It was nearly midnight by the time Harry decided that sleep was not going to come and he needed to talk. He had calmed down enough to be very ashamed of his behaviour, and it weighed on his mind as well as everything else.
"Dobby," he said clearly, climbing out of bed and lifting the level of the lights with a flick of his wand.
The house elf popped into being almost instantly.
"Good evening," Dobby greeted cheerfully, "is Harry Potter feeling better?"
"Yes thank you, Dobby," Harry replied apologetically, "I'm sorry I shouted at you when you came to clear away the dinner things. I find it difficult to control myself sometimes."
"Dobby is understanding," the elf replied graciously, "Headmaster Dumbledore is explaining everything to Dobby when he is volunteering for this job."
Harry smiled at the small creature gratefully; he only hoped he was not about to annoy more people.
"I was wondering, Dobby," he said quickly, "do you know if Professor Dumbledore will still be up?"
"Dobby will check for Harry Potter," the elf said instantly and disappeared before Harry could do anything about it.
With a resigned sigh, he walked over to the desk and waited for Dobby to return. Taking a quill he scribbled a quick note to Dumbledore apologising for his behaviour and asking the headmaster if he would mind visiting, hoping all the while that Dobby would not wake Dumbledore to ask him if he was still up. Sometimes house elves could be very peculiar in their reasoning. A few moments after he finished the message Dobby reappeared.
"Headmaster Dumbledore is still being in his study," the elf said, very pleased with himself.
"Thank you, Dobby," Harry said politely, "I was wondering if you would mind delivering this to him for me."
And with that he handed the house elf the note.
"Not at all, Harry Potter," Dobby replied brightly, taking the scrap of parchment. "Would there be anything else once Dobby is delivering the message?"
Shaking his head, Harry sat down on the desk chair.
"No thank you," he said, rubbing his eyes and trying to clear his head, "that's all."
Dobby disappeared a second time and Harry was left to hope that Dumbledore would be available. He had never timed how long it took to walk from the headmaster's study to the Room of Requirement, and he stood up again after only a minute or so and began pacing. It felt like an age, but could only have been about fifteen minutes when a sleepy Jeremy appeared in his second frame.
"Please let him in," Harry said without even waiting for the portrait to speak.
Jeremy just nodded and disappeared again.
"Good evening, Harry," Dumbledore said pleasantly as he walked in, "how may I be of assistance?"
"How did they take it?" Harry asked, having worked himself into quite a panic.
With a benevolent smile the headmaster conjured two chairs and indicated that Harry should sit down.
"Perhaps some tea," Dumbledore suggested and summoned his usual pot and cups and saucers from thin air.
Harry really didn't want tea, he wanted to know what had happened when the headmaster explained what had occurred to Hermione and Ron, but he sat down and accepted the cup anyway. Remaining calm was his biggest aim, losing it a second time would not be productive.
"I believe Miss Granger intended to go straight to Professor Snape and offer her assistance with his work," Dumbledore said as he poured the tea, "Mr Weasley wished to know when he could visit you and Mr Longbottom offered to research rare plants and their use in treating such conditions as lycanthropy."
For a moment Harry sat very still, quite aware that the headmaster was not lying to him, but not quite able to comprehend what Dumbledore had said either.
"They what?" he finally asked rather lamely.
Dumbledore gave him a patient smile.
"All three wished to do everything they can to help you in your new situation," the headmaster explained slowly. "They all expressed a desire to see you, but Mr Weasley most of all. I believe his reasoning being along the lines that while Miss Granger and Mr Longbottom have expertise to offer useful to the situation, he would like to keep you company when he can, until such time as you are able to leave here."
"You're not going to let them," Harry said as the absurdity of the whole idea hit him, "are you?"
From the expression on Dumbledore's face it was quite obvious that the wizard was entertaining such ridiculous thoughts.
"I'm a dark creature, Professor," Harry said vehemently, "I'm deadly. Look what I did to Draco. I could kill them, or worse."
He shuddered at the mental images his own thoughts sent him. If he hurt any of them he would never forgive himself.
"Your crimes against Mr Malfoy were so heinous that the moment he was released into the school he made his way here," Dumbledore said kindly, but firmly. "Your response to normal provocation has been to damage a little furniture, and when offered the opportunity to revenge yourself on the Aurors who were undoubtedly about to take Mr Malfoy to his death, you took it upon yourself to protect him and refrain from killing anyone."
"I turned a man to stone," Harry persisted, "and put another two in St Mungo's."
"Where you could quite easily have killed all three," the headmaster seemed quite positive in his argument.
Leaning back in the very comfortable chair Dumbledore has conjured for him, Harry sipped his tea and tried not to think too black thoughts. The whole idea of letting his friends anywhere near him, scared him witless.
"I couldn't bear it if I hurt them," he admitted in little more than a whisper.
The headmaster fished in his pocket and handed Harry a chocolate frog, which he took without thinking. Only with the wrapped confectionary in his hand did he come to a halt and look at the object in confusion.
"Chocolate always makes me feel better," Dumbledore offered in way of explanation.
Harry really didn't know what to say.
"I will not try and pretend there is no danger, My Boy," the headmaster continued as if their interaction had not suddenly taken a major left turn. "You are a most powerful individual and the instincts which drive you can be very dark, but in my long life I have met no other man, woman or child who fills me with as much faith as you do. Already you have overcome more than any human being to have ever come to my attention. The hardest part was maintaining your humanity after what Tom did to you. That there is any of you left at all is a marvel and that you can control what you have become is in no doubt in my mind."
Unwrapping the frog, Harry avoided looking at his mentor for some time; when he finally did he saw such confidence in Dumbledore's eyes that it made the breath catch in his throat. How was he supposed to protest in the face of such belief?
"There is also the question of the Ministry," the headmaster continued eventually. "I have exerted my influence and a hearing has been arranged for after the weekend, where we will settle the matter of their control over you. Cornelius will undoubtedly try and have you classified as a dangerous dark creature, rest assured this will not happen."
The tone Dumbledore used gave Harry no choice but to accept everything the headmaster said as fact. He had the feeling that when Dumbledore wanted something, nothing could actually stop him.
"However, I am sure Minster Fudge will insist that the hearing be held at the Ministry," the explanation went on. "The more people you have come into contact with before that time, the easier the transition will be on you."
"That man's a pompous idiot," Harry said acidly; at least he had a valid target on which to take out his ire. "He would use anything but me showing up as an excuse to lock me up forever, wouldn't he?"
Dumbledore nodded, not that Harry was not sure that in this case that course of action might not be a bad idea.
"Unfortunately I believe that Cornelius is far more worried about public opinion than he is about you," the headmaster said regretfully. "I believe he does not think our world will react well to their hero being so afflicted, and hence wishes to hide you away. It is time, however, for our society to grow up; they have been coddled long enough and hiding reality from them will not help. You will be rewarded for your bravery and dedication, Harry, not punished, that much I promise you."
The bitter laugh was impossible to stop as it made its way out of Harry's mouth; he would have settled for normal obscurity any day.
"There is already a pile of letters for you in my office," Dumbledore continued calmly; "they have been arriving non stop since a special edition of the Prophet announced your defeat of Voldemort this afternoon. Tomorrow is to be an official holiday across the whole of the British Wizarding world. You have done us a great service, Harry, and all our people thank you."
"Until they find out what I am now," Harry replied with less bitterness than he expected. "I am not sure Fudge is wrong."
"It is a matter of perception, My Boy," the headmaster said kindly, "and we shall just have to make sure they perceive the real you."
If Harry had been sure what the real him was he might have found that comforting.
Dumbledore had stayed and talked until the small hours of the morning, about which Harry was both feeling grateful and guilty. It had taken the headmaster a long time to convince him that letting his friends visit was a good idea, but he had eventually agreed. What was stranger, however, was that after he had made the decision he had gone to bed and actually fallen asleep.
Bacon was what eventually woke him, the smell of freshly cooked bacon; a scent proven to wake the dead. He rolled over and peered in the general direction of where Dobby had set up the table the previous day and there was a familiar blond figure standing next to it. Jeremy had standing instructions to let Draco in unless told specifically not to do so, making his presence not wholly surprising, except for the timing.
"I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to wake up," Draco said, picking up a slice of the bacon which had managed to pull Harry from sleep and chewing on it sexily.
Harry shook his head and sat up; if he was finding the way his lover was eating breakfast sexy, then there was little hope of Draco escaping unravished. It was not a demanding, rip-his-clothes-off-now, kind of feeling, but he definitely had the urge to worm his way under Draco's robes. The urgency of the previous day was gone, almost as if the fact that he had unequivocally marked his companion as his lessened the pressure of his demanding libido, but he had the sneaking suspicion he would never be able to look at Draco without considering how best to get him naked.
Climbing out of bed he wandered over towards the Slytherin, gave Draco a rather absent kiss, mumbled a greeting, snagged a piece of bacon from the plate on the table and headed for the bathroom. It was only after he had put his head under the shower and started to clean his teeth that he had thought about the way Draco had appeared rather startled by his actions, but he didn't think about it too much. However, he was expecting something similar to the words which greeted him as he walked back into the other room, "You're odd first thing in the morning."
"What did I do this time?" Harry asked, pretty sure he knew, but interested to see what Draco would say.
"Random shows of affection," the Slytherin replied, as if the whole notion offended his sensibilities, "it is entirely bizarre behaviour."
"Well you'll have to forgive me," he said as he rummaged in his trunk, "I was not brought up with proper Slytherin manners and we Gryffindors are quite prone to forget ourselves."
It was strangely comforting to simply chat about nothing and for a few moments Harry managed to forget quite what a left turn his life had taken. Then as he was pulling on his clothes his mind flicked to the impending visit today of Ron, Hermione and Neville. Nev had become quite a fixture in their lives since the end of the fifth year, and although Harry knew people still referred to them as the Gryffindor trio, these days Neville was in on most of their antics. No matter how much part of him missed all three, the thought of facing them rather squashed his mood.
"Who doused your fairy light?" Draco asked as Harry walked towards the breakfast table with a frown on his face.
"My friends are visiting today," he responded and sat down.
The table was laid for two with a range of food not quite as large as the dinner the previous night, but still very extensive. Harry tried to distract himself back on to more settling thoughts by filling his plate; by the time he had finished, he had enough protein to feed a Quidditch team. One elegant eyebrow raised under a neatly trimmed fringe was Draco's only comment about that, but Harry had to admit that maybe he had been a little over enthusiastic.
"What time?" his companion asked conversationally while helping himself to a rather more normal selection of breakfast items. "With all lessons cancelled today there are bound to be far too many Gryffindors hanging around, and if yesterday at dinner was anything to go by, until our little fabrication becomes public knowledge, half of them want to kill me."
Harry looked up sharply at the same time Draco realised what he had said.
"Figure of speech," the Slytherin corrected quickly and then paused, "at least I don't think any of them really want to do permanent damage," he continued thoughtfully; "but there is a definite hostility. If it wasn't for Crabbe and Goyle I might be worried, not having my wand at the moment thanks to the bloody bureaucracy we call a government, but they seem to think I'm worth protecting. I wouldn't want to come face to face with Weasley though; I think he believes I am the spawn of Voldemort himself."
That sounded very like Ron, which of course brought up the other dilemma about the whole Draco relationship. How his friends were going to take that he had no idea, and he decided that one hurdle at a time was probably a good idea. If they could get past the whole star of a horror movie bit he would be incredibly grateful.
"Just after lunch," Harry replied, sitting on the instincts that tried to rise to the surface at any suggestion that someone would hurt his human.
The possessive view point no longer took him by surprise, but it did make him wonder what Draco thought about the whole situation. The Slytherin did not appear to be complaining about the idea, but Draco had also shown he was not someone who would belong to anyone else either. It was clear Draco would pledge allegiance when pushed, but there was a line he would not cross. Harry could not help wondering why his lover had not run the moment he marked him, since Draco had clearly had no choice in the matter.
"Why don't you hate me?" Harry suddenly decided to ask the question that was really bothering him.
They had started to have this conversation before, but the whole changing the Dark Mark had rather interrupted it. The enquiry did not seem to faze Draco and the Slytherin sipped his tea thoughtfully before opening his mouth.
"At first I thought that my feelings towards you were simply to do with gratitude," Draco said eventually, "at least that is what I preferred to believe, but you rather destroyed that idea when you tried to be noble and throw me out yesterday. You may have noticed over the years that relationships are not my strong point; in my world relationships of any kind tend to be arranged for me, so I'm rather new at this. Having thought about it endlessly all night, the only conclusion I can come to is that I have no idea why I am drawn to you, I just am and I may as well become used to the idea. I care what happens to you and I care for you; both of which, outside my immediate family, are new experiences, I don't think I wish to analyse it further than that ... yet."
Draco's tone was very final about that, and Harry decided he was not going to receive any more answers for the moment. His own emotions concerning the Slytherin were also so mixed up that he wasn't sure he could give a sensible answer to the question either. They were connected, emotionally and now magically through the changes Harry had wrought on the Dark Mark and, for the time being, explanations would have to wait.
"Seen the Quidditch scores yet?" he decided that a complete change of tack was in order. "Your team's new Seeker is really bad; have you poached back the position yet?"
"Give me a chance, Potter," Draco said with a smirk, "rebuilding an empire takes time."
It was almost an ordinary morning in that at least Harry was feeling vaguely human, and he and Draco chatted idly about anything and everything. It was quite simply nice, and Harry enjoyed his lover's company. They were not disturbed until about ten at which point Jeremy announced that Professor Snape was outside. The pair shared a look, the Potions master would only be here for business; it wasn't as if he was the social type.
"Please let him in, Jeremy," Harry said after a few moments.
At least this time they were both fully clothed, except for the fact that Harry wasn't wearing shoes and socks. When Snape entered the room this time he was carrying a tray once more, but it was covered and the chemical smell that assailed Harry's sensitive nose set his teeth on edge. The Potions master did not appear even remotely surprised to see Draco in the room and Snape acknowledged the member of his house with a nod.
"Good morning, Professor," Harry said evenly, he was not exactly comfortable with the wizard, but at least the outward hostility was long gone and he was calm enough that his darker side did not even react.
"Mr Potter," Snape replied in his usual tone, "Mr Malfoy."
"Professor," Draco returned cordially.
"I have been carrying out some preliminary experiments," Snape returned to business immediately, "and I believe I have constructed a potion which should help with some of the more over powering urges. Unfortunately due to your unique physiology I cannot guarantee the potency of the mixture; however, I can assure there will be no major side effects. I have also updated the list which I gave you at the time I took the blood sample."
He handed Harry another piece of parchment and if he had been talking to a Gryffindor, Harry would not have hesitated to leave it at that, but he was talking to a Slytherin, and the head Slytherin to boot, so his eyes narrowed in suspicion. He let his mind run over the first comment carefully.
"So what are the minor side effects?" he asked bluntly.
Snape appeared vaguely surprised by the question and removed the cloth from the tray with a raise of his eyebrows.
"Possible nausea, light headedness and drowsiness," the potions master replied openly.
"But it might stop me hurting someone?" Harry wanted to be sure he had this correct.
For a while Snape did not reply, and continued to arrange things on the tray.
"Although it pains me to say it, Mr Potter," the head of Slytherin said evenly, "I believe you will prevent that yourself. However, the general idea is to make that onus easier on you. With Miss Granger's input a solution presented itself, but the results cannot be assured."
Looking at the goblet of what appeared to be a noxious green liquid, Harry made his decision and he picked it up dubiously.
"Any particular instructions?" he asked as he held it away from his nose.
This close the smell was almost overpowering.
"I would suggest downing it in one," Snape said unsympathetically.
That made Harry grimace, but he was nothing if not brave and he lifted the goblet slowly. The smell was enough to set some of his darker aspects screeching that he was insane, but he put the vessel to his lips and tipped it back quickly. It tasted like nothing on this earth, worse than polyjuice, and that had been bad, and it hit his stomach like a stone, but he finished it anyway.
"You out did yourself," he said when he could finally control the retching that followed, "that was worse than I can possibly describe."
"I'll remember to add essence of orange next time," Snape said sarcastically. "Any immediate effects?"
Harry felt like telling him where he could stuff his 'immediate effects', and it was a very close thing, but he held his tongue. The only thing that he could feel at the moment was the desire to bring back what he had just swallowed.
"The nausea you mentioned," he said slowly, "but I don't feel any different."
"Please record any other results," Snape said efficiently as he replaced the cover on the goblet. "Positive as well as adverse; your reactions could be important."
"Uh-huh," Harry replied, but he was beginning to think that the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach was not going to stop.
In fact it was getting worse and he looked at Draco worriedly.
"You look almost as green as my bed sheets," his lover said unhelpfully.
For once a snarky reply jumped to his mind, but he had no chance to say it. At that moment his stomach did a flip and he knew instantly that he was about to loose this battle. Without even making a vain attempt to try and maintain his dignity he put his hand over his mouth and ran to the bathroom. The potion revisited the world as quickly as it had gone down as he knelt helplessly over the toilet bowl.
"Uncontrolled vomiting," he heard Snape's dispassionate voice catalogue his predicament and he would have reacted if he had been able to, but he was incapable of anything except being very, very sick. "Tea, Mr Malfoy, peppermint tea; he will be dehydrated when he is finished."
"Yes, Sir," Harry heard Draco reply, but all he really cared about was the turmoil in his intestine.
Bloody revenge seemed like a very good idea at that moment, just as soon as his stomach let him stand up.
"I shall return to my lab," he heard Snape say and he really didn't want his victim to run away, but there wasn't a lot he could do to stop it.
As revenge moved away from him he realised that he was probably going to get to know the toilet bowl very well.
The nausea was beginning to pass after about three quarters of an hour, but Harry was still feeling sorry for himself, and he was in the mood to be decidedly antisocial. Draco had stopped trying to make him talk or do anything for that matter after five minutes of prying him away from the toilet and had moved to the desk and was reading a text book of some sort. Harry was sitting on the bed sulking, or at least that's what his lover had told him he was doing. Harry for his part had no intention of stopping even if he was just being difficult; as far as he was concerned he had every right to be annoyed (although Snape's fate had been relegated to maiming rather than outright murder now).
It was not exactly the best time for someone to come calling and when Jeremy announced that Professor McGonagall was waiting outside Harry almost told the portrait to tell her to go away, but Draco got there first.
"Let her in please, Jeremy," the Slytherin said, much to Harry's growing outrage.
The portrait looked to Harry and then back at Draco, and it was a credit to the power of Slytherin determination when his door guardian decided to obey Draco rather than the unhappy look Harry was sporting.
"What if I don't want her to come in?" he demanded pointedly, standing up and glaring.
"She's your head of house," Draco said looking back at his book, "and she has been fighting your corner since the moment she set foot at the Manor. Now be polite."
The urge to maim and rend almost switched focus to his lover at that moment, but the get out of jail free card kicked in and derailed his anger just as Professor McGonagall walked in. He looked awkwardly at her for a moment and her eyes ran over him and then to Draco. The head of Gryffindor had never been one of Draco's biggest fans, in fact it could be said that Professor McGonagall had been glad when Draco had not returned to school for his seventh year and she still appeared somewhat uncomfortable with him in the room.
"Good morning, Harry, Draco," Professor McGonagall greeted politely.
"Hello," was about the nicest response Harry could manage.
"Good morning, Professor," Draco was far more charming and stood up as he spoke.
That appeared to cause a quandary in the head of Gryffindor; it seemed to Harry as if she had expected more of an opposite response where he was the overly polite one and Draco the surly. Well he was in no mood to play nice, so quite frankly Draco could lay on the charm as much as he liked as far as Harry was concerned.
"I'm afraid there was an unfortunate incident with a potion this morning," his lover continued to speak to his head of house as Harry just glared, "and Harry is not in the best of moods."
"Snape bloody poisoned me is what happened," he said pointedly, totally ignoring the fact that he was swearing in front of the head of Gryffindor.
Understanding dawned in Professor McGonagall's eyes and she smiled sympathetically at Harry.
"Ah, I see," she said in a very understanding tone, "I can understand how that would be unpleasant. I was just dropping in to discus the arrangements for Miss Granger, Mr Weasley and Mr Longbottom to visit, but it may be a better idea to delay the meeting if you are feeling unwell."
Part of Harry jumped for joy, but the rest of him went cold. Although the idea of the visit terrified him on one level, the social part of his nature had been longing to see his friends again. The suggestion caught him totally off guard and rather derailed any annoyance he might have been feeling. He opened his mouth to object, but found himself far too conflicted to speak, and, not knowing what to do, he sat down and stared at the floor. These days, when it came to any interaction with the outside world he seemed to spend his time in a perpetual haze of confusion. He rather forgot he was not alone as he did his best to sort out the mixed emotions that had so suddenly swamped him.
"Harry," he snapped back to reality as someone spoke to him and he looked up quickly.
Professor McGonagall was standing only a few feet away and she appeared concerned, Draco was only another foot or so behind her.
"Are you all right," his head of house asked kindly.
"Confused," he said shortly, but mainly because he couldn't explain it beyond that, rather than because he was still sulking.
"Would you like to talk about it?" Professor McGonagall enquired supportively.
It was a genuine question rather than anything born of forced feelings of responsibility so Harry considered it for a moment, but slowly shook his head. He really did not think he wanted to explain what he was feeling.
"It's difficult," he said and hoped that his head of house would not push.
As it was she nodded in acceptance and looked around the room.
"As you wish, Young man," she said agreeably. "Perhaps we should discus the arrangements for this afternoon and decide on timing later. Would you mind if I sat down?"
It was then that Harry realised what Professor McGonagall had been looking for: somewhere to sit.
"Um," he said apologetically, "Professor Dumbledore usually conjures himself a chair."
That caused the witch to smile.
"Yes, well, the headmaster has rather particular taste in furniture," she replied fondly, "however, I was led to believe that the Room of Requirements would provide whatever is needed by the occupants. Would you care to do the honours or shall I?"
It had not occurred to Harry that he could add to what was already in the room, and it dawned on him that maybe he had been being somewhat dense.
"Um, I'm not sure how," he admitted sheepishly.
"Concentration, Harry," Professor McGonagall said, almost as if she was at the head of a class teaching; "the key to most magic is concentration."
That sounded far too easy, in Harry's experience magic was actually concentration and some hideously complicated words and actions, but although he was a peevish dark creature he was not about to contradict Professor Minerva McGonagall to her face. Voldemort was one thing, an annoyed McGonagall was another, and he had already dealt with the only one he had any intention of engaging.
"So all I need to do is think hard enough?" he asked, honestly intrigued.
He had stood in the hallway concentrating to make the room into what he needed many times, but once inside, changing it had never come up. His head of house nodded with a small smile. Dubiously Harry closed his eyes and concentrated on a mental image of the high back chairs that the staff used in the Great Hall. He really wasn't sure the room worked in quite the way Professor McGonagall seemed to think it did, but he was willing to try.
"Thank you, Harry," his head of house's voice broke through his concentration and he opened his eyes to find the chair from his mental image sitting next to his head of house.
He did not bother to hide his surprise. His eyes flicked to Draco and then back to the chair: this opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
"So, Harry," Professor McGonagall said cheerfully as she sat down, "about this afternoon."
Harry heard the entrance to his room open as he shamelessly hid behind the almost closed bathroom door. He had recovered from Snape's potion, and managed to restore his better mood, but that was rapidly changing again. Jeremy was under instructions to let his visitors in when they arrived and Harry had been cowering in the smaller room for a good ten minutes; quite frankly he was terrified.
"Ah, Harry must be in the bathroom," Professor McGonagall said pleasantly as he listened at the door, "I'm sure he won't be a moment."
Harry swallowed hard and stared at his reflection in the mirror; so different. Would they be able to see him under the physical changes his condition had made, or would they just see this dark creature which stared back at him? The idea of slamming the door home, locking it and screaming for them to go away briefly flitted through his head, but he managed to suppress it, just. Biting his lip nervously he reached for the door handle, and tried to bring his thundering heart rate under control.
Pulling back the safety barrier between himself and his friends was one of the hardest things he had ever done, and he stepped into the main chamber with all the confidence of a ferret amongst a heard of hippogriffs. His friends were all stood around the library area and appeared to be pretending to look at various book titles as if they were the most interesting thing in the world. Professor McGonagall gave him a supportive smile as he hovered just inside the room and Neville was the first to turn.
His friend's eye went wide and Neville's mouth turned into a little round 'o'. If one thing could always be relied upon, it was Neville's complete inability to hide what he was thinking. Harry almost bolted.
"Harry," the flustered Gryffindor said, which of course caused Ron and Hermione to both look in his direction as well.
Ron just stared, face completely blank and Hermione was the first to move. To Harry's growing horror she hurried across the room, and if he hadn't been quite so shocked he might have reacted defensively; as if was, when she threw her arms around him he simply froze completely.
"Harry," she said into his shoulder, "we've been so worried."
He was assailed by a confusing influx of instincts which ranged from the desire to remove the threat of the very powerful witch who was embracing him, up to wanting to return the hug. It left him rather shocked and stiff in his friend's arms. Hermione was nothing if not persistent, however, and she held on until eventually he managed to overcome his conflict and awkwardly embraced her back.
"Hello," he said quietly as she finally pulled back.
The genuine smile on Hermione's face rather took his breath away, she seemed so pleased to see him and he couldn't understand why he didn't horrify her.
"When they took you we were frantic," Hermione said earnestly, "I'm so glad you're back and in one piece."
"With added extras," he said far more bitterly than he had meant to.
For a moment his friend frowned at him and then pursed her lips.
"Yes, well we can help you with that," she said firmly, "I'm just glad you're alive. One reason to be thankful for Voldemort's complete insanity; anyone with any sense would have just killed you."
It was typical of Hermione to be practical and Harry did not quite know how to react. He had expected horrified reactions, fear and a division that could not be breached, but it was almost as if he hadn't changed at all. It seemed that Hermione was still quite willing to express her forthright opinions, and she didn't seem to be remotely nervous of him. In fact all he could feel from her was a deep curiosity, sympathy and happiness; he was rather at a loss to know how to proceed.
"Well," Professor McGonagall said in her usual, kind but firm tone, "having dispatched my duty in delivering your friends, Mr Potter, I shall take my leave. I hope you all have a pleasant afternoon."
It was funny how the woman could be so formal one moment and almost like an eccentric aunt the next.
"Thank you, Professor," Harry said politely even as part of him wanted to beg her to stay and maintain the position of chaperone.
"The wards will allow you through from this direction, Miss Granger, Mr Weasley, Mr Longbottom," Professor McGonagall said pleasantly, "and there is no need to let anyone know when you leave; the protections will inform the headmaster when you choose to return to Gryffindor Tower."
"Thank you," Hermione spoke for the other three.
As the door closed behind the Professor, Harry felt as if the ground was opening beneath him. Hermione may have been taking everything calmly, but Neville still appeared shocked and Ron was not reacting in anyway Harry had come to expect from his best friend. Whether he liked it or not, Ron was the epitome of a fiery redhead and Molly's son was like his mother in that he tended to be very emotive. The fact that Ron barely had any expression said far more than if his best friend had been raging around the room.
"You seem to have been doing a lot of reading," Hermione made an opening gambit to break the stillness that had fallen the moment Professor McGonagall had left. "You must have half the restricted section in here."
"I don't think they're actually here until I need them," Harry said, willing to take the opening for what it was. "I'm not quite sure how it works, but Dumbledore said something about the books being images until I want to read them, and then the library lets me borrow the real book when I take it off the shelf. I've been trying to figure out what I am; I had never even heard of some of the creatures on Snape's list."
Hermione smiled at that.
"Well some of them are a little obscure," she said, "I had to look some of them up as well."
Perversely, Harry couldn't help enjoying that; stumping Hermione was almost unheard of and he smiled back.
"I'll have to make a note on the calendar," he said lightly; "'Am something Hermione didn't know about, have achieved life's aim.'"
This time the bitterness was far less pronounced and his friend politely ignored that it was there at all.
"How are you feeling, Mate?" Ron finally entered the conversation.
Several curt answers came to mind, especially after the potions fiasco, but the part of Harry who was glad that his best friend had chosen to speak won the race to his mouth.
"Pretty bizarre," he admitted honestly, "but I think I'm getting the hang of some of it. If I snap at you, don't take any notice, I have a foul temper these days."
"So what's new?" Harry couldn't help staring as Neville launched in boldly.
For a second he was so shocked at his friend's words that he didn't know how to react, and Neville appeared ready to run if necessary. Eventually a heartfelt laugh bubbled up and out of his throat; maybe his fellow Gryffindor had a point. He had almost forgotten how good it felt to simply laugh and he was very happy to see a smile replace the unsure look on Neville's face.
"Yeah," Harry said lightly, "you could be right. Just if I get in a snit don't get between me and the furniture; it can cope with my frustration. Shall we sit down?"
That brokered confusion in his friends since there was apparently only one chair in the room.
"Three piece or a table and chairs?" Harry asked pleasantly.
"Something comfortable," Hermione said, catching on.
Harry closed his eyes and made a firm picture of furniture similar to that in the Gryffindor common room in his mind. After his little try and success at asking the room for things earlier that morning, he hoped fervently it worked this time. When he opened his eyes there were two arm chairs and a sofa sitting in the middle of the room and he smiled, pleased with himself.
"Perk of living in the Room of Requirement," he said lightly as Ron looked at him in a rather startled manner.
Taking the lead he flopped down into one of the chairs and hoped the others would follow him. Unsurprisingly, Neville took the other chair and Hermione and Ron sat down on the sofa; it was so completely normal that for a moment Harry could almost have believed they were all in the common room. It was a pleasant feeling and he managed to hold onto it for a good few seconds before reality insisted on being acknowledged.
"So what have I missed?" he asked in an attempt to keep his mood buoyant.
"You're better off in here," Ron said in almost his normal tone, "it's gone mental out there. As soon as the special edition of the Prophet came out the world ground to a halt; lessons weren't officially cancelled yesterday afternoon, but I don't think anyone did any work, and the girls have been wandering around decorating anything that doesn't walk away."
"Not all the girls, Ron," Hermione corrected lightly, "and you're only annoyed because Lavender tried to make you wear that flowery banner. It's good to see people celebrating."
Harry looked at his best friend's uncomfortable expression.
"Flowery banner?" he asked, knowing that this had to be interesting.
Hermione actually looked gleeful at the enquiry.
"The seventh years have been doing Hippies in Muggle Studies," she said brightly, "and Lavender has decided that flower power is the perfect way to celebrate peace. Flowers are turning up everywhere, and she has enlisted half of Hufflepuff as well. Since she doesn't have you to work with, she decided that Ron, as your best friend, was a valid target and she tried to stick him into a banner proclaiming peace and love with bright pink flowers."
"Yeah and if Hermione hadn't been good at undoing sticking charms I'd still be wearing it," Ron said in a very affronted tone.
"It clashed with his hair," Neville said with a laugh.
"Wasn't bloody funny," Ron grouched, in his annoyance seeming to forget any awkwardness.
Harry knew, as a best friend, he should have agreed with Ron and commiserated with him, but he couldn't help himself as he laughed. Lavender could be insistent when she felt like it and he could just imagine Ron trying to get away. When it came to any threat they had ever faced, Ron had been there ready to deal with it, but his best friend was hopeless when it came to coping with stubborn girls. The betrayed looked on Ron's face was a picture and just made Harry laugh harder.
"Sorry, Ron," he apologised between chuckles, "but I wish I'd been there to see that."
"Yeah, well if you had been there she wouldn't have bothered with me would she?" his friend said sulkily.
For once it appeared that Ron would have preferred to play second fiddle to The Boy Who Lived. For a brief second Harry wondered if in his altered state he'd have a similar reaction to Ron, or if he'd try and eat Lavender for her trouble. He managed to sit on the morbid thought before he could dwell on it, but it sobered him a little. It looked like another awkward silence would fall when Hermione elbowed Ron in the ribs and looked at him rather meaningfully.
"Wha... oh," Ron was as clueless as usual to begin with. "We went to Hogsmeade this morning, what with the day off and all, and since you can't go yet we brought you some stuff."
His friend then fished in what Harry realised was a suspiciously stuffed pocket and produced a handful of sweets. Then a small problem popped up as Ron looked for somewhere to put them. Quickly Harry closed his eyes and concentrated on a coffee table, which dutifully appeared between.
"Thanks, Mate," Ron said almost absently and dumped the contents of his hand on the new piece of furniture.
"Dobby told us there were some things you couldn't eat any more," Neville said conversationally, "but sweets were okay."
Harry felt strangely warm inside as he realised how much trouble his friends had gone to for him.
"Yeah," he said around the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat, "it's really weird; saved me from the Ministry trying to drug me though."
"They did what?" Hermione sounded outraged.
"I think they wanted to make sure I wouldn't be any trouble while they took me somewhere," Harry said quietly, "but they put whatever it was in the porridge and I couldn't eat it."
"Idiots," his friend raged bluntly, "with your physiology as it is now anything could have happened. They couldn't possibly have known what would be safe. Thank Merlin Dumbledore took over."
"Um, yeah," Harry agreed, although this wasn't really the direction he wanted the conversation to go and he regretted his earlier words. "Is that what I think it is?" he asked, seeing a familiar looking red lollipop on the table.
It was a diversionary tactic, but it worked as everyone looked down.
"Blood flavoured lollipop," Neville replied brightly, "my idea."
"Thanks, Nev," Harry said in kind and snagged the confectionary with a grin.
The other three just sat there, watching him as he began to unwrap his prize.
"Well," he asked as he noticed, "isn't anyone else going to have something?"
That broke the stillness and his friends dived in as well. It was when he stuck the lollipop into his mouth that Harry suddenly decided that maybe he had made a mistake. The moment the flavour burst onto his tongue his fangs descended in response and he kept his mouth firmly closed to hide them. He had not expected his physiology to react to the sweet, and he did not want to frighten his friends with more strangeness. The major problem was that he couldn't remove the lollipop without revealing that he now had long, vicious fangs in his mouth. For a moment he panicked; unfortunately, Ron noticed.
"Harry, Mate, you okay?" his best friend asked.
"Uh-huh," Harry mumbled around the sweet in his mouth, not sure how he could get out of this one.
A quick trip to the bathroom seemed like a sensible option, but he couldn't exactly explain with the lolly in his mouth and he couldn't take it out so he was rather stuck. The confectionary really did taste rather good, but that was not helping his predicament at all.
"Are you sure, Harry?" Hermione asked in her usual, slightly concerned manner.
All three were looking at him now and he really didn't know what to do; he couldn't even speak like this. They all appeared so worried, and eventually Harry gave up. He'd lost this round and he had to take the consequences. Very slowly he opened his mouth wide enough to remove the lollipop and in doing so revealed his fangs.
"Um," he said awkwardly, looking anywhere but directly at his friends.
"Well I've never seen anyone react that way to a lollipop," Ron said suddenly; "makes me wonder what reaction we could get with a liquorice wand."
Harry glanced up quickly at his best friend's words and was surprised to find a half smile playing at Ron's mouth. When his eyes flicked to the other two Hermione gave him a supportive smile and Neville shrugged. At that reaction Harry managed a sheepish grin.
"I wouldn't chance it if I were you," he said quietly, matching Ron's tone.
That finally coaxed a laugh out of his friend. As he looked at his three year mates he was very glad for such accepting friends and he only hoped that he would never do anything that would make them regret their faith. Relaxing just a little he sat back in his chair and popped the sweet back in his mouth; he might as well enjoy it now that it had embarrassed him.
The real chat began then, rather than the forced camaraderie and Harry found himself joining in with the meaningless banter. Ron wanted to talk about Quidditch tactics since, as deputy Gryffindor captain, he now had responsibility for the team, but Hermione and Neville managed to head him off after only a few minutes. There would be plenty of time for that later and Neville, who it had turned out always knew all the gossip, began to give them all the low down on every bit of scandal from around the school.
They were doing really well, laughing and joking about the misdemeanours and indiscretions of their fellow pupils, until an obvious topic came up; one of Ron's favourites, and then things went down hill.
"The Slytherins are as weird as usual," the epitome of Gryffindorish directness said rather spitefully, "half of them are really quiet, and you just know they must be planning something, and the other half of them is pretending that they wanted You Know Who dead all along."
Harry's hackles went up straight away; he knew where this was going.
"They're not all..." he tried to head it off before it went any further.
As usual when winding up into a rant about Slytherin house, Ron was oblivious.
"As if we didn't all know that they're junior Death Eaters," his best friend continued. "I know for a fact that some of their parents are You Know Who's lackeys."
Harry glared at Ron, but it did no good, his friend was not taking any notice.
"Take Draco bloody Malfoy, for a start," Ron was really on a roll. "One of the Hufflepuffs gave him a peace flower and can you believe that he actually wore it. Him, of all people, a peace flower!"
Anger flared in Harry and he balled his hands into fists as his best friend continued to rant.
"Ron," Neville's voice was low and nervous.
"It's like You Know Who himself joining in," Ron was far too into his stride to listen and Harry was becoming tenser and angrier by the second.
"Ron, shut up!" Neville sounded a little desperate.
That finally brought Ron's rant to a halt and he looked over at his dorm mate rather annoyed before looking directly at Harry. Ron's eyes went wide and he sat back, away from Harry, which at another time would probably have hurt, but Harry was far too angry to worry about it. Dark ideas were travelling through his head and the power to carry them out lurked very close to the surface.
"I was almost a Slytherin, Ron," he said, his voice low and dangerously resonant, "would you have said the same of me?"
"Harry, I..." Ron tried to say something, but Harry was not interested.
"Tarring them all with the same brush is a bad as them calling Hermione a Mudblood, or denouncing Muggles as being stupid just because they don't have magic," he continued, angry on several different levels.
Part of him was annoyed that Ron had insulted and tried to denigrate Draco; another part was angry that his best friend was still drawing lines in the sand; and yet another was furious that with attitudes like that, all he had been through would likely end up as nothing.
"Are you your father, Ron?" he asked pointedly. "Do you want to go and work for the Ministry in a little office because you're obsessed with Muggle devices? Do you have a plug collection? They're children, Ron, they're not demons or monsters or murderers. They can be happy he's gone as much as you."
He was working himself up, he knew it, and yet he couldn't stop it. With a snarl he stood up and walked away, leaving a deathly silence behind him. His temper was too high, his anger too hot and he did not trust himself in the vicinity of his friends. Ron was just blowing off steam, Harry knew this intellectually, but he could not separate his emotions from his response and he did not want to take the risk of staying close to his best friend. He went and stood by the bed post the same way he had with Dumbledore, just in case he needed a target, but wrapping his arms around himself he tried to bring his raging feelings under control without destroying anything.
"Harry," eventually Hermione spoke, "is everything all right?"
He didn't turn, he didn't dare, and he was almost sure he heard slight fear in his friend's voice. It hurt to know he was failing so badly. How could he have let himself frighten Hermione?
"I'm sorry, Mate," Ron sounded genuinely remorseful and Harry wondered just how badly he had frightened his best friend.
Ron was sincere, that much Harry knew, but he was on the verge of asking them all to leave.
"You know Ron, Harry, always running off at the mouth," Neville tried to joke.
"It's just that they're all having fun," Ron tried again when Harry did not respond, "and you're stuck here and it's so bloody unfair."
Harry's anger seeped away and he slowly looked round; all three of his friends were looking at him worriedly, only they didn't seem worried about what he might do, they were worried about him. He wasn't sure whether he wanted to hug them, or scream at them not to be so stupid, couldn't they tell he was dangerous to them. What to do next seemed like such a difficult thing to decide.
Eventually Hermione leant forward and patted his empty chair.
"Come back and sit down," she said coaxingly and gave him a winning smile, "no more talk of Slytherins, Ron promises, or he'll have me to deal with as well."
Now Ron looked aghast and paled considerable, which Harry found ironically funny. He managed to smile slightly as he realised Ron was more scared of Hermione than his friend was of him. Seeing that, Harry felt just a glimmer of hope breaking through his dark mood; it was not a lot, but it was something to hold on to.
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