Harry starts to figure things out, with his usual flair for self-preservation.
Alfred Victor Houston Parkinson was the kind of man both Muggles and wizards would walk past without a second thought. Short and gaunt, he had deepset brown eyes and had lost most of his black hair. He looked like "his idea of a good time was a hot cup of tea and a financial statement," to quote one unkind magical soul.
That overstated things, but not by much. Alfred was the founder and CEO of Parkinson & Parkinson, the largest magical accounting and bookkeeping firm in the British Isles. He and his wife Violet kept the books balanced for everyone from Nimbus Corporation to the Daily Prophet. And if Alfred had a few clients whose ledgers he would never permit anyone else to see, most of his employees would shrug and conclude that they wouldn't trust anyone but "the old man." Only
his wife knew the truth- those clients were eyes-only because they, like Alfred, were affiliated with the Death Eaters.
Alfred had always been deeply conservative in his habits, and had joined the Death Eaters back in the mid-1970s when the Ministry had become far too accommodating of Muggles for his taste. But there were no Dark Revels or murders for him or Violet. They weren't his style, and he considered them unproductive to boot. He had long ago figured that the violent would burn themselves out after a while, allowing him and other saner souls to run Magical Britain in the way she deserved. As for Violet, she'd never wanted to join, and after seeing some of the Death Eaters' opinions of witches, he never pressed her.
When Pansy wrote Violet about the election, Violet spoke to him. A far lesser man than Alfred would have seen the opportunity that Pansy had been presented, and he was glad to see that his only daughter was taking such initiative. The possibility of a quick end to the war was well worth the thousand or so Galleons that Pansy requested, and he was thrilled to hear that she and Violet were owling each other every day. (He didn't want too many details. Anything you know is something that can be beaten or ensorcelled out of you. Besides, while he knew what he personally liked, he didn't know what was fashionable or what Harry wanted, and he knew that he didn't know.)
With Hermione unable or unwilling to tell him what was going on, Harry fell back on his next best sources of information, Ron and Ginny. But neither held his confidence the way that they used to.
Ginny clearly blamed him for the disaster of the Department of Mysteries, even if she didn't explicitly say so. He could hardly blame her, as he often blamed himself too. She had been in a
generally bad mood ever since, aggravated by Fleur's deepening friendship with Bill. Still, Harry hoped she would help him.
When he approached Ginny on Thursday evening after practice, he heard her muttering as he came near. "I could've won if it'd been fair... he deserves me more than any of them..." Harry had just heard Angelina and Katie give their advice in locker-room speeches. They had been catty, contentious, filled with little insinuations against each other. He didn't think Ron or the other males on the team noticed, while the girls didn't seem at all surprised.
"Hello, Ginny! What's going on?" Harry called.
"Don't sneak up like that, Harry! What do you want?" Ginny snapped.
"I want to know what's going on with Hermione and the other girls on the team. She told me about something that's supposed to happen at the end of next week, but won't give me any details," Harry explained.
"Well, yeah, Harry. We're trying to help you," Ginny retorted.
"Help with what? By doing what?" Harry asked, more confused than before.
"I can't tell you, but you'll find out at the end of next week," Ginny replied, and started to walk away.
"Ginny? Can't you tell me what you'll be doing?" Harry tried one more tack. That was apparently a bad idea.
"Nothing, Harry. Nothing at all," she snarled and ran away.
The next morning, Harry spoke to Ron at breakfast. Ron was making a slow, hesitant recovery from the "brain" incident at the Department of Mysteries. He was given to sudden mood swings and odd lapses in judgment. Still, Harry believed he was worth a try.
Unfortunately, when he asked Ron to "ask around and find out what the girls are doing that's supposed to end next week," he did not intend for Ron to ask during the middle of Snape's double DADA class with the Slytherins... in front of Snape himself. Naturally, this produced no results (except for 20 points lost from Gryffindor).
After class, Harry was lost in his own thoughts when he ran into someone on his way out the door.
"Twenty more points from Gryffindor. I will not have students assaulting members of my House. Is that clear?" Snape demanded, his black eyes locked on Harry. Harry knew from long, painful experience that there was no point in arguing, so he simply nodded and was let go.
As soon as Snape released him, Harry resumed his trudge out of the classroom, only to find a crumpled piece of parchment on the floor with his name on it. When he uncrumpled it, it read:
'I know the answers that you're looking for. Meet me at the visitors' locker room at 8pm tonight. Come alone.'
No signature, of course. Short of actually saying "This is a trap," this couldn't be a more obvious ploy. But what else could he do?
Fortunately, he had one good friend left to approach.
"Are you sure this is a good idea, Harry?" Neville asked in a muffled voice as they slowly walked toward the locker room.
"No, Neville, I'm not," Harry sighed. "But if you have another idea on how to find out what the girls are doing, I'd love to hear it. If you don't want to take the risk, then go. I don't blame you a bit. You've had enough problems following me," Harry concluded bitterly.
Harry felt Neville pat him on the shoulder. He couldn't see Neville, since he was under Harry's invisibility cloak, but he could visualize the expression on Neville's face. Before he could reflect on matters any further, they'd arrived at the locker room door. Harry used his key to enter.
The hallway branched off into the boys' and girls' locker rooms, and there was the sound of a shower running from the latter.
"I see that you've disobeyed my instructions, Harry. I said to come alone. I won't say anything more until your friend leaves." The voice was amplified and somehow masked; Harry couldn't tell who said it or where it had come from.
He heard a whisper from beside him; Neville had a plan. "I like it," replied Harry. Moments later, footsteps headed toward the door. It opened for a few seconds to let someone out, then closed again.
"Very cute, Harry. But it didn't fool me. Tell your buddy to get lost." Neville's footsteps spell and Harry's magically opening the door hadn't worked at all.
"I'll have the cloak ready when you come back," Neville whispered. With that, he really did leave the locker room, and Harry was now alone to meet his fate.
"Thank you, Harry. Please enter the girls' locker room." Harry did so.
The locker room was apparently empty, save for a single wand on a dressing bench. Harry swept his eyes back and forth. No one seemed to be hiding in a corner. He tried a summoning spell for
invisibility cloaks, but that did nothing.
"Can't blame you for being suspicious, Harry," the voice said, sounding... amused? "I will be out in a minute. Please don't touch my wand."
'There's one good sign, I hope," Harry thought. 'Whoever this is doesn't have a wand... unless this one is a decoy, in which case I'm still screwed.'
A few seconds later, the speaker emerged from the shower.. and Harry lost the ability to think of anything else.
The young woman in front of him was quite small- barely five feet tall and maybe a hundred pounds dripping wet, which she was. She wore only a towel wrapped around her torso, leaving her arms free and her legs exposed below mid-thigh. Her skin was clear and darkly complexioned, and her face was disconcertingly innocent except for hard grey eyes.
"Pansy? Why did you call me here?" Harry asked when his voice started working again. His wand was pointed directly at her.
Pansy did not reply, slowly walking over to Harry with her hands up to show that they were empty. He noticed that the top of her towel covered larger breasts than he thought he remembered. And from the points under the towel, it was much cooler where Pansy was standing than where Harry was, three or four feet away. She picked up her wand, pointed it at her throat, whispered something, and set it down again.
"There. Now we can talk normally. Oh wait, let me cast Colloportus and Muffliato," Pansy said calmly. Harry let her do so.
"What is going on, Pansy?" Harry said, barely keeping himself from shouting.
"Simple, Harry. We, the girls of Hogwarts, are having an election," Pansy replied.
"An election? For what?" Harry's voice rose.
Pansy continued, quite composedly, "Hermione started it. This is an election in which the winner gets something very precious... you."
"Me?" Harry asked, dumbfounded. His wand had started to drop.
Pansy took full advantage, pushing Harry down onto the bench as his wand clattered away. She then straddled Harry's legs.
"Hermione wants someone to keep you happy, Harry, even if she can't do it herself. That's why she decided to give other girls a chance to prove that they could suit you better than she could. Very moving, if you think about it," Pansy concluded with something halfway between a smile and a smirk on her red lips...
"And you thought you'd betray me to the Death Eaters some night when I'm asleep?" Harry yelled, tossing Pansy off of him and onto the ground as he scrambled for his wand. "I ought to..."
Harry had heard- and done- some inspired screaming in his life, but Pansy's pained call wasn't because of pain or fear. At least not fear for herself, if he was any judge.
"Harry, please listen to me!" Pansy's words were impassioned and he found himself compelled to face her. Her eyes had softened, and tears were starting to flow. "That's what my father thinks. But Violet, I mean Mum, she's with me. We don't want you killed or hurt, and we don't want the Death Eaters to win. I can help protect you. I know who the Death Eaters' kids are, and who supports them. I won't let them get you," she finished in a rush.
"But what about all the times you used to insult Hermione and me? And what about Draco?" Harry asked with less heat.
"Tell me you never said something silly because of House rivalry, Harry," Pansy replied sadly. "But there's something more important now. You've got more friends in Slytherin than you think. Draco? He's so easy to manipulate that it's not funny. I've got wrapped around my finger. I could get him to do anything if I say you'd hate it. Don't worry about him," she finished, almost chuckling.
"Name one of these 'friends,' " Harry challenged.
"Our House's other candidate, Daphne Greengrass," Pansy answered.
"Other candidate? How many candidates are there?" Harry asked in confusion.
"Nine, Harry, and many more girls wanted to run..."
By the time that he and Pansy had finished talking, it was almost 10:00, and they'd have to hustle to beat curfew. He'd never spoken with Pansy or any other Slytherin for so long at a stretch, and was fascinated by the accounts of the quiet 'underground' supporters of his. Mostly female- "It doesn't hurt that you've grown into such a hot-looking guy," Pansy said, which made him wonder if there were rampant undiagnosed eye problems in Slytherin- they had been the source of some of quiet suggestions to others about spells for the DA, even if they were under too much pressure to actually join. Professor Slughorn was one of them, too, as he considered Voldemort an affront to the ambition that Slytherin was intended to promote.
" 'Slytherin House is intended to make its members strive to be all that they can be,' " Pansy quoted, " 'Not to train them to beg some Dark Lord for favors.' He's right. Dumbledore actually made a good appointment for a change."
He was also fascinated by this election Hermione and Luna had helped to organize. "How did they get all of these girls to run? And how did they keep it a secret?"
"There are a lot of spells whose effects work for one gender, so having women keep secrets from men, or vice versa, is surprisingly easy. And you really do need to look at yourself in a mirror sometime. Six feet tall, nice muscles, cute smile- oh, we wish you'd smile more often- that tousled hair. And this evening I learned one more reason to hope that I win," she finished with a friendlier smirk than before.
"What do we do now?" Harry asked when Pansy had finally run out of steam.
"Well, I get dressed." Harry had almost forgotten that Pansy was still only wearing the towel. "Then we go back to our Houses. I really hope you listen to what I said. If I win, I can help protect you. I think I can be good for you in other ways, too," she purred. "I've done... things... to keep Draco with me, to keep him from suspecting me. I'm not proud of them, but I think you'd be a lot more deserving."
"I'll have to talk to Hermione in the morning. Then some of these other candidates. Now that I'm over the shock, this actually sounds interesting," Harry smiled for the first time that evening.