"It is ok, Theo" Tracey said softly "I know everything. Malfoy's secret plan"
Everyone looked at Theo who had turned deathly pale and was gritting his teeth.
"Everything?" he asked gasping for breath.
Tracey nodded "Yes, the entire plan"
Tracey turned back to the group and gathered her thoughts, she had to get this right to or Theo's magic would react badly, even worse than it was now.
Tracey had organised this urgent late Saturday afternoon meeting of what she jokingly referred to as the 'Chosen Ones'. Those picked by Daphne and Harry to be on the inside, confidants for want of a better term. And sounding boards for ideas and theories with enough diversity to ensure that group think would not be issue, what with a muggle born, a light side pure blood heir in the mix.
While she was sure that Daphne and Harry trusted the others in the wider group, Tracey understood more than most of the need to limit the flow of sensitive information to a small tight group, as befitted her role as the chief gatherer of intelligence. Not that she believed for a minute that Daphne and Harry had shared everything with them either, that would be crazy and incredibly dangerous. No, Tracey thought, the balance of trust versus caution was about right.
She continued. "Draco's big plan is to take Flint's place as leader of house next year"
"Oh, that is just ridiculous" Hermione exclaimed incredulously, interrupting Tracey "Are you sure?"
Tracey just gave her a withering look and ignored such an impertinent question.
"While we all can agree that would be disastrous for Slytherin, it is not a ridiculous as it sounds. Sadly, Slytherin has become a bunch of followers, willing to back anyone who will lead them so they don't have to step up to be a leader themselves. And whilst Flint, for all his faults, has managed to keep the more radical elements in line, it will be a lot different under Malfoy."
"Now, obviously Malfoy has his doubters who would love nothing better than for him to fall flat on his face. The ones that can't get past the fact that he is too young for such a position, especially without the guidance and political power of his father. After all he has tried to take over Slytherin once before and failed, even with the help of his father. However, there is no other obvious candidate amongst the senior students, and with Draco taking on the Lordship, well it makes age less relevant as long as he wields enough power to take and hold the position."
There was a murmur of agreement at that last statement. The Lordship did give Draco added authority to his claim, albeit only a fraction of what was really needed.
"That won't be enough" Daphne articulated what everyone was thinking.
"Correct" Tracey agreed "Which brings me to the crux of this conversation"
"Malfoy thinks that winning the Duelling Competition would give him enough notoriety to shore up his position when takes the leadership"
"There is no way he will win, he won't even get to the final" Harry stated "Sure, Dumbledore put him on the other side of the draw to Daphne, Neville, and myself, but on his side of the draw he has Susan and Millicent. And he has to get past Dean first."
"I agree" Tracey said "But if he does win it would go a long way towards silencing his doubters, well at least in the short term."
"So, is Seamus going to try and take Harry out of the competition?" Neville asked "It seems the most logical move"
He gave an apologetic shrug towards Harry.
"Yes" Tracey confirmed his fears. "A big part of his plan is Seamus, who he is planning to use to take out all the competition on the other side of the draw, starting with Harry. Malfoy has been training Seamus in an obscure dark spell, one with effects that can't be quickly countered even if you know the counter curse. He has told no one what the spell is to avoid Harry finding out and learning the counter curse in advance."
"Whilst I have been unable to find out what the spell is, from what little he has told others, if Seamus hits Harry with one of these curses, it will cause such lasting effects that Harry will have to forfeit his next match and be out of the competition. Which of course gives Draco a better chance of winning."
"With Dumbledore ruling that anything but unforgivables are permitted, it is unlikely Seamus would get disqualified allowing him to do the same to his next opponent. And the one after that."
"With the conditional support from all the Death Eaters' children based on the success of his plan, he has a lot riding on Seamus,"
"Now, as far as Malfoy's plan goes. He has made all those on his side swear a magical vow of silence to keep the plan secret. That is why Theo has been looking so uncomfortable while we were discussing this. Although he is certainly looking better now"
Theo did look visibly better as his magic stopped reacting to a situation where he could possibly break his vow.
"She's right" Theo said who was looking a lot more relaxed "I have no idea how she did it, but Tracey has got Malfoy's plan almost word perfect."
"So, you can talk about it now?" Daphne asked "What about the vow of silence?"
"Ha!" Theo responded with disdain. "Malfoy is so hopeless that the wording of the vow he got us to swear had so many holes in it that it was laughable. He is not his father that is for sure. Lucius would have had the vow stitched up so tight I would not have been able to be in the same room as you while you are even thinking about it"
"At its core, Malfoy's vow stops me from talking about his plan with anyone who doesn't know what the plan is" Theo curled his lip "A very weak effort as Tracey has just demonstrated. Now you know about the plan I can talk freely about it with you. At a bare minimum he should have gone for him having to approve everyone we could talk to about it by name."
"But if it was guarded by this magic vow, how were you able to find out so much" Hermione asked Tracey "If someone was talking about it with you around, magic would have stopped them"
"Ahh" Tracey replied "It is not about having to overhear the entire plan, it is about of overhearing one word. Actually, a group of single words."
"Think about it, all the conversations you over hear, to most it is just random noise, but if you listen carefully and watch closely, you can pick up a single word. Just one word where the inflection in the voice changes, or the eyes change, maybe they look away. The person won't even know they are doing it because it is the magical vow kicking in and stopping them letting any more slip. But I will."
"Then the true art is blending all those words into a cohesive narrative and testing the validity of that narrative by gauging magic's reaction to some pointed questions, watching how what you say affects the person you are talking to."
"A simple process if you know what to look for, but very time consuming with a whole lot of pointless conversations with people you don't really like" Tracey finished up.
"Ok, that was truly impressive" Neville said, he was always amazed by Tracey's information gathering abilities.
"Yes, yes. Clever, sneaky witch" Hermione smiled at Tracey. "But what are we going to do about Seamus" she asked getting to the crux of the problem.
Theo stood up "This is where I must leave you" he said "I want to be able to honestly say that I have no idea what you have planned"
Harry walked him to the door.
"Theo, this has to stop. The pressure on you must be unbearable' Harry said quietly "While we appreciate everything you are doing and have done, it is not fair on you. You should be able to be part of our group openly without the shadow of people saying you are just spying on us."
"It is the penance I have to pay for the things my family has done in the past" Theo said "Once my father has gone and I am the only one left carrying the Nott name, I can start afresh to rebuild the family name. In the meantime, I will do whatever I have to do to, like it or not"
He left Harry standing there deep in thought about that last statement. Theo was paying for the crimes of his father in the only way he could, working in secret trying to right wrongs whilst suffering the hate and derision from the those who will benefit most from his actions, the muggleborns and children from light side families.
Harry was still thinking about Theo as he walked towards where the others were sitting around the fireplace discussing the latest incident with the Dementors. They had had grown restless having to patrol outside Hogwarts wards where very little happened resulting in the occasional foray into the school grounds to scare a student that had ventured too close to the school's boundaries and another interruption to Hagrid's class during the week.
But the truly scary incident, the one that had all the school talking, occurred during an unauthorised Hufflepuff Quidditch practice where Cedric, who was chasing the snitch high in the air, was suddenly joined in his chase by a dementor. Cedric to his credit, and in a superb display of flying, managed to capture the snitch and point his broom towards the ground before the dementor could react and was easily ten broom lengths ahead by the time the dementor started his chase. This allowed Cedric to almost reach the ground by the time the effects of the dementor over took him causing a tumble off his broom to the manicured turf of the Quidditch pitch.
"When do you think Dumbledore will do something about them?" Hermione asked.
Daphne and Harry shared a look as Harry re-joined the group. Harry raised an eyebrow questioningly, Daphne nodded.
Harry took a seat next to Daphne on one side of the fire, revelling in its warmth. He tilted his head back staring at the ceiling. At least this wasn't going to be just as hard as when he told them about Voldemort's horcrux in his head.
"Ok, so first a little background and a confession" Harry said "You remember how I gained the parselmouth ability?"
He watched them nod "Well it appears that the parselmouth ability comes with some other benefits" Harry almost spat out the last word.
"I can communicate with dementors" Harry stated watching their reactions, there were varied, but none were disbelief. He smiled in gratitude at that. He had just told them that he could talk to dementors and they accepted it as if he had said he liked bacon and eggs for breakfast. "But to start at the beginning we need to go back to the first day of this year, the train ride to be specific"
And so, he told them what had happened with the dementor on the train, how he had used a parseltongue incendio to burn the dementor that was trying to kiss him and the toll it took on him to do it, ending up with him passing out from the magical drain.
He then told them of what had really happened during the Creatures' class, how they had faced the dementors down, fearing that he would have to use the same spell which would have meant certain death for them both as there was more than just one dementor that time.
Then how the dementors stopped advancing, seemingly waiting for him to do something, probing his mind trying to read his thoughts. And how he had ordered them back to the wards by thinking the command.
"But everyone thinks it is Dumbledore that has control over them, especially the Gryffindors, they are always banging on about it" Neville said "And with that story splashed all over the front of the Daily Prophet, they were unbearable for days."
Harry gritted his teeth, while he had no desire for the story to get out that it was he who had brought the dementors back into line, it was still particularly galling to see Dumbledore preening on the front of the paper whilst accepting the accolades.
"And it must stay that way" Harry said "No one can find out about it. I am telling you because you are my friends, and there will be no secrets between us"
"At some point you will need to do it again" Neville said, his voice very serious "When you rule through the power of your wand, you need to keep reinforcing the message with displays of that power"
"We have been thinking about that" Daphne answered for Harry "Without giving too much away, Harry's duel with Seamus will be very interesting to watch"
Daphne saw the looks of confusion at the jump in the conversation.
"The dementors, they watch every duel" she answered the unasked question "You can see them at the windows of the great hall"
"What?" Hermione's reaction was mirrored by the other two.
"Honestly people" Daphne said "Are everyone's eyes painted on? There are a few at the windows for every duel, I think they are judging everyone, gathering information on the students"
"Well, that is pretty creepy" Tracey said "Although it makes sense I guess, evaluating your enemies. After all, we do it"
"So, to avoid having to give the dementors another one-on-one demonstration, I am going to be a little more forceful in my duel with Seamus than what I would normally be" Harry explained "Nothing that would get me disqualified, but it will definitely cause grumblings amongst the students. And Dumbledore will not like it"
"The dementors won't miss it though, they will be expecting some show of magical power. With any luck, it will be enough to convince the dementors that my instructions are to be followed" Harry said sadly.
He didn't want to hurt Seamus as he was just being manipulated by Malfoy, but he would do what had to be done.
He sat in silence for a while staring into the fire, thinking about his conversation with Theo, before finally saying, very quietly "Sometimes I hate the things we have to do"
The others sat there quietly watching Harry as he stared into the fire, slumped over in the sofa with Daphne softly rubbing his back.
They must have sat like that for two or three minutes, all the while Daphne could feel that his anger wasn't dissipating this time, in fact it was building in Harry the longer he sat there thinking.
Suddenly Harry leapt to his feet and started pacing up and down on front of the fire.
"You know, I am sick of this" He exclaimed, his voice rough with emotion "All the scheming and plotting and game playing. Everyone with their own agenda, their own Machiavellian little plans, ruining peoples' lives, all for the benefit of themselves."
"Albus bloody Dumbledore, who imprisoned an innocent man to get him out of the way so he could manipulate an orphaned child into sacrificing himself just to boost the flagging reputation of 'The Great Dumbledore'. Circumventing our laws as it suits him. Putting the very children that he has been entrusted to protect and nurture in harm's way year after year whilst stifling their magic development with a cavalcade of blatantly unqualified professors. Cheered on all the way by the oblivious bunch in the Wizengamot and the complicit media who blindly and unquestioningly support him, allowing him to do whatever he likes without question."
"And on the other side we have Tom Riddle. Hiding behind an invented persona while corrupting the laws of magic to ensure he cannot die. Why? Because he thinks that he is better than the rest of us and deserves to rule over our world eternally. Having already failed once, the plans he had in place have already activated meaning we will have to go through the nightmare all over again and again until he is finally stopped. And of course, his sycophantic followers doing anything he asks of them just so they can get some reflected glory and the chance to act in a way that would be totally unacceptable in any decent society"
"And if that is not enough, there is all the little bit players, like Draco Malfoy with his self-inflated importance leading him to believe that the world owes him something. Plotting and scheming about taking over the leadership of Slytherin when Flint leaves at the end of the year. As if he is anywhere near up to the task let alone deserves the honour and responsibility. And all the other Death Eater children being urged on by their parents, sheep that will follow him for some small sliver of power that they would otherwise be too meek and talentless to seek for themselves. But he is no leader. He will be the ruin of both Slytherin and Hogwarts. His thugs prowling the corridors of the school with impunity, making life impossible for any student that didn't bow down to his supposed greatness. All the while aided and abetted by Dumbledore just so he can step in at the last minute and end the reign of terror when the chaos reaches its peak and all seems lost. Just like he did with Grindelwald, wait until everyone begs him to save them."
Harry was breathing hard by this time. He stopped pacing and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself.
"I am so sick of this" He repeated, mainly to himself.
Daphne got up from her seat and approached Harry, reaching up and taking his face between her hands, her eyes locking onto his.
"You're right" Daphne stated "Everything you say is true" she paused for a moment before continuing "But you do realise that you can't do it all by yourself, don't you?"
Harry's gaze shifted from hers for a split second.
"You prat!" she whispered shaking her head "Sure, there may be some things that you have to do due to your special skills and who you are. But there are things that you can't do that you will need help with, things that I can do. After all, we are different and have different talents."
She paused and smiled at him before saying "Two sides to the same galleon"
He smiled at that, their private joke. The tension in his shoulders easing as they pulled apart and turned to face the others.
Neville stood and approached Harry.
He pulled Harry into a hug, surprising everyone, Neville was not one to show his feelings so openly.
"We all are getting a bit sick of it, mate" He said as he quickly let Harry go and stepped back "This is not the way that it is supposed to be. We are just a bunch of kids."
Neville's jaw clenched as his eyes hardened "But we all know what we are in for. We are all here willingly. As Daphne said, you don't have to do everything yourself. You know that right?"
"Of course he knows that" Hermione answered for Harry "That is why he recruited us"
"And here's me thinking he recruited Neville in case he needs someone to blast down a small building or two" Tracey said.
"No, No, No" Daphne said "Hannah tells me now she has been teaching Neville how to finesse his chams we would be surprised what he can to with his wand."
Neville blushed as they all burst out laughing, the last of the tension gone and the mood lifting.
"It will take a lot more than beating Seamus to derail Malfoy's play for the leadership" Hermione said bringing the conversation back on topic. "Have you considered using the media to undermine him? After all, Lord Black now controls a large share of The Daily Prophet. Even if it is by proxy" she reminded Harry.
Hermione was an avid student of the tactics used in muggle politics and so knew the value of a well-crafted media smear campaign. And Harry was right about the complicit media, the magic world was no different.
"I will get on to mum first thing tomorrow. She will love it" Daphne said surprised she had not thought of it, but once again seeing the value of the diversity in the group. In her defence she had grown up in the magical world and had only known the Daily Prophet the way it was, hopeless at holding power to account. But Hermione was right, Sirius now had a stake in the Prophet as head of the Black family with Narcissa coming back under the protection of the family.
"Now what about…" Tracey started, interrupted as Dean burst through the door.
"Harry! You must come quickly" Dean practically yelled as he came to a stop and bent over with his hands on his knees trying to get his breath back. He was the fittest and the fastest of the group and that is why he was the one sent to give the warning.
"Lisa Turpin forfeited her match with Susan" he continued.
Everyone stared at him not sure of what he was saying.
"Dumbledore has brought your match against Seamus forward. You are first up tonight. It is happening now!"
"If you don't get there before the countdown ends and Seamus's first spell hits the end of the piste you will lose"
Bloody Dumbledore, Harry thought. He has obviously been watching them, waiting for an opportunity like this where their Saturday session in the broom cupboard had run over time.
"Quick, every one go, now. Try and get to the great hall and delay the duel if you can. I don't know how, just do what you can" Harry urged as he was shepherding them towards the entrance to the broom cupboards that they came through, including Dean.
"There is no time!" Dean practically shouted at him
Malfoy's magically enhanced voice suddenly rang out through the castle causing them all to jump.
"Go!" Harry urged them. Dean, Tracey, Hermione, and Neville took off as fast as they could. He and Daphne exited the room through the main door that was disguised as a boom cupboard on the seventh floor.
Malfoy was standing at the top of the bleachers, his wand at his throat maintaining the sonorous spell, gleefully announcing the countdown to the start of the duel. His supporters were standing in front of him cheering at every second.
"Dobby!" Harry's voice had a touch of panic in it.
In the great hall Seamus was pacing from side to side at his end of the duelling piste, his rage unchecked. This was what he had practiced for, sacrificing his health and a good part of his soul for all these long months, and it seemed as if his moment would be taken from him.
Dobby appeared before with a stricken look on his face.
"Dobby, take us to the great hall please" Harry asked the little elf.
Dobby burst into tears "Dobby has been forbidden to help Harry Potter get to his Duelling on times" he wailed.
"Can you take Daphne?" Harry asked squeezing her hand to forestall arguments.
"Dobby can be doing that" his ears flopping from the nodding of his head.
"We Hogwarts elves be able to pop anywhere within the Hogwarts wards. But not the wards within the wards, only very powerful wizards can do that."
Harry placed Daphne's hand into Dobby's. They were gone with a small pop leaving Harry standing alone in the hallway.
What had Dobby been trying to tell him? He had known the elf long enough to know that there was some message there in what he said.
Without realising it, Harry had been pacing up and down in front of the Room of Requirements entrance where a door suddenly appeared. Harry grabbed the handle and ripped the door open, racing inside, the door slamming shut behind him.
Seamus's patience had reached its limit, his anger exploding as he fired off the spell towards the empty end of the piste.
The ugly spell flew with purpose down the piste, seemingly melting the air as it sizzled past, leaving a putrid smoke to mark its passing.