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 and there was nothing he could do to save himself.
When he started noticing again, he was cooler and horizontal.
"Was it him again?"
Harry had to strain to hear the voices right on the edge of his hearing.
An amused snort. "Yeah, I am."
"Harry? You okay now?" This voice was much closer.
Harry opened his eyes and found everything blurred. At first he thought he had lost his glasses when he fainted – as he now realised that was what had happened to him. Closer examination showed the lenses were filthy with whitish fingermarks.
He looked over the top of them; he and Neville were alone and he was lying on the flags between the doors. What must Neville be thinking —so many people were hoping in him and he had to go and faint in the Greenhouse.
"Sorry," Neville said as Harry pushed himself upright and tried to wipe his lenses clean. "They fell off when I was floating you out here and I got them covered in the nutrient solution Summoning them back. Here, I’ll fix it." Neville helped Harry up and taking his specs, washed them in the rain butt and offered them back.
"Cheers Nev," Harry mumbled, giving them a quick wipe on his robes.
"It's only because you're not sleeping properly," Neville said, back at the rain butt and taking great care to rinse and dry his hands thoroughly.
Harry nodded and fumbled his glasses back on.
"Bell's about to go. You've got Charms next, remember?" Harry looked up, blinking, to find Neville smiling cheerfully at him, even if the smile did seem a bit too bright.
"Who were you talking to?" he asked.
Neville looked enquiring. “Talking to?” he repeated uncertainly, starting to look worried.
"Someone asked if I'd passed out because Voldemort was in my head,” Harry said. “Who was it?”
Neville's round face was looking honestly taken aback. "There was no one else around Harry. Just you and me."
Harry nodded. "Oh. Right.” He cleared his throat and kicked away the stray pebble under his feet. “Okay, well… You'll tell me if you see that orange thing again?"
"Course I will," Neville assured him. "There's the bell for the end of break," he said as it sounded in the main castle. "Ron should be at the door to go to Charms with you."
Harry set off through the chilly drizzle, keeping his eyes moving for a glimpse of the creature in the hope of identifying it.
His opportunity came straight after Herbology. Weaving through the corridors crowded with students all milling along to their next lesson and chattering noisily, Harry was so busy watching the flagstones that Ron had to catch hold of him more than once.
"Harry! What is up with you?" Ron demanded, after yanking the Seeker roughly back for the third time and preventing him from sending a couple of inattentive Hufflepuff second years sprawling. Harry caught Ron's arm in a white-knuckle grip and pointed down the corridor.
"There! D'you see it!"
Even with his height advantage, Ron had to dodge his searching gaze around the sea of bobbing heads. "Where? See what? Ha-rry?"
Harry had slipped away and was disappearing down the corridor in an exhibition of the same nimbleness he showed on the Quidditch pitch. Ron saw his pale face briefly as Harry turned to yell back, "come on!" before disappearing.
Ron marked the opening Harry had taken and, with a gusty huff, abused his Prefect authority. "Scuse me! Coming through! Thanks a lot!" He managed to edge through and turned into an empty dead-end corridor. Harry was down on one knee, wand out and steadying himself with a negligent hand on the wall. He was muttering in a breathless stream.
Ron laid a hand on Harry's shoulder and ducked the wand as the other wizard twisted to face him. This had to good for Keeper practice, surely?
"Where did it go?" Harry demanded of his friend. "I was right on its tail! I should have caught it! I know I saw it turn in here." He sprang to his feet in agitation and closed his eyes as the corridor reeled.
"Where did what go?" Ron caught Harry's shoulder and anchored him. "Talk sense, mate."
Harry stared at the redhead and was reminded of the incident with the Thestrals. Perhaps this was something similar and Ron was reluctant to point it out and mark Harry as different in another way yet again.
"Harry? What did you see?" The urgency in Ron's familiar voice reached through Harry's haze.
Harry knitted his brows and looked uncertainly around them. "An animal. It looked like a ferret."
Ron's face lit up with the manic Weasley grin. "Again! Cool!"
"It wasn't Malfoy." Harry spoke with certainty, seeing Ron's mouth droop from the corner of his eye.
Harry turned so quickly that he staggered. "Yeah. It wasn't white… Maybe Hermione's right and I am hallucinating. This is the second time I've seen it and yet no one else ever seems to see the bloody thing. You didn't, did you?"
Faced with a direct question, Ron couldn't lie to his best friend. "No, mate. But then, I don't see the Snitch escape the box either!" He shrugged as though to say, 'for what that's worth'.
Harry still felt lifted by the Weasley's attempt to cheer him and sought another explanation. "Maybe it's Tonks, keeping an eye on me," he suggested, hoisting his bookbag back on his shoulder.
Ron hooted at the notion. "Harry, the castle is still standing! Tonks is brilliant and I'm sure she's a really good Auror but she's a Metamorphmagus! You might as well say it's our Ginny in a fur coat!" He chuckled at his own witticism.
The image of the slight Gryffindor swamped in a glossy fur coat brought a rare smile to Harry's face. "Yeah, you've got a point there." Did witches have the same sorts of prejudices towards fur coats that many Muggle women did? Would Ginny? Ron's elbow in his ribs brought Harry rudely out of his speculations.
"So can we be only five minutes late for Charms now?"
Harry nodded and followed mutely where Ron led, but even the complexity of the charm Professor Flitwick had the seventh years working on couldn't block images of the glossy animal from Harry's mind.
Nor the rather more interesting ones of Ginny slowly slipping from a sienna coloured fur coat with that distracting grin on her face…
The world lurched suddenly and Harry found he was on eyelevel with everyone's feet with a curious weight on his chest.
"Oh dear!" came the squeaky voice of Professor Flitwick. "Yes, certainly, Weasley, Zabini, give Potter a hand."
Blaise Zabini gave a pained shake of his head as he and Ron caught hold of Harry under the arms and heaved while their Professor levitated the buffalo away and dealt with it. "The hope of the wizarding world!" Blaise muttered, "and he can't even pronounce properly!"
Ron grinned as Harry sucked in a breath and started coughing reflexively. "That's what you get for letting your mind wander, Harry."
Blaise's grin came and went like summer lightening. "Depends who it wandered to, Weasley."
"Enunciate!" they intoned at Harry’s glare. Still coughing, Harry waited for his sight to clear and saw, as he expected, that Hermione was anxiously biting her lip on the other side of the room where the girls were working.
"Very well, try again, gentlemen," Professor Flitwick encouraged brightly. "It is a very tricky charm, trying to bring forth your double, so concentrate!" Blaise and Ron indicated that Harry should try again as Professor Flitwick climbed back on his books to observe.
With a last convulsive cough, Harry straightened up and closed his eyes to gather his forces. As the professor had explained to them, he imagined a reflection of himself clearly in his mind, complete in every respect. It was difficult as his mind kept returning to his dream and how his reflection was an empty outline…
No! Concentrate, that's not me, Harry told himself. He imagined what he saw when he looked in the mirror; his mother's eyes, his father's hair, thin pale face and the scar.
It was so peaceful, standing here with the familiar smell of the books and burned feathers from the previous class of first years. Harry drew his reflection in his mind's eye, aware of the cool air filling each breath. His body was heavy – or light – it was impossible to say… He turned his wand inward, until the tip rested over his heart. "Cordis!"
There was a sensation of falling, or fainting possibly, Harry decided clinically but he knew he was still standing despite feeling odd, as though something was missing. At the drawn-out gasps, he opened his eyes and found a glittering outline facing him, sparkling as though a piece had been torn from the clear night sky.
Harry took some steadying breaths hardly hearing the half-Goblin professor exclaiming that he had done very well indeed to make so much progress on only his second attempt. He stared, uncomfortably aware that what he saw resembled his nightmare too closely for his liking.
"Draw it back within then, Potter."
Harry started and discovered Blaise waiting for him to move. Ron had his eyes closed and was muttering to himself, repeating the instructions.
"Draw it back?" Harry repeated uncertainly.
Blaise rolled his eyes. "Weren't you listening? Salazar! Malfoy would love to hear that you lost part of yourself because you didn't listen to your teacher!"
Harry was about to reply to this when Ron muttered, "Don't hack him off, Zabini, the other Gryffindors will hide the body and we'll all deny seeing anything."
Blaise gave a dry chuckle. "How very Slytherin of you!" he remarked.
"Stick your hand in its chest and it'll go back into you on its own," Ron said, still with his eyes closed. "Cordis!"
Harry did as Ron suggested, watching a glowing outline form around Ron's body. "Why are we doing this again?" He felt heavy and sleepy again.
Blaise frowned as Ron tried harder. "It's the first part of the Fidelius charm – 'may it be written on my heart'. You have to be able to separate your heart so the secret can be written there." Blaise regarded Harry speculatively. "You really were asleep in Transfiguration the other day, weren't you?" he said with assurance.
Harry watched Ron turning into a facsimile of his Uncle’s furious colour with the effort he was putting in to the exercise. “Is he meant to look like that?”
Blaise watched with clinical detachment. “That colour really doesn’t suit him much.” He raised his voice. “Suppose you expire on your own time, Weasley, and let me try.”
Ron’s wand arm dropped and he staggered slightly, panting with effort. A quick glance across the room showed a white-faced Hermione being fanned by an anxious-looking Parvati and Susan Bones.
“Be my guest,” Ron wheezed and sank gratefully onto the stool Harry had shoved into the back of his legs.
Blaise stood silently for so long that Harry was ready to poke him to be sure that he hadn’t dozed off but his attempt at bringing forth his double was no more effective than Ron’s.
As they left the classroom and headed back to the Great Hall for lunch, Harry found that Hermione had lapsed back into her old habits of asking twenty questions at once.
“Harry, that was a really complicated Charm. How did you do it? What did it feel like? You know, I bet that’s going to be on our exam, and I won’t get full marks. Don’t you think it’s a strange thing for us to be learning at this stage? I read that very few wizards can actually perform the charm properly and that it’s supposed to come more easily to a witch. I suppose that’s why Secret Keepers are usually witches, well, all those we know about anyway. How did you get on, Ron?” she asked breathlessly and carried on talking before Ron could open his mouth. “I found it really hard to form an image of myself in my mind, I mean, I know what I look like, of course, but what do I –what?”
Ron caught her arm. “Hermione,” he said firmly, “you’re turning blue! Just, shut up and take a breath. Give Harry chance to think about the first one before you ask him the next ten, yeah?”
Not even the lack of sleep could dull Harry’s understanding of the way two of his best friends were looking at each other. He smiled and turned just a little too fast, putting a hand on the wall to steady himself as Hermione asked,
“Harry, do you think Dumbledore included the Fidelius Charm specifically for us?”
Harry suddenly felt very uncomfortable. “Um, I think I left my library book in the Charms classroom. I’ll need it later.”
“I’ll go and get it for you,” Hermione offered at once. “Save you the to-ing and fro-ing.”
Harry was already backing away. As fond as he was of Hermione, the last thing he wanted to think about now was the Fidelius Charm, and in this mood, Hermione was unlikely to let it drop. Rather than lose what little patience he had left, he kept moving. “No, s’all right. Save me some lunch, yeah?”
He watched Ron’s expression become his chess face and then lead Hermione away by the elbow. His head buzzing, Harry headed to the classroom where Ginny had Muggle Studies, hoping to catch her as she came out. The stragglers were already leaving as he reached the door.
Although Harry searched for the rest of lunch, and even got his face slapped for easing open a door to one of the girls toilets to call her name, Ginny was not to be found.
Disgruntled, he made his way to the Library, intending to work on his Herbology essay, but Madam Pince didn't have the book he needed. He chose something at random from the shelf and sat down. It turned out to be a recent text on ancient Egyptian Herbology; specifically, the properties of the Blue Lotus and the principle uses that the ancient Egyptian witches had for it.
Hoping that the fury of his blush wouldn't be noticed unless he accidentally managed to set fire to the book in his hand, Harry tried for a little of the scholarly distancing Hermione seemed to have in abundance. He sternly disciplined his mind away from its relaxing, hypnotic and narcotic properties, away from health problems related to blood flow and onto separating the facts from the more 'fruity' details, as Seamus would put it.
He discovered that what was called a blue lotus was, in reality, related to the waterlillies in the pond at Privet Drive, of which his Aunt was so proud. In fact, he had some vague memory of his Aunt fussing and fretting over the plants because she'd had to send to some garden centre 'somewhere up North'.
The day the order came – by special courier – Harry had been skulking in his room hoping to avoid any more backbreaking 'little jobs' his Aunt might find for him, and the sight of the delivery man struggling with a large and apparently heavy bucket had made his mind up. He hurried silently along to the bathroom and locked himself in so as to avoid the summons to get in the pond and plant them.
Listening intently, Harry had been astonished to discover that Dudley was actually doing something to help his mother for once in his life, although once he'd deposited the bucket beside the pond, he had sloped off as quickly as any Slytherin.
Daring to peer through the bathroom window, Harry had seen his fastidious Aunt up to her bony knees in the water, her hands gently lowering the prized specimen into the stirred up waters with an almost contented expression on her face.
Who knows, she might actually get on with Nev, Harry thought as his eyes roved across the lines of text. He stifled a yawn; the book smelled of bananas. He forced himself to concentrate…
"Contemporary reference to the role of lotus and mandrakes in ancient Egyptian healing suggests the importance of these plants as adjuncts to shamanistic healing in dynastic Egypt. Although the usual interpretation of the lotus and the mandrake has been that of a part of ritual mourning ... it is argued that the dynastic Egyptians had developed a form of shamanistic trance induced by these two plants and used it in medicine as well as healing rituals.
Analysis of the ritual and sacred iconography of dynastic Egypt, as seen on stelae, in magical papyri, and on vessels, indicates that these people possessed a profound knowledge of plant lore and altered states of consciousness. The abundant data indicate that the shamanistic priest, who was highly placed in the stratified society, guided the souls of the living and dead, provided for the transmutation of souls into other bodies and the personification of plants as possessed by human spirits, as well as performing other shamanistic activities."
The dry nature of the text was taking its toll on Harry's levels of awareness… He realised that he had skimmed the last sentence and had no idea what it said. He went back.
"Abundant data indicate that the shamanistic priest, who was highly placed in the stratified society, guided the souls of the living and dead…"Could do with a bit of guidance myself, Harry thought. Where was I?
"…Provided for the transmutation of souls into other bodies…" transmutation of souls… isn't that metempsychosis? Wasn't Mackie going on about that the other day? "…and the personification of plants as possessed by human spirits…" Neville would love that one, wonder if (yawn) he's seen this?
The sun was warm on the back of his head and the need for sleep was overwhelming. Harry decided that it couldn't possibly hurt to close his eyes for a few minutes...
Only a few minutes... A little catnap.
His head was buzzing again with half-heard voices and it annoyed him in the same way that his hippo of cousin did when he kept the telly too loud simply to irritate and provoke Harry.
"Oi! Dudders! Turn it down!" Harry grumbled.
The sun was warm on his face and the breeze lifting his hair was just enough to take the sting out of the intense rays creating sharp shadows around him. He wasn't alone; there was a hand holding his, their fingers entwined comfortably… Something crisp but soft was tucked behind his ear; he could smell the scent from it and smiled as a girl’s voice gently urged him to sleep… Sleep, Aitch, sleep…
Harry obeyed willingly.
"There he is. Tch, he's fallen asleep again. Wake him up." The speaker sounded disgruntled.
There was a snort. "You wake him up – I saw what he did to Professor McGonagall and I do not fancy spending the next two days in the hospital wing and getting a detention from The Gripe for 'being stupid enough to associate with Potter'."
There was a brief silence and then the same person said, "Where's the Weasley girl? She can wake him up for us."
This was followed by boyish sniggers and muttered comments, which, had Harry or Ron heard clearly, would have resulted in multiple detentions for all concerned and probable fines for damage to Library books in the hexing match that followed.
Shambling along the corridor in a little-used shortcut back to Gryffindor Tower, Harry had no idea how he was managing to put one foot in front of the other and still keep his eyes open. Weariness had become a familiar companion in the weeks after September the first but since his blessed sleep last Friday night, the feeling had returned with a vengeance.
He had just left Monday morning's double Potions, again surviving by the skin of his teeth. The strain of concentrating so completely for ninety minutes had sapped any restfulness gained from the few precious hours of sleep in the night passed.
Harry shuffled mechanically along, wondering who had changed the solid stone floors for something that felt more like waterlogged grass when he wasn't looking.
The narrow windows offered him a view of the grounds beyond the walls that came in narrow slices. Harry thought it was rather like switching reality off and on.
'On', view of the treetops and path…
'Off', carved stone wall…
'On', more treetops….
'Off', fading tapestry.
His steps rang loud in his ears and odd scents evoked snatches of memory from previous years as he kept going.
A doorlatch clicked loudly somewhere close at hand.
Harry had just caught the edge of a tapestry depicting Gregorius the Grumpy battling a flaming dragon, meaning to duck through the archway it concealed, when something ran over his foot. Harry froze. It was small and nimble, vanishing into the shadows as though desperate for concealment.
Whoa! What the hell was that? He wove across the corridor, pushed his glasses right up to the bridge of his nose and scanned the shadowy space. Bugger! Where did it go? A rat can't be that fast… rat…? Rat!
Fever flared in Harry's brain erasing sense, discretion and even the voice of reason. He drew his wand and, hugging the shadows, set off in pursuit. I'll have you this time, you filthy stinking traitorous…mangy waste of protein! I'll toss you into Azkaban myself!
A good five minutes of furiously chasing after the slightest scrabbling sound later and still not finding anything, Harry was ready to concede that it was likely to be another hallucination. Rounding the corner, the sudden brilliant shaft of sunlight took him by surprise and his eyes, already irritated by potion fumes, protested the level of illumination by screwing up tightly. He threw up his arms to shield his face and waited for the blaze on the back of his retinas to fade. When he opened his eyes again, now watering in a relieving fashion, Harry got one good look at the thing he had been chasing.
Standing in the centre of the corridor in the sunlight, it was clearly not a rat.
Unless rats came in burnt umber as well as grey. It resembled a cross between a cat and something longer, something more agile with its shorter legs and long bushy tail as it stood there with one paw uplifted.
Possibly it smelled him or he had made too much noise because it looked back. It gave a loud squeak and raced away in a display of speed that left Harry panting as he tried to keep up, and inventing swear words to express his disgust at himself when he lost the creature.
He leaned back against the wall, bent almost double, hands on quivering knees and gasping for breath. "Call yourself a bloody Seeker, Potter? That was pathetic! Might as well hand Ginny your place on the team!" he panted.
What the hell should he do now? He had no idea where the thing might have gone or even what it was doing this close to Gryffindor Tower.
A rather unpleasant idea crawled into his head at that point and then Harry knew exactly what to do next.
He dashed round the corner, up another flight of stairs and burst into Gryffindor common room, gasping out a greeting to Ginny Weasley, who was fingercombing her wild hair, before taking the stairs to his dorm two at a time.
He tossed his books onto his bed, caught up his Defence Against the Dark Arts essay and text and was in such a hurry that he also stubbed his foot on the trunk still poking out from under his bed.
Such was his need to talk to Ron and Hermione about the possibilities for this creature's appearance in school right now that Harry ignored the pain as well as his jittery limbs and half-skipped down the steps and across the now empty common room floor.
Finding his friends outside in the courtyard, he beckoned them to follow him to a more private corner and explained what had just happened.
Judging by the bug-eyed expression on Ron's freckled face, he believed Harry had a fair point. Hermione, to his chagrin, looked utterly unconcerned. She even went as far as saying, "What of it?"
Harry stared aghast. "It has occurred to you that this could be another Animagus?" He glanced around them casually and leaned closer. "Maybe another Death Eater smuggled into the castle for a good nosy round?"
Hermione was involved in struggling something up from the depths of her bookbag and did not immediately reply.
"Harry has a point there you know, Hermione," Ron said. Hermione flashed him a look that said 'don't-you-start!'
"And it could just as easily be a red squirrel. There is a thriving colony of them in the pine trees, you know. Or, at a stretch, it could be somebody's illegal pet. Or something Hagrid found and is looking after. Or-"
Harry held up his hands to ward off more suggestions but he looked disgusted. "Okay, all right, I get the picture! You think I'm being paranoid or I'm seeing things. I am getting some sleep, Hermione! And it wasn't a squirrel!" He shared a withering headshake with Ron as Hermione produced a book from her bag that was so big Harry couldn't imagine how it had emerged without tearing the bag to shreds. She was puffing as she rested it on her hip.
"I'll find Ginny at lunch and we'll see whether she thinks I'm being paranoid or not," Harry said with an air of challenge. Hermione looked across at him.
"Good idea," she said. "And when you find her, you can give her this. Madam Pince finally let me borrow it." And Hermione unceremoniously thrust the paving slab-sized book at Harry's middle. He caught hold of it reflexively, surprised it wasn't heavier.
"What? Why can't you give it to her?" He turned it round but the spine and cover were devoid of a title.
Ron smiled at the sudden tension in Harry's voice and fixed his attention across the courtyard. "It's only a library book, mate." Harry turned a cool expression on his best friend. "You just hand it over and say, 'Hermione sent you this'."
Harry dropped his eyes to the book. "You are kidding! The bloody thing-"
"The bloody thing is almost as bloody big as she bloody well is!" Harry said forcefully, staring at the brilliant Prefect. What was Ron making of Hermione's distressing tendency to sound more like Molly Weasley with every day that passed? He'd have to remember to ask.
Hermione gave him a cool smile in return. "I'll take points."
Harry wasn't about to be defeated so easily. He flicked his head at Ron. "And he'll give them straight back."
Hermione folded her arms and leaned closer up into his face. "I'll put a charm on you, Harry, so that every time you try to swear you come out with something more useful instead." They traded stares. "I am determined to break you of this. No girl likes a man who swears all the time."
Harry saw the steely resolve in Hermione's face and drew his ace. "Fine, but only if you put it on Ron as well." Hermione smiled very sweetly.
"Haven't you noticed, Harry? Ron hasn't used a swear word in front of me since the end of last term." The bell rang for the next lesson. "See you later," Hermione added in a 'beat that' sort of tone and headed away across the quad.
Harry turned disbelieving eyes on his best friend. Ron shrugged.
"Bloody hell!" Harry groaned. Ron did not flush or squirm. He smirked.
"You wait," he assured the wizard facing him. "You just wait until the shoe is on the other foot!" Harry immediately shot a perplexed glance down at his magically repaired trainers, prompting a chuckle from Ron. "Let's get to Defence Against the Dark Arts."
Trotting along behind the tall redhead and hampered by the enormous book under his arm, Harry knew there was something he meant to ask Ron but for the life of him could not think what it might be.
However, at lunchtime, it was Ron who passed Ginny the paving-slab sized book. Harry gaped at it.
"Where did you get that, Ron? It's nearly as big as Ginny is!"
Ron hooted. "You said that when Hermione shoved it at you this morning as well. The look on your face!" Harry's glare sobered Ron somewhat. "You left it behind in the Defence classroom when you took off like a scalded Kneazle. I had to bring the blood-"
"Hermione! Over here!" Ginny said with unnecessary loudness.
"-Flaming thing myself," Ron finished as Hermione swung gracefully onto the bench beside Ginny.
"Oh good, Harry remembered to give it to you then," Hermione said and gave the top of Harry's head a beaming smile. Harry was paying assiduous attention to his plateful.
Ginny's voice was pregnant with warning as she agreed with Hermione but Ron's mouth was either too full of cottage pie and carrots to reply or he didn't want to drop Harry in it. Whatever the reason, Harry was quite happy to eat his cottage pie and let the two witches carry the conversation. Ginny had a pleasant voice, a couple of tones lower than was usual in a girl and she used it in an expressive melodic way. Unless she was yelling at him, of course.
"Hey, Harry, share the joke."
Harry looked up to find Ginny smiling while she pushed a bowl of apple crumble and custard in front of him. "Joke?" he repeated.
"You were grinning. I assumed you'd heard a new joke."
Harry shook his head as he eyed the puddings that had just appeared. "No." He pointed. "Can't I have some of the-"
"No, you need the fruit and this is easier for you to eat than an apple."
"Harry," Ginny said in a tone that said 'don't make me tell you again.'
With a small sigh, Harry pulled the bowl closer and started on the serving. After a minute, Ron spoke.
"And there's the sound of the other shoe."
Ginny snorted and said in a very perky tone, "Here's one someone in Hufflepuff told me. What's the difference between a yeti and Snape?"
Savouring a mouthful of tart apple and sweet custard, Harry shook his head. He and Ron leaned over the table for the punchline. Ginny was trying hard to hold in her giggles. "One is all greasy and stinks…the other lives on a mountain top!"
Ginny apologised for five minutes straight while they tried to stop Harry choking and found him a paper tissue so that he could blow his nose and clear it of the remnants of his pudding.
"It wasn't that funny, Harry," Ginny said, watching him spluttering into the fouled linen with a curious little smile twitching her mouth.
On Harry's right side, Hermione was elaborating on the dangers of food stuck in the 'post-nasal space'. Harry tuned her out until she decided to start talking English again and focussed on the smaller witch perched on the bench beside him.
"It's okay, Ginny, really. A man can sleep anytime but a laugh restores the soul." He grinned equably at her and was mildly surprised when her mouth slackened and dropped open. Her eyes were a little vacant as well. He brushed his fingers over the back of her hand. "You okay?"
The redhead gave a small jump and looked around the Great Hall. "I'm fine. Why don't you take Ron for a walk? You could do with the fresh air."
Muttering, "what am I? A bloody dog?" Ron allowed Harry to lead him off to the courtyard for a mutually silent amble in the gusty wind scouring the remains of leaves around.
When they returned, looking suitably windswept, Hermione led Harry up to the library for the single research period where he watched the motes dancing in the wintry sunlight under the pretence of reading some mouldy old Charms tome that his friend had plonked in front of him.
When the bell rang again, Hermione handed him on to Ron so that he could go to Charms. Hermione said she would follow on after running a quick errand. Something about her expression deterred both wizards from further enquiry as to what the 'errand' might be.
With the N.E.W.T’s only ten months away, they had agreed to more or less study as Hermione dictated. Apart from being a top student, she was their good friend and yet it seemed less than prudent to irritate her. She had, after all, as a first year, seen expulsion from the school as a worse fate than death and time had not mellowed her outlook on this point. They had reasoned that their ready agreement to following some semblance of Hermione's study habits would be more likely to cut down on the nagging.
Harry privately thought that, at times, Hermione considered Voldemort as minor impediment, an annoyance dreamed up to distract her from the more important business of doing as well as possible in her N.E.W.T’s.
Then he blamed this uncharitable thought on the effects of insufficient sleep. Hermione did care – and quite passionately – about many things in the wizarding world. She had been a true friend to him ever since Halloween of first year.
"Are you ready for the other book yet, Harry?"
Harry looked up at his friend, standing expectantly with another volume.
"Sorry," he said truthfully. "I'm having trouble concentrating, Hermione."
Hermione sat beside him, her concern renewed and obvious in her wide eyes. "I made a precis of it for you – it has all the essential details. How long have you been sleeping lately?" she asked in a rush.
Harry dropped his eyes. "Enough to function but not enough to really concentrate. I keep forgetting things… Hermione," he began, intending to ask her about hallucinations and changing his mind at the last second. "Thanks."
Hermione looked as though she wanted to dash off another six questions and was restraining herself manfully. Shouldn't that be womanfully, a small voice chuckled in his head.
"Shut up," Harry muttered. "Not you," he added quickly to Hermione's affronted face. "The voices in my head."
Hermione was starting to look scared. "I'll, er, get that precis for you," she said and hurried away.
"Brilliant!" Harry groused. "Learn to keep your big trap shut, Potter."
A hint of fruit behind him was all the warning he got and then Ginny was beside him, looking nearly as tired as Harry was feeling. The skin beneath her eyes was purple, as though bruised. Harry put aside his concerns and encircled the fine-boned wrist resting on his arm.
"Hi Ginny. Did you not sleep?"
Ginny managed a smile. "Rowena! Kelia must be right. I must look a fright if you've noticed." Her smile became apologetic as Harry looked affronted over this assertion. "Sorry," she said. "No, I didn't sleep-"
"The potion thing?" Harry interrupted curiously, wondering if Ginny really believed he didn't notice her; he had always noticed Ginny.
Ginny wriggled her wrist and he let her go. She shook her head and her hair, uncharacteristically loose around her shoulders, fell forward into her face and yet Harry could see she was hesitating over telling him something. He got the feeling that he was missing something.
"Ron forgot to remind you he's changed Quidditch practice from tonight to tomorrow. I said I'd come up and remind you. You won't forget, will you?" She was watching him as though convinced that he'd forget.
"Me? Forget Quidditch? Hermione would forget the location of the Library sooner!" Harry said stoutly and felt heartened when Ginny cracked a little smile. "Ginny?" he said softly. In his mind’s eye, Harry saw his hand reach out and the fingertips make gentle contact with her pale cheek.
Ginny stared back, her focus switching between his eyes, finally admitting, "I was having stupid dreams, that's all."
The bell sounded unnaturally loud in Harry's head and it must have seemed that way to Ginny as well, since she flinched almost as badly as Harry felt himself doing.
"Damned thing!" she spat, putting a shaky hand over her heart.
"You'd better go, Ginny. You've only got five minutes to get to Runes and that's on the other side of the castle."
Ginny's head came up, her face alive with an amused challenge. "Are you saying I'm not quick enough, Potter?"
Harry grinned mischievously. "I'm quick and I couldn't do it."
Ginny leaned right into his face, so close that Harry had to peer over the top of his lenses to see her in focus. "Ha!" she said softly. "You're not me!" She leaned a bit closer and right when Harry wondered what she was up to, he felt the tip of her nose rub against his; it was cold and the contact tingled. Then she was gone.
It was a measure of Harry's level of fatigue that he actually watched the members of the Gryffindor Quidditch team go down to practice the next night and thought nothing of it. What seemed like a few minutes passed and then Harry felt a tentative prod on his knee. He managed to force a noise out of his throat. He didn't remember closing his eyes. The noise level was such that he could see everybody's location in his imagination.
Parvati. What does she want?
"Harry?" The hand on his knee lingered, making him feel uncomfortable. "Oh, the poor thing… he looks totally done in… Lavender? Toss me that cushion will you?"
What the…? Gerroff me!
Harry exerted every ounce of will power he could but it did not translate into nerve impulses that would direct his muscle groups into action. He ached with weariness and could not prevent Parvati tugging him down until he was horizontal. He felt hands lift his head and clumsily place the cushion underneath it.
"There, that's better isn't it, Harry?" Parvati said in a soft sort of croon that Harry found incredibly irritating.
Not really… what the hell am I lying on? It's bloody lumpy!
Even more disturbing were her fingers trying to smooth out the frown lines on his forehead. His right ear, pressed up against something warm, caught a gurgling noise that sounded like water through pipes. The central heating at his Aunt's house had played up a lot when he was younger and it sounded exactly the same.
In the stuffy darkness of his cupboard, Harry's imagination had given him visions of being in the belly of some great beast.
But Hogwarts doesn't have any central heating. And there is no great beast to use the pipes any more, Harry thought with grim satisfaction as another eruption of borborygmi gurgled under his ear. That really does sound like a digesting stomach…Oh bugger!
With a hot sick flash it occurred to him that Parvati had positioned him with his head in her lap! He tried to roll to the left but succeeded in wrapping his school robes around his body more tightly, increasing his confinement.
"Harry! Lie still or you'll fall!" Parvati gasped, trying to stop him wriggling.
That was the bloody idea, Harry thought, twisting and fending off Parvati's grabbing hands.
While he was struggling to extricate himself – more than happy to fall to the floor if necessary – a cold blast of air darted into the room and over the exclamations, Harry heard the voice of an angel.
"Harry? Wake up! Get your kit on! Hurry up! We need you!"
An eel-like wriggle dropped Harry on to his forearms and knees. Opening his eyes, he followed the direction of all the gazes. In the open common room window, a smiling Ginny Weasley was hovering on her broomstick, her hair rippling loose as she gestured for him to come over.
Fervently hoping that she hadn't seen where he had been lying, (Not from choice! he toldhimself) Harry made his way over to the window feeling somewhat faint from the rapid change of posture.
Against the backdrop of the painted sky as the autumn evening blossomed with clear colours, Ginny was hovering astride her ancient broomstick and regarding Harry with a lively smile that sent a shiver up his back.
"So, are you coming, or what?" She propped her elbow on the stone windowsill and rested her gloved palm on her cheek.
Harry tried to moisten his mouth to speak but nothing happened. He settled for nodding and leaned further out of the window. Ginny put a small hand in the middle of his chest and pushed him back.
"Harry! You pillock, go and get your Firebolt first and then come down the stairs!Even I'm not small enough to get through this window!" She caught her lower lip between her teeth in a way that reminded Harry of something and her eyes laughed into his. "You'd better be quick or Parvati will have you for a lapdog again." Having said that, she angled the broom away and dived gracefully in a long arc towards the Quidditch ground.
Restraining the desire to give the wall a furious kick, Harry took the stairs up to the boy's dorm, scrabbled his kit together and was out on the long flights of stairs with Parvati's indignant voice still ringing in his ears.
"Of all the nerve! Just because she doesn't fancy him any more she doesn't have to make it harder for the rest of us! It seems like all she has to do is snap her fingers and he goes chasing after her! It's outrageous!"
The chilly air outside roused Harry from his torpor and the wind combing through his hair felt suspiciously the way Ginny's hands had in his dream –or was it memory? Harry could no longer be sure. Many things had a feeling of unreality about them. Perhaps this was part of Voldemort's plan.
Ginny executed a perfect close-quarter roll around him at that point, so close that her robes trailed over his back and whatever Voldemort might or might not be up to ceased to have any relevance for Harry at that point. He leaned along the shaft of the broom and shot off in pursuit.
Harry was quick, he knew that, but Ginny was quicker. She reacted to his proximity at the last possible second, angling her broom away in a sharp twist and showing the kind of dexterity usually seen in more experienced players. Harry turned smoothly and headed straight at her as she swooped for the Quaffle, reaching out as though he had seen the Snitch. Ginny did a 360 roll around her broom and Harry heard her laughter as she flew away. He pulled up grinning and feeling more alive than he had in days.
Over by the goal hoops, Ron was frowning in concentration as the three Chasers converged on him. As they reached the scoring line, they scattered to a hoop each.
"Hermione!" Ginny yelled out in surprise. Ron looked away, his concentration broken, and aimed by Jennifer, the newest addition to the team, the Quaffle sailed through the centre hoop. Perched on his broom a few feet above the game, Harry chuckled at Ron's furious outburst and language.
"Tut, tut, Ronnie! Remember my innocent little girl's ears!" Ginny said sweetly with a wicked grin on her face.
Ron had descended to catch the Quaffle and shot it back at his sister. Hard. "You weren't even born innocent, you little-" he snapped. "You're more trouble than a barrel full of Nifflers!"
Ginny laughed harder, the sound ringing in Harry's ears as she rose up to where he was watching the siblings. She pulled her broom up beside his and bumped into his shoulder.
"That was a bit sneaky, Ginny," Harry said still smiling. Her face was flushed from the chilly air and her nose could have outshone Rudolph's but her eyes were sparkling.
She nodded her agreement. "I know, but the Slytherins will try worse than that. I've heard that one of their Chasers is going to flash him." She met Harry's puzzled gaze unblushingly. "You know," she said helpfully pushing her chest forward and pretending to pull open her robe.
Harry puzzled face became blank. "Show him her boobs," Ginny said helpfully.
Since the Slytherin Chasers reminded Harry of his cousin – both in looks and build – he suddenly felt dinner, lunch and yesterday's breakfast threatening to put in a reappearance. He swallowed convulsively to assert dominance over his body.
Ginny had drifted closer to him during those seconds. The length of her thigh pressed against his. "Well, it won't be anything he hasn't seen before," she said with a knowing snort. Harry turned so fast that he slid sideways on the Firebolt and Ginny grabbed hold of the arm he flung out to keep his balance. She met his wide-eyed gaze with a mischievous grin.
"Oh, come on, Harry!" She tipped her head and reminded him obscurely of Hedwig. "Or doesn't Dean share his reading material round the dorm?"
Still with her gloved hand on his forearm, Ginny leaned closer. "Wanna come and play, Aitch?" she said, in that low purring tone her had heard her use before. Without waiting for a reply, she dropped like a stone and seized the Quaffle, entering the scrimmage fearlessly.
With his thoughts in a complete jumble, (Dean… reading material… silky legs… hair like aliving halo of fire…come and play, Aitch… Aitch) and wondering if Ginny meant what he thought she meant, Harry decided that if he was going to have hot sweats, it might as well be from some difficult flying exercises.
He pointed the Firebolt down and dived. When he could smell the grass he pulled up and zoomed across the pitch before spiralling up sharply and crashing into the girl's Hawkshead formation.
Among the unlady-like exclamations, Harry was pummelled by several elbows in a fit of 'cobbing' and cried out involuntarily when one of them hit his cheekbone, driving the bridging pieces of his glasses painfully into his eye. He pulled up, snatched his specs off and pressed his chilled fingers to his watering eye socket, hearing Ron bellow for a 'time out.' The swishing sound of robes converged on him.
"You okay, mate?" Harry heard Ron ask before snapping at somebody else, "Save it for the bloody Slytherins!"
"I didn't do it on purpose!" Ginny snarled back. Just about to say that he was fine, Harry felt small hands take his face and press gently around his cheekbone and eye. He forced his eyes to stay open and found Ginny very close, looking both apologetic and annoyed.
"Sorry, Harry. How does it feel now?"
Wandering in her shiny eyes, Harry mumbled he was fine and was surprised by several snorts.
"I think you should at least kiss it better," Ron said blandly. For a second, the onlookers thought that Ron would be spending the night in the hospital wing.
"Yeah, me too!" Jennifer added. She had her lips pressed firmly together, as though she was trying hard not to grin. Ginny turned her sharp gaze on the third year Chaser, who carried on looking unrepentant.
She breathed out hard and leaned over.
Harry pulled away. He didn't want Ginny kissing him because she'd had been backed into a corner over it. "You don't have to, I'm fine," he said but he might as well have saved his breath. Harry felt her tilt his head; her eyes filled his vision, paralysing him, and then time evaporated in his comprehension when her cool mouth pressed a lingering benediction over the point of his pain.
The tips of her fingers were moving across his other cheek, over his earlobe and the angle of his jaw. The rasp of her nails reminded him to shave in the morning… Harry had no idea whether her touch burned like fire or ice but he never wanted it to end. Pretty coloured dots were dancing over his dark vision…
There was a loud snort.
The Seeker opened his eyes to find Ron facing him, arms folded, and wearing a very indulgent grin. "What?" Harry inhaled deeply, suddenly feeling very nervous as he flooded his bloodstream with the light-headed sensation of too much oxygen. His Quidditch robe strained at the ties. He looked around; he and Ron were alone. He scanned the pitch for Ginny. When had she stopped touching him? His face still burned where her hands and mouth had been.
Ron shook his head. "Merlin help you! Keep it on the ground."
"What!" Harry said again, flying belatedly to catch up to Ron as he headed back to the hoops.
"You heard me," Ron chuckled. "Keep it on the ground, Harry. Save the aerial stuff for later!" He rolled to hover before the hoops.
"What?" When did this word become my only vocabulary?
Ron abruptly became serious. "You heard me! Go and chase the Snitch, mate." Watching Ron's eyes flick, Harry knew that the Chasers were bearing down on their position. He swooped up to avoid another entanglement.
"No thinking about Hermione flashing you then," he yelled back and heard Ron roar in frustration even as the Chasers whooped in triumph. Harry felt subtly compensated for Ron's mickey taking as he circled the pitch.
When Ginny passed by, Harry could have sworn she winked at him. What the hell was going on? She couldn't be flirting with him…? Could she? She had a boyfriend. Harry decided it was his imagination playing tricks on him. Probably had something in her eye…
He confined his attention to the Snitch and found he had another problem. His cheek was still tingling… it was so easy to recall the pressure of her little mouth…
Get with the game Potter! She's over you and you're friends now, so forget it! he told himself sternly as the Snitch practically flew into his hand. But this sentiment didn't tell him how the hell was he going to sleep without reliving that kiss in his dreams.
Normally he hated it when he realised that girls were coming on to him. It made him feel uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Yet, in Ginny's case –if that was what she was up to –and the thought caused Harry another hot flush, he was very willing to make an exception.
Coming down from the seventh year dormitory after practice ended, Harry erupted into the common room clutching a Potions text and hurried back to his parchments, mouthing soundlessly. Many disjointed phrases were circling around his bemused brain and not all of them were related to his current task.
His earlier euphoria, born from a good practice and getting a kiss from Ginny, had worn off leaving the sensation that someone had poured a couple of buckets of wet clay into his head when he had his back turned.
His head definitely felt heavy enough for that to be true; all he wanted to do was rest somewhere warm and comfortable and sleep himself out. Except he had a Potions essay to complete and Snape was still seizing any opportunity to 'take down his ego' as many pegs as possible.
Mumbling to himself, trying to pull the partially recalled phrase about Dunsinane wood and its use in this potion into coherence, Harry missed the petite redhead perched beside Hermione until she spoke.
"Professor McGonagall said I'm stable enough to go onto the next step."
Both witches smiled at him and something in Ginny's steady gaze made Harry look away first. Pretending to bend diligently over his work, Harry listened hard but the girls had dropped their voices to an indistinguishable murmur. Reluctantly concluding they were having one of those 'girly talks' that males found incomprehensible, he decided he'd better get back to his homework.
Sagging wearily into the hard-backed seat, Harry squeezed his eyes shut tight and then stretched them widely before the temptation to keep them closed overcame him. He picked up The Bookof Thoth with a scowl of distaste and began to page through it.
A light scent behind him was his only warning before a small hand appeared on his shoulder. It was followed by Ginny's face peering down at him. "Potions again, Harry?"
Harry nodded, stifling his yawn. Ginny saw the book he was holding and blinked.
"Madam Pince actually gave you that text then?" Ginny didn't have to sound so incredulous about it in Harry's opinion.
"Yeah," he agreed. He blinked owlishly, watching the ovular pupils of Ginny's eyes dilate into wide circles. "You told me about it, didn't you?"
Ginny smiled but cast her eyes down. "I didn't think you'd remember that." Harry decided he'd made her uncomfortable, staring at her eyes like that. He forced his attention on his quill.
"I'd better get on with it before I fall asleep."
Ginny patted his shoulder and Harry told himself it was imagination that her hand lingered a shade longer than usual. "Yeah. I'm going up. Night, Harry."
"Night, Ginny." He watched her disappear up the stairs and turned back to the hateful homework.
Making a final valiant attempt at concentration, Harry looked through the hand written pages following the faded script in his search for his reference. It was in the back of his mind that Snape had mentioned it in passing only last week; he had scribbled a cryptic note in the margin of his parchment at the time.
The writing swam in and out of focus. It was making his head throb, encouraging him to give up. Harry gritted his teeth and pushed his face closer to the pages. Why couldn't he find it? He only needed another inch… damn!
He caught all the pages together and flicked them slowly from back to front, allowing his eyes to fix on random words… blood… silver… Occlumens… blood… animagus… That grabbed him and he went back. He squeezed his eyes to force them to focus. It wasn't animagus; it was 'anamdraoi', whatever that was. It was followed by some more words Harry had no idea how to pronounce, being as they were composed of strange consonant combinations. His gaze dropped down the page… and then he found it.
"Dunsinane wood is the essential ingredient in 'Aon-bhith', (pronounced 'ûn-vee') the 'Unity of Being' distillation because of its occlusive properties. It has the property of compensating, when correctly prepared and introduced, for unwanted interactions between certain groups of potion elements. This is particularly true of metallic and sanguinary elements. The 'Unity of Being' potion is the only method known to work in some cases of failed or stuck Animagus transformation."
That was it! I knew it was something to do with blood. Harry read some more, to check he hadn't missed anything useful that he could add.
"It guards the 'double', what may be described as the unconscious 'self', guiding it back to the physical body of the stuck Animagus and promoting the joining of these spiritual and physical forms, thus achieving the required 'Unity of Being'. Although this potion was first brewed in the early centuries in the kingdom now known as Scotland, research suggests that much of the information upon which it is based comes from the studies of the early wizarding communities of Deir el-Bahari and Deir el-Medina."
"Unfortunately, many of the most informative parchments and wall paintings have fallen into Muggle hands over the years, or have been so damaged by their intrusions into the Great Place that our knowledge of the exact process is incomplete. The author takes this opportunity to warn his reader that this potion must not be attempted, even with supervision of potion experts, as it is entirely possible that the translation work of the young Egyptologist who assisted with the translations may be at fault. (Dr D Jackson is a Muggle.)"
Too tired to feel triumphant, Harry paraphrased to the best of his exhausted ability, following the crabbed script with one finger like a child to avoid jumping from one sentence to the next. He knew he should have done this earlier but he'd worked on his Charms piece before practice. Maybe that was why he'd dozed off. More stuff about 'doubles' and 'hearts' that confused Harry so much that he felt as though his brain was tied in knots.
That took his rebelling mind back to Ginny and his train of thought derailed immediately. Harry had no idea when it had started but the petite Gryffindor was drifting through his mind at the oddest moments.
She had done it yesterday, when he was in Transfiguration and supposed to be imagining himself with a small difference so that he could transfigure himself. It had been embarrassing…
Harry maintained for the rest of the day that he had intended to change his eyes to brown and his hair to dark red. It really wound him up that nobody would believe him.
Dean and Seamus had teased him good naturedly – Dean with a very pointed glance in Ginny's direction. Even Hermione, while still vocally demanding they leave him alone, had given him the look that said, ‘I-can-read-you-like-a-book’.
In desperation, Harry had snarled something that ended the 'discussion'. "I was thinking about my mum, alright? Now DROP IT!" He had caught a glimpse of their faces as he stormed away down the stairs with his blood buzzing as though his skull was full of bees. Each face looked suitably stricken.
Now that he had come out with this lie – and somewhere in his mind, he was prepared to admit it was a lie – Harry had to stick with it. Would anybody remember he had his mum's eyes? Only Ron had said nothing, regarding Harry as though he knew something that Harry did not. That only made Harry's annoyance deeper.
Why the Slytherin did people around him still feel the need to constantly keep him in the dark? He knew the answer to that one, if he was being honest with himself. So that Voldemort couldn't pick his mind like a chicken carcass for juicy little tidbits. The idea had stopped Harry between one step and the next.
Was that the reason Voldemort was battering again at his Occlumency shields and keeping him awake through the night in an effort to wear him down? What did Harry know that Voldemort wanted to know? Harry had no idea. He continued down to the Great Hall in a filthy mood.
Then, at dinner, Malfoy had to come and exacerbate Harry's temper by swaggering over and becoming incoherent with laughter at Harry's appearance. He rashly made another sly insinuation about the Weasleys, specifically Ginny, certain he was safe under the eyes of the packed Head table.
Harry had been about to earn double detention for grinding the Slytherin into dogfood regardless of who was watching when a small freckled hand appeared between him and Malfoy.
Nonchalantly aiming her wand, Ginny had asked the other wizard if he fancied another round with the bogeys. The memory clearly did not strike the Death Eater's son as his finest hour and he sloped away, tossing a baleful look back at Ginny.
As she pushed him back into place, Harry felt Ginny's eyes assessing his condition. He watched her, watching him. "Pity you're too out of it to risk changing back. I'd much rather have you the way you were."
Her words and the unexpected squeeze of his knee sent Harry's heart into overdrive and his circulation haywire. It was then that Harry decided he was coming down with something; a bad case of Ginny Weasley.
Does this mean I fancy her?
No… I like her differently.
Like Cho then?
Harry shivered. No!
Well, like how? He gave it some thought.
Dunno. She's one of my best friends. We find the same things funny, catch meanings in the same way… She has this knack of reaching me when no one else can. She's not afraid of my temper either…
You're falling for her.
Falling for her what?
Back in the here-and-now, Harry felt the quill being slid out from between his slack fingers. He had no idea when he had slumped down onto the forearm that had been supporting his aching head. Competent hands eased his head to the side and Harry heard his parchment rustle as it was moved away. He felt the swirl of magic round him and the whispered spell, "Scripsi!"
Ginny's voice spoke softly and his quill scratched obediently what she dictated. Harry sank into sleep to the sound of her voice and the tingling feeling of her hand repeatedly stroking through his hair.
In the morning, Harry woke up with a crick in his neck despite the pillow cushioning his head from the table. He sat up, rubbing at his neck and a blanket slithered down his back. His homework was stacked neatly to one side and it was clear that someone had taken pity on him, providing these simple comforts.
A glance at his watch showed that he had five minutes for a wash, and to change his robes before he missed breakfast entirely. He jumped up, feeling more rested than since term began and took the spiral stairs two at a time.
The bathroom was empty; the dribbling tap and half stoppered tubes and bottles indicating that he had not been the only one against the clock, as did the puddles suggesting a water fight. Harry located a dry towel and performed the hastiest of ablutions, regretting his urgency when he cut himself twice.
Taking care not to bleed onto his last set of clean robes, he studied his timetable. Ron had thoughtfully copied it out in bold block capitals and stuck it to the wall beside Harry's bed, the idea being that, no matter how tired he was, he should still be able to read it.
Transfiguration first. He grabbed up his books and decided to get the Room of Requirement to provide breakfast rather than be late taking seven flights of uncooperative staircases down and then more back up.
Ginny was halfway across the entrance hall when her sharp hearing picked up the hiss of her name. She stopped and looked down at her foot. "Damn," she said loudly and dropped to a crouch.
"What?" she hissed back, fiddling with her trainer and darting her eyes round and up. There was the suggestion of a dark head over by the steps from the dungeons. "Blaise?"
The head dipped in a brisk nod. "Malfoy is saying he saw Potter's ghost walking the castle last night. He's got half the house convinced that Harry is dead and Dumbledore has someone taking his place under Polyjuice Potion."
"Rubbish!" Ginny said stoutly. "Harry was still asleep in the common room when I came down."
"Just thought you should be prepared." Ginny looked up as the tall Slytherin passed her by without a glance. With his aquiline nose and quicksilver moods Ginny could see a resemblance to Professor Snape and hoped that Blaise would not choose the same dark path.
Springing easily to her feet, Ginny trotted to her place at Gryffindor table and informed Hermione and Ron in an undertone what she'd just heard.
Author’s note: I am indebted to my brilliant Beta, Katieay, for her Eagle eyes, keeping me consistent and supplying me with perfect Hermione-speak when I was utterly stumped! Thanks KatieYay!
I also confess that there is a single line in this chapter that I have borrowed from a favourite author. I hope she won’t mind.