ccvii. spring of youth

March and April slipped by Hogwarts with surprising ease.

The morning after Harriet fled Professor Snape's office, Headmaster Karkaroff showed up in the infirmary, his face bludgeoned and his wits scattered. She heard through gossip among the Durmstrang students that Pomfrey didn't think his problem was severe enough to send him to St. Mungo's, but Karkaroff spent the proceeding weeks confined to the hospital wing, barely cognizant of his own name.

Harriet hadn't told anyone what she'd seen in Snape's office. Her friends already knew Karkaroff was a Death Eater; him having a great dirty Dark Mark on his arm wasn't news to anyone. She hadn't repeated what Snape had done, lunging out of his chair with such violence, Harriet had been spooked. She'd never seen him act like that before, and as far as she knew, that was the last time Karkaroff had been whole—and in possession of all of his teeth.

Was Snape responsible? Because of her? For her? Harriet didn't know. She couldn't begin to speculate on it.

As for Crouch, no one had been able to find him. The Ministry's official stance was he'd gone on holiday, or sabbatical, with no definite day listed for his return. Of course, any person with half a brain knew it was suspicious for Crouch—the bloke integral to the Triwizard Tournament—to leave in the middle of it. However, Harriet and Elara had received a dressing down from a stern-faced Auror about "spreading stories," and the issue had been swept under the rug—at least, as far as the Ministry was concerned.

On the other hand, the Hogwarts staff didn't dismiss what had happened on their grounds. Harriet noticed they had taken to watching the students and others with sharper, warier eyes, and they found more excuses to patrol the grounds. Snape had his N.E.W.T class brewing something called Thief's Downfall, and their steeping cauldrons sat in the back of the classroom, permeating the room and part of the dungeons in a sweet-smelling mist. Beauty and Concealment Charms kept failing on those who passed through, leaving more than one witch or wizard wailing over revealed blemishes or their frizzy, unkempt hair.

Harriet's extracurricular lessons continued apace as the threat of Slytherin's final trial loomed in the distance. On Friday evenings, she showed up to the secondary Transfiguration classroom, and McGonagall drilled her on material compositions, the best conversion pairs, and density. She taught her how to Transfigure with speed rather than intricacy, which Harriet found she enjoyed more than what they did in class.

"You must remember you aren't dueling, Miss Potter," McGonagall told her. "You aren't on a set stage, and there are no judges enforcing rules or awarding points. You have only your own judgment to decide the amount of necessary force needed, and your environment is just as much of a weapon as your wand. It is up to you to use it."

Dumbledore didn't often have time for lessons, and when he did, the summons came at the last second, and Harriet found herself having to make the strangest excuses to escape to the Headmaster's tower. Together, they never visited the same room twice in the castle. Dumbledore seemed intent on showing Harriet the strangest pieces of spellcraft he could discover, then having her attempt to break them down to better her understanding of magic in theory and application. Of course, the bust of Barnabus made a reappearance, and Harriet suffered trying to rip the blood bow tie off of him.

She still hadn't had the opportunity to fight Snape in his sessions. She spent their time together in the Aerie running the gamut of Shield Charms, the list so extensive and intricate, Harriet was often exhausted by the repetition. "Practice forges better pathways," Snape told her in his usual snide drawl. "Like a muscle being exercised. Or a mind storing knowledge. The more you use it, the more you repeat the action, the easier it is to remember—until it is instinctual. You will learn these shield variants and how best to utilize them so that you may properly counter a spell in your sleep."

The end of the school year bore down upon them all, and the professors loaded their students with assignments to be researched and completed. More and more, Harriet would need to finish her homework later at night, her free time woefully scant. She spent the weeks more tired than she'd ever been in her life—sore and groggy and prone to napping whenever she could. That included the middle of class, Hermione's sharp shoes always ready to give her a nudge in the shin when a professor passed by.

As the weather warmed in begrudging increments, Harriet and her friends captured whatever moments they could to relax and enjoy the spring warmth. Even Hermione could be coaxed out of the library from time to time, though she usually smuggled a book out under her robes. Elara had a new regiment of potions from Snape that meant she could go outside without wheezing on the blooming pollen.

On one particularly sunny Saturday afternoon in late April, Harriet threw her Firebolt over her shoulder and made for the grounds. The Quidditch Stadium was off-limits to all students and had been since Yule, for whatever reason. So, instead, she picked a spot on the sweeping lawn near one corner of the woods, a place well in sight of the castle proper. She couldn't fly more than two meters off the grass or Hooch would revolt, but Harriet took what she could, eager to get out and feel the breeze.

She hadn't anticipated others following her, but soon she'd taken to the air with Ginny Weasley, passing off a dented Quaffle they'd nicked from Hooch's office, her brothers Fred and George seeming to pop out of nowhere to join them. Hermione, Terry, and Anthony Goldstein found seats on the rocks nearby, deep in conversation about Vanishing Spells and where stuff actually got vanished to. Elara lounged in the grass on a Conjured blanket, reading.

Soon more students began to dribble out of the school, escaping their studies and responsibilities, players from the Quidditch teams and Quidditch hopefuls unable to resist the sight of brooms in the air. The lawn filled with people from all the Houses, brooms were taken from storage, and a skirmish match began with the one lopsided Quaffle and Bludgers taking the form of pinecones tossed by spectators.

Harriet hovered by the Slytherin first years clustered together on the sidelines. "Hit the Weasley twins," she told them, pushing pinecones into their small hands. "And Diggory. Actually—yeah, just him, Diggory. Hit him."

"Why just Diggory?" Izumi Takagi asked with her usual curiosity.

"Because he could use the dodging practice," Harriet grumbled. "Either that, or he deserves a good pelting by soggy pinecones. Go on!"

She returned to the game, drifting perhaps a tad higher than Hooch would allow, watching her ploy come to fruition. Diggory blinked under the assault of pinecones bouncing off his back, most of them brittle and bursting into pieces on impact, though that didn't stop Diggory from being baffled. Ginny—on Harriet's team—took her chance to sink the Quaffle in the basket serving as the goal Diggory was meant to be guarding.

"Ha," Harriet said under her breath, clapping.

Not long after Ginny's goal, attentions wavered, and people paused mid-flight to watch someone approach from the castle. Harriet pulled back on her Firebolt to see what had caught their interest, and she saw Fleur Delacour coming out onto the grounds without her usual entourage of vapid Beauxbatons socialites. She must have noticed the staring because she had her nose in the air, and she flipped the long, silvery curtain of her hair over her shoulder as she walked. She didn't stop until she came to the edge of the blanket Elara lounged on, and when Elara—annoyed—looked up from her book, she almost sprained something scrambling to her feet.

Harriet chuckled and almost decided to swoop closer to hear what was being said, but she didn't, content to watch as Elara made an effort to appear composed and aloof—even as her face glowed like a hot brick. Fleur said something, a wheedling tilt to her chin, and Elara replied, being passably cool—though Harriet could see how nervous she was. Elara nodded, and they shifted to sit together on the blanket.

As she watched her friend—grinning—Harriet's eyes flicked to the side and noticed someone else who'd come down to the grounds, sitting at the edge of a school's paddock, shaded by an elm. She wouldn't have recognized Malfoy at all if it hadn't been for the sunlight glittering on his hair. Neither Crabbe nor Goyle were with him, and he had his arms loosely folded on his thighs. Every so often, he'd glance toward the cluster of Ravenclaws and Hermione, then look away.

"Heads up!"

The Quaffle smacked Harriet in the face, and she yelped, then cursed at the taste of copper in her mouth.

"Sorry, Potter! Look alive!"

She didn't see who spoke but tossed Quaffle in their general direction and made for the lawn. She landed and shouldered her broom, poking her tongue against the new cut inside her lip, then walked over to Malfoy.

"Oi, why aren't you playing, prat?" she asked, hopping onto the fence next to him. Her mouth burned, and Harriet leaned over to spit saliva and a bare amount of blood into the weeds. "Gross."

Malfoy wrinkled his nose. "Bugger off, Potter."

"Don't be like that." She noticed how Malfoy kept his head pointedly turned from the Ravenclaws. Hermione looked up when she saw Harriet had landed and smiled, though she did glance at Malfoy with a puzzled lift of her brow. Harriet shrugged and shook her head. "You know, you can still be friends with her."

"I don't know what you're on about."

"You've barely said a word to her since Yule. You're being a right git about her and Terry by pretending she doesn't exist, and that doesn't endear you to her. Not as a friend, and definitely not as more."

"Not everything is about you or Granger or Black," Malfoy snarled, taking Harriet aback. His face was paler than usual, his eyes slightly red. "Fuck. You're such an idiot."

"Steady on!"

He drew in a breath, and Harriet heard how it shook. "Mother's at St. Mungo's."

She didn't know what she'd expected him to say, but it hadn't been that. "Why?" she gasped, quickly trying to remember the last time she'd received a letter from Narcissa. A week ago? Or two? That wasn't entirely unusual in their exchanges. "Is she alright? What happened?"

"What do you think happened?" Draco muttered. He sounded less angry now and more grieved. "Father won't say, but he's implied enough for me to guess it was Gaunt."

Harriet had no reply for him. In the background, the Quidditch skirmish continued, brooms whistling in the air, people laughing and cheering. Others not involved in the game had come out to study or just be with their friends and chat. She could see Professor McGonagall much farther up the hill by the castle doors, simply watching, her hands folded in front of herself.

Malfoy had a point, loathe as Harriet was to admit it. The world didn't revolve around her, Hermione, and Elara; it didn't revolve around Hogwarts or the problems here, either. The rest of Wizarding Britain and the people residing in it had to deal with Gaunt, his administration, and the problems they made. Professor Slytherin made life difficult for all the students here, not just Harriet's House or her friends. Somewhere out there, Voldemort lurked—a danger to everything living, be they magical or not.

"Father won't let me see her. He doesn't want me to leave the school—fat lot of good that does anyone." Malfoy scowled at the new spring grass. He had smudges on his shoes as if he'd been kicking at something solid like a stone wall, or perhaps his trunk. "She's supposed to be home at the end of the week."

"You lot have a Hogsmeade day tomorrow, don't you? You should find her something nice to let her know you're thinking about her."

Malfoy grunted in response. Hermione laughed at something Terry said, and Malfoy glanced in her direction before jerking away, muttering. Harriet sighed.

"You know, you can go sit with them. I promise they're not completely nauseating, and Hermione would want to know about your mum. She cares about Narcissa a great deal."

"You wouldn't understand, Potter. You've all the awareness of a stink bug."

"Oi! I was going to ask if you wanted a go on my Firebolt to make you feel better, but if you're going to be a tit—."

The mention of the Firebolt perked Malfoy up, his gray eyes flicking to the broom resting on Harriet's shoulder. "Come on, Potter. Don't be cruel. I'm suffering."

"You're suffering under your own fat ego," she quipped, but she did unhook the footrest from where it had settled near her neck, holding the broom out for him to take. "Don't make me regret this. Not one bloody scratch, Malfoy! I mean it!"

He smirked, already taking off across the grass, swinging the Firebolt into position. Harriet huffed as he took to the air, but she trusted him enough to have respect for the broom, if not herself. At least he seemed more himself.

She could not help the worry that tossed in her stomach when she considered Narcissa—or even Lucius, arsehole that he was—or any of the pure-blood families who lived under Gaunt's thumb. She couldn't say they were the greatest of people, but did they deserve to live in terror in their own homes? Hermione had told them about the injuries Lucius sustained from Gaunt. She hadn't realized those might extend to his wife.

Harriet breathed out through her nose and did her best to push the thought away, to embrace the novelty of a carefree day. She moved away from the paddock, licking away the last bit of blood from her lip, and approached Elara and Fleur.

"Can I sit here?" she asked the pair, and when they nodded, she sprawled on the grass, staring up into the sky. Clouds hovered around the mountains, threatening rain in the future, but otherwise the sky was faultless. Serene.

"Fleur, you know my god-sister, Harriet?"

Harriet sat up enough to see Fleur give her a dazzling smile. She really was very pretty, though Harriet still thought her snooty. "Salut," Fleur said.


She returned to her sky-gazing and Elara and Fleur to their conversation. Apparently, Fleur wanted to practice her English more and had sought out Elara to converse with, or so she claimed. Harriet thought Fleur might be suffering from her own bit of starstruck awe when it came to Elara, taken in by her pretty face and dry wit. But, of course, Elara having helped rescue her sister also played a factor.

The French witch had been studying in her final years at Beauxbatons how to be a Curse Breaker at Gringotts. "At ze bank," she clarified. "I do not wish to tromp about ze filthy tombs."

Harriet thought that a shame. Maybe she'd like doing something like that if she had the brains for it. It reminded her of all the wonderous and odd feats of magic Professor Dumbledore showed her. She thought seeing the tombs of ancient wizards and trying to puzzle through their traps would be brilliant.

When the topic turned to what Elara saw herself doing after school, she didn't have an answer. "I'm not sure," she confessed. "Life isn't…static here in England. Our Ministry is corrupt—our Minister a madman, and the Dark Lord is always a threat. I couldn't say what tomorrow would bring."

Harriet didn't know what tomorrow would bring either. Sometimes, she could barely think of what next week might look like—but now, lounging in the grass, hearing the others play Quidditch while she listened to Elara and Fleur chat, that all seemed very far away. She closed her eyes and felt the sun's warmth on her face, the red glow simmering beneath her lids. She could only wish for more days exactly like this.

But Harriet couldn't have guessed how soon easy afternoons would become a thing of the past. She couldn't have known how they'd be gone like the final, flickering gasp of a candle and the waning spring of youth.

A/N: It's all downhill from here.