Ron Weasley stabbed his sausage. He took a bite and chewed on it thoughtfully, glancing at the Great Hall ceiling and grimacing at the darkening clouds. They seemed to have gathered above Hogwarts castle to glare down at them.
"It's an omen," he declared. "Today, the sky will cry together with Gryffindors." Yesterday, the sky really had cried. The weather was so dreadful, the match had to be postponed. Another day's wait had only served to make everyone even more anxious.
"Omens are a bit unnecessary, don't you think?" Harry stabbed his own sausage, but decided he could not eat. His stomach was in knots, though that had little to do with the match. He stabbed the sausage again, just because he liked the way it burst beneath his fork. There, I killed it; I can't possibly eat it now. "Not with Pyke playing Seeker."
"Never mind Pyke." Ron took another bite. "Graham will bury us before Harper gets the Snitch."
"He's not that bad."
"He's worse than Pyke!"
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Hermione folded the Daily Prophet and set it aside with a huff. "You both think Gryffindor will lose just because you're not playing."
Ron goggled at her. "Did you know Graham is likely to dodge when the Quaffle flies at him? And he's the bloody Keeper!"
"Yes, well, nonetheless, I'm feeling rather optimistic. The Slytherin team suffered losses, too."
"Suffered isn't the word I'd use. Good riddance describes the situation better."
Harry nodded. "Their new Keeper isn't half-bad, their Beaters are even better and Harper is a good Seeker. Compared to Pyke, he's brilliant."
Hermione arched an eyebrow. "Compared to you, he's quite terrible, though."
Well, yes. Harry knew better than to say that aloud. "We'll lose, Hermione. And not just the match; we'll lose the Cup today."
Ron rounded on him. "Don't say that! There's always Hufflepuff. Surely we'll beat Hufflepuff."
"Jane Bradshaw," Harry reminded him. They had seen little Jane flying two weeks ago. The daughter of Tornados' star Seeker, Eleanor Bradshaw, had inherited her mother's talent. Born in August, the first-year Hufflepuff had snatched the title of the youngest Seeker of the century. Seeing her zoom around the Quidditch pitch, with a smile on her face and wind in her hair, had made Harry feel nostalgic. Don't swallow the Snitch, he thought at her, but then he remembered the last time his lips had touched the Snitch and he was glad he did not have to play Quidditch this year.
He had never shared that sentiment with Ron, though. Just like he hadn't told Hermione he didn't really want to go back to Hogwarts. It seemed wrong to worry about Quidditch and essays when there were Death Eaters still on the loose. I should be out there; it's not over.
"You deserve this," Hermione had said. "You deserve a break. Quidditch and lessons and Hogsmeade weekends. No Death Eaters, no Voldemort, no life-threatening situations."
Maybe I do, Harry thought. But do I want it?
But here he was and now it was too late. It is our choices that show what we truly are, Dumbledore had told him once. Hogwarts had been his choice in the end, and what did that show? That he was idle? Or could his unhappiness with his choice show what he truly was, too? Harry stabbed his sausage again; it sprayed oily liquid all over his plate.
"Bradshaw," Ron bemoaned. "Ah, well. At least Malfoy is miserable, too."
Harry turned to the Slytherin table instinctively. Draco Malfoy was sulking and staring into his porridge.
"Don't know why, though," Ron added. "His team will win."
But it's not his team, Harry thought. Just like the Gryffindor team was no longer Harry's. They wore scarlet robes with a golden G sown in, and faces Harry barely recognised.
Ginny was on the team, Harry told himself. But Ginny was not his anymore, either.
"To be fair, he always looks miserable," Hermione said.
Malfoy looked up, as though he had heard her, but his eyes focused on Harry.
"It would be nice if we could play," Harry said. "I would have liked beating Malfoy again." That at least was true, he decided. But Malfoy did not look defiant. There was no smirking, no challenge in his gaze; he stared for a bit and then averted his eyes. Harry felt oddly disappointed. Malfoy did that a lot lately. Staring at Harry then looking hastily away. It was beginning to make Harry feel uncomfortable.
"Give it a rest, you two." Hermione stood up. "You think I wouldn't have liked to be the Head Girl?" She tossed her bag over her shoulder. It looked heavy; she most likely planned to read during the match. "The Board of Governors made its decision and so did you; there's no point crying about it." She looked much too cross for someone who claimed to be at peace with those decisions.
Hogwarts Board of Governors had found itself in a predicament this year. The wizarding world had been in chaos, and O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. examinations had not taken place; not to mention the students had been ill-prepared for them at any rate. Many parents had been displeased and had demanded a solution, one that did not include their children finishing their education a year later than planned. In response, the Board had established O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. preparation lessons for the fifth and seventh-year students, with O.W.L. preparation lessons scheduled from June to September, to allow the students to take their O.W.L.s before their sixth-year had begun, and N.E.W.T. lessons scheduled from September to January, since Hogwarts castle had not been equipped to admit more than a handful of students before extensive restoration. At least that had been the official explanation for pushing back N.E.W.T.s so late. The gossip mill had claimed that McGonagall had put her foot down, said that everyone had suffered losses and there was no need to punish Hogwarts teachers with a rigorous summer schedule. "The N.E.W.T.s can wait," McGonagall had been quoted saying, "Hogwarts teachers deserve a break."
Preparation lessons were not obligatory, but most students had decided to attend them. Hermione had insisted they should ignore them and simply sign up for the seventh-year, which the three of them had missed in its entirety, but Harry and Ron had point-blank refused. Not even the promise of keeping their Quidditch positions on the Gryffindor team, which, as seventh-years, they would be entitled to, could persuade them. Eventually, she had given up and signed up for the preparation lessons as well, but had been cross about it ever since. Especially whenever Ron dared to bemoan his loss of prefect status and Keeper position.
"Look at it this way," Hermione added brightly, "we won't be around for the final match of the year, so if we truly lose the Quidditch Cup today, at least we won't miss anything." With that, she strode toward the Entrance Hall, her bag swinging merrily.
Ron scowled at her back, but then sighed. "She has a point, though. At least we won't have to look at Slytherins' smug little faces when they win."
"Except today we will," Harry pointed out.
"Whose side are you on?" Ron groaned and stood up. "Come on. All the good seats will be taken if we don't hurry up."
Harry abandoned his mangled sausage and followed him. They found Hermione in the crowded Entrance Hall.
"What's the hold up?" Ron craned his neck to see better.
Hermione cleared her throat. "We need a wider door," she said dryly. The doors were open wide, but the students seemed stuck in the doorway, as though too many had tried to walk through it at once. "You know," she added with an air of nonchalance, "Head Girl and Boy should handle this. Make everyone form a column and walk slowly. Then no one would get stuck. But are they here? No, they're not."
"You would do it so much better." Ron nodded emphatically.
Ron seized his opportunity. "Well, I'll be a better Keeper than Graham."
Hermione snorted. "Apparently, it all falls apart without our guidance."
Seamus Finnigan appeared next to them. He shook his head sadly. "Kids these days, I swear. They can't even walk through a doorway." He frowned. "Not that I'm in a hurry to see that match. It's probably better if we all just stay here."
"Stop pushing me!" someone upfront yelled. "I can't go through. There's something wrong with the door."
"Looks like you'll get your wish," Harry told Seamus.
"It's not fair!" another voice screamed. Harry whirled around, recognising Goyle's high-pitched tone. Gregory Goyle stood a little farther away, near the Great Hall entrance, vigorously shaking a small Ravenclaw boy by the shoulders. "You're a liar! And a thief!"
Hermione was by Harry's side in an instant, wand in hand.
But the little Ravenclaw did not appear to need rescuing. His wand was out at once. "Unhand me or lose your fingers!" he said with authority.
Goyle took a hasty step back, staring at his fingers, as though counting them to make sure they were all still there. He seemed to have trouble deciding whether any were missing or not. The crowd laughed. That must have enraged Goyle because he charged forward like a bull. But before he reached the boy, Malfoy was there, pushing him back.
"Knock it off," Malfoy said in a whisper that carried through the hall. "Come on, we have a match to see."
"But he robbed me!" Goyle insisted.
The boy scowled at him. "Hardly."
"Piss off, kid," Malfoy snapped at him.
"You piss off," the boy said but then must have decided his comeback was lacking, and added, "Death Eater scum," then kicked Malfoy in the shin and ran off.
To general amusement, Malfoy yelped. "Why you little—" He took out his wand, as though he planned to run after the boy and hex him, but as he turned around his eyes met Harry's across the hall and Malfoy froze. Then he flushed, looked away and tucked his wand back into his robes. Students were still laughing at him.
Harry had no time to ponder Malfoy's reaction because Professor Sprout strode into the Entrance Hall. "What is going on here?" she cried.
Before anyone could say anything else, someone yelled, "We can't get through the door!" and the crowd dissolved into giggles.
"Oh, really now," Professor Sprout said, shaking her head as she pushed her way upfront. The crowd shuffled and parted to let her pass and Harry lost sight of Malfoy. "Well, that's odd," he heard Sprout say before she yelled, "Finite Incantatem!"
Hermione groaned. "I should have realised the entrance was Charmed." She rounded on Seamus. "Did you hex it? You said it would be better if we just stay here."
"Why, yes," Seamus said promptly. "With my amazing telepathic abilities."
Sprout cleared her throat. "Finite Incantatem!"
Hermione still had her wand in her hand. She twirled it around, looking very impatient. When Sprout failed for the third time, Hermione pushed forward, wand raised. "Let me help you, Professor!"
She was not the only one with that idea, however. Several students cried, "Finite Incantatem!" together and the spells clashed in midair with a bang. Sparks flew everywhere and set Professor Sprout's hat on fire. Hermione quickly put it out.
"Dear me!" Professor Sprout said, examining her hat. "You all need to learn some self-contro—"
She did not finish her sentence because the crowd realised the entrance was open and pushed forward, nearly running over everyone who was in the first row.
"How's that for an omen?" Ron commented grumpily.
It was chilly outside, but the dark clouds that the Great Hall ceiling had threatened with seemed to have dissolved. The sun was peeking through, its reflection shimmering on the lake's surface.
"Too bad," Ron said, squinting at the sun. "I was hoping it would rain. Then we could blame the weather for our defeat."
They found empty seats on the south stands, behind the goal posts. They were not the best seats, the Slytherins posts were too far away, but the moment they sat down, Hermione reached into her bag and took out two pairs of Omnioculars.
Ron stared at them in wonder.
"I Summoned them earlier," Hermione said defensively. "If I hadn't, then I'd have to listen to you wishing you had thought to bring them all through the match."
Ron gave her a soppy sort of look and Harry quickly snatched his Omnioculars and looked away, anticipating a heavy snogging session.
A small first-year had sat next to Harry and was staring at him with his mouth open. Harry did his best to ignore him, looking down at the pitch instead. It was easy to spot Ginny when the Gryffindor team strode onto the pitch. Her fiery red hair was pulled back into a long ponytail, her pale face a mask as she shook hands with the Slytherin captain. Good luck, Harry thought, wishing the team could beat the odds and win. Last time Gryffindor won, Ginny had rushed into Harry's arms and he had kissed her. That was unlikely to happen again, but the memory of Ginny's smile and the look in her eyes when she ran toward him still filled him with warmth. He had made her miserable a few months ago; she deserved to be happy again.
"Ginny should be Seeking," Ron said suddenly, sounding a bit breathless. The snogging session must have ended. "She's a million times better than Pyke."
Harry shook his head. "She has more control over the situation as a Chaser. We're unlikely to win, but we need as many points as we can get."
"Ugh. They're off. I can't watch," Ron said, watching avidly through his Omnioculars.
The teams rose, shooting up like a mass of red and green rockets. They were in the air for barely a minute when the Slytherin Chaser flew at the goal posts and spun the Quaffle at Graham. The Slytherins roared as Graham dodged.
Ron sighed. "Blimey. What a start."
Harry was scanning the Slytherin stands, masochistically wanting to see their gloating faces. Try as he might, he could not spot the familiar glint of white-blond hair.
"Malfoy's not here," he said.
"What?" Ron asked, distracted. "Oh well, he's probably sulking because that kid kicked his arse in front of everyone."
"Maybe." Harry spotted Goyle, sitting between Blaise and a Slytherin girl Harry did not know.
The stands erupted again as Pyke was hit in the shoulder with a Bludger and nearly fell off his broom.
"This is slaughter," Ron said mournfully. "Why am I even here?"
Why am I? Harry thought, trying to find Draco Malfoy again. There was a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Malfoy had looked so guilty earlier, flushing crimson when he saw Harry, avoiding his gaze. What was he up to? The last time Malfoy had missed a Quidditch match, his reasons had been worrisome. Though, those were different times.
Come on, we have a match to see. That was what Malfoy had said. Why had he changed his mind? Or had he purposely said it loud enough for everyone to hear? Harry scanned the Ravenclaw side of the stands, looking for the little boy Malfoy and Goyle had been fighting with earlier. He could not find him either. That was worrying. Malfoy had looked so furious when the other students laughed at him. And now both he and the kid were gone. The whole school was here, but not them.
The crowd cheered again.
I can't just sit here. Harry stood up. "I have to..."
Ron blinked up at him in confusion.
"Bathroom," Harry said. "I'll be right back." He left before Ron could question him. He heard him yell, "Are you joking?" but thought it best to ignore it.
As Harry made his way to the exit, he felt as though all eyes were on him, guessing he was abandoning the match to chase down Draco Malfoy. That seemed unlikely, though. Surely, the game was more interesting.
"Robins—Carmichael—Weasley—Robins!" Orla Quirke, the new Quidditch commentator, was yelling. "Weasley! GRYFFINDOR SCORES!"
The Gryffindor side of the stands erupted with cheers and Harry hurried back to the castle.
Only after he closed the heavy Hogwarts door behind him, did he realise his head was pounding. It had been so loud outside.
In the gloom of the empty castle, his plan to find Malfoy seemed utterly ridiculous. What could Malfoy possibly be doing? Surely not something that required investigation. The little Ravenclaw boy who had humiliated Malfoy in front of everyone would one day sport turnips for ears, Harry had no doubt, but Malfoy liked to serve his revenge cold. He was more likely to stew and plot than to act impulsively.
He was also unlikely to do any real harm to anyone, especially over such a small matter. The Malfoys had been careful not to step out of line lately. Lucius Malfoy had been all but throwing Galleons left and right at every good cause that was most fashionable at the time. He had even sent a hundred Galleons to Hermione, claiming the gold was meant to support her S.P.E.W. organization and insisting he had always felt the house-elves should be free, which was why he had freed his only remaining house-elf, Dobby, years ago.
"You can be certain of my sincerity," Lucius Malfoy's letter had said, "for I call upon the testimony of our esteemed Saviour, Harry Potter, who helped free Dobby the house-elf and suffered no consequences for that act."
After laughing at the letter for a full five minutes, Ron had shaken his head. "Is this a joke? He wants us to be grateful he didn't murder Harry for freeing Dobby?"
"It's a threat," Hermione had argued. "He just wants to remind us that he could have and still can kill Harry."
It's desperation, Harry had thought. The Malfoys were the human version of the Elder Wand: eager to maintain the illusion of victory by siding with the winner. Harry did not doubt Lucius's sincerity. He believed Lucius would sincerely and eagerly crawl, forever hoping his time to rise would come. And if he threw enough gold at everyone, his time would come, and he would be as respected as he had always been.
Sometimes Harry regretted speaking up at the Malfoys' trials, acknowledging they, too, were Voldemort's victims in many ways. He had not counted on his words carrying that much weight. Helping Lucius, in particular, had not been Harry's goal. "You didn't have to say that, Harry," Ron and Hermione had told him. "Last year was rough for them, too, yes, but Lucius Malfoy is a man without any mercy." But Harry had remembered Dumbledore, slipping lower against the railing, his eyes boring into Draco Malfoy, who held him at wand point. "It is my mercy, and not yours, that matters now," Dumbledore had told him. He had offered Malfoy protection, for him and his parents. Had Dumbledore lived, he would have kept his word. Perhaps it was on Harry to keep it for him. If was too late for protection, but not too late for mercy. Lucius was lucky no one had died in Harry's second-year when Lucius had planted Tom Riddle's diary in Ginny's book, and Draco was lucky Ron and Katie had survived his attempts to murder Dumbledore. If things had been different, Harry did not think he could find any mercy within him.
He had to admit, though, having Lucius Malfoy throwing gold around seemed more beneficial than having him rot in Azkaban while his gold collected dust in the Gringotts vault.
Reflecting on Lucius Malfoy's behaviour of late had given Harry a pause. Now that he thought about it, Draco's stares and embarrassment took on a different meaning. Had Lucius ordered his son to befriend Harry Potter? It was a definite possibility. Lucius had done it in the past, after all.
Harry's mouth twisted into a smile as he reached the main staircase. Draco would have been displeased with those instructions. That would explain why Draco had been so quick to tuck his wand away earlier when he had seen Harry staring. Shooting hexes at little boys must have been on the list of things Draco must not do in the presence of Harry Potter.
Harry grinned wider, warming up to his new theory. He fully intended to abandon his search of Malfoy and go back to the match, but his legs carried him to the seventh floor instead. He blamed the staircases rather than his distracted mind. They had always been tricky. Left and right and round they went, dozens of them rising in the air all the way to the towers, but one step on the polished marble and they would halt their motion, waiting to be left alone before they stretched their stone arms again. And then one could only hope that the route they took everyday had not been drastically changed.
The seventh floor was as quiet as the rest of the castle. I should go back to the match. Or up to my common room. But Harry's thoughts went back to the Malfoys, as though stuck in a loop. Lucius's and Draco's plans need not correspond, Harry reasoned. Draco was just as likely to obey his father, as he was to defy him. After all, if Draco had been told to befriend Harry, he was doing a poor job of it so far.
The tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy looked just like Harry remembered, but the entrance to the Room of Requirement did not. Harry stopped short. Where once there had been a solid wall and one had to wish the entrance to appear now stood a massive oak door with a carved, large knob. Harry had not actually expected to find Malfoy here, but apparently there was something here to be found. Or had he wished for something accidentally?
The room required specific instructions, Neville had always claimed, but Harry could not recall asking for anything just now, even vaguely.
Shrugging, he opened the door. The room was barren and small, barely the size of the cupboard Harry had once slept in. There were no spiders here, though. Harry wished there were. Spiders and dust, webs and broken pieces of furniture would make it look more natural, like a cupboard long abandoned. Instead, the room looked dead. The walls were charred, painted black by the fire that had consumed it.
The sight was saddening. Centuries of hidden history had burned in that room. Hundreds of students had hidden their treasures and their rubbish in there and now it had all been destroyed.
Harry's potions book was gone, too. Or rather, Snape's potions book. It had been a useful thing. And what if someone walked this way in the middle of the night and needed to pee? Hogwarts was supposed to provide a man with a magnificent collection of chamber pots should he have an exceptionally full bladder. Harry grimaced. Another Hogwarts treasure has been destroyed, Professor. Perhaps the castle had other secrets, ones that Harry had not discovered yet, nor would he.
Harry closed the door with a bang. He was sorry he ever came here. To the seventh floor, to Hogwarts. It only seemed to remind him of all that he had lost. Sometimes he felt like he was going backward. I shouldn't be here. I shouldn't. He wanted to be out there. Catching Death Eaters, stopping people from getting hurt. Not here, wasting precious time on Quidditch. And Malfoy. Kingsley had offered him a job. He could have been an Auror already. An honorary position, more training than actual assignments, but still, that would have been something. At least he would not be feeling so restless. And bored.
Scowling, Harry turned around. And then froze on the spot. Draco Malfoy stood a little farther away, looking left and right in panic, as though he had seen a ghost. His face was flushed and sweaty, hair a mess, breathing shallow. He had been running, and running fast. His wide eyes found Harry and he went still, for all intents and purposes looking like an ice sculpture.
"Potter?" he whispered, as though he believed Harry was merely a figment of his imagination.
Harry took a few careful steps forward; he was tempted to reach for his wand. Either to protect himself against Malfoy, or whomever Malfoy had been running from. "What are you doing here?" Harry asked. Malfoy's face was ashen. He looked ready to run again. "Why aren't you at the match?"
"Match?" Something flickered in Malfoy's eyes. Several long moments passed before he managed to compose himself. He stood up a little straighter. "I could ask you the same thing," he said, now calm, as though nothing was wrong at all.
"You could," Harry agreed. "But you didn't. I asked you."
If eyes could whip, Harry would have bloody welts on his face. Malfoy replied with his typical drawl. "Why, I decided to stay behind and graffiti the bathroom walls with 'Potter sucks.'"
"Is that so? You looked like you've seen a ghost."
Confusion crept into Malfoy's eyes. "I have. Fat Friar. He said, 'Hullo.'"
Harry sighed inwardly. Some Muggle expressions were not applicable in the wizarding world. I still have much to learn, he thought ruefully.
"Is something wrong?" he asked instead.
"Wrong? With my morning tea? With the universe? With you? No, yes and quite obviously. You'll have to be more specific than that."
Harry considered and picked the wrong that could be most helpful. "What's wrong with the universe?"
"It keeps putting you in my way."
Harry nodded. "All right." He moved aside with a sweeping gesture, urging Malfoy to pass.
Malfoy pursed his lips and turned away instead. "I was going that way."
"Really?" Harry hurried after him. "This corridor is a dead-end, you know. Did you spring out of the wall, then?"
"Must you follow me, Potter?" Malfoy snapped. "I thought those days were over."
"You could stop acting suspicious," Harry suggested. He did not fail to note that Malfoy had avoided Harry's—very reasonable—question.
"You could stop looking my way. Then it wouldn't matter how I act."
Harry sighed. This was going nowhere. "Fine. Honestly? I'm here because I thought you planned to hex that little Ravenclaw kid."
Malfoy stopped abruptly. "Seriously?" He sounded amused; he even smiled, but the smile did not reach his eyes. "The kid's probably at the match with everyone else."
Malfoy shook his head and stepped onto the stairs. They groaned, as though unhappy they must stay still again. "Well, I hate to disappoint you, Potter, but I don't plan to hex anyone today. Except you, maybe, if you don't leave me alone."
"And why do you want to be alone? You have something important to do?"
Malfoy stopped again. "Fine," he said, looking resigned. "Since you're so intent on interrogating me... I just don't care about the match. I'm not even on the team. Slytherin wins or loses, what's it to me? It's two hours of my life gone to waste."
It was something Harry could have said about himself. He wondered if Malfoy knew that and had decided to use it to spin a tale Harry would believe in.
"And the kid?" Harry asked. "Who is he? Why was he fighting with Goyle?"
Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Tommy Wright is a little git selling Wit-Sharpening potions. Goyle spent fifty Galleons on them, hoping they would make him clever. They didn't." Malfoy sighed. "I told him it's a hoax. Honestly, it's his own fault."
"I see." Harry nodded. "What were you doing on the seventh floor?"
Malfoy narrowed his eyes at him. "You're taking this interrogation stuff very seriously, aren't you?"
"And you're seriously avoiding the question."
The muscle in Draco's jaw twitched and he gripped the banister, clutching it tightly; he might have been pretending it was Harry's neck. "Sometimes I go there, that's all."
"To the Room?"
"Yes," Malfoy all but hissed and then added, defensive, "It's a useful room. Gives you a swimming pool if you want it."
"Oh? So you went up there for a swim?"
Malfoy shot him a glare. "Maybe."
"Right. And how exactly would that work? The room's dead, broken. It doesn't work anymore."
Malfoy blinked. "What are you on about, Potter? The door's right there."
"Yes, it's there. No wishing required. It's empty, though. It burned down; the magic's gone."
Malfoy's voice lowered to a whisper. "You went inside?"
Harry stared at him. He could not tell if Malfoy was feigning surprise or he had truly never entered the Room. He was definitely lying about something, though Harry had no idea why. "As did you, apparently," Harry said. "To have a swim."
Malfoy's expression transformed in an instant. Only after it hardened did Harry realise how vulnerable Malfoy had looked before. He was suddenly sorry he had ever questioned him. Perhaps vulnerability was all that Malfoy was trying to hide. He had looked so terrified earlier. The Room of Requirement held some awful memories for him.
Perhaps Malfoy should not have come back to Hogwarts, either. Perhaps he was going backward, too.
"I think I had enough for today, Potter," Malfoy said coolly. "We should do this again, though. I'll be a naughty student again, and you can be a professor." Malfoy smirked and leaned in closer to whisper conspiratorially, "Is that the sort of thing you're into?"
Harry scowled, suddenly uncomfortable, and he was almost relieved when Malfoy turned to leave. But as Malfoy reached the landing, Harry was seized with an urge not to let him go thinking he had won the argument. Before he could stop himself, he yelled, "Maybe we should, Malfoy. It would make your father happy to know we spent some quality time together, wouldn't it?"
Malfoy turned back sharply. He looked shocked.
I was right, Harry thought, stunned. He nearly laughed. Lucius Malfoy really had told his son to befriend him.
"How—" Malfoy began. "What's that supposed to—"
Malfoy never finished his question. With a mighty groan, the stairs shifted beneath their feet, and then bucked to the left. Harry saw Malfoy's eyes widen impossibly as he leaned backward, teetering above the chasm below.
Harry lost his footing and stumbled forward, gripping the banister as he all but flew to the edge and Malfoy. What happened next was a blur. Harry clung to the banister, its solidity reassuring, and his fingers grabbed a handful of Malfoy's robes, his shoulders protesting at the unnatural stretch of his arms. It felt like they were spinning; they probably were. Malfoy's weight was pulling them over the edge and Harry closed his eyes and pulled, as hard as he could. Pain exploded in his shoulder and his fingers lost their grip on Malfoy's robes.
The stairs shuddered, crashed against something with a bang and went still. Harry's head was still spinning and he realised he had closed his eyes. When he opened them, the light of the surrounding torches and candles strewn all over the castle seemed unnaturally bright.
Harry's shoulder felt like it was on fire. Pain spread down to his fingertips and up to his head. Warm breath tickled his cheek. Malfoy was panting, crushed between the banister and Harry's body.
He didn't fall. Between the pain and their dizzy ride, Harry wasn't even sure whether he had managed to pull Malfoy to safety or not. But apparently he had. Malfoy was safe and the stairs were still, though not where they was supposed to be, no longer connected to same flight of stairs, and now they led to a narrow corridor on Harry's left.
"Potter?" Malfoy whispered. The warmth of his breath made Harry shiver. He pushed back and yelped. The sudden movement sent a hot flash of pain through his shoulder.
Harry cursed and pressed his left arm to his body, cradling it with his right. "I think my shoulder's dislocated."
Malfoy was staring at him. He glanced down, over the banister, at the numerous staircases stretched below, and then quickly looked back at Harry. "You should go to the hospital wing," he said at last, his voice ragged.
"I don't even know which floor we're on." Harry looked around. Fourth? Fifth, maybe. "What the hell just happened?"
Malfoy did not reply right away. He seemed to have trouble forming words. He was still pressed against the banister, apparently reluctant to move away.
We should get off the staircases. They all looked still now, as though nothing had happened.
"Maybe they were confused," Malfoy said.
"Right." Confusing they were, confused they were not supposed to be. They would refuse to take you to the Transfiguration classroom on Fridays, apparently convinced you should go to the Owlery instead. They got impatient when you stood in a corridor talking to a friend for a bit too long, and they would sneakily spin away all the way to the other side. When you stepped on them, though, they were supposed to stay put.
"We're on the fifth floor," Malfoy said suddenly, looking around. "We should go... down." He looked at the staircases; it was clearly the last route Draco wanted to take, but it was also the only one. The landing they were standing on led to a corridor on the left and connected to another staircase to the right. "Hospital wing's that way." Malfoy waved to Harry's right. That was true. At the beginning of the year, the hospital wing had moved to the first floor again and seemed content to stay there.
Harry studied Malfoy's pale face. "It's unlikely the stairs will move again," he said with confidence he did not feel.
Malfoy shrugged and then—slowly, Harry could not help noticing—eased his grip on the banister. He moved toward Harry, arm stretched, as though he meant to give Harry a hand, but then he seemed to think better of it and moved aside instead. "You look unwell, Potter. We should hurry."
Harry would have wondered at Malfoy's sudden display of concern, but something caught his eye. The corridor they were led to was poorly lit and shadowy. A black lump lay on the floor, at the far end, unmoving and silent. Harry had originally mistaken it for a shadow, but a flash of white made him look again.
"Is that a..." Harry squinted. "Is that a trainer?"
"What?" he heard Malfoy ask.
The light shifted, illuminating the hallway. It was a trainer. Harry's heart skipped a beat. "Someone's there." Someone was slumped on the floor. It was definitely a body.
Harry moved too suddenly; his shoulder protested, but Harry gritted his teeth and tried to ignore the pain. He sprang forward, ignoring Malfoy, who said something else, and broke into a run that sent hot licks of pain through his arm.
His forehead was damp when he reached the body. He could barely breathe. Malfoy appeared beside him; he was pale, staring at the dark head of the person lying immobile before them. Cobwebs covered the body, thin silvery threads stretching over Hogwarts robes to the wall behind. It looked like it had been there for a long while. But it couldn't have.
Harry bent down, hissing in pain as he reached to turn the body around.
Malfoy grabbed his wrist. "Don't. If he's cursed..."
Harry yanked his wrist free and ignored Malfoy's warning. He recognised that haircut. Longish black hair, wavy and soft-looking. He turned the boy around. His pale blue eyes were staring blankly up at Harry.
Malfoy sucked in a breath. "I didn't—" he gasped. "I had nothing to do with this!"
Pain was making it hard to focus. Harry's fingers slipped to the boy's neck. "He's alive. There's a pulse." I think. He wasn't sure. His hand was shaking.
"Fine!" Harry snapped. "Never mind that now. We have to get him to Madam Pomfrey." He straightened and tore his gaze away from the stiff body of Tommy Wright. Malfoy was searching through his robes; his face was flushed. He took out his wand and held it unsteadily.
For a second, Harry expected Malfoy to raise his wand and curse him. He doubted he would be able to defend himself. But Malfoy pointed the wand at the Ravenclaw boy and muttered an incantation. A long stretcher appeared beneath the boy.
"I should Levitate him," Malfoy said, looking doubtfully at his shaky hand.
Harry forced himself to stand up straighter. "I'll do it." He waved his wand and the stretcher rose slowly, hovering beside them. Perhaps it would have been wiser to let Malfoy Levitate him. But not if Malfoy had been the one to curse the boy in the first place. Then all Malfoy had to do was pretend the grip on his wand was too loose, slip and let the boy fall down the stairs as Malfoy had nearly fallen a minute ago. And then Harry would never know if it was truly an accident or if Malfoy had decided to finish what he had started. He's not a killer. Surely. But then what had happened here?
Harry pushed those thoughts away. He could not afford to think about this now. He had to concentrate on keeping the stretcher and the boy upon it steady.
"Run ahead," Harry told Malfoy. "Pomfrey's probably at the hospital, but who knows. Find her and tell her what happened." And which curse you have used. Harry bit his lip. Malfoy looked more scared than guilty, but that meant nothing.
Malfoy stared at him, looking very much like he wanted to argue, but then he nodded, glanced at Tommy again and sprinted off, not even taking a second to hesitate before he ran down the stairs. Harry wondered if he would really do as he was told, or if he would seize the opportunity to run away. If he runs, at least I'll know he's guilty.
The trip to the hospital wing took longer than Harry would have liked. A slight lapse in concentration and the boy could have tumbled to the ground. Harry walked slowly, telling himself his shoulder barely ached at all. You had to re-grow the bones in your arm once; you've been struck with the Cruciatus Curse; this is nothing. Your hand is not shaking.
Portraits were staring at him in concern. "Oh dear!" a thin, sallow-faced woman cried from her wooden chair. "Careful now. Don't drop him!"
"Thanks for the tip," Harry said testily. "Wouldn't have worked out that one without you."
"No need to be rude, young man," a burly knight put in, clutching the reins of his black stallion. The horse whinnied in agreement. "At times like these we must all stand together and save our anger for our true enemy."
"Like Malfoy?" Harry suggested.
The knight pulled out his sword; it shone white, illuminated by the painted sun. "Indolence, my boy! Indolence!"
Harry frowned at him, affronted. "I'm not lazy."
"Then run!" It was said with so much fervour, Harry panicked and looked around, thinking it was a warning, but no one was chasing him. He was about to point out he could not run because he was injured, but then thought better of it. He had no time to waste on fighting with portraits.
He had barely taken two steps when another voice startled him.
"Harry!" it screamed.
Harry nearly toppled over in surprise when Hermione sprang from behind the corner with Ron at her heels.
"Oh Harry, are you all right?" she asked, breathless. "Malfoy told us what happened." She looked from Harry to Tommy, her concern morphing to surprise.
Ron was staring at the stretcher. "Isn't that the kid Goyle was fighting with earlier?" His expression darkened. "Malfoy didn't tell us that part."
"He's not dead, is he?" Hermione whispered as though she did not want poor Tommy to know he was dead in case he really was.
"No," Harry said, hoping that was true. "What are you two doing here?" They both looked worse for wear; Hermione's hair was wild around her face and Ron was flushed and sweaty.
"The match's over," Ron said as Hermione waved her wand at the stretcher.
"Oh, you should have seen it, Harry." Hermione clutched her wand. "It was a complete massacre." Worry must have shown on Harry's face because she quickly added, "Not literally! Sorry. The Bludgers were a bit enthusiastic, that's all—you can let go now."
"What? Oh." Harry realised Hermione added her Levitation spell to his. He lowered his wand.
"I'll be quicker," she said and ran off, the stretcher flying in front of her in a steady line.
"We should hurry, too." Ron's brow furrowed. "You don't look so well, mate."
"I'm fine." Harry took a step forward. One foot before the other. Simple as that. "Just not very fast."
Ron was staring at him. "Blimey. Murdering staircases? That's a first. And what were you thinking, saving Malfoy again? The git clearly has a death wish. Next time, just let him be."
"He told you about that?" Somehow, Harry thought Malfoy would have omitted that part of the tale. Perhaps insist Harry had tried to push him over the edge instead.
"Well, he told Pomfrey, and we were listening. He forgot to mention who the cursed kid really is, though. It was him, right? Malfoy cursed him?"
"I honestly don't know. I found Malfoy on the seventh floor and we found Tommy together." They rounded a corner; the sound of excited voices floated through the corridor. They must have been nearing the hospital wing; though, Harry could not tell for sure. The pain in his shoulder was disorienting. "Tell me about the match," he added before Ron could ask him what he was doing on the seventh floor.
Ron hesitated for a moment, but answered. "It was chaos. Bludgers smashed half the Slytherin team, including their Keeper. Ginny and Demelza scored quite a few goals, thanks to that. But then another Bludger got Demelza, both our Beaters and almost got Pyke. And then Harper caught the Snitch—supposedly—I couldn’t tell because in the next second he smashed into a goal post, trying to avoid a Bludger—it still hit him right in the head." Ron grimaced. "Anyway, Harper went down, and Pyke caught the Snitch. Apparently, one of the little Snitch-wings was broken, and now we're not sure if Pyke broke it or Harper really did catch it, broke its wing when he crashed and then dropped it. Honestly, the latter seems more likely. There's no way Pyke caught the Snitch unless it was broken in the first place. But we still don't know who won. Now Hooch's saying the Bludgers were cursed because they were a bit too homicidal. A bunch of teachers stayed behind to inspect them."
"And everyone's fine?"
"Harper's pretty banged up."
"A few bruises, but she's fine. We had to carry Demelza back to the castle, though. Poor thing. Her hip was shattered."
Harry winced in sympathy.
They reached the hospital wing shortly after. The doors were open and there were several students outside, hovering at the doorway and peeking inside.
"Bloody hell, Harry!" Jimmy Peakes yelled when he saw him.
"What happened?" someone else asked. "Malfoy's full of it, right?"
"The staircases couldn’t have moved with you on it," another voice insisted.
"That kid's alive, isn't he? They won't tell us." Jimmy was full of questions.
"Is You-Know-Who coming back?" Pyke whispered.
"No," Harry said sharply, surprised. Everyone fell silent. Harry found Pyke's pale face in the crowd. "Voldemort's dead."
"Out of the way, you gossiping ninnies." Ron's voice boomed. "Injured man coming through." The crowd parted, glaring, to free the hospital's entrance. "Come on, Harry," Ron added more quietly. "Let's get you healed up."
Harry followed him, looking around with a frown. He spotted Hermione, hovering near Tommy Wright's bed, and Ginny, who was helping Demelza to her feet. He searched for a glimpse of white-blood hair in vain. Malfoy was gone.