Two Tasks over, now only one to go. Minerva sighed as she made her way down the corridor on automatic, not really paying attention to where she was going. Her mind was playing back the Second Task.
That man and his sweet tooth. Minerva shook her head in amusement and alighted the stairs. Pausing outside the door, she could hear voices. One was Albus’, the other was Harry’s.
Both wizards looked around as she entered, and for a second she thought she was seeing things. Albus had his wand trained on Harry, who was bound to a chair and looked greatly frustrated.
“Er,” Minerva announced her presence, “what on earth is going on?”
“Professor!” Harry had never looked more relieved to see her. “Could you tell Professor Dumbledore I am Harry Potter and not an impostor?”
Minerva looked questioningly back at her boss. “Albus?”
“Could you tell Severus his Veritaserum isn’t working?” Albus replied.
“Albus! You’re using Veritaserum on a student?” Minerva snatched the tiny bottle from his hands. “For goodness’ sake, what’s got into you?”
He folded his arms defensively. “Well, if he’s not an impostor, maybe he could explain how a dead teenager can walk around completing Triwizard Tasks?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Er, he said the merpeople told him I drowned,” Harry said uneasily. “Last month.”
Albus looked triumphant, but Harry was now staring at his trainers. Minerva bit her lip.
“Last month,” she told Albus quietly, “Harry had an accident -”
Harry shook his head. “Tell him the truth.”
“Wha – Are you sure?”
Albus was looking back and forth between them, obviously confused. “Minerva?”
“Harry nearly drowned in the lake last month. I never said anything because …” She looked back over at Harry.
“Because it was a suicide attempt,” Harry said dully.
Albus blinked, and blinked again. He opened and shut his mouth a few times. Finally he said, “Oh.”
Chapter One: Misconceptions
Hermione Granger was holding all the aces.
A page from Witch Weekly rested on a table, between two cups of coffee and a plate of biscuits. An empty jam jar stood on top of the cutting. In Hermione’s hands was a letter from the magazine, informing Ms Skeeter that they would no longer accept articles from her for the magazine.
Rita herself looked livid, shooting Hermione daggers from the chair opposite the teenager.
“I suppose you’re happy now,” she finally ground out. “I can write what I want about the incompetent Ministry of Magic, but I say one word about your boyfriend and now you threaten to sue Witch Weekly if they accept one of my articles.”
“Number one: Harry is not my boyfriend. And that has nothing to do with his sexuality, is it simply because he is my best friend and more like a brother than anything. And number two: yes, I am satisfied that one publication will no longer allow itself to be a tool for your libel, but I will not be completely satisfied until you can no longer write for any publication whatsoever.”
“So you seek to drive me out of my job.”
“I seek to teach you that writing horrible lies and half-truths about real people for the world to read is not a job: it is a crime. And if you don’t wish me to go to the Ministry and tell them exactly how you managed to find all those half-truths when you were banned from Hogwarts grounds, then you would do well to keep your quill to yourself.”
Hermione had Rita and she knew it. She reached for her tea and took a sip calmly. Rita stewed in silence.
“So,” Hermione continued, placing her cup delicately back in its saucer, “I believe we have a contract to draw up, Rita. Why don’t we say a restraint on writing for one year? Then, if you don’t learn, and go back to your old ways, we can come up with an alternative arrangement. I’m sure the Dementors will love you to give their jobs some media attention from the inside.”
Rita glared, but Hermione had clearly won.
Harry didn’t want to get out of bed.
If he got out of bed, it meant he was acknowledging the fact that it was morning. And he didn’t want to do that, because that morning was the morning of the last day of term. The Hogwarts Express was leaving today.
“Harry? Are you awake?”
He fumbled for his pillow to pull over his head, but he couldn’t, because someone’s elbow was leaning on it.
“Ro-on,” Harry groaned.
“Oh, so you are awake.”
Harry felt Ron slide out of bed beside him. He didn’t remember him coming in during the night.
“You had a nightmare, remember?” Ron said quietly after Harry asked. “Mind you, you didn’t really wake up. I just climbed in and you were calm a moment later.”
Realising gloomily he couldn’t put it off any more, Harry slid out of bed as well and reached for his jeans. “Where’re the others?”
“Breakfast, I think. They woke ages ago.” Ron paused. “Are you okay, Harry? You look really tired. I didn’t want to wake you up this morning, but – well – I thought you wouldn’t want to miss breakfast.”
“I’m fine.” Harry knew Ron was rolling his eyes as he pulled his t-shirt over his head. “Thanks.”
Both boys knew Harry hated admitting weakness. It was frustrating for Ron, but he was understanding – most of the time. For the thousandth time, Harry wondered what he’d done to deserve him, then remembered he wasn’t supposed to be thinking like that.
“I just … I don’t like saying things out loud. It’s not really that I don’t want people to know I find things hard or whatever, I just don’t like saying it.”
“Perhaps,” Professor McGonagall suggested, “this stems from your childhood with the Dursleys? Do you think having no-one to confide in when you were younger is why you still find it hard now?”
“I … guess. It makes sense.”
His thoughts were broken as Ron said thoughtfully, “Did you hear back from Professor McGonagall? About the summer, I mean. Wasn’t she supposed to be talking to Dumbledore?”
Harry nodded, his insides tensing. Some anxiety must have shown on his face, because Ron snaked an arm around his shoulder and planted a kiss on his forehead.
“It’ll be fine, mate. I don’t think even my mum would stand a chance against Professor McGonagall when she knows what she wants. And she’d never let you go back to those monsters, you know that.”
“I know,” Harry murmured. But trying to keep that in mind was another matter.
“Why’s Potter staying here for the holidays?” Severus gaped. “Why can’t he go to his relatives’?”
Albus had dark shadows under his eyes and when he spoke, his voice sounded strained. “Severus, please. I can’t tell you why Harry’s staying here. Not because I don’t trust you,” he added quickly when Severus opened his mouth indignantly, “but because I made a promise that I would not repeat the information to anyone, and I can’t make exceptions – although, honestly, I think the knowledge would do you a world of good,” he couldn’t resist adding sternly. “Just, please, do as I ask and sort out the glamours, all right?”
“You’re insane. You’d need enough enchantments to cover Hogwarts to create a believable image of Potter. Why can’t you just send someone else in his place?”
“Please don’t argue, Severus. I’ve got enough on my plate right now. Just make sure it gets done, please?”
Severus sighed and slumped back in his chair. “Fine, I’ll conjure up a walking, talking hologram of Potter and make it live in a Muggle house for two months without attracting attention. Why don’t I just vanquish the Dark Lord while I’m at it, it should be just as easy.”
“All right, all right. But on your head be it,” Severus grumbled.
Harry could only pick at his breakfast, despite Hermione’s warning glances. Only half the teachers seemed to be at the staff table – Dumbledore, Snape and Professor McGonagall were all missing. It wasn’t till Harry finally pushed his plate away and declared he couldn’t eat any more than the latter two turned up at the Gryffindor House table and led him out into the Entrance Hall and through another door to an empty classroom.
“I’m sorry it took so long,” Professor McGonagall apologised, looking as tired as Harry felt. “But it was worth it, because it’s all been arranged. You’re staying here for the holidays.”
Harry brightened considerably. “Here?” he repeated eagerly, barely believing his luck.
Professor McGonagall squeezed his shoulder. “Yes, here. There are a couple of catches, but those can wait until later.” She nodded at Snape, who had yet to speak. “Professor Snape just needs to finalise a cover for you, and then you can say goodbye to your friends.”
“Cover?” Harry repeated blankly.
“We don’t want people to know you’re staying here,” Professor McGonagall said seriously. “For a start, it’s against the rules for students to be here over the summer, so if the Ministry finds out we’ll all be in trouble; and second, if You-Know-Who knows you’re not at home, here will be the next place he’ll come looking – and with the castle practically empty, it won’t be so hard for him to sneak in.”
Harry shivered. Professor McGonagall smiled.
“I wouldn’t worry, though, if I were you, Harry. I will see you later – there are some things I need to sort out.” She gave him a reassuring smile that said ‘I know he’s a git, but he’s only trying to help, so please cut him a little slack for once’ and departed.
“Well, Mr Potter,” Snape said gruffly, “my instructions were to create a kind of glamoured figure of you to take your place at home – however, I’m sure even a student with as low an intelligence as you will agree is practically impossible in the amount of time, I have been forced to make alternative arrangements. Give me a hair.”
“Your hair, Potter.” Snape held up a bottle of a thick, glutinous liquid which he recognised as being Polyjuice Potion. “Just one will do, I have no desire to drink more of you than I have to.”
“Wait – you’re taking my place?” Harry asked, stunned. “At the Dursleys’?”
“No, Potter, Disneyland.” Snape impatiently pulled on Harry’s fringe.
“Ow!” Harry rubbed the top of his head and stared as the Polyjuice bubbled and turned, to his great surprise, olive green. “Er, sir … are you sure?”
Snape, the potion halfway to his mouth, sneered. “Am I sure I am willing to give up my summer, which would no doubt be filled with marking essays from useless students, to help protect the Golden Boy of Gryffindor, and spend weeks being spoiled rotten by his Muggle relatives?”
Harry found he had no answer to this. As he stood still, doing a goldfish impression, wondering how he could warn Snape about the Dursleys without giving away his secret, Snape himself gulped down the potion, pulled a face, and changed.
Within a minute Harry was staring at himself.