Ron sank into the armchair by the fire and pulled off his tie; Harry dropped his bag and took a seat on the floor next to Neville. The rest of the boys were already in the middle of a heated conversation; it had been some time since Harry joined them for their casual chats in the Common Room. The day had been surprisingly hot, and running back from the Astronomy Tower had left him breathless and sweating.
“What’s up?” he asked as he pushed his fringe away from his eyes.
“Dean has a girlfriend,” Neville announced.
“Dean always has a girlfriend,” Harry said. "So?"
“When in Merlin’s balls did I say she’s my girlfriend, Neville?” Dean rolled his eyes. “You weren’t listening.”
“They had sex,” Seamus explained.
Dean nodded. “It happened.”
Neville looked at Harry apologetically, a blush covering his cheeks. Ron slid from his chair and sat down too. “You had sex? In here? With whom?”
“Not in here. A few weeks ago. I was telling Seamus but then Neville heard us and he wanted to hear the story too.”
“Well, go on, then,” Ron said as he pulled a pillow to his lap.
“Again?” Dean pretended to be bothered, but the smile on his face betrayed just how willing he was to share the details. “Alright. So. She was working at this pub in Bayswater and my brother took me there, you know, to spend some time together and such. The barwoman fell in love with me." In all honesty, Harry didn't know if he should trust that Dean wasn't making it all up. He dared a meaningful look at Ron who gave him a halfhearted shrug.
“Who old was she?” Neville asked.
“Late twenties, I think. She began with the usual small talk and then she wanted me to give her my telephone number but I couldn't risk my mom answering the phone, so I told her to meet up with me the next day, and she agreed. So the next day, it happened.”
Neville gaped. Seamus sniggered. Harry was numbly surprised to realise that he didn't care. He couldn’t see himself having sex anytime soon. If ever. Straight people had no problem building up their healthy and happy relationships. Harry could not recall having ever seen a gay couple in his life. Perhaps, for people like him, it would always have to be just about isolation. Perhaps it was stupid to dream of anything more.
Harry listened through the details of how exactly “it” happened and how Dean pretended to know how to wear a condom although he miserably failed to put it on.
“I almost kissed Hermione this summer,” Ron said after Dean had finished. “She stayed over for a few days before we came back and one night she helped me clean the kitchen. I was too close, but I didn’t.” He chuckled. “I was terrified she’d have kittens.”
“Why didn’t you do it, mate?" Seamus asked. "You don't really think she spends all this time with you because you're besties, do you?"
“I honestly don’t know.”
“You hadn’t told me that,” muttered Harry, but Ron didn’t hear him.
“She’s not like that. She could have slapped me,” Ron said. “I don’t know what got into me.”
“Coward,” said Dean as he punched him lightly on the arm.
Ron shook his head and smiled. “I think I respect her too much to ever do it."
Seamus laughed cheerfully. “Either that or you're too afraid of her teeth.”
“Ron!” Hermione’s voice interrupted their chat. She stopped by the Fat Lady’s portrait to unzip her backpack and then she approached them. “Here you are. I was looking for you. You have my Transfiguration notebook, I need it back.”
Harry didn’t think he'd ever noticed how differently Ron behaved when she was around. It wasn't always like that; but as the years went by, something different took over. He wasn't exactly shy – but certainly not as relaxed as he was when he was with the boys. They used to feel free to be themselves when with each other, the three of them; to say everything they thought of and go through all their battles together. He couldn’t remember when things got complicated.
“What, now? I haven’t – you know.”
Hermione sighed. “I’m going to the library to study. You can ‘you know’ there with me if you must. I need the notebook.”
Ron pulled himself up and yawned. “Why not do this tomorrow, Hermione?”
“Because. Come on. Harry, are you coming?”
Harry shook his head. If the ‘you know’ was copying all of her notes to make them look like they were Ron’s, it'd take all evening. “No, it’s okay. I’ll see you later.”
“What about you?” Dean asked Harry once Ron and Hermione were gone.
“What about me?” Harry felt his smile fade as he understood what the question was about.
“For God's sake, Dean,” muttered Seamus under his breath, although Harry could hear him perfectly well. He felt stupidly exposed without Ron and Hermione. Seamus glared sideways at Dean in a way that communicated that Harry should be probably kept out of the conversation.
“Right. Sorry,” Dean said to him, grinning. His eyes didn’t focus on him.
“Harry is a good person,” intervened Neville. The confidence in his voice didn’t sooth Harry’s annoyance.
“Obviously, Neville,” said Seamus. “Harry, no offence. We're cool, right?"
Harry nodded. Cool. Of course they were. "I wouldn't share anything with you even if you wanted me to, Seamus. No offence."
"There are things to share?" Dean exclaimed. "What the hell Harry."
"Just because you... announced it it doesn't mean you can't take it back," Seamus went on. "I mean it did make sense at first, but it was obviously a phase, right?"
It wasn't the fact that he felt naked, completely exposed or betrayed; it was something else that made the lump in his throat hurt. "What do you mean it made sense?"
"You just need to solve this out. It’s disgusting to even think about it, you're better than that. You shouldn’t be doing this to yourself.”
"What do you mean it made sense Seamus?"
"You know what I mean."
"And yet I don't."
"You wouldn't be calling yourself -- gay -- if you... look, dad says - boys need a father. I know it's not your fault, we all love you, it's just a matter of guidance--"
Perhaps it was the fact that Neville grabbed his robes and pulled him back; perhaps it was that he himself was for a second terrified of his own anger. Someone pulled him off Seamus and only then he stopped punching him, not even remembering when he'd started, not knowing when the tears on his face firstly appeared or why they were even there.
"Well," Professor McGonagall began. "You intend to explain?"
On one chair, Harry was tightly clenching his fists, arms crossed over his chest, leg shaking, eyes on the floor. On the other chair, Seamus was pressing a folded napkin over his face.
"Mister Potter. Is it true that you attacked mister Finnigan?"
"He did not," Seamus interrupted.
"Were you not attacked in front of..." McGonagall turned a page on her notebook, "seven other students who can confirm that they saw mister Potter attack you?"
"Mister Potter, would you be interested in kindly offering an insight to the course of events that led to your classmate's swollen face?"
"I punched him."
"And why did you do that?"
Silence. McGonagall sighed. "How do you expect me to help you if you do not share the problem? This behaviour has never been and never will be acceptable in Gryffindor. We do not use violence to resolve our disagreements. Mister Potter, you and your friends have broken more rules than I can count, and yet this may be the only incident I completely fail to justify."
"I insulted him first. I'm sorry," Seamus said. "I'm really sorry."
McGonagall stared at his covered eye. "Obviously."
Harry looked away. "You will have to forgive me, mister Potter, if I fail to regard insulting to be a satisfying excuse for physically attacking another student. I will have to remove points for the behaviour of the both of you. It is of little importance, who began, who insulted whom, and who is sorry. Regretfully -- fifty points from Gryffindor. You have both shamed your House, tonight. It is high time you learn to coexist respectfully despite your differences."
Harry didn't bother explaining. At least he knew someone who'd be thrilled with Gryffindor's lost points.
“Very well. Ten points to Slytherin.”
Severus waved his wand at the haunted box on his desk. It gargled loudly and vibrated angrily before stilling. “Should you ever come across a haunted item, I trust you would know better than touch it with your bare hands before examining it. History has proven the deadly consequences of stupidity many times; the curses that may possess an object vary from slightly uncomfortable to murderous. The Dark Arts are more often than not, unpredictable. Men have trusted them and men have died.”
At the corner of his vision, a continuous motion of a raised hand was distracting him.
“Miss Granger. I imagine you failed to notice that I haven’t given you permission to speak. Five points from Gryffindor.”
“Sir. I have a question.”
“Is it relevant?”
Severus motioned in a “go-on” fashion and damned his luck for this marvellous life he had been granted with.
“On page thirty five it is stated that haunted objects differ from possessed ones not only in the strength of the curse but also in the perception of it. If an object is possessed by a ghost, or, as the example on page thirty six demonstrates, the soul of a dead person, does the object carry a living soul or is it just a fragment of it, like ghosts and portraits?”
Severus sneered and Granger looked at him expectantly. He had once promised himself to someday resign. His own personal masochism barely allowed him to take control of the situation just now. Little idiots interrupted his teaching and blurted out sophisticated bullshit which he was obviously going to explain in the future lessons anyway.
“Miss Granger. We are on page thirty one. If you cannot follow the class’s flow I must ask you to leave. Make the mistake to interrupt me again and I’ll personally see that you’re never welcome in my class again. Page thirty one. All of you.”
He was much too used to this to be annoyed. He chose the dignified route of continuing his speech. It occurred to him that the blasted boy was not paying attention and for the millionth time this week he cursed himself for noticing. He reasoned himself by remembering that he'd always kept an eye on Potter anyway. This shouldn’t seem any different. It somehow was.
His hate for the boy had increased, it seemed. If Potter thought he could get away by sleeping in his class, he’d been terribly mistaken. Then again, he was startled at the sudden realisation that he did not dare to provoke the boy in front of others. A quarrel with anyone as troubled as Potter was not exactly desirable. The boy's tongue had a dangerous arrogance for one to tease.
Not that Severus was afraid of it.
He tapped his quill at Potter’s desk twice and Potter looked up startled. Hopefully, Severus’ eyes communicated nothing. He already knew that Potter wasn’t going to pay attention, but he nevertheless made an effort to behave professionally. It occurred to him that Potter had yet to shave his face this week. It also occurred to him that this was entirely irrelevant.
He placed his book on the desk and coughed back the venomous resentment that threatened to take over. The nonsensical anger that the Dark Lord’s request invoked had been carefully packed away for overall examination when alone. The fact that both the Dark Lord and Dumbledore agreed to this murder had ceased maddening him not so long ago, and the lack of proper planning from his part did nothing to calm his burning conscience.
“Miss Parkinson,” he snapped. “Am I interrupting your socialising back there?”
“I’m sorry, sir. He just asked me if I had a second quill.”
Severus glared for a moment before diving into the task of explaining how a haunted item could be destroyed. A far better lesson would be to psychoanalyse the intelligence of great wizards playing with haunted items like an infant would. Come to think of it, he should write a book. The true faces of Heroes, he would name it. Chapter one: the stupidity of dying by septicaemia and madness. Chapter two: Boys who survived the killing curse only to dream about cocks.
It would certainly cause some conflict.
“Miss Parkinson!” Pansy giggled as she tried to maintain her seriousness. Right next to her, Draco didn’t look as sullen as one would have expected. “Get out. The both of you. Ten points from Slytherin.”
At the dumbstruck look on their faces he approached their desk and slammed his hand down. “Out!”
They bolted up simultaneously. Just before slamming the door behind them, Draco gave him a filthy look, looking betrayed.
“That will teach you to not take advantage of tolerance,” he snarled to the rest of the students. His mark burned him and he gritted his teeth against the pain. Harry had fallen asleep on his desk again. Had he even been sleeping at nights? His sleeping during classes had become a matter of discussion amongst his colleagues last year but he'd never done it in Severus’ class until now.
He didn’t know what bothered him more. Was it the fact that he could jump up from a vision and have all his classmates hear him screaming the Dark Lord’s name or was it the fact that Harry did not care anymore?
You wanted him to not care.
Of course he did.
He was stunned to get his wishes come true for once in his otherwise miserable life. It struck him that strange things conspired when one tried to cheat fate.
Severus thankfully believed he did not have one.
“Come in, Severus. You look exhausted.”
Severus glared hard as he kneeled before Dumbledore’s armchair. He did not flinch as Dumbledore pulled up his robe sleeve with a trembling hand. The curse’s effect was stable. “Does it hurt?”
“Not much. My fingers were rather numb today.”
“Clench them.” He gripped at Dumbledore’s wrist and squeezed. “Can you feel this?”
Dumbledore shook his head, not looking much concerned about it. “I’m afraid not.”
Severus sighed as he drew his wand and muttered a few spells. His stomach dropped at the not so thrilling prospect of becoming the healer of his soon to be victim. He fixed his jaw after every spell and made a silent promise to himself to never distrust his better sense again. For the first time, he inwardly envied his father’s life.
“How long do I have?”
“I don’t know, how long does Harry have?” Severus raised a brow.
Dumbledore smiled. “More than I do, certainly.”
“Tch.” His commitment to doing the right thing was suddenly chocking him. He hid his disgust under another healing spell. “Your bloodstream doesn’t reach your fingertips. You will begin to experience sharp pain soon. You should consider having your fingers mutilated.”
“And be unable to play the piano? What a shame.” Severus winced and Dumbledore chuckled. He opened his mouth to retort but stopped when Dumbledore placed a hand on his shoulder. “I have given Harry a task. You must see to his protection until this task is finished.”
“How will I know when it's finished?”
“Voldemort will keep his pet close. He’ll fear for her life.”
Was the snake a Horcrux? “And then you wish me to tell Harry the truth.”
Severus nodded. “You don’t have a fever but you might feel weaker as the days go by. If you experience dizziness summon me immediately.”
“Has young Draco thought of anything interesting lately, perhaps?”
“He has not. The Dark Lord refused to save his father’s skin and I suspect only after Hogwarts’ fall Lucius might have a chance to break free. On the other hand, I have thought of something."
“To break the wards?”
“To get you out of them. Hogsmeade.”
“Brilliant idea, Severus. A Hogsmeade weekend. Of course, yes.” The determination in Dumbledore’s voice froze Severus’ heart and he pushed back his feelings to focus on business. “Less students are going to be in danger too, that way,” Dumbledore added. “When?”
But it wasn’t a real question, was it?
“I am going to inform the Dark Lord of my idea. You surely do not expect me to propose to him an attack.”
Dumbledore didn't answer. Severus pushed the tip of his wand to a vein on Dumbledore’s wrist and muttered another spell. “So... I imagine the task you gave Harry will require his presence elsewhere."
"That is correct."
"And how am I to protect him if he’s not here?”
“You’ll find a way, Severus. I trust you.”
“If you told me what you have asked of him – I am skilful, I can help him, he doesn’t have to do it alone –”
“Do you trust me?”
“Snatchers are everywhere – let alone the Death Eaters, everybody is being recruited, my mark... burns all the time. He doesn’t stand a chance out there alone. It'd be suicide.”
“Do you trust me?”
Severus stared. His stomach kicked painfully. Yes, my Lord, would probably be the wrong answer. “I trust you,” he said.
The familiar searing pain attacked him suddenly and his muscles quivered.
“Harry? What’s wrong?”
Harry rolled on his belly and buried his head deeper in the pillow. He clutched at the blanket tightly. He felt a hand on his back as Ron tried to straighten him up. “Is it your scar?”
Harry nodded, the pain blurring his vision. He growled again and punched the pillow furiously. “It never stops anymore!” he shouted. He dug his nails in his forehead and panted harshly. When the pain subsided, he gave himself a moment and then he rolled on his back, pressing the heels of his palms to his eyes.
Harry grunted. He wasn’t sure how he was going to explain the fear he felt every time his scar hurt. "It's just – he’s not angry anymore. He’s – I think he’s happy. Sort of.”
Satisfied, was the right word. He put on his glasses and blinked into focus - then he let out a sigh of relief and threw his head back to the pillow. “Do you ever have the kind of nightmares where you remember nothing about them when you wake up but the terror remains?”
Ron tilted his head as he thought it over. “Once I dreamt of a dinosaur that wanted to eat mum, and as it was chasing us I discovered that the dinosaur was actually Fred, but he had transformed into a dinosaur to scare me, and his real wish was to eat me,” he said. “I don’t remember the end of the dream but it scarred me.”
Harry snorted. “I’m sure it did, Ron.”
Ron yawned as he slumped back to his own bed. “Are you going to be fine?”
“Yeah. Sorry I woke you up.”
Ron didn’t answer and soon he was snoring.
Hours later, Harry was almost asleep again, and reality seemed but an illusion; the pain of Voldemort being somewhere out there, killing, plotting, raging, barely reached him. Everybody dies, he thought, and the goal was not to live forever. People were afraid of themselves, of their own reality – the one they had built and inhabited and customised with their personal terrors and wishes. Thinking of something did not make it true. Wishing for something would not make it happen. Harry had learnt that lesson too well over the last year.
There would be pain. Despair, war, and who knew what else. But Voldemort was not going to win. Harry promised that to himself as he drifted again to sleep.