There were so many wonderful ways to vanish in the wizarding world.
One could, for example, hide under an invisibility cloak. Or disApparate. Or possibly vanish in a puff of smoke — apparently a delightful party trick, although slightly impractical for wizards with hay fever.
Unfortunately, none of these things seemed likely to happen to Harry at the moment.
Harry felt every pair of eyes in the room swivel to fix on him. He took a long, steadying breath and tried to stop his hands from shaking. He felt a dull pain in his right hand and realized that he was gripping his wand so tightly that his fingernails were cutting into his palm.
Draco was glaring at Harry like a basilisk, but Harry could handle that. It was Ron and Hermione that Harry couldn’t bear to face. And Ginny. And Neville. Harry took another breath and turned around.
Ron was white beneath his freckles, his lips set in an angry line, his eyes burning with hurt.
“Ron,” Harry began, his voice oddly croaky and dry. “I tried to tell you — ”
“Later,” said Ron hoarsely. “Can we talk about this later?”
Harry felt Hermione sit down beside him. He heard her breathe in sharply, as if she was muffling a sob.
“Out of the way, please!”
Madam Pomfrey was bustling into the room, several stretchers hovering just behind her, her arms filled with bandages. “Clear the area,” she commanded. “I’ll be taking students up to the hospital wing.”
“Come on, Harry.”
Someone was tugging at Harry’s elbow. Harry turned, surprise filtering through his numb thoughts when he saw that it was Ginny. Her face was calm and resolute, framed by a light halo of dust that had settled in her bright hair. Ginny didn’t speak, just took him by the arm and led him into a corner. Ron came next. Harry stared after Ginny in disbelief as she left Ron by Harry’s side and started towards Malfoy. Ron’s jaw fell open.
“She can’t be serious — ” he muttered.
Harry didn’t watch Ginny’s next move, however. He was scanning the crowd for Hermione; at last he saw her, face hidden beneath a curtain of brown curls as she bent over Neville. A lump the size of a dragon egg settled in his throat.
“Brave Little Miss Weasley. You’re joking, aren’t you?”
Draco Malfoy’s unmistakable drawl cut through Harry’s thoughts. He was striding towards Harry and Ron, Ginny by his side, wearing an expression of mixed fury and revulsion. And something else, Harry thought, watching as Draco’s eyes flicked vaguely towards Ginny’s.
“Haven’t pissed on us enough, then, Malfoy? Back for more?” Ron said.
Draco raised a slender, pierced eyebrow. “How could anyone be so stupid as to think this was my idea? Wait — you’re quite capable of being that stupid –”
“Quiet, both of you,” said Ginny, her voice steely and cool. Malfoy’s eyes widened, but surprisingly, he fell silent at the look on Ginny’s face. She looked gravely at the three of them and crossed her arms.
“It just so happens that thanks to Snape, we are bound to perform in this contest by a wizarding contract. I’m going out there, even if your idiotic fighting means I have to play with him.” Ginny inclined her head in Draco’s direction, who remained strangely quiet. “Now, are any of you going out there with me, or do I have to fulfill our contract alone?”
Harry might have found the looks on Ron and Malfoy’s faces comical had he not been so monumentally distracted. He had to go out there; none of this was Ginny’s fault, and it was the very least he could do —
He managed to find his voice, which sounded rough and shaken. “I’ll do it, Gin.”
“Good lad.” A faint murmur of approval rippled through his thoughts; Harry had almost forgotten about his bass in all the uproar, which was still slung heavily over one shoulder.
“‘Course I’m with you, Gin.” Ron’s ears were red, but his voice was subdued.
Malfoy gave a pained sigh. “No Malfoy breaks a wizard contract. Not even to avoid trash like you three.”
As if on cue, Professor Trebble’s voice issued from the giant mirror once more. “We, ah, apologize for the delay… We’ll have our next entry in a moment.”
Ginny ignored Malfoy. “What are we playing, then? Quick.”
“Well, I’m certainly not singing some little ditty written by a geezer old enough to be my grandfather,” Draco drawled. “I’ve heard you lot practicing.”
“Fine,” Ron spat. “Got any better ideas?”
“How about one for Hero Boy here?” Malfoy batted his eyelashes at Harry, crooning into an imaginary microphone. “I’m only a man in a funny red sheet… lookin’ for special things inside of me…”
“Be serious, please.” Ginny was glaring daggers at Malfoy.
Draco leered back at her. “Ah, but of course, Miss Weasley. You’d rather I sing ‘Fresh Pickled Toad?'”
“It looks as if we have a slight change to our schedule,” came Professor Trebble’s voice again. “Professor Snape has informed me that ‘The Marauders’ and ‘Salazar’ have been merged into a single entry. Not, ah, physically, don’t worry — ”
“Pick something, all right?” Ron was turning red again.
Draco rolled his pale eyes. “Fine. Don’t suppose you know ‘The Bends.'”
“Muggle song, eh, Malfoy?” Ron scoffed. “I know it. Harry?”
Harry knew it. He even liked the song, though he would rather have professed his undying love to Crabbe and Goyle than admit it to Malfoy. “Yeah, I know it.”
“Fine then, that’ll do,” said Ginny quickly, taking her drumsticks from her pocket. “Malfoy, I assume you know the Harmonius — ”
Ginny’s inquiry was cut short as Trebble’s voice issued from the mirror once more.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, with no further ado — The Marauders!”
Uproar from the Great Hall.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Harry felt himself walk forward, following Ron’s red head through the waiting room. He emerged from the stage door, blinking in the brilliant golden light illuminating the Great Hall, and caught a glimpse of the sea of upturned faces in the audience. This certainly couldn’t be happening. Any moment now, Hermione would nudge him awake and tell him he’d slept through History of Magic again.
At the sight of Harry the audience hooted with cheers. Harry took a long breath, shifted his bass into position and watched Ginny climb into her seat at the drums. A Sonorous microphone was standing in the middle of the stage, Harry assumed by Malfoy’s request.
There was a pause, and then Draco Malfoy sauntered from the stage door. He strode to center stage, slung his own gleaming black guitar across his chest, and grasped the microphone.
“That’s Salazar and the Marauders,” he winked, sneering at the Great Hall.
“I’ll kill him,” muttered Ron.
“Let’s just get this over with, okay, Weasel?” Malfoy hissed under his breath. He had turned to face the three of them and was taking his wand from his pocket. “You think it’s a lark for me to be seen with three Gryffindor clowns in front of the entire school?”
“Enough.” Ginny’s wand was out as well. Harry and Ron fumbled for theirs, and all four of them growled a resentful “Harmonius” as the crowd continued to murmur in apprehension. Golden light shot from instrument to instrument. Draco ran a hand through his cropped hair.
“And to think,” he drawled quietly. “This is all because Potter was too embarrassed to tell the Weasel that he was shagging the ugliest hag at Hogwarts.”
Harry wouldn’t have thought it possible to feel a fresh wave of fury for Malfoy so soon, but he was wrong. His brain presented him with a delightful slideshow of Malfoy being toasted to a crisp by a Hungarian Horntail who bore an uncanny resemblance to Harry. If dragons could wear glasses, that is. Harry lunged towards Malfoy, but Malfoy shot him a leer and turned again to face the crowd.
“Right,” Draco sighed lazily into the microphone. “I’m just doing this because they’ve paid me. One, two, three, four — ”
The noise that roared from their instruments shook the Great Hall like an explosion. Harry was so furious he could hardly see. Through the effects of the Harmonius charm he could sense equal fury emanating from Ron, Ginny, and Malfoy, which only added to his own. It was complete cacophony, like a thousand Mandrakes having a shouting match. For a few seconds Harry felt like his head was about to split in two with pain. They couldn’t continue like this.
But then Ron sounded a chord that Harry recognized. He’s not going to let Malfoy get to him, Harry thought. He’s got it. That’s the only way to win.
Fine idea, said the dry voice in his head. You know what to do.
Find my place. Right.
It was like trying to relax while being strangled by Devil’s Snare. Harry felt himself falling backwards through the noise, groping for familiar sounds, finding Ron, then Ginny, then… Draco. A great booming note startled him into awareness and he realized it was him, he’d found it, he was in place in this hideous mess.
Suddenly the tremendous noise was transformed. A phenomenal yell by Draco Malfoy split the air and the four of them thundered into the opening chords of the song. Ginny’s cymbals cut the noise and Draco began to sing.
Where do we go from here?
The words are comin’ out all weird
Where are you now, when I need you
Alone on an aeroplane
Fallen asleep against the windowpane
My blood will thicken
He was incredible.
Harry couldn’t believe it. As much as his entire soul was consumed with burning hatred for Draco Malfoy at this moment, Harry knew that Malfoy was singing like no one he’d ever heard. Malfoy was bitterly angry, biting off every word with a snarl, his eyes glittering, his voice hard and rough and clear all at once. Harry could only stare in stunned amazement.
And then Ron let loose at the end of the verse.
Harry had been astounded the first time he’d heard Ron play, but it was nothing compared to how Ron was playing now. It was above and beyond anything Harry could imagine, and it was all he could do to follow the music as Ron blazed into a feverish solo and roared out a blistering scale. Take that, Malfoy. Harry began to smile in spite of himself.
They pounded into the second verse and —
No one was singing. Harry looked up, alarmed.
Malfoy looked awestruck. He was staring at Ron as though Ron had just descended from another planet and announced his intentions to run for Minister of Magic.
Ron gave Malfoy a questioning glare and played another bar. Draco blinked, a smile curling the corner of his mouth, and began to sing again.
And now — something was changing. Ron had seen Malfoy smile; as he turned back towards Harry, his own face was cracking into a smile. Something else was seeping through their fury; some other force was bubbling up through the Harmonious charm.
I need to wash myself again to hide all the dirt and pain
‘Cause I’d be scared that there’s nothing underneath
But who are my real friends?
Have they all got the bends?
Am I really sinking this low?
They sounded fantastic.
A wild flourish from Ginny and Harry felt his own awareness dissolve. He was no longer Harry, who played Quidditch, and got bad marks in Potions, and sometimes had a terrible temper. He was Harry-Ron-Ginny-Draco, and he was still burning with anger, but he was also fiercely happy, and he just couldn’t believe this was possible, and neither could Ron-Ginny-Draco, for that matter.
My baby’s got the bends, oh no
We don’t have any real friends, no, no, no
Draco was strutting around the stage now, half-whispering into the microphone, his guitar abandoned and slung over his back, a delicious grin playing across his face.
Just lying in the bar with my drip feed on
Talking to my girlfriend, waiting for something to happen
I wish it was the sixties, I wish I could be happy
I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen
Another blistering noise from Ron —
Where do we go from here?
The planet is a gunboat in a sea of fear
And where are you?
They brought in the CIA, the tanks and the whole marines
To blow me away, to blow me sky high
By the time they hit the next chorus, Ron was grinning like crazy. Harry took a step back to see Ginny, red hair flying, beaming with an expression he’d never seen on her face before. She was staring at Malfoy, drumsticks whirling. Malfoy turned to stare back at her as he sang the next verse, and briefly the world shrank to Ginny and Draco, her drums, his voice, pounding through the music.
Just lying in the bar with my drip feed on
Talking to my girlfriend, waiting for something to happen
I wish it was the sixties, I wish I could be happy
And then they all crashed back into the song. and they were building, soaring upwards, building towards something —
I wish, I wish, I wish that something would —
With a yell, Draco lept into the air as Ron flew into an earth-shattering solo. Suddenly Harry realized that he, Ron, and Draco were leaping around the stage like madmen. He couldn’t help it.
I wanna live, breathe
I wanna be part of the human race
And then Ginny was pulling them out of the chaos with a flourish of cymbals, Draco coming to rest on his knees in the center of the stage, Ron turning to watch Malfoy as they played the final chords.
Where do we go from here?
The words are coming out all weird
Where are you now… when I need you?
And then it was over.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Professor Severus Snape did not consider himself to be a man easily surprised.
He was quite pleased with himself, in fact, as he strode from the contest waiting room, having just doled out a punishment to his least favorite student that would certainly result in an outrageous amount of public humiliation in front of the entire school.
The Malfoy boy had been involved as well, but no matter. He’d extend his apologies to Malfoy after tomorrow’s detention. And it wasn’t as if Draco was an innocent soul. He was, after all, a Slytherin. There were certain standards.
After explaining matters to poor blathering Trebble, Snape quickly made his way to the back of the Great Hall and settled into a dark corner to watch the mayhem unfold. He strongly doubted that all remaining band members would perform, and each possible combination would result in an embarrassing outcome. The two Weasleys? A feeble effort at best. Based on his experiences with the youngest Weasley, he predicted little Virginia would most likely turn red and run from the room. She did that often during Potions.
Potter and Weasley? A dynamic team, but Snape had heard James Potter sing once. Snape knew all too well that Harry took after his father in almost every way, and James Potter’s musical talent had been inversely proportional to his skill on the Quidditch field. It was lucky for the Potter boy that Lily Evans had not dismissed her suitor on the basis of his ear-splitting serenade that evening in the Three Broomsticks.
Malfoy might go on alone, and in that case, the performance might be disappointingly competent. But if Malfoy did go on with any of the other three —
Snape smiled to himself and folded his arms across his long black robes. That would be something to see. He had every faith that Malfoy could humiliate Potter and Weasley beyond his wildest dreams.
Severus Snape did not consider himself to be easily surprised. Thus, he was only mildly startled when both Weasleys took the stage with Potter, and then Malfoy. He’d counted on at least two of them refusing to perform, but Potter and Malfoy were both proud and stubborn, and all Weasleys were known to be impulsive; quite possibly those traits had come into play.
Just as he’d predicted, they made an absolutely infernal racket. It was phenomenally atrocious. Snape’s lip curled in satisfaction as students in the audience began covering their ears and trying to crawl under their chairs. He’d have to brew up something later tonight to restore any partial hearing loss from the experience, but it would be worth every minute.
And then — something happened. To the music. To Potter, Weasley, and Malfoy, of all people.
Professor Severus Snape was shocked.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Harry was beginning to believe that he was trapped inside an alternate universe in which he was the butt of a very large cosmic joke. It was the only plausible explanation for what had just happened.
They’d won the bloody contest.
His brain had ceased to function properly right around the time they’d stopped playing. He had been vaguely aware of the tumultuous applause that had overwhelmed them as soon as their last chord had been struck. He did recall Ron, Ginny, and Malfoy looking every bit as stunned as he felt. At that point, his brain had reached some sort of sensory overload, and he felt just like one of Dudley’s televisions that had been thrown out a second story window and could now only produce grey static on all channels.
Harry’s bass had apparently had the sort of evening that amounted to winning the Quidditch Cup and a trip aboard Big Banjo’s Tropical Cruiseline for Magical Instruments all rolled into one. Thankfully, this meant that after ten minutes of joyful celebration in Harry’s head, the bass had lapsed into a contented silence, possibly too overwhelmed for the time being to contribute even one overly helpful remark about Harry’s love life.
But even with the momentary peace granted by the bass, Harry’s thoughts were hopelessly muddled. He did know he couldn’t go back to the common room at the moment, if there was any chance Ron and Ginny would still be there. He didn’t have the faintest idea what had happened on that stage, and he didn’t want to talk to anyone about it; he was afraid he’d start speaking Parseltongue backwards, given his current mental state.
And he certainly couldn’t face Hermione. Hermione, of all people, who was the one person Harry would give his wand arm to talk to at that very moment. He wanted so badly to feel her next to him, to hear her say in her matter-of-fact voice that everything was going to be all right: “Don’t worry, Harry, Neville will be fine, I’ve looked up his condition in Hexes Gone Wrong, Madame Pomfrey is treating him properly and he’ll be good as new tomorrow evening. What on earth are you worried about? Let’s start on that Charms essay.”
But after what Malfoy had done, Harry wasn’t sure Hermione would be talking to him anytime soon. If ever.
Harry’s eyes stung sharply. He couldn’t think about that. He turned a corner and headed up another staircase as the local portrait inhabitants turned to stare and whisper.
Harry had been wandering aimlessly through the castle corridors since the last flabbergasted first-year had filtered from the Great Hall hours ago. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been walking; his head was beginning to pound, and his shoulder ached with the weight of his bass. It was most likely past midnight now, and Filch would skin him alive if he caught him out of bed at this hour. Harry was past caring. Any punishment Filch could dish out would be nothing compared to what had already happened today. Filch could just get in line behind Snape and everyone else who wanted to strangle Harry at the moment.
Harry turned to enter a narrow hallway on the second floor and heard the distinct sound of footsteps. Definitely Filch. Out of habit Harry began looking for a spot to step out of view — might as well try to avoid a second detention before he had to surrender. Luckily, there were doors all along this particular hallway, and Harry chose the nearest one and slipped inside. Glancing around, he saw that he was in a little-used Charms lecture hall. Flitwick preferred to teach in the larger room two doors down, so this room held only spare desks and supplies.
The footsteps drew closer; Harry could hear Filch muttering to Mrs.Norris. Harry sighed. He scanned the room and saw what he was looking for: a supply closet, much like the one in Flitwick’s usual room. Muttering a quick Alohomora, Harry opened the closet to find it full of pillows for practicing summoning charms. Perfect. Harry climbed inside, settled himself on a deep pile of cushions, and took off his bass. He’d just wait here until Filch passed by.
He’d just wait in this blessedly dark closet, where no one would find him, where he could close his eyes for a moment and pretend that none of it had happened, pretend that his life was simple, simple the way it had been this summer after Quidditch Camp. He would pretend that the only thing he had to worry about in the world was helping Hermione carry her extra books to the library.
It would be so nice to see Hermione.
Harry felt his face curve into a smile as he listened absently for Filch’s footsteps. He thought of Hermione’s wide brown eyes, her long lashes tipped with gold as she lay next to him on the dappled grass by the lake. He thought of almost kissing her.
He thought of kissing her for real.
It was so nice in the dark.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Harry jolted awake, his forehead burning as if it was splitting open along the seam of his scar. He was covered in cold sweat, and it was so dark he couldn’t tell whether his eyes were open or closed. It took him a moment to realize that he was still in the supply closet.
He retched as the next wave of pain seared through his scar, and fumbled desperately for the door. Have to get out of here. Going to be sick.
One of his feet struck the closet door and it flew open. Harry tumbled to the floor in the dim light of the classroom, pillows bumping to the ground all around him. He wasn’t sure if he could move. He felt his breath rattle in his throat in ragged gasps as he clutched helplessly at his forehead.
Faintly, through the pain, he began to make out a noise, muffled, as if he was hearing it underwater.
It was the unmistakable sound of high, cold laughter.
A very familiar sound.
It couldn’t be.
“Harry Potter,” said the cold voice. “What a pleasant surprise.”
Harry struggled to his hands and knees and peered across the room through a pain-filled haze. This simply was not real. He was dreaming, or just cracking under stress. Yes, that was it. He was certainly in the hospital wing by now, safe and sound, just delirious. This was merely one of many hallucinations brought on by mental exposure to an overly meddlesome musical instrument.
Except the pain was no hallucination.
Harry knew this pain, knew it like he knew his own name. He’d felt it before, many times now; familiarity did nothing to dull its edge. Harry knew what the pain meant. It meant that the person he saw across the room was every bit as real as Vernon Dursley, even though this person was slightly transparent, his outline flickering like an old Muggle black-and-white film. It didn’t matter what he looked like. He was there, and this was real.
Harry got slowly to his feet, his scar screaming in protest, and brushed sweaty hair out of his eyes with one clammy palm.
“Hello, Tom,” he said.
Tom Riddle regarded him from across the room, his transparent form wavering in the light of a single candle placed on an upturned desk.
Riddle looked much the same as he had in Harry’s second year, though Harry was taller and they were now almost eye-level with each other. Riddle was dressed in his school uniform, as always, and looked like any other seventh-year Slytherin prefect, except that he’d attended school over fifty years before. Harry saw by the light of the candle that Riddle had been working on something before Harry had tumbled from the closet — something on the floor. Strange markings were traced in the dust.
“It’s just amazing how you always manage to show up like this, Potter,” Riddle said, grinning congenially. “I should learn to give you more credit. Or perhaps just send you an invitation next time, and spare you the trouble of tracking me down.”
The pain in Harry’s scar made it difficult to talk, but Harry felt a strange clarity, as if a fog had lifted from his thoughts. He spoke through gritted teeth.
“Spare me a bit more trouble, then, and tell me how you got back here,” he said. “It can’t have been the diary. What other bit of memorabilia did you enchant with your memory and pass along to posterity? Your toothbrush?”
Riddle laughed his high, cold laugh again. A fresh wave of pain lanced through Harry’s forehead.
“That would be telling,” he said, still smiling. “And as my lifelong duelling partner, Potter, you of all people should know that I can’t reveal my strategy before the match.” He paused. “I would dearly love to know how you got here, of course, but that’s part of your own game plan, and I expect it will be revealed in time.”
“Don’t pretend to be a gentleman.” Harry had his wand out now, and was gripping it firmly, trying to ignore his pounding head. He pointed it steadily at the shimmering figure. “I’m not playing any of your games, Riddle.”
Riddle chuckled. “Never were one for finesse, were you, Potter? A bit of fine swordplay not really your style?”
Harry’s wand didn’t waver. “Tell me what you’re doing here. You have until I count to three.”
“Pity.” Riddle’s image was beginning to flicker. “Our little hero won’t take time to fence properly. Ah well, soon enough that won’t matter.”
“One.” Harry’s voice was a deep snarl he hardly recognized as his own.
Riddle’s voice was fainter now. “It is a shame, though. Perhaps you would have learned more had you paused to chat.”
“No point in using that now, Potter.” Riddle himself was now a faint outline, his voice an eerie echo. “You can’t stop this. No one can.”
A sharp gust of wind swept through the room, snuffing the candle. Tom Riddle was gone. The room was silent.
Harry stood for a long moment, his wand pointed at the spot where Riddle had been, before lowering his arm. Then he sat down hard on the floor, his whole body shaking. He sat there until he caught his breath, listening to his heart pound in the empty room.
He stood up again, his legs unsteady, and held out his wand. “Lumos,” he whispered.
The soothing light from his wand revealed an ordinary Charms classroom, nothing amiss except for a few extra pillows on the floor. The supply closet door was wide open, and Harry glimpsed his bass still inside. He slung it over one shoulder again before crossing the room to peer at the spot Riddle had been standing.
There, etched into the wooden floorboards, was a series of strange markings. They appeared to be runes of some sort, forked lines curved into a wicked half-circle on the dusty floor.
Harry, said a dry voice in his head. Let’s get out of here.
Harry nodded. He left the classroom, pausing once in the hallway to make sure he knew how to find it again. He took the rest of the route to the Gryffindor common room at a dead sprint.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The boys’ dormitory was dark, the curtains drawn around three of the five beds. Neville’s heavy snores were notably absent. Must still be in the hospital wing. Harry shook Ron’s arm with more force.
“Wha — ” Ron stirred in his sleep, mumbling. “Issat you, Harry?”
“Ron, get up. I need to talk to you.”
Ron smacked his lips and turned over. “Not now…”
“Talk tomorrow, Harry. Band was crazy. Dunno what happened. Malfoy crazy. Talk tomorrow.”
“Ron, this is important.”
“Oh, that.” Ron was a bit more awake now. “Issokay, Harry. I forgive you. S’my fault.”
“Hermione. You tried to tell me. Been thinking… I remembered. You tried to tell me lotsa times. Myfault. Issokay.”
Earlier that evening Harry would have given anything to hear those words. Now his happiness on hearing them was muffled by the great feeling of terror that was crushing him like a thundercloud.
“I — Ron, it’s not that.”
“Huh?” Ron had turned over again. “Whatissit? Need to sleep.”
Half a second later Ron Weasley was bolt upright in bed, swearing and scrambling for his slippers.
“Ah shit, Harry. You okay? Come on.” Ron stumbled quickly out of bed, heading for the common room. He stopped on the stairway, pulling last year’s Weasley sweater over his pajama top, and stared at Harry. “Cripes. You’re still dressed. What happened? You look terrible.”
“I’m all right.”
Ron gave Harry an appraising look, then shook his head.
“Stay right there. I’m getting Hermione.”
Harry could have kissed him.
Ron disappeared into the fifth-year-girls’ dormitory. In a few minutes he emerged again, a bleary-eyed Hermione at his side, struggling into her dressing gown and looking tremendously worried. Harry felt such immense relief at seeing her again that his legs felt weak. When their eyes met, his knees almost buckled.
“Harry,” she whispered. “What’s happened? Are you all right?”
Ron beckoned them towards the stairwell.
They settled on the floor in front of the common room fire for warmth, propped up against squashy armchairs. Ron and Hermione were peering at Harry as if he might start fortelling doom in raving torrents at any moment. Harry was beginning to wonder if the strain of the evening was making him look particularly unstable.
He took a deep breath, and the words tumbled out. He told them everything that had happened since he’d left the Great Hall. Ron and Hermione’s eyes grew wide as he described waking up in the supply closet. When he told them who he had seen in the classroom, Ron went white; Hermione gasped and grabbed Harry’s hand.
“But that’s impossible,” she breathed. “He can’t be here. He just can’t. Can he?”
“I don’t know,” Harry said. “The last time my scar felt like that, I was standing next to Vol — to You-Know-Who.”
“Bloody hell,” Ron murmured.
“He was up to something, that much I do know. He had been writing something on the floor when I fell out of the closet. After he vanished, it was still there. Etched into the wood.”
“You’re going to Dumbledore right away, of course,” Hermione said, her hand still tightly clutching his.
“Yeah. I will, first thing tomorrow.” Harry stared into the fire. “Just — couldn’t sleep, after that.”
Hermione shuddered. Then she did something that Harry would never forget. Uncurling her hand from his, she threw her arms around his neck, burying her head in his shoulder and taking deep, unsteady breaths.
Harry froze. He looked up at Ron. But Ron merely looked back at him, clearly preoccupied, not in the least bit fazed by Hermione’s reaction.
“Hermione,” Harry whispered, putting his arms around her tentatively. “Shh. It’s okay.”
Hermione only responded by holding him tighter, her voice muffled in his shoulder. “It’s not okay,” she gulped. “I knew he’d come for you again this year. We joked about it, and things were quiet for so long, I almost thought everything would be all right — ”
Her voice broke and she stifled a small sob. Harry wasn’t sure what to do; he gently stroked the top of her head.
“I did too.” Ron said quietly. “We were all so busy with other things. I didn’t want to think about it.”
Harry suddenly felt exhausted, as if he’d been awake for three days without realizing it. The feeling of Hermione in his arms was intoxicating, and so deeply comforting that he felt his eyelids beginning to droop. He drew her a bit closer; he was too tired to be nervous about it, too tired even to turn his usual shade of pink. “Me either,” he said.
Ron slid onto his back and stared at the ceiling. “We’ll get him, Harry. You’ll get him, and we’ll help you. Nothing else matters now. Not stupid music contests, or bloody Malfoy.” He paused, then cleared his throat. “Or girlfriends who take up all my damn time, and make me ignore my best friends, who stood by me anyway while I was being a prat.”
“Oh, Ron.” Hermione’s voice came from Harry’s shoulder.
“That’s what I wanted to tell you, Hermione. Before the contest. You came to talk to me yesterday, and I was rushing off to see Emma. I realized — ” Ron sighed. “I realized both of you have been trying to talk to me for months.”
They fell silent. Harry’s eyes were closed, and he wondered how it was possible to feel so gut-wrenchingly scared and so relieved and happy at the same time.
“Know what’s a bit disturbing, though,” he said finally, settling back against an armchair as Hermione snuggled into his chest.
“Hmm?” she murmured.
“What’s that?” echoed Ron.
“Now that Voldemort’s shown up, and you’re both helping me… this is the most normal I’ve felt all year.”
There was a pause, then a chuckle, and gradually, the faint sound of muffled laughter.
It lasted a long time.
As the sun rose in the Gryffindor common room, its pale light fell upon three figures curled in front of the dying embers of last night’s fire. One, red-haired and lanky, was using a maroon sweater for a pillow; the others were spooned together, raven hair mingling with brown, smiling in their sleep.