Gryffindor beat Hufflepuff two hundred to zero that Saturday morning, but Harry hardly noticed.
Never mind that it was his first game as Captain, his first match since Quidditch Camp, his first time playing on the team with Ron. Harry didn’t think he’d have cared if he was playing against a team of Death Eaters with a Hungarian Horntail as the opposing Seeker. For the past week he’d only been able to think about one thing, and one thing only.
Her name was Hermione.
And she was his best friend, and he’d kissed her after watching her almost dive to her death on a broomstick. It had been one hell of a dive. And, incidentally, it had been one hell of a kiss. Neither of which they had acknowledged since.
Instead, for all appearances their life had been perfectly normal, the two of them continuing their daily routine at the library, heads bent together over books and parchment, acting for all the world as if nothing had happened. Except that Harry felt anything but normal. The closest he’d come to feeling like this before had been during the third task of the Tri-Wizard tournament, when he’d walked through golden mist to find the world turned upside down. But in the Maze, that sensation had only lasted a few minutes, until he had managed to take a step forward. He felt like that all the time now, like he was floating through a waking dream where gravity was malfunctioning slightly, as if he was revolving on a slow and wobbly course around the distant sun that was Hermione.
Harry was vaguely aware that he’d left the locker room that morning, that he’d walked onto the field to shake hands with Justin Finch-Fletchley, that he’d called his team together, that he’d told them — something — and that Madam Hooch had blown the whistle. His life regained a few moments of brilliant clarity as he flew up into the air scouting for the Snitch, his mind focused for ten breathless minutes on the Snitch and the Snitch alone. In those ten minutes Alicia and Angelina scored twice each, and Ron managed to get three determined shots on goal before scoring his first points for Gryffindor.
Then Harry had spotted the Snitch, hovering dreamily in the morning sunshine near the Ravenclaw bleachers, and he had shot towards it without thinking. He caught the Snitch with a move that felt as easy as breathing, as instinctive as a sneeze. The game was over before it had really started, and Harry was touching down on the field again as his teammates piled onto him, barely noticing their yells as his life slipped back into its usual dreamlike state. He was searching the stands for one person, the only person whose cries of victory he needed to hear, and suddenly she was crushing him into a hug before he realized what was happening. Then she was breaking free to hug Ron, who gave a great whoop, picked her up, and swung her around.
“Did you see?” Ron beamed as he set a gasping Hermione back onto her feet.
“Y-yes,” she panted, attempting to catch her breath. “That was marvelous, Ron. Your first goal! And Harry — ” She looked up at Harry, her eyes shining. “That was quite a move you made for the Snitch. I’ve never seen anyone catch it so fast.”
Harry’s heart did a flip. “Oh, um. Thanks,” he said, attempting to wipe the sweat from his forehead with a faded Gryffindor team towel, and trying not to grin quite so broadly.
A blonde blur wearing a red and gold scarf and a blue Ravenclaw sweater suddenly shot from the crowd and wrapped her limbs completely around Ron.
“Oooh RON!” Emma shrieked, as Ron staggered slightly. “You were just amazing! Really, really amazing!” She flung her arms around Ron’s neck with reckless abandon, stood on her tiptoes, and planted a deep kiss on his lips.
Harry glanced down at Hermione, who looked distinctly uncomfortable. She looked up at Harry and rolled her eyes.
Well, thought Harry with a note of mild wonderment, at least I’m not the only one who’s grown a bit tired of the All-Emma, All-The-Time Show. He felt a sudden surge of affection for Hermione, at the way she always seemed to be tuned into the odd wavelength of his own thoughts — and felt the color rising in his cheeks. Bloody hell, not again. Couldn’t he just get used to his knees going weak every ten minutes in Hermione’s presence? He could almost set his watch by it, and yet every single time his cheeks turned the color of overripe tomatoes.
“Oi! Harry! Ron!” Fred Weasley’s red head could be seen through the crowd; he was beckoning to them. “Party in the common room, did you want to stand around on the field all day?” His expression changed when he saw what was occupying Ron. “Ron Weasley, lay off the Romeo act, you silly git!”
Ron turned red to the roots of his flaming hair and attempted to extract himself from Emma’s embrace as Fred broke through the crowd to impatiently tug on his sleeve.
“But Ron,” she protested. “We were going to have a party for you in the Ravenclaw common room.”
Ron looked tremendously guilty; Harry’s insides gave a squirm.
“The party won’t last all day, Emma” he found himself saying. “Ron’ll have time to come to Ravenclaw.”
Ron shot Harry a grateful glance as Emma’s face brightened. “Yeah, Emms, I’ll see you in a few hours,” he said quickly.
As Emma dashed back to her cluster of starry-eyed Ravenclaw girls, Harry found himself alone at last with Ron and Hermione. The three of them fell silent.
It seemed like years since they’d been alone together, just the three of them. Harry’s stomach twisted painfully. He’d never have imagined that a moment alone with Ron and Hermione would become a precious rarity. And now, together at last with his two best friends in the world, he couldn’t believe how little they knew about what was going through his head at the moment. He’d never imagined that there would be things he couldn’t tell Hermione, that there would be a time Ron wouldn’t know exactly what he was thinking.
There was so much Ron didn’t know.
Ron shifted and shouldered his broom. Hermione looked up at him. Both of them looked as uncomfortable as Harry felt.
“Best get back to the common room,” Ron said. “It’s your first victory party as Captain, Harry.”
“Yeah,” Harry said. His voice sounded like it was coming from a long way away. “It’s your first victory party as well, y’know.”
Ron nodded and gave Harry a wistful half-smile. He stepped forward and put one arm around Harry’s shoulders, and looped his other arm through Hermione’s.
“Well then, boss,” he said, “I think it’s time to celebrate.”
And the three of them moved slowly across the field, Harry’s mind whirling, feeling a bit like he’d stepped into the green flames of the Floo network and forgotten to stop at his destination.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Dear Sirius, I hope you’re doing well. My scar hasn’t hurt yet this term, and no one’s tried to kill me yet, which has to be some sort of new record. I can only assume it’s because of the work you’re doing with the Aurors — Dumbledore hasn’t told me much, but I know you must be involved. Anyway, I hope this isn’t a bother, but I have something I need to ask you —
Dear Sirius, How’s it going? I was wondering if I could ask —
Dear Sirius, I have a quick question. You see, I have this friend, and he may be in love with his best friend, and I was hoping to get your opinion —
Dear Sirius, I —
Harry scowled, crumpled his piece of parchment, and tossed it into his open trunk, which was already littered with the discarded beginnings of at least a dozen letters. Hedwig, perched atop his four-poster bed, hooted in annoyance, sensing that she would once again be deprived of a delivery.
Harry had attempted to Owl his godfather countless times in the past few weeks, but writing down his feelings had never been his strong suit, to put it mildly. Sirius was travelling the continent with a small force of Aurors fighting against the newly risen Dark Lord, and Harry couldn’t bring himself to bother Sirius with such a seemingly insignificant problem as a kiss.
On top of that, it looked as if talking with Ron was near hopeless. It may have been dawning on Ron that his presence at Harry and Hermione’s side was sorely missed, but it didn’t seem that Ron himself had any power to change things. Whenever Harry was alone with Ron after a class, after Quidditch practice or after band rehearsal, Emma would mysteriously appear within a matter of moments with the uncanny punctuality of a barn owl delivering the morning’s Daily Prophet. She seemed to know every minute of Ron’s haphazard schedule by heart, right down to the routes he took from class to class, and his preferred choice of restroom (third floor, next to a portrait of a wizard in hunting robes and his two spotted dogs who wagged their tails at passers-by). Harry knew Ravenclaw girls were smart, but he couldn’t quite believe Emma’s aptitude for second-guessing Ron, who always seemed both pleased and bewildered to see her.
Tonight was the Yule Ball contest, the night before the Halloween Feast, and the fading light outside the dormitory window meant that the contest would soon be starting. Harry abandoned his latest attempt at a letter (Dear Sirius, I kissed my best friend — no, it wasn’t Ron —) and muttered an apology to Hedwig, who settled on his shoulder and nipped his ear affectionately before taking flight into the darkening sky. Shrugging off his school robes, Harry groped for a clean shirt and jeans underneath the pile of crumpled letters in his trunk and quickly pulled them on. He’d brought his bass down from the music wing after their practice that morning, and he slung the case over his shoulder, glancing in the hall mirror as he headed for the spiral staircase to the common room. His jet-black hair was as untidy as ever, and the green eyes that looked back at him from behind round glasses were ringed in dark circles. “Get some sleep, will you?” scolded the mirror.
Harry had been too preoccupied with other things — well, Hermione, really — to be nervous about the contest, but as he entered the Great Hall he felt a sharp pang of anxiety settle in his stomach. The house tables were gone, replaced by row upon row of purple folding chairs. A golden stage stood where the faculty table usually did, at the far end of the hall, and a long table was in front of the first row of seats. A few professors were already seated at the long table; most of the school was filing in and milling about amongst the purple chairs. A banner hung above the stage which read in flowing gold script, “Hogwarts First Annual Yule Music Contest.” As Harry stared, the gold script began to rewrite itself until the banner now read, “Contestants Please Report to the Gold Door.”
Harry blinked. The door at the back of the Great Hall, which lead to the room he’d seen after his name was pulled out of the Goblet of Fire, was now a shimmering golden color. He shouldered his bass, which gave him a muffled mental “ouch!” and began to push his way through the crowd and towards the golden door at the back of the hall.
When Harry opened the golden door he almost slammed it shut again. A wave of chaotic noise assaulted him like a blast from the end of a Skrewt. The room behind the Great Hall, so elegant and quiet when he’d last seen it as a Tri-Wizard Champion, was packed to bursting with students and bizarre-looking instruments. Trails of random spells were flying everywhere as the contestants warmed up, tuning their instruments and casting last-minute musical incantations. Harry ducked to avoid a stray blast of pink sparks from the end of a Hufflepuff girl’s tuba and scanned the room for Ron, Neville, and Ginny. He finally spotted them huddled together in chairs on one side of the room’s ornate fireplace and made his way over to them.
Neville looked a wreck. He was fidgeting distractedly with a polishing cloth, not seeming to notice that he was no longer shining his Flanimus, but was now rubbing a hole in the knee of his trousers. Ginny looked distinctly pale under her bright hair and was twirling her drumsticks nervously. Ron was — Harry couldn’t quite believe it. Ron Weasley, who Harry had always assumed would rather hang upside down over a cage of spiders than get up in front of the school, seemed perfectly relaxed. In fact, thought Harry, Ron seemed even happier than usual, as if the thought of a public performance was a pleasant thing, not, as Harry imagined, a humiliation to be endured.
It’s not humiliating, said a dry voice in his head. Now, you want humiliating, I’ll see if I can arrange something —
Thanks, but I’m quite all right, Harry thought quickly. He and his bass were on more familiar terms now; Harry wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or not.
I’ve gotten up in front of this school far too many times already, thought Harry. Doesn’t make it any easier.
I don’t know why you young wizards insist on making everything such a struggle, said the bass. Take that girl, for instance. Your friend. Hermione. Now, if you’d only realize —
I do not want to talk about Hermione right now!
“Harry, you made it!” Ron was standing to clap Harry on the back before Harry had a chance to further reprimand his bass.
“Yeah,” said Harry. We’ll finish this later, he thought. “Quite a scene, really. I wasn’t expecting — ”
“Isn’t it great? Look at this!” Ron motioned to the huge mirror that hung over the fireplace. Harry had noticed it before, but had never really given it a second glance. Now, craning his neck to look into it, Harry was startled to see that his own image wasn’t staring back at him. In fact, the mirror didn’t seem to be reflecting anyone or anything in the crowded chamber; instead, in its glassy depths, Harry could see a vast, empty floor — and a single golden door.
“Is that — the Great Hall?” said Harry, flabbergasted.
“The mirror’s enchanted to show us the stage,” grinned Ron. “So we can watch the contest while we wait to be called.”
“Nice bit of magic,” Neville squeaked, twisting his polishing rag into a tight knot. “Hullo Harry!”
“Hi, Neville,” said Harry. “Doing all right?”
“I think so,” said Neville, his voice breaking slightly.
Harry started as a hand squeezed his shoulder from behind.
“Hello everyone,” said Hermione breathlessly, emerging from the crowd to stand beside Harry. Harry’s knees went weak. He was simultaneously overcome by a sense of relief and an attack of the all too familiar Good-Lord-It’s-Hermione butterflies.
“‘Lo, Hermione,” Harry managed. Ginny was beaming at Hermione happily.
Oh, this is so silly, said the dry voice. If you’d just listen —
Will you shut it? Harry was rapidly losing patience. I’m a wizard. You’re a piece of wood. Does the word Incendio mean anything to you?
“Something wrong?” Hermione was peering up at Harry with a look of concern. Harry realized he was scowling and quickly shook his head.
“No, no, I’m fine. Just a bit distracted.”
Just trying to help, said the dry voice. It sounded miffed.
Sorry, Harry thought, feeling an immediate pang of regret. I’m just sort of… It’s kind of complicated.
S’alright, said the voice. I like you. You’re not the most musical wizard I’ve ever encountered, but you’re honest.
‘Course, it does help that you’ve got enough magic in you to power a large orchestra.
“How’d you get back here, Hermione?” Ginny had moved to Hermione’s other side and hooked an arm through hers. “I thought this was supposed to be contestants only.”
Ron looked up from his guitar, which he was testing with last-minute tuning spells, and seemed to notice Hermione for the first time.
“Admit it,” he smiled. “All these years of hanging out with me and Harry — you’re a regular rule-breaker these days.”
Hermione rolled her eyes. “Oh honestly,” she said. “Professor McGonagall told me I could come back here. I couldn’t sit and watch you all from the Great Hall, I was too nervous.”
Ron’s face cracked into a grin. “Feeling a bit out of sorts that you couldn’t help us by going to the library?”
Hermione turned bright pink with indigation. “You may not understand this, Ron Weasley,” she began haughtily, “but there’s a thing called friendship — ”
Ron’s expression softened. “I know, I know, I’m sorry, Hermione,” he said. He took a breath. “I — I’ve been meaning to tell you something — ”
But at that moment a voice issued from somewhere above them, magnified as if by one of Ludo Bagman’s “Sonorus” spells. Harry realized with a start that it was coming from the mirror, and quickly found a seat between Ron and Hermione.
“Good evening, students, faculty, and contestants,” said the voice, which Harry immediately recognized as Dumbledore’s. He looked into the mirror to see the headmaster standing in the center of the stage, his arms open in welcome.
“Welcome to the Hogwarts Yule Music Contest,” he said. “This is the first of what I hope will be many musical events at Hogwarts for years to come. With the aid of Professor Trebble, we have provided enchanted instruments for many of you and assembled a panel of judges for the event. In the spirit of fair play, we hope all contest entries will be… appropriate.”
Guffaws from the back of the room. Harry knew the voices at once: Crabbe and Goyle. He turned and saw that Draco Malfoy was standing with them near the back of the room, leaning lazily against a wall. Draco looked — well, wicked, Harry thought, in every sense of the word. His bleached white hair, pale eyes, and pale skin stood out in stark contrast to his black sleeveless t-shirt, black leather pants, and black combat boots. He had a gleaming black electric guitar slung casually over one shoulder which looked as if it might be worth the price of a small car. Harry, on the other hand, had pulled on the only clothes he owned that were not filthy from Quidditch practice — a pair of faded jeans, a blue long-sleeved t-shirt, and his striped Adidas. And his bass, of course, was proudly emblazoned with the words, “Property of Hogwarts Music Dept.” Draco caught Harry’s glance and shot him a simpering smile. Harry glowered at him.
“The contestants will be judged on musical talent, creativity, technical merit, and in the case of a group of students, their… synchronicity.” A small smile played around the corner of Dumbledore’s mouth. “One musical number per contest entry, please. And though you can see that I have provided seats, there is no rule against audience members standing up to dance.”
Laughter and cheers from the crowd. Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled.
“And now,” he said when the cheers had died down, “I shall turn over the spotlight to Professor Trebble.”
Harry watched as a slim, long-nosed man with glasses and sandy hair took Dumbledore’s place at the center of the stage as the crowd applauded. “Without further ado, let’s bring out our first contestants,” Professor Trebble said in a high, melodic voice. “From Ravenclaw House… Bell, Book, and Candle.”
Harry glimpsed the banner far above the stage rewrite itself to read “Bell, Book and Candle,” in gold script letters as three nervous-looking Ravenclaw sixth-years, two boys and a girl, approached the stage toting folding chairs and acoustic guitars. The girl was carrying what looked like a long blue-silver flute. The trio looked around apprehensively, unfolded their chairs, and sat down. Harry recognized the effects of a Harmonius spell as a tiny golden glow swam between the three instruments. The Ravenclaws glanced at each other and began to play.
Harry noticed immediately that their style of music was different from anything he’d heard before. One of the boys was singing quietly, his voice thin and oddly accented, and the words of his song was even stranger: “Make a new cult every day to suit your affairs… Kissing girls in English at the back of the stairs…” The group was swaying together, looking quite serious, their sound a mix of jangly acoustic guitars and carefully blended vocal harmonies. At the song’s bridge, the girl pulled out her flute and began to play; it sounded more like a trumpet than a flute, an eerie, refined melody. “Stars of track and field are beau-ti-ful people…” crooned the singer as the song drew to a close.
Harry glanced over at Ron and almost burst out laughing. Ron was staring at the mirror, eyebrows raised, forehead crinkled in a look of distate and pure bewilderment. As the band exited the stage, the contestants’ waiting room broke into polite applause.
Hermione was smiling and clapping. “Lovely,” she whispered to Ron and Harry. “Did you hear the words? Very poetic. Reminds me of a novel I read while on holiday in France — ”
“Hermione,” Ron whispered. “That wasn’t rock and roll. That was snivelling, set to music.”
“Well really,” hissed Hermione. “Did you expect every entry in this contest to be a tuneless howling racket?”
Harry bit his lip to keep from laughing. He realized with a pang that he hadn’t heard Ron and Hermione snipe at each other in far too long. Ron’s face was pink under his freckles. He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Professor Trebble’s voice.
“Thank you. Next, we have the… ah… Kneazles. From Hufflepuff.”
The Kneazles turned out to be a group of five fresh-faced Hufflepuff second-years who played the opening notes of “Eight Days a Week” four times before finally managing to start the song. Their enthusiasm was so infectuous, however, that the hall cheered wildly when they finished, and Harry heard the shuffling of many people taking their seats again as if they’d been dancing, prompting Neville and Ginny to exchange nervous looks. “Pitiful,” drawled Draco Malfoy over the applause in the waiting room. Harry tried not to turn around. He was afraid of what he might do if he caught a glimpse of Malfoy’s smug face.
Next came a painfully lovely Slytherin first-year girl, Victoria Langstrom, who seated herself on a folding chair with great authority, tossed back her glossy dark brown hair, and played the violin so expertly that Ron began to slump in his chair.
“You can’t dance to that, Ron,” muttered Harry as Victoria rose and bowed to thunderous applause. “This contest is for the Yule Ball, not the London Philharmonic.”
“The Philhar-what?” said Ron. But before Harry could explain, Professor Trebble cleared his throat and announced, “The, ah… The next entry goes by the name of… Zonko.”
“Isn’t that the name of the joke shop — ” began Harry, but he was cut short as Hermione and Ron each grabbed one of his arms.
“Oh no,” said Hermione.
“Uh-oh,” said Ron.
Ginny was clutching Ron’s other arm, her eyes now tightly closed. “No explosions,” she whispered fervently. “No explosions, please no explosions…”
“Why didn’t they tell me…” Ron was muttering.
Harry looked up, bewildered, and suddenly realized why Ginny, Hermione, and Ron looked ready to crawl under their chairs. Fred and George Weasley, who had somehow escaped attention in the waiting room, were taking the stage with their best friend Lee Jordan. Harry didn’t understand why he hadn’t spotted them earlier; all three of them were wearing the most outrageous outfits Harry had ever seen.
Fred and George had somehow enchanted their hair so that it was standing straight up as if they had stuck their fingers into one of the electric sockets Arthur Weasley kept in his garage. Lee Jordan’s dreadlocks were not their usual brown, but a garish shade of blue; he was wearing a bright green track suit and six-inch platform boots. George was wearing red vinyl pants, a yellow and blue striped shirt with enormous lapels, and a purple bandana around his forehead. And Fred — Harry rubbed his eyes. Fred Weasley was wearing a dress. A long, matronly, silver-sequined dress, something that Harry’s Aunt Petunia might wear to Uncle Vernon’s annual company Christmas party. With a jolt of fear Harry suddenly wondered whether Fred had gotten into Petunia’s closet when he’d come to pick up Harry this past summer at Privet Drive.
As Harry gaped at the waiting room mirror, Fred and George strapped on school-issue electric guitars, and Lee took his seat at a set of drums that had magically slid onto the stage as if on casters. The members of Zonko grinned maniacally at the crowd as Ron, Hermione, and Ginny cringed lower and lower in their seats.
“Good evening, ladies and gentleman, wizards and witches, and… Professor Snape,” said Fred jovially. “This is George Weasley on guitar, Lee Jordan on drums, and I’m Fred Weasley. We are…” He paused dramatically. “ZONKO.”
At Fred’s words, the Great Hall went completely dark. A huge blast of purple light exploded above his head, showering sparks everywhere, just as the stage blazed into life with noise. Fred, George, and Lee were thrashing around to the thunderous racket, Fred and George leaping wildly into the air and windmilling their arms as they assailed their guitars. “And we’re stupid, and contagious! Here we are now, entertain us!” hollered George.
This was too much for Ron. He began to laugh hysterically. Ginny, who had been staring dumbstruck at the mirror, blinked at Ron in surprise. She looked back up at Fred, leaping about the stage in his silver ballgown, his red hair standing on end, and gave a helpless giggle.
Her giggles were completely contagious. Soon Harry, Hermione, and Neville were doubled over. By the time “Zonko” ended their song with an ear-splitting screech and a riotous shower of fireworks, the entire waiting room was roaring with laughter. Fred, George, and Lee left the stage to resounding hoots of applause and an icy glare from Professor Trebble, whose fingers were jammed into his ears as he walked back onto the stage to announce the next contestants.
“I suppose if you’ve got no talent, you’ve got to go for laughs,” came a coldly derisive voice from the back of the room.
“Shut it, Malfoy,” said Harry and Ron together.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The waiting room was beginning to empty; Harry guessed that more than half of the contestants had played by now. The hilarity caused by the Weasley twins was beginning to die down, and Harry was getting increasingly nervous, thinking that any moment he might be called onto the stage. He was getting too nervous to enjoy most of the music, some of which had been surprisingly good, despite Draco Malfoy’s constant stream of snide insults. Harry’s bass was humming what was supposed to be a soothing little melody in his head. It wasn’t helping. Harry appreciated the sentiment, but the tune sounded like a funeral march, and it was setting him a bit on edge.
Two tiny Gryffindor first-years had just fumbled their way through an earnest yet mistake-prone performance when Harry heard Draco’s voice drift over the crowd for the upteenth time that evening. “Poor little gits, wouldn’t know a tune if it bit them on their fat Mudblood arses,” he began.
Itt was the last straw.
Harry felt as though someone had punched him in the stomach. All the nervous irritation he’d been feeling exploded into a blinding rage. He couldn’t help it. He shot out of his chair and faced Draco, nerves jangling, blood pounding in his temples.
“What’s that you said, Malfoy?” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. Draco was still leaning against the wall, watching the giant mirror; a slow smile spread across his face when he saw the reaction he’d provoked in Harry. He’d clearly been hoping for this response all evening.
“Defending your ickle housemates, Potty Wee Potter?” Draco leered. “How sweet. Don’t waste your breath, though, I’m sure you’ll need it to foul up your own performance.”
Harry felt Hermione place a hand on his arm to restrain him. “Ignore him,” she hummed in the familiar lilt that Harry had come to know as her Don’t-Be-Stupid-It’s-Only-Malfoy voice.
But Harry couldn’t ignore him. Weeks of anxiety and pent-up confusion were boiling into a furious storm that was making his head feel as if it were about to explode. His wand was already in his hand; he had no memory of reaching for it.
“Take it back, Malfoy,” Harry said through gritted teeth. Another band had just started playing onstage, but no one was watching the mirror now. All eyes in the waiting room were on Harry and Draco.
Ron was getting to his feet, clearly surprised at the level of Harry’s anger, but glaring at Malfoy nonetheless.
“You heard what he said, Malfoy,” Ron said.
“Aren’t you Gryffindors cute,” said Draco silkily. “So brave and loyal. So honest and true to each other. Well…” He paused dramatically, clearly enjoying himself, and turned to Ron. “I’d bet I could tell you a few things about your supposed true-blue friends here, Weasley, that you don’t know. Some things they’ve been hiding from you.”
Harry’s stomach gave an odd twist. What was Malfoy talking about? Could he possibly know —
But no one knew. Not Ron, not Sirius, not Hagrid. That was impossible.
“Harry,” hissed Hermione, tugging on his arm again. “Leave it alone.” There was a note of urgency in her voice. Harry wondered if she was thinking the same thing he was. He squeezed her hand distractedly.
“Not interested,” said Ron airily. “Whatever you have to say about my friends would be a lie. Why would I listen to you?”
“Oh, I think,” drawled Draco, “that you’ll be most interested to hear what I have to say. Especially since you’ve been too busy with your little leech of a girlfriend to have caught on to anything, anyway.”
“What would you know about friends, Malfoy?” Harry interrupted. His voice sounded strange in his own ears, icy cold, bitter with fury. “You’ve never had any. Just two dim toadies who are too sod-all stupid to realize what a wretched self-serving git you are.”
Crabbe and Goyle blinked vacantly until a violent nudge from Malfoy told each of them that Harry had just insulted them. They began to glower at Harry like two angry gorillas. Malfoy’s eyes were narrowed into slits.
“I wouldn’t be calling anyone self-serving if I were you, Potter,” he hissed. “You were just waiting for Weasley here to get out of the picture so you could play your stupid shagging games with Granger. You know she’s the only girl at this school desperate enough to let you have your way with her.”
Ron’s eyes were wide. “What?” he sputtered.
Harry could barely see. His eyes seemed to be covered with a red film of rage. His hands were clenched into fists. He raised his wand slowly to the level of Malfoy’s pale eyes.
“Not another word,” he whispered. “Not another word, you bastard.”
“Is this true?” said Ron incredulously, wheeling to face Harry and Hermione, who was still seated, clutching Harry’s hand, her face completely drained of color.
Hermione didn’t speak. She sat, frozen, staring up at Harry.
Harry couldn’t look at Ron. It felt like the bottom had just dropped out of his stomach. Draco Malfoy had just blurted out what Harry hadn’t been able to say to Ron, to Sirius, to anyone. He’d linked Harry with Hermione. Draco Malfoy had said it. In his vulgar, disgusting, distorted way, Draco had said it first.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
“Thought they were your friends, did you, Weasley?” Draco drawled. “Think again. Don’t you think your very bestest friends would have told you something like this? Well, go ahead. Ask them if you don’t believe me.”
Harry’s wand was still pointed at Draco. Draco, eyes fixed on the wand, had slipped his hand into his pocket to draw his own.
“Is this true?” Ron repeated, a note of desperation in his voice. “He’s putting us on, right, Harry? You and Hermione — you’d have told me — ”
Harry didn’t speak. He couldn’t lie about Hermione. Not to Ron.
Ron took a step backwards, looking from Harry to Hermione. His face was slack with disbelief at their silence.
Draco began to chuckle. “It was quite charming, really,” he said. “That morning on the Quidditch pitch — ”
Something inside Harry snapped.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Several things happened at once.
“Furnunculus!” Harry roared. A jet of green light shot from the end of his wand.
Draco was ready.
“Denserradius!” he barked. Silver light erupted from his own wand.
“Expelliarmus!” cried a third voice from Harry’s shoulder. Hermione was on her feet, wand pointed at Malfoy, hand shaking.
“Stupefy!” yelled Ron.
“Itchifus!” thundered Crabbe.
A tremendous blast of noise and light shook the room. Harry ducked instinctively. The room was shaking so violently that the mirror above him rattled. He heard yells, gasps and scuffling, the noises of people diving under their chairs. Streaks of green and silver light hit the ground next to him and left wisps of curling smoke issuing from holes where the carpet had been. A light shower of dust fell from the ceiling.
Harry struggled to his feet. Hermione and Ron were emerging from underneath chairs, their wands still clutched in their hands. Most of the other contestants were doing the same. Harry heard a moan behind him.
“Oh, Neville…” came Ginny Weasley’s voice.
Neville was sprawled on the floor, his eyes wide with shock. His hair was covered in dust and soot from the fireplace. Green boils, a product of Harry’s deflected Furnunculus curse, were welling up on his right arm. He was moaning, but the sound was muffled. Because where Neville’s mouth had been, there was now nothing but pale, smooth skin.
A stream of curses issued from the other side of the room. Draco Malfoy was standing up and brushing off his black leather pants, calling Harry words that Harry had never heard used in such a creative way before.
“Look at this,” Malfoy spat between expletives. “Look at them. Look what you’ve done.”
Draco seemed to have escaped the explosion unscathed, but Crabbe and Goyle had not been as lucky. Both of them were covered from head to toe in enormous, angry-looking green boils. Goyle seemed to be stunned, but only partially; he was moving one arm and one leg, but the other side of his body was still as a statue. Crabbe was tearing at his own clothing, whimpering and scratching at his skin. His own itching hex had apparently backfired when Hermione cast her disarming charm.
“WHAT IS GOING ON IN HERE?” bellowed a furious voice above the din.
Harry cringed. It was the absolute last voice in the world he wanted to hear.
Professor Snape was gliding towards them, stepping through the fallen chairs and dust like some sort of giant rabid vampire bat. His eyes were bulging with fury.
“Thank goodness you’re here, Professor,” Draco said, cool and calm as if he hadn’t just unleashed a torrent of profanity moments before. “Potter just went wild and attacked us. Nearly blew up the whole room. We’ve got some injured students here — Crabbe, and Goyle — ”
“Why don’t you tell the truth, Malfoy?” A Ravenclaw girl that Harry recognized as one of Emma’s year-mates was glaring at Draco. “Professor Snape, Draco provoked Harry. They attacked each other at the same time. Everyone was hexing each other. Neville Longbottom is hurt as well.”
“Longbottom? Well, that’s no great loss,” said Snape icily. “Potter, Malfoy, we will deal with this after the contest. Both of you will see me in my office first thing tomorrow morning.”
“But Professor,” said Draco insistently, his pale eyes flashing. “Look what Potter’s done. My band’s lost two members out of three. Crabbe and Goyle need to go to the hospital wing. We cannot perform, and I insist that — ”
“We can’t go on either,” snapped Ron. “Neville can’t play without a mouth.”
“SILENCE,” barked Snape. He glared at Harry with such ferocity that Harry began to fear Snape might go completely mad and bite his head off on the spot. A wicked smile began to play at the corner of Snape’s mouth. This couldn’t be good. Harry felt slightly sick.
“I believe… I have a solution,” Snape said slowly. He looked from Harry to Draco and back again. “Mr.Potter, Mr.Malfoy, your contest entries are disqualified. Mr.Potter’s band will play with Mr.Malfoy instead.”
Harry felt his jaw drop. He saw Ron, Hermione, and Ginny’s do the same. He was sure Neville would have been staring open-mouthed also, if he still had a mouth. Malfoy was gaping at Snape as if he’d grown another greasy, hook-nosed head.
“But sir — ” Draco began.
“ENOUGH,” said Snape coldly. “Mr.Malfoy, you should know better than to let a child like Potter provoke you. I expect more from you. Mr.Potter — ” His eyes lingered on Harry’s. “This behavior of yours is typical, of course, but it doesn’t mean you will not be in very serious trouble when this contest is over.”
Snape glared one last time around the room. “I must return to the judges’ table,” he hissed. “If I hear one more sound out of this room, the perpetrators will be expelled. I will have Madam Pomfrey take these three students to the hospital wing. There will be no further disruptions of this contest.” He vanished out the door and back into the Great Hall in a swirl of greasy black robes.