran screaming after some of the things they've done!"
Harry listened unwillingly. Such discussions had the ability to drag him back him back in time to when he was an innocent third year and his world was still black and white, right and wrong, and Remus was asking him if he thought Sirius Black really deserved the Dementor's Kiss…
"I suppose there must be some kind of mouth under there, because they clamp their jaws upon the mouth of the victim and – and suck out his soul."
"What – they kill-?"
"Oh no. Much worse than that. You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you'll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no… anything. An empty shell. And your soul is gone forever… lost."
Suddenly those words, so clearly written on his memory, acquired a special significance. Hadn't he been reading something along those lines recently? Harry propped his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands, trying to work coherently through the jumble his mind was becoming. It made no difference, the pieces wouldn't fall into place no matter how hard he tried.
"Sorry Harry!" Harry wondered why Neville was apologising until the pain in his knee registered. He waved a hand in acknowledgement and laboriously swung each leg over the bench and got to his feet on the second attempt.
Neville was regarding him worriedly. "We're in Greenhouse Six today, Harry – the Tropical Greenhouse. Try and stay awake. There are a few bloodsuckers in there always on the lookout for an extra feed."
Harry nodded and his jaw clicked painfully as he stifled another yawn. Pressing the place just in front of his ear, he traipsed along after his slightly shorter classmate and became more alert when hit with a faceful of chilly drizzle blowing round beyond the main doors. They hurried round to the Greenhouses, Harry wishing he'd thought to bring his cloak. His tiredness only made the damp coldness more penetrating.
Neville was already hurrying forward eagerly when, from the corner of his eye, Harry saw a vividly coloured streak whizz towards the castle. "Did you see that?" he demanded, energised by this unexpected occurrence but it was not Neville who answered.
"Hurry up Mr Potter! Don't let in any more cold air! These plants can be very temperamental you know!"
Harry backed to the open door, still searching the obscuring drizzle for movement. "Sorry, Professor Sprout." The Herbology Professor was waiting for him, hands on hips and looking put out.
"Hmm," she said, thawing slightly. "I've put you with Neville today. He'll explain what you have to do."
Turning into the stifling heat through the second set of double doors, Harry took a reflexive gasp of the humid air, as thick as any soup the house-elves made, and wondered what had possessed him to choose Herbology as his fifth N.E.W.T. Staying awake in here was going to be impossible – it was how he imagined the inside of a sauna. He closed the door, running with fat droplets of condensation and, loosening his collar, went to the bench where his dorm mate was busy.
"What were you saying as we came in?" Neville asked but Harry could tell his interest was only half-hearted. Neville was paying more attention to the trays of plants around them.
"I saw something outside, small, fast and orange."
"Crookshanks?" Neville suggested as he divided the variegated plants between them and handed Harry a damp cloth that turned his stomach, smelling as it did of sour milk. "Just wipe it down the leaves, they love it. Oh yeah, and you'll need this," he added, correctly interpreting Harry's tightly clenched jaws and bobbing Adam's apple. He selected a triangle of fabric from the heap in the centre of their table and tied it over Harry's nose and mouth. "Better?"
Harry nodded and started wiping the happily cooing plants with the sickly smelling cloth. To distract himself, he thought about what he'd just seen. It couldn't have been Crookshanks; the cat rarely left Gryffindor Tower and certainly seemed to have developed an aversion to going outside. Ever since term started, Hermione had been complaining that he was following her around like a mother cat with only one kitten.
Added to that, the thing he'd seen (or hallucinated, a nasty little voice pointed out) had been smaller and quicker than the fluffy bandy-legged cat. So what was it? Harry chose another pot and decided he had another reason to stay alert and awake. He had to find out what it was, if only for the sake of his sanity and to satisfy himself that he wasn't hallucinating.
Between the sickly cloth and the moist heat, Harry began to feel very odd; light-headed and yet his legs were leaden and cold while sweat oozed down his back.
"Nev?" Harry whispered, "I don't think... I feel..." His knees buckled a