Stand Tall

Chapter XVII


Shadows danced across the lumos lit walls of the Shrieking shack as Harry danced across its creaking floors. For some time now, the only sound within its walls was that of Harry's ragged breathing and half-gasped spells, and the relentless, metronome-like barrage of Sirius' own. They had left Remus leant forward and watching, chin resting on steepled fingers, sharp eyes watching their every move.

"You need to be faster, Harry. Death Eaters won't give you an opening," Sirius said airily, a smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth even as his wand blurred.

Flushing red in frustration, Harry ducked between two bolts eerily familiar emerald green and twisted around the third spell in Sirius' chain rather than erecting a shield, allowing him to respond to the older man's barb with a stinging jinx. He hissed not a moment later, as a sharp sliver of pain shot up his legs and sent him sprawling to the floor.

"And you can't allow yourself to be so easily manipulated. To your feet, kiddo."

Harry didn't move, trying desperately to catch his breath through the pain of his burning muscles. Just as he was starting to feel on top of his breathing, he heard Sirius shift, and another injection of pain rifled through his other leg, knocking it right out of him again. He barely muffled his own cry of pain and tried to scramble to his feet.

"I said on your feet!" Sirius barked, as Harry staggered into an off-balance run and three more spells cracked harmlessly against the coarse wood floor of the Shack.

So it had been for the past hour, and so it would be for an hour more until Sirius finally allowed him to sink, sweat-drenched and exhausted, into a ragged mauve couch conjured by Remus. With a sympathetic smile, his scarred former professor handed him a cool glass of water and threw a towel Sirius' way.

His Godfather wiped away the light sheen of sweat from his own brow and dropped to the floor beside him, his back resting easily against the couch.

"I'm sorry to push so hard, Harry," he began, but Harry was already shaking his head.

"You don't have to apologise for a thing Sirius. I get why this needs to be as intense as it is. I'm not only training for the Tournament here. Voldemort won't be hitting me with stingers."

"If I could think of any other way, Pup, believe me, we'd be taking it. But there just isn't one. Me or Remus would give our lives to keep you safe in a heartbeat, but this is Voldemort we're talking about. Roguish, handsome bad-ass I might be, but Voldemort would put me down without much thought—"

"The second half of that sentence is true, at least," Remus muttered, eyes rolling and eliciting a muffled snigger from Harry, but Sirius went on unperturbed.

"—not to mention all of the obscure magic he has at his disposal to get you away from us without even a fight. You have to be as ready as we can make you so that you have a chance of getting away."

"Just getting away isn't good enough though," Harry muttered, flashes of vivid green clouding his mind. "It will be me and him in the end."

He saw Remus and his Godfather exchange cagey glances out of the corner of his eye and his instincts flared. They knew something.

"What makes you say that, Harry?" Remus asked, tentatively. Harry couldn't help but notice it wasn't a flat denial.

"A feeling. Instinct, I suppose. Ever since seeing him in first year in the Forest, it's felt as though we're tied, somehow. I couldn't recognise it at first, but now its like I can feel when he has a hand in something going on around me. I felt it in first year, and second. Now I can feel it again around the Tournament. He's involved somehow, or his followers. His presence—his…taint, is all over it."

Another look, and his temper began to stir. "That's the second time you two have done that. What is it, what do you two know?" He demanded.

Sirius winced, and he could have sworn he heard Remus whisper "…sharp for his own…"

"We don't know anything. Not for certain," Sirius said placatingly.

"But there is something."

"Something is a good way of putting it. I'd really rather not put this on you until we know for sure, Harry."

"Please don't start keeping secrets from me. Not you two. I've always been put off with the reasoning that its for my own good, only to have not knowing costing me later on…"

The look the older men shared this time was different, and Harry caught Remus nodding almost imperceptibly.

"Fair enough, Harry, but this can't leave the Shack," Sirius said. "Dumbledore is already cagey enough about our contact with you, and the degree we could be having an influence. If it gets out you know…"

"Then Dumbledore will see to it this is the last thing I know until he decides otherwise."

"Exactly. Anyway, the Order met two days ago. Not the small gatherings with the most trusted we've been doing—Dumbledore called in everyone. Made it official and initiated a whole bunch of new folks ready for what's coming."

"That all sounds like positive news, we need every wand we can get to be ready, right?"

"Indeed," Remus' tired voice interjected. "However, the meeting itself was unlike any me or Sirius had attended before. There were some minor tasks dealt out to help us start to build influence, both with the Ministry, as well as with the various magical communities whose support will likely be crucial to the war effort. That much we expected."

"What we didn't expect, however," Sirius followed on, "was for the majority of our time and manpower to be devoted to organising the protection of two things: a location within the Ministry itself, and, well, you."

Harry's eyes widened. "What, why? I can understand why Voldemort wants me gone, so some help is probably to be expected. But that much?" The knot forming his stomach tightened, as the implications began to settle in his mind. "Unless my instinct is right. Dumbledore knows I'm stuck in the middle of this, too."

"That was our feeling. There was more, but it's pure conjecture on our part. We'd like some time to verify before we pass it on for you," Sirius said, raising a hand to forestall the objection that was already on the tip of Harry's tongue. "I promise we will, Harry. Once we know for sure, we'll tell you either way. Remember what I told you, as great a wizard as he is, we're not Team Dumbledore this time around—we're team you."

"He sees far too much," Sirius muttered, concern marring his face.

Remus slumped into the couch beside Sirius where Harry had been a few minutes prior and sighed. "He's never had the luxury of being able to miss when something's wrong. Living with those bastard Dursley's means he's always had to stay attuned to the mood changes of the adults around him. Coming to Hogwarts and all of the danger he's faced since has done nothing to allow him to relax."

"Fuck, Remus. How could every single one of us have failed him this bad? I should have been there. We should have been there."

Remus' hand fell reassuringly upon his shoulder. "We both have a share of the blame, but we both know it's not the totality. More and more I'm beginning to believe that even back then, we've put too much faith in others."

Dumbledore. Everything eventually wound its way back to him. Him and his schemes, none of which seemed to be to Harry's benefit in the end, no matter how benign they might seem at first.

"We need to find out what's in that prophecy, Remus. Harry needs to know, no matter what that old bastard thinks."

Remus nodded, but he could tell by the strained look in his old friend's eyes that the werewolf had already come to the same conclusion that he had, the conclusion both had been afraid to vocalise ever since Dumbledore had assigned Order members to guard duty in the Hall of Prophecies at the Ministry.

It was a pensieve Harry that found himself following Blaise to a scarcely used potions lab in the Dungeons of Hogwarts the following day. As ever, the dimly lit corridors of the lowest part of the castle were bathed in an almost supernatural chill. It was almost instinctively he'd applied the warming charm to himself as he'd descended, but the cold seemed to pierce right through to his bones regardless.

Typically, his Slytherin companion appeared utterly unruffled by the change in temperature. Sure enough, neither were the two Slytherins sat within the lab awaiting their arrival.

As he followed Blaise into the lab, he eyed the pair carefully. Pansy seemed to jerk upright before catching herself, attempting to mask whatever emotion had caused the reaction. Her eyes were bright, though. Intense. They fixated on him as he ambled in, alight with an emotion Harry couldn't identify.

Daphne, in sharp contrast, leant back on her stool against the desk behind her with her legs and arms crossed. She, too, watched him enter carefully. Her gaze was something else entirely, taking his measure just as keenly as he was attempting to take hers. Similar to Blaise, she was every inch the quintessential Slytherin, at least at first proper meeting. Ice cool, calculating and an edge that held just the faintest hint of ruthlessness.

A year ago, Harry would have steered well clear. Today, all he could see was potential.

"Daphne. Pansy," Blaise began almost lazily. "Harry Potter, as requested."

It was Pansy who spoke first, and beside her, Daphne's lips twitched, the faintest hint of a suppressed smile. "Thank you, Zabini—and you, Potter, for at least hearing me out."

Harry quirked an eyebrow, but for the moment skirted around the core of what Pansy was saying. "I take it, then, that the both of you aren't a package deal?"

"We both want the same thing," Daphne said, "but are here to discuss terms separately."

He nodded his understanding, taking a seat on a bench in front of the girls. "Fair enough. I suppose you can guess my biggest concerns. My relationship with Slytherin House hasn't exactly been stellar since I got here, but I'm willing to accept that the…prominence of Malfoy may be creating an unwarranted prejudice against the rest of you. At least, for the most part."

His eyes drifted towards Pansy, who grimaced.

"You make a fair point," Pansy said, eyes not quite meeting his. "I am willing to offer an explanation in private, and later on that same to all offended parties. In the meantime, Zabini made clear your requirement of a public apology. I'm willing to do so, as long as 'public' does not have to mean 'spectacle.'"

Harry was inclined to agree–despite his misgivings and their past, he had no desire to force anybody to humiliate themselves on his behalf–but something in her expression made him hesitate. There was an edge there, a hint of something unspoken.

Going purely on intuition, he challenged her. "And what if I did require a spectacle, Pansy? Three years of insults and humiliation aimed at myself and my close friends isn't something I can brush off so easily."

This time, there was outright panic. Oh, she was fighting valiantly to hide it, but Harry could never mistake the quiet desperation, the fear. For whatever reason, Pansy had a lot riding on this.

"If you really decide you require it, then I shall," Pansy said quietly, "I want in, Potter. I know I–"

"Tell you what Pansy, why don't you wait outside so I can discuss terms with Daphne first?" He interrupted. "It's fairest for our conversation to be in private."

Pansy's flinch was subtle, but none in the room missed it. She nodded, pointedly ignoring Daphne's gaze, and left. Blaise glanced at him, expression unreadable, before turning his attention back to Daphne.

"And you," Harry said, "I really know nothing about. We've got no history, so I've no real reason to not at least give you a chance. I guess I just want to know why you're so interested? Its not as if we've had any real contact before."

"A fair question, Potter," Daphne said easily. Now Pansy had left, a lot of the iciness in her expression had thawed, and the small smile she wore looked far less of a smirk. "I suppose there's a few answers, really. First, our overall Defence instruction has been abysmal since arriving at Hogwarts. Even with Lupin having been fairly competent, our spellcasting has been seriously neglected. Having watched you in the tasks, it's obvious to see you're the real deal, at least as far as students go. Learning from you will help make up for the nonsense we've put up with so far in preparation for the O.W.L.s.

She leaned forward now, lifting two fingers to emphasise her next words. "Secondly, let's be real here. We both know the real reason for your little club, and we both know what's coming. In the last war, my family remained neutral by the skin of our teeth and the depth of our wallets. Being completely up front with you, my father doesn't trust Dumbledore. He believes that this time around, House Greengrass will not be allowed to stay neutral. Having heard a little of the rumours about you since First Year, he wants to know if you and Dumbledore are serious opposition for the Dark Lord or not, so we can better decide our course."

"Your father is considering Voldemort's side?" Harry asked, ignoring the pair of flinches that came with mention of his name. He wasn't exactly naive, but the idea that someone might willingly side with a monster like Voldemort still repulsed him.

Daphne simply shrugged. "He's not thrilled with either option, to be perfectly honest. The Greengrass' have always been more about mutual gain than moral principle. But if it's a choice between taking a side and a horrible death, we'd prefer to ensure we're on the side that wins."

She sighed, leaning back again and fixing him with a serious stare. "Personally, I'd prefer your camp to theirs, both for my own benefit and from a moral standpoint. But morality isn't a hill I'm willing to allow my family to die on. I think you'll have a big role in all this. I'd even like to help, if I can. But I need to be able to show my father that House Greengrass should stand with House Potter with more evidence than just my feelings."

Harry forced himself not to swallow. Daphne had just thrown a lot at him, with consequences far greater than he felt able to think about right now. For the moment though, the immediate response was thankfully obvious. He wasn't a fan of how Daphne saw the world, and even less of how her family did, but she sounded genuine in her reasoning, and he couldn't think of a reason not to allow her to join at least the practical part of their group.

"Thanks for explaining, Daphne. I don't really see any reason why you shouldn't join. We'll let you know when the next meeting is. Just be careful not to talk too much about it. We don't want any of the professors getting wind just yet.

Daphne rolled her eyes, and stood. "I'm Slytherin Potter, no need to state the obvious. But, thank you nonetheless."

She left, and without a word, an usually timid looking Parkinson walked in and took a seat. Harry frowned and caught Blaise's eye and was surprised to see as much concern there as he felt.

"Sorry about that Pansy, I figured there was something deeper going on and wanted you to be able to speak freely, without Daphne here. Why is it you want to join so badly, Pansy?"

To his surprise, her hands balled into fists, and he could see them tremble, even from a small distance. "I know it seems a lot to ask to take me on faith, Potter. I know I've hurt you and your friends. I've done and said horrible things to you. But I need to. I need to be better with a wand. I want to change. There are things I can't explain–at least, not yet, but–"

"You're in. No spectacle required," Harry said suddenly, voice low. The familiarity he felt with the girl opposite him should have been impossible, but listening to her in that moment, he finally recognised who she was. What she was. He didn't understand the context of course, but he knew the emotions. He could see the result.

This was a person who needed help, but had none, just like he had been once. He didn't know why, or how she needed it, only that she did. He recognised it just as surely in her as he did in himself, and so he required no thinking time. It was a risk, and she couldn't be trusted, but Harry had long learned that life was often about choosing between right and easy and the right things most worth doing were often the most difficult. This was no exception.

Regardless, Pansy's eyes shot up in surprise. The emotion clear in them should have surprised him, but he felt familiar with that, too. She had expected him to refuse. Or, worse, to lead her on and get her to humiliate herself, and then refuse.

He knew it, because that's how he thought.

"Th-Thank you, Potter," she muttered, making another valiant effort to disguise her emotions, and failing miserably. "I really mean that."

Harry nodded. "Will this cause problems for you? Like, with Malfoy?"

She shrugged, but Harry already knew the answer. He glanced back at Blaise, who nodded in response and turned towards Pansy.

"If you're with us, Pansy, you're with us. If Malfoy attempts to harm you in my presence, he will quickly learn not to. If, however, you betray us," he said, dark eyes glittering in the dim light. "I'll see that you regret it. You're smart enough to know what this is, what you're doing by joining this group."

"I understand fully," she said, far more composed in the face of the threat than she had been at any point of the conversation so far. "Potter, yourself, Weasley and Granger will have my apologies individually whether you would require it or not. Thank you for giving me a chance. It means more than you know."

And with that, Pansy left, leaving Harry with yet more to think about. A girl who needed their help, and a girl who absolutely did not. Their group had grown once again, and hopefully, so had their list of allies. He just hoped that his instincts were correct, and they could both actually be trusted.

At the very least, in the short term, they were two more bodies who could help with their search for Luna.

Deep brown eyes watched their prey from the shadows, a small satisfied smile playing on their face. The girl half stumbled ahead, eyes distant, their usual drifting gait entirely absent. She was hers now. Smile broadening, she stepped out after the other girl, ambling down the corridor behind her.

To the right, a door made from ornately carved oak faded into view, and the other girl practically fell into it. For a moment she scrambled, frantic, at the handle, before the door opened and the girl rushed inside, eyes wide and desperate.

She followed, her own excitement building.

Inside, she barely noticed the mountains of objects, both strange and mundane, simply weaving between the great piles like a leaf in the breeze. She could feel it now, the thrilling tingle of power like static across her skin. The bond between them. The heart they shared. It pulled her towards it, just as it pulled the prey she followed. Except she had remained in control, retained her mind.

She was the master now, never again to be the puppet. Never the puppet.

Finally, she found her prey once more, exactly where she knew she would find her. Kneeling down before the strange bust–just another useless, irrelevance, unlike what she held in her hands. She supposed even to regular people, those who wallowed in sad lives without the bond, it once would have been a beautiful accessory.

She was not one of those people. She was something more now, and became something more every day. To her, it shone with an almost blinding radiance, pulsating with strength and power, just waiting for someone to reach out and take it. There was something else, though. Something hidden. A trap for those who tried to take what was not theirs.

It had taken her a while to figure out how to circumvent that, but the solution had wandered right into her path one night when roaming the corridors. Her prey. She watched, entranced as the power bled into the kneeling girl holding the object, making them shine together like the sun.

When it was in her hands, she could feel them both, strength coursing through them, and her own resonated with theirs, yearning to join with them. But it was not time. Not yet. She had to bide her time. Play it safe.

But soon, when the time was right, she would simply have to reach out and take it. The strength to fulfil her every desire.

The strength to make them all pay.

For a moment, a flicker of pity welled up inside for the girl on her knees, her prey. She did not deserve her fate. They had even been friends once. Before she had changed. Evolved. But, she crushed it with ever growing ease.

It was a price that simply had to be paid to crush those that had so wronged her. She almost giggled at the thought of them. They hadn't noticed. Not even her own family. But then, they never did. Not since arriving at Hogwarts. They never noticed her pain, never noticed the sheer suffering. This time she did giggle, muffling the sound with her scarf. They would notice soon.

She would make them.