Not in the Hands of Boys

Fourth Rose

Story Summary:
Once the final battle is won, life must go on, although it can be even harder to master than death. Back at Hogwarts for his final year of school, Harry tries to cope with everything he's been through. As the world around him struggles for a way back to normality, he is forced to realise that in the long run, living takes a lot more courage than dying.

Chapter 20 - Part 20

Author's Note:
Thanks to cloudlessnights for betaing!

"Harry, wake up!"

A hand on his shoulder, warm and rough; so very different from the cool, smooth skin that had brushed against his chest, his hips, his thighs a second ago, encircling him in an embrace that left him shivering with a mixture of fear and arousal. Harry opened his eyes and blinked as Ron's face swam into focus - broad, freckled and friendly, but set in a concerned frown. The memory of the boy he'd been looking at just before was already fading from his mind - pale, slender and graceful, his smile sharp and brilliant like a chip of ice, his eyes as dark as his hair. When he spoke, his voice seemed to come from within Harry's own brain, as if the words had always been there and just been waiting for him to remember them. He -

"Are you all right, mate?" Ron shook him none too gently, as if he were afraid that Harry might drift off again. Harry shrugged his hand away in a sudden flash of annoyance; why did Ron have to wake him? The words he'd heard the voice speak were slipping away from him now, and even though he tried to hold on to them, he was left with nothing but the memory of a whispering touch and those all-seeing dark eyes, serene like an angel's with hell's fire burning in their depths.

"Yes, of course I'm all right, why wouldn't I be? What did you have to wake me up for?"

Ron let go of Harry's shoulder, but otherwise didn't react to Harry's cranky tone. "I thought you were having another bad dream, so I -"

"I didn't," Harry cut him off, hoping that he wasn't blushing; his dreams of late were no subject he was willing to discuss with Ron. "I wasn't screaming, was I?"

"No, but..." Ron hesitated, as if he had trouble finding the right words. For a heart-stopping moment, Harry was convinced that he'd talked in his sleep and tried not to imagine what kind of things he might have said - there were too many possibilities, and all of them made him wish for the ground to open up and swallow him.

"It's just that I heard you..." Ron faltered again, and Harry braced himself for the worst.

"You heard what?"

Ron took a deep breath. "I heard you speak Parseltongue in your sleep."

The room went very quiet after that announcement. Harry just stared at Ron, his mind strangely blank - the soft, sibilant sounds, the whisper of smooth, cool scales over his naked skin...

"But that's impossible." How could his voice come out so flat and calm? "That was always him, not me; Voldemort gave me the ability to speak Parseltongue when he left that bit of his soul in me, and it's gone now."

Ron flinched, but he held Harry's gaze. "I know that. But I've heard you talk to snakes before, and the way you were hissing now - I'm sorry, but there was no mistaking it."

"Why are you doing this?" Harry felt his temper rise, and it was oddly liberating to finally have someone to direct his anger at. "What are you trying to -"

"Don't you dare finish that question!" Ron's voice was now getting louder too. "I'm on your side, all right? It's not as if I ever wanted to hear it again, but I know I just did!"

"One way to find out." Harry's anger subsided as quickly as it had flared up; he reached for his wand on the bedside table and pointed it at the far corner of the room. He'd never tried that spell, and he'd only heard it once, but if a twelve year-old Draco Malfoy had been able to cast it...


"What the -" Ron didn't sound too shocked, which was probably due to the fact that Harry's spell had only produced a rather unassuming brown garden snake (one probably did need a bit of practice, after all), but he clearly wasn't happy with this turn of events. "Have you gone completely mental? What was that for?"

"I'd have thought it was obvious." Harry kept his eyes on the snake, which was coiled tightly in the corner and seemed to try the taste of the air with its flickering tongue. "I'm going to talk to it, and once you realise that it doesn't understand what I'm saying you'll hopefully let this whole thing go."

The snake raised its head and focussed its beady little eyes on him. "I do underssstand you," it said. "I don't like thisss place - it'ssss cold, and you sssmell wrong."

Harry suddenly felt very cold himself. This couldn't be happening - it was impossible, it had to be another nightmare, and he was going to wake up any moment and -

"Harry, mate," Ron's shaky voice interrupted his racing thoughts, "I've no idea what you said right now, but it sure as hell was Parseltongue."

"I know," Harry replied tonelessly. "It answered me. The snake, I mean."

He raised his wand without even thinking about it; all he knew was that he wanted this thing gone from his presence this instant. There was no need to speak the incantation; a flick of his wand, and the snake vanished without another sound.

It was Ron who finally broke the silence. "Harry -"

"Don't," Harry cut him off, realising too late that it had come out a lot harsher than he'd intended. "It's just - I need to think about this. Let's not talk about it right now, all right? And don't tell anyone else."

"Not even Hermione?" It was clear that Ron had been planning to do just that right away, but Hermione fussing over him was the last thing Harry wanted right now.

"No, not even her. Promise me." Almost as an afterthought, he added, "Please?"

"Fine." It was still obvious that Ron wasn't happy about this. "But you really need to sort this out, mate, you know that, don't you?"

Harry looked away; he couldn't have met Ron's worried gaze right now. "Yes, I know."

* * *

Harry skipped breakfast that morning; he wouldn't have been able to eat if his life depended on it. The first class of the day was Potions, and he went down to the dungeons an hour early; it was the only place he could think of where nobody would wander by and try to talk to him. The Potions classroom was still locked, so he sat outside the door on the floor, his limbs slowly going numb from the cold stone slabs and his mind in turmoil.

It had been over a month since that fateful night he'd killed Greyback, and it was becoming more and more obvious that something had happened to him back then. The dreams he kept having - they were getting more intense all the time, leaving him with images that made him want to scrub his brain when he woke up hard and panting, both ashamed of himself and excited in a way he'd never known before. At first they had been about Draco, and that had been bad enough - he hadn't slept with Luna for almost three weeks now because he couldn't bring himself to touch her while he got flashes of how it had felt to have Draco pressed against him. It had been almost a relief to blame his old arch-enemy for ruining this for him, but now he kept getting glimpses of others as well, of faces and bodies and voices that were sometimes strange, sometimes disturbingly familiar.

There was something else to the dreams, something dark and sinister that Harry had no name for and that should never have given him the thrill it invariably did. He went to bed with a sick feeling of dread each night, and yet a small, traitorous part of his mind was eagerly anticipating the rush of sensation that was like nothing he'd ever experienced until the night he had cast the Killing Curse. It made him find excuses when Luna invited him to spend the night in her room - he'd have loved nothing better than to cuddle up to her and enjoy the feeling of peace that always overcame him in her arms, but he didn't dare to fall asleep next to her any more. The dreams had left him feeling filthy, as if he'd been tainted by something that he needed to keep away from those he cared for. He'd cancelled his weekend visits to Mrs Tonks' house, claiming that he was swamped with NEWTs preparations - he missed Teddy, but the mere idea of coming near the little boy while this... thing was going on with him made Harry's skin crawl. It had just been a hunch, a mere gut feeling until now, but after what had happened this morning -

Ever since he'd heard the snake talk, he'd tried in vain not to consider the possibility that was staring him in the face. He still remembered Dumbledore's explanations, and how they had all made sense back then - the piece of Voldemort's soul that Harry had been carrying within his own most of his life was gone, destroyed forever like the wizard who had given it to him. For almost a year now, Harry's soul had been entirely his own, and yet he had never managed to feel the difference - at least not in the way he'd expected. If anything, he felt as if he were now missing a part of himself, as if a piece of his own soul had been taken from him instead of the Dark Lord's poisoned gift.

He'd been worrying for so long what the loss of Voldemort's presence was doing to him, and whether everything that had happened since he'd killed Greyback only proved that he wouldn't be able to keep going on his own, that by cheating death back then in the forest he had only chosen another, much more painful and dangerous way of destroying himself. Yet it had never occurred to him that the opposite might be true, that the darkness was stirring within him once more because it had never been gone in the first place.

Harry didn't want to believe it, didn't want to even think of the possibility that Dumbledore might have been wrong about this too, that what had looked like his greatest victory might in fact have been his most devastating defeat. If there really was a chance that a piece of Voldemort's soul had survived, and if it was growing stronger now while his own defences kept weakening -

"That must be the first time you've ever been early for anything, Potter."

Harry did a double-take; he'd been so lost in thought that he hadn't heard anyone approaching, and for the first time in his life, even the sight of Draco Malfoy was a welcome distraction.

"Early for wh- oh, right." Harry remembered just in time; over everything that had happened in the morning, he'd actually forgotten that they were supposed to finish and test their Veritaserum today. He had no idea how Draco was planning to get them out of this dilemma - the only times he'd seen Draco alone during the past four weeks had been in Snape's classroom, and there was no way he would have addressed the matter in front of Snape's portrait. Draco had told him to turn up twenty minutes before today's Potions lesson, though, so it was just as well that he'd come to the dungeons early.

"Did you find a way to make the potion useless?"

Draco nodded briskly. "I think so."

"You think so?" Harry's heart sank. "That means I'll basically have to wait and see whether I'm about to -" He stopped himself just in time, but Draco was already giving him a curious look.

"It's not as if I'd have been able to test it first, is it? Stop fretting, Potter, I know what I'm doing. And now listen carefully, I don't want you to screw up everything at the last moment."

* * *

"And finally, take great care to keep stirring clockwise while you add the powdered cobra fangs. Once they've dissolved, switch to counter-clockwise and keep stirring until the potion turns completely clear, then take it off the fire immediately."

Slughorn beamed at the class as if he were granting them a special treat by taking them through the finishing stages of the brewing process, but Harry wasn't paying attention to him. He was stirring carefully while he kept watching Draco out of the corner of his eyes. Draco was still busy crushing the snake fangs into a fine powder - rattlesnake instead cobra fangs, just like he'd replaced several other ingredients they had been supposed to add during the last half hour. He kept murmuring instructions to Harry, who did exactly as he was told - he was completely out of his depth here, so all he could do was hope that Draco knew what he was doing.

Draco seemed confident enough while he sprinkled the powdered fangs over the surface of the bubbling liquid in the cauldron. "Once I'm done, stir clockwise once more, then switch to counter-clockwise, but take it off the fire once it starts to clear. I'm not sure how unstable the potion is thanks to the changes I made, and I'd rather not have it blow up in our faces."

"Right." Harry kept stirring and watching the potion carefully. Soon enough, it began to lose its opaque quality and became transparent enough for him to see the bottom of the cauldron. "Shall I take it off the fire now?"

"You'd better." Draco peered into the cauldron and nodded when the potion quickly turned crystal clear once Harry had set the cauldron down on the table. "It looks good so far."

"Do you think it worked?" Now that he no longer needed to concentrate on the brewing process, Harry felt his anxiety rise again. If something had gone wrong after all...

Draco shrugged, although he didn't seem to be quite as calm as he tried to appear either. "We're about to find out."

"Everybody finished? Then let's start with the testing!" Slughorn clapped his hands, looking for all the world as if he were actually looking forward to the prospect of a classroom full of students forced to reveal their innermost secrets. "Remember, this is just a way to find out whether the potion works - you don't want to embarrass your partner, so I don't want to hear any questions that are too personal or otherwise inappropriate. Ready now? Then take just a spoonful, that should wear off before the end of this class. Let's get started!"

There were uncomfortable looks all around while everybody swallowed a spoonful of their potion. Harry felt so nervous now that his throat closed up and he had trouble forcing the mouthful of liquid down; the potion was practically tasteless, which was probably intentional so that you could slip it into someone's drink without risk of detection. Then again, real Veritaserum might actually taste different - he'd hopefully never have to find out.

Slughorn made a beeline for Harry and Draco's table; for all his cheerful behaviour, he was obviously aware that these two and a dose of Veritaserum were a combination that spelled trouble. "I'll keep monitoring the questioning to see whether your potions work. Let's start with you, Harry - come on, ask your partner a question!"

This was the tricky part; Draco had pointed out during their talk before the lesson that in order to fool Slughorn, they needed to ask questions the other one would not be keen to answer. Harry had to admit he was right, yet he didn't want to risk a truly embarrassing question - not so much because he was worried Slughorn would step in, but because Draco would get a chance to retaliate in kind right afterwards. And if the changes to the potion hadn't been enough after all...

"Did you really like playing with Teddy at Christmas, or did you just do it because your mother wanted you to?" It was a question that gave Draco the opportunity to come up with a long, detailed answer, faking the effects of Veritaserum that made the drinker want to spill all his secrets.

"I only accompanied my mother to my aunt's house because she kept pestering me," Draco replied immediately. "I had absolutely no interest in my half-blood cousin's mongrel whelp, but he seemed to decide that he liked me the moment he saw me. I noticed how much my mother liked that, so I played with him for a bit, and it wasn't as bad as I'd imagined." Draco's deadpan expression gave Harry no hint whether this was a truth the potion had forced out of him, or a complete lie.

Slughorn nodded approvingly. "That sounded convincing enough. Now ask Harry a question, Mr Malfoy, but remember what I said earlier!"

Draco didn't hesitate; he'd obviously planned beforehand what he was going to ask. "What was your favourite toy when you were a child?"

It was, Harry had to admit, a question worthy of a Slytherin - completely innocuous on the surface, but since Draco was likely aware of how Harry had spent his childhood, there was a malice to it that reminded Harry a lot of the Draco Malfoy he'd known before the war. It was reassuring to see that some things obviously never changed.

Of course, there was no way he was ever going to tell Draco about the battered teddy bear he'd stolen from Dudley's room when he was five and successfully hidden for two years before Aunt Petunia found it and threw it out because it was filthy. The realisation that he didn't feel any urge to voice that thought made Harry almost dizzy with relief - whatever Draco had done with the potion, it had clearly worked. There was no time to dwell on it, though; he needed to answer immediately if he wanted to fool Slughorn.

"I didn't have one. I played with whatever was available when I was small, but since my cousin would break it eventually, or my aunt and uncle would take it away, I knew better than to get attached to anything."

Slughorn clucked his tongue, and for a moment Harry was afraid that the professor was going to pat him on the shoulder, but he obviously thought better of it. "Not to speak ill of the dead, but Dumbledore has a lot to answer for." He threw a quick glance at the potion in their cauldron, sniffed briefly, and then gave Harry a beaming smile. "Very well done, my boy - that will be full marks, and ten points for Gryffindor. Not that I expected anything less from Lily Evans' son, of course."

Harry did his best not to wince; he was quite thankful when Draco distracted Slughorn by asking in a slightly challenging tone, "What about me, Professor?"

Slughorn seemed startled, as if he had already forgotten Draco's presence. He hesitated for a second, but then clearly realised there was no justification for giving Draco lower marks than Harry. "Yes, yes, full marks for you too, Mr Malfoy."

With that, he moved on to the next pair of students to check on the success of their potion.

Harry couldn't help smirking at Draco once Slughorn was out of earshot. "No points for you, eh? So much for Slytherins looking out for their own."

Draco shrugged, his face impassive, although it wasn't lost on Harry how the pale pink scar across his cheek took on a slightly darker hue. "Well, there are always exceptions. Gryffindor ingratitude, on the other hand, is something you can count on at all times."

* * *

It seemed like cruel irony that the Defence lesson that followed right after Potions was dedicated to magical ways of keeping secrets. Harry was deeply grateful that Snape's lecture lasted for the whole duration of the lesson; his thoughts kept wandering, and he would have failed miserably at any kind of practical demonstration today. He was hardly bothered by the fact that he couldn't bring himself to listen to anything Snape was saying; he could always use Hermione's notes to catch up later.

However, Snape signalled for Harry and Draco to stay behind when the bell rang and the other students rushed out for their lunch break. "Potter, Malfoy, there are some preparations for next Monday's lesson that we need to discuss. I have to go see the Headmistress now, but it will only take me a moment, so wait for me here." Without waiting for them to answer, he turned on his heel and, robes billowing, walked out of his frame.

As soon as they were alone, Draco turned to face Harry. "All right, Potter, now that I've saved you from Slughorn's clutches, would you care to tell me what the hell that was about?"