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 26 - Part 26

Author's Note:
Thanks to cloudlessnights for betaing!

Most of Monday morning's Charms lesson passed Harry right by while he struggled to keep his eyes open. He had felt too restless to sleep until well past midnight the previous night, and when he'd finally dozed off, his sleep had been filled with dreams that left him with a strange feeling of disorientation although he couldn't remember them when he woke up. If it hadn't been for Hermione's elbow jabbing him whenever his eyelids started to droop, he'd probably have fallen asleep on top of his Charms book.

Professor Flitwick was in the midst of a rather tricky demonstration when he was interrupted by a knock on the door. The tiny first-year girl who stuck her head in seemed to wither under his accusing glance, but she still managed to stammer, "Terribly sorry, Professor, but - but the Headmistress told me to tell you that she needs to see Harry Potter right away in her office..."

"Very well," Flitwick grumbled once the girl had fled, "off you go, Mr Potter, nothing to be done about it... everybody else, pay attention this time, I expect you to be able to cast the spell yourself by the end of this lesson!"

Harry was only too glad to get out of the classroom, although he wasn't overly keen to find out what McGonagall had to say to him. His best guess was that she was going to berate him for smuggling Lucius Malfoy into the school; Harry had no intention of telling her why he'd done it, but he couldn't for the life of him think of a convincing cover-up story on his way to her office.

He was quite surprised to find that the Headmistress wasn't alone. A middle-aged, balding man in official-looking blue robes was sitting in the visitor's chair in front of her desk; when Harry entered, he rose and offered his hand.

"Mr Potter, a pleasure to meet you. I'm Eustacius Quall, junior undersecretary to the Minister for Magic, and here on his behalf." He spoke with a slightly pompous air that reminded Harry of Percy's early days at the Ministry, and he had to bite back a grin.

McGonagall gave him a slightly reproachful look. "Have a seat, Mr Potter, Mr Quall has a message from Kingsley Shacklebolt for you."

Eustacius Quall took a long time to rearrange his robes around him once he'd sat down again. "I'm sure you are aware," he finally began, "that the one-year anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts is fast approaching. There was no time to celebrate right after the end of the war, but now the Ministry considers it important to have a proper ceremony. It's not meant just as a celebration of our side's victory, but also as a visible sign that the wizarding world is leaving the dark past behind and is heading towards a new, better era."

He sounded as if he were about to launch into a speech, and it wasn't lost on Harry how McGonagall's lips thinned. "Mr Quall, this is a school and Mr Potter needs to return to his classroom, so if you'd please get to the point?"

"Of course, Headmistress," he replied smoothly, although he appeared a bit irritated. "Mr Potter, the Ministry is well aware of the role you played in You-Know-Who's downfall -"

"You can say his name." It was Harry's turn to sound irritated now. "Voldemort has been dead for almost a year, and I'm sure his ghost won't come back to haunt you."

Quall winced slightly. "Of course, of course. As I was saying, the Ministry knows what you've done, and we wish to show our appreciation. Minister Shacklebolt is therefore asking you if you will agree to accept the Order of Merlin, First Class, during the celebration he is planning. He -"

"No." Harry spoke before he'd even thought about it. "Whatever you're about to say, forget it. The answer is no."

Somehow Mr Quall didn't appear surprised. "Minister Shacklebolt predicted that this would be your initial reaction, but I assured him that I would be able to make you see reason, Mr Potter. I fully understand that you don't want to be singled out again, but please stop for a moment to consider that this would mean a lot to a great number of people who have put their faith in you throughout the war. Getting to see their hero -"

"Which part of 'no' did you not understand?" It was only McGonagall's disapproving frown that made Harry realise how loud his voice had become. "I meant it, I'm not attending any kind of Ministry ceremony, and I'm definitely not going to accept your bloody Order!"

Quall looked as if Harry had slapped him. "You have a duty to the public!" he snapped. "This isn't just about you, Mr Potter, it's about the people who fought and suffered and now need reassurance that we have brighter times ahead of us!"

"I think I've done my part in that regard," Harry replied coldly. His anger had evaporated as quickly as it had flared up, and now he felt even more tired than before. "Give Kingsley my regards and tell him he will have to look for another poster boy. I'm sure he will understand."

"You're really willing to give Rita Skeeter free rein when it comes to the image the public has of you?" Quall sounded incredulous, but perhaps he was just trying a different tactic. Harry merely shrugged; deep down he couldn't help wondering if Kingsley had wanted him to turn down the offer since he'd made it so very easy for him.

"To be honest, I couldn't care less about my 'image' at this point. Can I go now, Professor? I think we're done here."

"Of course, Mr Potter," McGonagall answered with a barely visible smile. "Please tell Professor Flitwick I apologise for the interruption of his class, and that I'll do my best to make sure it doesn't occur again."

* * *

After everything that had happened during the last days, Harry hadn't expected that the conversation with Mr Quall would make a lasting impression on him, but he found his thoughts wandering back to it throughout the day. It was especially Quall's mention of Rita Skeeter that kept nagging at him, to the point where he found it impossible to concentrate on the Potions textbook he was reading by the fire in the Gryffindor common room that evening.

It was well past ten o'clock, and Harry was the only person left in the common room, when Ron and Hermione climbed through the portrait hole. They were returning from a prefects' meeting; Neville wasn't with them, which meant that Harry would have to sleep in his own bed tonight since the Head Boy and Girl likely still had work to do even after all the prefects had left.

Ron plopped into an armchair next to Harry with an exaggerated groan. "Be grateful you were never chosen as a prefect."

"I am, trust me." Harry closed the book and put it aside; he wasn't getting any studying done tonight anyway. "How was the meeting?"

Hermione opened her mouth to answer, but Ron was faster. "You don't want to know, believe me. Please, Hermione, let's not go over it all again, all right?"

"Oh, very well." Hermione rolled her eyes when she sat down on the armrest of Ron's chair, but it was obvious that she too was tired. Still, her eyes were keen as ever, because after just one look at Harry she asked immediately, "Is everything all right, Harry? You seemed very preoccupied these past few days."

Harry did some quick thinking. He wasn't going to tell them about his talk with Lucius Malfoy - Ron would be outraged and Hermione shocked, and since he hadn't learned anything that they needed to concern themselves with, there was no reason to mention it. There was something else he wanted to discuss with them, though.

"I'm fine, but - do you have any idea what Rita Skeeter is up to these days? There was a bloke from the Ministry in McGonagall's office today, and he brought her up."

The quick glance Ron and Hermione shared was impossible to miss. "Um - now that you mention it, there is something we'd like to talk about with you," Hermione began haltingly. "Ron heard something from Percy a while ago, and I've done a bit of research, but we weren't sure if you wanted to know because -"

"I get it, Hermione," Harry interrupted her, wondering for the umpteenth time why Ron and Hermione kept walking on eggshells around him ever since the end of the war. "I may not read the papers, but you can still tell me if you think it's important."

"You're not going to like it, mate." Ron, too, seemed extremely uncomfortable, which somehow was much worse than Hermione's visible nervousness.

"I bet." Harry did his best to sound casual. "She's writing a book about me, isn't she?" It was not a difficult guess to make, especially since Shacklebolt had all but told Harry at the beginning of the school year.

Ron made a face. "Not so much about you - I suppose she doesn't quite dare, since everyone is singing your praises at the moment, but..."

"The thing is, Harry," Hermione took over when Ron fell silent, "I'm sure she'd love nothing better than to tarnish your reputation, but I doubt she's stupid enough to openly criticise you in any way right now. So it seems she's going for a different angle - officially she's writing a sequel to her book about Dumbledore, but rumour has it that it's really focussed on you. You and Dumbledore, I mean - your relationship, the way he treated you, and..."

"And?" Harry asked when Hermione paused, as if she were looking for the right words. He didn't like these news at all; whatever had happened between Dumbledore and himself was nobody else's business, and he didn't even want to imagine what kind of outrageous lies Rita was going to cook up to top the stuff she'd already put in her first book.

"Remember how her book talked about Dumbledore's 'unhealthy relationship' with you?" Harry had never before realised that Hermione could pronounce quotation marks. Without waiting for a reply, she pressed on, "It seems that she'll be going into details with that in the sequel, if you get my drift."

Harry frowned. "I don't, actually. What kind of details?"

Hermione took a deep breath, as if she were steeling herself. "From what I've heard, she's going to claim that there was a certain, um... physical aspect to Dumbledore's 'unnatural interest' in you."

Harry felt his jaw drop. Ron, whose ears were bright red, wouldn't look at him; Hermione held his gaze, but she too was blushing. "It's obvious that she's still holding a grudge against you, and since she doesn't dare to attack you -"

"She's trying to paint me as some kind of - of abused child?" Harry wasn't sure whether he wanted to laugh or to smash something. "That's sick!"

"Of course it is," Ron murmured darkly, "but it's also brilliant in a completely twisted way, don't you see? Once this gets out, there will be nothing you can do - even if you drag her in front of the Wizengamot for slander, the damage is already done, and she'll probably just say that you're too ashamed to admit the truth."

"Plus, it would give her even more publicity," Hermione added matter-of-factly.

"Damn." Harry felt an angry blush creep up his own cheeks as he bit his lips in frustration. He hadn't thought that any of Rita's fabrications would ever bother him again, but this was beyond anything he'd considered even her capable of. The mere idea that people might actually believe it made him almost physically ill.

Hermione had reached for her bulging book bag and was rummaging through it. "I've been thinking, Harry - like Ron said, there's no way to undo the damage if she publishes this, so you need to make sure she doesn't get the chance."

Harry frowned at the sheet of parchment she held out to him. "What's this?"

"A letter to the publisher." There was a hint of triumph in Hermione's tone. "It's supposed to remain a secret until the book is officially announced, but Percy found out for me who is going to print it. You should write them."

"What for? It's not as if I can forbid them to print a book, and I doubt they'll pass up the opportunity to make a fortune just because it might piss me off!"

"I'm not so sure about that," Hermione replied with a smug smile. "It's worth a try, isn't it? I've drafted a letter for you in which you express your disappointment - just that, nothing more - that a respectable publisher would be willing to besmirch not only Dumbledore's name, but yours as well... after everything you've done for the wizarding world, no less. I know," she added hastily when she saw Harry's expression, "you don't like to play the saviour card, but in this case I really think it's it the only solution, Harry."

With a sigh, Harry took the parchment and quickly skimmed the text Hermione had written. The letter was brief and very formal; if the tone had been any colder, there would have been icicles growing all over it. "You seriously think this is going to impress anyone?"

Hermione brandished a self-inking quill as if it were the Sword of Gryffindor. "Sign it, and we'll see how it goes."

With a shrug, Harry took the quill and scribbled his name on the bottom of the page. The moment he was done, Hermione snatched the letter out of his hands. "I'll owl it to them first thing in the morning. I'll be off to bed now, I need to go to the library before breakfast to look up a few things for my Arithmancy essay."

She bent down to kiss Ron, bid Harry good night and then climbed the stairs that led up to the girls' dormitories.

Ron watched her leave with a frown. "Say, Harry, am I seeing things, or should I really start worrying that she'll leave me for Percy one day?"

Uncomfortable as Harry still was, he couldn't help laughing at this. "I'd say you've gone mental."

"Oh." Ron leaned his head against the backrest of his chair and stretched like a big, lazy ginger cat. "That's all right, then; it means I can always steal your girlfriend if mine dumps me for my brother."

Harry cuffed him over the head with his Potions book and then made a dash for the stairs, the pillow that Ron threw after him missing him by inches.

* * *

"Potter, you still with us?" Draco snapped his fingers right in front of Harry's nose, almost making him spill red ink all over the essay he was supposed to mark.

Harry slapped Draco's hand away and shot him a glare. "What the heck was that for?"

"We need to get these finished today, remember?" Draco indicated the pile of essays between them with an expression bordering on disgust. "I'll be -"

"Going home for the Easter hols tomorrow." Harry rolled his eyes. "I know, Malfoy, even though you've only mentioned it fifteen times during the last hour or so."

He fully expected Draco to point out that unlike Harry, some people had a family to go home to, but Draco merely shrugged. "Then why are you staring holes into the ceiling instead of working?"

Harry had been mulling over the remnants of an extremely bizarre dream he'd had last night - something involving Lucius Malfoy, Merope Gaunt, and a dark little room that had reminded him a bit of his cupboard back at number four, Privet Drive. He shook his head, trying to banish the snatches of the dream that kept turning up in his memory. Draco looked at him as if he were actually expecting an answer, so Harry said the first thing that came to his mind.

"I was thinking about what to give Teddy for his first birthday."

"Aren't you ever the doting godfather." Draco made a face. "Just don't get him a toy broom, Mother already bought one for him. Don't worry," he added in a mocking tone when he saw Harry's darkening expression, "I'm sure she'll check beforehand whether you're around this time."

Harry put his quill aside and looked Draco fully in the face. "Just out of curiosity, what is your mother hoping to gain from this whole charade? Does she honestly think that sucking up to Mrs Tonks is going to do her any good?" His calm tone didn't give away his irritation; he'd really been looking forward to buying Teddy his first broom once he was a bit older.

Draco held Harry's gaze for a moment, but then he shrugged and turned away. "Ask her yourself the next time you run into her, I'm sure Aunt Andromeda will appreciate the sentiment."

Harry bit the inside of his lower lip in annoyance. "Trust you to find another back to hide behind, Malfoy."

Draco kept his eyes on the essay in front of him, although his posture stiffened a bit. "Well, I suppose we can't all be heroes."

There was something in his tone that, for some odd reason, made Harry think of the expression Draco had worn that morning when everyone had thought he had killed Greyback. There was no time to ponder it, though, because the sound of someone pointedly clearing his throat announced that Snape's portrait had returned to his frame.

"Potter, Malfoy, I would love to find you working instead of bickering just once. At the rate you're going, you'll be here until midnight."

"I'm so sorry, Professor," Draco spoke up meekly, "but I forgot to tell you that I have to leave at seven o'clock, I've scheduled one more Quidditch practice before the holidays. I thought that now with Slytherin being in the lead -"

Harry looked up sharply, only too aware where this was going. "Hey, you -"

"Oh, very well, Mr Malfoy," Snape interrupted him, and although he sounded grumpy enough, Draco's smirk was clearly reflected in his face. "You've got a responsibility towards your team, after all. Mr Potter will just have to finish the rest without you - you are capable of doing that, Potter, I hope?"

For a second, Harry felt a mad urge to stick his tongue out at Snape's portrait; childish or not, it was oddly liberating. He finally settled on a wordless sneer instead; Snape probably hadn't expected him to answer anyway.

At least, Harry thought with a quick glance towards the window while he dipped his quill into the red ink once again, it looked like there was going to be rain in the evening.