Hello, everyone. Boy, am I glad to see this community. :)
I'm new to writing HP fiction. I haven't had much luck finding a consistent beta. Work, course loads and waning interest in the books have made it difficult to snag someone steadier while I learn the ropes of beta-searching.
I've been writing my novel-length fiction, "Plagued," on and off since early summer. The first chapter is posted under The Dark Arts section of Fiction Alley.
I've combed over this draft several times, but it's certain that I've missed details here and there. Critiques, as well as canonical and grammatical corrections would be most appreciated.
Aaaand on with the fic.
Title: "Plagued"; Chapter Two draft
Section Rating: R
Pairing: None...for now.
Summary: Harry didn't expect it to happen, but it did: he survived the confrontation with Lord Voldemort. Though the wizarding community is quick to leave (though not forget) the event in the past, the war has left deep marks and challenging obstacles in the recovery effort. While Harry tries to reintegrate himself with homework and school intrigue, a sinister and virtually undetectable enemy threatens to infiltrate Hogwarts -- and if it's not stopped, what remains of the magical community.
Disclaimer: Harry Potter characters belong to J.K. Rowling. No profit is being made, nor are copyright infringements intended by this fic.
Warnings: Harry, sans his right hand. Please read Chapter One for background info. Sorry for the extra work, guys. ^^;
Draco expected Azkaban Prison to be many dreadful things: dark, cold and overall soulless.
Not hot, airy and noisy.
"Surprised, signorino?" grinned Lorenzo Amadei, the tortoise animagus and one of the present prison wardens of the small island fortress. "Fortune has smiled most undeservingly upon these men, but not me. The Dementors, they fled. But poor Amadei, he is sent here."
The prison, deceivingly small from the outside, yawned into a cavernous honeycomb of cells equidistantly partitioned off by protruding walls and fat iron bars. Entering the nave of Azkaban was like walking into the pit of a coliseum peopled by gibbering madmen. The din grew as Draco and Narcissa stepped into the light. Narcissa laid one gloved hand on his shoulder.
This lower-most level lacked cells, but ten hollows in the crude masonry had been carved out. In these burned long, craggy branches that emitted no smoke or scent.
“Gubraithian Fire,'' Amadei murmured, catching Draco staring at the flames. “Sealed but forever burning inside those walls. They are enchanted, you know, signorino, enchanted to hold prisoners with a magic predating human sorcery. The stones are cruel.''
Draco suppressed a shiver. Dementors or not, those sentenced to Azkaban are destined to go mad.
Amadei stopped before a round metal plate embedded on the granite floor, engraved with intricate runes and demarcations. The warden held his hands out, palms-down over the glittering thing, rumbling a spell that Draco couldn't understand. No sooner had the words escaped that two more voices -- one an octave below Amadei's, the other high and soft like a child's -- began to chant in harmony.
A steel lift materialized where the plate once was.
Amadei stepped inside, waving in the two skeptical Malfoys. Two arcing cuts gaped at the center of the man's veined palms, their loose flesh flapping like parched lips.
Draco felt his stomach roll as the lift rose. Transport was slow and steady, but there was something abnormally unsettling about it. The magic powering the motion felt old and dark, sentient. It reminded Draco of Great-grand Aunt Regina, a very distant relative of the extinct Marvolo family who married into the Malfoy line. She was no good with wands and was practically a Squib. But unusual things always happened around her -- flying plates, invisible cackling from the dark corners in which she sat, her cold, cold skin. The air around the woman had the tight, compressed energy of poltergeists. Lucius always suspected that she was the reason behind Great-grand Uncle Augustus Malfoy’s early senility.
The lift stopped eight stories in the air. A beam of light about a foot wide shone between its floor and a cell adjacent to them.
"You will not fall," Amadei said, stepping out. The liverspots on his bald head reminded Draco of greasy stink pellets. "The bridge won't let you. Come, your time is limited."
Draco forced himself to look forward as he maneuvered himself on the beam. As they cleared half the light bridge, a wizard locked in a cell to their left erupted in gleeful laughter. The disheveled man, sparingly dressed in ripped and dirty robes, leered appreciatively at Narcissa. He pressed a hand below his belt and ran a slimy tongue over blackened teeth. Draco could hear his mother's breath, quick and shallow, trying to breathe as little of the refuse-sour air as possible. He began to sweat and willed his wobbling knees and thighs to hold him upright.
"Malfoy," Amadei banged unnecessarily on the bars enclosing Lucius. "Visitors. Eximos."
He ran a gnarled hand over the flat length of blue stone gleaming where a keyhole and knob should be. A great grinding noise filled the air as the door rolled open.
Lucius moved slowly from his reclining position. His cell was no more than seven feet long with barely enough room for a flat pallet and a chamber pot.
"Welcome to my castle," he said by way of welcome, sardonically sweeping his arm in mock grandeur. He had lost half his weight and numerous infected cuts crisscrossed his face, neck and arms. His light eyes were lit with a feverish fire, though his voice retained the nuanced impatience of an aristocrat.
Finally Narcissa spoke, lacking her usual commanding air. "Lucius. Oh, my god."
They stared at each other before he turned to Draco.
"I heard the most interesting rumor from the warden," he said, "that you, my son, were at Hogsmeade that day. Praytell, what form of unbelievable idiocy prompted you to disregard my advice?"
"Lucius," Narcissa cut in.
"Quiet, woman. I want to hear from the boy himself."
Draco locked his knees. The pain was becoming intolerable under his father's icy scrutiny. A breath of air stirred Lucius' hair, a bird's nest perched atop a dirt-streaked forehead. Draco wished with pathetic futility that Dementors still kept guard; they would have taken the edge off his father's predatory curiosity.
"I was there for the last rendezvous of the league," he replied, applying a vague title to the auxiliary pro-pureblood group Marcus Flint founded. "We were to discuss contingencies in the event the Dark Lord breached Hogwarts."
"Draco, need I remind you that his plan was to capture Harry Potter, and not the castle's six hundred inhabitants?"
"I thought it best to prepare for anything, Father. Potter is not shy to hide behind Dumbledore's aprons. In retrospect, I think it worked out for the best. Me being at the siege didn't prove I was in any way guilty -- I wasn't waving my wand around like a maniac happy to be with his mob -- only unfortunate."
Lucius made a grab for Draco's collar. The air separating them glowed blue and deflected Lucius' hand. A low-grade hum sounded.
"No physical contact!" Amadei yelled a few cells down.
Lucius clutched his hand. It was raw and red, as though it had been scalded. "I will not tolerate such insolence!"
"Had you kept me informed of your affairs, none of us would be required to 'thank' Dumbledore or Potter!"
This visit had been made possible by Dumbledore. He made the arrangements -- over-riding Snape's decision, even -- to excuse Draco from Hogwarts over the weekend to see his father. Draco wished the headmaster rejected his mother's request; he hated being indebted to someone he could barely stand.
"Spare yourself the humiliation of thinking in my stead." Lucius' eyes flashed. "Your judgment has consistently been an issue when it comes to trusting you with his affairs. Again, you prove that you lack the temperance to stay silent. Your passion makes you careless. And an unnecessary liability."
Draco felt the words settle in his stomach like lead. "You know I wanted to be a part of the cause."
"There is no cause now!" Lucius snarled.
"I know that, Father, why do you think I've come to you?"
"For what purpose? To share my cell?" He laughed.
"Certainly, you and the others have talked --"
Lucius examined his son -- fine-boned and darkly clothed in fur, leather and indecision.
"We can't communicate to each other," he said through gritted teeth. "There is an unbreakable Babble spell that distorts sounds here, a new precaution against potential uprisings. The inmates don't understand each other. In the past year I've been here, the only unfiltered sounds I've been privileged to hear are my voice and this most pleasant family reunion."
Draco stood speechless.
"Find your own cause," Lucius finally said, turning his back to Draco and Narcissa. "I'm your father, Draco, not your puppeteer."
PLAGUED: Chapter Two
"The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future, or not to anticipate troubles, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly." -- Gautama Buddha
Gilderoy Lockhart felt a tickle in the back of his throat. He wanted to cough, but something about the electric nature of the sensation stopped him. The wizard before him withdrew his wand, a look of officious satisfaction on his long face. Gilderoy found him distasteful, though he couldn't help but admire his attire: a navy three-piece robe with a matching vest, pressed so sharply that the crease of the collar looked fit to cut flesh. Percy I. Weasley, court recorder, the wizard's identification tag read.
"Thank you kindly, Mr. Weasley," Gilderoy said, nearly going deaf at the boom of his voice.
The wizards and witches facing him in the amphitheater-style room flinched or grumbled. Madam Florence Pickwick had warned him of the Wizengamot courtroom's sophisticated acoustics, but he wasn't expecting how understated that foreword would be.
"State your name, sir," said a tall witch dressed in forest-green robes. She had a beautiful voice, a deep contralto that reminded Gilderoy of thick honey.
Madam Pickwick, his caretaker at St. Mungo's, nodded encouragingly at him from the back of the room.
"Lilderoy Gockhart," he said.
A red-haired teenager sitting in the first row coughed rudely into his hand. The small, puffy-haired girl sitting next to him dug her elbow into his ribs. The only other teenager in the room was the one on trial, a Harry Potter. The lad in question stared straight ahead, his cold green eyes fixed on the seal of the Wizengamot and United Kingdom's wizarding coat of arms.
"Er." Gilderoy took a quick glance at his palm. "My name is Gilderoy Lockhart. Not Lildero --"
"Mr. Lockhart," the witch interrupted, pacing back and forth in front of the witness stand and the raised platform where the Minister and her cabinet sat, "why did you give the court the wrong name?"
Gilderoy felt his confidence ebb. Madam Pickwick would have let him finish his sentence.
"Madam, I'm afraid I haven't the full knowledge of my magical self," Gilderoy said. "I am in the midst of memory reclamation at St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies."
The witch was nodding. "Tell us what you do know about yourself, prior to your admission into the hospital."
Gilderoy puffed out his chest. "I was a celebrity, apparently. Many people clamored for my photographs. I used to sign them with joined-up writing."
"Is this information something you already knew? An indication, perhaps, of your recovered memory?"
"No, madam. Madam Pickwick told me about me."
"Mr. Lockhart, what do you know that others didn't already tell you?"
Gilderoy shifted uncomfortably. "Nothing."
"And these young people," she swept a hand in the direction of the redhead, the girl and Harry Potter, "do you recognize them?"
He paused, trying to remember where he had seen that freckled face. He did look familiar.
He felt indignation bloom in his chest. How could he have forgotten them?
"Yes! Yes, I do remember!" he boomed. "These...these children had the nerve to visit me during Christmas holiday two years ago," Gilderoy replied, his hands balled into fists on his lap. "They were to have tea with me. I was in the middle of autographing my pictures when they left. Left without a word! As though I was someone forgettable, someone to be cast off in their mind! They took advantage of this celebrity!"
Silence greeted his outburst. Potter's face paled.
"You had not met them prior to that visit?" the witch asked.
Gilderoy shook his head. "No. No, I would have remembered if they did. Not very many people visit me."
"Thank you, Mr. Lockhart." The witch faced the Minister and the officials fanned out around her. "Madam Minister, Mr. Lockhart's irreparable memory loss proves again that Mr. Potter is capable of magic beyond his years. It would not be surprising if he shared this knowledge to his friends. How many twelve-year-olds know how to bounce a spell from an adult wizard?
"Furthermore, records recovered from former Minister Cornelius Fudge show little to no investigation for magical infractions. Administration of under-age magic, erasing the memory of a teacher -- these were dismissed rather lightly, considering the consequences attached to such violations. Mr. Lockhart's mental well-being is an example."
Gilderoy gaped at Potter. He was responsible? But his eyes kept straying to the redhead, willing his mind to remember something. Anything.
"Madam Boot," Potter hissed through clenched teeth, each syllable a cutting staccato. "Are you suggesting that my intentions were and have always been malicious?"
"We don't exactly know that, Mr. Potter. Mr. Fudge and his associates, as well as your school faculty, have let your...activities go unchecked since you were eleven years old."
Potter jumped up, knocking his heavy chair back with such force that one of the armrests broke off. "I saved your lives. All your lives. This 'pacificism' you've been
griping over? Well, it doesn't work on overgrown basilisks, Dementors or a crowd of murderous Death Eaters. I wonder where you would be -- would you still be coming home every evening to your family, your fancy meals and your fancy life? -- if I hadn't been such the bloody trouble-maker you Fudge Ministry toadies make me out to be!"
"Order! Mr. Potter --" Minister Amelia Bones banged her gavel several times. It proved ineffective as the entire courtroom erupted in an uproar. "Everyone, please! --"
"Oh, Harry," the girl groaned, her face in her hands.
"That's right, everyone argue over what I did wrong!"
"Shut up, mate!" the redhead leaned over the waist-high partition separating the front-row seats from the floor. "Calm down, Harry..."
Potter twisted around to face the hundred or so wizards gathered at his hearing. Gilderoy followed his gaze. The French delegation was arguing furiously with the Germans and Russians. One of the Americans -- a chubby man dressed in stars-and-stripes -- managed to worm himself into a Muggle-wizarding squabble between the French and Welsh group seated behind him.
“Oh, my,'' Gilderoy stammered, his amplified voice drowned out by the roar of disputing wizards and witches.
Potter resumed his seat, a savage and satisfied look on his face.
"As it now stands, even a baboon could concoct a more effective Resuscitation Potion," Snape sneered. Acid-green liquid was coagulating on the right side of the phial pinched between his laboratory tongs. "Might I remind you that this formula is fundamental to the next four you will brew this month?"
He stepped down from his lecture dais to poke Ernie Macmillian's sleeping form with his foot. Ernie gave a couple of snorts before turning to his side. He was snoring.
"Who brewed his Sleeping Draught?"
Pansy raised her hand.
"Five points to Slytherin," Snape said sleekly before zeroing in on Neville, who was half-awake and sprawled under the table he shared with Ron.
"What is this?" He sniffed delicately at the air around Neville, his brow furrowed. "Weasley, explain yourself. Wait, nevermind."
Using his wand, Snape rolled the dried puffskeins piled on Ron's cutting board. One burst, spraying the table with the creature's thistle-thin innards.
"What part of 'dried' and 'preserved' was so difficult to understand, Weasley?" Snape pointed at the mess. "Ten points from Gryffindor for sloppiness. I suggest paying closer attention to Professor Sprout's lessons."
Grumbles rose from the Gryffindor side of the dungeon. Snape ignored them and moved on to the Hufflepuffs.
"I told you to a week in advance to dry the puffskeins," Hermione said. "You know there aren't enough ingredients to go around until Diagon Alley is rebuilt."
"Stop nagging. Scourgify!"
"I should have said something," Neville spoke up after drinking Hermione's draught. "I suspected the puffskeins were a bit off."
"As in 'not dead enough’? Appreciate it, Neville," Ron said. "Make me look barmy, why don't you."
Hannah Abbott, seated at the table in front of them, looked on sympathetically. Dean was cleaning their cauldron after producing a somewhat decent potion.
"As much as I like the idea of a three-house class," she said in undertones -- like Neville, Hannah's greatest phobia was Snape's attention -- "I've never seen Professor Snape so..."
"Git-faced?" Harry offered.
"Judgmental?" Dean suggested.
"Evil?" Ron asked.
"No," Hannah said, taken aback. "Vindictive."
Potions mercifully ended with no further Hufflepuff or Gryffindor house-point deductions. After submitting phials of the day's assignment, the class pooled out into the hallway to join the Ravenclaws, Hufflepuffs and Slytherins leaving History of Magic.
"Looking a bit peaky, aren't they?" Ron said, as Padma Patil and Susan Bones yawned past him. "I reckon Binns hasn't changed much of his lessons since the big cross-house curriculum was implemented."
"Who cares?" Harry asked. "I'd rather be bored out of my skull than sit through two hours of Snape."
Classes ran later than last term's. The absence of two instructors, a slice of the student population and dwindling supplies had called for a major revision of classroom lessons the likes of which the school hadn't seen in its nine-hundred ninety-seven years.
"Harry," Hermione tugged at Harry's sleeve, her voice pitched low. "About this weekend --"
"Hermione," Ron glared at her furiously.
She had been pestering Harry since they returned from Saturday's trial. Ignoring the blatant cues Harry had been giving out -- tense silences, leaving the Common Room, everything short of telling her to shut up -- Hermione persistently tried to get him to open up after the near-riot he incited.
The trial had to be moved -- again -- and Althea Boot, the lawyer cross-examining Harry, had to be escorted outside after a thick-necked Pierre Delacour tried to hex her.
"'E saved my daughter's life! Eediot woman, oh, I am so relieved Fleur didn't emerge ze winner...Unhand me, you British peegs..."
"Look, Hermione, he doesn't want to talk about it." Ron, like everyone else, had been alarmed by the proceedings. But he wasn't about to poke the proverbial dragon with a sharp stick.
"He's right, Hermione, I really don't. Stop making this about you and your curiosity."
Hermione looked hurt. "But this is about YOU, Harry --"
"Hermione, could I speak with you for a moment?" Terry pushed through the crowd. "About prefect duties and NEWTs? I'm sorry to interrupt, Harry, I swear I'll have her back in a mo'."
He avoided Harry's eyes.
"What the hell is the matter with him?" Harry asked, watching Terry and Hermione head the opposite way, toward the library.
"His mum was the lawyer who cross-examined Lockhart. Sure knows how to make a bloke feel bad about living, doesn't she? I won't be surprised if Boot's got an inferiority complex. What a battle ax."
Harry grumbled noncommittally. Ron made a choking noise as Boot lowered face in order for Hermione to speak closer to his ear. Ron abruptly stopped to crane his neck for a better look. Not even the steady flow of students plowing toward the Great Hall made him budge. It was like watching a flood sluice around an immovable tree.
"What pratty plan has he got up his sleeve?" Ron sputtered. "I'm taller than he is but you don't see me keeling over so Hermione – her of all people! -- could talk into my ears. Ugh, who would want to subject themselves to more of that yammering?"
More students were making their way toward the Great Hall, their voices competing against other threads of conversation. The staircase leading to the third floor gave one final heave to empty the third years -- the school's smallest class -- from Charms.
"What do you reckon they talk about?" Ron said to Harry, who appeared uncomfortable being in everyone's line of vision. "Those two have been spending too much time together. You don't suppose they talk about school all the time, do you?"
Harry shrugged. "Buggered if I know. Let's eat, I don't have much time until I serve detention tonight."
Ron looked sympathetic. But he continued to grumble about Hermione throughout dinner, though he spared some time to greet Sebastian Summers, a sixth-year Hufflepuff prefect dining at the Gryffindor table next to Natalie MacDonald.
Visiting houses was no longer unusual, though the Slytherins rarely left their fold. Dumbledore had been especially pleased by this overall development and made no secret of it in the weeks after Voldemort's fall. It also went without saying that the experimental cross-house study system had been encouraged, despite initial doubts about its negative effects on in-house relationship-building. If Hogwarts' next headmaster agrees with Dumbledore's new education policies, this year's first years would be the last to experience cross-house hostilities. At least, that's the hope, anyway.
"-- it's probably the most boring conversations too," Ron went on. "'Oh, Terry, let's lord over the others by --' "
"You could be such a child, Ron," Hermione said, seating herself next to Harry.
Ron had the grace to look embarrassed. Hermione helped herself to some chicken and roasted potatoes, annoyed. Lavender Brown gave an excited shriek a few seats down. She and the Patil twins were sharing a copy of Witch Weekly and eyeing Harry with guilty yet undisguised interest. When he looked over, the three dissolved into nervous giggles before turning their attention to a magazine quiz.
"Witch Weekly has an article about your net worth," Hermione said. She sounded quite peeved. "You're ranked the fourth-richest in the United Kingdom, right behind the Malfoys and Aidan Lynch."
"How much did that thing say I was worth?"
"In the millions."
The clattering of silverware against plates and the sounds of merry conversation were reminiscent of Hogwarts before the massacres. But eeriness prevailed: the din was too overjoyed, as though making up for and deflecting attention from those who were no longer there. To Harry, the sounds were shrill. In the back of his mind, the conversations masked a whispered chant: It's because of you, it's your fault...
He felt Hermione's hand on his forearm. She squeezed gently, perhaps in apology, but more likely to comfort him. With Ron, Harry had a tumultuous but unbreakable bond of brotherhood; with Hermione an inexpressible understanding. She was the one of the few who perceived him without pride or competition.
"Don't be stupid," she had scolded Harry during Sixth Year, when he worried himself into a fit of influenza in the weeks after Hagrid's mysterious disappearance. He had been blamed (again) for what the The Daily Prophet called "overabundant favoritism. The actions of the Hogwarts faculty in fighting Mr. Potter's war often result in sub-standard education for the rest of his peers."
"You know he wouldn't do anything he couldn't handle," she had said. "If you can't trust Dumbledore, trust Hagrid."
Hagrid made it home in time for Christmas, dragging himself to Hogwarts grounds from the Urals, limping and grinning. He had been mortally wounded in a diplomatic mission gone awry: a renegade clan of giants in Eastern Europe had allied themselves with vampires and set a trap for Hagrid, Olympe Maxime and her sister Josephine. Hagrid died of incurable infection shortly after Josephine, the weekend before winter term started.
"No vengeance," Ron had told Harry the day of the funeral. His eyes were so bruised from crying. Hermione had been inconsolable. "Not right now."
"That's right," Harry agreed, ice in his voice to match the falling snow. "I’m going to see to it that the bastards who did this stew in hell."
No one had been required to attend the ceremony, but more than a hundred students showed up for the candlelight vigil to pay their last respects to the dead half-giant.
Grawp's beady eyes had peeked through the gray skeletons of trees of the Forbidden Forest. The centaurs hung back in the shadows, announcing their presence with one sorrowful note from Bane's horn. The faint silver of what might have been spidersilk glinted at the gap where the path into the forest began, between two giant conifers. Harry thought he heard Aragog cry out, a sound just within the cusp of hearing.
As for Harry's vow to avenge his friend’s death -- he didn't get too far. Under orders from Minister Cornelius Fudge -- it was the man's last order before he was ousted from office by a faction backed by Amelia Bones -- he was detained for a conspiracy charge. He was held up in the court system long enough for the vampire-giant contingent to escape to Russia. Dumbledore had also assigned Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks to shadow Harry, their combined personal and tactical knowledge stymieing his, Ron's and Hermione's plans to even research Hagrid's mission.
He was trusted to face down Voldemort, but never the truth behind the death of loved ones like Sirius Black or Rubeus Hagrid. Harry was always robbed of finality, of the closure everyone else seemed privileged to have.
Harry's chest gave a painful throb. He willed his eyes to focus on Seamus' ear, the far wall, anything unrelated to his godfather or friend. He fought the awful prickling behind his eyes. He blinked hard and managed to pat Hermione's hand. She gave his left wrist a final squeeze before reaching for her goblet.
"You've been haring off with Boot since term began," Ron was saying. "But I suppose he's better than Krum. At least he doesn't walk like a duck."
"Since you'll not be bothered to ask me directly," Hermione sniffed, "for your information, Terry and I were talking about everyone's progress. You know, if this keeps up, we'll not be overwhelmed by the practicals that will be integrated in our lessons this term."
Hermione had her head cocked precociously to one side, her jungle of hair making her look unnecessarily wild.
"Practicals? Isn't that what we've been doing since sixth year?"
"Oh, honestly, Ron, don't you ever listen during the meetings?"
Ron rolled his eyes.
"Very soon, we will be required to put our lessons to greater use. We'll be helping in magical rebuilding efforts."
Cho Chang, her unresolved issues with Cedric Diggory and Harry Potter cast aside, had the cool, calculating mind of a token Ravenclaw. Her analysis was typically sharp and often supplemented by dense apocrypha and endless footnotes. If she had an official motto, it would be: Logic in magic.
Philosophy intrigued her, but Cho was enamored by figures. Numbers -- parts, wholes, sequential -- to her made up the elegant backbone which supported and gave meaning to the magical world.
"That weight is not exact," Cho remarked to Draco Malfoy, whose pointed noise was an inch away from his measuring scales. "For better calibration, use whole bagworm moths. A missing fragment could cost you one degree less of potion efficacy."
They were in one of the smaller dungeon rooms under the castle, along the narrow corridor that ended in the cold, low-ceilinged Potions room. This sublevel was clean and lacked the lived-in feeling of the hallways and passages of the castle's upper floors. There were no statues, tapestries or paintings, enforcing the belief that the Slytherin entrance is accessible through a wall. Rumors abounded that the doorway varied depending on the days, subconsciously adding to the house's unfavorably sneaky reputation.
"There aren't many whole ones left, Chang," Draco said testily. "I'm making do with what I have."
"No, you're not. Accensereo!"
She poised the tip of her wand over a transparent flake on the potion-seared table. What used to be an insect wing gingerly reattached itself to an incomplete moth lying topmost on the scales. Cho was supervising the concoction of a Skin-Sealing Potion, a standard item packed in mediwizard bags in jellied form and injected into wax chews for easy transport for Magical Hit Squads. It accelerated skin and muscle repair, and was ideal for stabilizing deeper wounds simple spells can't staunch.
"Chang, as much as I appreciate your help ---" Draco made an exaggerated point of pausing contemplatively. "No, I take that back. I don't. As much as you appreciate helping out an old friend, you are an exasperating teacher."
Cho quirked an eyebrow. "There was a time when you begged for my help."
"We were six." He lit a small fire under his pewter cauldron, slowly pouring a viscous pink fluid that immediately sizzled after making contact with the metal. The resultant steam smelled like melted alkaline. "Things are different now. We're different."
"Because of my father."
Draco next emptied a small plate of dark mullein anthers, cloudy puffs that brought the solution to an angry simmer.
"Everyone hates my father," he said, "and yours is no exception."
Cho watched him add lacewing flies and fine slices of dittany stems into the cauldron.
"So why'd you choose to be that Pomfrey woman's helper? What happened to playing for Tutshill Tornadoes? Did you chicken out? You're still not whining over Diggory or Potter, are you?"
There was never a time when Draco had been anything but cutting. Cho's father had resorted to under-the-table dealing with Lucius during the 1970s, when the wizarding financial world was dangerously inert. It was an alliance he regretted later. Cho and Draco, along with other pureblood children, grew up together and attended the same primary school for magical youth.
"Man is the head of the household," Tien Chang told Cho when she was eight, and miffed that her invitation to play Quidditch with Draco was rescinded. "But the woman is the neck that turns the head."
Cho had since learned to pay greater attention to Narcissa than Lucius. The woman was slick and slippery. Cho wondered if it was her Black blood that won the Malfoys a seat in the inner sanctum of the Dark Lord. She thought it a shame that Draco took to model himself after his father, who was savvy with his acquaintances, but unappealing and antiquated to strangers. It at least explained Draco's Victorian mannerisms (when he wasn't being a brat) and his knack for creating overly complicated but not-so-fail-proof plans to show up Harry Potter.
For awhile, it seemed adolescence put an end to their uneasy friendship. That she gained entrance to Hogwarts at ten earned his envy. Cho missed who they were. Sometimes, looking at seventeen-year-old Draco was like looking at a caricature of Lucius. People generally have depth -- of mind, spirit or otherwise -- but Draco had a knack for projecting a one-sided personality. The only time the facade broke was during her sixth year, when she and Harry Potter (unsuccessfully) dated for almost one term. Draco had been relentlessly mocking. It was the only time his public actions hinted that he knew her as more than a name.
Understanding Draco was like concocting an impossible potion, she thought, her tilted eyes watching his. It's tedious, never pretty, but worth the work.
"We need you on our side," she said.
"Yes, everyone’s eager for any side of Draco Malfoy."
Cho shook her head. "I meant, in reconstruction plans," she corrected herself. "You're your own man now."
"I've always been my own man. Besides, a few make a mess and now everyone is responsible to clean it all up?"
Cho sucked in a breath, and backhanded him hard across the face.
They remained quiet until the Skin-Sealing Potion concluded its one-hour-boil.
"Shall I?" he asked, unfolding a small knife.
She shook her head, reaching over to take the blade. He didn't resist, turning the decorated handle toward her.
"Allow me," she said with new-found rancor. "Trust me when I say that I see you being at the other end of a knife more than once in the course of your petty life."
Draco laughed mirthlessly. "That's what my father says. Ow."
"You haven't changed, Draco. You'll make an excellent parrot for someone someday."
Cho was already cleaning the blade. Draco looked down and saw that the web of skin between his pointer finger and thumb had been sliced in two places. Blood stained his palm, ran in thin rivulets along his heart and life lines.
Draco poured a small amount of the solution over the broken skin. Flesh-colored slivers adhered and attached to the ragged gaps, forming a temporary but translucent scab. The area around it itched.
"See?" Cho said. "You have to be willing to invest the time if you want to do things right."
She spied Sterling Fawcett out of the corner of her eye. It must be seven-thirty, the two's scheduled time to study together. Cho bid Draco a chilly "good night" before gathering up her notes. She brushed past Sterling, who looked equally unhappy to spend a Monday evening with a Malfoy.
"Luna Lovegood just asked me the weirdest question," Ron announced, bursting through the common room entrance and startling Ginny, who was exiting as he was coming in.
He had been flying. And judging from his hair, clothes and sweat -- flying hard. He made a beeline for Harry, tossing his broom on the couch, likely rescuing his friend from Hermione's one-on-one study sessions. Harry was occupied with writing left-handed, a wobbly task that made his barely legible handwriting officially unreadable.
"What did she want?" Harry asked, relieved to be interrupted.
"Lunch with me next weekend. At Hogsmeade." It wasn't clear whether Ron was pained or giddy with the invitation. His loss for words illustrated itself in the jerky way he ran a big hand through his hair, or the way he half-laughed and half-barked the details.
"What did you say?" Hermione asked.
"I didn't say anything. Snape appeared out of nowhere and threatened us with detention if we didn't clear the hall. Damn. To think that I'm actually thankful that he likes to meddle in students' private lives…" He looked like he was about to vomit. "Anyway, I don't know why she even asked me to go there, of all places. I mean, that's no place to be right now... Just when you think she can't get any battier, she asks me to visit Hogsmeade on Valentine's Day weekend."
"Ron." Hermione made as if to shake him, changed her mind, and slapped her forehead instead. "Tell me you're not serious."
Taking her reaction as an invitation to share his theories on Luna Lovegood, Ron stepped into the neat circle of textbooks and sandwiches, plopped himself in the middle and began pushing away rolls of parchment. Hermione nabbed them before his shoes dirtied them.
"So. There I was, flying around the pitch with Fawcett. That bloke's got his own pep squad, mind you, can't go anywhere without girls falling all over themselves to hold his towel. Would you believe Luna's one of them?"
"It doesn't sound like her," Hermione said, disapproving. "Anyway, you've got it all wrong, Ron --"
Ron held up a hand. If he let her get a word in, he was bound to end up doing one of three things: feeling guilty for airing his own opinions, doing homework or going to a meeting.
"Afterwards, she stuck around, kind of waiting to get me alone. She caught me at the Charms corridor and asked me there."
Ron again buried his hands in his hair, his fingers running their circuit from root to the tendrils that brushed his shoulders. He resembled a young Bill Weasley -- without, of course, the dragon-fang earrings, or jungle cat reflexes.
"The funny thing is," he continued nervously, "is that I do want to go with her."
Hermione made a sniffy sound that Ron or Harry hadn't heard since they were eleven.
"Do stop flattering yourself, Ron," she said with unexpected hostility. "She wasn't asking you out on a date. Luna's part of the first batch of students assigned to help repair a section of Hogsmeade with the Ministry's recovery team. Each student is allowed to bring a partner to split their work."
"Oh. That explains why she asked me to bring my broom," he retorted sarcastically. "Of course, I know that, Hermione. The part where she asked me to have lunch together? Alone? Absolutely unexpected."
Harry snorted. Hermione made more sniffing noises.
"Blimey, Hermione. Can't you let me enjoy being asked out by a girl, even if it's just Loony Luna?"
"You don't even fancy her."
"Why are you getting shirty over it? You don't care about stuff like this!"
Hermione grimaced as though she was just force-fed exploding Blast-Ended Skrewts.
"You're right," she said hotly. "I don't care."
Cho looked up from her parchments. She had been in the middle of recording the hospital wing's inventory. The list of items in short supply was longer than those they had in abundance. Unfortunately, most of them were for health cases so rare and severe that they were in greater danger of rotting away than running out.
Harry was standing in the doorway, looking quite sullen. After his altercation with Draco last week, McGonagall had given him ten days' worth of evening detention at the hospital wing. He was to help catalogue and convert some of Professor Sprout's recent herb harvest into medicine.
"Hi, Harry. Um. Come in."
The beds were empty. Cho and Harry were alone, with exception of the Old Doctor jumping up and down in one of the portraits. The other character paintings had visited the fourth-floor, presumably to watch the Fat Lady re-enact "Tristan und Isolde" with Sir Cadogan, of all people.
"You're helping me stock up on herbal poultices and elixirs," Cho said, rising to stow the parchments in the leather sheathe Madam Pomfrey kept in one of shelves lining the south wall. "That, and reattach wings and other mandibles to insect ingredients."
Harry wrinkled his nose. "Really."
"Yes. We need anything and everything we can get. Just in case."
"I doubt anything will be happening soon," Harry replied breezily. "I guess I shouldn't complain. You could've put me to clean bedpans."
"I'm not cruel. Emotionally unstable at times, but never cruel."
For a moment, it looked like Harry was going to smile. But he didn't. He had not in a long, long time.
"Anyway, here." Cho led him to a long table crowded with bowls, square plates and labeled jars. The pungent smell of mixed herbs was spreading to the far corners of the hospital wing.
She picked up a bowl and tilted it up for Harry to see. It was filled with transparent flecks of broken moth wings.
"Use the Attachment spell to make those -- " she gestured to three bowls of wingless, legless and headless bugs "-- whole."
"Yeah. No half-arsing like Malfoy."
He looked insulted. "I'm nothing like Malfoy."
"Great. Get started, then. I'll join you after I finish with some paperwork."
"Cho? I need the incantation."
"It's 'Accensereo.' Stress is on the second syllable. Quick jab forward with the wand tip."
Without another word for her, Harry seated himself in front of the bowls, his expression inscrutable. He pulled out his wand, darkened and pockmarked from the midway point to the handle. She listened for his voice once in awhile. He performed the spell so quietly that it was obscured by the sound of her quill on parchment.
At the end of her record-keeping, she helped herself to the pitcher of water Madam Pomfrey kept chilled and freshly flavored with ginger. Cho poured a glass for each of them. She had polished off most of hers by the time she brought Harry his glass.
She knew Harry had changed since they last spoke, but she was hardly prepared for a demonstration.
"I can get my own bloody glass of water just fine, Cho," he snapped venomously. "I don't need you to treat me like an invalid."
Cho was so stunned that she dropped her own glass. It shattered on the meticulously cleaned floor.
"Clean! That! Up! Now!" roared the Old Doctor, who had hopped on an empty patient's bed in the painting’s foreground.
She bent to collect the larger pieces. Luna Lovegood had been right. Harry Potter was gone. The one she knew had been awkward, eager-to-please but always sweet. The one in front of her was bellowing nonsensically at the top of his lungs.
"I would have brought you a glass, one hand or two hands," she said, still collecting glass in a dream-dazed state. One of his feet had ground the biggest piece into fine grainy shards.
"You're just like everyone else, walking on eggshells around me."
"Fine!" Cho snapped, shooting up from her squatting position to jab a finger in his chest. She regretted it immediately; he was a foot taller and looked ready to throw her across the room. "I'll think twice about being decent with you! Honestly! No one can do a nice thing for the hell of it without you...without you acting out!"
"Acting out?" Harry grabbed her wrist. Cho gulped.
"Stop acting out!" the Old Doctor screeched, pressing his face close to his frame. "Unhand her, you brute!"
Something passed over Harry's anger, a shadow eclipsing another shadow. He blinked, and for the first time since he came in, he truly saw Cho -- shaking with loathing and fear. Harry pushed her away.
"I'm sorry," he said, bending down to help her. But the remaining glass had been crushed, debris to a passing stranger. "Look, Cho, I --"
"Forget it, Harry," she said. She felt like crying. "Forget it. Go back to your dormitory."
Harry narrowed his eyes. He grabbed his wand and stalked off.
Cho sagged against the nearest bed post. She felt the pressure around her shoulders melt. She felt numb, and suddenly cold. Time with Harry Potter was even worse than time with Draco Malfoy.
She swiped her forearm over her eyes. When her vision cleared, she caught a house elf in mid-vanishing. It had left an envelope on the ingredients table.
Cho dumped the glass shards in the nearest waste bin. The letter was addressed to her. She didn't recognize the seal, but the handwriting eliminated the need to guess. She ducked into the small office at the rear of the room, rummaged through Madam Pomfrey’s bureau and found what she was looking for. The letter-opener whispered against the tissue-soft paper.
I hope this letter finds you well.
Papa recently informed me that you are serving your internship at Hogwarts.
What a fantastic coincidence! for I shall be visiting the school.
Headmaster Dumbledore has kindly invited me -- though I suspect it's mostly to quiet my
We have much to talk about.
I look forward to seeing you, it has been too long. I shall be arriving 16 February.
"Oh, no," Cho breathed.