Chapter 1: One Regret
If Harry Potter could have risked admitting to one overriding regret since he'd come to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (and admitting to regrets was something you didn't do if you were a Slytherin), it was that he'd shaken Draco Malfoy's hand on the Hogwarts Express that first day. Had he known then what it would lead to ....
Well, it certainly hadn't led to undying friendship with Malfoy, but Harry had ended up spending the rest of the journey in his company anyway, as Ron Weasley – outraged that Harry could shake the blond boy's hand after the things he'd said about the Weasley family – had stormed out of the compartment and spent the rest of the journey with his brothers further down the train.
It had been an innocent mistake made out of simple politeness, but like other such mistakes in Harry's life, it had far-reaching consequences.
They hadn't spoken – really spoken – since. It had been five years.
He had been fed up with Malfoy's company by the time they arrived at the school. An attempt to speak to Ron while they waited to file into the Great Hall had been rudely snubbed in front of all the other first years and, angry at Ron's overreaction and the sniggers of the others, which had reminded him so acutely of his treatment at his Muggle primary school, Harry had been simmering with resentment by the time Professor McGonagall put the Sorting Hat onto his head. Having been told by Ron on the train that the Weasleys were almost always Gryffindors, he very stupidly told the Hat that he didn't want to be in any House that contained a Weasley. For that one moment of temper, he was to pay for the rest of his school life.
He was sorted into Slytherin.
As a result, it had taken the better part of six months for him to repair the damage to his friendship with Hagrid, and even now he had to watch his step. The adults around him seemed to expect certain things of Slytherins, which seemed at once grossly unfair to Harry, and then again, when he met most of his new Housemates, perhaps understandable. And once again he found he had no friends of his own age. Slytherins didn't make friends; they formed alliances and changed them whenever it seemed advantageous to do so. Harry had never dreamed that he would have to put all the survival skills he had learned against Cousin Dudley's gang to use here as well. As The Boy Who Lived he had his own cachet but this was limited compared to the power Malfoy could wield as a scion of one of the oldest, wealthiest pureblood families in the wizard world. Pure blood was everything in Slytherin; those with less than pure wizard ancestry – and Harry was among them on account of his mother – had an uphill struggle to survive. Slytherins were only slightly less vicious towards their own House than they were towards Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw.
There were some good things in life, of course. Quidditch was Harry's major compensation for having to watch his back every minute of the day and night. He had tested out successfully as Seeker in his first year and the Slytherin team – and consequently the whole House – had benefited from his prowess. Much to Draco Malfoy's impotent fury; not even his father's attempt to buy the position for him in their second year had been successful. The team captain, Marcus Flint, and their Head of House, Professor Snape, were in total accord over this: They wanted to win, and with Harry as Seeker they did win. Malfoy had been forced to be content with the lesser Chaser's position, although Harry had been made to suffer for that as well. Sharing a dorm with Malfoy and his thugs, Crabbe and Goyle, was one of the many disadvantages of being a Slytherin.
Harry also had a certain skill in Charms and Defence Against the Dark Arts, which he was quietly very proud of. Others might whisper that his being sorted into Slytherin and then showing a facility with the Dark Arts was a very bad sign, but Harry was honestly grateful to be good at some things for once. The rest of the time he kept himself to himself.
But he always regretted the loss of Ron Weasley's friendship.
Once, briefly in the third year, he had thought he might get a second chance. A notorious criminal called Sirius Black had escaped from Azkaban and Harry had been astonished to discover that the man was his godfather, a fact that Draco Malfoy had sardonically congratulated him on. It was only after Black had broken into Hogwarts and trapped another man called Pettigrew who, even more astonishingly, had been hiding in Animagus form as a rat – as Ron's pet rat Scabbers no less – that the truth had come out and Black had been exonerated.
As school years went, Harry tended to view the third year as a pretty bad one. After Sirius's successful retrial, they had been introduced. Although initially successful, things had inevitably become a little stiff and difficult when his godfather discovered that Harry was a Slytherin. Harry himself had not felt up to explaining what had happened; indeed, a part inside him that had inevitably been hardened by life in Slytherin House had not allowed him to unbend that far. Consequently, although Harry's relationship with Sirius was reasonable, he couldn't shake the feeling that his godfather was a little wary of him and that was all it took to make Harry wary of him, which made life even more difficult as Sirius was also his legal guardian.
And despite his hopes, he had not been able to rewind the clock and start his friendship with Ron Weasley again. He had made a point of seeking the boy out after Sirius's trial to try to talk to him about Pettigrew and thank him for his unwitting part in freeing his godfather. It had been a bad move. Ron had been highly sensitive about the part his pet had played in the whole business and, worse, he thought Harry was mocking him about it. The encounter had ended in a painful scene.
Harry had not tried again.
This was their sixth year now and Harry was sixteen. In a couple of weeks it would be Ron's seventeenth birthday – he knew this because he shared Divination classes with the Gryffindor boy and he had seen his horoscope. Ron had been born on March 1st; he was a Pisces, which seemed odd for someone so fiery tempered and who obviously lived so much in the here-and-now. Harry had been giving a lot of thought to these things lately; he was acutely aware that his long-held desire for friendship with Ron had deepened into something a great deal more serious over the last year or so.
He wasn't going to get many more chances to try and repair things, and he'd racked his brains to think of a gesture he could make that Ron wouldn't misinterpret again. Then, watching the Gryffindor table one morning, it had come to him.
The Weasleys were very poor and Ron had no owl of his own like the rest of his classmates. In fact, since the loss of Scabbers the rat, Ron had been without a pet altogether. Even Neville Longbottom had a toad of his own. And some things Harry had overheard once suggested that in spite of the rat turning out to be a mass murderer, Ron rather missed Scabbers. He made light of these things, but ....
Which gave Harry an idea. It wasn't easy, but he did have money – Sirius never questioned his withdrawals from Gringotts or set limits – and he had a contact, Hagrid, who as teacher of Care of Magical Creatures was uniquely capable of helping him find the ideal present.
On the morning of the 1st March, Harry was up unusually early. No one saw him enter the Great Hall and carefully place his gift on the Gryffindor table at the spot where Ron usually sat. His only concerns were that the occupant of the basket might move and wriggle it off the table, or that someone else might get nosy and open it first. He didn't want the surprise to be spoilt.
Mind you, Harry had an idea that Hagrid might already have guessed at the reason for this particular gift. He had talked to him quite a lot over the years – he had to talk to someone or he would have gone mad – and although he hadn't actually said that this was for Ron, there had been a look in the half-giant's eyes when he asked for his help that suggested he knew and knew why. But he hadn't said anything, for which Harry was grateful.
Having settled the basket with great care and made sure that his card was somewhere Ron would only find it after he had opened the basket and seen what was inside, Harry retreated to chew on his nails and wait for everyone else to arrive for breakfast. It was all in the lap of the gods now and if it all went wrong anyway ... well, he didn't know what he'd do. He could only wait.
He just hoped that Ron didn't turn out to be allergic to Kneazle fur.
End Part 1/7
Chapter 2: Pride & Prejudice
If Ron Weasley could have squashed his pride enough, he would have admitted to regretting pushing Harry Potter away from him at the beginning of their first year.
Of course, at the time he told himself he'd done the right thing when he cold-shouldered the other boy outside the Great Hall before the Sorting – who wanted a friend who could shake hands with a creep like Malfoy after the things he'd said about Ron's family? And of course, when Potter was Sorted into Slytherin, it felt like he had been vindicated.
It was only later that doubts began to whisper in his mind. For one thing it didn't seem to Ron, in his more honest moments, that Potter was very happy in Slytherin. There were signs that he didn't get along with his Housemates much better than Ron and the Gryffindors did, and on several occasions during their first year the dark-haired boy had tried to speak to Ron and apologise for what had happened on the train. But Ron had the Weasley temper and would have none of it.
Self-righteousness is a cold bedfellow. Ron was one of four Gryffindor boys in their year; an unusually small group. When Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnigan paired up, he was more or less forced into the company of Neville Longbottom, but the two of them had little in common and eventually Ron found himself spending quite a lot of time with the bossy but good-hearted Hermione Granger instead. It was an explosive friendship sometimes and it wasn't the same as having a good male friend. He didn't have many other options though, and in the end he did what all Weasley's did in difficult situations – he made the best of it and told himself that he was happy.
But in the third year, things took an unexpected twist. A notorious criminal called Sirius Black escaped from Azkaban and it didn't take long for the Daily Prophet to broadcast the fact that not only had the man betrayed Harry Potter's parents and sent them to their deaths, but that he also just happened to be Potter's godfather. Rumours began to circulate that he might be heading for Hogwarts and speculation was rife as to his intentions. After all, the Boy Who Lived had been Sorted into the Dark Lord's own House. What could it all mean?
Ron might have watched the entire affair as a curious bystander had he not been forced into the role of unwitting participant. For Sirius Black didn't go after Harry after all – instead he broke into Gryffindor Tower and seized Ron's pet rat, Scabbers.
Ron preferred not to dwell on this incident, which had been terrifying, humiliating and almost surreal in its improbability. Nevertheless, Scabbers was unmasked an Animagus called Pettigrew – the real betrayer of Lily and James Potter – Black was re-tried and exonerated, and life went on ... in Ron's case minus one pet rat that he had secretly been rather attached to. (Black had offered to replace Scabbers and even bought Ron an owl, but the stupid bird had promptly attached itself to his sister Ginny instead.)
One final incident had set the cap on the whole sorry drama. One day, around the time of Black's re-trial, Harry Potter stopped Ron in a corridor and thanked him for his "help" in freeing his godfather.
This was too much. Already hypersensitive about the incident, Ron felt that he was being mocked and his response had been – in retrospect – unnecessarily violent.
Potter had left him strictly alone after that.
Ron knew he should feel pleased. This was what he had wanted, right? He had no reason to feel uncomfortable, let alone wistful, and certainly had no excuse for being as obsessed as he was with the dark-haired Slytherin boy.
So why on earth, when he was nearly seventeen years old, when it was six years after he'd turned his back on Harry Potter's friendship, should what the other boy thought of him matter so much? Shouldn't he have moved on long ago?
He'd asked Hermione that once, after the Scabbers/Pettigrew thing. He'd been feeling low and a little lonely and had poured out the whole story of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy on the train. The bushy-haired girl had listened and then looked rather thoughtful.
"You know, he's not such a bad sort, as Slytherins go," she'd offered. "He's actually polite to me, unlike Malfoy and his goons. And sometimes I think he looks quite lonely."
This was not at all helpful and Ron had told her so. And it didn't help his peace of mind. Potter was a Slytherin. Ron was a Gryffindor. Gryffindors and Slytherins mixed about as well as oil and water. Wasn't that the point?
Well, maybe and then again maybe not. He'd been given a slightly different perspective to chew on at Christmas. His older brother Bill had made it home for once, and Ron had always looked up to him. Bill was the eldest, he was a curse-breaker for Gringotts, he was cool and sometimes did things their mother didn't approve of. He was someone Ron had always felt had answers and he could talk to without fear of ridicule. Under the influence of a cup of mulled wine illicitly slipped to him when their mother wasn't looking, he decided to confide the whole Harry Potter "thing" to Bill and see what he made of it.
Like Hermione, Bill had looked rather thoughtful.
"I work with someone who was in Slytherin," he said finally. "He's a good man. He had a tough childhood, though, and it gave him some ... issues. Sometimes I think he ended up in Slytherin because it was the only House where he could get his problems out and learn the skills to deal with them. Or maybe it was the only House that could deal with the person he was back then. Gryffindor is a wonderful House, Ron, but it can only help you prepare for life if you want to be helped. If you're brave enough to admit that you need help to get along. Everyone does, of course. But Slytherin – Slytherin will force you to deal with yourself when you don't have the courage to admit to it."
He appeared to consider his statement for a moment before nodding, satisfied with what he'd said. "Hufflepuff will nurture you. Ravenclaw will inform you. Gryffindor will arm you. But Slytherin ... Slytherin will put you over an anvil and hammer you."
"I reckon you've had too much wine!" Ron joked, but there was a nervous laugh in his voice.
Bill shook his head, smiling faintly at his youngest brother's disbelief.
"Think about it," he urged him. "Harry Potter's parents were murdered by You-Know-Who and he was raised by Muggles. He didn't know he had magic until he was eleven and you've just told me that he said he never had presents or pocket-money or anything but the worst of his cousin's cast-offs. And I've read the papers; I know what's being said about him. If he doesn't have issues, I don't know who does.
"Being a Slytherin doesn't automatically make you evil," Bill continued. "You understand that, don't you? It just means - I don't know - that maybe there's something inside you that's more susceptible to turning Dark. It doesn't mean you will, just that you could."
Ron didn't really want to think about this, but it would sneak up on him at the oddest moments. Nevertheless, on the morning of his seventeenth birthday his mind was really rather more on the early Quidditch practice he had just come from. Gryffindor would play Slytherin that weekend and the team had to be absolutely up to scratch if they wanted to win. Gryffindor had won a few games against the Slytherins, but only ever on points; Dennis Creevey was a good Seeker but there was no denying that Harry Potter was the best in the school, hands down. The only advantage Gryffindor had was that their team was very good overall; Slytherin, on the other hand, had one or two players who could best be described as 'average'.
With a head full of Beater strategies, it was hardly surprising that it took a moment or two to register the round, lidded basket next to his breakfast plate. Hermione had to nudge his elbow and point it out.
"Looks like you have an anonymous admirer! Aren't you going to open it?"
All his other presents were in the Gryffindor Common Room, waiting for him to open them at lunch-time. Ron looked at the basket, more than a little surprised, and suspicion prickled the nape of his neck.
"No label," he said warily. "You don't think …?"
He looked at the other Gryffindors, whose faces began to mirror his doubt. It wouldn't be the first time a spiteful joke had been played on one or other of them at their table. Hermione took her wand out and held it at the ready.
"Open it - carefully," she instructed him.
There was a little peg-and-loop catch on the basket. Ron fumbled it undone, took a deep breath - and flipped the lid back, pulling his hand away sharply.
Nothing happened for several tense seconds. Then something inside the basket moved, making a rustling sound.
"What the - " Ron hesitantly peered over the top of the basket. "Oh! Oh my God - "
"What is it?" Seamus demanded, staring across the table.
Oblivious to all the eyes on him, Ron carefully reached into the basket and lifted out a handful of spotted fluff with two outsized ears.
"It's a Kneazle!" Hermione exclaimed, unnecessarily.
"Oh Ron!" That was his sister, Ginny, and she was out of her seat at once, wanting to take a closer look. "Who would give you a kitten?"
Ron drew back, holding the kitten closer to his chest. He wasn't sure why, but he didn't want his sister to touch it.
"That's right," he heard Hermione say. "No, don't touch, Ginny! It needs to imprint on Ron."
"There's something pinned inside the lid of the basket," Neville pointed out. "Maybe it's a note."
"Here, I'll get it for him."
For once, Ron was grateful for Hermione's interference. He wasn't quite sure what to say or how to react, but primarily his mind was occupied with the tiny body in his hands that was purring hard enough to vibrate. The fur was a light golden brown with dark chocolate spots that matched in pattern on each side of the kitten's body; the only marring of the symmetry was an off-centre blotch on the nose - a sign of excellent breeding, for pure symmetry could only mean the use of illegal charms by an unscrupulous breeder. The tall ears were lightly speckled and rimmed in dark brown fur and the tassel on the short tail was chocolate coloured; the eyes were bright blue. The kitten was perfect.
"There's a note," Hermione told him. "Do you want me to read it?"
"It says Happy Birthday. I hope you like her. Her name is Rosebud. Sorry about that, I didn't name her. There's a pedigree certificate enclosed and a Ministry Kneazle Licence in your name."
Ron looked at the kitten, who sat up in his hands and peered back at him, craning her small neck so that she could delicately sniff his chin.
"Rosebud?" he said to her, and she made a funny little chirping sound in response.
There was a muffled snigger from Dean and Seamus's direction.
Ron shot a glare at them and pointedly turned his attention to Hermione. "Who sent it?"
She offered him the note wordlessly and he looked at the scrawled signature.
End Part 2/7
Chapter 3: A Rose, By Any Other Name
There was no time to work up a decent reaction to this revelation; Ron had Potions and Divination before lunch, and the bigger question was what he would do with the kitten in the meantime. He couldn't leave her in his dormitory; it was Hermione's knowledgeable opinion that Rosebud was too young to be left alone and would probably need feeding by midmorning. And in any case she needed to 'bond' with Ron if he wanted to have any hope of keeping a strong-willed creature like a Kneazle with him.
In the event, Rosebud proved that her independence and intelligence were already well developed. She inspected every fold of Ron's robes while he snatched a mouthful of breakfast and by the time he was ready for his first class, she was curled up deep inside a pocket, fast asleep.
Any hope that she would stay there until midmorning was in vain, though. Halfway through Potions, and in an embarrassingly quiet moment when everyone was taking down notes, Rosebud woke up and scrambled out of Ron's robe onto the workbench. She yawned, stretched luxuriously, and made a plaintive demand that drew every eye.
Ron hastily pulled out a napkin containing some scraps he'd filched from the kipper dish at breakfast. He'd anticipated something like this happening, but not that the ungrateful little minx would gulp the lot down and demand more, clawing his hand in the process. Nor had he expected that her kitten cries would be so loud or heartbreaking. Several of the girls were already looking at him like he was an abusive monster.
It was hardly surprising, then, that Professor Snape should swoop down upon him, demanding sharply to know what was going on. Rosebud took instant exception to this, hissing at the Potions Master and bristling aggressively. She looked laughably sweet with her fur fluffed out and tail sticking straight up, but Ron was terrified that she would actually attack Snape. She might look about as threatening as a fluffy toy, but her tiny claws were needle-sharp and could inflict real damage.
Fortunately Snape was more familiar with the nature and habits of Kneazles than Ron. He didn't attempt to touch Rosebud, but instead stooped until he was looking her straight in the eye - albeit from a couple of feet away.
"Exactly what is the meaning of this unnecessary display?" he demanded.
Disconcerted, the kitten's ears flicked backwards and she backed up a step or two, sitting down rather abruptly.
"She's hungry, sir," Ron muttered, red-faced.
"That, Mr. Weasley, is more than obvious," Snape snapped at him. "Why did you not ensure you had sufficient food for her before you entered my classroom and set about disrupting it? You have no business owning an animal, let alone an intelligent creature like a Kneazle, if you cannot care for it! Twenty points from Gryffindor - "
Rosebud hissed at him again and batted one tiny paw in the air, claws extended and ears flattened.
"No doubt," Snape told her coolly. "However much I may deprecate your taste, your loyalty cannot be faulted. Nevertheless, I think you will join me at the front of the room until Mr. Weasley has completed his work. Come along."
He extended a hand to her. Rosebud looked at it with uniquely feline doubt and cast a look at Ron as if to say Now what?
Snape sighed. "I believe," he informed her austerely, "that I may have a jar of Elephant Prawns in my drawer that you would like."
That settled it. Rosebud deigned to be carried to Snape's desk, where she spent the rest of the lesson daintily eating fat, juicy prawns from his fingertips.
The incident met with mixed reactions outside the classroom afterwards.
"I don't care what anyone says," Dean commented. "Anything that keeps Snape occupied for half a lesson is worth twenty points!"
"I'm sure all that shellfish can't be good for her," Hermione fretted. "She's only young."
"I have to get to Divination," Ron said tiredly. "I'll get a book about Kneazles from the library later."
"Are you all right?" she asked him, concerned.
"Yeah, I just didn't need that much excitement in Potions. I hope Divination's a bit quieter - "
It was, apart from a minor flutter when Rosebud decided to express her opinion of Professor Trelawney by vomiting half-digested prawns onto the table in front of her. Apart from this, she appeared to be in excellent spirits. Embarrassed but resigned, Ron cleaned up the mess with a Scouring Charm and dragged his Tree of Life chart out of his bag. When he looked for a place to sit down, he discovered that there was just one place left … at a table with Harry Potter.
This felt a little like a conspiracy, although it could simply have been something to do with his classmates' reluctance to sit near the pungent fishy stink that clung to the kitten's fur. Then it occurred to Ron that he had a few questions to put to the Slytherin and the foggy twilight atmosphere of Professor Trelawney's classroom was as good a place as any. So he took his seat in better spirits and when an opportunity presented itself, he pushed a folded scrap of paper across to the dark haired boy with one word on it.
There was a quizzical air to the message that was pushed back.
Elephant prawns don't agree with her?
No! Ron wrote back, exasperated. Why did you give her to me?
The reply was several minutes in coming.
Ron chanced a glance sideways at the other boy and was startled to find the green eyes fixed on him intensely. Potter was clearly trying to tell him something. He pondered for a long while before finally sending a message back:
Library, tonight, 7 o'clock.
"You're going to get me into so much trouble with Madam Pince," Ron told Rosebud, as he gently fended off batting paws from the old leather-bound book he was reading. "Now, it says here that you shouldn't be eating rich stuff like prawns at your age. You're supposed to have things like minced, lightly cooked chicken and kitten biscuits."
"Yeah. Which means that you're a greedy little Kneazle, aren't you? No wonder you were sick. Mind you, Snape should have known better, after tearing a strip off me like that …. You're not supposed to have milk too often and I need to keep a little pot of grass for you to nibble on occasionally. You'd better be nice to Neville, then, and not chase Trevor around the dorm - "
There was a muffled laugh and Ron looked up. Harry Potter was standing in the doorway of the private study cubicle. He was dressed in his Quidditch gear and was soaking wet, dripping rivulets of mud and water onto the floor; even the Firebolt broomstick in his right hand was dripping. His dark hair was plastered to his head and there was a bloody graze along his left cheekbone that was beginning to puff up.
And he looked surprisingly good, in spite of the spectacles and general disarray. He'd grown a lot in the six years they'd been at school, losing the scrawny, undersized look Ron remembered from that first meeting on the Hogwarts Express, and had put on both height and muscle. He would never be as tall as Ron, of course - who was six feet tall already - but he looked the way a healthy, active sixteen year old should.
Ron found he had to clear his throat before he could say, in a suitably sardonic tone, "Rough practice?"
"There was a spot of drizzle," Potter acknowledged.
More like a deluge. "Madam Pince'll strangle you when she sees water on the floor."
The other boy shrugged. He pulled the outer robe over his head - taking care not to splatter the table - and deliberately wrung it out on the floor, grinning at Ron's expression. Then he pulled his wand out of the thigh pocket of his trousers and cast a Drying Charm on the floor and his robes.
There was a pause. There was no second chair in the cramped little room, so in the end Potter perched on the window ledge.
"You're both getting along all right, then?" he asked awkwardly.
"Yeah." Now that the Slytherin was here, Ron wasn't sure what to say. "She's great. Very popular, although she doesn't seem to be very keen on other people."
That was an understatement. Some people she would tolerate – Hermione for example and, bizarrely, Millicent Bulstrode. Others she took varying degrees of exception to. Colin Creevey had been clawed while trying to take a photograph of her and she howled a warning at the least sign of Draco Malfoy and his goons. And she growled and fluffed up her fur at Ginny, a fact Ron tried hard not to be too pleased about.
Interestingly, she hadn't made a sound about Harry Potter's presence, though.
Potter nodded. "According to Hagrid, Kneazles aren't really much like cats at all and they mostly avoid people, but if they take a liking to you, they're very loyal. And you've got a better chance of that when they're Rosebud's age."
Which reminded Ron. "Who named her?"
At this the other boy looked rueful. "Hagrid, of course! He gives creatures the weirdest names. He had a giant three-headed dog once, called Fluffy."
Ron stared. "That thing had a name?"
Potter's brows went up. "When did you meet Fluffy?"
Ron and Hermione had accidentally been shut in a room with the monster after taking a wrong turning during their first year. But he wasn't about to admit that to Harry Potter.
"I'd still like to know why you gave her to me." Actually, he'd had a longer speech planned, one that included a statement about how he couldn't accept the gift without a very good reason, but it was one thing to plan a speech like that and another entirely to actually say it when he was holding a handful of affectionately purring kitten. Now that he'd spent a day in her company, Ron didn't think he could give her back.
It was interesting how stumped Potter seemed to be by the question, though. The dark-haired boy opened and closed his mouth a couple of times without speaking, and looked down at his hands.
Finally, he said, "Have you ever wondered what it would have been like, that day on the train, if ...."
"If you hadn't cosied up to Malfoy and his pals?" asked Ron, rather acidly. It was a low blow and he knew it, but it had to be said.
For a moment he thought Potter might dispute the statement, but then the Slytherin swallowed. "Yeah, if that hadn't happened."
"Yeah, I've thought about it." More than he wanted to admit.
"And I'd still be a Gryffindor and you'd be a Slytherin and ne'er the twain shall meet."
"You reckon?" Potter gave him an odd look for a moment. "What did the Sorting Hat say to you when you put it on?"
Ron blinked. "How do you know it said anything?"
"Well ... yes. It said Ha - another Weasley! I know just what to do with you! Almost all of my family have been Gryffindors, though – "
"It said to me Now, where to put you?" the other boy interrupted. "And you know what? I was so mad with you for turning your back on me that I told it I didn't want to be in any House you were in. So it put me in Slytherin."
There was an astonished silence. Then Potter added quietly, "I've never told anyone that before. And yes, afterwards I felt pretty bloody stupid. But it was too late then, wasn't it? Just like I felt bloody stupid for shaking Malfoy's hand, but it was too late then as well." His mouth tightened for a moment. "Crap like that happens to me a lot."
Ron wasn't sure what to say. More to the point, he wasn't sure what to feel. A part of him felt a sharp twinge of guilt for his overreaction that day on the train, but another part was angry at the other boy for hinting, however obliquely, that this situation was his fault somehow.
"You seem to have done all right for yourself," he said curtly. "Seeker in your first year, House Cup four years in a row, top of Charms and DADA – "
"And so famous!" Potter said mockingly, and Ron flushed. "Yeah, everyone should have a homicidal megalomaniac after them – it does wonders for your social life. Everyone loves you – not. And the reporters never leave you alone. Apparently I'm just waiting for an opportunity to throw my lot in with Voldemort – because, you know, that makes perfect sense. He murdered my parents. Of course I'm going to want to join him."
"Oh, come off it! No one really believes that," Ron scoffed, conveniently forgetting some of his own doubts about the Slytherin.
"You reckon? Well, you'd be surprised. The oddest people look at me like I'm a ticking time-bomb."
"Like who?" Ron demanded hotly, and was taken aback by the amused look Potter gave him. "I've never – "
"Third year," the other boy said, "when Sirius broke out of Azkaban. Dumbledore called me to his office to warn me that he might be after me. When the story got around the school, what did you say about me in DADA?"
Ron felt his face begin to burn. He couldn't remember now what had provoked him to make the remark, but he'd certainly said something a bit sharp to the effect that Harry Potter might actually be looking forward to meeting the escaped convict. It had felt like a really satisfying bit of double entendre at the time, but now he felt more than a bit foolish.
"If it makes you feel any better, Malfoy was saying pretty much the same thing at the time," Potter told him, without rancour.
"It doesn't," Ron said curtly. There was another pause. "After all that, why did you stop me and thank me for helping to get him off the hook?" he asked finally.
The dark-haired boy looked surprised. "Because you did."
"I thought you were taking the piss out of me."
"Yeah, I know you did, but for the life of me I couldn't think of any other way to say it that wouldn't have set you off anyway."
Ron stared. "Why did you even bother?"
Potter shrugged. "For the same reason I shook Malfoy's hand on the train, I suppose."
"I don't get it."
"It was polite. You thank people when they help you out and if someone offers to shake your hand in greeting, it doesn't kill you to shake, even if they do turn out to be a scumbag later."
"He'd just called my family a bunch of losers!" Ron was outraged.
Potter sighed. "Yes, I know. But I was eleven years old and I reacted without thinking! Do you know what my uncle and aunt did to me if they thought I was rude to anyone? They beat me and made me go without food for a day. I learned pretty quick not to be rude to people, even complete tossers."
Ron digested this, feeling uncomfortable. Of course Potter could have been making this up, but he didn't think so. There was really no point in making up a story like that.
"I was just a kid," he muttered. "I was angry and hurt."
"I know. I was just a kid too, though, and I'd never had any friends. I didn't want to alienate people on my first day."
"So what now? You want to start over?" Ron shook his head. "It's a bit late, don't you think?"
"Is it?" Potter asked him. "I mean – does it have to be? Couldn't we try again?"
"Why would you want to?"
"Because ... because you were the first chance at a friend I ever had. You were nice to me on the train and we had a good laugh before he came along. And your mum was nice to me on the platform. I've thought about things a lot over the last few years. Seems stupid, doesn't it? Anyone else would have put it all behind them, but I've never been able to do that. A lot of crap has happened to me in my life, but nothing I've ever regretted as much as losing you as a friend."
Ron digested this for a while.
Finally he said carefully, "Sounds to me like you put a lot more emphasis on the word friend than most people do."
Watching the colour rise in Harry Potter's face was an interesting experience. But to his credit, the Slytherin didn't look away.
"So ... was he suggesting what I think he was suggesting?" asked Hermione hesitantly.
"If you're asking, was he suggesting he wanted to be a bit more than my friend – quite a bit more – then yeah," Ron admitted, and his ears began to turn red.
Hermione clearly wasn't sure how to deal with this information.
They were sitting together on the floor of Ron's dormitory, and between them lay a small, flat tray full of sand. Hermione had earlier pointed out that Rosebud would need a litter tray, but so far the Kneazle kitten had done little more than sniff cautiously at the edges of it. She was unusually bright, like all her kind, and as an adult she would be even more intelligent, but Ron wasn't sure if she'd quite got the idea of the tray. He didn't want to upset her by dumping her in the middle of it, though.
"How do you feel about that?" Hermione asked, bringing him back to their conversation.
He shrugged. "I don't really know."
"You're not horrified by the idea, then?"
Ron's blush deepened on his ears and began to creep around his neck as well. "Not ... horrified. But I don't know how I do feel about it. Weird, I s'pose. I mean, another bloke just told me he fancies me. What the hell do I say?"
"What did you say?"
"That I'd have to think about it."
There was a pause.
"That sort of sounds like you're going to see him again," Hermione ventured cautiously.
"Well ... yes." Ron's blush was now at eyebrow level.
"Not in the Astronomy Tower, I hope!" she joked, trying to lighten the atmosphere, and he grinned.
"A bit bloody nippy up there at this time of year! No, he's got an Herbology project he's working on. I said I'd meet him in Greenhouse Four tomorrow after lunch."
"Better keep a sharp eye out for Neville, then," was Hermione's dry comment. Neville was known for being something of a gossip in Gryffindor.
Rosebud made a sudden decision and took a flying leap into the tray, scattering sand everywhere. Ron shook scattered grains from his robes, grinning wryly.
"That's a good girl," he told her soothingly. "See? Not scary at all."
"But Ron," Hermione persisted, "what are you going to say to him? I mean, are you interested? I know you haven't had many girlfriends, but ... do you seriously think you might be - " her voice dropped, "gay?"
"You could ask the same thing about him," Ron pointed out, avoiding the question. "It's not like he's been seen around with every girl in the top three years, is it? Okay, he had that fling with the Ravenclaw Seeker – Cho Chang. Everyone remembers that because she turned out to be seeing the Hufflepuff Seeker at the same time."
"Pity she didn't proposition Dennis and make it a full set," Hermione commented dryly.
Ron sniggered. "Dennis was hoping she would!"
"Perhaps it's just as well she didn't. Look at what happened to Diggory during the Tri-Wizard Tournament last year."
"You don't seriously think he did that, do you? Dumbledore stood up in the Great Hall and said it was You Know Who …."
"No, I don't seriously think that," Hermione replied. "I just wondered if you did."
"It does look odd," Ron admitted. "But he was accused of being the Heir of Slytherin in second year, and that turned out to be my sister, for pity's sake! Not that it was her fault," he added defensively.
"I know it wasn't her fault! No, you just seemed a bit doubtful after Diggory's death, and you seem to have changed your mind now."
Ron hesitated. "I don't really know," he said finally, "but I trust Dumbledore and I trust my dad, and Dad said afterwards that it definitely couldn't have been Harry Potter. So …."
"So we were talking about his girlfriends," she prompted him, deciding it might be best to get off the subject of Cedric Diggory's death for now.
"Right. So then he took Parvati to the Yule Ball last year, but I'm sure that was just to get her off his back. She was panting over him for months before that, but she didn't seem so keen afterwards."
"She said he couldn't dance and kept forgetting she was there," Hermione commented, the corner of her mouth quirking.
"Yeah, right! And there was that other Ravenclaw at Halloween, the fifth year one – "
"That's her. Didn't last long though. And that's all of them."
"All of them that we know about," Hermione pointed out.
"Well yeah, but I think we'd have known if he was seeing anyone else. If Witch Weekly didn't plaster it across the front pages, Malfoy would have been bitching about it."
"Funny how they don't seem to get along."
"I asked him about that," Ron said thoughtfully. "He said until Malfoy became a prefect and got his own room, it was a bit like a war zone in their dorm. Malfoy hates anyone getting more attention than him, even when it's unintentional. He reckons Blaise Zabini's okay, but he has to watch his back around the others. Grabbe and Goyle are too thick to have a go at him unless Malfoy puts them up to it, though."
Hermione shuddered. "What a lovely place Slytherin House must be!"
"Yeah. A bit like working at the Ministry, eh? Oh, clever girl!" This last was to Rosebud, who had finally worked out what the sand tray was for.
Hermione laughed softly. "You sound like a proud father!"
He grinned. "Oh well ...! She's great, isn't she?"
"Yes, she is." But she had to smile. Ron had liked all of his birthday presents, but it would have been hard for anyone not to notice how delighted he was with the kitten, in spite of the lively day he'd had with her.
All in all, it made her wonder where this business with Harry Potter was going to lead.
End Part 3/7
Chapter 4: Step Into The Garden ...
Saturday did not start auspiciously.
Ron was awoken at the crack of dawn by Rosebud. She spent the night sleeping in her basket, which was on the side of his bed, wedged tight with a Securing Charm. But at first light she crawled out and let Ron know – with some plaintive mewing and scrabbling of her paws – that she needed to be let out rather urgently.
Barely half awake, he lowered her to the floor and rolled back into his blankets, thinking no more of it.
Less than half an hour later the whole dorm was awoken by a yell of pain and outrage.
"GET HER OFF ME!"
Ron fell out of bed in his haste to discover what was happening to Rosebud – after all, she was the only "her" in the dormitory. Opposite him, Dean was sitting bolt upright in his bed, as was Neville who was staring across at Seamus, his mouth wide open in astonishment.
Seamus was flat on his back, writhing, with a tiny bundle of growling fur attached to his groin. He let out another yell that was more of a shriek, and Ron managed to propel himself to his feet.
"What the hell are you doing to her?!"
"What do you mean, what am I doing to her?" Seamus roared. "She attacked ME, you moron! Get her off me!"
Dean let out a whoop of laughter and collapsed back into his pillows, while Neville, sniggering, climbed out of bed and went to help Ron. It was only then that the two of them could fully appreciate what Dean had already guessed – Rosebud had decided to attack a very sensitive part of Seamus's anatomy.
It took a couple of minutes of coaxing before Ron could get her to relax her grip and remove her.
"How the hell did she get hold of it anyway?" he demanded, when Seamus swore at him.
"How do you think?" Dean demanded, still gasping with laughter.
The penny dropped.
"You stupid git," Ron told the Irish boy, exasperated. "Why didn't you keep your curtains closed, so she couldn't see you? It's not like the rest of us want to watch you at it!"
Seamus climbed out of bed, shaking with anger and pain. "If that mangy dishrag has unmanned me, Weasley – "
"Ah, shut it!" Ron snapped back, trying to soothe the growling kitten. "You shouldn't have been waving it around! Of course she was curious – she's only a baby!" The "baby" howled her outrage from the safety of his arms. "Go to Madam Pomfrey if you're that worried, but it's only a few scratches!"
Not surprisingly, Seamus was not to be seen at the breakfast table that morning, but by some mysterious means the story got around and the entire Gryffindor table was soon convulsed with laughter. By the time Ron left the Great Hall Rosebud was plump with treats from her delighted well-wishers, not least of whom was Lavender Brown who had suffered an ignominious dumping at Seamus's hands only the week before.
Deciding that staying out of Seamus's way would be the best thing to do, Ron grabbed his homework pile and spent the rest of the morning in an unprecedented bout of studying in the library, but in spite of everything he got very little work done. He felt restless and unsettled; the row with Seamus hadn't helped, but he was also growing nervous about the meeting with Harry Potter and spent most of his time turning over Hermione's comments from the previous evening in his mind.
Was he gay? He didn't know, but he supposed the very fact that he could contemplate the idea so calmly said a lot. Any of his dorm-mates would have rejected such a notion with great violence, even quiet Neville. He'd had a couple of girlfriends, of course, but they'd been tepid affairs and quickly over; certainly nothing to write poetry about.
Did he fancy Harry Potter? Well, there was no denying that his first thought, when he'd seen him the previous evening, was that he looked extremely good in his Quidditch gear, even soaking wet. Not exactly a thought your average red-blooded male had about another bloke. But if he was totally honest with himself, he'd been 'noticing' male students more than females for some time now.
Was he ready to embark on a relationship with the Slytherin boy? Was he even ready to embark upon a friendship with him? They'd sat for nearly two hours in the library, talking about everything and nothing. For the first time since that incident on the Hogwarts Express, Ron felt like there was a bond of understanding and camaraderie. It was as good as his friendships with Hermione and his brother Bill; it was better.
That still left him with questions, but one thing was for sure; there was only one way to get answers.
The greenhouses were very pleasant places to be at this time of year and Ron shamelessly enjoyed the concentrated warmth and earthy, green smells as he dawdled along the paths with Rosebud balancing on his shoulder. Greenhouse Four contained magical plants deemed as 'delicate' or 'difficult' and one of the main Herbology projects in the first phase of NEWTs was to choose such a plant and grow it from seed through to maturity, taking copious notes throughout the process. Ron had chosen a Dragonfly Lily which was even now pupating in one of Professor Sprout's propagators at the rear of the building, but it looked like Harry Potter had opted for one of the deceptively tough-looking Straining Balm Bushes.
The dark-haired boy looked up as Ron approached and grinned, straightening up. His hands were covered in a slick of oil, so he cautiously wiped his hot brow with the back of one wrist.
"If anyone had told me when I first came here that I'd spend hours massaging a tree …."
Ron grinned back at him. "You should have picked something that hibernates for six months!"
"I would have, but they were all gone by the time I got to the seed tray. I knew I should have hit Crabbe over the head and nicked his." Potter looked at the plant critically. "Do you reckon it's working? It's not as twisted up as it was earlier - most of the branches have relaxed."
"Do you have to do that often?" Ron asked.
"Once a day," Potter replied wryly. Then he grinned again and wiggled his fingers at Ron. "I'm getting good at it, so maybe I have a career when I leave Hogwarts after all!"
Ron snorted a laugh. "I'll bear it in mind! I could probably do with a massage after tomorrow's game."
"I'm sure we can come to an arrangement - " Potter broke off abruptly, turning red. "Um … yeah. So. Let me just put this stuff away …."
He wiped his hands on an old rag and began to put his equipment away. Ron couldn't help noticing that the back of his neck was scarlet. He wasn't surprised; his own neck and face felt hotter than a furnace. Massage … right. Not a good image under the circumstances. As if sensing his sudden discomfort, Rosebud made an anxious sound in his left ear and Ron quickly reached up to reassure her.
He cleared his throat nervously. "You sound like you think you won't get a job when you leave here."
"I'm not worrying about it, but … no, not really. I'm famous for all the wrong reasons and I seem to make people nervous." Potter straightened up again and shrugged at Ron, looking pensive. "It's not a big issue right now, though. I'll worry about a job when I know for sure that I'm going to survive to the end of seventh year."
Now Ron began to feel uneasy. "You mean … You Know Who?"
"Is that really likely?"
Potter gave him a rather twisted smile. "Nah, not really. I make these things up, don't you know that? Attention seeking, that's me." There was a strained pause and his shoulders slumped. "Sorry, that was unfair. But I get a bit fed up of being treated like an hysteric. For crying out loud, I don't ask for things to happen to me!"
Ron badly wanted to ask him about the Tri-Wizard Tournament and Cedric Diggory's death in their fifth year. Many people believed, in spite of Dumbledore publicly saying that Diggory had been murdered by Lord Voldemort, that Harry Potter had killed him in revenge for Cho Chang two-timing him with the Hufflepuff youth. It was one of many reasons why people were "nervous" around him. Now didn't seem like a very good time to ask, though.
"So ...." he said awkwardly. "What do you want to do? Take a walk? Talk?"
"That would be great." But Potter hesitated. "Have you – you know – thought about what I said?"
Ron felt himself turned red. "Um, yeah."
Potter nodded, turning red himself. "Tell you what – I have the password for the Headmaster's rose garden. How about we go there?"
"How did you get that?"
"Oh, after stuff like ... like the Tri-Wizard Tournament, he said sometimes I might need to be on my own to think. And he gave me the password."
"Do you go there much?" Ron asked curiously.
Potter shrugged. "Sometimes. It's nice there. Quiet. And sometimes he's there and we talk."
Ron would have loved to ask what Harry Potter and the Headmaster talked about, but that would have been pretty rude even by his standards, so he squelched the question.
"Okay." He wasn't going to pass up the chance to see Dumbledore's private garden, especially since he was pretty sure even his twin brothers, Fred and George, hadn't managed to get a peek at it. "But God knows what he'll think if he sees me there with you."
Potter shrugged again. "He wouldn't be shocked. I don't think anything surprises Dumbledore."
Oh, I don't know about that, Ron thought. He looked pretty surprised when you were Sorted into Slytherin. But all he said was, "Let's go, then."
Potter flashed him a swift smile that made odd sensations in Ron's stomach.
"Rosebud will love the Catnip there."
But unknown to the two of them, they were watched as they left the greenhouse together.
Rosebud did indeed like the garden. Her ears and whiskers were twitching with interest from the moment Potter whispered the password to a section of tall hedge that turned into a wrought iron gate, and Ron could feel her tiny claws flexing on his shoulder with excitement.
"McGonagall says I need to keep her stimulated and let her explore her environment," he commented, his own eyes wide with fascination has he looked around at the elaborate garden.
Potter smiled at him. "That could get a bit lively."
"Yeah. She decided to explore her environment at six thirty this morning."
"And she caught Seamus, ah, stimulating himself."
It was reassuring that the normally rather reserved Harry Potter could snigger like everyone else.
"What did she do?" he asked, eyes dancing with anticipation.
Ron shrugged, grinning. "Decided it was a threat and attacked. I thought she was never going to let go of him."
Potter let out a whoop of laughter. "Brilliant! Do you think we can train her to do that to Malfoy?"
Ron chuckled. He carefully lifted Rosebud from his shoulder. "Is it safe to let her run loose in here?"
"Should be. Bring her over here, there's some grass and a herb border next to this bench."
The grass was a good idea. Rosebud took a few uncertain steps, then shook herself decisively and took a couple of leaping bounds, her whiskers, ears and tail all quivering. Potter leaned over and rustled a branch of one of the small bushes to catch her attention.
"Here Rosie! Catnip!"
She gave him a disdainful look, which Ron took to mean that she didn't like being treated like a mere cat, and instead went to rub herself around the base of a sage plant.
"That put me in my place," Potter said philosophically and he sat down on the bench.
"She's picky," Ron explained. He sat down too.
There was an awkward silence. Neither of them was quite sure what to say.
"This is really nice," Ron said rather inanely after a minute or two.
"Yeah. I suppose there have to be compensations for being the headmaster."
"What do you mean?"
" Well, compensations for all the crap he puts up with. There's the Board of Governors for a start. Malfoy's daddy's on that one and he's always stirring up trouble. Then there's old Fudge at the Ministry, either begging for advice or trying to interfere in appointing teachers and setting the curriculum - "
"Dumbledore tells you all that?" Ron was amazed.
But Potter shook his head. "Nah. Dumbledore talks about stuff like ten-pin bowling and charms to wash socks. Remus tells me about running the school."
"Who's Remus?" asked Ron, mystified.
"Remus Lupin, my other godfather."
"The bloke who taught DADA in third year?"
Potter smiled wryly. "Yeah, him."
Ron stared. "Did you know he was your godfather? 'Cause I thought you lived with those Muggles until Sirius Black was cleared."
"I did. Remus wasn't allowed to become my guardian - don't you know he's a werewolf?"
"Everyone knows he's a werewolf! But …." Ron paused and flushed. "Oh, of course. I s'pose the Ministry wouldn't let him look after you, would they? Not if he - um - goes a bit hairy once a month."
"It's not the hair, it's the teeth and homicidal impulses," was Potter's bland reply. "Although I've lived with him and Sirius for three years now, and he's been fine." For a moment Ron thought he saw anger flash into the other boy's eyes. "It's only because people are prejudiced and the Ministry gets hysterical that he has to live like that. He hasn't had a proper job since he left Hogwarts because the Ministry tells every employer that he's dangerous."
"Hermione told me there was a potion - "
"Yeah, the Wolfsbane Potion." Now Potter sounded bitter. "You have to be a qualified Potions Master to make it because it's really difficult and some of the ingredients are restricted. Snape made it for him while he was working here, but he won't do it now because he hates Sirius. Well, Remus isn't a potions master and neither is Sirius, and at this rate I won't be either because Snape keeps marking me down in Potions, no matter how well I do."
"He can't fiddle your NEWTs score!"
"No, but he can refuse to enter me for the exam. He has to sign off the application form to say I've reached a reasonable level."
"He'd be contradicting himself then, because you had to reach a reasonable level in your OWL before he'd accept you on the NEWT course in the first place!" Ron pointed out.
"Let's hope you're right," Potter said gloomily, "because if I don't sit the exam after all this, I'll probably end up having another row with Sirius about my NEWT choices."
"Why would you have a row with him about it?"
"He didn't think I should take Potions or Divination." Potter shrugged, but from the sudden tension in his wiry frame this was clearly a touchy subject. "We butt heads like that sometimes. He gets funny ideas."
"Yeah, my mum's a bit like that," Ron said, seizing on a familiar subject with relief. "She wanted me to take Astronomy instead of Divination and Care Of Magical Creatures instead of DADA."
They shared a rueful grin.
"You must get a lot of pressure because of your brothers as well," Potter suggested. "The whole family thing is a bit of a pain, isn't it? There's not much that makes me feel sorry for Malfoy, but his father has a wicked temper when Draco doesn't get the marks he thinks he should. At least the Dursleys never cared how well I did in class."
Ron thought about his family. Bill was a curse-breaker, Charlie worked with dragons, Percy was toiling away at the Ministry with their father, and the twins were running their joke shop in Hogsmeade. They all had reputations for one thing or another.
"Mum wants me to go into the Ministry, like Dad and Percy," he said.
Potter looked at him, surprised. "Is that what you want to do?"
"No, but I only have to pass the entrance exam to get in. And she thinks it's respectable." Ron wrinkled his nose distastefully. "I don't want to end up boot-licking like Percy for the next ten years."
"So what do you want to do?"
"Well … I thought I might like to be a curse-breaker, like Bill," Ron admitted. "That's why I took DADA. Mum thinks it's risky though …."
"Anything's risky with the would-be Master of the World on the loose," Potter pointed out. But there was a new light in his eyes. "Curse-breaking … that sounds really cool." Then his face fell again. "Not that anyone would hire me for that."
"They might," Ron told him encouragingly. "Bill works for Gringotts and the goblins don't care what wizards think of people - they just hire the best person for the job."
"Well … maybe." Potter didn't look convinced. "Sirius is an Auror and so was my dad. I think he wants me to try for that, but I don't think they'd take me. I had that careers talk with Snape last year and he made it pretty clear the Aurors wouldn't be interested. He said they haven't accepted a Slytherin for training in three centuries." A fleeting grin crossed his lips, but there wasn't much humour in it. "I think Sirius thinks he can just yell at someone and that'll sort it out."
There was another long pause. Ron watched Rosebud scampering in and out of the bushes and remembered something.
"She's probably going to want some food soon," he said.
"Yeah. And we haven't even talked about … what we were going to talk about," Potter added.
"Oh … yeah." The colour began to make its way back up around Ron's neck. "Do you want to … well, be involved? Because I haven't …I mean I never … but I don't mind …."
Potter cut him off with a low chuckle. "I haven't either," he assured Ron. "At least, never with a bloke, anyway. But there's a first time for everything. I'm not suggesting we … um … you know." He turned scarlet.
"Well, no, but …." Ron suddenly realised how ridiculous it was, dancing around the subject, and laughed. "Look, let's just … leave the whole sex side of things for now. Because I'm not ready for that. And I don't know how you feel about it, but holding hands doesn't do much for me - "
Potter snickered. "That'd land us in front of Madam Pomfrey for one of her lectures faster than being caught in a broom-cupboard together would!"
"Right." And wasn't that a hair-raising idea? Madam Pomfrey's lectures were legendary. Ron shuddered.
"Look, I'm not suggesting we should declare undying love for each other and walk around the school in a little cloud of hearts and flowers!" Potter said impatiently, seeing his expression. "Just … let's hang out together a bit and see what happens. What do you think?"
Ron had a brief and unnerving flashback to the previous evening when Potter turned up in the library, soaking wet and looking edible.
"Okay," he said weakly.
They looked at each other and Ron felt a nervous grin tugging at his lips. "Gryffindor versus Slytherin tomorrow afternoon," he reminded Potter.
The dark-haired boy smiled. "Yeah. Want to make a small side bet on whether Crabbe or Goyle will knock themselves out before the end of the game?"
Ron chuckled. "Better not. People will think we've been swapping team secrets, if you're caught giving me Galleons!"
He stood up and made a little chirping sound in his throat. "Rosebud! Come on, let's get you some dinner!" She came charging out of the bushes with a large, struggling moth in her mouth. "Oh, yuck!"
"Get used to it," Potter said, amused. "Today, moths. Tomorrow - rats, mice, frogs, slow-worms …."
"Thanks, I get the picture." Ron waited until Rosebud had chewed up the moth, then picked her up. "You're wet!" He wrapped her in a fold of his robe and began to pat her dry. He glanced at Potter. "Well … we'd better go."
"Yes." But Potter still lingered. "I suppose I'll see you for Quidditch tomorrow then."
"Yeah. We're going to win," Ron added provocatively, and was rewarded with a snort of dismissal.
"Of course you are, Gryffindor!" And Potter blew a raspberry at him, deeply amused.
They split up outside the garden, Potter to go to the Slytherin dorms in the dungeons and Ron to take a shortcut up to Gryffindor Tower. He needed to feed Rosebud before dinner or she would probably create a terrible fuss at the table, which was what she had done the night before.
Once in his dorm, he changed out of his damp robe, found Rosebud's feeding dish and a couple of Chocolate Frogs as thanks for the House-elves who provided him with food for her, and bolted down to the kitchens. Rosebud made a hearty meal of some minced lamb and crushed cat biscuits. Then with one eye on his watch, Ron scooped her up again and ran hell for leather for the stairs up to the Great Hall.
It was a back staircase, steep, high and not very well lit, as students and teachers rarely had reason to descend to the House-elves' quarters. Ron's mind was also elsewhere as he took the stairs three at a time, which might have explained why, when he dramatically missed his footing near the top of the steps, he failed to save himself. Then again, it might not.
For some reason when his feet tried frantically to get a purchase, they failed and when he threw out his hand to grab the railing, he missed. He tumbled down the staircase backwards, head over heels in a jolting, crashing roll. Rosebud screeched in alarm and uppermost in Ron's mind was that she mustn't be hurt. That might have been his biggest mistake of all; Rosebud clawed herself free and when she landed it was on all four feet, like all cats.
Ron was not so lucky. He landed heavily, hitting his head on the wall, which was where the House-elves found him a short while later, having been alerted by Rosebud's cries of distress.
End Part 4/7
Chapter 5: From Ancient Grudge Break To New Mutiny
Harry ran into Millicent Bulstrode as he was hurrying down the passage to the Slytherin dorms. He was running late; a trip to the team broomshed to check on his Firebolt, plus the necessity of collecting his abandoned Herbology equipment, had made him late for dinner and now he was late for a Charms revision session in Professor Flitwick's classroom. The necessity of maintaining those small alliances he had made in Slytherin made him slow down when he saw his Housemate though.
Millicent was not a girl nature had been kind to. Facially she resembled an overbred bulldog and as she was also a big, square-set girl, the combination was rather unfortunate. Appearances could be deceptive, though. While her personality was anything but warm and she had the reputation of being unpleasantly taciturn, she had a long memory. For example, she remembered that during her first year at Hogwarts Draco Malfoy had been extremely spiteful to her, while Harry Potter had taken the time to help her correct her broomstick technique after a particularly disastrous first flying lesson.
It couldn't be called an alliance as such, but since then the two of them had got into the habit of helping each other out once in a while, in particular warning each other when Malfoy and his cronies were on the prowl. It was valuable information for them both.
"He's on the rampage again," she muttered, as Harry politely held the hidden door open for her to pass. "Been up to something. I don't know what. Watch your back, Potter."
"Thanks," he muttered back.
He saw almost at once what she was referring to. Malfoy was huddled in a corner with Crabbe, Goyle, his girlfriend Pansy Parkinson and a couple of seventh and fifth years who collectively formed his personal court. They were whispering among themselves and every so often Pansy would let out a little high-pitched giggle.
Harry was used to this behaviour and his only concern was that he should get to his dorm without having to hex any of them in the process. He walked past briskly, but just as he reached the stairs leading down to the dorms Malfoy looked up and shouted, "Alright there, scar-head?"
This was a name Malfoy had been calling Harry since their first year, along with 'Potty Potter', 'The Boy Who Lived To Regret It', and a number of other unimaginative titles. None of them ever failed to produce a guffaw of apparently genuine laughter from the blond boy's followers, and after nearly six years of this Harry was beginning to question the pureblood policy of interbreeding exclusively with each other, since their behaviour seemed to suggest a terminal slide in intelligence among purebloods in general.
Then he remembered that both of his godfathers and his own father were purebloods as, indeed, was Ron Weasley. Which led him to the depressing conclusion that it had something to do with being a Slytherin. Or maybe it was simply contamination by Malfoy.
At any rate, Harry had perfected a response to this and most other comments Malfoy flung his way. He would look at the blond youth with a feigned lack of recognition, then produce a vague frown which suggested that he couldn't imagine why this lowly stranger might be addressing him. Then he would shrug slightly and continue with whatever he was doing. It rarely failed to provoke a response from the other boy, even if it was only another insult, but the fact that he had not reacted was subtly satisfying to him.
Nor did it fail today, although Malfoy sounded far too happy for Harry's liking. He preferred the blond youth to be sullen or short-tempered, as annoying and unpleasant things tended to happen when he was in a good mood.
"Good news about the Gryffindor team, isn't it?" Malfoy said, sauntering over.
Harry sighed inwardly and turned back to face him. "What is?"
"They've conceded tomorrow's match. Wonder what could have happened to cause that?"
Harry stared at him blankly for a moment. The phrasing alone told him that Malfoy knew precisely what had happened and was waiting for Harry to ask, but experience also told him that asking for anything from him was a bad idea.
But what the hell could have caused Gryffindor to concede? They were doing too well in the school league tables to do something so stupid at this crucial time.
So to Malfoy's evident amusement he merely shrugged and continued to run down the stairs to the dorm, so that he could worry over the problem in private. Or as near to private as it could get in a dorm shared with three other boys. A shuffling noise told him that either Crabbe or Goyle had been delegated to follow and probably spy upon him. Harry's lips tightened with annoyance, but he had one consolation; it wouldn't be difficult to find out what had happened to Gryffindor, now that he was on speaking terms with Ron Weasley.
So it came as something of a surprise to discover that Professor Snape was waiting impatiently beside his bed when he walked into the dormitory he shared with Crabbe, Goyle and Zabini.
"Do take your time, Potter. I exist merely to serve your convenience, after all," was the Potions Master's sharp opening comment.
"I'm sorry, Sir, I was checking my broom before tomorrow's match." You never told Snape that you were late because of something as trivial as a meal.
"Well I'm sure you have already been informed that there will be no match now," Snape cut in impatiently. "I'm not here to discuss Quidditch. You're to accompany me to the Headmaster's office at once. And you may inform Mr. Malfoy, Goyle, that should I ever require an audience I will be sure to advise him of that fact in advance!"
Gregory Goyle, caught on the hop, gaped uselessly over Harry's shoulder and in the end Harry had to push him out of the way to let himself and Snape out of the room. But he was in shock. Summoned to the headmaster? What on earth for?
Snape always moved at an uncommonly swift pace, with a motion that was somewhere between a glide and a run. Harry, who was much shorter, was hard put to keep up with him without trotting along at his side like a small child. He had neither time nor breath to question his Head of House, even had he been foolish enough to try.
They were in front of the gargoyles that guarded Dumbledore's suite of rooms in no time at all and Snape snapped out the password – "Ice Mice!" – that made the stone figures leap aside. Nothing was said as the two of them stepped onto the ascending staircase and when they reached the top, Snape pointed one bony finger at a cushioned bench outside the door.
And he disappeared inside the office in a flick of black robes. Harry waited.
And waited. And waited, until the door suddenly opened and the Head Girl, Belinda Prewett, emerged escorting a plump, red-headed woman. The two of them walked past Harry without seeing him and took the staircase down.
Harry blinked. But wasn't that Ron's mother - ?
Snape's sharp, impatient voice made his head jerk around and he stood up quickly. The Potions Master gestured curtly and Harry followed him nervously into Dumbledore's office.
This was familiar territory for Harry; he'd had any number of reasons to be in the Headmaster's offices over the years. But this was the first time since Sirius's retrial that anyone other than another teacher had been present.
Three other people were sitting with Dumbledore when Snape led Harry inside. The Transfiguration teacher and Head of Gryffindor House, Professor McGonagall, sat to one side of the Headmaster's desk. A thin man with premature grey hair and quiet eyes was one of Harry's godparents and his former DADA teacher, Remus Lupin. And the third ....
Shoulder-length black hair, fierce dark eyes, handsome features and a tall, restless frame - this third man was Sirius Black, Harry's guardian and his father's closest friend. Thirteen years in Azkaban had not aged him as obviously as years of being a penniless werewolf had done to Lupin, but he was not the laughing care-for-nobody in James and Lily Potter's wedding photographs either. Something inside him had been hardened; the same something, perhaps, that had been hardened inside Harry as a result of being Sorted into Slytherin, although in all honesty the teenager had no idea. He and Sirius didn't have what could be called entirely open lines of communication; there was too much wariness, disappointment and misunderstanding on both sides.
Harry's stomach dropped like a stone as his guardian's eyes did their usual assessing flick over him before coming to rest, for one pained split-second, on the Slytherin badge on his robes. Then the dark eyes returned to his face and one brow quirked upwards questioningly. Harry felt a twinge of annoyance. Okay, it was an old robe worn over jeans and a t-shirt that were stained with compost, plant massage oil, broom oil and a few other things. So what? It was Saturday.
"Come in, Harry," Professor Dumbledore said kindly. "Have a seat."
There was an empty chair right in front of the broad desk, but Harry didn't want to sit down. This had the look of a kangaroo court to him and if he was facing accusations of some kind, he would far rather face them on his feet. So after a moment's hesitation he did exactly that, resting his hands on the back of the empty armchair instead.
"The Headmaster told you to sit down, Potter," Snape snapped as he took his own seat to one side of Dumbledore.
Harry stiffened and sensed rather than felt Sirius's angry twitch at his House Head's command. The loathing between the two men, which had been festering ever since they were at school together, was so palpable that it was almost like an extra person in the room with them.
Dumbledore seemed unconcerned. "If Harry prefers to stand, I see no reason why he shouldn't."
Snape's expression soured even more than usual, but he said no more.
"I'm sure you're wondering why I've called you here, Harry," Dumbledore continued after a moment.
"Have I done something wrong, Sir?" Harry asked him abruptly. If he had, he wanted to get it out and dealt with as soon as possible.
The elderly professor peered at Harry over the top of his spectacles. "I don't know, my boy. Have you something you wish to tell me?"
This question seemed fraught with significance but for the life of him Harry couldn't think of anything that would merit dragging his guardians into the matter. There was the usual stuff with Malfoy, of course, but that was hardly worth mentioning as it went on all the time. And okay, there had been that incident after Charms ... but Adrian Pucey's leg had been re-attached without any problems, which was hardly worse than Ernie Macmillan's horns and he'd had those for nearly a week. And why was Professor McGonagall here, unless it was something to do with ….
Gryffindor had conceded the Quidditch match. It had to be something to do with that.
"I haven't done anything," he said, but his voice sounded stiff and unnatural in his own ears. He hadn't done anything ... had he?
Dumbledore looked at him narrowly for a moment or two longer, then sighed softly.
"I imagine you will already know, Harry, that the Gryffindor Quidditch team have been forced to concede tomorrow's match with Slytherin. Their captain and Keeper, Ron Weasley, suffered an accident just before dinner and as the team currently have no reserve players they had no option but to back out of the league."
Something inside Harry went very cold and quiet. An accident. Ron had had an accident that put him out of the game completely.
"What happened to him?"
Dumbledore was still watching his face. So, for that matter, was everyone else in the tiny office, including most of the portraits of former headmasters and headmistresses hanging on the walls.
"He took a fall from the top of the staircase outside the kitchens," the Headmaster said softly. "He hit his head on the wall at the bottom and is currently very ill indeed in the infirmary."
There was a pause.
"But it was an accident," said Harry.
"Unfortunately not, Potter," Professor Snape put in rather dryly. "It would appear that someone placed an Interruptus hex on the handrail and top steps of the staircase. Given that Weasley takes all staircases at a headlong run, the result would inevitably be a dangerous fall. In fact, the wonder is that he didn't break his neck outright."
"Thank you, Severus," Professor McGonagall said sharply. She was white and pinched about the mouth.
"He'll be all right, won't he?" It was pure reflex that made the words come out with a typical Slytherin intonation, but the look the adults gave him at his apparent unconcern made Harry's stomach churn.
"We hope so," Dumbledore said, and the look he was giving the teenager now was very searching indeed, "but we really won't know for sure until he regains consciousness. In the meantime, Harry, I have to ask you if you know anything about this incident?"
Harry stared at him. "Why would I?"
"Because you were seen talking to Weasley before the accident," Snape put in smoothly. "Indeed, apart from the House-elves you appear to have been the last person to see him or speak to him. Witnesses say that you had a lengthy conversation with him this afternoon."
"There is something of a history of sabotage between the two particular Quidditch teams involved, Mr. Potter," Professor McGonagall added, giving him a very beady look.
Harry felt himself go cold. He hadn't been on speaking terms with Ron for nearly six years and they were in Houses that had a long history of mutual animosity. No one was going to believe that he was chatting with the redhead simply because they had suddenly become friends.
And it would be a cold day in hell before he sat down and poured out his heart to this group of people the reasons behind that new friendship.
Sirius was giving him a narrow sideways look. "Well? Did you?"
"We talked." More than that Harry was determined not to say.
"And what did you talk about?"
Harry's curled his fingers into the soft upholstery of the chair back, hating Sirius's tone. "That's none of your business."
He felt the older man bristle at this and saw the sharp curl of Snape's lip, but it was Lupin who quickly stepped into the breach.
"Harry, no one wants to invade your privacy," he said kindly. "But you must see what a difficult situation this is. It isn't as if you and young Ron threw a few jinxes at each other in the corridor after an argument. He could have died."
"You think I did it, then?" Harry shot at him angrily.
Lupin blinked. "No, I don't," he replied quietly. "But if you did, I would far rather you admitted it here and now, rather than trying to cover it up and making matters worse."
"And make no mistake, Potter, we will find out who did this," Snape finished coolly, "and when we find out, it will go very badly for them indeed."
Lupin gave the Potions Master an exasperated look, for this totally altered the tone of his own statement, but Dumbledore intervened once more.
"Thank you, Severus," he said, and there was the tiniest note of rebuke in the words. He turned back to Harry, studying his face for a moment. "Harry," he said gravely, "I must ask you most solemnly – did you place the hex on the staircase that caused Ron Weasley to fall?"
"No, Sir." Harry's face was flushed with anger and agitation, but his tone was firm.
"Are you sure?" Sirius asked him sharply, and Lupin briefly closed his eyes in frustration.
Harry lost his temper. "No!" he snapped, slapping one hand on the back of the chair and swinging around to face his guardian squarely. "No, actually I lied! I put the hex on the stairs and I lured Ron there to try and kill him, and then I lied to you and Professor Dumbledore about it, because that's what Slytherins do! Isn't that right, Sirius? We're all born bad and just waiting for the opportunity to kill someone – "
"That is quite enough, Harry."
Dumbledore's calm, measured tones cut through the boy's rage and briefly silenced him. To his shame he could feel his hands shaking, but he was so tired of walking this tightrope with his godfather, of dealing with the constant distance and wariness because he had somehow failed to live up to expectations he had never even known existed before they met. And now he didn't know what angered him more, the shuttered look on Sirius's face in response to his rant, the sardonic amusement on Snape's, the look of appraisal from Professor McGonagall, or the dismay and sympathy from Lupin. Dammit, he didn't need anyone's sympathy.
It was all too much. Once again he was being accused of someone's murder and this time it was Ron, and he wanted, needed to know that Ron would be all right because he couldn't stand it if someone else died because they got too close to Harry bloody Potter. But it seemed that no one was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, because of one stupid, stupid mistake he'd made six years ago.
Harry needed to get out of this room and its suffocating atmosphere, with Snape's smugness, Lupin's unwanted empathy and, most of all, Sirius's aura of pained suspicion, before he really lost his temper and things started to break under the force of his feelings.
"You should have left me with the Dursleys," he told his guardian coldly, and was furious when a tiny quiver escaped his control. "They thought I was evil incarnate too, but at least I always knew where I stood with them."
Then he turned and stormed to the door, muttering the password that caused it to fly open and snap shut again after he had passed.
"Potter!" Snape began to rise, but Dumbledore raised one hand.
"No, Severus, let him go. There is no purpose to be served in upsetting him further."
The Headmaster gave his Potions Master a look and Snape subsided, looking angry. Dumbledore looked away and raised his voice slightly. "Arthur?"
The door to his inner rooms, which was standing just the tiniest bit ajar, swung open and Ron's father Arthur Weasley stepped through. His thin, tired face was sporting a rather wry expression as he looked across at Sirius.
"Sirius, you have a lot to learn about handling teenagers."
"Harry isn't the easiest person to deal with at the best of times," Lupin put in diplomatically, but then he looked at Sirius and shook his head. "It would help, you know, if you didn't treat every conversation with him like a battle to be won. Is it any surprise that he reacts so badly?"
"Thank you, Remus," Sirius said through gritted teeth. "I'm well aware that every time I speak to Harry I manage to put my foot in my mouth."
"Be that as it may," Dumbledore said, "we have other concerns at present."
"Was he telling the truth about the hex?" Arthur asked the Headmaster.
"Oh yes!" the elderly professor replied, causing some surprise among the others. He looked at them over the top of his spectacles. "Gentlemen, Minerva, while I have no doubt that Harry will lie when he deems the situation to merit it, I have never yet known him to lie to me in response to a direct question."
"Somehow I don't find that very reassuring," Sirius muttered.
Dumbledore considered him for a moment, then sighed and sat back in his chair. "Sirius, you have to bear in mind that Harry's formative years were spent with people whose greater concern was to install a warped form discipline in him, not moral guidance. He was left to form his own moral code – one which, I might add, he applies quite consistently no matter how distressing some aspects of it are to those of us concerned with his welfare. Harry does not trust adults. Why should he? Those adults in whose care he was placed took no interest in his wellbeing. Consequently, he treats all of us with an understandable wariness. He lies when he deems it necessary to do so, he conceals aspects of his character that he feels are weaknesses and might be used against him, and when he finds himself in difficulties the last people he would dream of turning to are those of us who are best situated to help him. In short, he is a Slytherin.
"He is not a bad person. But his values are not your values or mine, and the things that motivate him are equally different. And if you ever wish to find common ground with him, you will have to stop hoping that he will suddenly turn into James, and instead concentrate on understanding who Harry is." Dumbledore paused and looked at Sirius over the top of his spectacles. "It needn't be as hard as you think, my boy. You and he have far more in common than you ever shared with his father."
"This is all very well, Albus," Professor McGonagall interrupted impatiently, "but none of this answers who did place the hex on the staircase."
"There was no signature?" Lupin asked.
"It had been removed," Snape said acidly. "None too expertly, it's true, but effectively enough to prevent us identifying the caster."
"That's very advanced magic," Arthur Weasley said, surprised. "How many of the students could do that?"
"A small handful of the seventh years and even less of the sixth years," McGonagall replied. "Unfortunately, that doesn't help us much. Potter is one of the few, but so are three of my Gryffindors - "
There was a sudden interruption as someone knocked at the door.
"Enter!" Dumbledore called.
The Head Girl put her head around the door. "I'm sorry to interrupt, Professor, but I have Hermione Granger here, insisting on speaking to Professor McGonagall."
The Transfiguration teacher shot a quick glance at the Headmaster, then nodded. "Send her in, Miss Prewett."
Hermione slipped around the edge of the door, her mouth forming a sudden "O" of surprise when she saw the gathering.
"Oh Professor, I'm so sorry - "
"Not at all, Miss Granger," Dumbledore said kindly. "Do you wish to speak to Professor McGonagall in private?"
Hermione looked a little doubtful, then she spied Mr. Weasley and this seemed to decide her. "Well, Sir, it's just … well, it's about Ron's accident."
"Go on," he encouraged her.
"Well .... some people have been saying that Harry Potter caused it because he was seen talking to Ron this afternoon. But I don't think it could be, because … well, because Ron told me last night that he had arranged to meet him. It was - it was quite friendly. They were talking in the library yesterday."
She winced a little under the sudden stares of the adults.
"But what were they meeting to talk about, Miss Granger?" Professor McGonagall demanded.
Hermione gave her an anguished look. "That's the problem, Professor. I promised Ron I wouldn't tell anyone."
Snape made a disgusted sound in his throat. "This is hardly a moment for childish games of secrets, Miss Granger!"
Her face settled into stubborn, angry lines at this, but Arthur Weasley stepped in.
"I wouldn't ask you to betray a confidence, Hermione, but it's very important that we should establish what really happened between Ron and Harry Potter. Is there nothing you can tell us?"
She looked at him helplessly. "It wasn't unfriendly," she insisted after a moment. "Last night, Ron made a point of talking to Harry because - because Harry gave him the kitten for his birthday."
There was a startled silence, and Dumbledore in particular was suddenly looking at Hermione with great interest.
"Kitten?" Arthur Weasley echoed.
"A Kneazle kitten," Professor McGonagall elaborated dryly, looking at Hermione. "A very fine pedigree specimen named Rosebud, much given to disrupting classes by all accounts. Indeed, I believe she is currently disrupting Madam Pomfrey's infirmary."
Snape snorted witheringly.
"But why on earth would he do that?" Arthur asked, bemused. "They're not friends, are they?" He looked across at Sirius as he said this, but the other man looked equally blank.
"I can't explain," Hermione said miserably, and there was a pause.
"In that case, I believe it is clear what must be done," Dumbledore said unexpectedly, and the lurking twinkle was back in his eyes as he looked at the assembled group. "Miss Granger, you have been most helpful. Don't worry about Mr. Weasley - we will take the matter from here. I'm sure you have homework or revision you would rather being doing."
It was a clear dismissal and Hermione reluctantly left, an anxious crease still prominent between her brows. When she was gone, the Headmaster turned to Professor McGonagall.
"Minerva, I will need a list by tomorrow morning of all the students currently capable of magically erasing their wand signatures. I don't suppose there will be more than a dozen or so."
"Of course, Albus …."
Dumbledore turned then to Sirius. "Before then, Sirius, I rely upon you to discover from Harry precisely what passed between himself and Mr. Weasley this afternoon, as it may shed light upon why Ronald was attacked and Harry himself implicated."
Sirius stared at him, dismayed. "Dumbledore, you've seen just how well Harry and I get along! The likelihood of him telling me anything - "
"I rely upon you, Sirius," Dumbledore interrupted firmly. "I appreciate that Harry is a complicated young man, but if you do not mend fences with him now, you may not have another opportunity to do so. He will be seventeen in July and legally entitled to leave your household and make his own way in the world. Given the burdens Harry already carries – the risks he lives with – I cannot feel this would be a wise course for him."
Sirius didn't look happy, but he nodded reluctantly and got to his feet. "I don't even know where to start looking for him," he remarked rather sourly.
The amusement returned to Dumbledore's eyes and he reached into one of his desk drawers, extracting a folded sheet of parchment. "Perhaps this would be of some assistance."
Sirius and Lupin both stared.
"Where - ?"
"Last year I was forced to have a little discussion with Harry about some of his nocturnal excursions," the Headmaster said reminiscently. "He was eventually persuaded to give this intriguing document into my keeping. Rather enlightening, I must say ... it certainly shed some light upon one or two incidents dating back to his father's schooldays."
He looked at the two men over the top of his spectacles and was amused to see that neither of them had entirely lost the ability to blush.
"I wondered what had happened to this," Sirius commented, in the small anti-room outside Dumbledore's office. He looked at the tatty sheet of parchment for a moment, then tapped it lightly with his wand. "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."
Lines blossomed across the stained surface, spreading rapidly like a spider's web; lines that formed a tiny, moving, changing map of the school, complete with dots that followed every occupant as they moved around the building.
"I thought Filch would burn it after he confiscated it," he added.
"Harry had it in his third year," Lupin said unexpectedly. "Severus nearly took it from him, but fortunately I managed to finagle it away. I gave it back to Harry at the end of the year, before I left, but I have no idea where he got it from originally, any more than I can tell you where he got James's invisibility cloak."
"I suppose I could ask him," Sirius said unenthusiastically, and his friend looked at him.
"No, I won't do it for you."
Sirius glared. "I wasn't going to ask!"
Lupin grinned. "Are you sure about that?" His smile faded. "No, Sirius – you have to do this yourself. Just ... try not to compound the original mistake, for heaven's sake! Harry has enough problems without carrying guilt for supposedly being Sorted into the wrong House."
"He is in the wrong House," grunted Sirius.
Lupin sighed. "No – he isn't. The Sorting Hat doesn't make mistakes like that. The fact that you insist on assuming that it does is a failing in you, not Harry. Harry is what he is. He's not James! He's an entirely different person in his own right, and one who can very easily be hurt, despite appearances. Whether the two of you are prepared to admit it or not, he desperately wants your approval. Not mine, mark you, Sirius! Yours." He gave his old friend a speaking look. "You wouldn't be able to hurt him as much as you do, if he didn't care so much about your opinion of him."
Sirius looked uncomfortable. "I don't want to hurt him, Moony ...."
"Then for God's sake stop trying to find something in him that isn't there. I know it hurts to look at him and see James standing there – do you think it didn't punch me in the gut when I first clapped eyes on him? But you've got to try and see an ordinary teenager instead. A teenager who, incidentally, is still subconsciously looking for a father."
Lupin stuffed his hands into his jeans pockets and looked at the floor for a moment. "Dumbledore's right," he continued abruptly. "If the situation doesn't change soon, we're going to lose Harry. Some things he said to me at Christmas make me think he's already got it planned out – if not for this year, then as soon as he leaves school. I don't suppose I have to spell out for you how dangerous that could be for him."
Sirius winced. A boy like Harry, who was in search of something – someone, anyone, a father figure or mentor – was desperately vulnerable to Voldemort and his followers. It didn't have to be Voldemort himself, or even one of his immediate circle – the Dark Lord had followers the Order of the Phoenix and even their spy, Snape, had no knowledge of. It would be pathetically easy for a newly fledged wizard like Harry to fall into their hands and he would never even know it was happening until it was too late.
But Lupin was still speaking.
"I do my best, Sirius, but it's not me he wants. For some reason probably even he doesn't understand, he wants you but you let him down and he's been let down so many times in his life that there's no way he's going to make the first move again now. You've got to do that, and don't kid yourself that he's going to make it easy for you."
"Of course not," Sirius muttered. "When have things ever been easy between Harry and me?" But that wasn't entirely honest, and he knew it. There had been a brief space, during those few hours in Dumbledore's office after the unmasking of Pettigrew, when they had been able to talk – not, perhaps, entirely naturally but without the barriers that had emerged after his retrial. Strange that it should have been easier to talk to the boy when he himself was shaggy-headed, bearded and covered in the accumulated filth of thirteen years in Azkaban.
But perhaps that was the key to everything. He hadn't seemed threatening then; had not, at that point, been in any position of power over the boy, but had rather been a pathetic relic of himself. By the time they met again shortly after Harry's fourteenth birthday, Sirius was cleaned up and fresh from his exoneration by the Wizengamot. He had been a different man; and so, ironically, had Harry. Instead of the scruffy urchin who had chased off the pack of Dementors hounding Sirius with a Patronus worthy of a man three times his age, Dumbledore and Lupin brought him to the final day of the hearing cleaned up and dressed in his school robes.
Harry had been confronted by a man who might as well have been a complete stranger, and whose first words had been a demand to know what the hell he was doing in a Slytherin uniform.
The odd thing was that Sirius had known almost as soon as he opened his mouth that it would be the wrong thing to say, but he hadn't been able to stop himself. It was the surprise, perhaps. But he had known instinctively that he had no right to say it and that Harry would not take it kindly, and everything he said after that somehow managed to come out the wrong way too. It had been a disaster that he simply hadn't known how to fix, for it had quickly become obvious that Harry was nothing like his father or his mother either for that matter. In the end Sirius had clammed up and so had Harry, and the pattern for their relationship was set; stilted, wary silences punctuated by bewildering and infuriating confrontations where Sirius was certain that they never touched upon the real issues. Quite possibly Harry's outburst in Dumbledore's office earlier was the most honest they had ever been with each other.
Which didn't bode well for any conversation Sirius would have with Harry now.
Dragging a hand through his hair, he ignored the look of wary sympathy Lupin was giving him and looked down at the map. And sighed in exasperation.
"What the hell is he doing with Flitwick at this time of night?"
"Advanced Charms Group," Lupin said promptly, raising a brow. "Do you ever bother to take an interest in the classes he takes?"
"Not since he jumped down my throat for suggesting that we discuss his NEWTs choices," Sirius retorted irritably. "I swear to God I don't understand him! How can he throw a wobbler like he just did and then coolly go off to a Charms class as though nothing happened? It's not normal! James would have been tearing up the Quidditch pitch after an argument like that – " He caught sight of his friend's expression. "Yeah, yeah, I know – he's not James!"
He stuffed the map into his pocket and jerked his robe straight.
"Good luck," Lupin said softly.
"Luck!" Sirius snorted. "I'll need a talisman the size of Central Africa to deal with this!"
And he stepped onto the revolving staircase resolutely.
End Part 5/7
Chapter 6: The Marauder's Tale
Going to the Charms Group, even ridiculously late, gave Harry at least the illusion that things were still under his control. It would be stretching the point to say that he regretted his outburst in Dumbledore's office, but he wasn't happy about it either. On the other hand, there wasn't a thing he could do about it or about the suspicions against him, so he might just as well continue with his usual routine until the ceiling fell in on him completely … or until the real culprit was caught.
Harry didn't harbour any illusions about the latter. He had a fair idea who it was (if Malfoy had one overriding flaw it was his need to gloat, as was evidenced by his remarks to Harry earlier) but catching him out would be another matter entirely. The thought that Ron could have died in this accident made his hands shake slightly as he packed away his books and wand, though. He wanted to head straight up the infirmary wing instead of going back to his dorm, but felt pretty sure that he would be blocked from seeing the Gryffindor.
The other members of the Charms Group were filing out of the room when a familiar voice at the door made Harry's heart sink even further.
"Hullo Flitwick! You're looking well …. Mind if I borrow your classroom for a quick chat with my godson?"
Just the person he didn't need to see. He finished buckling up his bag and didn't bother turning around when he heard Sirius's footsteps approaching. The heavy classroom door clunked shut and the lamps around the room dimmed slightly in response to the lack of remaining bodies.
"Come to tell me to pack my bags?" Harry asked over his shoulder and he was proud of the indifferent tone he managed.
"Oh, you know - it's usual to leave the premises when you're expelled. I suppose they’ll want my wand too, won't they?"
"Don't be such a drama queen. You don't get out of your NEWTs that easily."
Sirius sat on the edge of a nearby desk and Harry could feel his eyes on the back of his neck. He fiddled with his bag unnecessarily, not wanting to turn around and have to deal with his godfather directly.
"You know," he said experimentally, "it's not like I have to sit my NEWTs. Since my career prospects aren't that good, what's the point? I could just leave here in July anyway, if I wanted."
"Seems a pity to waste the study you've already put in though," Sirius countered. "And you don't know what your career prospects are yet."
"An early death at the hands of a madman seems writ large in my tealeaves, according to Professor Trelawney," Harry offered rather snidely.
"Yes … well, you already know how I feel about Divination." Sirius shifted uncomfortably. "You're not going to die, Harry."
"'Course I am. Aren't we all?"
"Not at the hands of Voldemort, by God! I have other plans for the rest of my life, thank you."
Harry shot him a quick look through his lashes. "A wife, children, house in the country?" he taunted. "Couple of dogs … good company for you …."
"Well, of course," Sirius said blandly, choosing to overlook this sarcastic reference to his Animagus form. "A family is exactly what I need. After all, I'm so good with kids."
"I'm not a kid!" Harry snapped before he could stop himself.
"And I'm a really crap parent, but isn't that what you were getting at? Not that you had to tell me, I already knew."
"It's not something to be proud of, you know. Not that there's any reason why you should be a good 'parent' to me, it's not like I'm connected to you other than - "
"Actually, you are," Sirius said, interrupting him before he could start ranting again. "The blood relationship's fairly remote, admittedly, but has no one ever explained the godparent bond to you properly?"
Surprise cut through Harry's resentment and he looked around before he could stop himself. Sirius was frowning.
"It's just a religious ceremony," he said.
"For Muggles maybe, but it's a magically binding contract for us, with the full weight of Wizard Law behind it. The moment Remus and I agreed to it, we made ourselves fully responsible for you in the event that anything happened to James and Lily. It's only because the laws about werewolves are so twisty that you weren't handed over to Remus anyway - I felt sure you would be. It's the only reason I agreed to give you to Hagrid that night, because I was sure that if something happened …." Sirius stopped, and Harry saw him take a deep breath. "Well, you weren't. But when I came back and I was exonerated, there was no excuse for leaving you with Petunia Dursley. You would have come to me even if James hadn't named me as your guardian in his Will. That's the way the godparent bond works. If you're challenged to a wizard duel by an adult before you reach your majority, I take your place. If you incur a debt or commit a crime before you reach legal responsibility, I pay for it. If something happens to you - if you're hurt or sued against or something similar - it's my responsibility to sort it out for you. Just as if I were your father."
"I don't need anyone to take responsibility for me," Harry said reflexively, but he was a little shaken by this information. "I can look after myself."
"But you don't have to," Sirius replied. "That's the point. If you're in trouble, you're not on your own. That's what I'm here for."
"So it's just an obligation for you - "
"No, dammit! Haven't you been listening? No witch or wizard takes on a godparent bond unwillingly - it's far too serious for that. I was asked and I was honoured to take the responsibility. Even if your parents hadn't died, Remus and I would still have been there every step of the way for you. It's handy having someone other than your parents you can turn to, you know. I was certainly grateful for my godfather - "
Sirius stopped abruptly, as though he had said something he hadn't meant to. Harry looked at him in sudden interest.
Sirius shook his head. "Nothing."
Typical. That was just typical of Sirius, who expected Harry to bare his soul but would never give anything back …. Harry shrugged angrily and turned his back again, picking up his bag.
"Fine, don't tell me - "
"I ran away from home when I was sixteen." It sounded like the words were being dragged out of his godfather with a pair of hot tongs. "My godfather took me in."
Harry turned back unwillingly, sure that was as much as he would get. "Why'd you do that?"
"Because my home life was crap, why do you think?"
That was a little rough, but roughness Harry understood and could deal with. "I thought you came from one of those big pureblood families - "
He was interrupted by a harsh, humourless chuckle. "I did, but that doesn't mean they were all love and sweetness! I know you think I don't understand about your aunt and uncle, Harry, but if you could have met my mother and father …. Well, just be grateful you never did, that's all. I was as much an oddball in my household as you were in yours, and I'm sure a bigger sigh of relief was never heaved than the day I packed my bags and told them all what they could do with themselves."
Harry hesitated, eyeing Sirius's bitter expression warily, then took a couple of steps nearer and sat down on the desk opposite him.
"Nobody ever told me you left home like that."
Sirius gave him a sardonic look. "If by "nobody" you mean Remus, then he wouldn't. He has funny ideas of confidentiality."
"But what made them so bad?"
Sirius hesitated and Harry saw his eyes moving to the Slytherin badge on his robe again.
"I was the first Gryffindor in the immediate family for three centuries," he replied. A sneer twisted his face for a split second. "The shame of it! My parents instantly branded me a weak-minded, Muggle-sympathising do-gooder and washed their hands of me. Unlike my brother Regulus and my cousin Severus - "
Harry's eyes nearly popped out. "Snape's your cousin?"
"Half the wizards in Britain are related to each other," Sirius said. "The pureblood families are almost dangerously interbred - I'm related to the Weasley kid if you look far enough on the family tree. Remus is something like a third cousin and I was even related to your father, although the Potters were a very distant branch with a lot of French and Irish bloodlines mixed in."
Harry gave him a dubious look. "It's a bit unhealthy, isn't it?"
His godfather shrugged. "What do you expect? Most of them have a mania about not polluting the bloodlines with Muggle blood, and they automatically cut off anyone who marries 'out'. Every time they do that, the available pool of breeding stock dwindles a little more. Your grandparents were very enlightened and didn't have a problem with James marrying Lily, but a lot of his other relatives did. Invitations to family gatherings dried up and when you were left orphaned there was a dearth of volunteers to look after you. I was furious when I heard Dumbledore had left you with Petunia - the damn woman was as much a bigot as my mother - but the truth was that he didn't have a lot of options. You needed to be with someone who had an appropriate family tie to you, but with your grandparents already dead and me in Azkaban, no one wanted to know."
Harry thought about this. "Were your family Death Eaters?" he asked shrewdly, after a moment.
"My brother was. My parents were never Death Eaters themselves, but they supported Voldemort's aims. Regulus died in Azkaban, by the way. I'm told the shock of that is what killed my mother, although personally I never thought she was all that attached to either of us."
There was a long pause.
"Well, that explains why you took so badly against me being a Slytherin," Harry said dryly.
Sirius sighed and rubbed his eyes wearily with one hand. "Harry - "
"It's okay. At least now I know why."
"No, it's not okay. I made a stupid mistake and then I kept making it worse. Remus and Dumbledore are right - I keep expecting you to be like James and that's grossly unfair to you, because you're an entirely different person." He looked at Harry apologetically. "It's just that - "
" - I do look extraordinarily like him," Harry finished for him, and rolled his eyes. "Everyone says that. It used to be kind of cool, until the Daily Prophet decided to run all those stories about me being a Slytherin. People still say it, of course, but the outrage that goes with it pisses me off a bit."
"I'm not surprised."
But it was still a wonder to Sirius how anyone who looked so much like his best friend could be so utterly unlike him. Harry even had his father's voice; it had been oddly gruff after it had first broken, but now it was deepening and mellowing, and sometimes he had a turn of phrase, a particular way of saying certain words, that brought the hair up on the back of Sirius's neck.
Harry unexpectedly asked, coolly curious, "Do you miss him?"
"Of course I miss him!" Sirius saw the wary look slipping back onto Harry's face at his tone, and quickly reined himself in. "Wouldn't you miss your friends if they died?"
Harry shrugged, looking away. "Dunno. I don't have any friends to speak of."
Sirius opened his mouth ... and shut it again. He wasn't sure what to say; it wasn't like he hadn't already known this, so to speak, although this was the first time Harry had actually articulated it.
"You must have some friends, even if you're maybe not as close to them as you'd like," he said after a moment.
Harry shrugged. "I get on okay with some people, but they're not friends."
"What about the Weasley kid?"
Harry's head whipped around and his eyes blazed with sudden anger and betrayal. "Oh, now I get it! If you wanted to know what I was talking to him about, why didn't you just ask? Though you'd have got the same answer I gave you in Dumbledore's office – it's none of your fucking business!"
He snatched up his bag and stormed to the door.
Harry stopped short and swung back to face Sirius, who hadn't moved, stunned at the sudden change in the atmosphere.
"What?" he demanded. His eyes were as flat and cold as glass. "If you don't mind, if I'm not going to be expelled tonight, I'd like to get back to my dorm before curfew. I don't like giving Malfoy excuses to give me a detention."
"I only asked," Sirius said quietly, "because someone suggested that you and Ron Weasley might actually be friends. And if that's the case, then maybe someone else stitched you up."
"How long did it take you to work that out?" Scorn was added to the anger. "I can already guess who stitched me up, thanks! All I want to know from him is why."
"And how were you planning to get that information?"
Harry snorted his derision, sounding remarkably like Severus Snape. "I wouldn't want to upset your nice, Gryffindor sensibilities by telling you!"
He turned away again and tried to pull the door open, but Sirius quickly flicked his wand at it, sealing the lock.
"That's pathetic," Harry said angrily, turning back to face his guardian once more.
"Yeah, isn't it? Useful though." Sirius slipped his wand back into his sleeve. "We hadn't finished talking, Harry - "
"I wouldn't make any bets on that!"
" – And strange as it might seem to you, I really haven't been sitting here trying to manipulate you - "
"Nah, you're just my best mate, aren't you, Sirius?"
There was a tense pause as two very volatile people locked eyes with each other.
"I don't pretend to know you well enough for that," Sirius said heavily. "But I'm still your godfather, Harry, and – "
" - God forbid you should take the fall for someone else!"
It wasn't the worst taunt Harry could have thrown at Sirius, and the older man wasn't even particularly surprised that he said it. The surprise was the lightning-quick flash of something in the boy's eyes as soon as the words were out of his mouth. As though he was appalled at himself for saying them.
He is not a bad person, Dumbledore's voice whispered in his mind.
"I would take the fall for you a dozen times over," Sirius said, before Harry could recover himself. "But I don't know what I can say or do to convince you of that. And if I don't particularly want to take the fall for you, it's only because I don't believe it would make you happy if I did."
Something inside Harry seemed to sag just a little.
"I don't need people being responsible for me," he muttered. He still sounded angry, but it looked like it was taking an effort to maintain it. "I can look after myself."
"I know that. But it's okay to let someone else take the weight off you for a while."
"And how do I know you'll give it back?"
Sirius felt a strange tightness in his throat as he looked at the youngster in front of him. It was so wrong that a sixteen-year-old boy should feel that the burdens of the world were his personal property.
"No one can take the responsibilities of living away from you, Harry."
"I don't know about that. There's someone out there who wants to take a pretty good shot at it."
"I'd take that fall for you too, if I could."
"No." Harry's face twisted and he sat down abruptly on the edge of the nearest desk. "No. Don't say that. I don't want anyone else to die because of me. Ron ...." He stopped. Clearly the name had slipped out without his intention.
"Tell me what really happened," Sirius asked, after a moment.
"Why is it so bloody important what we talked about?" Harry demanded in an undertone. "Why the hell am I never allowed any damn privacy?"
"I'm not asking you out of prurient curiosity," Sirius pointed out gently. "I'm asking you to let me help you. None of us believe you set out to hurt Ron Weasley, but if you can't provide some alternative explanation for why two people who aren't even on speaking terms were having a private tête a tête, then Dumbledore doesn't have a good enough excuse to look elsewhere for the culprit."
There was a long silence, but finally Harry shifted and sighed.
"Alright, I'll tell you. But you probably won't like it," he added pessimistically.
Dumbledore had transfigured one of the hard infirmary chairs into a large, squashy armchair, where he sat at the side of Ron Weasley's bed with Rosebud on his knee. He looked up when Sirius guided Harry quietly into the room, and said "Ah!" in a pleased tone.
They were both looking a little worn, but body-language alone told Dumbledore that they were more at ease than they had been in the three years they had known each other. Harry's eyes immediately went to the boy in the bed, though, and the Headmaster followed his frightened gaze.
Ron certainly looked very battered, his face bruised and scraped all down one side and his bright hair obscured by a thick bandage around his head. However –
"It looks a great deal worse than it is, my boy. Madam Pomfrey assures me he is responding well to her treatment, although it is unlikely he will awaken before morning."
Dumbledore studied the quick flash of relief over Harry's face with satisfaction, and got to his feet, holding the restless Rosebud in his cupped hands.
"Now, your timing is very apt. I believe I have convinced Miss Rosebud that her master won't die or otherwise leave her in the night, but we really cannot have her disturbing Madam Pomfrey's other patients. So if you would, Harry ...."
He stepped back and nodded in an unmistakable invitation towards the chair, and Harry found himself sitting in it and accepting Rosebud before he knew exactly how it had happened.
"A most excellent piece of furniture," were the Headmaster's parting words as he led Sirius from the ward. "I quite thought I might nod off in it myself."
"Will he be alright there?" asked Sirius, concerned, as Dumbledore guided him towards a cannily hidden passageway outside Madam Pomfrey's office. "Where are Molly and Arthur?"
"They accepted my offer of a guest room and retired as soon as it was clear young Ronald was out of danger," the Headmaster replied. "Harry will be fine where he is and it's as well that he doesn't return to his dormitory tonight. I think we will let certain of his Housefellows believe him to be incarcerated elsewhere for the time being."
The hidden corridor turned out to be a shortcut to Dumbledore's office, which would have surprised any man less familiar with Hogwarts than Sirius, as the Headmaster's offices were quite on the other side of the castle from the infirmary. They emerged into his sitting room, where Lupin was pacing anxiously in front of the fireplace. He looked up when they appeared and some of the lines on his face smoothed.
"Well indeed!" Dumbledore said calmly. He pointed his wand at a small table and a tea tray appeared along with a large plate of sandwiches. "Gentlemen ...."
They all sat down and Sirius accepted a cup of tea with relief.
"Before we say anything else ...." He looked at his friend. "Moony, I had to tell Harry about us."
Lupin's brows went up. "I see. I wasn't sure if he'd already guessed, but ... how did he take it?"
Sirius snorted, looking amused. "With a mixture of surprise, indignation and teenaged dismay. Because, you know, we're old and shouldn't be getting up to that sort of thing at our age. Sex is for young people."
"Is that what he actually said?" Lupin asked interestedly.
"More or less. He's pretty blunt when he stops being so stiff-necked, isn't he?"
"More so with you than with me, I should imagine. But why – "
Dumbledore cleared his throat politely and looked at the two of them over the top of his spectacles. "Forgive me for interrupting, gentlemen, but I am even older than you and it grows late! Sirius, I assume you uncovered the great mystery?"
"Such as it is." Sirius put his cup and saucer down and leaned forward, elbows on knees, to relate the entire story.
"What in the world - !"
Harry shot awake with a jolt at the unexpected voice and heard Rosebud give an angry squawk from the nest she'd dug for herself in the blankets near Ron's chin. The world was a confusing blur of indistinct shapes; at some point in the night his glasses had slipped off his nose and disappeared. He had a crick in his neck and a numb leg, and a vaguely threatening figure was looming over him –
"Here," the impatient female voice said, and his glasses were pushed into his hand. He fumbled them into place and the figure resolved itself the forbidding shape of Ron's mother. She was standing over him, scowling. "What on earth are you doing here?" she demanded.
"It's quite all right, Molly," Madam Pomfrey's voice said, and the matron hove into view. She looked not a whit less forbidding than Mrs. Weasley, but her disapproval seemed to be more because of Harry's dishevelled appearance than his actual presence. He was still wearing his stained jeans, t-shirt and old robe from the day before. "Professor Dumbledore wished Potter to stay here for the night. Potter, go down the corridor and take a bath. I'll send a House-elf to fetch you some clean clothes."
Rosebud let out a screech of dismay as he headed for the door, though, making Madam Pomfrey tut in exasperation.
"And take this foolish creature with you! I won't have her waking the entire ward at this hour."
Rosebud protested at being carried away from Ron, despite Harry's soothing murmurs, and she disapproved strongly both of the bathroom and of Harry immersing himself in the tub. Like a cat she did not like water, although when he set a small rubber duck quacking and paddling itself around, her fascination was enough to overcome her aversion. Then the inevitable happened and Harry had to fish her out of the bathtub, sodden and squalling, when she ventured too far after the toy. In the end he set her on a charm-warmed towel on the window-ledge with the rubber duck, which was almost enough to keep her attention until he completed his bath, but he was glad when he could scoop her up and carry her back to Ron. He was beginning to wonder just what he'd foisted onto the redheaded boy; Rosebud was a real handful.
Mrs. Weasley was gone again when they returned to the ward, but in her place was someone almost as alarming – Hermione Granger. She was sitting on the edge of the bed and holding Ron's unresponsive hand.
She glared at Harry when he appeared. "I have a message from Professor Dumbledore for you," she said crisply. "You have to go to his office as soon as you've had breakfast, and you're not to be later than nine-thirty. I have to go too."
Plainly she did not appreciate this and Harry looked away uncomfortably from her critical eyes. He wondered if she was - or ever had been - Ron's girlfriend. It would explain her protectiveness of the other boy; not that she needed an excuse to be curt with a Slytherin.
"I'm too late to get breakfast," he said, putting the damp and squeaking kitten onto the bed next to Ron.
"There's a tray on the chair, if you can be bothered to look."
So there was. Harry was forced to eat a breakfast he didn't really want under the Gryffindor girl's disapproving eyes, as she showed no sign of leaving. He managed the toast and eggs but the sausages he fed to Rosebud, although she was as finicky and unenthusiastic as he was.
"She shouldn't eat things like that," Hermione told him.
Harry began to feel irritable. "Well, someone forgot the can of Whiskers Kitten Food," he retorted.
A sudden smile flicked across the girl's face. "How would you know about Whiskers?"
"I was raised by Muggles."
"So you were. I forgot that."
"I wish I could," he muttered. He also wished she would stop staring at him; it reminded him of Pansy Parkinson, who always stared like a demented Pekinese whenever she sat opposite him at mealtimes. Harry was sure Malfoy set her up to it.
"You didn't set that hex, did you?" Hermione said unexpectedly.
"I'm sure Dumbledore would leave me with my victim overnight if I did," he said sarcastically. "That makes sense."
"Don't be so prickly! Ron's my friend - I don't want to see him get hurt by you, that's all."
"Yeah, if anyone's going to get hurt in this, it might just as well be me, eh? I must be up for it, after all."
She sighed. "I don't think that at all. I just don't understand you."
"Good. I've had enough understanding for one week."
And what was it with people suddenly wanting to understand him, anyway? Then Harry glanced sideways at Ron's pale, sleeping figure and realised that he'd started this himself, wanting to be Ron's friend …. Talk about a chain reaction and wishes coming back to bite you.
"Perhaps if you stopped being so suspicious of everyone's motives once in a while, you'd find yourself getting along with people a little better! Honestly, you Slytherins are so paranoid and - "
"And you Gryffindors are a bunch of mindless lemmings," he snapped back, interrupting. "At least I've got a mind of my own, paranoid or not!"
"Really? Doesn't seem to be doing you much good so far, does it?" Hermione folded her arms and regarded him with a tolerant smile. "Judging by this latest little accident, I'd say letting you have a mind of your own is dangerous - and not just for you!"
Harry felt himself turn quite cold with anger, but before he could come up with a suitable retort, Mrs. Weasley's voice intruded sharply.
"When the two of you have quite finished quarrelling, I believe you have an appointment with the Headmaster!"
She was standing in the doorway, glaring at Harry in particular, but Hermione hopped off the end of Ron's bed, blushing.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Weasley …."
"I thought better of you!" Ron's mother told her, but her tone towards the girl was more one of motherly scolding. "Now off you go - both of you."
Hermione leaned quickly over the bed to drop a kiss on Ron's cheek - Harry had to suppress a surge of jealous annoyance at the sight - and hurried to the door Mrs. Weasley was pointedly holding open. Harry followed her at a slower pace, aware of the older woman's glower as he passed her.
The walk to Dumbledore's office was not cordial. Hermione tried several times to initiate conversation, but Harry determinedly pretended that not only was she not speaking to him but that she wasn't even there, and in the end she was driven to a frustrated exclamation.
"Honestly, Potter, you are the living end! This is going to be a really happy friendship if you can't even find something to say to me - even Malfoy has more of a line in conversation than you!"
"Who said I wanted to be friends with you?" Harry snarled, losing his temper.
"No one!" she snapped back. "But Ron has friends even if you don't - were you planning to make him dump them?"
"Oh, shut up with your pathetic preconceived ideas about me!"
The two of them stormed to a halt outside the gargoyles guarding the entrance to the Headmaster's rooms.
"Ice mice!" Harry said curtly, and the two stone figures leapt aside to reveal the revolving staircase. He hadn't completely lost sight of his manners; he stood back to let Hermione go first, ignoring her pointedly raised brow as she stepped onto the stairs.
Dumbledore's office was full of people once again when they arrived. Professors Snape, McGonagall and Flitwick were all there, as were fifteen sixth and seventh year pupils, most of whom looked confused and apprehensive. When Harry and Hermione stepped inside, the door closed behind them and there was a sudden hush.
"Thank you all for taking time out of your Sunday morning to join me," Dumbledore said tranquilly from where he sat behind his desk. "This will not take long. You are all students who, in the opinion of Professor Flitwick, have surpassed the normal NEWT level in certain areas of Charms and are capable of charms that are usually considered post-education level by the standards Hogwarts currently sets."
He studied them all over the top of his spectacles for a moment.
"It is probable that by now you will all have heard of the distressing accident that occurred last night before dinner. You will probably also have heard that the accident was not an accident at all and that one of your fellow students was on the receiving end of a very dangerous prank, one that could quite easily have taken his life. Unfortunately, it would appear that the hex used was one that could only have been worked by a person exhibiting your level of knowledge. Accordingly, I hope you will forgive me if I now take measures to eliminate each of you from my inquiries into this matter."
There was a confused pause, then Hermione raised her hand hesitantly.
"Professor … how will you do that?"
"There is a means by which the spells cast by a particular wand can be revealed, Miss Granger," Professor Flitwick said in his squeaky voice.
"Prior incantatum?" she asked uncertainly.
"I must ask each of you to step forward and hand over your wand," Dumbledore continued. "When you have done so, please step outside and wait. The examination will not take long."
The group that waited in the anti-chamber was a tense one. In particular, no one was looking at or speaking to Harry Potter, although there was some subdued whispering now and again. No one except Draco Malfoy, that was, although even he confined himself to one or two knowing looks and sneers in his Housemate's direction.
Harry himself didn't particularly care, though. He slumped down onto one of the padded stone benches and looked up at the carved ceiling wearily, wondering when all this would be over. He wondered where Sirius and Remus were now.
He wondered if Ron had woken up yet.
At length, the door opened and Professor Snape stepped out. He held a bundle of wands and began reeling off names, handing the slim lengths of wood back to their owners and dismissing them. When the final wand was handed back only Harry was left staring tensely at his Head of House, whose face was like carved ivory.
"Step inside, Potter. The Headmaster would like a word."
Professors Flitwick and McGonagall were gone, and when Harry looked around Snape too had slipped off quietly without him realising it. The door shut behind him, leaving him alone with the elderly Headmaster.
"It can't have been my wand, Sir," he said numbly. "I didn't do it, and I never leave my wand where …."
His voice trailed off. Dumbledore was smiling faintly.
"No, Harry. It wasn't your wand."
The headmaster held it out to him; Harry took it without really seeing it and stowed it quickly inside his sleeve.
"I never thought it would be your wand or that of any of the others I saw this morning," Dumbledore continued, "but it was necessary to eliminate you all. It was also necessary that the others believed it to be you for the time being. I hope you will forgive me for that."
"I don't understand, Sir."
"The true culprit will be unmasked in due course," the Headmaster said, "but for the present it would be helpful if he believes himself safe and that you have been taken in his place."
"You want to lull him into a false sense of security." That was a bit Slytherin for a professor who had supposedly been a Gryffindor in his day, but Harry could fully appreciate the tactic.
"Something like that," Dumbledore agreed. "For now I have only one other question for you, my boy - do you possess any wands other than the one we examined today?"
"Two," Harry said at once. "My - my Mum and Dad's. But they're in Sirius's strongbox at home, for safe-keeping. It's not like I'd use them anyway."
"Excellent. In that case, I suggest you return to the infirmary for the time being, as it would be better for you to remain out of sight. I will arrange for your homework to be brought to you, in case you are at a loss for something to do." Dumbledore's eyes twinkled for a moment. "And Harry?"
"You may hear a school-wide call for certain students to return to their House shortly. Do not heed it. I will send word to you in due course when I am happy for you to return to Slytherin House."
End Part 6/7
Chapter 7: No Regrets
Ron drifted awake in a dim glow of light from the lamp opposite his bed. This was the second time he'd awoken; the first time he'd barely moved before he'd nearly been smothered by his mother's tears and kisses, but the ward was quiet now and there was no sign of either of his parents.
He blinked a little, in no hurry to move or otherwise announce himself, and his blurry eyes slowly brought his surroundings into focus. Directly in front of him was Harry Potter, sitting in an oversized armchair and surrounded by scattered books, parchment and quills. He was leaning across the side of the bed, attempting to hold a wooden ruler up against Rosebud who wriggled away from it every time he tried to take a measurement.
Ron felt a grin forming. He had no idea why the other boy was trying to do it but the look of exasperation on his face was almost comical. But he drew a breath to ask and at once started to cough. His throat felt like it was coated in ashes.
Harry sat up with a jolt, staring, and Rosebud let out a little squawk of surprise that almost at once turned to happy squeaks as she hurried to butt her head under his chin.
"Ow!" Ron managed, between spasms. The coughing hurt his head like mad and did nothing to ease his throat.
Books and papers went flying as Harry scrambled to pour him a glass of water from the jug on the nightstand. He helped Ron to sit up slightly and steadied the glass as he gulped wonderful, miraculous, cold water.
"You're awake again!" the dark-haired boy observed unnecessarily.
"Yeah." Ron heaved a sigh of relief. He needed to find the genius who invented water right now and offer them a lifetime of servitude.
"Madam Pomfrey said you woke up just after I left this morning, but went straight back to sleep again," Harry continued as he poured more water. Rosebud was now winding herself around Ron's free right hand, purring. "How are you feeling?"
"Like someone kicked the shit out of me," Ron replied a little croakily.
"Do you know what really happened?"
He took a long swallow of the water before he bothered to reply. "Did I fall down the stairs?"
"Sort of." Harry made sure he could hold the glass steady by himself and sat down again. "You fractured your skull and dislocated your shoulder," he explained. "It's mostly fixed now, but you're going to be bruised for a few days and I'll bet your head feels like crap."
Ron decided not to shrug, just in case. "I'll live!"
A grin creased the other boy's face, but it seemed a little half-hearted.
"Did my mum and dad leave?"
"Nah, they're having dinner with Dumbledore. You slept right through the day!"
"Jesus." And he still felt tired. "Shouldn't you be in the Great Hall then?"
A shadow seemed to cross Harry's face. "Dumbledore says I can go back to my own dorm tonight, but it's better if I stay away from the others for now."
Ron blinked at him. "What did I miss?"
A slight shrug. "A raid on Slytherin House? Snape turned the dorms over just before lunch."
The other boy hesitated. "I don't think I'm supposed to tell you ...."
"Come off it! You've said this much – "
"Ah, awake again are we, Mr. Weasley?" Madam Pomfrey stepped around the screens carrying a tray with an array of bottles that Ron eyed with misgiving. "Excellent! Just in time for your potions."
Resistance was futile. He was forced to swallow one evil-tasting dose after another until the final beaker of clear liquid left him spluttering miserably and feeling sick.
"Skele-Gro," Harry said sympathetically as the matron retreated with her bottles. "I had to take that in second year – foul stuff."
Ron leaned back against his pillows, exhausted. "Tell me what happened," he insisted after a moment.
Harry didn't look happy about it, but he complied, explaining about the hex, his own interrogation and the wand examination.
"And then Snape raided his own House?" In truth, Ron was more interested in this than the information that someone had set a hex to trap him. His main feeling about that was at least the fall hadn't been his own fault. "What was he looking for?"
"The wand that cast the hex," Harry replied.
"And? Did he find it?"
There was a short silence.
"And?" Ron demanded again finally. "Whose was it?"
Harry shrugged. "Malfoy's, of course. His spare, actually. He hid it in a secret compartment under floorboards in his room. The stupid git," he added absently, as if he could think of better hiding places.
Ron looked at him for a moment or two. "What the hell would he do that for? I mean, okay, I know he doesn't like me, but why did he suddenly try to kill me and frame you for it?"
Harry didn't seem to want to look him in the eye. "He saw us talking yesterday."
"So ... he doesn't like me much and he's never forgiven me for being the Slytherin Seeker."
Ron snorted and at once regretted it when his head thumped horribly. "Ow! ... Is he totally thick or what? He's a crap Chaser already – he'd make a lousy Seeker! And what's that got to do with me anyway?"
"He thought I was passing information to you about our team strategies ... such as they are."
"And for that he tried to smash my brains across the kitchen walls?" Now Ron was angry. "I'll bloody well brain him when I get out of here and not with a frigging hex either!"
"Calm down, will you?" Now Harry looked alarmed. "He's been suspended. His father came and took him home earlier, pending the decision of the Board of Governors."
"They'd better bloody well expel him then!" Ron sagged back against his pillows again, head pounding in response to his rage.
"Remus reckons Lucius Malfoy will withdraw him from Hogwarts before they can take the decision to expel him. If he gets expelled his wand is snapped, remember? So he'll probably enrol him at Durmstrang or Beauxbatons instead. He's already lodged a complaint about the suspension order."
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," Ron grumbled. Then he turned his head slightly to look at the other boy. "Are you going to get blamed for this, in Slytherin? Is that why Dumbledore told you to stay here?"
Harry shrugged. "Probably. His little gang of followers are still around, after all."
"Shit. Will they make trouble for you?"
At this a small smile crossed the boy's lips. "No more than usual."
Ron would have liked to say more but at that moment a tall figure appeared around the edge of the screen; a dark-haired man in black jeans and t-shirt with a deep blue robe over the top. He had a flying cloak tossed over one shoulder and a pair of gauntlets in his left hand.
"Harry, Remus and I are just – " He caught sight of Ron. "Ah, you're awake again!"
Harry stood up, his face suddenly smooth. "Ron, this is my godfather, Sirius Black."
"We've met before," Sirius said easily and he strode forward, holding out his hand for Ron to shake. "I'm glad to see you looking a bit better. Your mum and dad'll be here in a moment. Do you mind if I borrow Harry?"
"Okay." Ron looked at the other boy, but he was already piling his papers and books together into a neat heap on the chair and pulling on his robe. He tried to pinpoint what it was he saw going on in the dark-haired boy's face, but he didn't know him well enough yet to understand. "See you in a while, then."
"Yeah." Harry nodded to him and followed the older man out.
Lupin was waiting outside the infirmary wing for them, also dressed in a flying cloak and gloves. He smiled as Harry approached with Sirius.
"How's Ron?" were his first words.
"Okay." Harry coloured a little, knowing that Sirius would have told his other godfather everything. On the other hand, that wasn't nearly as embarrassing as discovering that the two of them were a couple and he'd somehow never noticed. "Madam Pomfrey's giving him Skele-Gro," he said, mostly for something to say.
Remus's smile became wry. "Well, I'm sure it'll do him good, but I've taken it enough times myself to feel sorry for him."
Sirius was busy draping his cloak around his shoulders and tugging his gloves on. "Harry, we hate to rush out on you like this, but I've been summoned back by the Ministry. And to be honest there's no real excuse for us to hang around any longer, now that this business has been sorted out."
"It's okay," Harry said, although he couldn't work out why it should suddenly matter to him that the two men were leaving. They'd come and gone before and he was usually sort of glad when they left. But some of the uncomfortable tension of the past three years was suddenly gone and it felt strange.
"Come and see us off," Remus suggested, so he followed them up to the landing pad on top of one of the towers.
It was a cold evening and Harry wished he'd brought a cloak of his own as a brisk breeze whipped around the top of the tower. Remus summoned his broom, an old Cleansweep 4, from the shed by the stairs but Sirius's enormous black motorbike was standing to one side of the pad, waiting for its master.
"I don't know why you don't just ride on the back of the bike," Harry said to Remus as Sirius eased the machine off its main stand. "Wouldn't it be simpler, if you're both going in the same direction?"
The two men chuckled.
"I've never been able to get him to ride with me," said Sirius, grinning. "He's convinced it'll explode in mid-air or something."
"If motorcycles were meant to fly, Muggles would have built in that capacity," Remus retorted calmly. "They're perfectly capable of making machines fly, even without magic!"
"They've never made brooms that fly either," Harry pointed out, and Remus quirked a brow at him.
"Whose side are you on anyway?" he joked. Then he saw Harry's involuntary shiver. "You're freezing. Sirius, let's go and let him get back inside before he catches his death."
But neither man seemed ready to leave. Finally, Lupin reached out and put an arm around the teenager's shoulders, giving him a slight squeeze. "Harry, write to us, please?"
"I do write you – "
"Yes, but an actual letter would be nice, instead of a list of your homework marks! Those we can get from Snape."
Harry snorted slightly, but agreed. "Okay."
Sirius kicked out the side stand of the bike and left it for a moment.
"Come here a minute," he said to his godson, and pulled him into a hug. He felt Harry stiffen with surprise and rolled his eyes at Lupin over the top of his head, but hung on until the boy relaxed and returned the squeeze slightly. He loosened his grip a little but tilted his head so that he could look Harry in the eye.
"Listen to me, because this is something I know a bit about," he said gently. "I think possibly you're thinking right now that if someone could try to kill Ron just because you talked to him, then getting together with him, as a friend or anything else, would be a bad idea."
Harry blinked, taken aback that his godfather should have realised this. "Um ...."
"So just a bit of advice – don't let that stop you if getting together is something you both want to do. The world isn't populated with Malfoys after all, and life's a bit short to let people like that get in your way. Just go for it. Okay?"
Harry gave him a bemused look. "Should you be giving me advice like that? I'm not of age yet."
In the background he heard Lupin give a muffled laugh.
Sirius snorted. "If this hadn't happened, you'd have been merrily getting on with it anyway! Besides, I'm not a total hypocrite yet and I had my fair share of 'interesting' encounters before we left school." He released Harry, but left one arm draped over his shoulders. "So. Will you come home for Easter?"
Harry had never gone home to Sirius's house for Easter before, and had tried a couple of times to get out of going at Christmas too. But things were different now.
"Okay," he agreed, and Sirius gave his shoulder another squeeze.
"Good. We'll see you in a couple of weeks, then."
"Maybe before." Harry visibly hesitated, but then continued, "Professor Dumbledore says that the Quidditch match has only been postponed, since everything has been sorted out. If Ron's okay to fly soon, then it could take place before the end of term."
Harry had never invited either of them to one of his matches before.
"I'd like that," Sirius told him.
"Besides," Remus added whimsically, "it'll be entertaining to see a grown man weep as Slytherin pounds Gryffindor into the ground."
"They're not that bad!" Harry retorted, but he grinned.
Sirius clapped him on the shoulder and stepped back. "We'd better be going."
"Okay." Harry watched them both mount up.
Then, with a wave to the boy, Lupin kicked off from the ground and shot into the air, circling above the tower as Sirius kick-started the motorbike. He too saluted Harry before roaring over the edge of the tower and out into the darkness.
Harry watched until the rear light of the bike disappeared completely into the distance, then slowly turned and went back inside.
End Part 7/7
Chapter 8: Epilogue
Harry was picking aimlessly at his breakfast of scrambled eggs the following Wednesday when Ron rejoined his classmates.
The Great Hall was in full early-morning bustle and it took a moment or two for the sudden excitement at the Gryffindor table to register. Then Malcolm Baddock, a younger Slytherin who was sitting a few feet away, said sourly, "Oh look! Weasley's back from the dead. Joy."
Harry looked up in time to see Ron being thoroughly hugged, kissed and his back pounded by his friends. Some of the younger Gryffindors even cheered as he made his way to his usual seat, red-faced and grinning, with Rosebud in the crook of his arm. His face still bore a few yellow-green bruises, but Madam Pomfrey's noxious potions had had their usual effect and he was almost completely healed, with even the bandage around his head gone.
"Bastard!" Pansy Parkinson hissed from two seats away, and Harry spared a moment to eye her with disgust. The chair next to her – Malfoy's customary seat – was rather pointedly empty, for she had forbidden anyone to sit in it.
As though he was bloody Sir Galahad or something, Harry thought scornfully. He had come in for some ill-feeling from his Housemates, although interestingly not everyone seemed as distraught at Malfoy's abrupt departure as might have been expected. On Harry's right hand side Millicent Bulstrode continued to consume her porridge steadily, utterly unmoved by the behaviour of either Gryffindors or Slytherins, while on the opposite side of the table Blaise Zabini was listening to Pansy's continued sotto voce raging with a distinct sneer on his face.
"Don't let it upset you, Pansy," Terence Higgs, their seventh year Quidditch captain broke in unexpectedly. "We've still got the game with Gryffindor to come after all. I think we can arrange a bit of payback then, as soon as we've selected a suitable new Chaser."
"Better make sure it's not another would-be murderer," Harry said in a clear, carrying voice. "That might look a bit suspicious." He ignored the sudden indignant silence that fell along the table.
Nature, it was said, abhorred a vacuum. No obvious 'king' had yet emerged in Slytherin to take Draco Malfoy's place, and while Harry had no interest in stepping into the gap, he had decided that with his nemesis gone and the House in disarray from the whole business, he was no longer going to bite his tongue and keep his head below the parapet. If he had something on his mind, he was going to say it and to hell with anyone who didn't like it.
It was interesting to discover just how many of the Slytherins seemed unprepared to challenge him with Malfoy gone.
Higgs glared at him for a moment. "Got something on your alleged mind, Potter?" he demanded.
Harry considered for a moment, before pushing his plate away and standing up. "Yeah. While you're looking for a new Chaser, you might want to find a replacement for the Keeper too. The bloke we've got at the moment is seriously crap and we don't have a hope of beating Hufflepuff, let alone Gryffindor, with him in front of the hoops."
Since the current Keeper was Higgs, it was hardly surprising that the captain should turn a violent shade of purple, his eyes nearly popping out.
"That is," Harry continued coolly, "if you want to win against Gryffindor next time."
He waited to see if Higgs would come up with a response, but the seventh year either couldn't think of one or didn't dare, for he visibly fumed in silence. Harry snorted his contempt and picked up his bag, slinging over his shoulder and setting off around the tables towards the Gryffindors.
His approach was met with more than a few hisses and glares, but he ignored them as he headed for Ron's seat. Rosebud let out an odd little crowing sound as he approached and Harry found himself breaking into a grin when Ron looked up and saw him.
"When did Madam Pomfrey say you can play again?" he asked without bothering with a greeting. The look in Ron's eyes was greeting enough.
"Weekend after next," Ron said, grinning back. "If I'm a good boy and don't have any headaches in the meantime."
"Brilliant!" Harry said, and he didn't care about the strange looks some of Ron's classmates were giving them. "That's a free weekend, Madam Hooch should be fine about rearranging the match for then."
"And then we paste the lot of you, Potter," Seamus Finnigan said, and his tone was not friendly. Judging by the little chorus of "yeah!" that went up at his words, he wasn't alone in the violent sentiment.
Harry took a breath ... and let it out again, seeing Ron's wary expression. They'd had a little talk about friends and Housemates only the day before, after Harry had a rather sharp skirmish with Hermione when they both thought Ron was asleep. A truce had been called and in any case Hermione would come around but, like it or not, most of the Gryffindors were unlikely ever to accept him. On the other hand, they wouldn't even make an effort if Harry acted the stereotypical Slytherin around them.
So instead of the withering remark he really wanted to make, Harry replied mildly, "Well, that won't be difficult with Crabbe and Goyle Beating for us, will it?"
Without waiting to find out the Irish boy's response or even take in his look of astonishment, he turned back to Ron. "Ready for Transfiguration then?"
"Yep." Ron pushed his plate aside and scooped up his bag and Rosebud.
"What is going on with them?" Harry heard Ron's sister Ginny saying to Hermione Granger as the two of them set off to class together. He wondered why she hadn't already realised; after all, she'd been there on Sunday night when Ron introduced Harry to his parents and judging by Mrs. Weasley's expression, there had been no doubt that she knew what was going on.
"It's spring," he heard Hermione reply calmly. "I think the sap's rising. Or something."
He glanced sideways at Ron and intercepted the redhead's grin.
- The End -