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Circles Of Power

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Apparition wasn't always Harry's favourite method of travelling, but when the choices fell between that, Floo powder or spending half an hour on the Muggle Underground, he would Apparate every time - even if it did mean that he sometimes ended up in the broom cupboard by mistake. 

It could have been worse, he thought philosophically, as he disentangled himself from an old vacuum cleaner and stepped out of the cupboard.  He could have actually ended up inside the machine - as Neville had once - and accidents could be forgiven as the little hallway was very small.  Even in a shared student house, one didn't Apparate directly into the living room or kitchen without warning (highly impolite in the wizarding world), and Apparating into the bedrooms or bathroom was a sure way to get yourself yelled at by someone.

As he pulled his cloak off wearily and hung it on his peg, his eyes flicked up at the clock reflexively.  Seamus's hand was still pointing at Gringotts; Dean's at the Ministry of Magic; Ginny's at St. Mungo's Hospital; Neville's, unsurprisingly, was pointing at "lost"; and Ron's said "travelling".  Only Hermione's was pointing at "home", other than his own.  Harry nodded to himself, and wandered through the house until he tracked down Hermione in the kitchen.

"Isn't it my turn to get dinner?" he asked, a little surprised to find her standing before the stove, stirring a pan of something firmly.

"I was home early," she said with a shrug and a smile. "I thought I might as well give you a hand.  You can butter the bread if you like.  Ginny's on a late shift and Seamus is going to be late."

"Seamus is always late.  And Neville's - "

"- lost, yes, I noticed.  I don't know why he doesn't just use the Floo network, if he's scared of splinching himself."

"Probably because the last time he used Floo powder to get home, he landed in some elderly witch's fireplace in Somerset."  There was another clock on the wall in the kitchen; Harry looked up at it again, but Ron was still "travelling".  "Where's Ron been all day?  I haven't seen him since early morning."

Hermione shook her head.  "I'm not sure but I think he got sent up to Hogwarts.  Wherever it is, he decided to fly, and you know how slow that old Nimbus 2000 of his is now.  The tail-twigs are practically dropping off."

"I'm amazed he didn't simply Apparate to Hogsmeade and walk to the school.  He's the laziest sod I know - he wouldn't get up in the morning if I didn't kick him out of bed.  And why didn't he take my Firebolt if he was going that far?"

"You know what he's like about borrowing your stuff," she reminded him.

Harry sighed.  "I'm going to have to have the "what's mine is yours" talk with him again."

"Good luck," she said dryly.  The "talk" hadn't been very successful in the past.

Ron's hand on the clock suddenly spun around to "home" and moments later he was walking through the kitchen door, looking very pink-cheeked and windblown.  He also looked extremely grumpy; probably the result of having to travel a great distance on a slow broomstick.

"Hey," Harry greeted him.

Ron sort of grunted in response, making Hermione roll her eyes in exasperation, and went straight to the fridge to grab a bottle of Bertie Bott's Famous Fizz-Zing Cola.

"Long trip?" persisted Harry patiently.

"Mmph."  Ron flipped the cap off the bottle and took a long swig.  At twenty-one he was over six feet tall, though he would always be slender in build, and his red hair was, like Harry's, naturally untidy. 

Right now it was practically standing on end.  Harry resisted the urge to go and flatten it for him, knowing that the effort would be as fruitless as with his own.  And attempting it while Ron was in a bad mood was not a good idea anyway.

He tried again: "So where've you been?"

"Hogwarts."  Ron took another swig of cola and rested his back against the fridge door wearily. 

"You must have been flying nearly all day, to have got there and back by now."

"Tell me about it.  My rear end's numb, and the damn compass went nuts at one point - I nearly ended up in Pontypridd."

"It's probably losing its direction spell," Hermione advised him.  "Swap it for the compass on my Comet.  It's not like I'm ever going to take that old thing any great distance."

Ron shrugged, clearly not appeased.

"Why didn't you Apparate to Hogsmeade?" asked Harry, muttering a softening charm over the rock-hard block of butter.

"Because I was specifically requested not to."  Ron's tone became even sourer.   "Apparently they're testing some kind of new anti-Apparition spell over Hogwarts, and last week someone Apparating to Hogsmeade nearly got fried by it.  So I had to fly there. I've never understood why Hogwarts isn't on the Floo network."

    "You could have taken the Firebolt - that would have knocked a couple of hours off the time."

    There was a sticky pause.  Then Ron said, in an embarrassed mutter, "Actually, I thought Seamus said something about the saddle spell on it slipping."

    Harry nearly jumped on the statement, for he knew perfectly well that there was nothing wrong with the Firebolt - it was still the most reliable broom money could buy, and the saddle spell had never been known to slip.  But arguing the point with Ron when he was in already in a temper was simply an all-round bad move, so with an effort Harry bit his tongue and said more mildly, "I didn't realise.  It seemed okay to me the other day."

    A little red-faced, Ron said, "Well, we're not all Mr. Perfect-Balance like you." 

    The comment might still have stung if he hadn't reached out and touched Harry's shoulder as he said it.

    "None of us are Mr. Perfect-Balance-Ex-Gryffindor-Seeker-and-most-wanted-man-for-the-England-Team," Hermione joked, breaking the ice, and they all grinned.  Harry being chased to be the England Seeker was an old joke between the three of them.

    Like being anything other than an Auror had ever been an option for any of them.

    "You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" Harry said, with a melodramatic sigh.

    "I think the crowning moment," Hermione reminisced, "was the way Oliver Wood nearly wept with frustration when you said no was no, and that was final."

    "Wept?  I thought he was about to curse him."  Ron tossed his empty bottle in the waste bin, and seemed to relax.

    That reminded Harry of something he'd been itching to tell his friend all day.  A laugh might lighten him up a bit.

    "I saw Percy today."

    "That must have been nice for you," Ron commented sardonically.

    "Someone sent him a curse - "

    "Hope it was a good one - "

    "The Chatter-Teeth Curse.  Every time he said something, his teeth dropped out onto his desk and repeated everything he said."

    Ron let out a great snort of laughter.

    Harry hid his grin, pleased.  "Well, you know what Percy's like," he continued.  "He was outraged and kept going on about it, so we had a really hard time keeping his teeth in his mouth long enough to put a fixing spell on them."

    That got a laugh from Ron and Hermione, although the latter tried hard to look sympathetic.

    "Excellent!" Ron grinned.  "Who sent it to him?  It sounds like one of Fred and George's inventions."

    "We checked but it couldn't have been them, so we're still looking.  Good thing Cho was with me, though – I could never have kept a straight face if I'd been on my own."

    "Cho Chang?" 

    Ron tried to keep his tone casual, but neither Harry nor Hermione was fooled.  Like Harry, he tended to be an insecure person, but for entirely different reasons.  Old flames were a touchy subject, and Harry had been involved with Cho Chang for the whole of his sixth year at Hogwarts.

    Of course, the fact that Ron had been involved with Hermione for part of that time was beside the point.

    "Yeah.  She drew the short straw."  Harry shrugged, transferring slices of buttered bread to a plate with a wave of his wand.  "If you'd been in London, it would probably have been you with me and Percy would never have got his teeth back in."

    "That'd be a disaster, wouldn't it?"

    "Who would send a curse like that to Percy?" Hermione wondered, giving the contents of her pan an absent-minded prod with the wooden spoon.  "I mean, I know he's pedantic and a bit stuffy – "

    "A bit!"

    " – but it's not like he holds a major position at the Ministry of Magic.  He's just a paper-pusher, really."

    "Wash your mouth out," Ron advised her.  "The Ministry would be lost without him and his cauldron reports."

    Harry shook his head, and directed his wand at the store cupboard, causing several packets of Busy-Witch Quick-Cook Pasta Shapes to fly out and deposit themselves on the worktop. 

    "I'm thinking it's old Mundungus Fletcher again," he commented, putting a second saucepan on the stove and tapping the rim with his wand.  The pan began to fill with boiling water, and Ron obligingly opened the pasta packets for him, tipping the shapes into the water.  "We'll have a hard time proving it, but he's had it in for Percy ever since he turned down the old miser's compensation claim after the Quidditch World Cup."

    "Why did they even bother calling the Aurors in?" Ron demanded.  "Dad and Percy's offices get sent curses and Howlers practically every day."

    "Yeah, but this one turned up without a return address on the envelope.  That's pretty rare these days; no one wants the Aurors actually turning up on their doorstep when they're finally identified," Harry pointed out.

    "Barking," Ron said, shaking his head.  "With You-Know-Who and his gang of sycophants gathering strength out there, why would anyone be stupid enough to send curses to the Ministry without identifying why they're being sent?  No, scratch that – why does anyone send curses at all?  It's a sure way to get a fully armed Auror Apparating onto your dining room table when you least expect it."

    Harry had a sudden, bizarre image of Ron, untidy hair, messy robes and all, erupting like a Strippergram out of the middle of some harmless wizard's birthday cake.  He let out an explosive snort of laughter and sparks shot from the end of his wand, blasting hot water and half-cooked pasta out of his saucepan and halfway across the kitchen.

    "Someone could have warned me it's Neville's turn to cook dinner," a weary Dean Thomas complained, as he walked through the door and got plastered in the soggy stuff.

     

    *

     

    Harry awoke to the kind of darkness that usually only falls during the very early hours of the morning.  For a moment he lay very still, wondering what had woken him.  Then he realised he couldn't hear another person breathing.  He rolled over and flung out one arm, but the bed beside him was empty. 

    Ron was missing.

    That was unusual, for generally speaking Ron slept like the dead, and rarely got out at night even to use the bathroom.  It was Harry whose occasional nightmares and sleepwalking fits tended to wake the entire household.

    Harry waited for perhaps five minutes, in case Ron really had gone to the bathroom, then got up and pulled on his dressing gown.  Fumbling a little in the darkness, he found his spectacles and wand on the bedside table and whispered "Lumos," to the latter. 

    A tiny glow appeared on the tip of his wand and produced enough light for him to see – much to his disquiet – that Ron had cast off his pyjamas and dressed in his outdoor clothes; jeans, sweatshirt and an old brown robe he wore during off-duty hours.

    How did he manage that without waking me up? Harry wondered, but the truth was that they were both so accustomed to each other that he wouldn't necessarily wake if Ron was very quiet. 

    In fact, he still wasn't sure what had woken him now, except that he had gone to sleep feeling concerned about his friend.  Despite the temporary lightening of his mood during dinner, Ron had been tense and edgy all evening, and had eventually slouched off to bed early without saying anything to anyone, even Harry.

    He could be a moody person at the best of times, but his behaviour last night had been unusual enough for Dean to remark on it, and had they not all been more concerned with Neville still being "lost" at nearly midnight (although it wasn't the first time he'd gone missing overnight, and he usually turned up looking sheepish the next morning), Harry might have made a greater push to find out what was on Ron's mind.

    But by the time he'd climbed the stairs himself to their bedroom in the attic, Ron had already been huddled up on the far side of the bed, hogging most of the covers and resolutely refusing to crack open an eyelid.

    Puzzled and disquieted, Harry left their room and slowly walked down the stairs, checking in the communal bathroom on the way, just in case.  When he reached the first floor and peered over the banisters, he could see a light under the living room door.

    Padding barefoot and silent down the passage, Harry stretched out a hand and pushed the living room door open –

    - and nearly had a heart attack when something solid and furry howled and went streaking past his ankles at top speed.

    Harry leaned back against the wall for a moment, gasping softly.  "Damn cat!" he whispered, for he realised almost immediately that it must have been Crookshanks. 

    Then he frowned.  What on earth had made the creature behave like that?  He glanced back up the stairs, but there was no sign of the ginger monster; he was undoubtedly in Hermione's room already.

    Straightening up, he pushed the door open completely and walked into the living room.

    Ron was standing in front of the curtained windows, with his back to the room and his shoulders hunched.  His arms were wrapped tightly across his chest and he was pacing back and forth – a few steps to the left and a few to the right.

    Harry whispered "Nox" to his wand and the light on its tip went out.  He stepped forward cautiously, worried by the furrows on his friend's brow and his agitated movements. 

    "Ron?  What's going on?  Why are you out of bed?" 

    "Go 'way, Harry."  The words were muffled, but it almost sounded like the other man was in pain.

    "Don't be stupid."  The words came out with an automatic roughness born of deep affection.  "What's the matter?  Are you ill?"

    "No.  Please go away.  I'll – I'll come to bed in a while."

    His voice was pitifully small, and suddenly Harry remembered times from their schooldays when Ron had been utterly terrified and unable to hide it.  He had sounded just as small then, like a child who realises that his parents can't stop it hurting this time.

    Shocked, Harry stretched a hand out to his shoulder.  "Turn around – "

    "No!" 

    But it was too late.  Harry had already grabbed him and the force of his pull dragged Ron around to face him.

    Harry took an involuntary step back.  It was Ron, but it wasn't.  Something about his eyes was just plain wrong.

    "Ron?" he whispered, horrified.

    And like a sudden splash of acid to the face, the scar on Harry's forehead burst into white-hot, crippling pain.  Harry let out a cry before he could stop himself, and clapped both hands to his head, but the agony was total, like the worst infliction of the Cruciatus curse, as bad as he had ever felt from his scar.  Tears sprang to his eyes, but sensing movement he looked up –

    - and saw Ron levelling his wand at him, with a look his friend had never seen before on his face.

    Sheer luck saved Harry's life.  As Ron opened his mouth to speak a curse, bright green flames sprang up in the fireplace and a whooshing sound heralded the arrival of someone via Floo powder.  The distraction was enough that his aim was off when he shouted the words:

    "AVADA KEDAVRA!"

    A bolt of searing heat and bright green light shot past Harry's left cheek, knocking him sideways to the floor and blasting a hole the size of a dinner table right through the wall behind him.  The noise was incredible, adding to the sickening ringing sounds in Harry's left ear as he lay on the floor, half-stunned.

    He stayed conscious just long enough to hear Neville's voice, high-pitched with shock, shouting, "Stupefy!".

    And then he passed out.

    Chapter Text

    "It's not Ron's fault.  I'm telling you, it wasn't him – I could see it in his eyes." 

    Harry's voice was dull with shock and physical pain; his left ear was still ringing, and his face and neck were scorched painfully all along that side.  His scar was also aching constantly.  But worse than that by far was the mental anguish.  His brain was running in circles like a demented squirrel, asking why, why, why, how, how, how? 

    He was not alone in asking those questions.  Less than three hours after the incident, and he was seated in the oppressive but secure Auror Facility far beneath the Ministry of Magic building.  Facing him across a table were Albus Dumbledore, Mad-Eye Moody and another senior Auror called Rufius Kisbie.  And to one side, seated against the wall and clearly still in shock, were Arthur Weasley and Sirius Black.

    "You'll forgive me my scepticism, laddie," Moody was saying, both his normal eye and the magical one fixed piercingly on Harry's face, "but you realise you're the only one who can testify to that.  The use of the Imperius Curse – if it was the Imperius Curse – is a hard thing to prove one way or the other.  As you already know."

    Harry swallowed hard and nodded.  Yes, he knew.  All the Auror trainees did. 

    "I didn't expect to need witnesses," he managed, after a moment's struggle.

    "That's understood.  But our problem here, Potter, is twofold.  Firstly, young Weasley's been trained in this very facility here to resist the Imperius Curse.  His success rate is nearly as good as your own.  And secondly … secondly, he sat in front of me not an hour ago and swore to me under Veritaserum that he doesn't remember a thing.  And you know yourself that the Imperius Curse just doesn't work like that, laddie.  The victims always remember what they've done, even if they couldn't stop it happening."

    Which was horribly true.  Harry was convinced Ron must have been under someone's control – almost certainly Voldemort's - but he had been fretting about the how ever since he woke up in the Auror Facility's tiny infirmary, surrounded by anxious friends.

    Of course, the friend he had most wanted to see wasn't there.  Ron was locked up in a secure cell elsewhere in the facility, pending the decision of the most senior Aurors.

    "I think he did try to resist it," Harry said, a little desperately.  "Just before he tried to curse me, he kept trying to make me go away - "

    "What you think isn't good enough, Potter," Moody retorte. 

    Harry bit his lip angrily, fighting back a sharp response.

    He and Moody had an awkward relationship.  For obvious reasons neither of them had ever been the same after the Tri-Wizard Tournament six years previously; Harry's trust in his Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher had been irreparably damaged, and Moody, always a nervous man, had become one hundred percent more paranoid after his months of incarceration in his own magical trunk.  It hadn't made for easy working conditions when Harry had applied to, and been accepted by, the Aurors for training.

    "No one doubts that you are telling the truth, Harry," Dumbledore said quietly, after a period of tense silence.

    "As you see it," Kisbie added discouragingly.

    Harry had to focus on his breathing for a moment, or he felt sure he might have starting yelling or crying, or both.  In the background, he was conscious of Sirius shifting in his seat restlessly.  God only knew what his godfather was thinking right now.

    "Ron has been my best friend since we both went to Hogwarts," he enunciated slowly.  "That's nearly ten years.  Why on earth would he suddenly decide to kill me?  God knows, he's had enough opportunities in the past, and he wouldn't have needed one of the Unforgivable Curses to do it!"

    "But your friendship hasn't always been entirely ... harmonious, has it?" Kisbie pointed out smoothly.  "Young Mr. Weasley's temper is well known.  Indeed, his strange mood yesterday was commented upon by your other friends – "

    "He was tired!  He'd been flying all day – "

    " – And am I not right in thinking that more than once there have been moments of unusual friction between the two of you?  Perhaps to do with the fact that you, Mr. Potter, are a very wealthy man and Mr. Weasley is not?" 

    "Oh my God, you can't seriously be suggesting this is about money - "

    Kisbie shuffled a handful of parchment sheets lying in his lap.  "Then a year ago you didn't make a Will, Mr. Potter?  A Will of which your friend Mr. Ronald Weasley is the main beneficiary?"

    Harry buried his face in his hands.  "It's not like that," he said, muffled.  "You don't understand."

    "Then make us understand, sir!" Kisbie snapped.  "Explain to us how this very great friend of yours can one day come home to the lodgings you and your other friends share, and in the middle of the night attempt to put an end to your life in the very same manner that Voldemort ended the lives of your parents!"

    Harry's head came up at this, and his green eyes blazed.  "I can't explain how it happened!" he cried, anguished, "But I know Ron better than anyone in the world, and I know he wouldn't ever try to hurt me!"

    It was the wrong thing to say.

    "Think you know him better than his parents, do you, laddie?" Moody growled, and his magical eye swivelled around to fix on Arthur Weasley.

    Harry froze.

    It was one thing for the relationship between him and Ron to be known to their closest friends.  It would have been hard, living in shared lodgings, for the others not to have known about it.  But very few outside that privileged circle knew they were involved.  It wasn't something they talked about or flaunted, and outside of their home they had never given any reason for people to assume they were anything other than best friends.

    Fred and George Weasley knew about them; Harry's former girlfriend, Cho Chang knew, as did Hermione's on-off boyfriend, Viktor Krum.  Harry suspected that the ever-perceptive Dumbledore might have guessed.

    But Ron's parents didn't know.  And nor, to the best of his knowledge, did Sirius. 

    The last thing Harry wanted was for them to find out under these circumstances.  But on the other hand, if he didn't say something, there was a very strong chance that it would count against him and Ron both if it were to come out later.

    Feeling trapped, Harry looked from one relentless face to another, until his eyes met the steady blue gaze of Dumbledore.  For a moment the elderly professor studied his face thoughtfully.  Then he sighed softly and stood up. 

    "Sirius, Arthur - I wonder if I might speak to you outside for a moment?  Forgive me, gentlemen …." 

    And he quietly left the room, a puzzled Sirius and Mr. Weasley at his heels. 

    The door closed softly behind them, leaving Harry facing the two most senior Aurors in the Dark Force Defence League.  He took a slow, shaky breath.  Moody's normal eye was fixed on the door the other three men had just left by, but his magical orb was riveted to Harry's face as though he could read every thought rushing through the younger man's brain.

    "Something you want to tell us that Arthur Weasley can't hear, Potter?" he asked sardonically.

     

    *

     

    "Harry - thank God!"

    That was Hermione, but it was Ginny Weasley who hurled herself at him when he emerged, drained, from the interrogation room half an hour later.  The others crowded around him.

    "Harry, your face - "

    "I'm fine," he said automatically, but his eyes were on the faces of his other friends. 

    Ginny, mercifully, hadn't been at home when it all happened, but the others - all dressed anyhow after being dragged out of bed, and Neville still covered in soot from the fireplace - were staring at him, pale and shocked.  Neville, in particular, looked like he'd been hit between the eyes with a confusion charm, and his face was a greenish-white under the outdoorsy tan he always had these days.

    "Neville - " Harry reached out to him, and the other wizard grabbed his hand like a lifeline.  "I'm told you saved my life."

    But Neville shook his head.  "It was just luck, Harry."  He tried to smile.  "What do you know, the stunning spell even worked for me for once."

    Harry nodded, and looked at Hermione.  "Where've they got Ron?"

    "In Cell 51," she said, and he winced.  The ten cells in Row 50 were reserved for the most dangerous of Death Eaters, such as Lucius Malfoy and Walden Macnair.  One was constantly being modified in the hopes that one day they might actually need it for Voldemort himself.

    "They can't seriously be thinking of sending Ron to Azkaban, can they?" Seamus Finnigan asked quietly.  "I mean, it's obvious that it wasn't him, he must have been under someone's control - "

    "I don't know," Harry admitted.  He hoped that he had provided a better argument in Ron's favour after Dumbledore's intervention - his admission of their relationship had been productive only of a snort from Moody and raised brows from Kisbie - but when they finally released him, he was still no wiser as to their ultimate decision.

    "What I want to know is how Voldemort managed to modify the Imperius Curse to include a memory charm," Hermione said flatly, and Harry wanted to hug her for her loyalty and pragmatism.

    "And how he managed to put the curse on Ron in the first place," he added.

    "They're checking his broomstick now," Dean told him.  "Hermione remembered him saying that he nearly went off course on the way back from Hogwarts yesterday.  They're trying to see if he could have been diverted somehow, without him realising."

    "That errand to Hogwarts was false," Hermione continued.  "He was supposedly called to the school by Professor McGonagall to examine a suspect package, but when he got there she denied sending the message."

    Harry stared.  "So who sent it?"

    Dean's face was grim.  "No one knows."

    "And what does Ron say about it?"

    "He remembers getting the message and flying up to the school, and he remembers speaking to Professor McGonagall.  But everything's a blank after he took off from Hogwarts."

    "Unfortunately, he threw the message into the fire before he left," Hermione added, "which looks bad."

    "Any of us would have done the same!" Harry protested.  "Who hangs on to little bits of old parchment, especially when they come from someone you know?"

    "Maybe you'll do so in the future then, Potter," Moody's voice said, making them all jump.  He approached them slowly, magic eye swivelling dizzyingly and wooden leg thumping dully on the carpeted floor.  "Maybe this'll prove a lesson to all of you."

    Harry felt Ginny bridle angrily at his side and grabbed her arm warningly.  Now was not a good time to indulge in fits of misplaced resentment.

    "Will Ron be released, sir?" he asked, trying to keep his face as well as his voice calm and neutral.

    Moody stared at him for a long moment, his normal eye very still but the magical one flicking from face to face.  "We've been through his head, front, back and sideways," he said after a moment, "and found nothing there to say he's a danger to anyone.  Doesn't mean he isn't a danger, but we've got as much as we're going to get from Weasley himself.  And we've got your ringing endorsement of him, haven't we, Potter?"

    This was said with a touch of sarcasm, but Harry refused to let it anger him.  He waited, enduring the elderly Auror's x-ray stare.

    "I can't let you take him home," Moody said finally, and for a wonder his tone seemed gentler and more kindly than any of them had ever heard it before.  But Harry felt his shoulders slump despondently at the words. 

    "Look at it from our point of view, Potter," the Auror continued.  "Less than six hours ago he tried to kill you.  For what it's worth, I agree with you and your friends – someone summoned him to Hogwarts to get a clear shot at him, and it worked.  They got him under a powerful and unknown controlling curse, and if it hadn't been for Longbottom's timely intervention, you'd be dead, laddie, and Weasley would be lucky to get a trial before they sent him to Azkaban.

    "No, he'll stay where he is for now, while we work out who did this to the pair of you.  Now go home, all of you, and get some sleep.  Potter, I'll expect you and Miss Granger back at your desks tomorrow, ready to help us work on this."

    He was turning to go, when Harry said rather hopelessly, "Can I see him?"

    Moody turned back and studied him for an unnerving moment.  Then he sighed and jerked his head towards the door. 

    "Go on.  Fifteen minutes, and no more."

     

    *

     

    When he had first been shown around the holding cells in the Auror Facility, Harry had been thoroughly approving of the chilly, dungeon-like rooms.  This, he had thought, was little more than the Death Eaters deserved and at that they were still a little too cosy.

    Now, hurrying down the cold, torch-lit steps, he was revising his opinion somewhat.  Not that he had any objection to the idea of Voldemort or Lucius Malfoy mouldering down here while they awaited trial, but never in his worst nightmares had he imagined he would see Ron incarcerated in one of the cells – or any of his friends, for that matter.

    None of the cells had doors.  Walking down Row 50 was like walking along a blank and faceless tunnel carved out of solid rock.  In perverse wizard fashion, Cell 51 was at the far end of the passage, and it was guarded by two armed Aurors Harry knew only slightly.  The flickering torch-light made the two figures in their hooded robes look a little sinister.

    "Moody said I could speak to him for fifteen minutes," Harry told the one on the left, trying to suppress his anxiety.

    The woman studied him for a moment, then glanced at her male colleague.

    "We can't let you inside, Potter," the man told him, although not unsympathetically.  "We still aren't sure what made him do it."

    "I know that.  But at least let me speak to him – " he glanced between the two of them and grimaced, "and preferably in private."

    "Now, you know we can't just leave you on your own with him," the woman pointed out.

    "I know, I know!  But can't you at least - " Harry flapped his hands helplessly, "I don't know – move away a bit?"

    The man gave him an exasperated look.  "We'll go halfway down the passage, but mind you don't try letting him out or anything stupid like that!  Kisbie will have all our heads if he escapes."

    "I won't – "

    "Well, I hope not," the woman said tartly.  "You've got a reputation for rule-breaking, Potter."

    But she stepped back and let the other Auror tap the blank wall with his wand.  A whole front section glowed white for a moment, and abruptly turned as clear as glass.

    "Fifteen minutes," he told Harry sternly, and pointed to a large egg-timer that had suddenly appeared a few feet away, hanging in mid-air.  Sand was already trickling through it. 

    The two Aurors retreated to a short distance away, and Harry stepped forward eagerly.  The interior of the cell was as depressing as he remembered, with rough-hewn stone walls and a bare wooden bench against the wall that had to serve as both a bed and a seat.  Ron was huddled on one end of it, his head in his hands, and didn't seem to have noticed his visitor.

    "Ron!"

    His head shot up and he stared disbelievingly for a moment; then he was dashing across the cell to the transparent wall.

    "Harry – "

    He looked terrible, dishevelled and wretched, with blood-shot eyes.  Harry put one hand out to touch him, only to be blocked by the nearly invisible barrier between them.  He cursed it angrily, but Ron merely leaned against it, seeming to slump with relief.

    "You're all right – thank God, you're all right," he said.

    "Yeah, but are you?" Harry demanded, studying his friend worriedly.  "You look like hell – "

    Ron shook his head.  "I'm fine – better than I deserve," he added bitterly.  "Harry, I swear I don't know what happened – "

    "Stop it!  It's not your fault – "

    "Yeah, right.  You nearly ended up a stiff, and they tell me there's a brand new, rustic-looking doorway from the living room through to the study ...."

    "We don't have time for this," Harry told him sharply.  "Ron, they've only given me fifteen minutes.  Moody won't release you yet – "

    "I know.  Dad was here a while ago with Dumbledore.  Kisbie wanted me put in Azkaban for the duration, but Moody wouldn't let him – "

    "So you've got to tell me everything you remember, quickly."

    Ron gave him a look that was more helpless and desperate than Harry had ever seen.

    "That's just the point – I don't remember a thing!  I swear I thought someone was playing a bad joke on me when I woke up in here.  The last thing I remember is getting back on my broom at Hogwarts.  I don't even remember kicking off from the ground."

    "Hermione said the message you got from Professor McGonagall was false," Harry prompted him.

    "If it was, it was a bloody good forgery," Ron told him.  He ran a hand through his wildly rumpled hair, looking baffled.  "I mean, I saw her handwriting and signature enough times on my homework when we were kids, Harry – it looked just like hers, I never even thought about it."

    "Where did you leave your broom while you were at Hogwarts?"

    "In the rack on the landing pad, of course.  It wasn't there long – I was in and out of the building in less than twenty minutes."

    "It's not term time.  Was there anyone around?"

    "Not that I noticed – "

    "But it's not inconceivable that someone could have tampered with the broom while you were talking to McGonagall."

    Ron looked doubtful.  "Yeah, but it would have to be someone who's in and out of Hogwarts a lot, wouldn't it?  The anti-intruder spells are wicked these days."

    "I don't care," Harry said stubbornly, "it has to have been something done to your broom, Ron.  Do you remember telling Hermione and me that you thought the compass was off yesterday?"

    "I did?"

    "Yes, when you got home – "

    But his friend shook his head, distressed.

    "Harry, I'm sorry, I don't remember going home – "

    "Okay, forget that."  Harry thought furiously for a second.  "You told me that you flew up to Hogwarts because you were told not to Apparate – something about a new anti-Apparition spell.  Was that true?"

    "Yes."  Ron blinked, clearly trying to remember what little he could of the previous day.  "It was in McGonagall's note.  She said there had been an accident and it was better to fly rather than risk Apparating, even to Hogsmeade."

    "Well, that's something we can check out."

    "Yeah, but I burned the note."  Ron smacked one hand into the other, furious with himself.  "Moody made a big deal of that, but honestly, Harry, I never even thought – "

    "It's okay.  I probably would have done the same."  Harry tried to touch him a second time, forgetting the barrier, and swore when his hand smacked against it painfully. 

    "Two minutes, Potter," one of the Aurors called warningly.

    "Dammit!"  He glanced up at the egg-timer, but the sands were running out fast.  "Ron, they're going to chuck me out in a minute.  I'll come back tomorrow if I can.  Is there anything you need?"

    "Some fresh clothes?"  Ron looked down at his rumpled robe and jeans, and made a face.  "I don't want to live in these for a week or more."

    "You're not going to be in here for a week or more if I can help it," Harry retorted.  "I'll bring a couple of changes, though.  And I'll see if Moody will let me bring you a book or a newspaper, or something."

    "Thanks, Harry – "

    "Okay, time's up." 

    The Aurors were walking back up the passage.

    Harry looked across at Ron, and felt a sudden, terrible wrench in his chest at the sight of his friend's pale, miserable face.  Ron was trying to stay calm, but his eyes were frightened.

    "I'll come back tomorrow," Harry promised him helplessly.

    Ron nodded and reluctantly stepped back from the wall. 

    "You'd better go," he said, and swallowed.

    "Time's up," the male Auror repeated, stepping between them.  "Come on, Potter – time to go."

    Harry backed away ... then turned and ran down the passage, not wanting to see Ron's expression as they sealed up the wall.

    Chapter Text

    The gaping hole in the living room wall had been tidied up and a reinforcement spell placed on it, but it would be a couple of days before they could get anyone in to mend it.  Always supposing that it could be mended; the trouble with the Avada Kedavra curse was that it tended to leave powerful traces of itself in anything it touched – like Harry's scar, for example.

    Every bit of rubble and plaster had been taken away by the Aurors for examination for signs of who was really behind all this.  The seven occupants of the student house – six with Ron in custody – were left with a surprisingly clean living room and a very rough-and-ready new entrance into their study.

    Harry found it nearly impossible to ignore the hole.

    He had left the Auror Facility with great reluctance, despite knowing he could do nothing to help Ron.  In the end, it had taken a combination of persuasive arguments from Hermione, Sirius and Dumbledore to convince him to go home, but once there he had found himself unable to sleep like the others, and after a couple of hours he crept downstairs to keep a solitary vigil over the scene of the crime.

    The truth was he didn't like sleeping alone.  He and Ron hadn't been apart like this more than half a dozen times in their entire three-year relationship, and never before under such appalling circumstances.

    Harry's mind wouldn't let him rest as everyone had told him to do.  Instead he sat in the living room, staring at the hole in the wall and feeling his brain whirl around like a spinning-top out of control –

    "I thought I might find you in here."

    Harry almost leapt out of his skin, and shock set his heart racing.

    "Hermione!  Don't do that to me – "

    She was standing in the doorway, hands on hips, arrayed in baby blue pyjamas and a pink terry-cloth dressing gown.  The scowl on her face took Harry back nearly ten years to an eleven-year-old Hermione catching him and Ron out of bed during an illicit night-time excursion at Hogwarts.

    "Harry, you're supposed to be getting some rest!  How are you going to be any use to Ron if you're falling asleep at a crucial moment?"

    A second head, topped with fiery red hair, popped up briefly over Hermione's shoulder: Ginny.  Great, it was a pyjama party.  In the daytime.

    "I can't sleep," he muttered.  "You didn't see his face when I left him – "

    "No, but I did see his face when they woke him up from Neville's stunning spell and told him what he'd done."  Her voice was curt but when he looked up, her face was tight with distress.  "That's not going to make it easy for me to sleep either, Harry, but I'm going to try because he needs us both to be on top form."

    Ginny reappeared, holding a glass of water and a little purple bottle.  She gave him the glass and tipped two smoking drops from the bottle into it, turning the water a luminous pink.

    "It's a sleeping potion," she told him.  "Go on, drink it.  We're both going to have some too."

    Harry regarded it distastefully.  "I don't know – "

    "It'll stop you dreaming," she interrupted sharply, sounding a lot like her mother.

    Perhaps it would be as well.  He screwed up his face, knowing what the stuff tasted like, and swigged it down.

    Hermione let out a little sigh of relief.  "Good.  You've got about five minutes to get yourself into bed before that knocks you out."  She watched him shuffle to the door.  "And Harry?"

    He looked back at her.  "Yeah?"

    "We'll find who did this to you both," she promised, "and when we do ...."

    He nodded and quietly left the room.

     

    *

     

    It was nearly eleven o'clock in the morning when he went to bed.  When he next awoke, it was to a sharp rapping on his door.

    Ginny stuck her head around the edge of it. 

    "Harry, are you awake yet?  It's seven o'clock."

    Groggily he asked, "Have I missed dinner?"

    "Seven o'clock in the morning, silly.  You've slept for nearly a whole day."

    Her head disappeared and the door closed, which was just as well because Harry, horrified, leapt out of bed in a rush – and sometime during his marathon slumbers he'd managed to lose his pyjama bottoms.

    When he scrambled downstairs twenty minutes later, with his hair uncombed and his robe on back to front, Hermione was sitting composedly at the kitchen table with Seamus, eating toast.

    She rolled her eyes when she saw him.  "For heaven's sake!  Calm down, we're not late."

    "I've slept a whole day away, and you say I'm not late?"  Harry tried unsuccessfully to straighten his hair with his fingers.

    "You need some gel to do anything with that, dear," the mirror behind the kitchen door advised him languidly.

    Harry's response made it steam up its glass in embarrassment.

    "Don't swear at the mirror," Hermione scolded him.  "Moody gave us the day off, remember?  And God knows, I needed the sleep.  Have some toast."

    Harry would have declined, but her expression warned him of trouble if he tried.  So he stood twitchily in the middle of the kitchen, trying to force the slice down.

    Seamus shook his head wryly, and got up from the table. 

    "I'll see you two later," he told them.  "Give Ron my best, won't you?"

    And he disappeared into the living room, to take the Floo to Gringotts.

    "Ron is fine," Hermione told Harry sternly.  "I sent an owl as soon as I got up.  Nothing will happen to him while he's in custody; Moody's fair, whatever else anyone might say."

    "It's not Moody I'm worried about, it's Kisbie.  He was itching to send Ron to Azkaban yesterday."

    "He can't overrule Moody and Dumbledore.  Here's your tea."

    Harry didn't want the tea, but he drank it to please her.  Then he re-checked a bag he'd packed with some of Ron's clothes.

    "Are you ready to go?" he asked her.

    Hermione sighed. 

    "I will be as soon as you put your robe straight."

     

    *

     

    The Auror Facility was a hive of activity when they arrived.  Harry and Hermione hurried through the office to their desks, where they found Sirius and Remus Lupin waiting for them.

    "The report's back on Ron's broomstick," were Lupin's first words.  "It was definitely tampered with, and we're pretty sure now that he must have been diverted in-flight."

    "He said something about Pontypridd," Harry said quickly.

    "I know.  We've got people on their way there now, to question the local wizarding community and find out if anyone saw him."

    "The Welsh Office is screeching," Sirius commented, with a twisted grin.  "They don't like the idea of Voldemort being in their midst.  Harry, how are you feeling today?"

    "I'm okay – "

    Sirius grabbed his godson's chin and turned his head to one side, examining the burns on his left cheek with pursed lips.

    "Ears still ringing?" he asked.

    "A bit."

    The wizard shook his head wonderingly.  "You have to be the luckiest person alive, to survive that curse twice."

    "I'll feel luckier still when we get Ron out of custody," Harry said, pulling away.  He caught an odd look on Sirius's face and added quickly, "It's not his fault.  Someone else should be in that cell."

    "Well, let's see if we can dredge up some evidence today and get young Ron out of there," Lupin said.

    They set to work.

     

    *

     

    It was examination of the rubble from the student house that was to lead to Ron's release later that day.

    Every spell had its own unique signature that was absorbed by everything it touched.  But more than that, every spell absorbed something too, a subtle signature of the wizard or witch who cast it.

    The rubble from the house was saturated with the ugly vibrations of the Avada Kedavra curse, and upon examination by the most sensitive and experienced Aurors, not only was Ron's signature identified, but also overlaying it was ... Voldemort's.

    "I could have told them that," muttered Harry irritably, when this news was broken to the team.  "I did tell them that.  My scar is still tingling from it – "

    But the question had to be asked: How had Harry got such a strong sense of Voldemort, when the  dark wizard himself was patently not in the room at the moment the curse was cast?

    By lunchtime another question had been answered: Ron had been seen in Pontypridd by a retired member of the Dark Force Defence League, and in the company of another wizard the elderly witch had never seen before.  She identified Ron easily by his bright red hair; but her description of the dark-haired, older wizard with him left the Aurors baffled.  It didn't fit any known Death Eater.

    Ron himself wasn't able to help them.  He had no recollection of that day at all, and certainly none of landing in Pontypridd.  His most helpful comment was to observe that he never would have flown there anyway, for he wasn't even sure if he could find it without a decent direction spell.

    "One question answered, but a whole lot more raised," was Mad-Eye Moody's assessment later.  "Why would he even have mentioned Pontypridd under the influence of this spell?"

    "Because he was fighting it," Harry repeated stubbornly.  "I told you before – he kept trying to make me go away just before he cursed me, and he sounded frightened."

    "So why doesn't he remember fighting it, then?" the elderly Auror retorted; for which, of course, there was no answer either.

    By the end of the day, Ron had been put through every Dark detection spell and device the Aurors possessed.  His clothes, still reeking of the Avada Kedavra curse, were taken away and burned; and his wand, forever tainted by Voldemort's baneful influence, was ceremonially snapped in two and consigned to a purifying flame.

    The latter was very hard for Harry to witness, for it smacked of a shame and disgrace within the wizarding community which Ron patently did not deserve.  But it was also absolutely necessary, for the wand would never be the same after being perverted by the casting of the most heinous of the Unforgivable Curses.

    "Better for him to start fresh," Moody told both Harry and Hermione, who were visibly shaken by the procedure.  They were not the only ones; everyone who watched flinched as the wand was snapped.  "A new wand, one he'll be able to put his trust in.  But not yet," he cautioned.  "Until we're certain what happened, I don't want him carrying one around.  Better safe than sorry."

    Unfortunately, the wand-snapping was not the worst thing that could happen to Ron.

     

    *

     

    "You know what this is, Weasley?" Moody asked him casually, opening a small leather casket stamped with the cipher of the Dark Force Defence League.

    Inside the box was what looked like a stick of dark green sealing-wax and a large circular stamp with an ebony handle.  The elderly Auror gave Ron a moment to look at them, then passed the box over to Remus Lupin, who took out the stick of wax and the seal and held them ready.

    The council room, although unusually full of people, was quiet enough to hear the proverbial pin drop. Ron swallowed hard, and Harry gripped his shoulder tightly, trying to impart some courage and reassurance to his friend.

    "It's the Seal of Honour."

    "That's right.  And you know what it's for?"

    Ron licked his lips nervously.  "It … it judges the worthiness of the bearer."

    "Well … that's the flowery version you'll find in the textbook," Moody said, and gave a dry chuckle.  "I'll tell you what it really does.  You could say it's a magical spy into your heart, sonny.  We fix the Seal on your bare skin - the forearm used to be the best place, but as the Dark Lord likes to mark his followers there, we've moved it to behind the shoulder - and it watches you for us.  While your actions and intentions are good and wholesome, you've nothing to worry about.  But if you suddenly take it into your head to, say, attack young Potter here again - or if one of the Dark Lord's followers tries to act through you …."  Moody let his voice trail off suggestively. 

    "It's just a precaution, you understand," he finished after a moment, and stepped back, his magical eye zooming from one face to another around the room, even as the normal one was fixed on Ron.

    Lupin stepped forward and pushed the sleeves of his robe back, his face grave.  "Let's have your shirt off, then, Ron …."

    Ron swallowed again, his adam's apple bobbing nervously, and began to pull his shirt out of the waistband of his jeans.  It seemed to take an unusually long time for him to unfasten all the buttons and pull it off.

    In the meantime, Lupin had set the seal down on the nearest desk and was holding the tip of his wand to the stick of wax, murmuring an incantation under his breath.  The wax began to soften and melt.

    "Right …  It might be better if you sit back-to-front in that chair there and bend forward - "

    But Ron's eyes were fixed on the smoking wax.  "This is going to hurt, isn't it?" he said unhappily.

    Lupin met his eyes squarely.  "Yes it is, but only for a minute or two while the Seal sets itself."

    "Nothing really … compared to how badly Potter would have hurt if that curse had actually hit him," Moody commented, almost idly.

    Ron went as white as milk under his freckles, and Harry had to bite back a really savage retort.  He had thought Moody felt some sympathy for Ron's plight, but now he seemed to be taking every opportunity to twist the knife.

    Ron straddled the chair and bent over the carved wooden back.  Every muscle in his shoulders was tensed.

    "That okay?" he bit out.

    "That's fine," Lupin said quietly.  "I know it's going to be difficult, but try not to flinch.  If the Seal moves before it cures, I'll have to re-melt it."

    He leaned over and held the rapidly melting wax over Ron's back.  Huge, pearly, green blobs formed on the end of the stick and dropped almost lazily onto his skin.  The young wizard hissed and twitched slightly as the first one made sizzling contact; then, as the tiny pool of wax on his shoulder grew, he let out an involuntary yelp of pain.

    "Shit!"

    "Bear with it, Ron – "  Lupin swirled the tip of the stick over the surface of the wax to make it as circular as possible, then quickly grabbed the seal and pressed it firmly down into the centre of the puddle.  The seal itself was the size of Galleon and bore a deeply engraved image of a phoenix that looked almost exactly like Professor Dumbledore's bird, Fawkes.

    "There – "

    There was a flash of searing white light under the seal, and the wax seemed to sink into Ron's skin.  Then it was over, and Lupin was stepping back, polishing the seal unthinkingly on the sleeve of his robe.

    Ron slowly sat up, and then stood up.  He was shaking, and his face had taken on a faintly greenish cast; Harry could see shining tear-tracks on his cheeks.  But he managed to face Moody and look him in the eyes.

    "How long do I have to have this – thing – on me?"

    Moody was giving him a very hooded-eyed look.  "For as long as it takes, Weasley.  Until we're certain."

    "The Seal is honourable if honourably worn, Mr. Weasley," Rufius Kisbie's voice cut in sharply. 

    "Great," Ron snapped.  His fists were clenched tight.  "But what happens if it decides I'm not honourable?"

    "Let's just say that we'll all know about it, Ron – but you'll know first."  That was Lupin, and his head was slightly bowed.  Harry, watching him, got the impression that he wasn't entirely happy with this procedure.  "The Seal hasn't been used in over twenty years, and this time it's just a safeguard.  I don't think you have anything to worry about."

    "But it will be removed?  Eventually?"

    Moody regarded Ron for a moment.  His magical eye had begun to wander again, taking in each and every one of the tense, uneasy Aurors packed into the little office.  The atmosphere cranked up a notch in the extended pause, and Harry began to wonder just how much of this scene had actually been put on for the benefit of people other than his friend.

    "Oh yes," the old Auror said finally.  "It'll be removed – eventually."

    Chapter Text

    Under the circumstances, perhaps it was just as well that a message from Fred and George was waiting when Ron and Harry returned to their desks. A distraction was badly needed by both of them.

    Ron - Got your tickets for the Cannons' match this weekend. Pop over and pick them up tonight, will you? - Fred

    The owl was waiting impatiently for payment, so Ron scribbled a quick note in reply and gave the bird six Knuts.

    "Well, that's something to do this weekend," he told Harry, managing a weak smile, "and Mum'll want us to go home after this, just in case Dad was lying to protect her, and we were both really sent to Azkaban."

    Harry smiled back, but felt decidedly uneasy about visiting the Weasleys - largely because it was dawning on him that he and Ron couldn't afford to put off telling them (and Sirius) about their relationship.

    The circle of those who already knew about it had just been expanded to include two more; and the more who knew, the more chance there was of their families finding out in the worst possible way. Little as Harry relished the idea of breaking the news to any of them, he would rather it came from his mouth and Ron's than from the gossip pages of the Daily Prophet, who still had a somewhat unhealthy interest in "the boy who lived".

    Fred and George already knew all about it, though, and apparently didn't give two hoots who their little brother slept with, so when they left the Ministry building at six, it was with a lighter heart that Harry followed Ron down Diagon Alley to the quirky little shop that housed Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes.

    The twins had set up their shop when they left school, with the Tri-Wizard Cup winnings Harry had forced upon them. Since then, they had been making a modest profit from their ever-inventive endeavours, which was no mean feat in a street that housed branches of both Gambol and Japes, and Zonko's. It wasn't what their mother had wanted for them, but Harry privately thought her ambition to see Fred and George working for the Ministry of Magic had always been desperately unrealistic. The twins had never been made for treading the straight and narrow path of their father and brothers.

    The many-paned window of the shop-front was crammed with all manner of weird and wonderful things, from an extraordinary range of fake wands and realistically animated rubber insects, to the infamous Canary Creams and Ton-Tongue Toffees. Harry always flinched reflexively as he walked through the door, because you never knew what was going to land on your head and it was never the same joke twice.

    Today he was whopped with a Zinger spell, which made every hair on his body stand on end - something, he reflected ruefully, that was really rather redundant. Fortunately, the spine-tingling effect wore off in seconds, but it was enough to make the twins chortle happily.

    Harry, they always said, was the best of good sports. It was a reputation he would rather not have had, but he bore their pranks with good grace.

    After a day and night in the cells, and a traumatic encounter with the Seal of Honour, Ron was less appreciative and proceeded to tell his brothers so in a barrage of startlingly inventive language.

    "Whew!" George said, amazed, when he paused to take a breath. "What's the matter with you? Anyone would think your best friend had just died ...."

    "Funny you should say that," Harry commented dryly, and turned his head slightly so they could see the burns on the side of his face.

    Fred's grin vanished faster than a dropped Galleon. "What the hell happened to you?"

    "I did," Ron said tightly. "I nearly took his head off with the Avada Kedavra Curse."

    "That's not funny!" George snapped, all the colour draining from his face.

    "Damn right it's not," Harry agreed. He tried to keep the tone light. "The hole in the living room wall alone will take a pile to fix."

    The twins looked from one of them to the other.

    "Tell me this is a really bad joke," said Fred finally.

    "'Fraid not." Harry leaned against the counter, and raised his brows at Ron. "Will you tell them, or will I?"

    "I'm amazed they haven't read about it in the Daily Prophet already," he said bitterly. "Right up Rita Skeeter's alley, this is."

    "Fudge's ban on the press reporting Death Eater activity is still in force," Harry reminded him. He turned back to the twins. "It's a long story ...."

    xXx


    " - And they snapped your wand? Holy cow, Ron."

    They were all sitting around the twins' tiny kitchen table, drinking coffee. George was suitably staggered by the report the two younger men had just finished giving them, and he hadn't even heard about the Seal on Ron's back - by unspoken agreement Ron and Harry decided not to reveal this particular detail to his family. The rest of the story was bad enough, without them having to know that he potentially had a ticking time-bomb on his back.

    "Actually, I'm amazed Mum hasn't been beating our door down about it," Fred commented. "She must be nearly doing her nut."

    "Hard to say who she'll be more worried about, you or Harry," George agreed, with gallows humour.

    "Well, since we're going to the Cannons' match on Saturday anyway, we'll be dropping into the Burrow tomorrow night," Ron replied. "She'll be able to cry over us then."

    "Oh yeah. Come upstairs and I'll give you the tickets."

    Ron and George disappeared to the flat over the shop, leaving Harry facing Fred across the table. The redhead was studying him with the kind of perceptiveness his mother never gave him credit for.

    "Are you sure you're all right, Harry?"

    "I'm fine," he replied, a little impatiently. "It's Ron you should be worrying about - "

    "Looks like you're doing that enough for George and me both already," Fred said dryly. "Life's pretty exciting for you Auror types, isn't it? Has Mad-Eye Moody got his teeth into a suitable victim yet, or are you all still looking for the person who did it?"

    "It's Voldemort who did it," Harry said grimly. "I'd stake my life on it. And since we're always looking for him ...."

    "But this mysterious character Ron was seen with in Wales - what about him?"

    "What about him?" Harry wrinkled his nose. "Investigations are ongoing," he said, doing a fair impression of Rufius Kisbie. "We've got a reasonable description from the witch who saw him, and it pretty much fits half the Aurors in the League."

    "Nice one," Fred commented cynically. "So now we all have to put an armed guard on our broomsticks whenever we leave them anywhere - and especially when we leave them somewhere familiar and secure. My life is complete."

    "Constant vigilance, laddie," Harry intoned, and they grinned at each other.

    "So how is Moody these days?"

    "Wild-eyed and paranoid - the usual." Harry took a swig of his coffee and enjoyed the bitter aftertaste for a moment. It was almost enough to banish the image of Moody's searching gaze raking over all the Aurors. "Speaking of how people are - what kind of mood is your mum in these days?"

    Fred's brows went up. "Wild-eyed and paranoid. Why are you asking? You'll be seeing her tomorrow."

    Harry twitched. "I'm just wondering how receptive she'll be to another piece of bad news."

    "How bad is bad?" Fred's eyes suddenly lit up. "Percy hasn't got Penelope pregnant, has he?"

    "Eh?" Harry let out a surprised laugh. "No! At least, not that I'm aware of. What makes you think he'd tell me if he had?"

    "Percy likes you."

    "God knows why; I've seen him without his teeth in. No, it's just ... well, I think we're going to have to drop a bombshell on your mum tomorrow, and - er - tell her the big secret. Before someone else does."

    Comprehension flooded Fred's face and he gave Harry one of the most evil grins he had ever seen.

    "Harry, you really are the best of good eggs," he stated reverently. Then he hopped up and stuck his head around the door. "Oi, George! Fancy a trip to see Mum tomorrow?"

    "Fred ...." Harry slumped back in his chair, wondering what on earth had possessed him to say anything to the twins, of all people.

    Ron appeared around the door with George, looking puzzled.

    "What do you want to go home for all of a sudden?" he demanded of his brother.

    Fred looked across at Harry and began to chuckle. "For the entertainment, of course!" he said cryptically.

    Ron looked at Harry. "What entertainment?"

    "I'll tell you later," Harry sighed. Another conversation he wasn't relishing.

    xXx


    "Oh no. No, absolutely not, Harry."

    Ron stepped out of the fireplace, slapping soot off his robes, and spun round to glare at his friend as he appeared.

    "Did you hear me?"

    "Yeah, I heard you. We'll just let your mum find out from Witch Weekly then, shall we?" said Harry, exasperated.

    Ron's mouth worked silently for a moment, but he couldn't seem to think of a suitable reply.

    "For what it's worth, I'm going to tell Sirius too," Harry continued. "In fact, if it makes you feel better I'll even tell the Dursleys."

    "Harry ...." Ron flapped his arms helplessly. He looked appalled. "Harry, she's going to kill me already. This'll just about put the headstone on my grave."

    "Look, I'm not exactly looking forward to it myself. The chances are she'll throw me out of the house and forbid me to ever cross her doorstep again. But Ron - she and your dad deserve to know before someone makes a smutty joke about it in front of them at a Ministry dinner party." Which was all too hair-raisingly likely, considering some of the people currently working at the Ministry.

    Silence. Ron turned away from him - and was promptly confronted with the hole in the living room wall.

    "What the hell is that!"

    "Yeah, you're a crap decorator," Harry sighed.

    "Oh my God ...."

    Hermione caused a timely diversion by putting her head around the door.

    "Oh good, I thought it sounded like you two. Harry, Sirius is here."

    Suddenly it felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. Harry gulped.

    Ron turned to look at him sharply, and let out an involuntary laugh at the look on his face. "Here's your chance to put your money where your mouth is!"

    "Oh no - I'm not ready ...."

    "Yeah, and like I'm going to be ready tomorrow?"

    "Ready for what?" Hermione wanted to know, stepping inside the room properly.

    Ron was still looking at Harry. "Coming out of the closet the Muggles call it, don't they?"

    Her eyes widened. "You're never going to tell your parents?"

    "That depends."

    "On what?"

    "On whether my dearly beloved here breaks the news to his godfather in the next ten minutes." Ron folded his arms and studied Harry. "Well? You've gone all pale, by the way."

    "You know, sometimes I just want to kick your rear all the way into the middle of next week," Harry told him without rancour. He drew himself upright and took a deep breath, looking at the door like it was a charging cockatrice. "Okay .... I'd better just get this over with."

    He stalked out of the room and down the passage to the kitchen, Ron and Hermione trailing behind him.

    Sirius was perching on the corner of the kitchen table, talking to Ginny, when Harry walked in. Dean was checking something under the grill and chatting to Seamus, who was leaning against the counter with a bottle of Butterbeer in his hand; and Neville was taking cutlery out of a drawer.

    Great - a full house. Harry's stomach started to somersault.

    "Sirius!" He managed a smile when his godfather looked up. "I - I'm glad you're here, I was hoping to talk to you about something."

    Ron let out a tiny snort behind him.

    "Ron!" Neville dropped the knives and forks with a noisy clatter. "You're back - "

    There was a sudden rush as everyone went to welcome Ron home. Harry met Sirius's eyes over their heads and stammered, "C-can I speak to you in private for a minute?"

    "We'll go in the living room," Hermione said tactfully, and firmly herded the others out of the kitchen before anyone could protest.

    The door shut quietly behind them, leaving Harry and Sirius alone.

    Sirius folded his arms and studied his godson with a raised brow. Harry's panicky expression was not lost on him.

    "So ... what's up?"

    Harry's mouth had suddenly gone dry, and he could feel a trickle of cold sweat running down his spine. "I - ah ...."

    "Harry?" Sirius began to look concerned. "What's the problem?"

    "I ... It .... It's about me and Ron," he blurted out, and instantly wished he could pull the clumsy words back. He closed his eyes in mortification; his face felt like a furnace.

    "Oh, that," he heard Sirius say casually. "I already know."

    Harry's eyes snapped open again, incredulous. "What? I - I mean, you do?" He was shocked. "How? Who told you?"

    "I've known more or less since the beginning, although if I hadn't," and Sirius snorted a laugh, "the look on your face when Moody asked how you thought you could know Ron better than his parents - that would have given me a big clue! You looked exactly like James the time I found him half naked in the Quidditch Locker Room with your mother."

    Harry opened his mouth and shut it again. His brain was trotting around in circles, and he couldn't sort out a single coherent thought from the tangled mess in his head.

    "But you probably don't want to know about that," his godfather added, amused. "I mean, as far as kids are concerned, parents don't have sex, do they? Here, for heaven's sake sit down before you fall down - "

    And he hooked a foot around the leg of one of the chairs, dragging it forward. Harry collapsed onto it bonelessly.

    "Sirius ...." He shook his head, not sure what to say. "I can't believe you've known all along. It's been three years."

    "Well, I have to admit I wish you'd told me a long time ago," Sirius said. "I wish you'd told me right at the beginning, because it was obvious it was preying on your mind and talking about it to someone might have helped. But every time I wanted to say something, Moony would say No, let him talk about it in his own time - "

    "Moony knows about this too?"

    "Moony worked it out first." Sirius gave him a humorous look. "The lupine nose - he could smell Ron on you. Amongst other things."

    Harry's face, which had been beginning to cool, heated up again. He had an idea that when he started this conversation he hadn't intended it to be about sex, or not explicitly. He had rather thought that Sirius would want to avoid the nasty details.

    He should have known better. This, after all, was the man who had given him a copy of What Every Teenaged Wizard Needs To Know for his fifteenth birthday. Worse, inside the cover had been secreted a couple of copies of Hot Sorceress! and Playwitch. At the time Harry had still been young enough to be both mortified and obsessed with the idea of broomsticks as phallic objects. And Ron had been an absolute pest about the magazines from the moment he found out.

    Harry finally found his voice again. "Aren't you - I don't know - disgusted or angry or something? I was sure you'd pitch a fit when I told you."

    Sirius stared at him, bemused. "What, like You filthy pervert, never darken my doorstep again - that sort of thing? Don't be silly! Yes, it peeves me a little that you didn't see fit to tell me three years ago, but Harry - you can't seriously think I'd cast you off or something? You're my family - in fact, we're pretty much all the family either of us has anymore. It doesn't matter to me who you sleep with, so long as you're happy. Especially after the rotten start you had in life."

    Harry looked down at his hands for a moment. "I guess I just thought ... well, I know most men aren't very tolerant of this sort of thing."

    "Finnigan, Thomas and Longbottom don't seem to have a problem with it," Sirius pointed out.

    Harry snorted. "Yeah, but only within certain limits! We have a 'no public touching' rule, to spare their blushes. George and Fred Weasley know as well, but we really have a no-touching rule when they're around. They're pretty good about stuff, but I don't push my luck."

    "Well, I don't think I'd particularly enjoy watching the pair of you make out on the kitchen table," his godfather said, rather testily, "but then I don't think I'd enjoy watching most people do that, despite what you might think!"

    "Catching Mum and Dad in the Locker Room must have scarred you for life," Harry suggested, beginning to grin.

    "Yeah. It was horrible. You'd have demanded financial compensation at regular intervals too."

    Harry laughed and relaxed.

    "I'll admit I was surprised when Moony told me, though," Sirius continued thoughtfully. He studied his godson's face, and shook his head, grinning. "I would never have pegged you as gay. Especially after that incident with Cho Chang."

    "You're never going to let me forget that, are you?" Sirius had caught him in bed with Cho just before his seventeenth birthday, and had been teasing him about it ever since. "Actually, for what it's worth I don't know that I do prefer men. It just happens that the most important person in my life is male. And to be honest, I think I'd feel the same way about him even if he was a girl."

    "If he was a girl, he really wouldn't be Ron," said Sirius dryly. Then he grinned. "Actually, if he was a girl, he'd be Ginny."

    He cocked an eyebrow at Harry, who smiled enigmatically. Ginny's long-standing crush on him was one of those things people reminded you about for the rest of your life. But the fact that he had very briefly dated her in his last year at Hogwarts was nobody's business but theirs. Especially considering the embarrassing outcome.

    "No, Sirius - believe me, he wouldn't be Ginny. Not by a long shot."

    xXx


    Sirius's actual purpose for visiting was to ensure that all the various magical protections on the house were still working efficiently, and to boost them a little if necessary. The after-effects of the Avada Kedavra Curse being cast under the roof were not to be underestimated; and although the house was a typical wizard residence on the inside, it was situated slap in the middle of a Muggle district of London. Risks could not be taken.

    So Harry, Hermione and Seamus spent a couple of hours helping Sirius go over every spell, charm and incantation that had been laid on the roof, walls, doors and fireplace when they all first moved in, making sure there were no ruptures and, where necessary, removing the spell entirely and re-setting it.

    It was late in the evening by the time they finished, and Harry in particular was drained from the effort. It didn't help that Ron had followed them around all evening, watching moodily as they worked, but unable to help.

    At this point it was hard to say whether it was the Seal of Honour on his back or the loss of his wand that was weighing more heavily on him. Whatever the cause, his long face turned an exacting task into an extremely tiresome and difficult one, and Seamus in particular was quite tight-lipped with frustration when they finally called it a day. He disappeared off to bed almost as soon as they finished, and judging by the way Hermione quickly followed him Harry guessed she was probably feeling much the same, even though she was less inclined to show it.

    Sirius lingered for a moment or two after they were gone. The house was quiet; it sounded like everyone else had turned in as well, except for Dean who had earlier mentioned having a date.

    "How's your shoulder, Ron?" the older wizard asked, as soon as they were alone in the living room. "Does it still hurt?"

    Ron shrugged and dug his hands in his pockets, hunching his shoulders. "It's okay," he said offhandedly. "It tingles a bit."

    "Let me take a look - "

    "No, why?" Instantly Ron was on the defensive, backing away.

    Sirius's face showed nothing but kindly concern. "No matter what else the Seal is, you were still burned when it was being set. You have enough problems without it becoming infected."

    It took some persuasion, but eventually Ron agreed to take his shirt off and let Sirius check the Seal. When it was revealed, Harry was surprised to see that it had sunk into the skin and muscle until it looked like nothing more than a lumpy tattoo - an animated tattoo. The phoenix was moving under the surface of Ron's skin, rustling its wings and preening its feathers exactly as Harry remembered the real Fawkes doing on his perch in Dumbledore's office. Minute but perfectly visible, its eyes were watching him.

    Whatever magic the procedure involved had apparently healed the burn at the same time. There was only the faintest hint of red skin around the edges of the Seal, and Sirius pronounced himself satisfied.

    "A couple of days, and you'll probably forget it's there," he told Ron, as the younger man pulled his shirt back on. "I'm not sure I agree with Moody's reasons for inflicting this on you, but I honestly don't think you'll have anything to worry about. It's a precaution, and I'm sure we'll be removing it again in no time."

    "I don't care, I want it removed now," Ron said ten minutes later, when he and Harry were getting ready for bed.

    "If the choice is between having you here with the Seal on your back, or having you back in that cell, then call me funny but I'd rather go with the Seal," Harry retorted. He watched Ron fold his clothes up and put them away with unusual neatness. "Moody said that if everything stayed quiet for a week or so, you could get a new wand."

    "Good."

    "Mind you, Ollivander will have something to say about the loss of your other one. He never forgets one of his creations."

    "Yeah."

    "He still gives Hagrid grief whenever he sees him."

    "Great."

    Ron crawled under the covers and lay very still for a while. His eyes would not meet Harry's.

    "Don't, Ron."

    And abruptly he exploded. "Don't what? For Christ's sake, Harry, can't you drop it?"

    "I can't when it's obviously eating you alive," Harry told him helplessly. "You've got to get a handle on it and accept it, or you're going to go nuts - "

    "Well, what do you expect? I've got this damn thing on my back and it's watching everything I do and say and think! Watching me and judging me and waiting for me to slip up …."

    He sat up, dragging his hands through his hair, and Harry saw that he was shaking. They stared at each other across a vast expanse of dark blue quilt and paler blue pillows, and Ron seemed to practically chew at the inside of his lip with the tension of all the emotions he was feeling.

    And then it all came boiling out.

    "Why aren't you more afraid? How can you just sit there and look at me and … and … just behave like nothing happened, like we're just going to bed like normal …. I tried to kill you! It could happen again, any time! Moody obviously thinks so, or he wouldn't have done this to me, and - dammit, Harry, say something! Scream at me or hit me or something, but don't just sit there and look at me like your dog just died and … and …."

    His breath hitched and the tumble of words came to a halt.

    "Shit - " he whispered.

    And he bent nearly double, hands clamped to his mouth, rocking back and forth in helpless grief and misery. Harry scrambled across the bed and grabbed him, pulling him into a rough embrace. Ron was crying, great racking, silent sobs that shook his whole body, his eyes squeezed shut and his hands balled into fists like a child. Harry was forcibly reminded of the night of the Tri-Wizard Cup third task, the night that Cedric Diggory was murdered. He too had screwed his whole body up tight in an effort to contain a misery that was too powerful for tears.

    There was nothing he could do to help Ron except hold him and try to comfort him. Short of finding, capturing and punishing the wizard who had done this to him - and if that wizard was indeed Voldemort, then his chances of doing that were not high - he was helpless to do anything more.

    Eventually Ron sobbed himself out. Limp and exhausted, he sprawled in Harry's arms, head tucked under his chin, and the pair let the comfortable silence sink into their bones.

    After a while, Harry tugged the quilt out from under them and wrapped it round them both.

    "Come on, lie down. You need to sleep."

    Ron wasn't in a state to argue. He burrowed back under the covers and turned onto his side when Harry told him to, letting him spoon up against his back.

    "Sorry," he mumbled after a moment.

    "Stop apologising," Harry's voice said in his ear. "None of this is your fault. But I swear to you, Ron - one day Voldemort will pay for everything he's done. One day ...."

    Chapter Text

    Breakfast tended to be a chaotic experience, with seven people in varying degrees of 'rush' mode all charging in and out of the kitchen at the same time, making toast, pouring cereal, checking equipment and straightening robes as they went.

    For a wonder, Neville was the first out of the house that morning; Harry galloped down the stairs just in time to see him vanishing up the chimney in the living room.

    He charged into the kitchen, narrowly missing Dean with his bowl of cornflakes coming the other way, and squeezed past Hermione and Ginny to get to the toaster.

    "You can have mine, Harry, I'm late," Ginny told him as he passed her. She was hurrying for the door, dragging a comb haphazardly through her hair as she went.

    "Ginny, you can't go without breakfast, you'll be starving by midmorning!" Hermione protested, but the younger girl was already gone.

    "Don't worry about it," Harry told her. He grabbed one of the slices of toast as it shot out of the toaster, slapped some of Ginny's favourite marmalade on it, and ran after her.

    The living room was empty when he got there. Harry shrugged, grabbed a pinch of Floo powder from a jar on the mantelpiece and tossed it into the fireplace, and put the slice of toast in there too.
    "St. Mungo's Hospital!" he shouted up the chimney, and the flames roared. The toast was gone.

    When he returned to the kitchen, Dean and Seamus were just putting their dishes into the sink and Ron had made an appearance, shuffling into the kitchen looking like death warmed over.

    "Toast?" Harry asked him, as Seamus and Dean said their goodbyes.

    Ron shook his head and slumped down at the table, watching blearily as Hermione poured him a cup of coffee, lacing it heavily with milk and sugar.

    "You look terrible," she told him bluntly. "Stay at home today and rest a bit."

    "Can't do that - "

    "Why not? It's not like you and Harry have taken any time off sick so far. Besides, you'll be confined to desk duty anyway until you get your new wand."

    Ron grunted.

    "She's right," Harry told him. He took the seat next to Ron and grabbed the coffee pot, leaving his plate of toast between the two of them just in case his partner fancied any. "Read or catch up with your sleep or something."

    "I'll go out of my mind, stuck here on my own." Ron rubbed his face with one hand and yawned hugely. He looked in better spirits than he had the night before, but only by a percentage point or two. "Besides, aren't I supposed to be under surveillance?"

    "I don't think that's necessary," Hermione muttered uncomfortably, "under the circumstances."

    "Yeah. If I get any evil ideas, I'm a dead man," Ron said, but without rancour. Without really thinking about it, he stole a piece of Harry's toast and bit into it.

    "Not dead!" she protested.

    "Nah," he mumbled around the toast. "Just knocked out and my brain extra crispy fried. Look, Hermione, what am I supposed to do? I'm not going to sit in the house all day on my own, kicking my heels, and if I go out in Diagon Alley people are going to talk."

    "It's not that widely known what happened - "

    Ron rolled his eyes. "I'm not talking about that. You, me and Harry, we're all pretty well known to be Aurors. If I go wandering around Diagon Alley, even just window-shopping, people are going to start wondering why."

    That was true. Even on a day off - even last night, when Ron and Harry had walked the short distance from the Facility to Fred and George's shop - people tended to look at them sidelong and nervously.

    The three of them were silent for a moment.

    "It's going to be just as bad at the Facility," Hermione pointed out reluctantly. "People need a day or two to recover from that - that business yesterday, Ron. Everyone was a bit ...." She searched for a word.

    "Freaked?" Harry supplied dryly, and she grimaced at the word.

    "Unnerved. It wasn't by chance that so many Aurors were in the building at the time, you know. Moody made sure they were all there, like it was an object lesson or something."

    Harry found he didn't fancy his toast anymore. He pushed the plate over to Ron and crossed his arms on the table.

    "I can't remember most of what I read about the Seal," he admitted. "Remus said it hadn't been used in twenty years, so who was the last person who got stuck with it? And why?"

    "I don't know," Hermione said, "but I do know that the Seal was historically used on suspected traitors and turncoats. People who claimed to have turned away from the Dark Arts and offered to turn spy for our side, that kind of thing."

    "People like Snape, you mean," commented Ron, drinking his coffee.

    Her eyes widened. "I don't know - well, yes, I suppose so, but I never heard that he'd been subjected to the Seal."

    "I doubt he'd be able to operate for us now, if he had and was still wearing it," Harry observed. He sat back. "This is pointless. Hermione, you're going to be late. Look, do me a favour, would you? Tell Moody - or whoever - that Ron's not feeling great and I've decided to stay at home today and keep an eye on him."

    "Alright." She got up from the table and tugged at her robes slightly. "I'll see you both later then."

    "Thanks," Harry said quietly.

    "Yeah," Ron added, giving her an awkward smile.

    When she was gone, he gave Harry a strange look. "Not that I'm not grateful, but what are you planning to do all day, while you're stuck in here with me?"

    Harry could think of a number of replies to that, at least one of which involved bubble bath, but he could tell from his expression that Ron really wasn't in the mood. For a moment he was nonplussed, but then an idea began to take shape.

    "We're not staying indoors," he said, and got up to put his dishes in the sink.

    "But I thought we just agreed that Diagon Alley is a bad idea - "

    "I've got a better idea than that." Harry pointed his wand at the sink and the dishes began to wash themselves. He turned back to Ron. "Go get your robes off."

    Ron gaped at him like a fish.

    "What?" he demanded faintly. "Harry - "

    "Your Auror's robes, you prat. You're not going to need them where we're going. In fact, get changed." He gave his friend a critical look. "And try to dress more like a Muggle."

    xXx


    When they left the house the pair of them were dressed in jeans, with Harry wearing a dark green sweatshirt and Ron in a plain black t-shirt with a checked shirt. Dressing Muggle-style was not such an effort for their generation as it was for Ron's parents, and many younger witches and wizards routinely wore Muggle clothes, or variations thereof, under their wizard's robes.

    It was the end of April and the day was unusually warm and sunny; when they arrived in Diagon Alley, via the Olde Bakehouse Cafe's fireplace, the place was buzzing with shoppers and loiterers. It caused a slight sensation when the pair stepped out from under the mantelpiece; Ron, on his own and without his Auror robes, would probably have only been recognised by one or two people who knew his family, but Harry (much to his own irritation) was still a celebrity in the wizarding world and merited a certain amount of restrained excitement.

    They escaped, although not without difficulty, and ran across the street so that Harry could liberate some money from Gringotts. Then they headed for the Leaky Cauldron, Ron pestering Harry all the way to find out where they were going.

    The Leaky Cauldron was as dark and smoky as ever inside. Tom the bartender beamed when he saw them walk through the concealed door at the back of the pub, but Harry wasn't stopping to chat; he waved a greeting and urged Ron onwards, towards the main entrance on the far side of the tap-room. They walked through the heavy door, and out onto the street on the other side of it -
    - the Muggle street otherwise known as Charing Cross Road.

    xXx


    "Two day tickets for zones 1 and 2, please," Harry requested the man inside the ticket office politely. He pushed a couple of five pound notes over the counter, and took the two little orange tickets when they were pushed back.

    He handed one to Ron who accepted it gingerly, looking nervous.

    "What does this do?" he asked, examining it curiously.

    "It lets you use the Tube as much as you like, just for today." Harry watched him fingering the ticket, hiding his amusement. Ron had only been on the London Underground once before, when he was a child, and to him it was as alien as using Floo powder had been to Harry when he was twelve. "Don't lose it, and don't bend it or you might not be able to get through the barriers."

    Seeing the alarmed look on his friend's face, he added, "Stick it in your shirt pocket when you're not using it. And treat it like a randomised portkey, if it makes you feel more comfortable."

    "Huh." But Ron carefully stowed it away in his pocket, and looked at him expectantly. "Okay, where to?"

    He was looking more cheerful already, Harry mused, as he considered the question. The ongoing, if mostly hidden, war against Voldemort had curbed both their appetites for adventure somewhat, but Ron still enjoyed novelty and he hadn't had much contact with the wider Muggle world so far.

    Books, he decided. Shopping, particularly book shopping, was something fairly universal that wouldn't be too big a shock to his wizard friend's system. And he wanted to see Ron's reaction to Muggle literature. "Let's head out and see what we find."

    Harry worked out a route that covered some of the Muggle sights from one of the Underground maps on the wall, and steered Ron down the maze of tiled passages to the first platform. From then on it was a wildly entertaining ride for both of them.

    Ron really was unfamiliar with everything, from the disembodied voice telling him to mind the gap, to the advertisement posters lining the Tube tunnels. His reactions kept Harry in a constant state of mild hilarity. He had to be physically dragged away from a busker ("But he's not really playing, it's coming from that box by his feet ....") and prevented from peering over the edge of the platform in a way that clearly made their fellow passengers nervous.

    "Don't, Ron, they think you're going to jump."

    "Why, what would happen if I did?"

    The escalators, which Harry had felt sure would be a problem, turned out to be no such thing ("Dumbledore has something like this up to his office"), although it was hard keeping him on one step, because he wanted to study the theatre and museum posters on the walls.

    "They'd be more interesting if they moved. Haven't Muggles worked that out yet?"

    He did think that the Tube was a slow and clumsy way to travel, and said so.

    "I think most Londoners agree with you," Harry replied, watching the stations flash past. "But if you think this is slow, you should try the buses."

    Ron looked ridiculously excited by the idea. "Can we?"

    So they got off the train a couple of stops early. After a false start at the barrier, where Ron spooked when the machine snatched his ticket from his fingers and fairly threw the gates open, they were out on the street again and heading for the nearest bus stop.

    This proved to be a mistake. Harry was used to using the Tube, but he had only ever used buses to get to and from his first Muggle school when he was a child. London buses were a whole different game of Quidditch from their country cousins in Surrey, and they ended up at St. Paul's Cathedral twice before they finally found the right bus on the right route.

    "I see what you mean about buses," was Ron's assessment, when they finally arrived back in Charing Cross Road.

    Foyles, Murder One, Waterstones, Blackwells .... Bookshops abounded. Harry, who had a weakness for Muggle-style thrillers, decided that killing two birds with one stone would be a good way to start. Which was how they came to be in the basement of Murder One, Harry propping himself up against a bookshelf, weak with laughter, as Ron got his first introduction to fantasy fiction.

    "Harry, this is so much bollocks! Magic doesn't work like that - "

    "Of course. Muggles don't really believe in magic, remember?"

    "So why do they write this crap? And look at this, whoever drew this has obviously never seen a real dragon."

    "Let alone tried to steal a fake egg from it - "

    "And they're all different! They're not even consistent, all the authors are saying magic works in different ways."

    "That's because they're all trying to sell a lot of books about the same thing to an audience that gets bored very quickly."

    "So why do they write it?" Ron was moving along a long table piled six and seven deep with paperback books, picking up one book after another and comparing the blurb on the back cover with the book in the next pile. He did approve of paperback books, which didn't exist as such in the wizarding world. "Dad says they go out of their way to avoid noticing magic, even when it happens right under their noses, so it seems a bit schizo of them to write loads of books on the subject. And get it wrong every time."

    "I don't know why." Harry idly began to follow his example, turning books over and glancing down the covers. "I suppose it's like fairy tales for grown ups. Muggles live pretty, well, Muggle lives, after all. Must get boring."

    "We've got an old book of fairy tales at home," Ron commented. "That weird squib cousin of Mum's gave it to us when we were kids. Half the stories in it are based on true events, and the other half are obviously meant to frighten kids into behaving. I mean, there is no chance that a real goblin would get away with demanding your first-born child as payment for anything these days. There are laws against it."

    Harry grinned. Then he actually made sense of what he was reading on the back of the book he was holding, and snorted. "Oh, here - look! This one's about trolls."

    Ron grabbed a copy and flicked through it. "Pathetic. What does she mean, trolls don't actually live under bridges? The Greater Moorland Troll does ... where did she do her research, for crying out loud?"

    "Ron, I don't think you research fantasy fiction ...."

    "That's the problem with these people. Who is she, anyway?" He sneered at the name on the cover. "I'm tempted to write to her and give her a piece of my mind."

    "That'd teach her," Harry agreed, "always supposing she could recover from the shock of having the letter delivered by Pigwidgeon in the first place."

    Ron snickered and put the book down. He glanced along the row of bookshelves and sauntered over to one section he hadn't looked at yet.

    "What are these?"

    "Science fiction, I think."

    "So what's that all about?"

    Harry rolled his eyes and gave him a potted history of the subject.

    "Sounds good." Ron pulled a copy of Citizen Of The Galaxy from the shelf and began to flick through it.

    Fifteen minutes later they approached the till, Harry with a couple of Steven Saylor novels in his hand, and Ron carrying half a dozen science fiction classics. The queue was pretty long, which was as well because Ron suddenly realised something.

    "Bugger. I don't have any Muggle money on me."

    "Give 'em here, I'll pay." Harry held out his hand for the books, but Ron held back, getting a familiar look of discomfort on his face.

    "No, it's okay. Give me a minute; I'll nip back to Gringotts and change some - "

    "How?" Harry demanded. "Do you even know the way back there from here?" Actually, it wasn't that far to the Leaky Cauldron, but he was willing to bet Ron didn't realise that. The redhead knew next to nothing of Central London.

    "I'll Apparate. It won't take ten minutes."

    "Ron ...." Harry realised that they were still standing in a line of Muggles, and pulled his friend out of the queue with a sigh. "You can't Apparate," he reminded him, dropping his voice. "You don't have a wand, remember?"

    The look of cheerful good-humour Ron had been wearing for the last couple of hours abruptly vanished when he was reminded of the reason why they were wandering around Muggle London on a work day in the first place.

    "I'll pay for them," Harry told him.

    But Ron wasn't having it. "It's okay, I'll put them back."

    "Ron, for crying out loud!" Harry grabbed his arm as he turned away. "It's just a couple of books!"

    "It might be just a couple of books to you, but - " Ron stopped abruptly, and tried to get a grip on his temper. A slow tide of colour rose in his face.

    This was a really great place to rehash an old argument about money and possessions, Harry thought, exasperated. Although given all the other problems they were dealing with right now, it was somehow appropriate that this one would resurface too. But he could feel the interested stares of the shop's other customers on his back, so he dragged Ron behind a free-standing bookshelf.

    "I've told you before," he said softly. "What's mine is yours."

    From the look on his face, Ron was gritting his teeth. "Yeah, and I know you mean it, Harry, but that doesn't mean I'm comfortable with it."

    "What will it take to make you comfortable?" Harry regarded him steadily. "Should I give the money away?"

    Ron spluttered. "D-don't be stupid!"

    "I'm not, I'm dead serious. I'd gift the lot to St. Mungo's tomorrow if I thought it might make both of us less uncomfortable whenever I buy you a present."

    "Harry - "

    Harry folded his arms and stared at him. "Kisbie was really interested in the fact that you're the main beneficiary of my Will, you know." He paused, giving his friend time to digest this. "He seemed think you tried to kill me for my money. Pity he can't see the look on your face now."

    Ron was horrified. "Harry, are you nuts? You can't do that - "

    "Why not? Who else would I leave it to? Sirius is already loaded, and if you think I'm leaving it to Cousin Dudley, you need treatment."

    "But ... but ...." Ron cast around for an answer to this, and to Harry's amazement and utter delight he actually muttered something that sounded like "... kids ...".

    He let out a peal of laughter before he could stop himself. "Crikey, Ron, are you telling me you're pregnant?"

    The shop was suddenly plunged into a startled silence.

    "Shut up, you idiot!" Ron hissed. His face was scarlet.

    On the other side of the bookshelf, the sounds of normal business resumed but with a very distracted air about them.

    Harry got himself under control, but with an effort. When he had finally calmed down, he gave Ron an affectionate look and shook his head. He pointed a finger at him.

    "I don't want to have this conversation with you again."

    "But you can't just keep - "

    "Yes, I can. Deal with that fact. If it makes you feel any better, you can always pay me back for the books later ... in trade."

    "Huh?" Ron gave him a confused look, so Harry waggled his eyebrows meaningfully.

    "You know - trade."

    If anything Ron went even redder, but he was grinning. "Bastard. You're on."

    "Give me those ...." Harry took the books from him and marched around the bookcase to discover one solitary female customer left standing at the till and the two women standing behind it. They all goggled at him.

    "What?" he demanded.

    xXx


    From Murder One they went to Waterstones where Ron, recovering his good spirits, behaved very childishly in the Gay and Lesbian section. It was with the greatest difficulty that Harry managed to drag him away from a really lurid gay romance novel, and into the Mind, Body and Spirit section, where they both enjoyed themselves by insulting the authors of a number of books on so-called astrology. After five years studying Divination under Professor Trelawney, they both felt they were entitled to.

    After that, they had a leisurely lunch in a pizza place while they discussed wizard politics and the state of the upcoming election for Minister for Magic. In the wizarding world you got the vote at twenty-one, and since the election fell at the beginning of July Harry, at least, would not be able to vote this time around. Ron's birthday was in March, though, so he was already of age.

    They were both vitally interested in the process, for whoever got the post of Minister for Magic would determine whether the current state of official denial remained in place about Voldemort's gathering forces. Cornelius Fudge had won the last four elections, and his fiercest critics were now becoming desperate. Professor Dumbledore was still refusing to stand in opposition to him and the list of alternative candidates was worryingly short.

    "I can't believe that anyone would seriously want to vote for Marcellus Malfoy," Ron was saying, turning his side salad over with his fork idly. "I don't care what anyone says. His parents could have given him up at birth and he might never have crossed his brother's path, and I still wouldn't trust him. Any relative of Lucius Malfoy's is a bad egg."

    "That's a bit harsh," Harry objected. "Even Dumbledore says that his mother was alright."

    "One good relative does not a dynasty of angels make."

    "True. What about Lewis Castell? He's got good form with the Ministry, and I know your dad likes him."

    "The 'Muggles' Choice'?" Ron shook his head. "Hasn't got a hope, Harry. He'll be laughed off the podium during the debates. His collection of Muggle artefacts is almost as big as Dad's, and people just won't vote for someone whose interests are so ... so ... left of centre?"

    "That just leaves Antonia Houpner-Merdie, and she gives me the creeps."

    "Telling me," Ron said darkly. "She was the only candidate who asked for a tour of the Aurors' Facility, and Moody was on the twitch the whole time she was in the building."

    Harry took a bite of his pizza and shook his head, thinking back to the incident.

    "You know, it wouldn't surprise me if she turned out to be the real Death Eater among the candidates. Malfoy's always struck me as a stalking horse anyway."

    "Whichever way you look at it, it's a bad set of choices," Ron agreed. "It might be that the best thing we can do is to vote for Fudge, under the circumstances. He might be bloody useless, but at least he's not actively trying to hand us all over to You-Know-Who."

    "You mean the best thing you can do is vote for him," Harry reminded him, a bit testily. He'd been furious when he heard that the election had been set just two weeks before his birthday.

    "Don't be in such a hurry to grow up, young Harry!" Ron intoned in a pompous tone exactly like that of Cornelius Fudge. "Your time will come!"

    This was a reminder that only the month before Harry had chosen to express his annoyance rather vocally at a Ministry conference where Fudge - and Dumbledore - had been present, among a great many other important individuals. Fudge, at his most avuncular and patronising that day, had treated his indignant outburst as a very good joke. Harry, however, was still inclined to see the timing of the election as a conspiracy; as a minor, he was also forbidden to campaign on anyone's behalf.

    Not that he could seriously see himself carrying a banner for any of the current candidates, but it was the principle of the thing.

    "It's great, isn't it?" he commented bitterly. "I can enrol and train as an Auror, and presumably go off and get myself blown up by Voldemort in the process, but I can't vote for the person who gives me the orders."

    Ron's eyes were dancing. "Yeah, it's tough being young."

    Harry threw his last piece of garlic bread at him.

    xXx


    They left the cafe feeling pleasantly stuffed. Checking his watch, Harry saw that they had perhaps four hours before they really needed to head back to the student house. He wondered for a moment what to do next; then a glance in a nearby shop window full of movie posters gave him an idea.

    One quick Tube journey and ten minutes' walk later, and they were standing in a queue outside a small cinema that just happened to be showing Star Wars.

    Ron was intrigued. Harry's attempt at explaining what a cinema was about, and what movies were like, didn't really get the essential concept across to him, probably because there was no real equivalent in the wizarding world.

    This was something that had baffled Harry when he first knew he was a wizard. Wizards had no cinemas, televisions or videos, and nothing remotely like them. Entertainment mostly came from books, magazines, varied home-grown pursuits, games and hobbies, and sports such as Quidditch. They also had the WWN or Wizard Wireless Network, a surprisingly well-developed radio system that bore only a superficial resemblance to Muggle radio.

    It was strange, but Harry had discovered early on that he didn't miss the television nearly as much as he thought he would. The Weasleys gave him a wizard radio for his birthday when he was fifteen, which had meant he was less out of the loop for the two months of the summer holiday. And staying in the Weasley household had taught him that there was always something going on. Wizard families liked to party a lot. They tended to live in small, close-knit and rather isolated communities, so having a barbecue with the neighbours allowed everyone to socialise.

    Still, he had been raised as a Muggle for most of the first eleven years of his life, and some things did produce a kind of vague yearning when he was confronted with them. The cinema was one.
    They had a ten minute wait to get in, during which they chatted idly about the Cannons' match the next day, and wondered what Hermione had been doing while they were gone.

    The queue had just started moving when Ron suddenly dug Harry in the ribs with his elbow and jerked his head at a similar queue opposite which was lined up waiting for a different film.

    Harry peered around Ron's back. A couple of girls were standing opposite them, and they were eyeing him and Ron up, giggling and preening. It reminded him a little of Lavender and Parvati at school. These two were very pretty girls, but he wasn't interested and seriously doubted Ron was either.

    He looked at Ron, who rolled his eyes and grinned. His barometer for female interest had always been more acute than Harry's, so Harry assumed the two girls were sending out those subtle signals that he generally missed and were trying to get their attention.

    Then Ron did something wholly unexpected. He sidled closer to Harry and, very deliberately and obviously, took his hand.

    The scandalised gasps and giggles followed the two of them into the cinema lobby.

    The pair of them cracked up laughing as soon as they were out of sight and seriously annoyed the young woman in the ticket booth, who had to ask them three times before they sobered up and told her what tickets they wanted. Harry got popcorn and two large colas, and led Ron downstairs to the auditorium, where they found some decent seats.

    "There's not many people in here," Ron observed as they sat down.

    "Yeah, well this movie's out on video now," Harry replied absently.

    "What's video?"

    The lights were going down, so Harry quickly muttered, "I'll explain later."

    "What happens now? Do we have to do anything?"

    Like what? Harry wondered, trying not to laugh. "No. Just watch and try not to annoy people by making a noise."

    "Oh."

    So Ron sat in perfect, entranced silence as a series of advertisements and trailers were screened. Harry, glancing at him now and again, was tickled by his rapt and fascinated expression. Although it did give him a rather worrying idea of what might happen if a television was introduced to the student household, as Dean had been suggesting for some time now.

    Ron only moved once, halfway through the movie, when Ben Kenobi was trying to instruct Luke Skywalker in using the Force. Then he leaned over and murmured quietly in Harry's ear, in a perfect imitation of an eleven-year-old Hermione:

    "Wingardium leviooooosah!"

    Chapter Text

    Dean and Hermione were making dinner with Ginny's assistance when Harry and Ron arrived home. Hedwig was also there, waiting with obvious impatience for Harry, whose finger she nipped in a very admonitory way when she hopped down onto his shoulder from the curtain rail.

    "Ouch!" he said indignantly, as he tried to unfasten the message from her leg. "Look, I'm sorry you had to wait!"

    She hooted at him irritably as he unrolled the message. As he expected, it was from Mrs. Weasley; he had sent her a message before they went out that morning to ask if it would be alright for him and Ron to visit. Ron might see no reason why he shouldn't just drop in on his mother unannounced, but Harry was more diffident.

    "Where have you two been all day?" Hermione was asking Ron. "You're looking much better - more cheerful."

    "Harry took me to the cinema," he told her enthusiastically. "We saw Star Wars …."

    Ginny looked blank at this, but Dean snorted.

    "Harry, you old romantic!" he said, grinning at him. "Did you sit in the back row and hold hands?"

    "No, but if I'd known this idiot was going to keep saying "swish and flick" every time someone used a lightsaber, I might have," Harry retorted, grinning back in spite of himself.

    "What's the big deal about the back row?" Ron demanded, pulling himself up onto the kitchen table and tweaking one of his sister's long red curls teasingly. She slapped at his hand.

    Hermione rolled her eyes. "Traditionally, it's where people sit when they want to make out while the lights are down," she told him.

    Ron looked at Harry. "You didn't tell me that!"

    Harry pretended he hadn't heard.

    "Your mother says she's getting dinner for seven o'clock tonight," he told him, handing over the note. "We'd better get changed and go, if we're not going to be late."

    Ron lost some of his enthusiasm. "Do we have to do this tonight?"

    Harry shrugged. "It's up to you, I guess, but since we're going there anyway …."

    Ginny looked from one to the other, surprised. "Is something wrong with Mum's dinners all of a sudden?"

    "Nothing," Ron sighed. "It's just what's got to come first … or afterwards, I dunno which."

    "Ron and Harry are going to tell your mum and dad about them," Hermione told Ginny quietly.
    Her eyes widened. "Why?"

    "Because if we don't, there's a risk someone else will," Harry said grimly. "I don't want your mum finding out from someone like … I don't know, someone with a big mouth like Ludo Bagman, I suppose."

    A nasty thought had occurred to Ron. "Or from Percy," he said. The third Weasley son had a self-righteous streak a mile wide, that would probably lead him to tell his mother on principle, and in the worst possible way.

    Everyone winced.

    "But Percy doesn't know, does he?" asked Dean.

    "Not yet, but it's only a matter of time before he finds out. Fred and George are brilliant, but I wouldn't put it past one of them to tell him by accident." He looked at Harry and took a deep breath.

    "Okay, let's just go, before I change my mind."

    "Right …."

    xXx


    Harry didn't know why, but he always seemed to fall over when he stepped out of the kitchen fireplace at the Burrow. Ron was used to this, however, and always went first so that he was there to catch him before he pitched onto his face.

    "Thanks," he sighed, pushing his glasses back up his nose and trying not to sneeze from the ash and soot of the domestic Floo network.

    There was a shriek.

    "Ron! Oh Ron … and Harry …."

    Before either of them could move, Mrs. Weasley appeared almost out of nowhere and threw herself on them, weeping and babbling incoherently. She didn't seem to know which of them to fuss over first, so Harry quietly drew back a little so that she would pay more attention to Ron. It was his mother, after all, and Ron was certainly in greater need of being fussed over than Harry was. Even if he didn't want to admit it.

    "Mum. I'm okay …."

    "I thought they were going to send you to Azkaban!" Mrs. Weasley was in tears. "And no one would tell me anything, not even your father - "

    Mr. Weasley was a brave man, Harry thought. Not telling Mrs. Weasley anything she wanted to know was a guaranteed way of getting yourself a week of bad dinners and ill feeling. Her temper was spectacular and notorious, and even though all her children were grown up and had left home, she could still make each and every one of them cringe and shuffle like pre-adolescents.

    She had descended unexpectedly upon the student house once, when they all first moved in there, convinced that they were living in squalor and eating fast food of the worst possible kind. At the time it had been sort of true, even with Hermione living there. Her visit had left Dean, Seamus and poor Neville in a state of nervous collapse, and Harry, Ron and Hermione in her black books for weeks. The dinner rota was one of the many rules she had laid down that was still in place. Since you never knew when she might take it into her head to pop down the chimney for a visit, it was better to do things her way.

    Ron stood over a foot taller than her now - as, indeed, did all the Weasley boys - but he looked about twelve years old as his mother fussed and scolded him, taking his cloak and telling him to sit down at the table. He kept making embarrassed noises in response to her flood of questions (none of which she gave him time to answer), but Harry could tell that secretly he was pleased about the attention.

    Then Mrs. Weasley turned to Harry and there was a fresh flood of tears as she took in the healing curse-burns on his face. It took a lot of persuasion on both his part and Ron's to get her to sit down at the table and listen to the story. She kept wanting to jump up and make tea, and in the end Harry offered to make it instead, while Ron talked.

    "Oh, but Harry dear - "

    "No, really," he said firmly, pushing her back into her chair.

    She was reluctant, but the lure of getting the full story for once outweighed her maternal need to feed them.

    "All your father would tell me was that it wasn't you, and there was probably a Death Eater involved, and if only you knew what went through my mind when he said that ...."

    So Ron launched into an explanation, while Harry quietly went about putting the kettle on to boil and measuring loose leaf tea into a pot. Things went swimmingly, with Harry putting in an occasional word, until Ron reached the events of the previous day. Then suddenly he dried up.

    After a moment or two of prodding at a knot in the wood of the old kitchen table with his finger, he mumbled, "Mum, they snapped my wand."

    Mrs. Weasley made a tiny, stricken sound in her throat, and Harry found himself gripping the handle of the teapot hard enough to make it wriggle and protest. He muttered an apology to it and quickly turned away, to allow mother and son a moment of private grief over the entire affair.

    xXx


    Mr. Weasley arrived home half an hour later, and dinner with just the four of them was a cheerful, friendly meal, with Ron telling his delighted father all about their trip on the Underground. Ron and Arthur Weasley were rather more alike than Ron himself would ever have admitted; and at one point, Harry found himself trading amused looks with Mrs. Weasley as the pair of them talked about escalators and buses.

    Harry only wished that he could have done more justice to Mrs. Weasley's delicious cooking, but he had a nasty, cold lump in his stomach throughout the meal. He was beginning to feel horribly like a traitor in their midst, and brooded morbidly on the conversation they were all going to have to have shortly. He was convinced that it would be a disaster and that he would find himself cut off from this warm-hearted family who had taken the wizarding world's most famous orphan to their bosom.

    He had almost talked himself into telling Ron that they wouldn't talk about it, when there was a break in the conversation and Ron surprised him by saying straight out:

    "Mum, Dad - there's something Harry and I need to talk to you about."

    Harry felt his stomach lurch and wondered, panicking, if he would have time to get to the bathroom before he was sick. Then he looked up and saw the expression on Mr. Weasley's face. While it was clear that he didn't know exactly what his son was going to say, it was obvious that he had some idea. He reached out with one hand to his wife, who was on her feet, cutting slices from a cherry pie, and said quietly, "Sit down, Molly dear."

    She did so, looking bemused and anxious, and murmuring, "Oh dear, what now?"

    Mr. Weasley just nodded to Ron. "Go on."

    Ron shot Harry a quick look that told him he wasn't nearly as calm as he sounded. He cleared his throat nervously.

    "It's just that ... well, you need to know and we didn't want you to find out from someone else .... But, we're - um - kind of ... involved. Together."

    Mrs. Weasley looked from one to the other of them, bewildered. "Involved in what?"

    Oh God, Harry thought, and found to his shame that he couldn't look her in the eye. It was a good thing that Ron was doing all the talking, because his voice had dried up completely.

    But Mr. Weasley leaned back in his chair and nodded tiredly, looking both resigned and accepting. "I thought it might be something like that."

    "You did?" Ron asked, not sure what to make of his father's reaction.

    "Something like what?" Mrs. Weasley demanded. "Arthur?"

    "Molly," he said patiently, "I think what Ron is trying to tell us is that he and Harry are involved together. In a relationship."

    For a moment she looked blank. Then understanding dawned, and she turned to look at the two of them, clearly quite staggered.

    It was the first time Harry had ever seen her at a loss for words. Her mouth opened and closed a couple of times, but the news had completely robbed her of speech. Mr. Weasley was far more in control of himself.

    "How long has this been going on?" he asked Ron.

    "Nearly three years," Ron said, glancing at his mother's face anxiously.

    "Three years - Good God! And you didn't think to tell us before now?"

    It was the quiet note of hurt in his voice that undid Harry, coupled with the look on Mrs. Weasley's face. He didn't know quite what he had been expecting, but this was worse - much worse. Somehow it would have been easier if Mrs. Weasley had shouted at them, instead of staring in that bewildered, tearful silence.

    "It's not that we didn't want to tell you," he said, finding his voice. "It's just that we've got into the habit of not telling people, and - "

    "Who does know?" Mr. Weasley interrupted him.

    Harry and Ron glanced at each other.

    "Hermione, Seamus - "

    " - Dean and Neville - "

    " - Ginny, Fred and George - "

    "Ginny knows?" Mrs. Weasley cried, finding her voice. The look she gave Harry didn't need much interpretation.

    "Ginny was one of the first people to know," he said uncomfortably, reflecting that it might justifiably be said that Ginny had known even before he did.

    "Anyone else?" asked Mr. Weasley, dryly.

    "Moody and Kisbie," Ron said, grimacing. "And Dumbledore, I suppose, although he's never actually said ...."

    "And Sirius and Remus," Harry added, "although I only found that out recently."

    "Quite a collection, considering that you've got into the habit of not telling people." Silence. "So why have you chosen to honour us with the information now?"

    Harry found that his tongue was suddenly tied into knots again, and Ron didn't appear to be much better off. Suddenly all their reasons, both for waiting and for confessing, seemed grossly inadequate.

    Mr. Weasley looked at them and sighed. "You see, what I find particularly hurtful about this is that you clearly decided on a policy of deception early on. That's bad enough, but your mother and I could have found out, by accident, from any number of sources in the meantime, and how do you think we would have felt about that?"

    "That's why we're telling you now," Ron said, finding his voice again.

    "Yes, but don't you think it might have been more appropriate to do so a couple of years ago?" his father demanded. "Ron, you're my son, and Harry, you've been a part of this family for nearly ten years now. What did the pair of you think we were going to do? Disown you?" Their stricken faces must have told him exactly that. "Well, if that's the case, then that's the most hurtful part of the entire business."

    "We didn't want you to be hurt," Harry said unsteadily. "We never wanted that. That was one of the reasons we never said anything, because we both knew that you hoped I would marry Ginny, and Ron - "

    "I never hoped for any such thing, Harry," Mr. Weasley told him quietly.

    There was another uneasy pause, in which it was clear Mrs. Weasley didn't know quite what to do with herself. It had always been an open secret in the family that she had hoped for exactly that.

    "All I ever wanted for either of you was for you to grow up to be happy, confident adults. That's all I wanted for any of my children."

    "We are happy," Ron said helplessly.

    "I can't speak for Ron," Harry said after a moment, "but one of the reasons why I didn't want to tell you was because I didn't want to disappoint you. You've both been really good to me."

    "Oh, Harry …." Mrs. Weasley sighed.

    He gave her a nervous look, but doggedly kept going. "We - we didn't plan this, you know. I know it sounds stupid, but it just sort of ... happened."

    To both his and Ron's surprise, Mrs. Weasley gave an odd sort of tearful laugh at this.

    "Well, I don't know why it should come as a shock," she said, smoothing her apron over her lap and seeming to gather herself together. "The two of you have been such a double act for so long, that I almost began to worry what might happen if one of you did get married. At least that won't be a problem anymore."

    "And look at it this way," Ron said, giving his parents a nervous grin, "at least you won't be asked to help pay for the wedding reception now."

    To Harry's surprise both of them laughed. And just like that, the tension in the room was gone. Mrs. Weasley got up to put the kettle on to boil again ("I think we all need a cup of tea after that.") and finished cutting up the cherry pie.

    Mr. Weasley did have one last thing to say on the subject, though.

    "Listen to me, both of you," he said gravely. "I want one thing quite clearly understood - in the future, I don't want any more deception, no matter how good you think the reasons are for it. If you have problems, you talk to us. That's what we're here for." He sighed then, and for a moment he looked very worn and worried and old. "Unfortunately, you almost certainly will encounter problems at some point. But you don't have to deal with them alone, either you."

    xXx


    Harry was on the Hogwarts Express, travelling north. It was weird but he seemed to be in two places at once; one of him still a boy sitting in his hand-me-down clothes by the window, and the other grown up and standing by the door watching himself.

    Sitting on the seat opposite young-Harry was Ron - eleven-year-old, gangling, red-headed Ron in his second-hand robes, with a fat, grey rat sleeping on his knee. They were talking and laughing and sharing a big pile of sweets, best friends already despite having only met for the first time a matter of hours previously.

    The compartment door slid open and a very young Draco Malfoy stepped inside, white-blond head held high and grey eyes glittering.

    "Is it true?" he demanded. "They're saying all down the train that Harry Potter's in this compartment. So it's you, is it?"

    "Yes," Harry replied. Eleven-year-old Harry was not happy to see the other boy again; twenty-year-old Harry watched curiously, wondering what was different about this scene from what he remembered.

    "My name's Malfoy, Draco Malfoy," the boy told him.

    Ron sniggered at this, unsuccessfully trying to turn the noise into a cough. Malfoy glared.

    "Think my name's funny, do you? No need to ask who you are. My father told me all the Weasley's have red hair, freckles and more children than they can afford." He turned his back on Ron very pointedly. "You'll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don't want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there."

    He offered his hand, but eleven-year-old Harry didn't take it, and was eyeing him with dislike.

    "I think I can tell who the wrong sort are for myself, thanks."

    Where are Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle? twenty-year-old Harry wondered suddenly. That's what was missing - Malfoy's henchmen.

    Malfoy had gone sort of pink in the face, but instead of issuing the threat adult-Harry remembered from that day, he looked over his shoulder towards the door, almost anxiously.

    "Potter, don't turn my friendship down - you don't know what'll happen if you do."

    "What are you talking about?" Ron was asking crossly.

    Malfoy didn't answer. He was staring out of the door apprehensively. Curious, adult-Harry peered around the door frame too, and felt a sickening jolt in his stomach.

    The corridor of the train was full of dead children, children he had been to school with. Seamus, Dean, Hermione, Parvati Patil, Colin and Dennis Creevy, Cho Chang, the Weasley twins, Crabbe and Goyle .... All of them dead without a mark on them, like Cedric Diggory, their blank eyes staring back at him with a sort of accusing surprise.

    Harry turned back and found that the compartment now held just two other people - Ron and Malfoy, both adults. Ron was standing by the window in his Auror's robes, arms crossed over his chest and looking angry and defensive. Malfoy was sitting on the seat opposite, dressed all in black, apparently quite at his ease. His arms were also crossed, but one hand was free and was holding his wand, tapping it lightly on his arm.

    He smiled slightly when he saw he had Harry's attention.

    "What about it, then, Potter? Ready to reconsider taking my hand in friendship? It's the only way most of your friends will survive, you know."

    "Don't Harry!" Ron said explosively, before he could even consider a response. "Remember who he is!"

    "Tut tut, Weasley," Malfoy drawled, his strange grey eyes still on Harry. "Obviously a little prejudice goes a long way among the righteous."

    "Do you take me for an idiot?" Harry asked him.

    "Not yet, but perhaps you need a little reminder of what awaits all your Mudblood friends if you don't take me seriously - "

    And Malfoy stretched out his hand, pointing the wand at Harry's forehead.

    "Harry!"

    xXx


    "Harry!"

    Harry awoke with a jolt, gasping for breath and sitting up sharply. Ron was hanging over the end of his bed, shaking him.

    This was nothing new. Harry had lost count of the times Ron had shaken him awake from nightmares. For someone who could sleep through a forty-two gun salute in the middle of the bedroom, Ron was surprisingly alert to Harry's sleeping problems.

    "You okay?" Ron's hair was all over the place, and he was half asleep.

    Harry nodded, trying to get his breathing under control. He was sweating a river, although that might have had something to do with the variable heating in Ron's old bedroom. The ghoul in the attic liked to mess with it.

    He pushed a shaking hand through his hair, and looked around. It was barely light; a quick squint at the watch on Ron's dangling wrist showed the hand pointing to "Why aren't you asleep?".

    Good question.

    Ron's other hand snaked out from under the covers and ruffled his hair affectionately, although his eyes had already closed again. "Why don't you come up here?" he mumbled drowsily. "S'only a couple hours before we have to get up."

    Harry eyed the bed dubiously. It was a narrow single. That was one of the reasons why he always slept in a folding cot bed when they stayed with Ron's parents; the other being that Mrs. Weasley hadn't known about their relationship before and they hadn't wanted to surprise her one morning when she woke them.

    "No room," he said.

    Ron's eyes never opened, but Harry could see his grin in the half light. "'Course there is, if you don't mind being friendly."

    Harry grinned too, tempted. Still .... "What about your mum?"

    "Stick a privacy spell on the door."

    Harry fumbled around until he found his wand and pointed it at the door, murmuring "Silencio!". Then he scrambled out of the cot bed. Ron shifted over until he was right next to the wall, and Harry crawled under the quilt next to him.

    Ron peeled open one eye and gave him a quirky smile. "That's better," he said, and promptly went back to sleep.

    Harry smiled too, but found it harder to nod off again. For some reason the dream bothered him deeply. There was just enough room in the bed for him to turn onto his back, and he lay staring up at the posters of the Chudley Cannons on the walls. The seven witches and wizards in the pictures - none of whom actually played for the team any longer - were all fast asleep at the moment, propping each other up. One of the Chasers was snoring daintily.

    Why on earth was he dreaming of Draco Malfoy? Come to that, why was he dreaming about the three of them arguing on the Hogwarts Express? The image of the dead children on the train was too uncomfortable to brush off, though. Only a year ago, an attempt had been made to derail the school train, although it had been mostly foiled by a team of Aurors guided by a wizard whose success rate with the crystal ball was rather impressive.

    The said wizard was Ron, of all people.

    True Seers, Professor McGonagall had once told them, were rare. Harry had only a very marginal ability in divination; occasionally he dreamed true, but it was always centred on himself and those exceptionally close to him. Ron, on the other hand, had developed a real knack in the area, not just in reading the crystal ball but also with the Tarot cards, tea leaves and astrology. He could have set himself up in quite a lucrative little business, were it not for the fact that using the skill tended to give him crippling migraines afterwards - a common side-effect. Apparently only frauds got to use the ability without repercussions.

    But the gift had recommended him to the Aurors as a candidate, whereas his other abilities might not have, so it had all worked out rather well. It was just a pity that Ron had a typical Seers' blind spot; he wasn't able to do readings for himself, or he could have looked in the crystal ball and found out who had inflicted that anonymous curse on him.

    Harry glanced at his friend now, studying his freckled face and messy red hair thoughtfully. The sense of anxiety about his dream was so strong that he wondered if it was worth asking Ron to do a Tarot spread for him, just to see if there was anything lurking in his immediate future that included that prince of darkness, Draco Malfoy.

    He decided against it. Ron had enough on his plate, without deliberately making himself ill just to see if yet another of Harry's lurid dreams was about to come true. Since only one in perhaps every eight or ten did, it hardly seemed worth it.

    Harry gave himself an inward shake and told himself to go back to sleep.

    xXx


    One of the biggest problems faced by Ludo Bagman at the Sports' Department was the severe dearth of Quidditch grounds in Britain. Given the stiff requirements - accessibility versus a need for concealment from Muggles - this was a knotty one. Unfortunately, it led to situations such as the Chudley Cannons now found themselves in, where grounds and facilities had to be shared with other, usually amateur non-league teams. The Cannons were also in an even stickier situation; given their poor performance over last few years, they had begun to suffer from sponsorship problems, which made them even more reliant on the fees they received from the other teams for rental of the pitch and facilities. The Cannons currently shared with the Exeter Rooks and Torbay Tempests.

    Quidditch matches had evolved into something of a matinee event, with two non-league teams playing in the mornings, followed by the main event that was the league teams in the afternoons. Today the Tempests were playing at home opposite a Cornish team, the Mevagissy Sweeps, followed by the Cannons opposite the Appleby Arrows. The Cannons' match was an important one, for they were facing relegation.

    For Ron, always a big Cannons supporter, this was a major event and he brooded throughout the first match, muttering darkly about previous scores and player form. Harry, not a Cannons fan as such, was more interested in the non-league teams; he subscribed to Charlie Weasley's point of view that you sometimes saw more exciting play from the amateurs, and could get an early look at the players who might one day fly for the big league teams.

    The Tempests were touting a new Seeker today, a very young witch called Ariella Sturgess who had not yet left school. Harry was always interested in the Seekers, as it was the position he had played at school and indeed still played on the Aurors' team during the Inter-Agencies' League. The Sweeps, by comparison, all seemed to be older, more experienced players.

    The match was fast and furious, with some exciting play from the Sweeps' Chasers, and one or two near-misses as bludgers were sent rocketing into the stands. One Tempest Beater got sent off for bumphing (deliberately hitting a bludger into the spectators to cause a distraction), and the score was Tempests 50: Sweeps 130 before the snitch suddenly appeared and sent the two Seekers into a swift and terrifying dive that caused a couple of opposing Chasers to collide.

    Then there was a roar from the Tempests' supporters. Sturgess catapulted out of the scrum, swooped low across the pitch -

    - and soared skywards again, one fist held triumphantly above her head.

    Pandemonium. The referee blew her whistle, and the two teams drifted towards the ground, the Sweeps looking most disgruntled. The match had lasted all of two hours - pretty good going, considering. No game of Quidditch was ever halted until the snitch was caught, which sometimes led to unusually extended matches (the current record was three months) and desperate measures involving reserve players.

    "Not bad," was Ron's critical assessment.

    "Not bad?" Harry said, laughing. He had yelled himself nearly hoarse during the final manoeuvres of the game. "She was brilliant! Did you see how she pulled out of that dive without colliding with the Sweeps's Seeker? There can't have been a tail-twig's gap between them .... Of course, she's very small, so she rides light."

    Ron rolled his eyes. "At least they finished well in time. Do you want a drink or something before the match starts?"

    "Okay." Harry dug in his pocket for some coins, but Ron waved him off.

    "My treat!"

    And he was gone, pushing through the crowd of spectators towards the stairs.

    Harry sat down again and peered over the railings, watching as the Tempests had a post-mortem of their game off to one side. The young Seeker was getting hugs all round from her team-mates and their coach was understandably beaming. The Sweeps, by comparison, were exchanging resigned shrugs and preparing to leave the pitch.

    Supporters of both sides were also flooding onto the ground, some lurking as near to the teams as they could get, hoping for autographs. Harry watched them with idle interest. He never tired of people-watching in the wizarding community, because you never knew exactly what would happen from one moment to the next. The same could be said of Muggles, of course, but the happenings were generally more entertaining with wizards.

    Which was how he came to see a familiar blond head in the crowd swarming around the refreshments stand.

    For a moment he thought he was seeing things. Draco Malfoy - here? It couldn't be possible. Harry stood up and leaned over the railings, trying catch sight of him again.

    It had to be impossible. Once or twice he thought he saw that much-hated face in the throng of supporters, but it was hard to tell from such a height. All the same, Harry remained hanging over the rail, eyes scanning the pitch, until Ron returned.

    "What are you looking at?" the red-head wanted to know, holding out a tall bottle of butterbeer.
    "I thought I saw someone ...."

    Ron flicked the lid off his own bottle and took a swig, studying Harry's face with a frown. "Who?"

    Harry was already beginning to wonder if his mind was playing tricks on him, after his dream the night before. "Draco Malfoy."

    Ron spluttered and choked, spraying his drink across the seat next to him. Harry thumped him on the back apologetically.

    "Sorry!"

    "Cripes, don't do that to me." Ron took a wheezing breath, and shook his head. "Malfoy? That's a laugh - he wouldn't be seen dead at a Cannons match. Not successful enough for him!"

    "Maybe not, but I thought for a minute - well, it really looked like him, but I couldn't see very well."

    "Probably just someone who has the bad luck to look like him."

    It was on the tip of Harry's tongue to say that no one else, no one, looked exactly like that, held their head with that particular kind of arrogance or walked in that self-confident way. But he held the comment back, and just shrugged. Ron was probably right, after all.

    He uncapped his own drink and took a long swallow. Beside him, Ron was rustling through the pages of a programme he'd just bought for the next game.

    "Damn - looks like Laughton's out with an injury, so Kelly's the Keeper today ...."

    Chapter Text

    "You're asking for a hell of a leap of faith here, Malfoy," Harry told him, coolly. "Did you honestly think you could just walk in and expect us to fall on your neck or something?"

    "What I thought is irrelevant, Potter. Like Dumbledore says, we have to work with what is, not what we want. I'm here. I have what you need. I'm offering it to you with no strings attached. The question is – are you man enough to take it?"

    "It's not a matter of being man enough or not," Harry retorted. "It's a trust issue – as simple as that. I can't just put aside ten years of animosity, and I don't believe you can either."

    They were standing in the middle of a vast, empty stone room that reminded Harry of the room where he had found the Mirror of Erised all those years ago. The main difference was the huge, circular motif carved into the floor. It was a phoenix, and matched the image of Fawkes stamped into Ron's shoulder.

    This was somewhere in Hogwarts, although how he knew that he wasn't sure. It wasn't a part of the castle that he recognised.

    He and Malfoy were faced off across the motif; off to one side a little was Ron, watching the argument but not actively participating, apparently. He was wearing an unfamiliar hooded blue robe, and had his hands tucked into the wide sleeves; he looked both angry and apprehensive.

    Malfoy was wearing black robes again, a colour – or lack of colour – that irritated Harry. His own robe was a fiery red, a shade he normally avoided as being too attention-seeking.

    Curiously enough, Malfoy was lacking his normal sneer and instead merely looked frustrated.

    "You don't get it, do you?" he snapped. "There's no time for personal vendettas or the re-hashing of petty childhood arguments! We have to do this now. There won't be a second chance."

    Yet still Harry hesitated. He turned to look at Ron.

    "What do you say? It has to be all of us – if we're going to do it, we need you too."

    "He has even less choice than you or I!" Malfoy protested. "Haven't you been listening to what I've been telling you? This isn't about just you anymore, Potter – "

    xXx

    For the second time in three days, Harry awoke with a sickening jolt. Fortunately, this time he didn't make any sudden, violent moves, and Ron remained peacefully asleep at his side.

    For a moment he lay very still, sweating and every muscle tensed, staring into the early morning light. What the hell had that been about? Two nightmares about Draco Malfoy in a row, both of them seeming to want to impart a message which, not to put to fine a point on it, was utterly opaque to Harry.

    Any more, he decided finally, and I'll ask Ron to look into it.

    He hoped there wouldn't be any more.

    He forced himself to relax and rolled onto his back. Even with the curtains around the bed closed, it was getting lighter. The cuckoo clock would be going off any time now.

    Right on cue, the little doors on the clock shot open and the cuckoo flopped out, making a noise like a strangled cat. It hadn't been the same since Ron had cursed it a couple of months ago. The spring was all stretched and limp, and Harry had to stuff the animated bird back into the clock case every night before it would work.

    Sighing, Harry sat up and looked at the man lying next to him. Ron slept on, blissfully unaware of the alarm. Harry reached out and gave his shoulder a firm shake.

    "Hey Ron - come on. Time to get up."

    But all Ron did was grunt and snuggle further under the covers. Shaking his head, Harry climbed out of bed, put on his glasses and shuffled across the room to collect his bathrobe and towels.

    Ron would sleep through the Apocalypse, he thought, let alone anything Voldemort could throw at them. For a second he imagined standing on a battlefield opposite his old enemy and saying "Sorry, we can't finish the war today - Ron hasn't got up yet". The idea made him grin. He doubled back to the bedside table to pick up his wand and headed for the door.

    At the last minute he turned back and pointed the wand at his slumbering friend, saying, "Tarantallegra!"

    Then he made a run for it, laughing as he heard the outraged yell from the bedroom.

    xXx

    Neville was just leaving the bathroom, and Harry had to blink and squint as they passed each other.

    "Crikey, Neville, who gave you that bathrobe?"

    It was pale blue with dozens of dancing pink hippopotamuses on it - literally dancing hippopotamuses.

    "What? Oh - Emily did," Neville yawned and wandered off down the passage, the hippos jigging merrily on his back.

    Harry wondered briefly who Emily was, then decided he didn't want to know. She had terrible taste, whoever she was - nobody should have to be confronted with a bathrobe like that first thing in the morning. He plunged into the bathroom before someone else could come along and bag it, and had a very quick shower. By the time he got out, Ron had arrived and was brushing his teeth, looking unusually wide awake and annoyed.

    "Did you have to do that?" he mumbled around a mouthful of toothpaste. He rinsed out and shoved his toothbrush back into its holder with an irritable little snick. "I had to get Ginny to work the counter-spell, and she wanted to know why I was tap-dancing outside her door."

    Harry chuckled. "Woke you up, didn't it? Have your shower!"

    He threw a spare towel at Ron who disappeared into the cubicle, still scowling.

    "If you hadn't been in such a hurry, we could have showered together," he grumbled, as he set the water running.

    "Work day, Ron. Besides, Hermione's going to be hammering on the door any minute now."

    "She can wait," Ron called over the noise of running water. "Harry, can I borrow some of your shaving foam? I think I've run out."

    Harry rolled his eyes and looked in one of the seven little bathroom cabinets on the wall, the one that had a jaunty sign saying "Ronald" on the door. Mrs. Weasley's doing again; it made him feel like he was one of the seven dwarfs. He pulled out a shaving foam can and gave it an experimental shake. "Yeah, you have."

    "Remind me to get some, will you?"

    "What am I, your wife?"

    "Can you two stop bickering and hurry up?" Hermione complained, breezing through the bathroom door with a sublime disregard for the occupants. "We're all running late."

    Ron's dripping head - only his head and nothing else - appeared around the door of the shower cubicle. "Hermione!" he exclaimed, outraged. "Can't you wait outside? Some of us are showering!"

    "Oh, and like I haven't seen it all before," she retorted, eyeing him witheringly. "Get a move on, will you!"

    She stalked out again, leaving Harry to stare at Ron in surprise. "When did Hermione see you naked?"

    Ron just laughed and ducked back into the shower. Shaking his head in bemusement, Harry finished shaving and picked up his things.

    Hermione and Seamus were both waiting outside, looking impatient.

    "Is he finished yet?" the former demanded.

    But Harry had other things on his mind. "When have you seen Ron naked?" he demanded.

    Seamus sniggered, but Hermione merely raised an eyebrow.

    "None of your business," she told him, sweeping past him into the bathroom and shutting the door.

    xXx

    A further surprise was waiting when Harry and Ron finally scrambled into the kitchen. Sitting at the table was Hermione's on/off boyfriend, Viktor Krum. The captain of the Bulgarian Quidditch team was placidly consuming coffee and toast, and reading the Daily Prophet.

    Ron did a double take and laughed, clapping him on the shoulder in passing. "Hullo, Viktor! When did you drop in?"

    Krum gave him an amiable look from under his heavy dark brows. "Last night. I vos in the area."

    This seemed rather unlikely, but both Harry and Ron accepted the explanation with nothing more than a grin. Some things Hermione had told them once suggested that Krum worked as an under-cover agent for the Bulgarian equivalent of the Department of Mysteries. If that was the case – or even if it wasn't – they weren't about to question his occasional unexpected visits. Hermione saw him all too rarely.

    Harry knew that Krum had asked her to marry him at least twice, and she had turned him down. What he didn't know was why; and if Ron knew the reason (Ron was far less reticent about asking than Harry), he wasn't saying. It seemed a shame, for Krum was certainly a very constant lover. He had remained devoted to Hermione since she was fourteen, a devotion that had weathered numerous other relationships she had had in the meantime, including her brief fling with Ron.

    Hermione herself finally appeared just as Ron and Harry were finishing a very hasty breakfast of toast and tea. She refused the offer of both, stealing a quick mouthful of coffee from Krum's mug, and twitched her cloak into place.

    "Are you two ready to go?" she demanded. "We're going to be late as it is …."

    "I'm ready, I'm ready," Harry assured her, shoving his dishes into the sink.

    "Well, at least one of you is organised this morning," she huffed, giving Ron a pointed look.

    "You didn't have to fight off a tap-dancing curse before you even got out of bed - "

    "I'll see you for lunch, Viktor," she said, ignoring Ron's indignant explanation, and she leaned over Krum's shoulder to kiss him.

    "I hate the Floo network," Harry muttered as they each took a pinch of powder from the jar on the mantelpiece.

    "It's still more efficient than Muggle travel," Ron reminded him.

    Hermione didn't even bother offering an opinion; she tossed her pinch of dust into the living room fire, stepped into the roaring flames and snapped: "The Leaky Cauldron!"

    Ron followed her, disappearing quickly up the chimney. Harry waited until he was out of sight, then put his Floo powder back into the jar. He didn't feel like getting covered in ash this morning, so with a twinge of mixed guilt and amusement, he Disapparated.

    xXx

    "You … are a filthy … cheat!" Ron panted as they ran down Diagon Alley to the Auror Facility.
    It wasn't possible to take the Floo network or Apparate directly into Ministry buildings, so they usually travelled to the nearest grate on the network and walked the rest of the way. This morning, however, they were so late that they were obliged to make the final leg of the journey at a headlong dash.

    "I told you … I don't like … the Floo … network," Harry puffed in reply.

    They skidded to halt outside the Ministry, quickly straightened their robes and scuttled through the door.

    Inside, the lobby was cool and dimly lit. It always reminded Harry of a particularly old-fashioned art gallery; dark wooden panelling, subdued lighting, and elaborate bits of sculpture on pedestals in the corners. The only real oddity was a vast mirror on the opposite side of the lobby, reaching from floor to ceiling. An expanse of marble mosaic flooring in an abstract design lay between them and it, and to the left side of the mirror was a severe-looking reception desk. To the right were a set of marble stairs going up; these led to the more publicly accessible parts of the building.

    The entrance to the Auror Facility lay through the mirror, and only certain people had access to it.

    This morning the reception desk was manned by Bethany Bloom, a dark-haired witch who had been at school with Harry, Ron and Hermione. Also a former Gryffindor, she had caused some excitement during their sixth year when her father - a notorious Death Eater - had kidnapped her and tried to use her as the main ingredient for a spell.

    Bethany wasn't an Auror at all - she was an Unspeakable (a member of the Department of Mysteries, who were located in the upper part of the building), but her hair-trigger reflexes, a leftover from her traumatic tussle with her father, meant she was a rather good person to have guarding the building's front entrance.

    The three of them nodded a hasty greeting to her and presented themselves to the mirror. Hermione stepped through the glass first, quickly followed by Harry who shuddered slightly at the usual sense of intense cold passing over him from head to foot. Then Ron tried to step through -

    - and all hell broke loose.

    Alarm bells started clanging and lights flashing all over the building, and people burst out of offices at a run. Within seconds the cramped little area behind the mirror portal was jammed with Aurors and Harry was staring at Hermione in shock.

    "What the hell - ?"

    Then he realised it had to have been Ron.

    "Harry, no!" Hermione cried, but it was too late. Harry had plunged back through the portal.

    The lobby of the building was almost as jammed with people as the Facility. There was a vast clear space in the middle of the floor, however, where Ron was kneeling, hands spread out wide above his head in the submission posture all Aurors were taught to use with dangerous, armed wizards. Behind him stood Bethany with her wand pointing at the exposed back of his neck. For a wonder she hadn't simply stunned him already, which was something of a miracle considering how quick off the draw she tended to be.

    Ron was pale with fright, and protesting helplessly - but he didn't move a muscle, only too aware of not only Bethany's wand but also about twenty others all pointing straight at him. His eyes tracked to Harry as soon as he saw him reappear through the mirror and they were stark with terror.

    But it was obvious - to Harry at least - that he hadn't a clue what had happened to set the alarms off.

    Then Moody appeared, stepping almost casually through the mirror behind Harry and shoving him out of the way. Behind him came Sirius and Remus Lupin, followed closely by Hermione. A deadly hush fell over the lobby, in which the dull clunk of Moody's wooden leg could be clearly heard on the mosaic floor.

    He pushed through the crowd of Aurors and other wizards, and slowly stepped over to Ron. His magical eye seemed to be going crazy, whizzing from one face to another, then down at Ron, and back to the crowd again.

    "You can step back, Miss Bloom," he growled.

    Bethany did so, but her eyes never left Ron and her wand was steady.

    "Alright, what happened?"

    "Weasley tried to step through the portal and the alarms went off," she reported grimly. "He didn't appear to do anything unusual, but the mirror rejected him immediately."

    "That right, Weasley?"

    Ron had to swallow twice before he could speak. "Yes, sir."

    "And how's that shoulder of yours feeling?"

    "F-fine, sir ...."

    "Interesting." Moody's tone sounded very dry to Harry, who was watching worriedly from the side. "Lupin, check him over."

    Lupin stepped forward and murmured a charm to his wand. Then he walked slowly around Ron, passing the point of the wand over him without touching him. When it passed over his lower back, there was a sudden burst of sparks and Lupin hastily stepped back.

    "There's something on him, but I can't tell what."

    Moody stared Ron. "Take your robe off, sonny - slowly! - and put it on the floor next to you."

    Hands shaking, Ron did as he was told. As soon as the robe was on the floor, Lupin ran his wand over it.

    "Nothing," he reported. But both his eyes and Moody's had almost at once been drawn to Ron's right hip. He was wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans under his robe, and there was a thick wad of parchment stuffed in the back pocket of his jeans.

    Lupin passed his wand over the paper and sparks flew again, making Ron flinch. He looked up at Moody wordlessly.

    Moody seemed unmoved, although suddenly both of his eyes were riveted to Ron. "What's that in your pocket, Weasley?"

    "My Cannons programme," Ron said. He was trying to look over his right shoulder, eyes wide with shock and confusion.

    "Your what?"

    "We saw the Chudley Cannons play on Saturday," Harry put in quickly. "It's just a match programme - "

    "It's not "just" anything, Potter!" Moody snapped. "Take it out of your pocket and put it on the floor, Weasley." Ron did as he was told. "Now move back. Miss Bloom, keep an eye on him."

    Ron shuffled backwards, and watched as Moody slowly circled the folded programme. Abruptly, he pointed his wand at it and roared, "PATEFACIO!"

    For a moment nothing happened. Then the programme seemed to twist and buckle on the floor, as though it was a living creature in great pain. The cream-coloured parchment shimmered and the lines of black printed ink seemed to run across the surface. There was a burst of green light, and the parchment transmuted into a crumpled square of roughly-woven black cloth covered in green and gold stitched designs.

    There was a sudden collective gasp and murmur from the gathered witches and wizards, and everyone except Moody and Lupin drew back a little.

    Ron was shaking violently now, unable to tear his eyes from the scrap of cloth that had been his Cannons programme.

    "W-what the hell is that?" he managed, his voice trembling as much as the rest of him.

    "Good question," Moody said sardonically. "I take it this isn't what you purchased at the game on Saturday?" His magical eye flicked across to Hermione. "Miss Granger, this is something you're good at …."

    Taken by surprise, Hermione started slightly. She approached the cloth warily and crouched beside it, passing her wand back and forth across the surface; then she stretched her free hand across it, tracing the designs lightly in the air with her finger.

    "This is an Eye of Ssiraz," she said after a moment, indicating one patch of stitching, "and these - I think - are spells of Who-What-Where. This is an old one, the Mouth of Thoth. I've only seen it in books. And this is a Rune of Bring-Me-Power, although I've never seen it in this form before. It's quite weak."

    She looked up at Moody. "These are all passive spells to watch someone; except for the rune, which looks like it's meant to sample the magic being used around it. Sir, this piece of cloth is a spy."

    xXx

    "So tell me about this Quidditch match," Moody rumbled.

    They were back in the interview room where Harry had been questioned by Moody, Kisbie and Dumbledore after Ron attacked him. This time, however, it was both of them being grilled and the questioners were Moody, Lupin and Sirius, although Dumbledore had been informed of what was happening.

    The piece of spell-written cloth had been taken away for further examination and neutralisation by Hermione and a couple of older, more experienced Aurors. Ron, after a brief examination of his shoulder to confirm that the Seal hadn't been activated, had been allowed to get up and put his robe back on. He was not in custody again, by Moody's own admission, which was a huge relief to both him and Harry, although Harry wondered exactly what Moody was thinking about this second incident involving his friend.

    The questioning was more friendly and informal this time, though – for whatever that was worth. Ron was huddled over a mug of hot chocolate as he related how he'd got the tickets from Fred and George, and that he and Harry had spent the night with his parents before going to the game. He gave a short account of the first match at the Cannons' ground and explained how he'd gone to buy them both a drink and a programme for himself.

    "And you bought just the one programme, for yourself?" Moody asked him. They had already gone over this once, but Ron nodded. "What about you, Potter?" the elderly Auror demanded. "Not a Cannons fan?"

    Harry blinked in surprise. "No – no, not really. I don't support any particular team. I like watching Quidditch, but I'd rather play it to be honest. Ron's the Cannons fan, as everyone knows."

    Moody nodded, his magical eye whirling in a thoughtful way. Sirius leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table in front him.

    "Why'd you bring the programme to work with you this morning, Ron?" he asked mildly.

    "For my brothers to look at," Ron said tiredly. "The only reason Harry and I had the tickets was because Fred and George couldn't go. I was going to take it down to their shop at lunchtime."

    "And going back to the game – after you came back from buying the programme and drinks, you just watched the Cannons' match and went home to your mother's house?" Lupin asked gently.

    "Yes. It finished a bit later than we expected, but that's all."

    "Anything else odd about the match?" asked Sirius.

    "No, I don't think so – "

    "Yes," Harry said abruptly, and everyone looked at him. He was looking at Ron though. "Remember I thought I saw Draco Malfoy in the crowd during the break?"

    Moody uttered a quiet "Ha!" but Ron stared at Harry.

    "I forgot about that – but I thought we agreed that it couldn't be him?" he said, perplexed.

    "Why?" Moody demanded, his whirling eye suddenly fixing on Ron's face.

    "Well, Draco Malfoy at a Cannons match, it's not – "

    "You think Death Eaters don't follow Quidditch?" the old Auror demanded.

    "No, but – "

    "He'd watch any old team if he had another reason to be there, laddie." His eye swivelled towards Harry. "What made you think it was him, Potter?"

    Harry shrugged, embarrassed and a little perturbed. "It was mostly his hair – Malfoy has really white-blond hair. But I was right at the top of the stands, and I couldn't be sure. Besides, I – "

    "Damn!" Ron interrupted suddenly, and he flushed with anger and embarrassment. "I dropped it."

    "Dropped what?" Sirius demanded.

    "My programme. I'd forgotten until now, but when I was walking back to the stands, my hands were full and I had the programme tucked under my arm. I dropped it and someone picked it up and handed it back to me." He looked mortified. "I didn't even really see what they looked like, but it wasn't Malfoy. I'd remember if it was him!"

    "Doesn't mean a thing," Moody said sharply, but he was looking oddly excited. "Now we're getting somewhere, but I don't see ...."

    His voice trailed off and he stared into the wall behind Harry's head. Harry swallowed. It seemed like a bad time to mention it, but he had no choice.

    "Sir, I ... I've been dreaming about him. Malfoy, I mean."

    Silence. Moody's eyes were suddenly back on him, along with everyone else's.

    "What?" Ron exclaimed, incredulous. "You never said anything to me!"

    Harry felt like a fool under Moody's equally incredulous gaze, but he shrugged slightly.

    "Well, you know I've been having nightmares," he told Ron, embarrassed.

    "Yeah, but you never said they were about Malfoy! Why didn't you tell me? I could have done a spread and seen if there was anything in it."

    "It was only twice! You know what my accuracy rate is with dreams, and you had too much other stuff on your mind ...."

    "Harry, you idiot – "

    "When you gentlemen have quite finished your little domestic quarrel!" Moody interrupted loudly, and they shut up hastily.

    "This keeps getting better and better," Sirius said, staring at his godson in exasperation. "How long have the pair of you been in training as Aurors? Ron, I can make some allowance for the situation you've been in for the past week, but Harry .... Well, frankly I expected better from you."

    Harry could feel the heat creeping up his face and the back of his neck, all the worse because he knew the rebuke was merited. Considering that they were both supposed to be fearsome banes of Death Eaters, he and Ron weren't doing too well so far.

    "Enough of that," Moody said abruptly, getting up and moving around the room restlessly. "Recriminations won't get us anywhere now. Potter, we need full notes of these dreams of yours. And I want to know more about that piece of spell-cloth. But before we go any further into any of that, there's one thing I'm very curious about."

    His magical eye fixed on Ron again.

    "What I want to know, Weasley, is what it is about you that's so interesting to Voldemort all of a sudden."

    "Eh?" Sirius stared at him. "Alastor, I don't – "

    "Weasley's the Cannons fan, as everyone knows," Moody quoted grimly. "Your words, Potter. You think young Malfoy knows that?"

    Harry stared him, slowly realising what he was saying. "Yes, of course he does. I think everyone in our year at school did ...."

    "So he probably knows that you aren't, doesn't he?"

    "Well, yes – "

    "That programme wasn't planted to watch you, Potter, which makes a change. It was put there for Weasley." Moody grunted, staring off into space again. "Yes, it's starting to make sense."

    Sirius looked blank, but Lupin had an arrested look on his face.

    "Of course," he said quietly. "The first spell, the controlling curse, was to see if it could be done. And if they managed to kill Harry in the process, then all to the good. Presumably on this occasion they expected Ron to leave the programme at home, where it could spy on him and Harry undisturbed; it was just sheer luck that he brought it here and we found out about it. But why would they want to watch Ron?"

    "Because he has something Voldemort wants," Harry said, not feeling nearly as calm as his voice sounded. "Something they're not sure about, maybe."

    "I'm a Seer," Ron offered weakly. He sounded rather faint, which was hardly surprising. For the last ten years he had played second fiddle to Harry, the Boy Who Lived, and it was a considerable shock to realise that one of the most evil wizards in history had suddenly decided he was the more interesting of the two of them after all.

    "They have plenty of Seers of their own, lad. No, it's not that. There's something else about you they like the look of."

    "Unless, of course, it's simply that he's very close to Harry," Sirius suggested, raising a brow. "Closer than perhaps they previously realised."

    "If that had been the reason, they'd have taken him out years ago," Lupin disagreed.

    "I need to talk to Albus about this," Moody decided, and he straightened up, rubbing his hands together. "But there's plenty to be done while I'm doing that. Potter, get those dreams written down so we can get young Weasley here to do an interpretation. Weasley, I want you to get that crystal ball of yours out – or whatever other method you prefer – and see if you can get some idea of what the Malfoy boy's up to. Lupin, you go help Miss Granger and the others with that cloth. And Black, you're going with me to Hogwarts."

    Chapter Text

    "It's no good," Ron muttered, sitting back with a groan and rubbing his forehead. "I can't get a damn thing on Malfoy – he must have a misdirection spell on him or something."

    A hand came over his shoulder with a small glass of smoking potion in it. A headache cure. Ron gulped it down gratefully.

    "Misdirection spells only work so far against the Sight," Harry commented.

    "Yeah, but I'd need something of Malfoy's to hold, to get past it – "

    A thick bundle of green and silver cloth landed on the table in front of Ron. He stared at it.

    "What the hell is this?"

    Harry sat down on the floor in front of the low table, grinning at him. "I had an idea while I was writing all that stuff down earlier. Do you remember the last Inter-House Quidditch match before we left Hogwarts? Where Malfoy and I were both team captains, and Gryffindor beat Slytherin?"

    Ron stared at him, and slowly began to grin back. "And as outgoing captains, Dumbledore made you both shake hands and swap robes! I'd forgotten about that." He fingered the Slytherin Quidditch robes gingerly. "So these are Malfoy's – why did you keep them?"

    Harry shrugged. "I didn't, not consciously. They were stuffed at the bottom of my school trunk. Only they've been there a long time – will you get enough sense of him from them?"

    "Only one way to find out." Ron put the empty potion glass down, and picked up a handful of the fine wool and silk blend. His nose wrinkled. "Trust Malfoy to have fancy robes." He rubbed the cloth between his palms, ran his fingers down the neatly bound hems and then, much to Harry's amusement, buried his face in them.

    "If I'd known you wanted to sniff them ...."

    Ron ignored him. When his head reappeared, he had an odd, disconnected expression and his eyes were very far away. He reached out and took his crystal ball from its stand, and cupped it in his hands through the cloth.

    This was something Harry had never totally accustomed himself to watching. Perhaps it was because they had been taught Divination by Sybill Trelawney, who was undoubtedly not a true Seer (and very probably was a melodramatic fraud into the bargain), but it was inexpressibly strange to see Ron of all people bent over a crystal ball or tarot spread and going off into a trance.

    But despite how Harry felt about it, he had trained himself to sit still, keep his mind as blank as possible, and wait to see what happened. When Ron went off into a predictive trance he sometimes lost the ability to write down what he was seeing, in which case he needed someone there to do it for him.

    This wasn't one of those occasions. After ten minutes or so, he sat up again with a sigh and pushed the bundle of robes off his lap. He put the crystal ball carefully back onto the stand, and rubbed his eyes again.

    "Nothing?" Harry asked softly.

    "A bit, but not much." Ron pulled a sheet of parchment towards him, and Harry found his quill for him. He scratched out a few lines and sat back.

    "I saw him standing by a window, looking out. I don't know where he was, but the few furnishings I could see in the room behind him looked fancy, so it's a fair bet that it's Malfoy Manor. He looked worried – very worried, almost frightened." Ron shook his head. "And that's it. He did nothing but stare out of the window, chewing his lip, the whole time I was looking at him."

    "What about the window?"

    That was Sirius's voice, making them both jump. He had entered the room so quietly that neither of them had heard or seen him

    Ron considered the question. "It was big, almost full length," he offered. "Not quite long enough to be a patio door. I couldn't see anything out of it, but it was full daylight and it had a very strong sense of being now – as in today."

    Harry looked across at his godfather. "Do we go and get him?"

    Sirius shook his head. "No. Not enough evidence. His father may have been convicted in absentia of being a Death Eater, but Draco and his mother have never yet been implicated. It's not a crime to be the child of a Death Eater."

    "Pity," Ron muttered, without thinking.

    "I doubt Bethany Bloom would agree with you," Sirius said dryly, and Ron flinched, flushing slightly. Sirius's tone gentled. "Are you feeling alright? Can you carry on, or do you want a break?"

    "I'll keep going. If I stop now, I might not be able to start again later." All the same, Ron grimaced. The more he pushed himself, the more spectacular his migraine would be. "What do you want me to do now?"

    "Have a look at Harry's notes on his dreams and see if you can do a reading on him." Sirius quietly took a seat on the other side of the room, where he would be less likely to disturb them. "By the way, Dumbledore's here. He'll be joining us shortly."

    Ron nodded and looked at Harry. "Let's see your notes."

    Harry handed them over. It was a fairly large sheaf of parchment, even given the size of his writing. But he had done this with Ron before and knew that the more detail he could give him, the more accurate Ron's interpretation would be.

    Ron spent the next ten minutes poring over the notes, and asking questions. By the end of it, Harry was beginning to wonder if he had really dreamed some of the things he was saying or whether his over-active imagination was making them up – although this too was a familiar feeling.

    "This thing with the train," Ron said at one point, "are you sure it was the Hogwarts Express? Because if it was, it could just have been an echo of that incident last year."

    Harry considered this. "I'm pretty sure it was the Hogwarts Express, because the seats looked right. But in any case, the first part is pure memory – we really did have that conversation with Malfoy when we first met."

    "Hm. Trains and travel usually indicate a journey, and not necessarily a physical journey."

    "Yes, I know," Harry told him patiently. "I was sitting right next to you in class when we did dream interpretation."

    Ron looked up at him and his blue eyes were twinkling with mischief. "Yeah, but were you listening?"

    "Were you?"

    "Must have been. Okay, this bit with Malfoy wearing black – were you serious about him wearing it both times, or was it just because he looked so poetic in it?"

    "I'm glad you find my dreams funny," Harry huffed.

    "Aw, come on Harry!"

    "Yes, he was definitely wearing black both times."

    "Okay, that's interesting." Ron shuffled the papers until he found the reference to the scene Harry had dreamed in the chamber. "Especially since you and I are both wearing different primary colours in this one. Black may be You-Know-Who's non-colour of choice, but it also signifies the absorption of all vibrations. Black is the combination of all colours in the astral. I'm wearing blue, which is knowledge – fair enough, because I'm a Seer. And you're wearing red, which is power. Knowledge, power and the absorption of everything. There's also significance in there being three of us. Malfoy – the devil incarnate. You – Voldemort's nemesis. And me, whatever I am."

    "You're the thing that Voldemort seems to want at the moment," Harry reminded him, troubled, "so there's some significance in that."

    Ron clearly didn't want to think about this too closely. "Let's do a tarot spread ...."

    The door opened and Professor Dumbledore stepped quietly inside. He nodded to Sirius, and came over to stand by Harry.

    "How is it going, gentlemen? Ron, how are you?"

    "I'm fine, thanks, Professor." He smiled up at Dumbledore. "Although I'll be glad when we know what's going on. I'm getting a bit fed up of being a target."

    His tone was far more light-hearted than Harry knew he was feeling, and he too looked up at Dumbledore, worried.

    "Professor, do you have any idea what they want from Ron?"

    "No," the elderly wizard said heavily, "but I feel sure it won't be long before we find out. Are these your notes on your dreams, Harry?"

    "Yes, sir."

    "May I take a look? Don't let me interrupt the two of you, it's important that we find out as much as we can." He took the sheaf of papers and went to sit beside Sirius at the edge of the room.

    There was a wooden box at the end of the table, about the size of a book. Ron pulled it towards him and opened it, taking out a silk-wrapped parcel. Almost at once Harry began to feel twitchy, and Ron noticed.

    "This really makes you nervous, doesn't it?" he said, raising a brow at him.

    Harry found that his palms were damp and wiped his hands on his robes. "It's just ... strange seeing you do this."

    Which wasn't exactly true. The truth was that it was the cards that made him nervous, although it had always been a bit odd seeing Ron do his Seer stuff.

    The ability had begun to develop midway through their fifth year, although it hadn't reached anything like a peak until the end of the sixth year. By the time they sat their NEWTs Ron's success rate with everything from the crystal ball to casting rune stones had reached something like seventy percent, which was extraordinary for his age. But the cards had come into being the Christmas before that.

    Up to that point, his success with tarot cards had been indifferent at best and Ron's frustration with it was mounting daily; largely because Professor Trelawney – possibly out of jealousy of his very real gift – nearly always set a tarot spread as part of their quarterly tests.

    Then Hermione had found a book in the library that instructed a Seer on how to make his own tarot cards. It was a very demanding and time-consuming process.

    At Christmas Ron had frightened the life out of his two friends by trying it.

    It had taken him nearly a week to draw each of the seventy-two individual cards, a week of trances, fasting and sleep-deprivation. At one point Harry and Hermione had been so concerned about him that they'd gone to Dumbledore. The headmaster, however, felt that only Ron could be the judge in this particular area of skill.

    At the end of the week, he'd broken the trance and crawled into bed, where he stayed for two solid days. And on the table in the common room he left a pack of tarot cards that no one in Gryffindor House wanted to touch.

    Even now they made Harry shiver on the rare occasions he was called upon to touch them. Back then, when they were brand new and unused, they had crackled with power, the designs which Ron – usually no artist – had drawn on them moving and twisting. Now they merely whispered on a sub-conscious level, but Harry preferred not to look at them if he could avoid it.

    It was no comfort at all that Professor Trelawney, when she had seen them, had not wanted to touch them either. In fact, she'd kicked up quite a fuss about Ron using them during his exams.

    Ron unwrapped the cards from their protective silk covering now, and held them out to Harry on the palm of his hand. From the smile lurking in his eyes, it was clear that he knew how nervous they made his friend.

    "You know how this works - shuffle them," he instructed, "and take your time, think about your dreams a bit."

    "Do I have to?" Harry grumbled, but he took the pack and tried not to flinch when a tiny blue spark ran across his fingers like static.

    "They're just tarot cards, Harry."

    "They're not. They don't look anything like any other tarot cards I've seen." They were much bigger than ordinary cards too; Harry had a bit of a struggle shuffling them successfully.

    Ron shrugged. "They work for me." He watched Harry shuffling the pack for a moment. "You know what I'd like to do?" he said suddenly. "I'd like to have a go at making another pack some time."

    Harry paused and gave him an exasperated look. "Ron! You made yourself ill the last time – "

    "No pain, no gain. Besides, these are good but they're still a bit crude. I'm more experienced now; I think I could make some really good ones." He paused, then said more seriously, "Actually I'd like to have a go at making a partnership pack with you."

    Harry nearly dropped the cards. "What?"

    "It's something I've read about." Ron rubbed his nose reflectively. "Two Seers combine efforts and energies to make a double pack. It's supposed to be quite a powerful divination tool."

    "I'm not a Seer."

    "You do have some Sight, or you wouldn't dream true. Go on, Harry, it'd be fun to see what we could do together."

    Harry squinted at his friend, wondering if Ron had any concept of how not fun merely watching his last attempt had been. The blue eyes fixed on him seemed serious.

    "Don't take this the wrong way, but I can think of better things for us to do when we get a free week than spend it in a trance," Harry told him.

    Ron held out his hand for the cards and he handed them over, relieved. But there was a little smile on the red-head's face as he straightened the pack up.

    "We'll just have to make sure it's a two week break, then, won't we?" he said softly.

    "If you decide to try it," Dumbledore's voice said unexpectedly, "may I suggest you do so during August and come to me at Hogwarts. The conditions there are probably more conducive to such an experiment, and I would be most interested to see the results."

    Ron grinned at Harry's expression, and began to lay the cards out on the table in a wide horseshoe shape.

    "Okay, let's see what we've got here ...." He put the remainder of the pack in the centre of the spread and paused with his fingers hovering over the first card on the left. "You're going to meet a devastatingly handsome red-head," he intoned wickedly.

    "What, another one?" Harry responded blandly. "It's probably your brother Bill."

    "You're not busty enough for Bill's taste."

    "You're just jealous."

    "Ahem!" Sirius said warningly, making the two younger men grin at each other.

    "You'll look a bit silly now, if that first card's the Lovers," Harry joked.

    Ron flipped the card over and raised a brow. "Who says you don't have the Sight?"

    It was the Lovers. Harry stared at it, dumbfounded.

    "The most potent symbol of romantic partnerships. That's interesting – not a common first card. Okay, tell me what the next card is."

    "Probably the Falling Tower, knowing my luck," Harry grumbled – and immediately wished he hadn't, for Ron looked most upset at the idea.

    "Not next to this card, Harry, please ...." Ron flipped the second card over. The Chariot. He took a breath. "Okay. A journey, probably a difficult one, but necessary." The third card was the Page of Staves. "An emissary; a bearer of important news." He turned the next one over. "Two of Swords. Balance in forces."

    For a moment Ron paused, his eyes running over the four cards revealed. His lips moved silently, and suddenly he shook his head. "Screw this." He turned the other cards over rapidly, one after another, and scanned them. "Shit. Son of a bitch!"

    "What?" Harry demanded, peering at the spread upside down. Dumbledore and Sirius got up to come and look over his shoulder.

    "Just once, Harry, I'd like to do a spread for you that doesn't have him in it." And Ron gestured to a card in the middle of the horseshoe.

    The Devil.

    "Voldemort. He always turns up in your spreads." Ron glared at the card angrily. Then his eyes flicked across the rest of them. "Well that's something – " and he pointed to the Knight of Swords on the far side. "That's you, and although you're surrounded by malign influences as usual, you seem to be coming out of it smelling of roses. Penultimate card is the World, which signifies a satisfactory end to all efforts, and the end card is the Ten of Cups, signifying home and happiness. It's getting there that's the problem, and I'd like to know who the Page of Staves is, because he's bringing trouble with him."

    "Is it a he?" Harry asked curiously.

    "Yes. A definite male influence." Ron studied the cards again, tapping his fingers on the table anxiously. "He's got mixed intentions, and his problems will be our problems."

    "Where are you in this, Ron?" Sirius asked quietly.

    "I'm not here, unless you count the Lovers at the beginning." He glanced up, and found three pairs of eyes on him. "That doesn't mean much because it's nearly impossible for me to see myself anyway, except in connection with someone else. The Lovers is definitely me and Harry, and the position shows that even though I'm not here as a separate entity, I'm with Harry all the way through. But this spread specifically shows Harry's journey."

    "So what is the overall picture?" Dumbledore asked composedly.

    "Not an uncommon one for Harry, I'm afraid. It's the first half that's interesting. There's change coming, a journey of discovery for us as a partnership. Someone will be bringing information necessary to that change, but the person himself will have problems that can only be solved by working with us. The implication is that the information comes from an unusual, even dangerous, source. Then we segue into the usual territory – Voldemort, destruction, war, struggle. If we can get past that – if! – then everything should settle back into cosy domesticity."

    Ron looked up, looking a little embarrassed. "Sorry, that's a pretty unhelpful reading." He gathered up the cards. "Here, shuffle them again, Harry, and we'll see if we can get something more specific."

    xXx

    Eight spreads later and Ron was close to collapse. More specific layouts had emphasised the need for Harry and Ron both to work with the unknown Page of Staves, and the cards clearly showed a close partnership of some kind, a blending of forces.

    Nobody wanted to voice it, but the fact that Draco Malfoy was prominent in Harry's dreams seemed to point rather obviously to the Page of Staves's identity.

    Finally, it was Dumbledore who called a halt, firmly taking the pack of cards out of Ron's hands when he would have laid them out for a tenth time.

    "You can't possibly do anyone any good by making yourself ill," he said, when the younger man protested, "and the last three or four spreads haven't shown us anything new. This is as much as you will get on this occasion."

    "Take a headache potion and get some rest, Ron," Sirius said, equally forcefully. "Harry, take him home before he collapses, and make him get some sleep. If we find out anything more about that piece of spell-cloth, I'll drop by later and let you know."

    Harry helped Ron put away his cards and crystal ball, and bundled up Malfoy's old Quidditch robes to take them home again. By the time they'd finished, Ron was swaying on his feet and Harry had to take his arm to steer him out of the door.

    Hermione was waiting in their little shared office when they emerged, and she looked almost as drained and exhausted as Ron.

    "Trying to neutralise that cloth was awful," she said, taking Ron's other arm and helping Harry to guide him out to the mirror-portal. "We still haven't made it completely safe. They might have been weak spells, but stitching them into the cloth really fixed them. And the cloth itself is just – ugh. It has human hair woven into it."

    "Someone went to a lot of effort over that," Harry said tiredly. Right now he couldn't care much about it, though. He just wanted to get Ron home and put him to bed.

    "Yes, and we really need to find out whose hair was used. But that'll probably have to wait until Ron's feeling better."

    Harry felt a flash of anger at her which he knew was unreasonable. It was logical to use Ron's skills for things like this, but that didn't mean he had to like it.

    Ron himself was past caring about anything. He leaned against the wall when they reached the mirror, and from the look of things he was about ready to pass out.

    "Perhaps we should give him some kind of painkiller now," Hermione said worriedly.

    "If we do that, he really will pass out." Harry touched his arm. "Ron, can you hold up until we get home?"

    Ron squinted at him painfully. "Yeah," he muttered, "but don't be surprised if I chuck up in the gutter on the way."

    "Chucking up's fine. Just don't faint."

    xXx

    The house was quiet when Sirius arrived later that evening. He found Harry in the kitchen, having a compulsive cleaning binge – something he only did in times of stress. It was a throwback to his days of living with the Dursleys; Harry could never be untidy.

    "Where is everyone?"

    Harry glanced up at him, pushing his hair off his face. He was hand-scrubbing a saucepan that probably didn't need it. "Spending the evening in the Leaky Cauldron, probably. Except for Hermione; she went to bed early."

    Sirius pulled up a chair and sat down. "How's Ron?"

    Harry's jaw clenched. "Still asleep. He was a wreck by the time we got him home." He rinsed the saucepan and put it on the draining-board; dried his hands, took his wand out of his pocket and pointed it at a squat little kettle, which obediently hopped onto the hob and started to heat.

    "Tea?" he offered his godfather tersely.

    Sirius sighed. "You know, Harry, Ron pushes himself far harder than any of us would ever ask him to. And it's not like he doesn't know the penalties."

    "I know that." Harry stalked over to the fridge and took the milk out, slapping the bottle onto the counter top with more force than was necessary.

    "He's a grown man. He has to make these decisions for himself, without people mollycoddling him – including you."

    "I know that too."

    "So what's biting you?"

    Harry took a moment or two to answer. He got the teapot out and tossed a couple of teabags into it, and assembled mugs and spoons before he said anything.

    "I don't like the whole gift of the Sight," he said finally. "I don't like what it does to Ron, and I don't like the way people treat him because of it. I don't like the way he can be treated like a criminal one minute and the source of all wisdom the next."

    Sirius stared at him. "Harry, I know the past week has been rough on you both, but I think that's a little unfair."

    "Is it? Well, I'm not in a very fair mood right now." The kettle began to whistle; he picked it up and filled the teapot. "The fact is, Sirius, that he'll get up tomorrow feeling a bit better, only to go into work and have to do the same thing all over again."

    "Which is what he signed up to do when he applied to become an Auror. Nobody ever said it was easy, Harry – if you wanted that, you should have done what Oliver Wood asked and signed up to play professional Quidditch instead." Sirius watched his godson for a moment or two. "Are you sure it's not just that he has a gift that takes him directions you can't always follow?"

    "Well, admittedly that doesn't help much."

    Harry slopped some milk into the two mugs, aware of Sirius's raised brows. But he had recognised some time ago that part of him rather ignobly hated the Sight because it was something Ron could do that he couldn't. They'd had a conversation about it once (argument was too strong a word) and Ron had pointed out that Harry always seemed to be the one who had to face down their enemies and do battle … "but do you think I like being the person who points you in their direction?" No, Harry didn't think that, but he still didn't like having to sit on the sidelines and watch as Ron deliberately hurt himself peering into the unknown.

    "Perhaps you should make that partnership tarot deck he was talking about," Sirius suggested, watching him. "He's already getting a taste of what it's like to be you; maybe this way you'll find out what it's like to be him."

    Harry grimaced as he poured the tea. "You only say that because you don't know what it involves."

    "No, I only say that because I don't like seeing my favourite godson drive himself round the bend."

    "I'm your only godson," Harry told him, grinning reluctantly. He handed him his tea.

    "Same difference," Sirius said, smiling faintly.

    Ron appeared in the doorway, barefoot in jeans and a ratty old t-shirt. His hair was standing on end and he looked very bleary-eyed.

    "Tea?" he mumbled hopefully, looking at the pot.

    Harry went to get a third mug, looking over his shoulder at his friend in concern. "How are you feeling?"

    "Like I went ten rounds with a troll." Ron padded over to the table and sat down, acknowledging Sirius with raised brows. "Got any more on that cloth?"

    "Actually, yes …." Sirius took a longer swallow of his tea. "Did Hermione tell you there's human hair woven into it?"

    "I sort of remember hearing her say that."

    "Well, no surprises - it's probably yours. It's red anyway."

    Ron patted his hair down self-consciously. "How did they get that?"

    The older wizard shrugged. "When they diverted you to Pontypridd? We don't know. There are some dark strands as well that might be Harry's, although how they got hold of a sample of his hair is anyone's guess."

    Harry looked around in surprise. "Mine? So, what - this thing was supposed to watch Ron and me after all?"

    "We don't know yet …."
    A sudden alien sound cut into the conversation. Ron blinked and sat up, looking across at Harry.

    "Was that - ?"

    "The doorbell …." He put Ron's mug down in front of him, and glanced uneasily through the kitchen door, down the passageway to the front door. "That's weird - we almost never get people calling the Muggle way."

    Sirius rolled his eyes. "You live in a Muggle street; how strange can it be? They're probably trying to sell something."

    "Maybe. Or perhaps it's one of the neighbours."

    Harry picked up his wand and tucked it into the back of his belt, before going down the passage. Despite his glib words, he seriously doubted it was a neighbour. He didn't think he'd seen any of them more than once or twice in the three years they had all been living here, and salesmen never called - the protection spells over the house ensured that Muggles generally ignored it.

    The front door, so rarely used, was a heavy wooden thing with a coloured fanlight above. The catches were stiff with disuse. Harry wrestled the locks undone and pulled it open.

    "Can I help - " His voice trailed to a halt.

    It was a mild evening, but the figure before him was huddled up and shivering in his loose, short-sleeved shirt. But what really shocked Harry into silence were the crude runes daubed all over that white shirt … in blood.

    It was Draco Malfoy. And before Harry could open his mouth to express his astonishment or yell for Sirius and Ron, his old nemesis had passed out cold in a heap at his feet.

    Chapter Text

    "The Page of Staves, I take it?" Mad-Eye Moody's harsh voice said, and Harry jumped slightly.

    He had been staring through the clear wall of Cell 50 at Draco Malfoy, who was huddled under a pile of blankets and hadn't properly awoken since his dramatic arrival at the student house. In concession to his condition, Professor Dumbledore had given instructions that the cell was to be made more comfortable, and so he had a bed, pillows and blankets, although the stone room was still far from cosy.

    "That's what Ron thinks," Harry admitted to the elderly Auror. "I don't know what it means, though."

    "We'll find out when he's been patched up a bit." Moody studied the prone figure for a moment or two. "Bit of a mild night for hypothermia, don't you think?"

    "Remus thinks it was a nasty version of the Nipfinger Curse. But I think that's the least of his problems."

    Harry was troubled by the whole business. It was odd enough that his old bête noire should have turned up on their doorstep like that, but the condition he was in was, frankly, appalling.

    Malfoy had set off all the alarm spells in the student house when he fell through the front door. But that was nothing compared to getting him into the Facility; he had set off about twenty different alarms before they ever took him through Traitors' Passage (the entrance used to take prisoners to the dungeons, so nicknamed by some of the junior Aurors), and they'd had to strip him of all his clothes and run a couple of cleansing rituals over his unconscious body before they'd been able to incarcerate him.

    Even now it was unlikely that he was totally "clean" of dark magics, but at least he wasn't posing an overt threat. He was too sick for that. As Moody had noted, Malfoy had a mild case of hypothermia and frost-bite, and he was physically weak. The bloodstains Harry had seen on his shirt had come from runes that had been cut into his back and chest; unsurprisingly, there was evidence on his wrists and ankles that he'd been shackled during the process.

    At least one of the runes looked similar to the Bring-Me-Power symbol Hermione had identified in the spell-cloth given to Ron, only it was far more powerful. Her brief study of the marks on Malfoy's tainted shirt had yielded the information that there were more like it, only stronger and worse.

    It looked like someone had been draining Malfoy's magic and energy from him. And from the scars on his skin it clearly wasn't the first time it had happened.

    xXx

    It had been a while since the Facility had had any known Death Eaters in custody, which might have explained the excitement when Lucius Malfoy's son was brought up from the dungeons, bound in spellrope, for questioning.

    Harry had to use his elbows to get through a crowd that included the other junior Aurors; Elijah Twizzle, Cho Chang, 'Silent' Meg Cottley and Simeon Clare. Ron and Hermione were at the front of the group, Ron looking tired and irritable, and Hermione a little worried under her frown.

    "This is like a circus," she muttered to Harry when he slid in between the two of them. "It's not very fair to Malfoy."

    "Since when do you care about him?" Ron whispered sharply from Harry's other side. "He's a Death Eater. He was a pathetic little asshole at school, and now he's grown up into an asshole of the worst kind."

    "What happened to 'innocent until proven guilty'?" she hissed back.

    "Hermione, he's got the Dark Mark on his arm. That's proof admissible in any wizard tribunal."

    "Maybe he didn't have any choice about it - "

    "There are always choices," Harry cut in curtly.

    He was thinking of the conversation they once heard Sirius and Lupin have with Peter Pettigrew. When Pettigrew had miserably admitted to giving Harry's parents up to Voldemort out of fear, he had asked what else he could have done, to which Sirius furiously replied, "You should have died! Died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you …"

    And yet, a niggling voice at the back of his mind said, the Dark Mark wasn't wholly conclusive. Severus Snape, the Hogwarts Potions Master, also bore the Dark Mark. Of course, the man was a spy … most of the Aurors' information on Death Eater activity came from Snape, although it was never openly spoken of.

    Shuffling feet announced the arrival of the prisoner and his guards. The crowd now included a number of senior Aurors, men and women who stared in open hostility as Draco Malfoy was brought through the main offices. Harry wasn't sure who hissed first. There were no catcalls, but a low muttering began and the force of rage and hostility was like a thundercloud at Harry's back. As much as he disliked Draco Malfoy himself, Harry found himself deeply disturbed by the other Aurors' reactions. For Hermione was right; other than the Dark Mark on his arm and the fact that he was Lucius Malfoy's son, there was nothing else they could accuse Malfoy of - yet.

    He was holding his head up, as arrogant as ever, but Harry fancied he saw a touch of fear as Malfoy glanced over the cluster of angry Aurors. Then his eyes met Harry's.
    "Potter!"

    He actually stopped in the middle of the room, nearly colliding with one of the two guards behind him. The woman gave him a sharp shove.

    "Keep moving, Malfoy!"

    "Potter, I need to talk to you - "

    "Yeah, like we're going to give you a free try at Harry!" Ron snarled.

    "Ron - "

    "Settle down out here!" Moody roared, appearing in the doorway of one of the interview rooms. He stumped slowly forward, his good eye fixed on Malfoy and the magic eye roving over the gathered Aurors. He was followed by Dumbledore and Rufius Kisbie, and one quiet, level stare from the elderly professor was enough to silence the room.

    Dumbledore looked at Malfoy in silence for a moment or two, then heaved a quiet sigh.

    "Well, my boy, you had better step inside …" And he stood back, gesturing to the interview room.

    Looking oddly subdued, Malfoy did as he was told. Kisbie and Dumbledore followed him back into the room, leaving Moody to glare at the occupants of the outer office for a moment.

    "Potter, Granger, Weasley - in here. The rest of you," his eye flicked over them unnervingly, "had better find something to do elsewhere."

    xXx

    It was a bigger room than the one where Harry and Ron had been interviewed the previous day, but it still felt claustrophobically small with nine people crammed into it. Harry, Ron and Hermione slid into seats against the wall next to Sirius and Lupin, while Moody, Kisbie and Dumbledore sat down at the small table, facing Malfoy.

    Kisbie rustled his papers and looked forbiddingly over the top of his spectacles at the young wizard before him.

    "Young man, I assume you know why you are here?"

    "Yes," Malfoy said at once. Some of his usual lazy arrogance was creeping back and he leaned back in his chair casually, trying to look at his ease. "I seem to have been arrested for collapsing on Harry Potter's doorstep. I wasn't aware that had become a criminal offence, but - "

    "Flippancy will not help your cause, Draco," Dumbledore told him quietly.

    The pose slipped slightly and Malfoy's eyes flashed. "Will anything?"

    "That remains to be seen, laddie," Moody growled. "I'd advise you to be honest, although there's always Veritaserum if you decide to try your luck."

    Malfoy shut his mouth with a snap. Being dosed with Veritaserum was a lot like being put under the Imperius Curse, only there was no way of fighting it. It was extremely unpleasant to feel your mouth opening and spilling your innermost secrets while you were helpless to prevent it.

    "Very well," Kisbie said, with prim satisfaction, "Let us start with exactly why you were at Mr. Potter's house in the first place."

    "Obviously I wanted to see him," Malfoy said irritably.

    "Do you often visit people when you're covered in blood and suffering from hypothermia?" Remus Lupin asked mildly.

    Silence.

    "Putting aside, of course, the fact that you and Harry Potter are well known to be such good friends," added Sirius acidly.

    Malfoy looked amused at this. "Well, you know what they say about love and hate," he drawled. "It's always possible that I've grown fond of him over the years."

    Ron made a sudden movement, and Harry nudged him in the ribs warningly. The comment had been deliberately provocative, and the best response was none at all.

    "We're touched," Moody said sardonically. "Cut to the chase and tell us what you wanted to see him about."

    Malfoy's smirk disappeared. "I'm afraid I'm only prepared to discuss that with him."

    "That's fine," Moody nodded. He took a small bottle of clear liquid out of his pocket and fingered it casually. "We'll take you back to your cell and let you think about it for a while. How long would you like - forty-eight hours or so? I'm told a man can get quite thirsty in that time, and you're already a touch dehydrated. I think you'll be ready to drink anything, don't you?"

    Rage clouded Malfoy's face at the threat.

    "Anything you tell me will be repeated straight back to the people in this room anyway, Malfoy," Harry said, before he could stop himself. "You might just as well say it."

    Malfoy looked across at him, and there was definitely something going on behind the smoke-coloured eyes, although Harry couldn't tell what.

    "We need to discuss the Dark Lord's plans, Potter," he said curtly, "and when you've heard what I have to say, you might not be so keen to involve all your friends and protectors here."

    "Who the hell do you think - " Ron began angrily.

    "Twenty minutes alone, Harry," Malfoy interrupted, raising his voice above Ron's. "What do you say? There are things you need to know that only I can tell you."

    "You must be mad if you think we would allow Harry to be alone with you for as much as twenty seconds," Hermione said, sounding almost as disgusted as Ron.

    "Nice set of keepers you have," Malfoy sneered, slumping back into his chair. "But it's always been the same, hasn't it? So much for the Boy Who Lived - you're like an animal in a Muggle zoo, caged and confined."

    Harry drew in a slow breath, telling himself not to respond to the taunt; but hidden inside the sleeves of his robe his hands curled into fists.

    "Just talk, Malfoy."

    "In private."

    "Fine! Don't bother." Harry met his eyes in a level stare. "But you're a fine one to talk about people being confined, when you've obviously been tied up and used as someone's private source of power."

    "A valid point," Dumbledore said gently into the sudden silence. "Perhaps you should tell us about the runes cut into your back, Draco."

    "Go to hell." Malfoy was suddenly white about the mouth, and his eyes glittered angrily.

    Dumbledore was undeterred. "We examined you while you were unconscious and did extensive tests on your clothes. Those runes were placed by your father, were they not? His signature was all over them. How long has he been draining you?"

    "It's not me they really want," Malfoy said abruptly. "They want Potter and Weasley. I don't know why, but my Lord wants Weasley in particular, and he doesn't care how he gets him so long as he's alive and conscious. Potter would be a bonus, but the Dark Lord doesn't really care one way or the other about him so long as he ultimately ends up dead."

    Even though they had already guessed that Ron was Voldemort's target this time, Harry felt an icy rush of shock and alarm at hearing it confirmed. He had become accustomed and almost indifferent to threats to himself over the years. But threats to his friends – especially to this particular friend – were a different matter.

    "Were you aware of the attempt Voldemort made upon Mr. Potter's life last week?" Kisbie demanded.

    "Of course." There was a touch of amusement in the arrogant young voice at this.

    "Explain what happened, please," said Dumbledore, his tone even graver than before.

    Malfoy shrugged. "It was ridiculously simple. A fake letter was owled to Weasley asking him to fly up to Hogwarts – I think they made it look like it came from McGonagall. I was already there, at a Slytherin reunion party one of my father's friends managed to arrange. When Weasley entered the castle, I slipped out to the broom rack on the landing pad and fixed his broom. As soon as he got back on it, he was under the Dark Lord's control and flew straight to a secret location where he met with another operative. He was placed under the Enviolus Curse and sent back to London."

    "The Enviolus Curse ...." Dumbledore sat back, deep in thought.

    Malfoy shot a nasty smile at Ron. "To be honest, we were all surprised at how well it worked. We kind of expected you to fight more, Weasley."

    Ron erupted from his seat with a snarl, and Harry and Hermione had to grab him and drag him back.

    "Who was the other operative?" Moody snapped.

    "I don't know. I'm not in a position where they tell me things like that." The amusement slipped away and there was a distinct note of bitterness in Malfoy's voice, but it was mixed with something else that Harry couldn't identify.

    Lupin stood up and leaned over the table, placing something in front of Malfoy; the spell-cloth, now fully neutralised.

    "What can you tell us about this?"

    The youth barely glanced at it. "It's a ju-ju – a magical spy. I planted it on Weasley at the Quidditch match on Saturday. After the first try on him went wrong, the Dark Lord decided he wanted Weasley watched."

    "Just Mr. Weasley?" asked Kisbie.

    Malfoy shrugged. "So I was told. I knew what a big Cannons supporter he always was. The idea was that he would take the programme home and presumably keep it with that idiotic collection he was always going on about at school. That way it could monitor him undetected. How did you find it?"

    "But you weren't told why," Kisbie said, ignoring the question.

    He twitched slightly. "Like I said, I'm not in a position to know. I assume there's something unusual about him, but what I can't imagine."

    "Unusual enough for Voldemort to make some quite unsubtle efforts to control and monitor him? And you say you know nothing else?" Lupin's voice was unexpectedly hard.

    Malfoy shot him an savage look. "That's right."

    "I find that a little hard to believe."

    "Believe what you like."

    "Which brings us back to the original question – what were you doing on Potter's doorstep last night, laddie?" Moody growled.

    "I told you, I wanted to see him – "

    "Just passing through the neighbourhood, were you?" Sirius's voice dripped sarcasm. "Thought you'd drop in on a couple of old school friends and see how disturbed they were by your handiwork?"

    "Believe me when I say I'm glad that I have never sunk so low as to call Weasley or Granger my friends!" Malfoy snapped back acidly.

    "Or me," Harry reminded him coldly.

    Malfoy gave him an odd look, but didn't dispute the statement.

    "Tell me about the runes cut into your skin, Draco," Dumbledore said unexpectedly. His voice was gentle, almost kindly.

    "No." The young Death Eater was beginning to look rattled. "I'm not discussing that with you, or any of these other goons. I'll talk to Potter – when, if, he has the guts to face me one on one – but I've said everything I'm going to say in here."

    "That's what you think," Moody told him ominously, and set the little bottle of Veritaserum on the table with an audible click. "But believe me, laddie – one way or another, you're going to talk to us and you're going to tell us everything. Sooner or later; it's up to you."

    But Malfoy sat back in his seat and refused to say another word.

    And his eyes, clouded and disturbing, followed Harry when the junior Aurors finally left the room.

    xXx

    "How long do you think he'll hold out?" Ron wondered idly, as he and Harry walked through Diagon Alley at lunch time. They were heading for Ollivanders, Ron having suddenly been given permission by Moody to buy a new wand.

    "I don't know."

    Harry didn't really want to think about Malfoy, ensconced in his cell once more and fighting the inevitable. Moody was making good on his threat; the youth would be given nothing but water laced with Veritaserum until he capitulated.

    He wondered what on earth could be so important that Malfoy would do this to himself. It was so pointless.

    Needless to say, Harry had been given stern warnings by everyone from Dumbledore down to Hermione not to visit Malfoy in his cell or give in to any rogue impulses he might have to find out what his old nemesis wanted to tell him.

    In fact, the only person who hadn't warned him off was Ron, but it was there between them nevertheless, an unspoken please don't that Harry would have heard if Ron had been at the other end of the country.

    "Do you reckon he will hold out?" Ron continued. "He'd be stupid to try it, you know. Veritaserum's not nice." He grimaced; he'd had an encounter with it himself recently, of course.

    "I think he'll drag it out just to spite us." Harry had to force the mental image of a thirsting and desperate Malfoy from his mind. "Let's get an ice-cream on the way back," he suggested, determined to change the subject. "I haven't had one in ages."

    "If we have time." Ron was pessimistic. "Last time I bought a wand from Ollivander, it took nearly an hour to find the right one ...."

    "If it takes more than half an hour, I'll go on ahead and order the ice-creams."

    Which was how Harry came to be walking past Quality Quidditch Supplies thirty minutes later.

    The crowd of small boys clustered outside, noses pressed to the glass, should have given him a hint. Suspended proudly in the window was a magnificent new racing broom.

    A Quidditch player to his marrow, Harry followed all the latest innovations in broom design avidly, but despite a rash of new arrivals over the past few years – the Golden Arrow, the Nimbus 2001 Mark III, the Excelsior, and the Cleansweep XL – nothing had really emerged as a worthy successor to the ever-reliable Firebolt.

    The broom in the shop window was different. Everything about it, from its streamlined handle to the individually selected twigs in its tail, spoke of class. Harry had to lean over several very small admirers and squint to see the name neatly limned on the handle in gold:

    Nimbus Tsunami.

    A small sign underneath added: Prices and orders upon request.

    He knew he was probably going to regret it later, but he couldn't stop his feet taking him inside the shop.

    xXx

    Ron plopped down in the seat opposite Harry at Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour nearly a quarter of an hour later. He looked exasperated and unsettled, but in his hand was a long, narrow box bearing the delicate Ollivander logo.

    Harry pushed a tall sundae glass towards him filled almost to overflowing with peanut butter and peach ripple ice-cream.

    "So, what was the Ollivander verdict?" he asked, digging a long-handled spoon into his own glass.

    "He was outraged that I got myself into a position where my wand could become tainted and have to be broken. And he had a lot to say about the carelessness of Aurors in general." Ron slurped the cherry off the top of his ice cream and sighed contentedly.

    "And?"

    "And it was weird." He reluctantly pushed the ice cream to one side and opened the box, extracting the wand carefully. "Holly and dragon heartstring, ten inches."

    "What's weird about that?" Harry drew his own wand out of his sleeve and compared it. "Holly and phoenix feather, eleven inches."

    "Yeah, I know. Ollivander told me." Ron held his new wand up at eye level and regarded it pensively. "He said that mine was made from the same Holly branch as yours."

    "Oh." Harry was nonplussed. "Well, it beats having a wand with a tail feather from the same phoenix as You-Know-Who's. Although even that has its uses."

    "He seemed to think it was significant."

    "That's because he made it," Harry scoffed, trying to lighten things up a bit. "The important thing is that it suits you - "

    "Typical!" a voice said. "Trust two men to sit around comparing the size of their wands."

    It was Hermione. She shook her head and tutted exaggeratedly when they looked up, and bagged one of the spare seats. Viktor Krum was with her, and he took the other empty seat on the opposite side of the table. Harry and Ron hastily put their wands away.

    "I wasn't expecting to see you, or I would have ordered ice-creams for you too," Harry began, but just then Florian Fortescue appeared bearing two extravagant confections made of puff pastry, cream and chocolate sauce, which he placed in front of Krum and Hermione, beaming.

    Ron eyed them longingly even as he spooned his ice-cream. He had a very sweet tooth.

    "Don't even think about it," Hermione warned him good-naturedly.

    Meanwhile, Krum had dumped a rolled up copy of Broomflight Addict in front of Harry. "Page fifty-two," he said, and began to wolf down his pastry.

    Harry unrolled the magazine and flicked through the pages. He couldn't help thinking that this was pornography for Quidditch players; picture after glossy, moving picture of good-looking but scantily clad witches posing suggestively with the latest racing brooms. Page fifty-two was a double-page spread advertisement for the new Nimbus Tsunami, though, including a rave report of all its features and a list of dealers.

    Harry, who already had a full colour brochure for the broom hidden in his robe, hoped that he didn't look as guilty as he felt.

    "Impressive," he murmured, and passed the magazine across to Ron. He tried to cool his nerves with an extra-large gulp of ice-cream and nearly froze his vocal chords.

    "The England Team haf already placed an order for seven," Krum noted. "Also Bulgaria." This was said rather smugly.

    "You'd be mad not to," Ron said, looking at the picture wistfully. "Super Diamond Hard Finish … individually tuned tail-twigs … windometre, global direction finder and invisibility spell as standard …. Oh well. Way out of my price range, but at least it'll drive the price of the others down a bit."

    Krum was watching Harry. "Vill you buy one?" he wanted to know.

    "I've already got a perfectly good Firebolt," Harry replied evasively, "and I don't play Quidditch much these days, so I don't really need a racing broom."

    The Bulgarian Captain looked sceptical, but didn't push the matter.

    "A broom is a broom," Hermione said briskly. "It's stupid to spend so much money on something that stays in the cupboard five days out of seven."

    Which was probably true, Harry admitted to himself, but he rolled his eyes and shared a grin with Ron and Krum all the same.

    xXx

    Harry wasn't sure what he was expecting, but the afternoon was almost boring in comparison to the excitement of the morning. Half a dozen suspect packages were forwarded for investigation to the Facility by the Magical Law Enforcement Agency (which was the everyday "police force" of the wizarding community). Only one of them actually proved to be dangerous, being filled to the brim with poisoned loose-leaf tea, and four of the packages were utterly harmless, but the crate of Quick-Sliding Chameleon Slugs gave everyone a lively half hour.

    After that, Harry and Ron were dispatched to Percy Weasley's office at the Ministry to deal with yet another anonymously sent curse. This took a while to sort out; partly because they had a hard time persuading Percy to crawl down from the ceiling and allow himself to be transfigured back, but also because Ron couldn't resist teasing his prim older brother mercilessly afterwards. The paperwork that followed, including a request for a warrant to bring Mundungus Fletcher in for questioning, took another hour once they returned.

    It was almost - but not quite - enough to keep Harry's mind from wandering down to Cell 50 in the basement of the Auror Facility.

    He brooded all the way home, not even raising his usual complaints about the soot in the Floo network, and was so distracted while he cooked the dinner (it was his turn on Tuesdays) that it was just as well Ron was helping him.

    "What is the matter with you tonight?" the red-head demanded at one point. He quickly charmed two dozen pork bangers, that Harry had accidentally tipped onto the floor in a moment of distraction, into washing themselves under the tap, and popped them back into the grill pan with a wave of his wand.

    "I dunno." Harry found a large jug and swirled his wand around inside it a couple of times. It began to fill itself with onion gravy.

    Ron gave him a hard look. "Are you worrying about Malfoy?" he demanded.

    "No!" Harry pushed his hair off his face, looking frustrated. "Not worrying ... not exactly. Wondering ...."

    "Harry, he gave us that guff about needing to speak to you alone precisely because he knows what you're like – he knew you'd be driven nuts wondering what he wanted to say to you." Ron looked concerned. "Don't give in to it. The chances are, he's got something up his sleeve and the minute he gets you alone, something will happen."

    Harry raised a brow at him. "In the middle of one of our special cells? Like what?"

    "I don't know, but I don't trust him further than I could spit him! He lies faster than Pigwidgeon eats owl treats."

    Harry turned away, fiddling with a cauldron of potatoes boiling merrily on the hob. The fact was, he couldn't shake the feeling that Malfoy hadn't been lying. But there was no way he would ever convince Ron of that.

    To his surprise, he suddenly felt a pair of arms snaking around his waist from behind, a rare public embrace. Ron rested his chin on his shoulder.

    "Don't, Harry."

    "Don't what?" he asked, in unconscious mimicry of Ron himself less than a week before.

    "Don't worry yourself bald over Draco Malfoy. He's not worth it."

    "I don't know, Ron. Dumbledore tried to convince me once that everyone's worth a second chance."

    Ron snorted. "Even Dumbledore wouldn't give You-Know-Who a second chance."

    Harry smiled faintly. "I think he had his a long time ago. Malfoy ... well, think about it. He's the same age as us, Ron, and what chance has he ever had, with a family like his? With that father?"

    "You said it yourself today: There are always choices."

    "Yeah, and maybe he's just made his choice."

    "Hm." Ron shifted slightly, clearly not at ease with this line of thought. "So what do you think really happened to make him collapse on our doorstep?"

    "I don't know." Harry shuddered involuntarily at the memory of the sickening spells carved into Malfoy's back. "But whatever it was, I'll bet he wasn't a willing party to it."

    The reflective moment was broken by Neville wandering into the kitchen, barefoot, scratching his head, and wearing a t-shirt that said "Herbologists do it in season".

    "Hey, remember house rule number seven!" he said, catching sight of them. "No public groping!" The pair of them jumped apart guiltily, making him laugh. "When's dinner, Harry?"

    Chapter Text

    "Where do you think you're going?"

    Harry froze in the act of pulling his trainers on and looked guiltily over at the bed. Ron, whom he had thought to be sound asleep, was staring back at him accusingly in the dim light, still in the same position Harry had left him five minutes before.

    "I thought you were asleep - "

    "Obviously!" Ron sighed and sat up, pushing his hair back from his face with both hands. He looked unusually wide-awake for such an early hour, and it dawned on Harry that he had not gone to sleep at all. "So much for thinking I tired you out and you wouldn't do something like this."

    "Something like what?" Harry tried feebly.

    "Oh, I don't know!" Ron retorted sarcastically. "Something like sneaking out to visit Malfoy in his cell, maybe?"

    "I wasn't - "

    "And don't tell me you weren't." Grumpy from a lack of sleep, he glared at Harry. "I guessed what you were up to when you started rummaging around in the closet last night. Since you're clearly not pleased to see me, that lump in your robes has to be your Invisibility Cloak."

    "Ah." Harry sat back, feeling awkward and embarrassed. "Sorry."

    "Harry, you silly git, what the hell do you think he's going to tell you that warrants breaking into the Facility at three in the morning?"

    "I don't know! I just … I need to find out." Harry ran his fingers through his hair and scrubbed at his scalp roughly. All his muscles felt tight with frustration. "Voldemort's after you now, Ron. If there's something Malfoy can tell me that would help us protect you - "

    "Bollocks. Maybe we should be checking you out for this Enviwhatchermaycallit Curse. You're certainly acting like someone's put a compulsion on you." Ron sighed and swung his legs out of bed, reaching for his jeans.

    Harry blinked. "What are you doing?"

    "What does it look like? I'm getting dressed."

    "But - "

    "Look, I'm not going to be able to stop you, am I?" Ron gave him a look of mingled frustration and affection. "If I made you get back into bed, you'd just stick a sleeping charm on me or something and sneak out anyway. So I might as well come with you. We might even look less suspicious as a pair, although somehow I think the Invisibility Cloak will ruin the effect."

    He pulled his jeans on briskly and grabbed a t-shirt; and Harry, bemused at the sudden turn of events, slowly resumed lacing up his trainers.

    xXx

    Ron's pessimistic comment about breaking in was inaccurate; in fact, the Auror Facility never closed. The offices were always manned, with most senior Aurors taking a turn on the night shift once a month. All the same, it would have been rather foolish of the two of them to try entering the building by the front entrance during the middle of the night, so after some debate they tried a side entrance that was guarded only by a portal similar to the one used at Kings Cross Station to access Platform Nine and Three Quarters.

    Walking through a brick wall is always a peculiar experience but nothing stopped them gaining entry, and once they reached the other side Harry reluctantly fished out his cloak and the two of them ducked underneath it. There was barely enough room, for they had both grown considerably since their days of wandering around Hogwarts at night. The Invisibility Cloak wouldn't fool any sensitive guardian spells that might be set inside the building, but it would mask them from any casual glances by the night workers.

    They ghosted through the half-lit corridors of the Facility, giving the few of their colleagues who were working a wide berth, and made their way down the unlit stairs to the dungeons. Halfway down, Harry pulled the cloak off and whispered "Lumos" to his wand; the steps were too treacherous to risk walking down them in total darkness.

    Row 50 was a long way underground. There was moisture dripping down the walls, and weird, luminescent lichens growing everywhere. And it smelled … old, unused. Which, of course, it generally was.

    When they finally got there, the two of them peered cautiously around the entrance to the passage. There were two Aurors on guard halfway, as there had been for Ron, and they knew there was no way they could ever convince the pair that they were there on legitimate business, let alone lure them away.

    So Ron dug into a pocket in his robes and brought out a handful of some sparkling dust. It was something Fred and George had invented; they called it "The Sandman's Best Friend". He held it up - then hesitated and handed it to Harry instead.

    "Better you do it," he mouthed, and Harry nodded. Doing anything like this was too risky for Ron while he had the Seal of Honour on his back.

    Holding the dust on the flat of his palm, he pointed his wand at the two guards and blew it in their direction.

    "Sleep," he breathed. The dust drifted in a silent, nearly invisible cloud towards the two guards, enveloping them before they were aware of it.

    The pair collapsed, one buckling at the knees and dropping to the floor, the other slumping heavily against the wall.

    The guards temporarily disposed of, Harry and Ron dashed down the passage to Cell 50.

    "You'd better stand back and keep watch," Harry whispered. "He might not speak to me if he knows someone else is listening."

    Ron nodded and backed away, stepping carefully over the fallen body of one of the guards.

    Faced with the section of blank wall that was the front of Malfoy's cell, Harry discovered that his palms were sweating. He and Ron had just committed two quite serious breaches of security, and what he was contemplating now just might buy them a night in the neighbouring cells.

    But having come so far, he had burned his bridges. He tapped the wall twice with his wand and a section cleared at once.

    Malfoy was lying on top of his bed, fully dressed and apparently staring up at the ceiling. The only other objects in the room were a very large pitcher of water and a cup, neither of which looked as if it had been touched.

    Harry cleared his throat. "Malfoy!"

    The blond head snapped around and grey eyes narrowed for a moment. Then his brows went up and Malfoy slowly swung himself up into a sitting position.

    "A little late for a social call, isn’t it, Potter?" His voice rasped slightly and Harry saw him swallow. "Or should I say, a little early?"

    "You wanted to talk to me," Harry replied curtly, "so talk."

    There was a pause, then Malfoy slowly stood up and approached the clear barrier between them. He didn't look well. His pale skin had developed an unhealthy tinge and his eyes were too bright.

    The process of dehydration starts well before the body registers thirst, and proceeds steadily through headaches, weakness, bodily pains and hallucination before death occurs. From the look of him, Malfoy was already experiencing the headaches and weakness, not to mention an all-consuming thirst that was probably worse than all the rest. Harry remembered Moody's comment about the young Death Eater already being dehydrated, and had to fight an irrational surge of compassion. Malfoy, he reminded himself, was inflicting this torture upon himself. The remedy was readily to hand.

    "So?" he demanded impatiently.

    Malfoy regarded him through those too-bright storm-coloured eyes. "Are you alone?"

    "Look, get on with it - I don't have all night, and I'm already in enough trouble - "

    "You're not alone, are you?" The blond youth's mouth twitched into a smirk. "Who did you bring with you? Weasley?" Harry said nothing, but stared back as impassively as he could. Malfoy raised his voice slightly. "Are you there, Weasley?"

    To Harry's exasperation – he could have brazened it out if only Ron had stayed back - Ron walked back into Malfoy's line of sight, arms folded and jaw clenched. His glare could have fried eggs at ten paces.

    "Against my better judgement," he said tightly.

    Malfoy was watching Harry though, seemingly well entertained. "It's rather sweet, really," he commented mockingly. "Where one goes, the other follows. Well, well, well …. Can it be possible that the Boy Who Lived plays Seeker for the opposing team?"

    The taunt stung more than Harry liked, for until now he and Ron had never been on the receiving end of any malice about their relationship. For a moment he was stuck for a suitable retort but Ron, a veteran of a thousand quarrels with five older brothers, had no such problems.

    "I dunno, Malfoy," he sneered back. "If it came down to a choice between this and screwing Pansy Parkinson, I'd take Harry any time – or even you, and that's saying something."

    This was a heavy handed slap at Malfoy, who had kept the fair Pansy dangling for three years at Hogwarts by blowing first hot, then cold on her. The obsessed girl had eventually been driven to such extreme, attention-seeking antics that even he didn't find it funny anymore. But even Harry had found it hard to feel much sympathy for her; Pansy's spiteful tongue and crass stupidity had made it hard for even her fellow Slytherins to like her much.

    Malfoy's pale face flushed angrily at the insult. "At least I'm not a – "

    "We're going," Harry interrupted. He didn't need to hear any more comments about his sexual preferences. "This is a total waste of time. Come on, Ron." He had to grab his friend's arm to make him move; Ron was more than keen to take his old enemy on.

    "No - wait!"

    Harry's green eyes flicked over Malfoy coldly. "Why should I? I took a huge risk coming here tonight, Malfoy. I can't imagine why."

    "Aren't you curious about that?" The grey eyes bored into him almost feverishly.

    "Not really. I've had my fair share of stupid impulses over the years, and this is obviously just another one."

    "Is it? That's really odd, Potter, because I've been fighting off the impulse to visit you for weeks."

    "Oh, gimme strength!" Ron spluttered, disbelieving.

    But Harry stared at Malfoy. Once again, he had the oddest sensation that the blond youth was speaking the truth. He folded his arms and regarded him suspiciously.

    "Go on."

    Malfoy relaxed slightly now that he had Harry's attention. He too folded his arms and tried to look nonchalant. It wasn't working very well; his advancing thirst was affecting his concentration and balance.

    "I had a strange dream the other night," he said conversationally. "We were in a room at Hogwarts – you, me and carrot-top there. There was a big, circular mural of a phoenix on the floor, but other than that the room was empty. It wasn't a room I recognised. I was wearing a black robe, you were wearing red and Weasley was wearing blue. We were arguing. Sound familiar to you at all?"

    Silence. Harry had to really fight the urge to turn and look at Ron to get his reaction to this. But Malfoy was smiling triumphantly.

    "I was right! You've been dreaming the same things!"

    "And if I have?" Harry stared at him. "What difference does that make, Malfoy? You still haven't told me anything that justifies me coming down here. You'd better start talking, or we're leaving you to enjoy Moody's nightcap there."

    "I said I'd talk to you in private." The smile slipped and Malfoy's eyes slid towards Ron, glinting maliciously.

    "Harry – " Ron warned him quietly.

    Harry shrugged. "This is as private as it gets. Like it or lump it."

    A sneer. "Do you always do what he tells you?"

    Harry grinned in spite of himself. "When it makes sense – and it often does, when I think about it. Besides, you've already confirmed that Ron is the key player in all of this. He has a right to know why Voldemort wants him."

    Malfoy let out a sharp breath of frustration. "I've already told you and your Auror friends – I don't know why he wants him. He still wants you too, but for some reason he's willing to sacrifice you if he can get his hands on Weasley in the process."

    "All right. Tell us about the business with the curse on Ron. What was that all about?"

    "Two reasons. They wanted to find out if he would be susceptible to the Enviolus Curse, and they wanted him put in a position where they could readily get their hands on him without alerting suspicions."

    "You keep saying they," noted Ron. "Voldemort and who else?"

    "My father, and a couple of others - "

    "Names?"

    "Why should I tell you everything?" Malfoy snapped. "I do that, and there's nothing left to guarantee your lot won't send me to Azkaban."

    "You're going to Azkaban anyway," Ron pointed out coolly. "How long a sentence you get depends on how co-operative you are now."

    "It's not the length of sentence that bothers me, Weasley!"

    "Oh?"

    "Ron ...." Harry looked at Malfoy. "Tell me about the Enviolus Curse. Why did they think Ron might not be susceptible to it?"

    Malfoy shrugged. "Because of his Auror training. The Enviolus Curse is the original root of the Imperius Curse. It has a lot of the same characteristics, but the difference is that the control is far more precise, allowing the subject to act more naturally, while blanking the memory in the process. It's been lost for centuries, though, so no one was really sure whether – like the Imperius Curse – it could be effectively resisted by someone trained to do so."

    Harry found he really didn't like the sound of this. One of the few assurances wizards had about the Imperius Curse was that it could be fought, provided you had the training and strength of character. If it wasn't possible to fight the Enviolus Curse, then they were all in trouble.

    Clearly Ron was thinking the same thing. "What does it take to cast it?" he demanded. "Can anyone do it?"

    To their relief, Malfoy shook his head. "No. It depends on the strength of the wizard casting it, and the resistance levels of the subject. The casting wizard has to be much stronger." He looked at Ron and grudgingly added, "Lord Voldemort himself cast that curse on you, so I suppose you can't really be blamed for succumbing to it."

    Ron stared. "If You-Know-Who was in Pontypridd, why didn't he just snatch me there and then, instead of going through this rigmarole?"

    Malfoy snorted. "Don't be stupid. He wasn't in Pontypridd. He used another Death Eater as an intermediary. Besides, he let you go under the curse because he wanted to find out how effective it would be. If you killed Potter, so much to the good. If you got sent to Azkaban for it, even better. Since the Dementors were removed from the place, it's been a simple matter for him to remove prisoners whenever he feels like it. The human guards who replaced them aren't exactly the cream of society and are easily suborned. He could have got his hands on you there with the minimum of fuss and the chances were that no one would have even noticed you were missing."

    Harry was silent, horrified. The Dementors had been removed from Azkaban at Dumbledore's insistence, as they were unreliable guardians of the facility, all too likely to join Voldemort under the right circumstances. The idea that this had simply made the prison more accessible to the world's most evil wizard was ...unthinkable.

    "You should be happy to be sent there, then," Ron managed after a moment's stricken silence.

    The grey eyes flashed. "You must be insane. The last thing I want is for him or my father to get hold of me again. You might think this cell is uncomfortable, but believe me – this is the safest I've felt in a year. Why the hell do you think I took the first opportunity offered to escape and come to you?"

    Some of Ron's cynicism returned. "We're touched," he sneered, "but oddly enough, at the same time I feel utterly unmoved."

    Malfoy responded with a barrage of abuse that left him exhausted and Harry very curious. The look on the blond youth's face when he had spoken of feeling safe seemed sincere.

    "What have they been doing to you, and why?" he asked.

    "You know what they've been doing," Malfoy said, his voice rasping and weary. He swallowed a few times and closed his eyes, leaning against the barrier heavily. "Look, whatever it is they want Weasley for was originally planned for me – and I never did find out what it was. For years, ever since the Dark Lord returned, my father told me I was part of some grand scheme, a masterstroke that could be turned against Dumbledore and his followers. But when it came to it and they tried to use me for whatever it was, it didn't work. I don't know why – I don't know anything. All I know is that Lord Voldemort was furious about it, and it damaged my father's standing in his circle badly. After that, I wasn't much use to them. Then about a year ago, my father started power-draining me to supplement his own strength, probably to give him an edge over the others around the Dark Lord."

    Malfoy's mouth twisted with bitterness. "He said it was the least I could do for him, having failed the cause so badly."

    "They found plenty of use for you last weekend, palming that spellcloth off onto me," Ron retorted angrily.

    "Well, that was a job anyone could do, even me!" The sneer was back, but it was directed at himself, and Harry felt sure he was quoting someone; probably Lucius Malfoy. "Although the information on how to get it to you came from me, too. No one else could have told them that."

    "Not something to be proud of, Malfoy," said Harry, dryly.

    "At this stage, Potter, I'll take what I can get."

    "Forgive me if I don't drip sympathy over you! What the hell did you expect from someone like Voldemort? What he wants, he wants for himself, Malfoy." Harry flapped his arms in exasperation. "Oh, he'll throw a few crumbs to his loyal henchmen now and again, to ensure their loyalty, because even a powerful wizard like him needs someone to run his errands and do his dirty work! But the real power, the thing he craves, he'll keep to himself. There's no room for rivals with a creature like that, don't you get it? You and the other Death Eaters, you're just means to an end."

    "And you're not?" Malfoy raised a pale, mocking brow at Harry. "You're an Auror, Harry Potter, a foot-soldier in Dumbledore's war. The Muggles have a term for it: gun fodder. You're as expendable as I am, and you'll get just as little out of it – less, in fact, because there's always a chance that sacrifices on my part will win me the Dark Lord's favour, but for you there's nothing at the end of it except a lifetime of looking over your shoulder, like Mad-Eye Moody."

    "You're wrong," Harry told him quietly. "If we win, the satisfaction is in knowing that the world – wizard and Muggle – is safe and can live without fear. There's the satisfaction of knowing that we've rid the world of the most horrifying menace in wizarding history. Apart from that, I already have just about everything I want."

    "Not if they take Weasley here from you, you don't. You think I don't remember that he's "the thing you'll miss most"?" Malfoy pushed himself upright, with an effort; his hands were trembling slightly. "To stop Lord Voldemort doing that, you're going to need me."

    "I think the thirst is starting to get to you," Ron commented acidly. "Get this into your head, Malfoy: The only thing we need you for is information."

    "No, you don't." Malfoy was watching Harry. "There was another dream, which I'm sure Harry remembers. We were on the Hogwarts Express, weren't we? We had a little chat about co-operation and working together."

    "The day I work with you, Malfoy, is the day I check into St. Mungo's for treatment," Harry advised him.

    "And am I ever glad to hear you say that," a new voice commented.
    Harry's whipped around, staring.

    Sirius Black and Remus Lupin were standing at the end of the passage. It was Sirius who had spoken, but from the look of things they had both been there for some time.

    "Damn," Harry muttered under his breath, although he had known all along that it was more than he could expect to escape this scenario without being caught at some point.

    But Ron, who normally panicked far more in these situations, seemed quite calm.

    "It's about time you two showed up, isn't it?" he said.

    xXx

    "You're getting a bit sneaky in your old age, aren't you?" Harry demanded fifteen minutes later, not sure whether to be angry or not at Ron's deception.

    "What can I say?" his friend replied unrepentantly. "You must be rubbing off on me."

    "But you couldn't know I was going to come down here – "

    Ron rolled his eyes. "No, of course not. Because you've never done anything like this before, have you?" He snorted rudely. "Like I said to Hermione – "

    "Hermione was in on this too?"

    " – it was asking for trouble just telling you not to do it!"

    Harry sat back, feeling indignant and just a little bit hurt.

    "You could have told me," he said finally.

    "We thought you'd act more naturally if you didn't know," Sirius said.

    "But – "

    "Harry, sometimes you're just too honest," Lupin said kindly. "You can't tell an outright lie without it showing in your face. You're like your father in that respect," he added, and traded amused looks with Sirius. "Lily could really be quite devious, but James .... But that's beside the point. We thought that if you walked in there knowing that someone else was listening, Malfoy would take one look at you and know. He guessed Ron was there as it was. Actually, I'm surprised he agreed to talk after that."

    "He was having too much fun taking the piss out of us to care," Harry said sourly.

    "Well, whatever the cause, you at least got some useful information out of him – not much, but it'll help."

    Harry made an effort to tear his mind away from his aggravation. "About this Enviolus Curse ...."

    "Dumbledore already knew of its existence, as it happens," Sirius assured him, and both Harry and Ron breathed a little easier. "The problem is how to counteract it. He's fairly sure it fell out of use because there's a counter-spell, but given the length of time since it was last used, it might take a while to find out more about it."

    "Unfortunately, we still don't know any more about why Voldemort wants Ron," Lupin said gravely, "and that's a blow, because it means he's not safe anywhere for the time being, except possibly in this building or at Hogwarts."

    Ron began to look alarmed. "Does this mean I have to stay under house arrest or something?"

    "No! That's not a viable option. But it does mean the pair of you won't simply be able to roam around as you have before – "

    "No more cosy little shopping trips in central London," Sirius put in blandly. "I think we can strike trips to Quidditch matches off the calendar too."

    Ron looked a little disgruntled at this, but he made no protest.

    "What about Malfoy knowing about my dreams?" Harry asked uneasily. "That can't be a coincidence or a lucky guess, can it?"

    Sirius and Lupin looked at each other for a moment.

    "We need to talk to Dumbledore about that one," Sirius said finally, but he looked across at Ron. "You're the expert – what do you think?"

    Ron chewed his lip and shrugged. "I don't know what kind of precognitive abilities Malfoy has," he said, "although even if he didn't have any at all, it would still be possible for him to dream true about something really important to him. Even Muggles can do that. I've never heard of people sharing dreams before, though." This came out very reluctantly; clearly he was not happy about this aspect of things.

    "He seems to think we should be working together," Harry said neutrally. Ron said nothing, but he could feel him tensing up at the suggestion.

    "I note that he didn't specify on what," Lupin replied dryly.

    Harry looked around at them all, and finally said what he felt sure they must all be thinking. "Is it possible that Malfoy could be under the Enviolus Curse?"

    "Anything's possible," Sirius replied. "But one thing Dumbledore did remember about the Enviolus Curse is that someone under its influence can still be successfully questioned under Veritaserum. So we'll know tomorrow if young Draco is hiding anything. Moody won't wait longer than that to get answers from him."

    xXx

    To Harry's relief, he was not expected to sit in on Malfoy's second interview the next day. Watching someone being questioned under Veritaserum was almost as unpleasant as being subjected to the potion himself – something he had experienced as part of his early training. Apart from the horror of having his mouth open and spill his innermost secrets entirely against his will, Harry had never got over the experience of seeing Bartemius Crouch questioned under it when he was fourteen.

    Instead he and Ron got some of their routine work done. They were pleased to discover that they had been granted a warrant to bring Mundungus Fletcher in for questioning over the curses sent to Percy Weasley. Neither of them seriously believed that they would be able to charge him with anything – he had friends in high places, not least of whom was Dumbledore – but they hoped that at least showing him that the Aurors were taking the matter seriously would be enough to persuade him to leave Percy alone for a while.

    In the event, the interview with Fletcher went much as Harry expected. At no point did he admit to anything, but he did raise the roof with his outraged protests at being brought into the Facility in the first place. Harry was accused of using his 'celebrity status' as a bludgeon to beat down law-abiding members of the wizarding community, while Ron was told he was a disgrace and that his mother was going to hear about his behaviour.

    "Although what good the old goat thinks that'll do is anyone's guess," Ron snorted after they'd sent the old man away with a sharp lecture about the misuse of both curses and valuable Auror time. "My mum's more than a match for him! Especially after some of the stuff he's tried on Dad over the years."

    "Your mum's more than a match for most people," Harry chuckled. "Come on - we've still got time to look into that crate of poisoned tea before lunch."

    Since Hermione was still tied up looking into the runes that had been used on Malfoy, their partner on this project was Meg Cottley, called "Silent" because she had lost her voice to a mispronounced curse at school. The handicap did not seem to curb her ability to communicate – rumour said that she had been her school's Debating Champion for two years in a row after the accident – but she was rather lacking in a sense of humour, which made the work drag a little.

    By lunch they had narrowed the search for a possible supplier down to two or three notorious wizarding shops, which left Ron at least in a very cheerful frame of mind.

    "Yes! A raid on Knockturn Alley!" he crowed gleefully, and laughed when he saw Harry's sour expression.

    The last Auror raid on Knockturn Alley had led to Harry being sprayed with a perfume called Jezebel by an angry Veela who owned a scent shop there. The perfume turned out to be a powerful aphrodisiac concocted from succubus musk, and it had given him several painfully embarrassing hours until they had worked out how to counteract it. The incident still caused a lot of mirth among Harry's colleagues.

    Harry was about to say something cutting in response to Ron's amusement, when the door of the main interview room opened and Sirius stepped out to summon the two guards to escort Malfoy back to his cell. The young Death Eater looked dazed and confused as he was led away, not even noticing Harry and Ron as he passed them.

    Sirius went back inside the interview room, and the door shut tight behind him. Ron and Harry exchanged glances.

    "Sirius looked a bit grim," the red-head commented. Harry nodded, staring at the closed door.

    A sudden tapping sound made them both look around; Meg was glowering at them. She pointed imperiously to the location-spell bags they were making up from some of the poisoned tea, which would be used to help them identify the guilty retailer that afternoon. They reluctantly got back to work.

    Perhaps half an hour later, just as they were about to stop for lunch, Sirius suddenly appeared at the door of the interview room again.

    "Harry, Ron – a word with you, please."

    He still looked grim.

    xXx

    "We think there may be more to young Mr. Malfoy's current predicament with his father than meets the eye," Dumbledore told them quietly, "and it almost certainly has a bearing on Voldemort's interest in Ron."

    Harry wondered if it was his imagination that made him think the elderly professor was studying them with unusual sharpness. Ron was shifting unhappily beside him; whether it was from that perceptive stare or because he disliked the idea of any kind of connection with Malfoy, it was impossible to tell.

    "Unfortunately," Dumbledore continued, "he is telling the truth when he says he knows nothing of Voldemort's plans either for himself or for Ron – or indeed for you, Harry, other than that they most certainly involve your death at some point."

    "Not exactly something we didn't already know," Moody snorted.

    "He's telling the truth when he says he's afraid of what Voldemort and his father have in store for him, though," Lupin put it. "He doesn't know what it is, but he knows it's something he doesn't want to be a part of."

    "He wants to work with us to stop them," Sirius commented in a neutral tone.

    Ron made a sour sound at this, but Harry was looking at Dumbledore. "Why?" he asked.

    "Because he believes it to be the only way he can be free of them, short of death," the professor said heavily. "I must say that I agree with him."

    "Then I vote we give him a knife, and some peace and quiet to use it," Ron said venomously.

    "Ron!" Harry was shocked.

    "Oh, come off it, Harry! This is Draco Malfoy we're talking about – he's not exactly going to be a loss, is he? And we'll probably all be a lot safer without him around."

    From Sirius and Moody's silences, Harry got the distinct impression that they agreed with Ron, even if they wouldn't come out and say so; Lupin, grave and quiet in his corner, was giving nothing of his opinion away. But Dumbledore remained unmoved by Ron's outburst.

    "I would ask that you strive to put aside childhood quarrels, Ron," he suggested gently. "I'm sure you haven't seriously considered what you are saying." Looking at Ron, Harry rather doubted that, but he didn't interrupt. "All life is precious, if only because once snuffed out, it can never be replaced. You might also consider that it took considerable courage for Draco to come to us, for he knew that at the very least he would encounter significant hostility. His escape from his father's manor was not easy, but he undertook it even knowing what would probably happen to him if he was caught."

    "Getting away that easily argues for him being one of Voldemort's spies," Ron argued.

    "The risk is certainly there – and about as likely as it is that you are still under Voldemort's influence," Dumbledore pointed out mildly.

    Ron sat back with a jolt, flushing.

    There was a pause, then Moody sighed and shifted.

    "So now we have a problem," he growled. "Whatever we do, we're going to need the Malfoy boy under our eyes for a while. Yet as the law stands, we must either charge him and send him for trial, or let him go free."

    "And despite everything, we really don't have anything to charge him with," Lupin said reluctantly. "Nothing the Council of Magical Law would be willing to try him for at the present time, anyway. He came to us. Actually, we're on very doubtful ground just holding him and questioning him under Veritaserum."

    "So we need to stash him somewhere reasonably safe, where we can keep an eye on him and see what develops," Sirius continued. "And that's where you two come in."

    Harry's stomach lurched. He felt sure he knew what was coming.

    Nor was he mistaken.

    "There's a spare room in that student house you live in, isn't there?" Moody asked.

    Chapter Text

    "No. Fuckin'. Way."

    That was Seamus, expressing himself in his usual eloquent fashion, but he spoke for the entire group. Even Hermione was unusually belligerent, and Neville looked positively fierce.

    Harry didn't blame any of them. He had let Ron do the talking back at the Auror Facility, not trusting himself, but when the red-head's angry tirade had come to an end (which had taken a while) and Dumbledore had looked at him, he had pointed out that in any case there were five other people in the house who had to be consulted.

    He had felt fairly confident at that point that this would scupper Moody's plan, but he had reckoned without the weight of respect everyone felt for Dumbledore. Clustered in seats around the living room, sharing tea with him, it seemed like no one could come up with a really good reason to refuse him this request.

    It was Dean who finally voiced what everyone was thinking.

    "It's just … well … this is Malfoy," he said. The loathing he invested in the word was typical, but the blush that accompanied it was not. "He's a Death Eater."

    "He has renounced his allegiance to Voldemort," the professor said composedly.

    Neville made a smothered noise that Harry suspected had started out as a raspberry. The others looked deeply sceptical.

    "He made our lives hell at school," Seamus muttered sullenly.

    "Well, that was a number of years ago now. You are all adults and, I feel, can be trusted to act with less biased judgement."

    "I don't trust him," Ginny said abruptly. She was huddled up on the sofa next to Ron, and of all of them looked the most disturbed by the idea of the enemy moving into the house. "I don't think I'll feel safe with him here. What if … what if he's just waiting for an opportunity to hand us over to You-Know-Who?"

    "That concern has already been extensively voiced by your brother and Hermione," Dumbledore told her kindly. "We will be taking a number of precautions to ensure that he cannot use, nor be caused by an outside agency to use, the Dark Arts or act in any way that intends harm. We will also increase the protections on this house, and add a few extra safeguards that will allow you all to place him under immediate restraint should any trouble occur in spite of everything."

    "It's not just that." Ginny looked embarrassed. "He's nosy. He always was - him and his friends. We're not going to be able to watch him twenty-four hours a day. What if he starts poking around?"

    "If you feel uncomfortable with the idea, perhaps you could stay with your mother for a while?" Dumbledore suggested.

    The suggestion was kindly meant, but everyone reacted rather badly to it.

    "Why should Ginny have to move out because of him?" Ron demanded, summing up everyone else's feelings.

    Harry cleared his throat and they all looked at him. He sighed. They all looked as if they were expecting him to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

    "Look, if it's a matter of security, we could always get someone to fix the doors and locks for us," he suggested. "We could make it so that he can't move around the house easily without one of us escorting him."

    Ron nearly exploded. "Dammit, Harry - "

    "No, wait a minute! Listen to me." Ron subsided, simmering. "What else can we do?" Harry asked him. "He's got to go somewhere, and obviously he can't just be put up at the Leaky Cauldron and left to his own devices. I don't like this idea better than anyone else! But short of dumping him on Sirius and Remus, we're short on options. And since it's a full moon in less than a week, that's probably not a good idea either."

    "Works for me," Dean said sourly. "Werewolf food is about all he's good for." There was a sullen murmur of agreement.

    "No, I have to agree with Harry," Hermione said unexpectedly. She heaved a sigh too. "Look, how bad can it be? I don't think he's going to want to socialise much with us either, so maybe we can just … pretend he's not there most of the time. And he's hardly going to have chances to get out of line. I mean, we're all going to be watching him like hawks, aren't we? The first wrong move he makes, he's going to be jumped all over. In fact," she added, with a certain grim satisfaction, "I'm going to enjoy personally making sure he knows what will happen to him if he tries anything."

    This produced a few nasty chuckles.

    "Okay, so where are we going to put him?" Dean asked, at length.

    "The living room floor, with an old blanket," Neville muttered.

    "Nah, I'm not tripping over him every time I want to use the Floo."

    "He'll have to have the spare room," Hermione said.

    "That's next door to me," objected Ginny.

    There was a pause.

    "Then I'll swap with you," offered Hermione, unenthusiastically.

    "No," Harry said at once. "Call me old-fashioned, but I don't want either of you near him."

    "That's very sweet, Harry, but I think I'm more than a match for Malfoy if he gets ideas - "

    "Hermione, the whole point of having him here is keeping him alive!"

    "I suppose we could move back into that room and give him the attic," Ron suggested in a tone of great long-suffering.

    "Don't be daft!" Neville objected. "No way is that room big enough for two people …."

    "Look, I'll swap with Ginny," Seamus said, exasperated. "I can live with girly wallpaper and Malfoy as a neighbour for a few weeks. Unless …." He suddenly looked across at Dumbledore, who was placidly enjoying his tea while they thrashed the matter out between them. "How long is he likely to be here, sir?"

    "Hopefully not very long," the professor replied. "I would imagine that whatever is going to happen in respect of young Draco and our friends here," he nodded in Ron and Harry's direction, "will occur in a relatively short space of time. By now I would think Lucius Malfoy must have realised his son is missing and will be seeking to recover him."

    "Great," muttered Ron.

    xXx

    "As you've probably already noticed," Sirius told Draco Malfoy dryly, "this house is locked up tighter than a vault in Gringotts."

    Malfoy merely nodded, his eyes wandering over the living room furnishings but his face neutral. He appeared to be avoiding the eyes of the other nine occupants of the room, which was hardly surprising, for it was a hostile little party that assembled to greet him when Sirius and Lupin brought him to the house on Friday evening. The housemates had all resigned themselves to the situation, but that didn't mean they had to like it.

    The protections on the house had been increased over the past couple of days to a point where it felt, to Harry at least, like the whole place was subliminally humming. Then Bethany Bloom had arrived to sort out the internal security, putting one of the clever wizard locks that she excelled at on the doors of every bedroom and cupboard.

    "So it works like this," Sirius continued. "You don't have a wand, so you can't Apparate or Disapparate, but even if you could you wouldn't be able to under this roof. We've set up a spell to block it and only certain people have been keyed into the spell. Try it and you'll fry yourself. The Floo is also off limits unless one of the other residents accompanies you."

    Malfoy said nothing.

    "Try to break any of the protection spells on the house and you'll regret it. That's what the Seal of Honour is on your back for. Behave yourself and don't try anything, and it'll leave you alone. But I believe Moody explained to you what will happen if you activate the Seal."

    "In tedious detail," the blond youth drawled.

    Moody certainly had. Harry, watching this scene from over by the window, winced at the memory. Ron had had to leave the room during the elderly Auror's lecture, although he had managed to watch the actual procedure without flinching.

    "All right …." Sirius appeared to be exercising considerable control over himself. Malfoy's attitude was probably annoying him no end. "There are also a number of other protections, all of which are set up so that should there be any trouble, any one of the other residents in the house can instantly restrain you or confine you to your room."

    Hermione stepped forward.

    "Every private room in this house now has a personalised lock on it," she told him coolly. "I wouldn't advise you to try breaking into anyone's bedroom."

    This, at least, got a reaction from him.

    "Oh, for heaven's sake! I'm not a burglar!" Malfoy said, annoyed.

    "No, nothing so charming," she said dryly. "Your own room has a similar lock which is personalised to you. But in addition, there are secondary spells that will allow everyone else to confine you to your room if necessary." A tiny, rather nasty smile crossed her face. "You might want to be nice to us, or you could spend a lot of time in there. Oh - and the windows and doors have been spelled against you too."

    "Great." Malfoy cast a cold look around the room. "Why not add a couple of Dementors on the front door, for that extra cosy touch? Oh, I forgot - Potter's sensitive to them, isn't he?"

    "You owe it to the generosity of everyone in this room that you aren't spending your time with me and Lupin in his werewolf phase," Sirius told him acidly. "I'd watch that smart mouth of yours, Draco, or it could happen to you yet."

    There was a pause, then Sirius nodded and stepped back. "Harry and Hermione will take over from here."

    xXx

    Harry had to wonder what Malfoy thought of the student house. One thing was for sure; it wasn't anything like what he was used to. The building, which looked like a standard three-storey, terraced Muggle house from the outside, had been magically expanded internally to include an extra floor, seven bedrooms, one unusually large bathroom, and enough kitchen and recreational space for seven people. The furnishings were a little on the worn side, but it was still a cosy place to live - or so Harry thought.

    The spare bedroom was definitely a bit bare. There was a single bed, which had hastily been made up earlier that day, a clothes chest and a small table and chair, plus a rug on the floor. It was quite a small room, compared to the others. Malfoy made no comment about the furnishings, merely registering them, but he homed in on the pair of old Quidditch gauntlets still lying on top of the clothes chest.

    "Whose room was this before?" he asked, picking one of the tough dragon-hide gloves up.

    "Mine," Harry replied, leaning against the doorpost and watching him thoughtfully. "Until I moved into the attic room with Ron, that is."

    "Oh."

    "Dumbledore sent a trunk with some clothes and other things for you," Hermione told him, pointing to where it stood under the window.

    She walked over to the wall by the door and tapped it with her wand. "Aparecium rules," she commanded, and a large sheet of cream-coloured parchment shimmered into existence, stuck to the wall with spellotape. The list on it had originally been printed, but had since been significantly altered by various different hands.

    "These are the house rules," she continued. "If you break them, you get stuck with some of the general chores, like shopping. You're responsible for keeping your own room tidy, managing your own breakfast and lunch, and doing your own laundry. House meetings are compulsory. The list for cooking dinner is made up already, but that doesn't let you off the hook, Malfoy - there's nothing to stop you helping out."

    For the first time, he looked uneasy. "I can't cook."

    Hermione gave him a wintry little smile. "You'll learn. It's my turn tonight, so you can help me."

    Harry hid a grin. Malfoy would learn or else, he suspected.

    "And there's a house meeting tonight," Hermione added.

    That wiped the smile off Harry's face.

    xXx

    Dinner was usually a boisterous, chatty meal, but tonight there was a distinct atmosphere when everyone gathered around the table. Harry was reminded of the time he had arrived for a Potions class only to discover that Professor Snape had decided to crack down on unruly behaviour by making each Gryffindor sit next to a Slytherin. There had been an odd kind of jockeying for position as everyone tried to avoid sitting next to people like Crabbe, Goyle and Millicent Bulstrode.

    No one wanted to sit next to Malfoy this evening. Hermione always took the head of the table, and he had taken a seat next to her, so somehow Harry found himself sitting between Malfoy and Ron. Ginny took the foot of the table, which left Neville, Dean and Seamus silently arguing over who got the dubious privilege of sitting opposite the enemy. In the end it was Seamus, who took his seat stiff-backed and glowering.

    It should have been funny, but instead Harry found himself wondering if he really wanted to eat after all.

    It was Neville, always a sunny soul, who broke the silence.

    "Lasagne!" he said cheerfully, and made a grab for the bread basket.

    Everyone relaxed fractionally and settled down to eat. All the same, it was an unusually subdued meal.

    "What, you mean you don't all say prayers before you start?" Malfoy murmured insinuatingly to Harry under the cover of clattering plates and cutlery.

    Harry curbed the urge to tip the entire contents of the lasagne dish straight into Malfoy's lap. Hermione's cooking deserved a better fate.

    "No, but you might want to before the evening's out," he muttered back, and passed the dish hastily to Ron before he could change his mind.

    Nothing much more was said until the dishes were washing themselves in the sink and the ice-cream was handed around, although there were one or two raised eyebrows when Malfoy grudgingly got up to help Hermione serve it.

    Dean broke the uneasy silence in the end.

    "I heard you raided Knockturn Alley today," he said, grinning at Harry and Ron. Malfoy looked up at this, although he didn't say anything. "Find anything interesting?"

    "Nah." Ron looked disgusted. "We were looking for poisoned tea, but there wasn't a sniff of the stuff. We picked up a few other bits and pieces that were dodgy though. I mean, there's absolutely no good reason for anyone to sell human eyeballs - even if the donors were willing, and they couldn't prove that. The documentation was practically non-existent and they had a sign up saying they were certified Muggle eyeballs, for crying out loud. I hate to think where they got them from."

    "Muggle hospitals and mortuaries," Malfoy said unexpectedly.

    At the other end of the table, Ginny very quietly pushed her ice-cream away, looking a bit green, and there was a pause during which the others stared at him, revolted. He continued to eat his ice-cream but wouldn't meet anyone's eyes.

    Seamus put his spoon down very deliberately.

    "Done that yourself, have you?" he asked pointedly.

    "No." Malfoy said quietly. He looked up at Seamus. "Whatever else you might think of me, Finnigan, I've never been a grave-robber."

    "No, I couldn't imagine you dirtying your hands," Dean said. His voice was tight with control; he was Muggle-born, like Hermione.

    Harry felt his skin begin to prickle; the atmosphere had gone from calm to knife-edge in seconds, and he could feel the tension rolling off Ron like a physical wave of heat.

    "Change the subject, please," he said curtly. He didn't want Ron or Seamus starting a fight if it could be avoided.

    "Er - did you turn over the whole Alley, or just certain shops?" Neville asked quickly.

    "Just a handful of the most likely suspects," Harry replied, as calmly as he could. Seamus's glare was threatening to combust the tablecloth at any moment. "Mostly the ones selling Seers' equipment, since it was tea involved."

    Dean took the hint and tried to force some humour into his voice. "What about that perfume shop, Harry - what was it called?"

    "Casbah Intoxica." Harry rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I thought someone was going to bring that up."

    "Find anything interesting in there?" Dean insinuated, grinning at him.

    Ron relaxed, giving a tiny snort of laughter. "He wouldn't go inside!"

    "Neither would you, if you'd been blasted with Jezebel the last time," Harry retorted irritably.

    Malfoy dropped his spoon on the floor with a clatter, muttered an apology and disappeared under the table to find it. When he re-emerged, Harry thought he looked a bit strange, but mentally shrugged it off.

    "Has everyone finished?" Hermione asked. There was a mutter of agreement, so she leaned forward and tapped the water jug with the handle of her spoon. "Okay, House Meeting!"

    Dean and Seamus groaned.

    "Do I stay for this?" Malfoy asked her.

    "You're living here, aren't you? Come on, everyone, settle down!"

    Ron sighed, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms.

    "Go on, throw it at us," he said, resigned. "Item one!"

    Ginny giggled.

    "Who forgot their privacy spell again the other day?" Hermione asked archly.

    Harry stared at her. "We didn't! Did we?" He looked at Ron. "Did we?"

    "Don't we always? According to everyone else, that is ...."

    "Yeah, you did," Dean told him, "and let me tell you, that was your worst lapse yet."

    Harry felt the heat climbing his face. "Can I ask a question? Why do you always wait until house meetings to tell us? If it's so bloody annoying, why doesn't one of you bang on our door at the time?"

    "Because there's enough banging going on already?" Seamus suggested.

    "Hey!" Ginny protested. "Eww! That's my brother, thanks, and I'd rather not think about him doing ... that."

    "You don't have to think about it. You can hear him at it - "

    "Settle down!" Hermione intervened uselessly.

    "Actually, Harry's got a point there – why are all you perverts listening anyway? You should be asleep!"

    "Asleep! How can anyone sleep with that going on?"

    "Well, we're not the only ones – "

    "No, you're just the worst offenders ...."

    "I think you could at least think of my potted mandrakes!"

    This was Neville and there was an instant, startled pause. Then Ron subsided into juvenile sniggers.

    Harry fought to keep a straight face. "You know, Nev, I've usually got something other than your potted plants on my mind at the time."

    "I'm serious!" Neville was quite indignant. "I was in the middle of re-potting adolescent mandrakes last week, and do you have any idea how dangerous it is to handle immature mandrakes after anything like ... like that?"

    Dean gave him a bemused look. "Neville ... it wasn't you doing anything." A look of horror crossed his face. "And if it was, and you were, I don't want to know about it."

    "I think we're getting off the subject here!" snapped Hermione. She turned to Harry and Ron. "You broke Rule Six: You get shopping duty this month."

    "We get shopping duty every month," Ron grumbled, but he didn't argue with her.

    "The list's on the fridge door. It's up to you where you go to get the stuff." Hermione forged ahead like a beleaguered general. "Next item, finances. Seamus, you still owe the kitty two Galleons and a Sickle from last time."

    He dug into his pocket wordlessly and pulled out a handful of change, dropping the three coins on the table in front of her.

    "Thank you." She pulled a folded envelope out of her jeans pocket. "Dean, we got the phone bill yesterday. I think most of the calls were yours – if you want to make the cheque out, I'll settle with you for mine."

    "Will do." He took the envelope from her.

    "You have a telephone here?"

    That was Malfoy, and Hermione blinked in surprise; he had been keeping very quiet.

    "Yes, we do."

    His brow furrowed. "Why?"

    "Because some of us have relatives who prefer using the phone to owl mail."

    "Got a problem with that?" asked Dean, bristling.

    "Not at all. I was merely curious."

    "Well, keep your curiosity to yourself. It's none of your business."

    "Fine, fine! Forget I said anything." Malfoy slumped back in his chair sullenly.

    Hermione moved on quickly. "We'll be getting the usual bills for contributions to the Floo network, rent and so on shortly. I'll leave the kitty box in the usual place. Is everyone happy for me to sort those out, or does someone else want to take over?"

    "I'll take over for a while, if you're fed up with it," Harry offered.

    She smiled at him. "Thanks, but I don't mind for now." Her face slid into a sudden frown. "Actually, that reminds me …." She glanced at Malfoy. "Did I mention to you that we split the household bills between us?"

    "If you did, it got lost somewhere between making bechamel sauce and tossing the salad," he replied politely. "But in any case, there's a small problem with that. I would pay my share, but I don't have any money."

    The silence that followed this was incredulous.

    "You were rolling in Galleons at school!" Neville exclaimed, voicing the general disbelief.

    "I used to get an allowance from my father, but that was cut off about six months ago. And since I don't have a job, I don't have any money of my own." Malfoy's tone remained mild, but Harry could feel him tensing up. Whether it was from anger, embarrassment, or a simple desire not to start a quarrel was unclear.

    Not quite sure why he felt a need to intervene on his old nemesis's behalf, Harry nevertheless did so.

    "Look, it's not a big deal. I'll talk to Sirius about it on Monday."

    Hermione agreed to this so quickly that he had to wonder if she'd been on the verge of jumping in too. The group was like a powder keg, all too ready to explode at the slightest excuse.

    "All right, I think that's everything. Does anyone else have anything to raise?" No one said anything. "Right, fine. Meeting closed."

    xXx

    Harry was running up the stairs to get his chess set later that evening, when he noticed Malfoy standing in the doorway of his room, looking lost and aimless.

    Harry was fundamentally a kind-hearted person. He tried to keep going, but halfway up the next flight of stairs he slowed to a halt. As much as he tried to tell himself that Malfoy's welfare was not his problem, he couldn't simply ignore him. Heaving an exasperated sigh (more at himself than anything else), he turned around and went back.

    Malfoy was still standing in the doorway.

    "Are you okay?" Harry asked him.

    The blond youth dug his hands into the pockets of his jeans and shrugged. Harry reflected that this was the most Muggle-looking he had ever seen him, but he couldn't decide if it looked right or not. Annoyance sharpened his tone.

    "Why are you standing around in the passage?"

    The usual smirk was very fleeting. "I don't have much else to do."

    "So why don't you go downstairs and join the others in the living room?"

    Malfoy nodded. "Yes, I'm sure that would be a popular move."

    He had a point. Harry sighed.

    "Do you want a book to read?"

    There was a tiny pause in which they stared at each other, and Harry wondered what on earth was going on behind those enigmatic grey eyes. Then Malfoy nodded again.

    "Yes. Thank you."

    "Come on then."

    So Harry led the way up to the room in the attic that he shared with Ron.

    There was a long bookcase behind the door, that was crammed tight with books on all manner of subjects - old school books, spell-books, demonologies, potion recipe books, Ron's huge collection of volumes on every conceivable aspect of clairvoyancy, divination and prognostication, Harry's wizard warfare reference books and Quidditch manuals, and other more mundane volumes such as poetry and fiction. More books were piled in front of the bookcase, by the side of the bed, and on top of the big chest of drawers under the window.

    Harry scanned the shelves, wondering what to give the other youth to read. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Malfoy looking around curiously, although he made no move to touch anything.

    Stacks of books aside, the room was generally neat and tidy. Harry was a compulsive neat-freak and always had been, while Ron tended to be much more untidy, but they had discovered within a month of moving in together that they had to keep some semblance of order, or not only could they not find things but they also had arguments about it.

    There was the big bookcase taking up one whole wall, apart from a small space where they hung the clock and a couple of hooks to hold outdoor cloaks; and the chest of drawers under the window, with its clutter of books, tarot cards, scrying bowls and crystals on top. Two owl cages, one each for Hedwig and Pigwidgeon, stood on the window ledge, currently empty. One end of the room had a built-in closet where they kept all their clothes, and there was a big armchair in front of it that Mrs. Weasley had given Ron when they first moved into the student house. The small bedside cabinet that matched nothing else in the room was Harry's. But mostly the bedroom was dominated by the big four-poster bed, with its dramatic black velvet drapes spangled with gold moons and stars. They had been a gift from Ginny at Christmas, and in private Ron would huff about them in exasperation, although they still made Harry chuckle whenever he looked at them.

    Malfoy made no comment about any of it, although Harry doubted his sharp eyes missed anything.

    "What do you prefer to read?" he asked, to break the silence. "We've got a bit of everything here."

    The blond youth blinked and looked at him. "I don't mind."

    "Are you fussy about reading Muggle novels?" Harry pulled a couple of his Agatha Christie paperbacks from the shelf and held them out.

    Malfoy accepted them gingerly. "I don't think I've ever read any. My father doesn't approve of Muggle books."

    "He's not here. Live a little. Ever read any Shakespeare?"

    "Of course." This was said a little stiffly. "Shakespeare was one of us, Potter."

    Harry breathed a laugh. "Why does every race and nationality try to claim Shakespeare as their own? What about Dickens?" It was tempting to give him A Tale of Two Cities but Harry selected A Christmas Carol instead. That would be pointed enough. "Here, try this - it's a classic. Got anything to write with?"

    "Why?"

    "Oh, I don't know. I just thought you might want to write. You could keep a diary, for all I know. Or you might decide to confess all your sins."

    "Unlikely." Malfoy's tone was dry, but he accepted the Dickens. "Thank you."

    The door opened and Ron walked in. He stopped short at the sight of Malfoy and an indescribable expression crossed his face before his eyes met Harry's.

    Malfoy's manner changed at once, his eyes narrowing and his voice sliding into the familiar poisoned-honey tone.

    "Oh dear. The girlfriend's come home early."

    Harry saw the muscles in Ron's jaw jump and the blue eyes began to smoulder with anger, but for a wonder he restrained himself and merely held the door open pointedly.

    Malfoy took the hint, but he couldn't leave without setting a final barb in the red-head's flesh.

    "Nice bed," he said as he passed him. "Very … comfortable."

    Harry experienced a strong desire to push him head first down the steep attic stairs. Instead, he shut the door firmly behind him and turned to look at Ron.

    "What was he doing in here?" demanded Ron furiously.

    "Oh, I've fulfilled a long-held ambition," Harry replied blandly. "I screwed him on our bed in ten minutes flat."

    Ron's eyes widened and his mouth opened and closed silently. Harry rolled his eyes.

    "I lent him a couple of books, that's all!"

    "Why?"

    "Because he had nothing else to do …."

    "So? Who cares?" Ron stared at him. "Why do you care?"

    Good question. Harry shrugged uneasily. "I don't know that I do care. It just occurs to me that a Malfoy with nothing to do is a Malfoy who's going to get up to mischief."

    "So what? I vote we just keep him locked in his room while he's here. It's simpler and less annoying for everyone."

    Ron stalked into the middle of the room, rubbing his hands on the seat of his jeans agitatedly. Harry watched him, wondering why he was getting so worked up. This looked like more than just annoyance over an old enemy.

    "We can't do that, Ron. Those spells were set up for emergencies, and besides - he hasn't done anything."

    "Yet. Yet!"

    "And maybe he won't."

    "Why are you defending him?"

    This was hurled at him like an accusation and it was all the more disturbing to Harry because it sounded like Ron was working up to a quarrel, and the one thing they had never done so far was have a serious fight about anything.

    "I didn't think I was." His own tone was quiet, defensive. "I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, though."

    "That'll get you killed one day."

    "Look, what's this really about?" Harry demanded. "If there's something bugging you, tell me."

    There was a strained silence. Then Ron said curtly, "I don't like the way he keeps looking at you."

    "Huh?" Harry stared at him, astonished. What the hell ...?

    "You heard me."

    "Yeah, but ...." One look at Ron's face warned Harry to be very careful what he said next. It had never been an issue before, but of the two of them Ron was definitely the one with the jealous personality and he had a quick temper to go with it.

    Oh crap, Harry thought.

    "I hadn't noticed," he admitted, with absolute truth.

    "Yeah, I worked that out." Ron was still scrubbing his hands on his jeans nervously; clearly he wasn't happy. "He talks to you differently too."

    "He does?"

    "Yeah."

    Actually, that was true, Harry realised. He hadn't really noticed it before, as Malfoy was projecting his usual smart-ass attitude in front of the others, albeit a somewhat subdued version. But when he had talked to Harry moments ago his whole tone and attitude were different, enough that when he spoke to Ron it was noticeable that the claws came out.

    Great, just great.

    "You realise he's probably doing it deliberately, to drive you nuts," Harry pointed out reasonably.

    "You think?" Ron's smile was twisted, humourless.

    "Well, yeah! You don't seriously think he fancies me, do you?" One look at his friend's face told him that he did. Harry stared at him helplessly. "Ron ... this is the bloke who two days ago practically called us a pair of queers to our faces. This is Malfoy. Of course he's messing with your head."

    "Maybe he is and maybe he isn't," Ron said, with difficulty, "but he's living under the same roof as us, Harry, and I can't just ... ignore it."

    "You've got to try, Ron, or we're all going to be at each other's throats for the next few weeks."

    Ron turned away. Starting to feel a little panicky – this was a wholly unfamiliar situation for him – Harry tried again.

    "Look, you idiot, it's not like I'm remotely interested in him. I never have been! In case you've forgotten, it wasn't Malfoy I nearly failed my NEWTs over ...."

    As he had hoped, Ron gave a muffled laugh. Their seventh year at Hogwarts had certainly been something else, fraught with about a dozen different varieties of tension that made the impending NEWTs examinations seem like a side issue.

    Relieved, Harry grabbed his arm and gently pulled him around to face him. Ron was looking slightly pink under his freckles, the way he did when he was particularly worked up about something and trying to hide it.

    The corner of Harry's mouth twitched. "Come on, don't get me started or I'll say something really embarrassing ...."

    "Yeah, we wouldn't want that." But Ron's grin wavered, and his voice wobbled a little. "You know what? This has been a really crap month, all things considered."

    "Yeah," Harry admitted, thinking that actually that was a huge understatement.

    Unfortunately, he had a sinking feeling that the worst was yet to come.

    Chapter Text

    Harry recognised the three men each standing, with hands linked, on a point of the triangle chiselled into the stone floor.

    The first was Lucius Malfoy, his white-blond hair ghostly in the low light of the chamber.

    The second was Voldemort, no longer quite human looking with red eyes like a lizard staring out unblinkingly from the unhealthy white skin of his face.

    And the third was Ron, his bright red hair like a beacon and his face pale underneath the freckles. His jaw was set, his blue eyes grim and despairing.

    The chant the three were performing was unfamiliar to Harry, although he recognised some of the words and cadences as being part of a power-raising rite. What the power was for he didn't need to ask. There was blood inside the triangle, poured out dark and glistening in the shape of a rune ... a rune Harry had learned off by heart many years before.

    That single rune, utterly unique, encompassed his own name.

    Voldemort was using Ron to raise power to kill him.

    xXx

    Harry awoke with a jolt; an experience that was becoming bitterly familiar to him.

    Ever since Draco Malfoy had moved into the student house, he had been dreaming with increasing and painful regularity. It was reaching a point where a portion of almost every night, however short, was spent in the grip of a nightmare, which more often than not he had to be woken out of by Ron. It was making both of them bleary-eyed and irritable.

    Harry's weak hope that Ron had escaped this one was shattered when a sleep-blurred voice said, "I wouldn't mind so much if we got something useful from these dreams."

    He sighed and rolled over, burrowing against Ron's side in search of warmth; although more of the emotional variety than physical heat. "So much for dreaming true, huh?"

    "What was it about this time?"

    "You were helping Voldemort raise a spell to kill me."

    "Nothing new then." Ron sighed deeply. "Nice image, Harry."

    "Tell me about it," Harry mumbled unhappily. "What do you think it means?"

    "Dunno. I'm trying not to think."

    Predictive dreams are not literal, Harry told himself desperately. It's a metaphor for something else .... Unfortunately, he couldn't think of any good metaphors in connection with Voldemort.

    "What about the triangle?" he asked.

    "Three points to a triangle ... three wizards ...." Ron's voice caught on a yawn, and his voice was rough with exhaustion. "Um ... three's the most powerful number after nine, hence the saying 'all things come in threes'."

    "It was a power-raising circle, if that isn't a stupid thing to say about a triangle – "

    "Three wizards constitute a working circle. Who was the strongest wizard out of the three?"

    This wasn't as silly a question as it sounded. According to the books, when wizards worked as a group, personal power meant much less; theoretically even a very weak wizard might become more powerful than his peers when working in unison. Harry thought about it, trying to work out who was in control of the circle in his dream.

    "You were," he said, mildly surprised.

    "That's new, isn't it?" Ron blinked at him, trying to focus on the conversation despite being half asleep.

    "Yeah ...." Harry frowned, wondering what the significance of this might be. "If you were the most powerful wizard in the circle, Voldemort wouldn't be able to do much to influence the way the spell worked, would he?"

    "Depends on what support he could call upon from the third wizard. Who was it?"

    "Lucius Malfoy."

    "Ah."

    "It isn't always him. Last time, it was Lestrange."

    "They're both pretty strong wizards in their own right." Ron bit his lower lip. "I'm not."

    "By comparison, maybe. But they're not Seers either, and nor is Voldemort. Don't sell yourself short." Harry shrugged slightly. "Besides, it was a dream." He sighed and sat up.

    "What are you doing?" Ron asked.

    "You know what Sirius said - I'd better write it down. Pass me my glasses, would you?"

    Ron sighed and pulled himself upright. He reached across to the bedside table and felt for Harry's spectacles and his own wand, muttering "Lumos" to the latter when he found it. The light made the gold moon and stars pattern on the bed curtains sparkle, and he sighed in disgust.

    "These bloody curtains remind me of those stupid lampshades in Trelawney's classroom. I don't know what Ginny was thinking of."

    Harry grinned as he pulled his glasses on and his focus went from fuzzy to clear. He slid off the end of the bed, pushing the curtains out of the way, and shuffled across to the chest of drawers, absently hitching up his pyjama bottoms as he went.

    "You know what we forgot last night?" he said as he rummaged around for parchment and a quill.

    "The privacy spell? It's not like it matters – we haven't been getting up to anything lately. Too knackered."

    Harry glanced across at Ron; the red-head was giving him a very wistful look. "Yeah, I've been thinking about that ...."

    "Haven't we all?" Ron picked up the edge of the quilt and peered underneath. "Thinking is about as good as it gets at the moment."

    Harry snorted a laugh and walked back to the bed, paper and pen in hand. "No, I meant that I've been thinking about the whole dreaming thing. Maybe it would be better if I slept on the living room sofa for a while."

    "Eh? Don't be stupid."

    "At least it would give you a break."

    Ron looked up at the ceiling as if asking for patience. "You know, there's this whole rigmarole that includes the words "in sickness and in health" somewhere .... Besides, you're not safe sleeping on the sofa. There's no lock on the door."

    Harry made a massive blot on the parchment and swore. "What?! You don't seriously think – Ron, he's been living here for over two months now, and he hasn't made a single move on me!"

    "That's what you think. He still looks at you, and it's still you that he talks to, if anyone. And in case you hadn't noticed, it's always you he sits next to at dinner."

    "That's probably because everyone else goes out of their way not to sit next to him. Including you, I might add." Harry scratched out an outline of his dream onto the parchment, hoping his handwriting wouldn't be too bad to read the next day. The quilt wasn't the best of surfaces to lean on.

    "I hadn't thought of that. I'll swap places with you tomorrow."

    "Good – please do. You can put up with his snarky little comments about everyone."

    Ron gave him sharp look. "What kind of snarky comments?"

    Harry shrugged, not sure he wanted to elaborate. "Oh, you know - the usual. The stuff he's been churning out for the last ten years, basically."

    "Pureblood supremacy crap?"

    "A bit. And other variations. Sometimes he comes out with comments about you and me, just for a change."

    No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Harry wished he could take them back. Ron's eyes narrowed ominously at once.

    "What kind of comments?"

    "Just homophobic twaddle. Honestly, what do you expect? He made it quite clear what he thought of us before he ever moved in here."

    "That's a bit rich, considering how he's behaving around you now!"

    "Oh, he is not! And if he is, he's doing it to wind you up, the same way he tries to wind me up by humming – " Harry caught himself just in time and turned his attention back to his parchment. But Ron wasn't to be put off.

    "Go on! Wind you up by humming what?"

    "Nothing. I'm probably over-reacting anyway. I mean, where would he have heard Muggle songs and musicals?"

    "What?" Now Ron looked bewildered, on top of his indignation.

    "He was humming "It's Harry I'm Planning To Marry" yesterday," Harry confessed reluctantly. Seeing Ron's puzzled expression, he added, "It's from a Doris Day musical – Calamity Jane. Aunt Petunia used to watch old movies like that on TV during the afternoons."

    From the look on Ron's face he was clearly torn between laughter and outrage. "Anything else?"

    "Isn't that enough?" No way was Harry going to admit that Malfoy had been singing "Do Do Ron Ron" under his breath. Harry hated that song with a passion anyway, and he suspected Malfoy had picked up on his aggravation.

    "Why don't you just belt him? That'd shut him up fast enough."

    "Because I'd rather eat my dinner than plaster it all over the dining room during a brawl. And if you think Seamus wouldn't take the opportunity to turn it into a brawl, you're living on another planet!"

    "I don't blame him; I wouldn't mind a pop at Malfoy myself. "It's Harry I'm Planning To Marry" – cheeky git! He'd better not be getting ideas."

    Harry gave him an amused look. "He's not making passes at me, Ron. Really and truly."

    Ron gave him a long-suffering look in response. "Harry, you wouldn't notice a pass if it walked up wearing a big, flashing sign and goosed you in public."

    "Actually, I have noticed." Like he could ignore Ron's foot teasing him under the quilt. "Stick a privacy spell on the door while I finish this, and I'll be with you."

    Ron grinned. "About sodding time too!"

    xXx

    When Harry suggested that Ron take his seat next to Malfoy at the dinner table, he hadn't been serious. The two of them were far too adversarial, and the communal meal was often stressful enough, what with Seamus perpetually itching for an excuse to start a fight and Malfoy's soft-voiced little comments under the cover of general dinnertime noise. Not that the other housemates were any better. Apart from Ginny, who made it her business to stay well out of Malfoy's way, there wasn't one of them who didn't take every opportunity offered to stick the knife into their old enemy and twist it a little.

    Harry felt like he was living in a guerrilla war-zone, and very often he was the only buffer that prevented the sniping exploding into full-scale violence.

    Oh, there were brief lulls in the battle, when for as much as an hour or two the old enmities seemed to have been put to one side and they could all talk and even joke, albeit a little stiltedly. But it never lasted; someone would say something that rang a false note and almost instantly the walls would go back up and the gun turrets be manned again.

    And this had been going on for nearly ten weeks.

    Negotiation only went so far; you could talk to Hermione and Neville, and bargain with Dean, but there was no persuading Seamus or Ron to compromise. Seamus wasn't interested in ending the siege; he wanted payback for seven years of aggravation at school. And Harry had to proceed with extreme care with Ron lest it trigger a domestic quarrel.

    So his feelings, when he saw Ron actually taking the seat next to Malfoy at dinner, could only be imagined. It was no comfort at all that Malfoy looked equally startled and uneasy at the unexpected change. Worse, Seamus's expression was as predatory as Harry had ever seen it.

    All appetite for Dean's dinner of fish and chips promptly deserted him. Under the cover of everyone grabbing their chairs, Harry muttered to Ron "Swap seats with me."

    "No, why? We agreed, didn't we?"

    "Yeah, in the middle of the night when I wasn't thinking straight."

    Ron's blue eyes were brimming with innocence. "Don't worry. I'm not going to start anything."

    "It's not you I'm worried about ...."

    "Eat your dinner."

    It was useless. Harry prodded at his chips and even managed to force a couple down, but there was a solid lump in his stomach from anxiety. Catching his tension, most of the others were also silent, although Seamus kept up a cheerful running monologue about an incident at Gringotts involving fake diamonds.

    Then it happened.

    "I forgot the vinegar," Malfoy said very quietly; he'd set the table for Dean. He stood up. "I'll get it – "

    "Nah, I'm nearer – I'll go." That was Seamus, suspiciously amiable.

    Harry looked up, surprised and wary, just in time to catch the look Ron and Seamus exchanged. Then the sandy-haired Irishman was heading for the larder.

    Harry gave up on his meal entirely and put his fork down. When Seamus returned, he held the vinegar bottle out to Malfoy casually.

    "There you go ...."

    From the resigned look on the blond youth's face, he had already realised there was something wrong with it, but he took it anyway. Harry had to lean right across Ron to snatch the bottle out of his fingers.

    "Harry!"

    "Hey - !"

    "Manners, Harry ...." Seamus was giving him a tight smile that bordered on a glare.

    "Yeah, for crying out loud, you don't even like vinegar ...." That was Ron.

    A mantra was repeating over and over at the back of Harry's head: I will not fight with Ron, I will not fight with Ron .... Which unfortunately left only one other option.

    Glaring back at Seamus, Harry said sharply, "What have you done to it?"

    The sudden silence was profound.

    Seamus's lip lifted in a sneer. "Well, hell, you're the mighty Auror. You tell me."

    "Fine!" Harry flipped the lid of the bottle and shook a couple of drops onto the back of his hand. The vinegar had a very powerful, sharp scent of its own, but underneath he could just detect something else; an oily, slightly chemical smell. Probably nothing lethal, but whatever it was would surely ensure that anyone consuming it spent a few uncomfortable hours.

    "What is it supposed to do?" he demanded. "Give him the trots?"

    "Give me credit for a bit more imagination than that!" Seamus snapped back.

    "Oh that's great – that's really adult and mature of you!" Harry realised that his hands were shaking and clenched them together tightly.

    "What is your problem, Harry?"

    "My problem?"

    Whether it was the disturbed nights that were shortening his temper, or the constant tensions in the household, or even the low level worry about Ron and Voldemort's interest in him, he didn't know. Perhaps it was an unlucky combination of the three; but Harry was ready to explode.

    He tightened his grip on the vinegar bottle and pushed his chair back, standing up. Something in his face must have communicated his feelings to the others, for Hermione was also getting to her feet, her face alight with concern.

    "Harry – "

    He waved her off and pushed past Ginny's chair, stalking out of the kitchen and down the passage to the back door.

    At the rear of the house was a tiny brick yard with high walls on either side. Harry threw open the door, stepped outside and hurled the vinegar bottle at the opposite wall with all his strength. The crash it made was very satisfying, although the acid-yellow steam that arose from the liquid splattered so liberally down the wall only served as a reminder of why he had thrown it in the first place.

    Turning on his heel, he went back inside and slammed the door behind him. The silence from the dining room as he walked back up the passage perversely made him angrier, and he knew if he went back in there now he would probably end up quarrelling with them all. So he kept walking.

    Ron caught up with him just as he was taking a pinch of Floo powder from the jar on the living room mantelpiece. He looked really worried, but at that point Harry didn't really care.

    "Harry, where are you going?"

    "Out," he replied curtly.

    "But – "

    "Leave me alone, Ron! I'll be back later."

    "Harry!"

    Harry lit the fire with a flick of his wand and tossed the pinch of dust into it.

    "Godric's Hollow!" he snapped, and stepped into the green flames.

    xXx

    Godric's Hollow was the place where Harry's parents had gone into hiding, in an old, converted farmhouse. That building was gone, of course, reduced to rubble by the rebound of the curse that had been meant to kill him; he had been shown the ruins three years ago. But it was also the village where Remus Lupin and Sirius Black jointly owned a modest little house that, with typical perverse humour, Sirius had named "Two Hoots". It didn't happen often, but Harry had a habit of retreating there in moments of great stress, in much the same way as he had once sought refuge in Hagrid's cabin at Hogwarts.

    He was huddled in the corner of their big, squashy sofa now, listening to the homely sounds of Lupin making tea, and plucking moodily at the fringe on a cushion. Sirius, sprawled casually in an armchair opposite, was watching him with overt amusement.

    "I don't know why you don't just have a knock-down-and-drag-out fight with Ron," he commented. "It might clear the air a bit."

    "I don't fight with Ron," Harry said shortly.

    "Now, that's silly." Lupin was holding a mug of tea out to him over the back of the sofa. As soon as Harry had grasped it, he walked around to give Sirius his, then quietly sat on the other end of the sofa with his own. "Everyone fights with their other halves."

    "I don't. Not with Ron."

    Sirius and Lupin exchanged raised brows.

    "So what do you call throwing a tantrum, smashing things, and storming out of the house?" the former asked mildly.

    "I did not throw a tantrum!" Harry flushed indignantly. "I lost my temper, but – "

    "About time too," Lupin commented, interrupting him. "I'm staggered that you've managed to hang onto it for so long. Hermione's been worried sick about you, you know."

    Harry gaped. "She has? Why?"

    "She's been nagging me for weeks about the way you've ended up being the peacekeeper at home," Sirius put in. "She seems to think that you're on the verge of murdering someone – possibly Ron, although she also seemed to think that wasn't such a bad idea."

    "It's not Ron's fault that Malfoy is such a bloody irritating little git – "

    Sirius muttered a few choice comments about Malfoys in general and Draco in particular, but Lupin gave Harry a thoughtful look.

    "But according to Hermione, he isn't being so very difficult. Certainly not as difficult as Seamus is, for example, or – if you'll pardon me for saying so – Ron. Or is Hermione reading the situation wrongly?"

    Harry opened his mouth to protest ... and shut it again, not sure what to say. Absurdly, he wanted to defend both Ron and Malfoy. Which was surely the road to madness.

    "I like young Ron," Lupin said thoughtfully into the silence, "but I can't imagine him being the easiest person to live with."

    "I don't have any problems with Ron – " Harry began.

    "No, that's why you're sitting on our sofa, pulling a cushion apart." And Lupin firmly took the cushion away from him. "Well I've spent time with all the Weasley boys over the last few years, and of all of them I'd say that Ron and the twins are the ones who inherited Molly's temper. Not that Molly Weasley isn't the most wonderful, warm-hearted woman in Britain – because she is – but she's a very forceful and stubborn personality. As you know."

    Harry grinned reluctantly at this.

    Sirius leaned forward and put his mug on the coffee table between them. "Why don't you fight with Ron, Harry?"

    Harry twitched. "Because I don't like fighting with him. I hate bad atmospheres."

    "You've been living in a bad atmosphere for ten weeks now."

    "Yeah, and it's murder ...."

    "But it's not the same thing, is it? Why don't you want to tackle him about these things? You were prepared to face Seamus this evening – why not Ron?"

    "Ron didn't switch the vinegar – "

    "But he set Seamus up to do it, didn't he?"

    Harry grimaced. "I don't know that – but yes, it looked that way."

    "But it was Seamus you blamed, and then you walked out rather than deal with Ron." Sirius sat back, watching him. "You've been friends with him for ten years now. Do you remember when you were fourteen and you had that bust up with him over the Tri-Wizard Cup? When I spoke to you before the first task, you were nearly frantic – partly because you were facing a dragon the next day, but mostly because Ron wasn't talking to you."

    "What's your point?" Harry asked him, quietly defensive.

    "I'm getting there. You didn't have many friends before you met him, did you?"

    Harry smiled ruefully in spite of himself. "Sirius, I didn't have any friends. Dudley saw to that."

    "Quite. But you've been tight with Ron and Hermione ever since – and now you're a hell of a lot tighter with Ron. But you're still reacting like a fourteen year-old to any unreasonable behaviour on his part."

    "I repeat: What's your point?"

    "I think what Sirius is getting at is that you've established a pattern of behaviour with Ron," Lupin put in, before Sirius could reply. "You didn't like falling out with him when you were a teenager and, consciously or unconsciously, you decided to avoid falling out with him in the future. So you back away from confrontations with him at any cost."

    Harry was quiet for a moment, digesting this. "And how is that a bad thing?" he asked finally.

    "It's bad if he knows you do it," Sirius observed, "and I'm sure he does."

    "It's bad because he can use it to walk all over you," Lupin elaborated. "All he has to do is threaten a tantrum and you back down."

    "He doesn't – "

    "I'm not suggesting he consciously sets out to manipulate you, Harry, but if the end result is the same, what does it matter?"

    "It's not good to let him get his way all the time, Harry," Sirius said seriously. "Aside from the problems you're currently having, you're only going to get angry and resentful over time, until one day you really will have a fight with him – and it could be the end of things between you."

    Harry looked rather depressed at this assessment.

    "So you're saying I've got to learn to stand up to him?" he asked reluctantly. The idea was conjuring up some rather unpalatable visions.

    "Yes," Sirius said bluntly.

    "No," Lupin contradicted. He gave his old friend a sharp glance. "I wouldn't recommend taking on someone with a temper like Ron's unless you really enjoy squabbling all the time. Some people don't mind living in strife," he said acidly, giving Sirius a meaningful look, "but if you prefer a quiet life, then you're going to have to learn how to manage him some other way. I suggest you take a leaf out of Arthur Weasley's book. I don't know if you've noticed, but even though Molly seems to rule the roost most of the time, it's Arthur who's master of the household despite appearances."

    "I don't know that I want to be master of the household," Harry said uncomfortably. "I always thought it would be more of an equal partnership ...."

    "It can't be an equal partnership if Ron's walking all over you," Sirius pointed out. "Besides, relationships very rarely work out that way, despite what you may have heard. Someone has to be steering the ship; it can't be run by a committee."

    "And you're going to have to face up to the occasional quarrel in any case," Lupin added. "I imagine it'll happen the first time Ron realises he can't browbeat you into submission. And inevitably there are going to be occasions when the two of you feel strongly enough about something that neither of you will be prepared to back down. You're just going to have to accept that, Harry."

    Harry grunted, still digesting all this and wondering if he felt up to going home to a potential fight.

    "I'll make some more tea," Lupin suggested tactfully, and prised Harry's fingers from his mug.

    "If I'd been having this conversation with your dad," Sirius commented idly, as his friend disappeared back into the kitchen, "it probably would have involved alcohol and a lot more swearing. You know, Harry, your problem is that you're too damned nice."

    Harry smiled. "You think?"

    "I know. You wouldn't be in such a silly position with all your friends now, if you weren't. I'm damned if I'd try and mediate with that lot." Sirius leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "Alright, tell me the worst. What's dear Draco been up to?"

    "Nothing. That's the stupidest part of it." Then Harry sighed and rolled his eyes. "Unless, of course, you count Ron's belief that Malfoy's putting the moves on me."

    Sirius looked mildly horrified. "Oh my God!"

    "But I don't think he is."

    "Hm." Now Sirius was giving him a look of wary amusement. "So what makes Ron think he is?"

    Harry decided not to mention that Ron was a jealous person; that was probably rather redundant after the conversation they had just had. He shrugged instead.

    "He says that Malfoy keeps looking at me, and that he talks to me differently. He does talk to me more than to the others," he admitted.

    "I'm not surprised," Lupin called from the kitchen. "You're probably the only one who doesn't get a dig in at every opportunity."

    "I don't encourage him," Harry added quickly.

    "Harry, if he wants to talk to you, let him," Sirius said, becoming serious. "We've been talking to him for over two months now, and there's still a mountain of information he isn't giving us. Even Veritaserum has limits, and besides, it's not safe to use that for prolonged periods. But if he feels comfortable talking to you ...."

    "There's a slight problem with that," Harry said bluntly. "My other half gets very upset about it. I'll do what I can, but I'm not promising anything. It's a big enough strain living under the same roof as Malfoy."

    Sirius looked as though he had mixed feelings about this, but he nodded. "Well, do your best. I'm surprised he's picked you of all people to latch onto, though."

    "Stupid as it sounds, I think he might be lonely – well, I would be if I was in his position. But I honestly haven't encouraged him. All I've done is lent him a few books and tried to stop the others killing him."

    "Thereby becoming his champion by default," Lupin commented, coming to the kitchen door. "I imagine he's feeling very cut-off and lost, however arrogant he might appear, and that's a very emotional position to be in. If you've been nice to him, it's no wonder he's latched onto you."

    "Great," Harry sighed, "just great."

    xXx

    The living room was dimly lit when Harry stepped out of the fireplace an hour or so later. This didn't surprise him, for it was late, but what did surprise him was finding Ron slumped in a huge beanbag at the side of the fireplace. The redhead was fast asleep, snoring softly, with his head at an uncomfortable angle over the back of the beanbag. The floor around him was scattered with sheets of parchment and open books.

    Harry studied him for a moment, then shook his head and crouched down to pick up the papers. He was surprised to discover that they were his accumulated notes of the dreams he'd been having; and the books were all advanced volumes on interpretation. Ron had obviously been trying to work out patterns and meanings from his nightmares.

    "Ron ...." he breathed, exasperated and affectionate.

    "I was just wondering if I should try to move him."

    Harry jumped and dropped all the papers. Draco Malfoy was standing in the doorway, looking ridiculously ordinary in pale blue pyjamas and a dark green dressing-gown. He was holding a glass of milk.

    Harry stood up slowly. "Probably not a good idea, considering how he feels about you."

    "Oh I don't know." Malfoy took a couple of hesitant steps inside the room. "Granger shouted at us all after you left, which resulted in some rather desperate attempts at bonding to placate her."

    Harry raised a questioning brow at him.

    "We all played Exploding Snap for a couple of hours," Malfoy elaborated.

    "I hope someone took photos," Harry commented cynically, not sure whether to believe Malfoy or not. It sounded highly improbable.

    "I think you gave Weasley a fright. Granger tried to make him go to bed, but he wouldn't listen."

    "Yeah, well we don't fight much."

    Harry gathered up the papers and books again. Ron continued to snore in his beanbag.

    Malfoy tried once more. "I suppose I should thank you for preventing me taking any of that vinegar, but considering the rumpus it caused perhaps you would have been better leaving it alone."

    "Self-sacrifice doesn't suit you, Malfoy," Harry told him rather sharply. He shoved the bundle of books and papers at his old nemesis. "Here, hold these for a minute."

    He bent over Ron and patted his face lightly. "Ron ... Ron! Come on, wake up. Time for bed ...."

    It took a couple of attempts, but eventually he woke the sleeper enough to haul him out of the beanbag and onto his feet. Ron rubbed the back of his neck, grimacing, and gave Harry a very bleary and anxious look.

    "When did you come back?"

    "About ten minutes ago. Come on, upstairs with you."

    "What's he doing here?"

    "I don't know."

    "I was getting a drink," Malfoy said absently; he was flicking through Harry's notes on his dreams. "Still dreaming, Potter?"

    "Yes." Harry grabbed the notes back irritably. "Why, are you?"

    "As it happens, I am - "

    "Well, don't tell me about it. Write it down and give it to Sirius."

    The sharpness of his response brought an unexpected flash of hurt to Malfoy's face before his usual mask of bored indifference slipped back into place. Harry felt a twinge of guilt - and immediately felt angry with himself for feeling guilty. Then he looked at Ron and found that his friend was giving him a very worried look, which made him feel exasperated.

    I'm too tired to deal with any of this, he realised. He gave Ron a gentle push. "Come on - bed. 'Night, Malfoy."

    "Are you all right?" Ron asked him almost nervously, as they were climbing into bed.

    "I'm fine." Harry sighed inwardly. "Look, I'm sorry I bailed out earlier, but if I'd stayed I probably would have belted Seamus."

    "Oh." Ron hesitated and put the light out.

    There was a long pause, in which Harry was very aware that Ron was lying there, thinking. He could practically hear the wheels turning in his head.

    Here it comes, he thought ruefully.

    "Sorry about this evening."

    Ordinarily Harry would have simply accepted the apology and left it at that, no matter how annoyed he was. But tonight, thanks to his conversation with Sirius and Lupin, he was less inclined to do so.

    "Sorry about the row in general, or sorry you put Seamus up to starting it?" he asked dryly.

    The sudden, startled silence told him that Lupin had been right; Ron didn't expect Harry to challenge him. It was depressing to have first-hand evidence of the older man's theory, and a little unnerving because Harry really didn't want to fight.

    The silence went on long enough that he began to wish he hadn't said anything. Finally, he leaned over Ron and switched the light back on. They stared at each other a little warily.

    "I don't like Malfoy," Ron stated finally. His tone was definitely defensive.

    Harry nodded mildly. "I'm glad you told me that. I might never have realised otherwise."

    "Sarcasm is the last defence of the terminally humourless."

    This was a direct quote from Hermione, who always uttered it with complete conviction, despite her own lethally sarcastic tongue.

    "You only say that because you know you're in the wrong."

    The blue eyes flashed with anger. "There you go again! Why are you always his big defender?"

    "Because apparently someone needs to be!" Harry felt his stomach lurch unhappily at the sudden rise in tension, but did his best to ignore it. "What was in the vinegar, Ron?"

    Ron glared. "Bubotuber pus. Diluted Bubotuber pus."

    Harry hissed angrily through his teeth. "Great – you were planning to give him boils and abscesses all through his digestive system? For crying out loud, did you think about how ill that would make him? Ron, there are Muggles who live every day of their lives with a naturally occurring condition like that. It's hideously painful and sometimes even life-threatening."

    "You know what? I don't care!" Ron snapped furiously. "Think of some of the crap he's dished out to us over the years! I can think of at least three occasions when he tried to make you fall off your broom during Quidditch matches. Did he ever care how life-threatening that was? No, did he hell! Well, it's about time some of his curses came home to roost, Harry!"

    Harry stared at him, incredulous. "Ron, we were kids – none of us gave any thought to what we were doing – "

    "But he's not a kid now! How can you sit there and defend him when only months ago he would have happily handed you over to You-Know-Who?"

    "How can you expect me to sit back and watch while you try to prove that two wrongs really do make a right? How can it be right to feed him something that could land him in St. Mungo's for a month? It doesn't matter who he is! Ron, there are two big differences between then and now: We're adults, and he can't defend himself. He doesn't even have a wand! It would be one thing to challenge him to a wizard duel, but to pick on him when he's a sitting duck makes you as big a bully as he ever was."

    The silence that followed this was horrible.

    Then Ron, stony-faced, reached out and switched the light out, pulling the quilt up to his chin and turning his back on Harry.

    For several minutes Harry could do nothing but lie there and stare at the back of his head, trembling. He wondered why on earth he hadn't simply kept his mouth shut, and what was going to happen next.

    Except that he knew exactly what was going to happen. Harry knew that he couldn't live in a poisonous atmosphere like this; if Ron was still ignoring him in the morning, he would be ready to do or say almost anything to make peace with him. And therein lay the heart of the problem.

    It can't be an equal partnership if Ron's walking all over you, Sirius had said.

    Harry was in the right, and he knew it; giving in to Ron on this issue couldn't possibly be healthy for them or their relationship.

    Taking his courage in both hands, and telling his churning stomach to shut up, he sat up and resolutely switched the light back on. When Ron didn't move, he gave him a sharp shove.

    "Hey – don't you dare ignore me!" When there was no respond, he thumped him harder. "Damn it, you are not going to lie there and make me feel guilty, Ron! You started this – you can damn well finish it."

    Auror training made for great reflexes, which was just as well for Ron erupted from under the quilt, lashing out in his rage. Harry blocked the blow before he fully realised what had happened, and the pair of them were suddenly staring at each other from opposite sides of the bed, breathless, angry and accusing.

    "What do you want from me, Harry?"

    Harry flinched; Ron had all but yelled at him. "I want you to realise what you're doing!" he snapped back. "What is it going to take to make you see? Why did you get Seamus to do your dirty work yesterday, huh? Because you were scared that thing on your back would punish you if you did it yourself, weren't you?"

    "What would you know about it?" Ron's voice cranked up a notch. The sudden hectic flush on his face told Harry that he had hit a nerve. "Do you have any idea what it's like, Harry? It's on my mind all the time – will this or that set it off? What constitutes a wrong intention?"

    Harry groaned. "Ron, if you think what you're doing is going to trigger it, then I'd say that's a pretty good indication!"

    "You don't get it, do you! I HAVEN'T DONE ANYTHING WRONG! I'm being punished for something I haven't done, Harry, and have you any idea how much that pisses me off? And it's because of HIM!" Ron was thumping the quilt with his fist in a desperate attempt to get his feelings across.

    "But it's not."

    The three small words dropped like ice cubes between them. Ron sat back, aghast.

    "How can you say that?"

    "Because it's true and you know it." Harry stared back at him, searching his face desperately. "Ron, you've got to get past this. It wasn't really him. He jinxed your broom and palmed a ju-ju off onto you – and that's all. Everything else was Voldemort. Voldemort is the real villain, not Malfoy; Malfoy was just a petty errand boy. You're taking your anger out on the wrong person and you're putting yourself at risk by doing it."

    There were so many emotions running across Ron's face that it was impossible to tell which one was dominant. Finally, he slumped back against the pillows, looking drained and despondent.

    "I want payback, Harry. I want to get this damn Seal off my back and ram it down someone's throat."

    "But not Malfoy's. Just leave him alone, he's already suffering enough."

    "Suffering! Him?" For a moment Harry thought that Ron was going to start again.

    "He's in the same predicament, isn't he? He's wearing the Seal too. He has no wand, no friends, he's abandoned his family, and he's stuck in a house full of people who hate him, with nowhere to go. Bizarre as it might seem to you, Ron, yes, I think he might actually be suffering."

    "Good." But the retort lacked force.

    They sat in silence for a while, but to Harry's intense relief the animosity seemed to have gone. Ron, he noted, looked like he felt himself; utterly exhausted. Perhaps that explained why the senior Aurors emphasised a need to avoid anger when confronting an opponent. It certainly sapped your energy. Finally Ron looked up and met Harry's eyes. Even his freckles looked a bit faded.

    "So was that our first real fight?" he asked.

    "Looks like it."

    "Crap. I'm not doing that again."

    "Good. I'm not keen to try it again myself."

    Ron wordlessly held out one hand to him, and Harry was quick to take it, lacing his fingers with Ron's. The red-head suddenly laughed weakly.

    "I can't believe we had our first fight over Draco Malfoy. God, what a waste!"

    Harry grinned. "I hope it's the last fight we have over him."

    But Ron raised a brow at him. "I'm not promising anything!"

    "Just ignore him, Ron, that's all I ask - "

    "And how am I supposed to do that when he's lusting after something of mine?"

    Harry rolled his eyes. "He is not!"

    "Yeah, dream on. Well, I'll try to ignore him, but I'm warning you - I'll kill him if he tries anything!"

    Harry snorted. "Fine. I'll hold your cloak!"

    It wasn't until they had switched the light off and spooned up under the covers that Harry remembered something.

    "Ron?"

    "Yeah?"

    "What's this about all of you playing Exploding Snap together?"

    A sleepy snicker emanated from under the quilt. "Trust me - you don't want to know!"

    xXx

    Harry encountered a rather sheepish Seamus on his way to the bathroom the next morning. The Irishman clearly wasn't sure what to say to him as they passed each other in the doorway.

    "Er - alright, Harry?" he managed.

    Harry blinked at him, still half-asleep. "Yeah. You?"

    "Er - yeah." Seamus lingered, preventing him from shutting the door. "Um … is everything okay with you and Ron?"

    "Fine, thanks."

    "I just thought … well, I thought I heard some yelling in the night - "

    "Crap, did we forget the privacy spell again?" That was Ron, trying to push his way past him. "We're going to be on shopping duty for the next six months at this rate. Morning, Seamus. Mind if I shut the door?"

    "What was that about?" he demanded of Harry, who was trying to get the shower to run at a reasonable temperature.

    "He's developing a guilty conscience," Harry said, shrugging. "Don't worry, it won't hurt him. Here - hop in, it's just about right now …."

    It was only when they emerged from the shower that they realised something odd appeared to be happening in the passage outside. They could hear a number of exclamations and giggles, punctuated by dull thuds.

    Ron gave Harry a wide-eyed look. "Do I want to know what's going on out there?"

    But before Harry could offer an opinion, someone hammered sharply on the door.

    "Harry! Give us a hand here!"

    "Ginny?" Harry pulled the door open and quickly ducked as something large and white came flying through. It hit Ron, who let out a stunned "oof".

    It was a pillow and as Harry watched, bemused, several more went whizzing past the doorway, accompanied by yells and shrieks. A quick peek around the doorframe showed that Hermione and Ginny were holed up at the bend in the stairs at one end of the passage, while Neville and Seamus were ducking inside their bedroom doorways at the other. Magically assisted pillows were zooming up and down like bludgers. Dean was nowhere to be seen, but from the angle of some of the missiles, Harry suspected he was lurking on the landing above.

    The fourth and final door on this floor, directly opposite the bathroom, suddenly opened and Malfoy appeared, half-dressed and frowning. An extra large, rather frilly pillow (probably one of Hermione's) narrowly missed him, making him leap back like a gazelle.

    "What the hell - ?"

    Ron sniggered. "Pillow fight!" he crowed and tossed his pillow out into the passage, giving a vigorous wave of his wand to send it flying in Neville's direction. An outraged yell proved that it had found its target.

    Seamus fired another pillow from his end of the passage, which collided violently with one sent by Ginny from the stairs. Harry, peering around the bathroom door, gave a quick flick of his wand that sent one of the pillows, an ugly yellow monstrosity back towards Ginny and Hermione, while the other one shot directly up the stairs after Dean.

    Shrieks, followed by more whizzing pillows. Malfoy, still foolishly standing in his doorway, opened his mouth to say something and promptly got the breath knocked out of him when Dean repelled Harry's pillow in his direction.

    "Malfoy, either shut your door or join in!" Harry told him, trying not to laugh at the former Slytherin's stunned expression. The pillow, a smaller one with a fuzzy fun-fur cover, had nearly knocked him over. Neville's, Harry decided, looking at it. Ron leaned around him and flicked his wand at it; it wrenched itself out of Malfoy's arms and went speeding down the passage after its owner.

    "Accio pillows!" Harry snapped, deciding to try and take control of the situation. It didn't work quite the way he expected; not only did the eight pillows from their bed in the attic come zooming to him at high speed, but also every other pillow in the game.

    "Oh, well done!" exclaimed Ron sarcastically, as he frantically tried to fend them all off. Maniacal laughter from both ends of the passage told them that the others were enjoying their predicament. He grabbed two or three of the pillows and lobbed them across the passage at Malfoy. "Chuck these for me – one at a time!"

    Looking confused, the blond youth obeyed and Ron set about creating a little mayhem. Yells and stampeding footsteps told them that Ginny and Hermione had decided to take their end of the battle further down the stairs. Dean was still lobbing pillows from above, but Harry and Ron were at a distinct disadvantage in the bathroom.

    "Bugger this," Harry told Ron, after warding off a quick succession of pillows from above. "Make a break for the stairs – I'll cover you."

    He gathered up five pillows in quick succession and used them to create a barrier to cover Ron as he dashed for the spot previously held by the girls. Then he sent them flying individually after the others at high speed.

    Malfoy was still lingering in his doorway, clearly undecided about whether to join in or not. His expression seemed to suggest that this was a totally unfamiliar situation for him and he hadn't a clue how to react. Harry, wondering briefly what Slytherin House had been like if they hadn't had a decent wizard pillow fight every now and again, made the decision for him by leaping across the passage and grabbing him by the wrist, dragging him at a run to the top of the stairs where Ron was crouching behind the banister rail. The pair of them plopped down behind Ron breathlessly, and ducked as a hail of pillows came directly at them.

    "Do I want to be here?" Malfoy demanded, just as Ron exclaimed "What did you bring him for?" The former sounded more intrigued than annoyed; Ron just looked perplexed.

    Harry ignored them both and set about sending pillows ricocheting up and down the stairs. Battle was well and truly joined now, with big, squashy missiles flying left, right and centre. Grunts and yells were interspersed general mad giggling, and everyone was having tremendous fun – everyone, that is, except Draco Malfoy, who huddled on the stairs behind Harry and Ron and watched the proceedings in astonishment.

    "You are all absolutely mad," he said finally, "certifiable."

    "Well, you're absolutely useless," Ron retorted, retrieving a pillow from the stair below him. "Can't you give us a hand here?"

    "I don't have a wand, Weasley. What do you want me to do – blow on them?"

    "No, I - oh, give it here – "

    "Please tell me this isn't yours." Malfoy handed the pillow, clad in its bright orange Chudley Cannons pillow-slip, over to Ron with a raised brow. "Aren't you a little old for matching bed linen?"

    "Shut up." Ron snatched the pillow from him and, with a sharp wrist movement that would have made Professor Flitwick proud, sent it whipping down the passage. "You're just lucky we didn't make you sleep with Neville's Martin Miggs stuff."

    "Incoming fire!" Harry warned, and ducked behind the banisters.

    Malfoy didn't move fast enough. What came hurtling around the corner wasn't a pillow at all – it was a bolster from a double bed, and it hit him like an express train. With a startled grunt he fell forward, throwing out both hands to prevent himself tumbling down the stairs.

    Exactly what happened then was unclear. Ron had just raised his wand to try and repel the bolster when Malfoy landed heavily on him and Harry. Harry lost his grip on the banister, and the three of them ended up in an untidy sprawl on the staircase.

    "Oof!" Harry gasped, and was just about to tell the other two to get off him when he felt a hair-raising sensation across his skin – literally hair-raising, somewhere between an electric shock and the first touch of a burn before it begins to hurt.

    That was all the warning he had before he felt a surge of magical energy like a 1000 volt electrical charge across his nerves; extraordinary power of a kind he had never experienced before, that roared through him like a fireball.

    It was excruciatingly painful; Harry would have screamed if only he had the breath to do so. As it was he was helpless to do anything as the power ran shrieking through his body, building and intensifying until he felt sure the pressure would burst his eardrums. Then it peaked –

    - and the power exploded out of him with an almighty BANG.

    The world seemed to turn upside down for a moment, and he blacked out. Bare seconds later he came around again briefly, only to discover that he was lying on his back on the landing above and that something weird was happening to his vision – everything had turned an odd pinkish colour and it seemed to be snowing.

    Mercifully he passed out again, this time more thoroughly.

    Chapter Text

    Sound came back first; the sound of low voices quietly discussing something.

    "I don't know, Dad. I was thinking of something a bit different ...."

    "Your mother has her heart set on this. And so many people will want to be there – it's a big event for the wizarding world."

    "Yeah, but he won't see it that way."

    "Well, think about it. But for heaven's sake don't say anything to him, she'll have my guts for garters if you do ...."

    Harry's eyes drifted open slowly. He was lying in a strange bed, half surrounded by floral screens, in a room that was reminiscent of the infirmary at Hogwarts. He was warm and comfortable, but there was a residual ache in every bone in his body, including his skull, and he felt no inclination to move whatsoever. He wondered where he was.

    Then a brisk, cheery voice spoke and the question was answered.

    "Well, well, look who's awake at last!" Ginny appeared at his bedside, dressed in her mediwitch's uniform. The stiff white head-dress and crisp blue robes made her look absurdly grown up as she smiled down at him and helped him take a sip of water to clear his mouth.

    He blinked up at her. "Am I in St. Mungo's?"

    "Hm-hmm. Chin up!" And she placed the tip of her wand under his chin, presumably to monitor his pulse or something.

    "What happened?"

    "Patience ...." Ginny was looking at one of those little upside down watches pinned to the breast of her robes. That was as far as the resemblance to a Muggle nurse's watch went, Harry suspected. "That looks fine," she commented, and gave him a very professional smile. "I'll just go and fetch Dr. Clinker. Dad and Ron are here – you can talk to them if you promise not to get overexcited."

    Harry rolled his eyes. "Thanks, Ginny!"

    She gave him a quirky smile that showed her relationship to Ron more clearly than even her red hair. "That's Nurse Weasley to you!"

    She disappeared around the screens, to be replaced by Ron and Mr. Weasley, both of whom looked very relieved to see him awake. Ron was up and dressed, but he looked very washed out under his freckles and wasn't moving with anything like his usual speed or grace. Mr. Weasley was wearing a formal Ministry robe.

    "Hey!" Ron greeted him, smiling. He took the hand Harry held out and gripped it tightly. "How are you feeling?"

    "Battered," Harry admitted. His eyes travelled over Mr. Weasley, wondering at the formal robe. But that could wait. "What happened?"

    Mr. Weasley took the chair next to the bed, while Ron carefully hitched one hip on the side of the mattress.

    "We're not sure," Mr. Weasley told him, "but whatever it was certainly caused a commotion."

    "Every alarm-spell in the house went off," Ron put in. "The place was swarming with Aurors, Obliviators, Unspeakables and Ministry warlocks in minutes. Not that I saw it, mind you – I was out cold, like you."

    Harry studied him anxiously. "Are you okay? Should you be out of bed?"

    "Not really, but we needed him to get up and vote," Mr. Weasley said dryly.

    "Vote? But – "

    "It's Polling Day," Ron said. "You've been here for nearly four days," he added, seeing Harry's startled look. "They gave you a knock-out potion, to give everything a chance to heal. You were sort of scorched on the inside – the doctor will explain."

    "I can believe it – I feel scorched! But what about you?"

    "Similar thing, but less so." Ron shrugged. "I'm okay, I just feel pretty weak and knocked about. I had to go and vote, though, because there was a big enough stir that you didn't turn up. Moody and Kisbie were desperate to keep all this out of the papers, so I was dragged in to make a token appearance with Hermione and the others." He grinned at Harry. "We fed Rita Skeeter a line about you still being mad as hell that you can't vote this time around and refusing to turn up even as a witness. She lapped it up."

    "Glad to be of use ...." Harry shook his head slightly, wincing at the swimming sensation it gave him behind his eyes. "Where's Malfoy? Did he have something to do with this?"

    "Probably, but no one's sure how at the moment." Ron scowled. "He got knocked out too, but they're holding him in the secure wing here until we can work it all out."

    "So are there any theories about what happened?"

    "A few," Mr. Weasley replied. "One thing we are sure of is that there was a very big surge of power from one of you. Ron thinks he was performing a Levitation Charm when it happened. Well, whatever it was, something simply exploded."

    "There isn't a pillow or cushion left in the house," Ron put in, grinning. "They were all ripped to shreds – blasted to dust, in fact. The place was covered in white fluff." His grin suddenly faded, and his grip on Harry's hand became painfully tight. "God, Harry, it was awful. I was thrown halfway up the stairs, and when I could see what had happened, all I could see was you on the landing – you were thrown up a whole floor. And you were covered in blood – I thought you were dead."

    "Your eardrums ruptured," Mr. Weasley clarified quietly, "and you burst a few blood vessels in your eyes. Nothing that couldn't be put right almost immediately, although your eyes are still a bit red. Of the three of you, Draco came off the lightest. He was thrown down the staircase and had a bad concussion, on top of being a bit scorched as Ron puts it. But he's already on his feet."

    "Dumbledore doesn't think it was anything he did," Ron added. His expression said that he disagreed with this assessment. "At least, nothing he did deliberately."

    "What does Malfoy say?"

    "That he doesn't know what happened, just that he fell on top of us and the next thing he knew he was at the bottom of the stairs."

    "While it's tempting to blame him," Mr. Weasley put in gently, "it's hard to see how he could have done anything. He doesn't have a wand, for one thing, and the Seal of Honour wasn't activated on either of you. But Dumbledore seems to have his own theory, so we'll just have to wait and see." He stood up, looking tired and a bit worried, but the smile he gave Harry was warm enough. "At least you're both all right. I'll be able to tell Molly that with a clear conscience …. I have to be off, now. The results are due in shortly."

    When he was gone, Ron lowered himself into the chair gingerly.

    "Are you sure you're all right?" Harry asked him, concerned.

    "Yeah, I'm just knackered." Ron leaned back in the chair, looking exhausted. "I didn't really want to go to the Polls, but Dad was right - there would have been an uproar if I hadn't. There was an absolute riot going on at the Polling Station in Diagon Alley, what with the press and candidates all hanging around. Rita was all ready to make a big deal about you not being there, especially since some of the rags like Witch Weekly were carrying on about the rest of us voting for the first time." He turned his head and looked at Harry apologetically. "Sorry, Harry - there are going to be headlines tomorrow. They all wanted to know why you weren't at least there with us, even though you couldn't vote, so I had to say something."

    "Don't worry about it. That was a pretty good line to feed her, actually."

    "'Cept she'll probably want a follow up story on what you think of the result."

    "She can want all she likes - I'm not allowed to make political statements yet. How do you think it's going?"

    Ron grimaced. "It's looking pretty close between Fudge and Antonia Houpner-Merdie."

    "Great."

    Harry lay there thinking about this, and the two of them were quiet until the doctor appeared with Ginny in tow.

    Dr. Clinker was a short, rotund wizard in dazzling white robes. He looked reassuringly batty to Harry (who had learned early on that, in the wizarding world, the normal-looking ones weren't always the most reliable), and performed a number of bizarre tests on him before cheerily pronouncing him "pretty fit, all things considered". He looked Ron over as well, tutted over his obvious weariness, and told both of them to rest; an instruction which suited Harry perfectly in his current state of lethargy.

    xXx

    By the next morning Harry felt well enough to sit up and have some breakfast. Ron joined him at his bedside, and they swapped idle theories about their accident over toast and marmalade until Hedwig suddenly swooped through the window, carrying the early edition of the Daily Prophet.

    The front page carried a full size picture of Cornelius Fudge, waving cheerily, with the words FUDGE WINS FIFTH TERM! underneath. More ominous, though, was the by-line on page two: Hung Result At Polls Clouds Fudge's Victory. A picture of a beaming Antonia Houpner-Merdie and her supporters took up the top half of the page.

    "Ah, hell!" Ron said, expressing Harry's feelings perfectly.

    In some ways this would be worse than the woman winning outright. As it was, she now had an excellent means of causing trouble at the Ministry, and with a weak Minister like Fudge there was bound to be mayhem in no time at all.

    Harry turned a couple more pages, skimming the exhaustive post-mortem of the election. On page six there was a small photograph of Ron, Hermione, Neville and a couple of their former year-mates from other houses at Hogwarts. Underneath was Rita Skeeter's article about "the witches and wizards of tomorrow", complete with a five paragraph gush about his own absence and his alleged annoyance at the timing of the election.

    "She's a stupid cow," was Ron's succinct assessment as he leaned over Harry's shoulder to read it. "What's this though?"

    At the very foot of the article it said Coming of Age - Full report, centre pages. With a sinking feeling, Harry opened the middle pages of the newspaper.

    Ron swore.

    It was a full double-page spread headed with the inch-high words COMING OF AGE! Underneath, in slightly smaller text it continued: "In less than two weeks Harry Potter, 'The Boy Who Lived', will celebrate his 21st birthday and become 'legal' to marry without consent - but who will he choose?"

    There was a sizeable photograph of Harry on the left, although it was three years old and had been taken at his graduation from Hogwarts. He studied it sourly, for it had been extensively cropped; in the original he had his arms around Ron and Hermione and they were all laughing at something the photographer (Sirius) said to them.

    "It's a good picture," Ron offered.

    "I like the original much better."

    Next to this was a column recapping the story of his narrow escape from Voldemort, the death of his parents, and his history at Hogwarts. The final column rehashed the small handful of girlfriends he had at school and launched into a whirlwind of speculation about his future plans, although there was a somewhat grumpy acknowledgement that no one knew what his recent romantic entanglements were and, as far as the correspondent was aware, he was currently single.

    The second page was worse, for it was plastered with photographs of girls who were known to be either within his circle of friends or who might reasonably be expected to be among his wider acquaintance. Among them were Hermione and Ginny, and each photograph was accompanied by a lurid (and often inaccurate) potted history. The header said Will One Of These Be The Lucky Girl?

    As Harry stared at this in growing anger and dismay, Ron pointed to the name of the reporter under the title:

    Padma Patil.

    Harry had forgotten that their former Ravenclaw year-mate worked for the Daily Prophet.

    "Parvati put her up to this," Ron said with conviction.

    "Maybe not." Harry folded the paper up abruptly and tossed it to the end of his bed. "It's not like either of them are very fond of me – or you, come to that. But I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. People are obsessed with me, although why it should matter to anyone who I marry, I don't know."

    Ron shrugged. "It's the old tragic history thing again, isn't it? Everyone knows your story – your parents were murdered by Voldemort, you're an orphan left alone in the world, you've grown up determined to avenge their deaths – "

    "Ron!"

    "I'm not saying it's the truth, Harry, just that this is what everyone thinks they know about you! Nothing would make all the sentimental women who read these stories happier than for it all to have a fairytale ending, with you getting married and having a bunch of kids." Ron grinned wryly. "My mum's a really good example of that, you know. Why do you think she was so set on you marrying Ginny? Give her some credit – it wasn't for your money! She just thought it would be really nice if you could get married and have a family of your own – and who better for you than Ginny, who had a massive crush on you for years?"

    "Thanks a bunch," Ginny herself said, appearing around the screens. She gave the two of them a filthy look as she strode to the head of Harry's bed and began plumping his pillows. "Give me some credit, would you? If I ever get married, it won't be to someone who spends most of his free time in bed with my brother!"

    "Oh yeah? The Daily Prophet doesn't agree with you!"

    Ginny frowned and picked the newspaper up. "What rubbish are they saying about Harry now?"

    "Check out the middle pages," advised Ron.

    "No thanks; I've got more important things to do than read gossip columns." Ginny looked at Harry. "Professor Dumbledore is here with Sirius. They want to know if you feel up to talking to them."

    Harry looked surprised. "Of course."

    She nodded and flicked her wand at the breakfast tray to send it away. Ron looked disappointed.

    "Is there any more toast?" he asked.

    "No. You're a greedy pig, Ron Weasley."

    "Hey, I'm just a growing boy – "

    "- Who won't stop growing if he doesn't stop eating." Ginny reached out and flicked his ear admonishingly. He retaliated by tweaking her nurse's head-dress.

    "Ah! I'm glad to see everyone is in good spirits this morning!" Dumbledore's voice said heartily. He appeared around the screens with Sirius, beaming paternally at the three of them.

    "Good morning, Professor." Harry shifted uncomfortably under the covers, wondering if he should really be up and dressed like Ron; but while he was feeling a whole lot better than the day before, he was still unaccountably weak.

    Ginny found a couple of chairs so that the visitors could sit down, then bustled off to see her other patients on the next ward. There was a pause then, as Dumbledore studied Harry and Ron carefully.

    "Well, you are both looking much better today," he observed finally. "I think you've been extremely lucky."

    "Do you know what happened, Professor?" asked Ron.

    "Perhaps. But first I would like to hear Harry's version of events. And, my boy, if you are feeling tired I suggest you make use of those most comfortable-looking pillows while you talk to us."

    Harry grimaced but obediently leaned back, feeling a bit shaky. "Sorry," he said sourly. "Obviously the excitement of breakfast was too much for me."

    "Give yourself a break, Harry," Sirius told him sternly. "I don't know what anyone else has told you, but you nearly died in that accident."

    Harry blinked and gave Dumbledore a wide-eyed look. The elderly professor nodded gravely, peering at Harry over the top of his half-moon spectacles.

    "Oh yes," he said calmly. "If the power in you hadn't found a way to discharge itself, it would probably have incinerated you from the inside out."

    "But where did it all come from in the first place?" Harry wanted to know.

    Dumbledore shook his head. "All in good time. First, tell me what you remember."

    So Harry (grinning a little sheepishly), explained about the wizard pillow fight and how he, Ron and Malfoy had taken refuge at the top of the stairs.

    "All I really remember was that Malfoy got hit by Dean's bolster and fell on top of us. And then – bang!" he concluded.

    "Did it happen instantly?" asked Sirius.

    Harry opened his mouth to say yes, then paused and frowned. "No," he admitted. "There was a couple of seconds when it seemed to sort of build up, like static across my skin."

    "Where did it start?" Sirius demanded.

    Harry looked across at Ron, who shrugged, clearly at a loss. "Um ...." He tried to think back and remember what the sensation had been like. "I think it started between my shoulder blades," he said finally, "because I could feel the hair on the back of my neck standing up."

    "When I arrived, you were lying on the second landing with only your jeans on," Sirius told him. "Was Malfoy touching your back before the accident?"

    "Well, yeah – I think so – "

    "And Ron, you've already said that Malfoy was touching you. Harry, were you touching Ron at the time?"

    Harry flushed slightly. "I might have had hold of his arm ...."

    Sirius looked at Dumbledore, who was nodding. "That explains it."

    "Explains what?" Ron demanded, looking from one to the other.

    "Between the three of you, you created a wizard circle," Dumbledore said simply.

    Silence. Harry looked at Ron, who raised his brows and shrugged, looking perplexed.

    "But Professor ... we weren't doing anything," Harry ventured. "We definitely weren't trying to combine magic! It was an accident, and – "

    "How often have you heard of wizard circles working, Harry?" Dumbledore interrupted.

    "Er ...."

    "I'll tell you," Sirius said. "You haven't. The theory is always covered in the History of Magic syllabus, but in practice they are very rare. The last known working wizard circle involved Professor Dumbledore, Nicolas Flamel and the late Claudius Clare, and it was broken in 1945 when Clare died helping to defeat Grindelwald."

    "I didn't know that," Harry said rather stupidly.

    Dumbledore smiled at him. "My dear boy, why should you? A couple of lines in boring history texts – rather more Miss Granger's forte than yours, I would think. Besides, wizard circles really are a rarity; no one could have anticipated this happening. It does rather cast new light on why Voldemort should be so interested in Ron here, though – and, indeed, why he was disappointed with young Draco. Very short-sighted of him, but I find it reassuring that he has his blind spots."

    Harry and Ron exchanged another puzzled glance, but it was Ron who spoke up this time.

    "Professor – I still don't really understand ...."

    "Why wizard circles don't work?" Dumbledore finished for him. Ron nodded. "It's quite simple. Three or more wizards working together will not make the slightest difference to the strength or variety of their powers, combined or otherwise, because most wizards are not magically compatible. We don't know why; warlocks at the Department of Mysteries have been investigating the matter for centuries without success. But every once in a while a combination will occur that does work. Again, we don't know why. It simply happens. And it so happens that you, Harry and Draco are compatible."

    There was another silence as Harry and Ron digested this. Then Harry looked across at Ron – and felt a laugh welling up in his throat. The look on his friend's face was almost comical in its dismay. Fortunately, the strength of his feelings temporarily struck him dumb, and Harry was able to hurry in with the all-important question:

    "So what does this mean?"

    He could have sworn Dumbledore's eyes were twinkling, although the professor's voice, when he replied, was grave.

    "It means, my boys, that the three of you are going to have to learn to work together - if, that is, you want to avoid accidentally blowing yourselves up every time you meet."

    xXx

    Although Harry had to stay in the hospital for one extra night's observation, Ron was released later that day - coincidentally at the same time as Draco Malfoy, who was released back into the semi house arrest he had been living under before.

    "Promise me you'll make the others leave him alone," Harry said to Ron worriedly before the red-head left.

    Ron rolled his eyes. "Nobody'll touch a hair on his head. Trust me!"

    "Promise?"

    "Word of a Gryffindor."

    And with that Harry had to be content. But when he too arrived home the next evening, Malfoy appeared to be in no danger - except, of course, from the risk now posed by sharing living space with Harry and Ron. Dumbledore had given them all some brief advice which roughly amounted to avoiding accidental or deliberate physical contact between the three of them until he could undertake to train them.

    "The Hogwarts Express will be travelling to the school during the first week in August, to collect those teachers who do not remain in residence over the holiday," he had told Harry. "I suggest the three of you catch the train then and we can all work together without interruption over the summer."

    The prospect didn't fill any of the three with much joy.

    xXx

    Harry's first night at home brought a return of the usual nightmares - violence, blood, death, Voldemort. Ron woke him twice during the night, and then, bizarrely, Harry was started out of restless sleep only to find that Ron was in the grip of a bad dream. This was a record even for them, considering that they had both had two months or more of broken nights, and when Harry finally dragged himself out of bed the next morning he felt like something Crookshanks had caught, chewed up and spat out. Fortunately, he wasn’t expected to go into work that day - he had been ordered to take the rest of the week off and rest, although Ron was back to work as normal.

    For once, Ron was ahead of him. By the time Harry had staggered in and out of the shower, shaved, dressed and made his way downstairs, his friend already had his cloak on and was ready to go. He was standing in the passage studying a scrap of parchment an excited Pigwidgeon had just delivered; when he saw Harry he screwed the note up and stuffed it into his pocket.

    "I'm off, Harry," he said quickly. "Take it easy, okay? I'll see you later." And to Harry's surprise he leaned in to give him a quick kiss, before abruptly Disapparating.

    "See you later," Harry said to the empty air, a little disappointed. He had hoped to at least have breakfast with Ron.

    He wandered into the kitchen to find it all but deserted. Malfoy was sitting at the table, slowly consuming cornflakes and coffee while he read the morning paper. They muttered a strained greeting to each other and Harry went to get himself some toast. When he returned to the table, Malfoy folded the Daily Prophet up and pushed it across the table to him.

    "Thanks." Harry unfolded it and began to read.

    Everything was fine until he reached page five; then the headline jumped out at him: Boy Who Lived Spends Week In St. Mungo's With Mystery Ailment.

    He didn't bother to read any further, but screwed the newspaper up angrily and threw it down the other end of the table. What was the matter with people? Why couldn't they just take their morbid curiosity elsewhere and leave him alone?

    Malfoy was watching him with a tiny smile, a hint of malice in his eyes. "What's the matter, Potter?" he asked. "Publicity not up to your usual standards?"

    "Shut up, Malfoy," Harry muttered, picking his toast to pieces in frustration. "What would you know about it?"

    Silence. Then, to his surprise Malfoy said calmly, "Probably more than you imagine. I've been the source of some of those articles over the years, and believe me, I wouldn't have done it if I didn't think it would drive you mad."

    Harry's head shot up, his eyes flashing with anger. "Do I have you to thank for this latest crap too?"

    "Don't be stupid. I'm not about to announce to the world and my father that I was immured in St. Mungo's with you, am I?"

    "I don't know what you would or wouldn't do."

    For a moment grey eyes met green and the two young wizards stared each other down. Then Harry blinked and looked away first. Malfoy continued to study him though.

    "You really don't like the attention, do you?" he commented eventually.

    "No, Malfoy, I don't. I've been saying that for a decade now."

    "So why on earth do you let them do it?"

    Harry gave him an exasperated look. "How am I supposed to stop them?"

    "By taking control." Malfoy rolled his eyes at Harry's disbelieving glare. "You really are clueless." He pushed his empty plate away and leaned his elbows on the table. "Look, Potter, you never saw an adverse article about my father until he was forced to disappear, did you? Of course not. He had far better control of people like the Prophet's editor than that."

    "Your father was in a position to control the press - "

    "Of course he was! He had what they wanted - stories. And so do you, if only you had the brains to see it. All you have to do to control a news-hound like Rita Skeeter is co-operate a little with her editor. Believe me, give him what he needs to sell his papers and the man will slap the muzzle on her the minute he thinks she's jeopardising his sales. Build up a decent relationship with him, and he'll sack her at the first hint of trouble rather than lose you."

    "I don't want her sacked, I just want her to leave me alone!"

    "You're not listening," Malfoy said sharply. "You know what your real problem is? You run away at the first sniff of a reporter, which makes them think you have something to hide. But you can't hide, Harry Potter, because you've been news since you were a baby. You couldn't be more fascinating to the wizarding community if you were a member of the Royal Family - which, I might add, among our people you practically are. The Royal Family are just Muggles, after all." He sipped his coffee.

    Harry discovered that his head was aching and rubbed the bridge of his nose fretfully, almost dislodging his spectacles. "My private life is my own, Malfoy. Why should I voluntarily give any of that to a bunch of vultures who'll sell it to the public?"

    Malfoy shrugged. "Suit yourself. But look at it this way - what you don't give them voluntarily, they'll keep trying to take by force. And what they don't know, they'll make up. At least if you dole it out by dribs and drabs, you'll have some control over what they write. Surely that's preferable to a media frenzy every time you go for drink in the Leaky Cauldron?"

    "Did you see that article the Daily Prophet ran two days ago?" demanded Harry.

    "Did you see the dozen others it spawned in all the women's rag magazines?" Malfoy countered. "Articles like that will keep turning up until the day you marry, Potter. Get used to it."

    "I'm not going to get married, Malfoy. As far as I'm concerned, I already am married."

    "Yes, and I can't wait for the articles that appear on the day they find out you're shacking up with another man."

    Harry went hot and cold at the very idea. He must have looked pretty sick, because Malfoy said in a gentler tone, "Even you can't be dense enough to think the pair of you can remain a secret forever. What are you going to do when you finish your training and move out of this place? I'm assuming you'll live somewhere together, and believe me - people are going to notice. I can't believe you'd really want it to come out in the press that way."

    Harry slumped back in his chair, wondering how he could have such a huge lump in his stomach when he hadn't actually eaten anything. "Oh God ...."

    Malfoy shook his head in disbelief. "I can't believe none of your innumerable friends and guardians have had this talk with you before. Surely someone – Dumbledore at least – must have realised that you needed better protection from the press?"

    Harry shrugged. "Every so often one of them will suggest that I ought to agree to an interview, but they never push it. Percy Weasley is the only one who does. He's a nice enough bloke but he's ambitious and feels that I'm good press for his family."

    "For 'his family' read 'Percy Weasley'," Malfoy said cynically. "Nice bunch of in-laws you've saddled yourself with."

    Harry gave him a cool look. "The Weasleys are wonderful people, Malfoy. You've always sneered at them for having no money and no so-called wizard pride, but they welcomed me into their home and treated me as part of the family, and they asked for nothing in return. They were the first real family I ever had after my parents were killed."

    "What about those Muggles who raised you?"

    "The Dursleys?" Harry grimaced expressively. "Understand me, I have no problem with Muggles whatsoever. But the Dursleys are not a good advertisement for the human race. What they did to me should probably be classified as child abuse."

    "There's abuse and there's abuse," Malfoy said cryptically. "Well, you seem to have survived in spite of it."

    "So do you," Harry said quietly. For a moment he thought the other youth might protest, but he seemed to think about it and change his mind.

    "Look, Potter, do you really want my advice about your publicity problem?" he demanded.

    Harry had to suppress a little smile at the idea of Malfoy as a public relations man. Actually, he would probably do rather well in the role; he was wise to the baser ways of people.

    "Go on then."

    Malfoy tapped his fingers on the table top restlessly as he thought for a minute or two. Finally, he said, "Try to find one magazine or newspaper you think you can bear dealing with, and offer them an exclusive interview. Make it a no-holds-barred story and answer as many questions as you can, but make it clear to them that this is it – it's a one time only, never to be repeated deal. I'm not saying it'll get them off your back entirely, but it will make it very hard for them to complain when you refuse interviews in future."

    Harry considered this. On the one hand, the idea of voluntarily submitting to an interview made his skin crawl; on the other, having some measure of control over what they printed – and, better still, shutting up the worst vultures, like Rita Skeeter – was very attractive.

    It might work. Might.

    He nodded slowly. "I'll ... think about that."

    "You do that. Meanwhile, I'll prepare my bill and owl it to you. I need a paying job." Malfoy grabbed his plate and cup, and stood up. He gave Harry a narrow look. "My second piece of advice – which I'll give to you for free – is to go and lie down. You're looking peaky. God only knows what your friends would do to me if you suffered a relapse while we were alone in the house together."

    "You could always work for Percy," Harry suggested, only half following what the other man was saying. "He needs a decent press officer."

    "Thanks, but I think I'd let myself be eternally tormented by pixies first. I haven't forgotten what he was like at school."

    "He's worse now."

    "Is that possible?"

    "He gets curses from people every day. I have to go and put them right."

    "How charming." Malfoy left his dishes in the sink and came to stand over Harry, looking concerned and exasperated. "Potter, go and lie down. You're fading out on me."

    "Oh, alright." Harry got to his feet slowly, and realised that Malfoy was right – for a moment the room swam and he saw two of everything. When it all straightened up again, he discovered that the blond youth was gripping his arm firmly.

    "Do you need help getting to your room?"

    Harry wanted to refuse, but was forced to admit that he did. "Sorry."

    "Spare me."

    xXx

    When he woke again at lunchtime, he felt a lot better (several hours of unbroken, dreamless sleep had obviously helped) and ravenously hungry. A quick shower and an extensive raid on the fridge made him feel almost one hundred percent human again.

    Malfoy was in the living room when Harry walked in. He had Ron's chessboard set up on the coffee table, and he was examining the pieces thoughtfully. It was a nice set; Harry had given it to Ron the last Christmas they spent at Hogwarts.

    He glanced up when Harry walked over. "Do you play, Potter? I've been trying to play against myself, but apparently only grandmasters are good enough to do that successfully."

    "You should try playing against Ron sometime." Harry sat down on the opposite side of the table and began to set the chessmen up for a new game.

    "I've successfully avoided doing that for ten years; I'm not going to humiliate myself now."

    "I'm not much of a challenge," Harry warned him.

    Malfoy shrugged. "Any challenge is better than none. I'm definitely no challenge to myself."

    They played.

    At the end of the third game, Malfoy tipped his king over to concede the match and looked up at Harry, raising a pale brow.

    "You shouldn't sell yourself short. You play a good game. Did Weasley teach you?"

    "Yep." Harry began to set the pieces up again. "Do you want to go on?"

    "All right."

    "Let's swap sides."

    Harry took black and watched as Malfoy considered his opening move. "Have you really avoided playing against Ron?"

    A tiny smile played across his opponent's lips. "Of course. You don't honestly think I could bear losing to him, do you?"

    "What makes you so sure you'd lose?"

    "I've seen him play. He's a good three or four levels above me – and if you tell him that, Potter, I'll rip your arms off."

    Harry snickered. "You've no idea how much it would please him."

    "Pleasing Ron Weasley isn't my job, thank God."

    They exchanged a few moves and Harry watched resignedly as the first of his pawns got knocked out. This set was particularly bloodthirsty; Malfoy's pawn didn't just break Harry's, it smashed the tiny player up and stamped on the pieces.

    "Can I ask you something personal?"

    Harry blinked. Then he moved his rook decisively. "If you want, but I reserve the right not to answer."

    Malfoy paused, his fingers hovering over one of his knights. The tiny ivory horse reared and pawed the air, impatient to be off. "Do you love him?"

    Harry looked up, startled. The other youth was still contemplating the knight under his hand. "Who – Ron? Why do you ask?"

    "I'm curious. Is it love, or is it just sex? And how can you tell the difference?"

    "If it was just sex, we wouldn't be living together now." If it had just been sex, Harry thought silently, we would never have got together in the first place. He added out loud, "We've been together for three years, you know."

    Malfoy looked a little surprised. "That's a lot longer than I thought. But is it love? Or is it just an extension of being friends?"

    "It's both, I suppose. We've been friends for ten years, and if we split up tomorrow I would do everything I could to ensure that we stayed friends." Which was true, but the idea was horrible. "But yes, I love him. Of course I do."

    "There's no of course about it, Potter. People have all sorts of motives for being involved with each other."

    "Well, I don't. As for telling the difference between love, sex and friendship ...." Harry paused, considering. "Let's put it this way; I miss him when he's not around. And it's not just an awareness that he's not there. It's much more ... visceral ... than that."

    "The old cliche about missing a limb?" Malfoy's brows went up.

    "Something like that." Harry sighed. "I don't sleep well when he's not next to me. But it's more than that. It's ... knowing he's around. It's a very comforting feeling. Like knowing he's going to be back at just after five today – "

    "He isn't," Malfoy said casually. "Your owl left a message mid-morning – he's going to be late tonight."

    "Damn. Did he say why?"

    "No. He didn't say when he thought he'd be back either." The blond youth watched with considerable amusement as Harry promptly wrecked his game by making a reckless move with no thought behind it whatsoever. He then made a particularly canny move with his own bishop and watched in delight as the piece proceeded to hammer Harry's rook into the board. "You know, if you're that easily distracted by him, I dread to think what you'd be like in a pitched battle with a bunch of my former associates."

    Harry's mouth twitched. "You'd be surprised."

    "Oh?"

    "We do training exercises sometimes that involve all the junior Aurors being sent into a specially constructed maze. You're told when you go in that one of you is a Death Eater, but you don't know which one. Ron and I nearly slaughtered each other the last time."

    Malfoy stared at him. "Which one was the Death Eater?"

    "Ron of course. He's a devious little swine." Harry smiled reminiscently. "He made like he'd been knocked out in the end, but I just couldn't shake the idea that my stunning spell had missed him. Sure enough he was faking, but it nearly worked."

    "Have they ever made you play the Death Eater?"

    "Oh yeah - twice. The first time I took the whole lot out because they just wouldn't believe it was me. Moody told them it was a lesson in how the most unlikely people can turn out to be your enemy."

    "True." Malfoy's expression turned so dark then that Harry wished he hadn't said anything.

    "So - can I ask you something personal?" he asked finally, to break the silence.

    The other wizard looked at him warily. "Depends what it is."

    Harry annoyed the black queen by fiddling with her for a moment before making his move. "Are you chasing me, Malfoy?"

    "Am I what?"

    "Chasing me." Harry gave him a very level stare. "Half the reason Ron's so rough with you is because he thinks you're after me."

    For the first time in years, he was treated to the sight of Malfoy knocked speechless and spluttering with indignation. Then he saw the faint flush creeping up the other man's neck.

    "Don't flatter yourself!" Malfoy managed finally.

    He never went very red when he blushed, Harry noted, but there was a definite pink tinge to his normally pale face.

    "I'm not flattering myself," he replied, trying to keep calm. Unfortunately, Harry wasn't sure how he himself wanted to react to this unwanted revelation. "I told Ron he was wrong."

    "Then why did you ask?"

    "Because it's perfectly true what he says about you being more willing to talk to me than you are to anyone else in the house. Given how we've nearly killed each other on a couple of occasions in the past, I had to admit that it seemed a bit odd."

    Silence. Malfoy was trying to concentrate on the chessboard again, but his chest was heaving with suppressed agitation. "Has it occurred to you," he said after a minute or two, "that I might prefer to talk to you because you're the only one who treats me like a person rather than a - a - "

    " - Cuckoo in the nest? It isn't true! Hermione is perfectly civil to you, but you never favour her with your opinions on her life."

    Another silence, one which Malfoy seemed unwilling to break. In the end it was Harry who spoke again.

    "Look, maybe Ron's right and maybe he isn't," he said, as gently as he could. "I'm not going to make you answer that. But just in case he's right … well, you must realise that it's impossible. I'm already involved with someone else, and quite frankly I don't feel that way about you. It's nothing personal - I just don't."

    "I'm aware of that." Malfoy sat back and Harry saw that he had recovered his composure. He gestured towards the board. "Your move."

    xXx

    It was Harry's night to do the dinner, but in the end it was actually Malfoy who did most of the work, with Harry helping and supervising. He was feeling considerably better than he had at breakfast, but weakness kept overcoming him.

    Ron walked in with Seamus just after six. Harry was standing by the stove, giving the potatoes a prod with a fork, when Ron seized him around the middle from behind and planted a kiss on the back of his neck.

    "'Ullo gorgeous!"

    Harry grinned at the exaggerated gagging noises Seamus was making in the background.

    "Rule number seven!" he reminded Ron, who snorted.

    "Sod the rules! How are you feeling?"

    "I'm okay."

    "Okay ... apart from spending most of the morning in bed and having to sit down every five minutes," Malfoy commented dryly. He grimaced at the lettuce he was pulling apart. "Ugh - could somebody please banish this?"

    It was a slug, admittedly a big one. Harry rolled his eyes and pulled out his wand, getting rid of the slug and whisking the separated leaves over to the sink for washing.

    Ron wasn't interested in Malfoy's slug problems. "Are you still feeling wobbly?"

    "That's one way of putting it." Harry saw his face. "I'm fine, honest! Don't fuss."

    "Or if you are going to fuss, do it somewhere else," Malfoy said acidly.

    "Did I ask for your opinion?" Ron demanded.

    "No, of course not. I'm only the person who spent the day making sure he didn't fall on his face."

    "Cut it out, both of you," Harry said sharply. "Ron, I'm fine. Why are you so late?"

    "I've been out and about, doing stuff. Are we still on for Friday night?"

    Harry's face lit up in a sudden smile. "Yeah, of course!"

    "Good." Ron released him and began to pull his cloak off. "Phew! I shouldn't have worn this today. It's boiling out there." He disappeared down the passage to dispose of the cloak.

    Malfoy dumped the washed lettuce into a colander and gave Harry a curious sideways look. "What's happening on Friday night?"

    "He's taking me out to dinner for my birthday." Harry took the cauldron full of potatoes off the hob and began to drain them.

    "I thought it was your birthday on Saturday."

    "It is, but people'll be in and out of the house all day ...."

    "Ron wants Harry to himself for an evening," Hermione said matter-of-factly, as she grabbed cutlery from a drawer. She was laying the table. "He won't get much chance on Saturday, judging by previous years."

    "Yeah, we wouldn't want to be tied up elsewhere if Voldemort decides to make his annual visit," Harry said sardonically.

    Malfoy gave him a wide-eyed look for a moment, then flushed slightly and turned away. "Oh. Yes - I forgot about that."

    Harry watched him thoughtfully as he charmed the potatoes into a dish. "You knew about the previous attempts he made to kill me on my birthday, then?"

    The blond youth shrugged. "I was told. I wasn't involved."

    "Well, that's why I'm not having a big party or anything. The last one was way too exciting for the guests, and there's no point in having a really spectacular cake if it's going to get blown up." Harry deliberately spoke lightly, but everyone else nevertheless looked uneasy.

    "He's not going to try this year." That was Ron, wandering back into the kitchen just in time to hear what Harry said. He saw their expressions and smiled. "Honestly! I've been looking all week and all I can see is that there's going to be really good weather for the weekend. No hint of Dark Lords, mayhem or attempts on Harry's life."

    Malfoy gave him a sceptical look. "I know you're supposed to be the great Seer, but have you any idea how difficult it is even for Lord Voldemort's own Seers to see him in the cards and crystal ball?"

    Ron shrugged. "I never have any problems seeing him where Harry's concerned. He's been in practically every spread I've done for him over the past four or five years. But I did a specific reading for this weekend and I can't get any impressions of him at all. Just lots of good weather and birthday cake."

    Harry gave him a delighted look. "I get a birthday cake? One that doesn't get blown up?"

    "Probably several, if Hagrid has his way," Hermione said, amused.

    "I don't put much faith in prognostication," Malfoy said, clearly determined to put a damper on things.

    "Neither would I, if I worked with some of the Seers Voldemort's rumoured to have around him," Hermione retorted, "but Ron's success rate is very high."

    "Really?" The tone was very Malfoyesque; mockery with just a hint of a sneer.

    Ron gave him a hard look for a moment, then unexpectedly smiled. "Be a good boy or I'll read your tea-leaves after dinner."

    Harry was amused at just how threatening that sounded. Malfoy apparently didn't like the sound of it either for his expression, when he abruptly returned to dishing up the dinner, was rather sulky.


    Chapter Text

    Friday night came around with unusual speed.

    Harry and Ron were not the only ones going out; Seamus, Dean and Neville were all heading out to a wizard snooker match somewhere in London, Hermione was going out to dinner with Viktor Krum, and Ginny was going home to her parents for the weekend. In fact, the only one who was staying in was Malfoy, and that was largely because he had nowhere to go or anyone to go with. Harry felt rather bad about that, despite Malfoy's own assertion that he would be glad of the peace and quiet.

    "All I ask is that you remember the privacy spell when you get back," he said in a long-suffering tone. "Since I can't have a sex life of my own at the moment, I'd rather not be forced to participate in someone else's."

    In the event, however, it turned out that even he had somewhere to go. Hermione was just showing off a new and rather daring flame-coloured silk dress and matching robes before she left, when there was an abrupt whoosh from the chimney and Elijah Twizzle, one of their fellow junior Aurors, popped out of the fireplace. Round face beaming, he brushed soot off his buff coloured robes and ogled Hermione shamelessly.

    "Say, that's a smashing frock, Granger – "

    "Good evening to you too, Eli," she said dryly. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"

    "What? Oh! Moody's sent me to get Malfoy." He blinked around the room a little short-sightedly and adjusted his spectacles. The bumbling fool act was just that, though – an act. Eli Twizzle was as sharp as they came. "There you are," he said, spotting Malfoy, who was viewing him with some annoyance. "Get your cloak."

    "Why? What on earth does that old crackpot want with me at this time of night?"

    "I didn't ask," Eli said blandly. "One doesn't ask Moody things like that. You can if you like, but you still have to come with me."

    "Better get your cloak," Harry told him.

    With a huff of exasperation, Malfoy disappeared up the stairs. When he returned, he was shrugging into his robes impatiently. "So much for a quiet evening on my own," he grumbled. He paused just before stepping into the fire and gave Hermione an appraising look. "If Krum doesn't ask you to marry him tonight, for heaven's sake curse him, woman. He obviously has no appreciation." He glanced over at Harry and Ron, who were both looking almost as surprised as Hermione. "Have a good evening."

    And he disappeared up the flue, swiftly followed by Eli.

    "I think I prefer him when he's snarky," Ron said sourly. He turned to Hermione.

    "Hadn't you better get going?"

    "In a moment." And to Harry's surprise, she stood on tiptoe and kissed his forehead lightly. A delicate waft of fragrance drifted over him. "Have a lovely evening, Harry."

    He smiled at her. "And you."

    Hermione Disapparated, leaving the two of them on their own. Harry looked at Ron and began to grin.

    "You're still not going to tell me where we're going, are you?"

    Ron grinned back. "Nope!"

    "So how am I supposed to dress for this?"

    Ron screwed up his face, pretending to give it some consideration. "A bit fancy," he conceded.

    "How fancy is a bit?"

    "Use your imagination ...."

    "You just want to see me do the girly thing where I pull everything out of the closet and complain that I have nothing to wear," Harry grumbled, but he was enjoying the mischief on Ron's face.

    "Well, yeah! Go on, time's rolling on ...."

    In the end they both did the "girly thing", chortling madly and fighting over shirts (which tended to be shared property). Ron bullied Harry into wearing a pair of black leather trousers he'd bought but not had the nerve to wear before, then liked the effect enough that he decided to wear a pair of his own. Harry eventually ended up in an emerald green silk shirt as well, while Ron's was a very deep blue. The major difference was in the style – Harry's was much less flamboyant than Ron's, although it was still in a cut that would probably draw a lot of notice if he wore it around Muggles.

    This was something that it had taken Harry a long time to get used to, let alone emulate; the wizarding community loved an extraordinary personal appearance. Clothing styles never went out of fashion, and it was not unusual to see people dressing in clothes that would not have looked out of place during the Victorian or even Mediaeval eras, or some wild mixture of the two. In fact, you looked highly out of place if you dressed like a Muggle – wizard children wore Muggle style clothes, but usually some wizarding variant that allowed for a greater range of colour and self expression.

    Ron finally rummaged around at the end of the closet which was dominated by buff coloured Aurors robes, and pulled out a couple of more festive versions, throwing them over the chair.

    "I've left my wand downstairs," he said, frowning and fiddling with his cuffs. "I won't be a minute ...."

    He disappeared down the stairs, leaving Harry to look at the two robes with amusement. Ron's was made of some soft, felt-like black material, but the collar, cuffs, front plackets and bottom hem were hand-stitched with coppery zodiac symbols that moved in the light. Considering how he complained about Ginny's choice of bed curtains, he was surprisingly fond of this fancy formal robe; but then, it had been made for him by his clairvoyant grandmother, who was thrilled to discover that at least one of her grandchildren had inherited her gift. By contrast, Harry's was made from a dark, tapestry-type cloth with metallic threads running through it that made it sparkle slightly when he moved; it had been a gift from Sirius at Christmas.

    Both robes hummed subliminally with protective charms the givers had placed on them, and when Harry picked them up he could also feel the deep affection from the respective family members. He folded them over his arm, hoping he would be able to spend some time with Sirius the next day.

    Then Ron reappeared and one look at his face told Harry that things were not going to plan. He looked stricken, but before he could say anything Pigwidgeon soared through the door after him and started zipping about the room, twittering madly.

    "Cut it out, Pig! Harry ...." Ron looked lost for words for a moment, then he held up a tiny scrap of parchment. "Pig just brought me a note from the owner of the restaurant we were going to. It's a good thing I sent him to check on our table, because they swear they have no booking for us. And no spare tables for tonight either."

    Harry was a little disappointed but more for Ron's sake than his own, because he knew his friend had been planning this for over a week. "It doesn't matter," he said reassuringly. "We can still go out, we'll just find somewhere else."

    "I know, but I could kill them for this. It's not like I owled them about it either – I actually went in person to book it – "

    "Don't worry about it! Believe me, I don't mind where we go."

    Ron still looked uncertain. "Yeah, but it's your birthday – I wanted it to be a bit special."

    Harry grinned at him. "Ron, when was the last time we went out for an evening? It feels like we've spent the last two or three months ducking curses! Anywhere will be great." He held out the fancy black robe. "Here, put this on and we'll get moving."

    Ron took the robe and began to shrug into it. "I knew I should have told that bloody restaurant manager it was you I was taking to dinner," he said wryly. "Catch them bungling a booking for the great Harry Potter!"

    "I'm glad you didn't – we probably would have had to share a table with Rita Skeeter."

    Ron laughed and went to put Pigwidgeon in his cage. "Behave, and don't annoy Hedwig!" he told the little owl sternly. "Tell you what, Harry – Mum's been twittering about seeing you this week, so let's stop off at the Burrow first so she can fuss over you. And Dad might be able to recommend somewhere to eat."

    "Sounds good," Harry agreed. He pulled his own robe on and looked at Ron. "Ready?"

    "Yep – let's go."

    xXx

    Our luck is definitely not in tonight, Harry thought, when he fell out of the Burrow's kitchen fireplace only to find the place in darkness. Ron swore softly even as he caught his partner before he landed on the floor.

    "Where on earth are Mum and Dad? And Ginny?"

    "Gone out, by the looks of it," Harry replied, amused in spite of everything. "Along with everyone else in the wizarding world tonight!"

    "But I thought Ginny ...." Ron sighed. "Women!"

    "That's a bit hard on your dad!"

    Ron snorted a laugh. "This is just typical though."

    Harry glanced around and caught sight of a light through the kitchen window. "Hang on – I think they might be out in the garden."

    "That's really typical – why didn't they leave a light on in here? Go on, Harry ...."

    Harry pushed the garden door open and stepped outside.

    Lights suddenly flared, dazzling him after the darkness of the kitchen. Then he was almost deafened by a multi-voiced shout.

    "SURPRISE!"

    xXx

    Harry's first, irrational instinct, upon seeing the sea of smiling faces before him, was to bolt. He turned (to the accompaniment of much laughter and catcalling) but was stopped by Ron, who grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him back around again, chuckling.

    "You are a devious little git!" Harry told him, torn between laughter and indignation.

    Ron laughed outright. "I can't believe you actually fell for the 'no party' line, Harry! Did you seriously think we wouldn't celebrate on your twenty-first birthday of all things?"

    "I thought … I dunno what I thought …."

    It seemed like everyone was there, all crammed into the Weasleys' back garden, including one or two people Harry felt reasonably sure he'd never met before. All of the Weasleys themselves were there, including Bill and Charlie, and a brace of aunts, uncles and cousins he'd met just the once. Hermione was there with Viktor Krum, Seamus, Dean, Neville, Sirius, Lupin, all his Auror friends, a number of the teachers from school including Dumbledore, and Hagrid of course, a batch of other school friends both from Gryffindor House and others, and a vast selection of people he knew from other areas of his life, including Ministry officials like Ludo Bagman and the Minister himself, Cornelius Fudge, and - judging by the robes - the entire England Quidditch team.

    Harry was overwhelmed. Aside from the excitement of being attacked by Death Eaters on three different occasions, his previous birthdays had all been much lower key. Ron and Hermione's twenty-first birthdays had been big, noisy, friends 'n' family events, but this - this was in a league of its own.

    Not sure quite what to do or how to react to all the huge smiles surrounding him, Harry went with his first instinct and headed straight for Hagrid (whom he hadn't expected to see until he went up to Hogwarts in a week's time), seizing him in a very emotional hug. The very big man with the very soft heart, who had been Harry's first and most constant friend in the wizard world, was utterly delighted.

    "Look at yer!" he rumbled, squeezing him tightly enough to take his breath away. "Just look at yer - l'il 'Arry, all growed up …."

    Which made Harry laugh, and just as well because otherwise he felt sure he might cry. Then Hagrid released him and he got a really good look at him – and laughed even more.

    "My God, Hagrid, that jacket ...."

    It was an extraordinary and frightening garment in orange plaid, but Hagrid beamed as though Harry noticing it was the biggest compliment he could hope for.

    Harry knew exactly who he had to thank for this party, so the next people he headed for were Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. She was wreathed in smiles, but when Harry hugged her there was definitely a hint of a maternal tear or two.

    "Well!" she said, patting him and smoothing the front of his shirt. "Don't you look nice? I told Ron to make sure you dressed up a bit!"

    Harry grinned at her. "Thank you, Mrs. Weasley."

    "Oh well, dear ...." She began to tear up again and quickly handed him over to her husband.

    Harry was all prepared to shake hands with Mr. Weasley, so he was surprised to be pulled into a firm hug by him too.

    "Your own parents can't do this for you, Harry, so we were determined to make sure you had the kind of party they would have wanted to give you." Mr. Weasley stepped back slightly, still gripping Harry's shoulders. He studied him for a moment, before smiling slightly and saying, "I'm sure Sirius and Remus have told you this a score of times, but – Harry, I know your mother and father would have been very proud of you. God knows, Molly and I are."

    Sirius was standing only feet away; when Harry looked across at him, he smiled. Perhaps he realised that things were getting a little too emotionally charged for his godson, for he said, "Absolutely. And what Arthur said about this being the party James would have wanted you to have? Very true – you can expect the dancing girls to jump out of the cake any minute now."

    This brought a roar of laughter from everyone, and suddenly Harry was swept into a whirlwind of hugs, kisses, back-slaps and handshakes as everyone tried to congratulate him at once.

    Some time later, he was grabbed by Ron and Hermione and dragged over to one of the big trestle tables loaded with food at the edge of the garden.

    "You remember what you were saying about a birthday cake?" Hermione told him. "Well ...."

    It was huge, the size of a large card table, and decorated to look exactly like a Quidditch pitch. To Harry's amusement and delight, there were even tiny animated players having what looked like a particularly rough game. Minuscule bludgers were whizzing around, occasionally causing the animated audience in the stands to squeal, and there seemed to be a lot of blatching and cobbing going on to Harry's experienced eye. Studying it more closely, he was even more amused to see that the two teams playing were the Chudley Cannons (of course) and the Holyhead Harpies.

    "This can't be right," he pointed out. "The Cannons are winning!"

    This caused a lot of amusement from the England Team, who – Quidditch players to their marrow – were standing around watching the cake with professional interest, and earned him a punch on the arm from Ron.

    "Are you ready for our match next month?" a quiet voice said in Harry's ear.

    He turned to find Charlie Weasley at his shoulder, grinning at him. Harry began to laugh. "No! Are we really playing the Magizoologists this time?"

    Charlie played Seeker on the Magizoologists' Quidditch team in the Inter-Agency League; Harry played the same position for the Aurors.

    "We drew the red ball this time," Charlie said. He held out a tall, knobbly bottle of butterbeer to Harry. "Have a last, friendly drink with me before the battle?"

    "You'll slaughter me," Harry told him, accepting the bottle. "I haven't even been to practice matches for the last three months."

    "You think I'm not counting on that?"

    They grinned at each other, but the conversation had already caught the attention of the England Captain - none other than Oliver Wood, Harry's old captain from the Gryffindor Team.

    "You're still playing for the Inter-Agency League, at least?" he said to Harry. There was a touch of mournfulness in his tone that made Ron snicker softly.

    "Yeah, but not as often as I'd like." He tried to change the subject slightly. "You've got a new Chaser, I see."

    Wood nodded. "Lucy Pugh - she plays for the Harpies."

    "I won't get too close to her then!" Harry joked, referring to the all-female Harpies' habit of aggressively fending off would-be rivals and suitors with their broomsticks.

    But Wood wouldn't be deflected. "I heard the Wigtown Wanderers offered you another trial last year."

    "Yes … but it's just not possible, Oliver. Nothing much has changed since I was sixteen, except that I'm five years older. I'd still be a moving target for a Certain Person and it's unfair to the other members of the team to put them at risk like that."

    This was a reference to a very flattering offer to sign him up made by the Wanderers during his sixth year at Hogwarts. It would have made him the youngest professional Quidditch player in five hundred years, and at the time Harry had been quite keen to take them up on it, but with Voldemort on the loose it simply hadn't been possible. There was no way to protect Harry from attack when he was in the air; and no way to protect those around him. He had been bitterly disappointed, both then and when the Chudley Cannons echoed the offer the following year.

    In a small, carefully hidden corner of his heart, Harry knew he would still prefer to be a professional Quidditch player, but it was one dream that he never dwelled upon. There was no point, and besides, being an Auror wasn't such a bad second best. At least he still got to play in the Inter-Agency League. And this time he would get to play opposite Charlie, who had also been a renowned school champion at Hogwarts.
    Harry suspected that Wood would nevertheless have continued arguing the point, for he was single-minded to the point of mania, but fortunately Sirius and Arthur Weasley caused a diversion by appearing with several bottles of champagne.

    "You are not going to nurse a butterbeer all evening," Sirius told his godson firmly as he wrestled with the cork on his bottle.

    "I wouldn't dream of it," said Harry, smiling. And then without even thinking about it he neatly caught the cork as it exploded out of the bottle.

    It was hard to tell who groaned the louder, Charlie or Oliver Wood, but there was no doubt whose pain was more acute at this display of excellent Seeker reflexes.

    xXx

    Cautiously sipping from his glass, Harry was just contemplating sampling some of the extensive array of nibbles – Ron was already steadily grazing in that annoying way that naturally thin people had – when he heard a rather self-conscious cough at his shoulder. He turned, surprised, to discover Percy standing just behind him.

    "Oh, hi Percy ...." Harry's friendly smile faded. The third Weasley son was looking rather grim.

    "Can I have a word, Harry?"

    "Yes, of course – "

    "In private."

    Confused, but not arguing, Harry followed Percy across the garden to a relatively quiet spot on the far side, under a tree. When he turned to look at Harry, Percy looked positively agitated.

    Surprised, Harry said, "Is this about Mundungus Fletcher? Because Ron and I – "

    "No, it's not," Percy cut him off sharply. He seemed to be struggling to find words to express himself. "Fred and George have been saying ... well, I know it's not true, of course, but ... but I thought you ought to be told, so that you can set the record straight, Harry. Of course, you can be sure I gave them a good telling off, because some things are just beyond a joke, but Fred and George ... well, you know what they're like, and they seem to have no sense of family pride, but to say things like ... like that about you of all people ...."

    "Things like what?" Harry asked, bewildered, wondering what on earth the twins had been up to now.

    "They're saying ...." Percy actually had to pause and take a deep breath to steady himself. He looked genuinely distressed. "I know it's not true, Harry, and I wouldn't have said anything, especially tonight, but I thought I might not have another chance to talk to you for a while, and I can't let them carry on spreading rumours like that around."

    "Percy, just spit it out. What are Fred and George saying about me?"

    "They're saying that ... that you and Ron are ... improperly involved."

    Harry stared at him, not quite sure he understood was the older man was saying. Percy had, after all, had to squeeze the words out around lips that appeared to be too stiff to open properly.

    "Ron and I are what?"

    "Involved in an improper relationship," Percy clarified, with an expression of acute pain at having to be so blunt. He mistook Harry's startled expression, adding, "Yes, I know, I'm sorry. I wouldn't have said anything to you, but if people start to talk .... And there's no point in even trying to talk to Ron about it, because you know what he's like – he'd just cause a big fuss ...."

    "Percy ...." Harry stared at him helplessly, not knowing how to deal with this and inwardly cursing the twins. For all their mischief-making they weren't completely without judgement, and they must surely have realised that if they of all people told Percy this piece of family news, he would take it entirely the wrong way. He experienced a moment of pure cowardice, wanting simply to make some noncommittal response and escape, but that wasn't the way to handle this. Left to his own devices, Percy would only make matters worse by trying to deal with the "rumours" he believed to be circulating.

    "Um, Percy ... it's ... it's not a rumour or a lie. It's true. Ron and I are in a relationship together."

    Silence. Harry looked at Percy in trepidation, knowing that he shouldn't expect any ringing endorsements from this brother, and saw the dawning realisation and horror in the other man's eyes. Far worse than that, though, was the sudden step back he took, as though Harry was contagious.

    "This is a joke, isn't it?" he managed after moment, and produced a rather sickly grin. "I know you've always enjoyed a laugh with my brothers but – "

    "No joke, Percy." Harry's stomach was now tied up into worse knots than when he'd had his row with Ron a week or so ago. "We've ... um ... been together for three years now."

    The silence that stretched out between them fast turned from strained to ugly. Percy's look of horror was now coupled with disgust and anger, and Harry hadn't a clue what to say to him. He wished desperately that Ron or Hermione were there with him; neither of them were ever at a loss for words. Then he remembered Ron's temper and mentally scratched him off the list. It was better that he shouldn't hear about this if possible.

    Finally, unable to stand the atmosphere any longer, Harry said "Look, I know this is a shock for you – "

    "A shock!" Percy all but spat the word out. "I can't believe that the pair of you could be so – so inconsiderate of the family .... If Mum and Dad find out – "

    "They already know," Harry told him curtly. "We told them ages ago, and they don't have a problem with it."

    Percy's eyes practically popped out, and Harry would have laughed at his ludicrous expression if he hadn't wanted so badly to throw up.

    "My God," Percy breathed finally. "I can't believe .... What is everyone thinking, for crying out loud? Don't you have any sense of decency? Do you know what this will do to us as a family if it comes out? And ... and ... it's disgusting ...."

    "Percy," another voice suddenly said coolly, from behind Harry. "Get lost. Now."

    "But – "

    "Now Percy. And if you say another word about this to anyone, I'll hex you from here to the middle of next week."

    Percy's eyes glittered angrily as he pulled his robes primly around himself. "Believe me, I won't be saying anything about this," he snapped, sounding much more like his usual prissy self. He cast a searing look at Harry and stalked away.

    There was a pause during which Harry did battle with his nerves and stomach. He had been putting up with little digs about his sexuality from Malfoy for weeks, but that had been less than nothing compared to the shattering confrontation he had just had with Ron's brother.

    "Are you okay, Hal?"

    Bill. It had to be; he was the only one who ever shortened his name. Harry didn't remember exactly when that had happened; Bill had just suddenly stopped calling him Harry one day and called him Hal instead. He turned to face the eldest Weasley son, ill-prepared to deal with another attack but unable to do anything else.

    Instead, the expression that met him was full of calm sympathy. Trembling slightly with relief and reaction, Harry remembered the champagne flute in his hand and downed the contents in one gulp. A stupid thing to do; he was unused to the alcohol and it gave him an almost frightening rush to the head.

    "Shit ...."

    "Careful." Bill reached out a hand to steady him. "Are you okay?"

    "No," Harry muttered, and leaned against the tree. All his pleasure in the unexpected treat of the party was gone.

    "Don't let Percy get to you."

    "I should probably be grateful to him. He's just reminded me of what most people's reactions will be." Harry frowned suddenly and looked at Bill, a little nervously. "Did you already know?"

    Bill smiled slightly. "Yeah. Dad told Charlie and me when we arrived this afternoon. He was supposed to be telling Percy as well, but maybe he didn't get a chance. He'll kill Fred and George for doing that."

    "But aren't you ... I mean, do you mind?"

    "No, why should I? It's your life, and Ron's." He seemed so calm and accepting. "It's not even that big a surprise. I noticed this last year – " He grabbed Harry's left wrist and tapped the thin gold band on it with one finger. An identical bracelet never left Ron's wrist. Bill smiled at Harry's expression. "It was the misdirection spell on it that caught my attention. I notice things like that, it's my job."

    "And we thought we were being clever!"

    "Well, it was a good idea." Bill studied his face for a moment. "Look, Hal – I mean it, don't worry about Percy. You must have already realised that he wouldn't be very supportive, but no one else in the family's going to care. Your love-life's your own business, after all."

    "Not according to the Daily Prophet," Harry said dryly.

    Bill made a few uncomplimentary remarks about the Daily Prophet, the people who worked there, and the press in general. "I saw that article by Padma Patil," he commented, disgusted. "What a load of crap they churn out! The Boy Who Lived! It doesn't seem to have dawned on any of them that you're not a boy anymore." He shook his head and suddenly held up his own glass of champagne in salute. "Happy birthday! Today, at least, no one can deny you're a man."

    He was just finishing his drink, when Ron stormed up. His blue eyes were flashing with fury.

    "What did Percy say to you?" he demanded of Harry.

    "Ron ...." Harry tried to calm him down, but he wasn't having it.

    "No, dammit, Harry! What did he say? And don't try to tell me he didn't, because that small-minded, sanctimonious little swine is spouting off to Dad about us right now!"

    "Then let Dad deal with him," Bill intervened firmly. "He'll sort him out – "

    "That's not the point, Bill! Who the hell does Percy think he is, giving Harry a hard time at his own birthday party? And if you could hear him over there, whinging about how disgusting and immoral we are – ha! That's a joke! If he's so concerned about what people think, why hasn't he married Penelope after all this time? He's been shagging her long enough! And anyway, it doesn't take half an eye to see that what he really cares about is his precious Ministry career, like that's going to go anywhere anyway, with the way Fudge and the others feel about Dad and Dumbledore – "

    "Ron!" Harry and Bill both said together, trying to shut him up before his raised voice attracted any unwanted attention.

    He stopped, but his chest was heaving with agitation. Anger was practically steaming off him in wisps, but Harry saw the hurt and confusion in his face as well, and felt his gut twist with resentment against Percy. They had known all along that, of all the family, he would probably take the news the worst, but Harry didn't think it was much to ask for him to let his disapproval manifest itself in silence. Not that Percy had ever been one to keep his mouth shut about anything he held an opinion on; it was only the threat of his mother's retribution that kept him from expressing his disapproval of his father sometimes. Saying what he really thought of Ron – and Harry – was small beer by comparison.

    "Leave it," Bill warned him sharply. "You are not going to start a fight with Percy tonight, Ron, do you hear me? Just stay away from him, and let Mum and Dad sort it out. I think Hal's probably had enough of Percy tonight, without you starting a brawl about it."

    This neatly diverted Ron's attention, and he looked at Harry apologetically. Harry guessed that had Bill not been there he would probably have touched him; apparently Bill thought so too, because he rolled his eyes and pushed away from the tree.

    "I'm going to get another drink. Don't forget to take him to meet Gran, Ron! She's been dying to see you both since she arrived. See you later, Hal." And he wandered off.

    Harry watched him go, then turned back to Ron. To his relief he saw that the anger had faded a little, but instead it had been replaced by distress.

    "Bloody Percy," the red-head said bitterly. "Of all the places and times he could have picked for his moralising, and it had to be here and now ...."

    "I think he was in shock," Harry said, rather lamely.

    "He'll be in St. Mungo's when I've finished with him! Who does he think he is?"

    "Let it go, Ron. He can't help being the way he is."

    They looked at each other, and suddenly Ron snickered. "Yeah, I'll remember that line the next time he starts. 'Percy, I can't help being gay any more than you can help being a total prat'."

    Harry laughed softly. "Just don't say it tonight. Bill was right – I've had enough of Percy for one evening."

    "Percy's a lot to take even if you only see him once a year," Ron grumbled. "No wonder Penelope won't marry him. Can you imagine being stuck with that, week in, week out?"

    Harry didn't want to venture an opinion on the fair Penelope's motives. He suspected that she saw a side of Percy most of his family didn't, but he didn't feel generous enough towards Percy at the moment to try and convince Ron of that. So instead he said, "Are you going to introduce me to your gran?"

    At this Ron grinned. "Why bother?" he asked, his eyes sparkling wickedly. He waggled his fingers in the air, and dropped his voice to spooky tone. "She's already met you on another plane."

    Harry rolled his eyes. "Re-introduce us then, for those of us that don't remember the encounter!"

    xXx

    They set off back across the garden, detouring to the tables to grab some food and another drink. Then Ron led Harry over to a spot by the pond where an elderly witch in elaborately embroidered robes was sitting at a small table covered with the kind of bits and pieces Professor Trelawney had always been fond of cluttering her classroom up with.

    Harry had heard enough anecdotally about Ron's grandmother to know that her table, chair and the tools of her trade went everywhere with her. Ron had told him years before that his earliest memories of Granny Weasley were of her sitting in their kitchen, endlessly laying out her Tarot cards as she talked to the various members of the family around her. He also remembered being the only one of the children allowed to sit on her lap and play with her rune-sticks and casting stones. This seemed to Harry to be a sign that she had known from early on that Ron would be gifted with the Sight; although if that was the case, she had kept the information very close to her chest. The Weasleys as a family had been quite shocked when he started showing signs of the gift.

    She looked up when they approached, a tiny birdlike figure with fierce blue eyes, and a big smile broke over her face. "Ronald! About time too!"

    "Hi Gran." He stooped to kiss her. "Sorry I haven't been over already, but Percy was stirring things up ...."

    She snorted. "Don't say any more! He's been moralising to me ever since he arrived. That boy has a broomstick stuck so far up his rear end, you can see the tail twigs when he opens his mouth. He didn't get that trait from my side of the family ...."

    Ron grinned at Harry's startled expression. "Gran, this is Harry Potter. Harry, this is my gran, Iris Weasley. Don't worry, she's always this blunt."

    "And you're always this cheeky," she scolded affectionately, reaching out and tweaking his nose. She turned back to Harry, giving him an appraising look. "Well – give me your hand, young man!"

    Caught on the hop, Harry flushed and held out his right hand. She seized it in a strong grip and gave him a look of mild surprise over the top of her half-moon spectacles.

    "Oh my – that's a fine, strong aura you have there!"

    Ron looked triumphant. "I keep telling him that, but he thinks I'm making it up! He jinxes every spread I do for other people if he's in the room."

    "Hm." She gave Harry another measuring look. "Well, don't stand around, the pair of you – sit, sit!"

    Harry and Ron found a couple of chairs and pulled them up on either side of the old lady's table. No sooner had Harry sat down than she scooped all her Tarot cards together and handed the pack to him.

    "Shuffle those!" she told him, in a tone that brooked no opposition. She pushed a large, irregular chunk of clear crystal towards Ron. "And you make yourself useful by looking into that and seeing if young Charlie's going to have any more little ones."

    "I already know that, Gran," he told her. "I cast Merry's horoscope when they got married. They're going to have four."

    "Then you can tell me if Bill's going to have any, can't you? Since I'm not going to get any great-grandchildren out of you, I want to know what I can expect from the others."

    Harry saw Ron give his grandmother a quick, startled look, which she returned with one of sly amusement. "I'm not stupid, Ronald," she chuckled, her eyes flicking to Harry. They were twinkling with mischief. "I knew the minute I touched his hand. Not that I didn't expect something of the sort – it's always the same with the male Seers."

    "Eh?"

    "It's a woman's gift, boy, and always has been."

    "Gran!" Ron rolled his eyes in an oh please! way. "You sound just like Professor Trelawney when you say things like that ...."

    Harry began to wonder if anyone at the party was still unaware of him and Ron, and whether Percy had been the only person who didn't know. Still, she didn't seem to be the slightest bit upset about it.

    "I don't know about the great-grandchildren," he offered, beginning to grin. "He eats like he's pregnant ...."

    "Shut up, Harry!"

    The old lady chuckled. "Well, shuffle those," she reminded Harry. "Let's see what's in store for the pair of you."

    "Why bother?" Ron argued. "All Harry's spreads are the same – death, mayhem, You-Know-Who – "

    "We'll see," she interrupted him, and gave him a quelling look. "You may have a strong gift, Ronald, but you've a long way to go before you have my experience. Now – tell me what you see in that crystal for Bill."

    "I need something of his to hold ...."

    His grandmother sniffed, but pulled a small lacquered box towards her and opened it. Inside, Harry could see a collection of locks of hair in varying colours, each one tied neatly with a small piece of ribbon. She sorted through them carefully, and eventually took out one particular lock of dark red hair and gave it to Ron. "Try that."

    "How did you get Bill to give you some of his hair?"

    "Some of us have an old lady's charm."

    It was Ron's turn to sniff, but he slipped the loop of hair over the middle finger of his left hand and picked up the crystal, cupping it in his hands and tilting it so the light from the lamp on the corner of the table didn't interfere with it.

    His grandmother watched him for a moment, then she turned back to Harry and plucked the pack of cards from his fingers.

    "Let's see what we have here, shall we?"

    She began laying the cards out in rows of seven, three in total, one under another. Unlike Ron, she laid them face up as they came from the pack, studying the images as she went along. "There you are," she commented to Harry at one point, tapping one card. "The Emperor. Now, that's very interesting ...."

    "That's not my usual card," Harry said, surprised. "I usually appear as the Knight of Swords."

    "In Ronald's spreads, perhaps. But my perspective will be different from his. Besides, I'm not looking at your worldly tasks or your immediate challenges."

    "Oh ...."

    "Where am I?" Ron asked unexpectedly. Clearly he wasn't as engrossed in the crystal as he seemed.

    "What have you seen for young Bill?" his grandmother asked him pointedly.

    "Not much. He's going to get married, but I can't get anything about kids."

    "Who's he marrying?" Harry asked interestedly. Bill had been carrying on an on/off affair with Fleur Delacour for several years now.

    "Nobody I recognised," Ron said irritably. "She was Indian, though – she was wearing a sari."

    His grandmother looked surprised, but Harry was less so. "Makes sense – he's been working in India for a year now ...."

    "So where's my card?" Ron asked his grandmother again, with barely disguised eagerness. Since he never saw himself in his own spreads, he was always interested in how other Seers saw him.

    Her eyes twinkled, and she pointed to a card. "The Magician – also very interesting."

    "The Magician and the Emperor?" Ron tilted his head, studying the cards for a moment. "That's an unusual combination."

    "Knowledge and power?" Harry ventured, trying to remember the meanings from his Divination lessons.

    "Free-will and creativity versus authority and stability," the old lady said in a dry tone. "It's a good combination. This is a strong spread."

    "What are you looking for?" Ron wanted to know.

    "The long-term prospects for the pair of you. How far ahead have you looked for Harry before?"

    "I don't usually bother trying for more than six months ahead, because I get really mixed results. Besides, since I can't see myself clearly there's no point in trying a partnership spread."

    "This is a lifespan spread."

    Harry saw Ron's brows go up. "That explains the mix of Major Arcana. Does that mean that he's showing up as the Emperor because that's his long-term position in his own spread? No one starts out with a powerful card like that, and his immediate spreads always show him as the Knight of Swords."

    "The knight has to win his spurs," his grandmother said cryptically.

    "Does that mean I have to grow into the Magician as well?" Ron persisted.

    "Very possibly …."

    "So who am I now?"

    She offered him the remainder of the deck, and Harry was amused to see the familiar quirky Weasley smile on her lips. Ron gave his grandmother narrow look, but pulled a card from the pack. When he flipped it over, Harry couldn't suppress a snort of laughter.

    The Fool.

    "Enthusiasm, initiative, passion and folly," the old lady said blandly. "Does that sound like you?"

    When he didn't answer but merely glowered, she turned back to the spread of cards on the table, still smiling. Her fingers traced the images thoughtfully before she said, "There's a lot happening here. Strife, followed by peace ... the attainment of immediate goals ... changes in lifestyle and direction ... settlement and contentment ... ambitions realised ... new challenges ... power and direction ...."

    She suddenly looked up and gave Harry a very searching look. "What would you say your greatest ambition is, son?"

    "Aside from seeing Voldemort defeated?" he asked lightly. "Playing Seeker on the England team, probably."

    She seemed to find that amusing. "Aside from that as well?"

    Harry gave her a bemused look. "I don't know."

    "Where do you see yourself being in ten years' time? Or, better, twenty years?"

    His brow furrowed. "I don't really know. I've never thought about it."

    "Then I'd say you're in for some surprises – both of you." Her fingers were tapping lightly on the card symbolising the World, which lay at the end of the spread. It was flanked by the Ace of Cups and Nine of Staves.

    All cards of the ultimate attainment of power and success.

    xXx

    The stack of parcels and cards waiting to be opened was embarrassingly large. Harry had to enlist Hermione's assistance in organising them and helping to keep tags with gifts, or he would have had no hope of sending appropriate thank-you notes to the givers later.

    "I feel awful about this," he muttered to her at one point. "Some of these are from people I don't even know."

    She looked sympathetic, but said, "It's reflected glory, Harry. It's the same as people sending presents to the Queen and Royal Family. It's not just that they wish you well - but also that it makes them feel a bit special for having done it, as though they've briefly been part of your life."

    "But I'm not special, Hermione! What have I done to deserve this except accidentally survive a curse when I was a baby?" He looked slighted desperate.

    "Oh, Harry …." She tucked her hand through his arm and squeezed it affectionately. "What will it take for you to realise that we all think you're special?"

    "But - "

    "No buts!"

    Harry was unconvinced but let it go, resigning himself to writing a pile of messages the next day to people he had never met and knew nothing about.

    The party really seemed to be getting into its stride now, with loud music, dancing and fantastic displays of fireworks organised by Fred and George. Eventually Harry chased Hermione away to dance with Krum and continued opening the stack of cards on his own. Every so often an owl would arrive with yet another one, many of which turned out to be from friends of his parents who, although they had never met Harry, wanted to wish him well.

    "It almost makes you feel sorry for the Daily Prophet," a familiar voice said in his ear unexpectedly.

    Harry whipped around. "Malfoy!"

    The other youth gave him a slight smile. "I think you and I were the only people who didn't know about this shindig," he commented, saluting Harry with a glass of wine.

    Harry gaped for a moment, then suddenly laughed. "You know, I even saw Moody here a minute ago, but it never occurred to me to wonder where you were!"

    "Yes - I was firmly escorted here and told not to try any funny business," Malfoy commented wryly. "I've spent most of the evening trying to avoid Weasley's mother - apparently she wants to 'give me a good talking to'."

    Harry chuckled. "You can hide behind my pile of presents if you want, but only if you're prepared to help me open them."

    "A vicarious thrill, but I'll take what I can get." Malfoy obligingly began to slit envelopes for him.

    "What were you saying about the Daily Prophet?" Harry asked.

    "That you should feel sorry for them. They've probably been going mad trying to find out whether you're having a party and if they can wrangle an invitation …. I notice the Patil twins aren't here."

    Harry shuddered. "No, and Ron says he refused to invite Lavender Brown too, just in case. She's big friends with Parvati."

    "Haven't they set up shop together as fortune-tellers?" Malfoy asked curiously.

    "Yes, but never say anything about that in Ron's hearing! He says they're a pair of frauds. They only scraped through their Divination NEWTs on theory - they both failed the practical entirely."

    "I'm not surprised, with that crackpot Trelawney teaching them."

    Harry shrugged. "To be fair, she's good on the theory of Divination. Even Ron has to admit that he learned most of his technique from her. She just doesn't have much of the gift herself. She tried to fail Ron, you know - she hated him for developing the Sight." He glanced at Malfoy. "How did you know about Lavender and Parvati's business?"

    He shrugged. "They advertise in Witch Weekly sometimes."

    "You read Witch Weekly?" Harry tried not to laugh at the idea.

    "I'll read anything, Potter. Knowledge is power."

    Harry was about to respond to this when another owl swooped in and dropped a letter into his hands. This one was different from the others; it wasn't a card, but simply a sheet of stiff, cream-coloured parchment, folded in three and sealed with a blob of dark green wax. In thick, flowing black script it bore Harry's name on the front, but nothing else.

    Harry tore it open without thinking, unfolded it … and felt ice-water flood through his veins. There were just three words hand-written across the centre of the page in the same strong, flowing hand as the direction on the front.

    Happy Birthday, Harry.

    There was no signature. It didn't need one.

    Harry stared at it numbly for a moment, then turned the paper over and folded it up. Where the broken seal fitted back together he now saw that the wax had been stamped with the Dark Mark.

    "Are you all right, Potter?"

    He looked up to see Malfoy giving him a strange look.

    "I'm fine," he replied, but his voice sounded odd even to him. Before Malfoy could ask, Harry pulled out his wand and tossed the folded parchment into the air.

    "Incendio!"

    The piece of paper burst into flames and crumbled into ashes before it reached the ground.

    "What did you do that for?"

    Harry glanced at the other youth and saw from his face that he had suspicions of what the paper had been.

    "Someone's idea of a joke," he said curtly, and went back to opening the other envelopes.

    Malfoy didn't question him further.

    xXx

    It should have put a pall over his entire evening, but Harry slowly realised that what he really felt wasn't panic, anger or fear ... it was relief. He hadn't quite believed it when Ron said Voldemort had nothing bad planned for this weekend, and at the back of his mind he knew he had been waiting all evening for something terrible to happen.

    Now something had happened, and it was something really quite innocuous. For a while he brooded on why Voldemort should have chosen to do something so small and seemingly insignificant. People like Sirius and Moody had been saying for months that they were expecting him to make another attempt on Harry's life on his twenty-first birthday, if only for the sheer dramatic impact of it.

    But it was dawning on Harry that Voldemort would not do it unless he had a reasonable chance of success. To try to kill his nemesis on such an important occasion, and fail, would be worse than not trying at all. Harry was surrounded not only by his loved ones, but also a staggering array of Aurors, Unspeakables, Obliviators and other wizards and witches of varying degrees of power, most of whom would be braced for an attack all evening despite their seeming calm.
    Voldemort wasn't a fool, and his desire to kill Harry was very specific. He could have poisoned the sheet of paper or done any number of other things to it to harm his enemy. He hadn't.

    No, Voldemort wanted to kill Harry himself, and he wanted to do it in person, in front of his supporters and probably in front of certain of his enemies. He wanted to look Harry in the eyes when he did it, and he wanted to use the Avada Kedavra Curse. He wanted to finish the job he had started twenty years ago.

    Knowing that, Harry felt quite calm. Really, it wasn't anything he hadn't known since his confrontation with the Dark wizard after the Tri-Wizard Cup Final.

    And suddenly he didn't want to hang around on the edges of the party while everyone else was having a wonderful time.

    "Screw this," he said to Malfoy, and dumped the stack of envelopes back on the table. "Come on, let's get another drink."

    Surprised but quite willing, Malfoy followed him through the throng to where Sirius and Lupin were presiding over a startling array of bottles, casks, demi-johns and other oddly-shaped receptacles. There was a gaggle of rather good-looking witches hanging around the pair of them, and from the sounds of scandalised laughter Sirius was telling some really reprehensible jokes. Hagrid was sitting at one end of the table, getting very red-faced and jovial over a bucket-sized tankard and at the other end Dumbledore was entertaining a large group of older and more dignified wizards with anecdotes from his career as a headmaster. Meanwhile, in front of the table was a red-headed gaggle; the Weasley boys, minus Percy but plus a tall, older cousin, apparently mixing cocktails.

    As Harry approached, Ron held up his glass and added a couple of drops of an acid-green liqueur from a tiny bottle. The contents of the glass foamed up and emitted a stream of brightly coloured sparks.

    "Close," was Bill's critical assessment. "What does it taste like?"

    "Are you going to drink that or smoke it through a hookah?" Harry asked before Ron could answer.

    "Do you want the clean answer to that?" Then Ron caught sight of Malfoy and got a pained expression. "Bloody hell, you again!" he said. "Honestly, you're like a case of the clap – no sooner do we get rid of you than you're back again."

    "I bow to your superior experience in the matter," Malfoy retorted, and he wandered off.

    "Have I just been insulted?" Ron demanded of Harry, who smiled.

    "No comment. You're not going to drink that, are you?"

    Ron rolled his eyes. "No, I'm going to rub it on."

    "Ron, you know what happens when you get drunk ...."

    "Harry ...." Ron picked up a second glass, already filled with a magenta-coloured concoction that steamed incongruously around its little umbrella and olive, and pushed it into Harry's hand, "I'm banking on it."

    He grinned at Harry, and took a swig from his glass that made his eyes water and steam come pouring out of his ears and nostrils. His brothers and cousin burst into laughter at his stunned expression.

    "Okay," he wheezed, when he got his breath back, "maybe that was too much Chartreuse ...."

    xXx

    More food and drink was consumed; the cake was cut and distributed; and people began to get very tipsy and excitable. It was just after eleven-thirty when Harry avoided a conga line led by Dumbledore, and quietly slipped out of the garden gate when no one was looking. He made the five minute walk up to the paddock behind the Burrow, and when he got there he flopped out in the cool grass and lay staring up at the stars.

    He was just a little bit drunk, enough that he felt that curious sense of anticipation that comes from having had several strong drinks when you're not used to it.

    He looked at his watch. Twenty minutes to go.

    Twenty minutes until he was genuinely twenty-one years old.

    He looked up at the constellations and tried to make himself identify them, but they wouldn't stay still, and the noise of the party kept interrupting. It didn't matter. He felt too buzzed to care about astronomy anyway.

    He glanced at his watch again. Fifteen minutes.

    Then he heard footsteps, and smiled.

    "I thought I might find you up here," Ron said. He dropped something on the ground next to Harry with a dull thud, and sat down. "You know, this party wasn't exactly what I had in mind for your birthday," he sighed.

    Harry gave him a cockeyed look. "Why? It's been great."

    Ron gave him a candid look. "Well actually, I was thinking more along the lines of a couple of nights of unbridled lust in an exotic location, but Mum had her heart set on the big party, so ...."

    Harry grinned at him. "It's a great idea. Put "unbridled lust in exotic location" on the top of our List Of Things To Do When The World Isn't Going To Hell". He glanced at the thing Ron had brought with him and gave it a prod. It felt soft and yielding. "So what's that?"

    "Have a look."

    Harry pulled his wand out of his sleeve and said "Lumos". The small light flared in the darkness and illuminated a thick bundle of blankets. He raised a brow at his friend.

    "I had a feeling you might not appreciate having to share a room with Fred, George and Cousin Chris tonight," Ron said casually. "It's a nice night – no reason why we shouldn't stay out here."

    Harry began to grin again. "There's nothing like being surrounded by nature."

    "Oh yeah – I like a bit of nature!" Ron took a large bottle from under his arm and held out a couple of glasses. "Hold these a minute ...."

    "What's this?"

    "Courtesy of Sirius, who reckons he rescued a couple of these from the wreckage your eighteenth birthday party and decided to hang onto them until the big two-one." Ron studied the label. "Caligula's Finest Original Ice Champagne – very fancy! Is Sirius a wine buff?"

    "He'd like us to think so," Harry said, amused, watching Ron wrestle the cork out of the bottle. It ejected itself with a musical pop and the champagne bubbled up vigorously. "Whoa! Don't spill any ...."

    Ron poured out two glasses and propped the bottle carefully against the bundle of blankets. "What's the time, Harry?"

    He checked his watch again. "Eleven fifty-five."

    "Good. I've got just enough time to give you this, then ...." Ron knelt up slightly so that he could dig in the pocket of his trousers and fish out a small wooden box the size of his palm.

    Harry felt a rush of pleasure and excitement. "Is that my present?"

    "Yeah .... Hang onto the champagne a sec." Ron opened the box and pulled out a slender gold chain with a pendant hanging from it shaped like a wishbone. He scooted around behind Harry and fiddled with the clasp, trying to get it undone. "Why do they make these things so tiny ...? No – there it is – " He swung the pendant around Harry's neck and managed to fasten the clasp again. "There ...." He planted a kiss on the back of Harry's neck for good measure, making him smile.

    Harry brushed his fingers over the little gold pendant wonderingly and felt a sudden rush of tingling warmth through his fingertips, not unlike the feeling his wand had given him the first time Ollivander put it into his hand.

    "Is it charmed?"

    "Yes." Ron returned to his place in front of Harry and sat down crossed-legged, taking one of the glasses of champagne.

    Harry blinked at him when he said no more. "What does it do?"

    But Ron only smiled. He leaned forward and grabbed Harry's wrist, squinting at his watch in the dim light. "Nearly there – one minute to go. Do you want to do a countdown?"

    "Nah."

    They leaned together, watching the second hand ticking down to midnight.

    - Ten –

    - Nine –

    - Eight –

    "Going to make a wish?"

    "Maybe."

    - Five –

    - Four –

    - Three –

    - Two –

    - One ....

    "Happy birthday, Harry."

    Ron solemnly touched his glass to Harry's and took a sip. Seeing his startled expression when he swallowed, Harry also took a gulp, and gasped.

    "Whoa, Sirius!" It was like liquid ice flowing down his throat, but exploded into fire in his belly. The alcohol hit him almost immediately, making his head seem at once clearer and more disconnected.

    "Sirius does know his wine," Ron managed, giving the drink an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

    "I'll say ...."

    Harry took another, more cautious sip and savoured the effect. Then he leaned back in the grass again, balancing his glass carefully on his stomach. Ron sprawled out next to him, and they grinned at each other a bit idiotically.

    "So, are you drunk, Harry? Because you know what happens when we get drunk."

    Harry chuckled. "I'm banking on it!"

    "Good." And Ron leaned in to kiss him.

    xXx

    Some time later, Harry snuggled up to Ron contentedly and ruminated that only one thing was lacking to make it the perfect ending to a perfect birthday, and that was a comfy feather bed. But blankets and a balmy summer night were a good second best, and he certainly wasn't complaining ....

    He drifted off to sleep with a smile on his lips.

    Chapter Text

    The Hogwarts Express was standing at Platform Nine and Three Quarters, mingled smoke and steam drifting around it. The platform, normally heaving with parents and children with pets and school trunks, was empty except for Harry and his canvas duffel-bag. He was waiting for someone; who, he didn't know, only that it wasn't Ron or one of his other friends.

    He felt like he'd been waiting for a very long time for these people, but he felt no impatience. Inside himself, he knew they would come at exactly the right moment and not before.

    Then the smoke cleared and two figures walked down the platform towards him. He knew their faces, although he hadn't seen them since he was fourteen years old and had no memories of seeing them alive.

    They were his parents.

    Harry felt a huge smile break over his face, and experienced a surge of dizzying happiness at seeing them again. He abandoned his bag and ran to meet them.
    His mother held out her hands to him, and she was laughing and crying at the same time. Harry swept her up into a hug, a little surprised at how small she seemed now that he was a fully-grown adult. It was a bigger surprise to be able to look his father in the eyes, and realise that he was actually an inch or so taller than him. Harry let go of his mother and was pulled into the kind of bone-crushing hug he got from Sirius.

    "You've grown up, you've grown up …." his mother was saying, and there was mingled joy and sadness in the words.

    His father released him, reluctantly it seemed to Harry, and gripped his shoulder hard, smiling proudly. "Sirius and Arthur are right. You've grown up exactly as we hoped."

    "You've talked to them?" The idea didn't seem at all strange to Harry.

    "Sometimes. And Dumbledore."

    His mother reached out to touch his cheek. "Molly said you were growing up handsome."

    "Mum!" Harry coloured a little, which made her laugh.

    "I'm glad you came to see me off," he said to them. "It wouldn't have been the same else."

    "Where else would we be on a day like this?"

    But Harry felt a twinge of anxiety. "Will you be here when I come back?"

    His father shook his head. "That I don't know. You've a long journey ahead … there's a lot to be done."

    Unease clouded Harry's good mood. "I don't know if I can do it, Dad. Everyone seems to expect so much, and I'm afraid of letting them down."

    "You won't," his mother soothed. "We have every confidence in you."

    But his father's eyes were grave. "It won't be easy, Harry. But you've got to try, do you understand? Not to try would be worse than trying and failing. Have faith in the people around you. Have faith in yourself."

    "But what happens if I do fail?"

    "I don't know that. No one can know. All we can do is move forward in the hope of better things."

    His mother touched his arm, more urgently now. "Listen, Harry. There are things you should know about, things you can use - look in the house."

    Harry stared at her in confusion. "But the house is gone," he said, thinking of the ruins of the cottage in Godric's Hollow.

    "Only the walls were destroyed. Look in the house. It might make all the difference to you … and your friends."

    She looked past his shoulder then, and her face seemed to fill with sad resignation. "Time to go now, Harry."

    He turned to look and saw a familiar figure with bright red hair standing near his bag at the edge of the platform. The door to one of the carriages was open.

    Harry turned back to his parents. "That's Ron - "

    His mother smiled and touched his face again gently. "I know. He'd better look after you."

    His father gave him a firm nod. "Go on, now."

    But Harry hesitated. "I don't want to leave you."

    "Harry, you have no choice. We left you years ago. Now it's your turn to leave us."

    His mother was beginning to cry again, but she patted his arm and stepped away when he would have hugged her. "No, go on. Quickly now - "

    And before he could blink he was on the train, staring out of the carriage window as it pulled away from the station, watching as his parents vanished into the distance.

    xXx

    Harry drifted awake, warm, comfortable and content. Turning onto his side, he pulled a pillow further under his ear and tugged the sheets up under his chin. There was a light breeze wafting around his head –

    His eyes snapped open. What the hell ...?

    He was lying in a magnificent king-sized, canopied, four-poster bed hung with pristine white curtains and draped in white bed-linen.

    In the middle of the paddock above the Burrow.

    Harry dragged himself upright and looked at the bed, aghast. He pinched himself, but nothing changed. It was undoubtedly a feather bed, piled high with pillows and sheets all bordered with delicate white lace frills, while the curtains and canopy foamed with lace edging. And still soundly asleep amongst all the ruffles was Ron, sprawled across the bed with his usual abandon.

    "I don't believe this ...." Harry muttered. He grabbed Ron's shoulder and gave him a shake. "Ron ... Ron! Wake up."

    "Nguh ... whah?" Ron managed to lift his head slightly, squinting. "Wassamarrer, Harry?"

    "Open your eyes and take a look."

    Ron blinked and looked around. His eyes widened, and he let out a sudden explosive snort of laughter and flopped face downwards among the pillows, giggling.

    "It's not funny!" Harry said indignantly. "Where did it come from?"

    "How should I know?" Ron's shoulders were shaking and little snorts were erupting from the frills. "W-we could have ... d-done with this ... last night!"

    "Cut it out!" Harry slapped away a groping hand. He looked around helplessly. "Where are my clothes?"

    "Oh, don't be boring! Since it's here, we might as well make use of it ...."

    "Ron, it's a bloody great four-poster bed in the middle of your dad's paddock. Don't you think someone's going to notice and want to take a look?"

    "It'd take a house dropping on most of my family to make them notice anything ...."

    "In case you've forgotten, Fred and George are sleeping in your old room, which just happens to have a direct view over the paddock!" Harry froze, horrified. "Crap, I didn't think of that last night ...."

    Ron tried hard to contain himself, but the look on Harry's face was too much for him and he went off into another peal of laughter. "Harry, you idiot, what does it matter?"

    "Since when did you become an exhibitionist?" Harry was very put out. He dragged one of the top sheets off and wrapped it primly around himself, before hopping down from the bed (it was very high) and peering underneath it. He sighed with relief. "Thank God! All our clothes are under here."

    "Pity. The toga-look suits you."

    Harry's response was to toss his trousers and shirt at him. "Come on, get dressed!"

    Ron groaned. "Why, for crying out loud? It's practically the crack of dawn!"

    "We've got to try and get rid of this thing!"

    "I don't see why. It's a really nice bed ... or it would be, without all these girly, lacy bits."

    "It's in the middle of a paddock!"

    "Oh God ...." Ron flopped onto his back and looked up at the canopy grumpily. "It's going to be one of those days, isn't it?"

    xXx

    In the event, all their attempts to dismiss the bed back to wherever it had come from failed. They were forced to tramp down to the house and enlist the help of more experienced hands.

    The bed caused a lot of interest and amusement, especially with the Weasleys, all of whom insisted on at least sitting on it to test the mattress. Harry was only person who didn't seem to think it was funny; even Dumbledore, still wearing his night-cap and dressing gown, was hard put to suppress a smile at the sight of the frilly sheets and curtains.

    "How unusual!" he commented. "What were you trying to produce?"

    Ron's snigger did not improve Harry's mood.

    "Nothing!" he cried, exasperated. "We were asleep!"

    "Ah!" Dumbledore nodded. "That would explain it. Sleep is so rarely a passive activity."

    "But we didn't do anything!"

    "Of course not!" Sirius snickered. "That's why your signatures are all over it."

    "I - what?"

    Even Ron looked a bit surprised at this.

    "But … no wands …." Harry said feebly.

    "Yes, I imagine that was the only thing that prevented you producing carpets, chandeliers and full room service as well," Dumbledore commented. "I'm rather impressed, gentlemen. You managed this particular feat even though one of your circle was a couple of hundred miles away. Tell me - if it's not an indelicate question - did either of you want a four-poster bed?"

    "I didn't," said Ron at once. "I was quite comfortable where I was."

    Harry was about to second this, when he suddenly remembered that his last waking thought had been … of a feather bed. A slow tide of colour washed up his face.

    "It was just a passing thought," he muttered. "I wasn't serious."

    Dumbledore's eyes began to twinkle.

    "Please don't tell me that every time Harry has a passing fancy for something, it's going to pop up in front of us," Ron said nervously, for once apparently innocent of innuendo.

    "That could be embarrassing!" George said brightly. "Just think, he could - "

    "George!" That was Mrs. Weasley.

    "I don't think so," the professor put in calmly, "but it certainly calls for a little caution for a while. But before we go into that, I think perhaps we should remove this – there is a proper place for feather beds, after all, and I can't help feeling that a paddock isn't it."

    He looked expectantly at Harry and Ron, who both stared back blankly.

    "That's the point," Harry said. "We've been trying to get rid of it for half an hour. It won't go!"

    "Were you trying to banish it?" Mr Weasley asked. "Because I can't see any of Molly's blankets here, so perhaps you transfigured them."

    "Into something as big as a bed?" Bill said doubtfully. "Is that possible? It's a pretty radical change in scale."

    "Oh, I think we'll be surprised at what they're capable of," said Dumbledore cheerfully.

    "I don't know about you, but I'm already as surprised as I can take," Ron muttered to Harry, who nodded gloomily.

    "Well, a reverse transfiguration then, gentlemen, and since Harry appears to have been the source of this, perhaps it should be he who reverses the spell. Harry?"

    He tried. He tried very hard.

    The bed-linen changed colour a few times, before suddenly turning into leopard prints with bead hangings and mosquito nets in place of the curtains and canopy. Then the bedstead itself went from plain beech to heavy carved oak, to ornate mahogany and finally ebony inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The effect was rather startling with the animal prints and made the twins collapse with laughter.

    "You know, I'm starting to think you've got a kinky streak," Ron told Harry, fighting a grin. "What's with the leopard-skin?"

    "Fine! I give up," Harry retorted indignantly. "You try."

    Ron did his best, but without success. He succeeded in turning the bedstead back into plain beech wood, but the bedding once again went through a number of odd transformations until everything finally appeared in lurid red silk ... but something odd had happened to the feather bed. Harry gave it a wary push with one hand and for the first time showed a hint of a grin.

    "And you call me kinky – now it's a waterbed!"
    "A suggestion, if I may," Dumbledore said gently. He took Harry's empty left hand and placed it on Ron's shoulder. "Now try, Ron."

    It almost worked. The giant four-poster bed disappeared ... to be replaced by a child's single, complete with Chudley Cannons quilt covers and pillowslips.

    "Once more ...." Harry said hopefully, and Ron flicked his wand at the little bed.

    It vanished, leaving behind it an untidy tangle of tartan blankets.

    Harry sighed with relief.

    "Well done!" the professor told them, beaming. "Now, I don't know about you, but I really feel I could eat a good breakfast."

    "Do you feel knackered?" Ron asked Harry softly, as they gathered up the blankets and followed the others back to the house.

    "Just a bit." Actually, Harry felt like someone had turned all his muscles to jelly. It felt like he'd just played a ten hour Quidditch match with no time out.

    "I'm not surprised," Dumbledore told them kindly. "If young Draco had been here, the energy would have been magnified between the three of you, but without him you were forced to use your own strength."

    "He wasn't here last night, but neither of us felt like we'd been clubbed when we woke up," Ron pointed out.

    "Ah! Well, I would venture a guess that you overcame the distance between the three of you last night."

    Harry blinked at the elderly wizard. "How?"

    Dumbledore's beard twitched and his eyes were twinkling again. "Some activities are rather ... unifying, Harry. And I should think Draco will have something to say to you on that subject when you next see him, which is why we need to discuss precautions against anything like this happening again. Aside from the unexpected side-effects, it becomes rather tiresome for the person – or persons – who aren't actively involved."

    When the implications of this sank in, Harry could feel himself turning scarlet.

    "Being a wizard is so humiliating sometimes," he mumbled.

    xXx

    Breakfast was taken in shifts, as a number of people had spent the night with the Weasleys rather than risk Apparating home under the influence of Sirius's cocktails.

    Harry was just finishing a large bowl of Dr. Dejeuner's Early-Bird Breakfast Cereal when the post arrived. Hedwig appeared, carrying a couple of envelopes for him, and Pigwidgeon flew in after her, apparently for no other reason than to prove to Ron that he could find him anywhere.

    Seconds later they were followed by no less than four sturdy barn owls carrying a long, thin package addressed to Harry which they deposited on the kitchen table in front of him. He barely had a chance to look at the label before another four owls swooped in carrying a second parcel which was dropped in front of Ron.

    Charlie, who was supervising his two-year-old twin daughters' breakfast, took one look and said, "That's a broomstick."

    Ron poked the packaging with one finger, astonished. "Can't be. Who'd send me a broomstick?"

    Harry was already pulling the wrapper off his. "Brilliant!" he said, reverently holding up the Nimbus Tsunami he'd ordered over two months previously. "It's about time this arrived." He glanced at Ron, who was staring, open-mouthed. "Aren't you going to open it?"

    Ron made a funny gargling sound.

    "I think I hate you," Charlie said feelingly, staring with a Quidditch player's lust at the racing broom. "You're going to fly that at our match, aren't you, you … you … wretch!"

    Harry grinned.

    Ron finally pulled himself together and began to unwrap his parcel with unsteady fingers. When the second, gleaming Nimbus Tsunami was revealed, he stared at it for a long time in silence. So long, that Harry began to get worried.

    "Ron?"

    "Harry …." For a moment, it seemed like Ron didn't know what to say. Then a rueful grin appeared. "This is a hell of a lot of trade!"

    It took a moment for Harry to get the reference; then he nearly choked on his cereal. He had the ideal comeback though.

    "Just don't let it smack you in the face the first time you try to ride it," he said slyly, referring to their first flying lesson with Madam Hooch at Hogwarts. Harry had been a natural from the moment he first stuck his hand out over the capricious old school broomstick and said "Up!", but Ron's initial attempt had nearly given him a black eye.
    Ron's response to this got him a sharp reprimand from Charlie for swearing in front of the children.

    xXx

    Dumbledore's solution to the problem of 'accidentally' activating the power of their circle with Malfoy was a variation on the privacy spell they already used almost every day. He made them practice it for over an hour before he was satisfied that they both understood the charm, but admitted that there was only one way to find out if it was effective. He added that they would need to teach it to Draco at the first opportunity, to prevent the situation occurring in reverse.

    "So …." Ron said casually, when they had said goodbye to the elderly professor. "Do you feel like flying home?"

    Harry grinned at the barely-concealed anticipation in his friend's voice. "Yeah," he agreed. His smile slipped a little. "There's somewhere else I want to go first, though."
    Ron gave him an odd look at this but didn't question him. Instead, they took their new brooms out to the paddock and had a couple of brief trial flights, just to make sure that they had the feel of them before trying a proper journey of any height and distance. They were followed by Charlie, Fred and George and it was inevitable that they would all end up trying the brooms out too, so it was past midday before Harry and Ron finally set off.

    From the moment they kicked off from the ground, it was exhilarating. Harry remembered flying his original Firebolt for the first time, and how he had marvelled at its balance, the precision handling, the sheer speed of it.

    The Tsunami made the Mark I Firebolt look like the old school Shooting Stars. It gained altitude with a speed and smoothness that left Harry's stomach somewhere back in the meadow and it was responsive to the lightest touch, making a quick sweep around the tree tops surrounding the Burrow feel more like a high-speed slalom across a pristine snowfield. Aware that Ron, although a competent flier, was unused to competition standard racing brooms, Harry kept a wary eye on him, but he needn't have worried; Ron was having the time of his life, and would probably have been whooping and yelling if the flight hadn't taken his breath away.

    Finally, Harry signalled to him to slow down a little and fly in closer so he could speak to him. His friend's face was bright pink and his eyes were sparkling with excitement when he swooped in to pace Harry.

    "This is brilliant!" he exclaimed, before Harry could speak. "Where are we going?"

    "Godric's Hollow," Harry told him, "and activate the invisibility spell, Ron, or we'll get a citation from the Improper Use of Magic Office!"

    Ron looked a little surprised at their destination, but was too keen to simply fly anywhere to question it. Godric's Hollow wasn't a long flight from Ottery St. Catchpole, but it was enough to get a really good feel for the brooms. He grinned.

    "Last one there's a sissy!"

    And with that he winked out of sight, and Harry was buffeted by the breeze of him taking off.

    Chuckling, he followed.

    xXx

    It was gloriously sunny when they arrived in Godric's Hollow. Harry swooped into the village and ducked behind a useful stand of trees at the rear of Sirius and Lupin's house before he deactivated the invisibility spell. Seconds later, Ron flicked into sight a few feet away from him, looking windblown and cheerful.

    Harry grinned at him. "Good flight?"

    "That was the best ever." Ron looked around himself. "So, now we're here, why are we here?"

    "Let's park the brooms at Sirius's place, and I'll show you."

    So they left the brooms in the shed, and Harry led Ron out into the village. They walked for nearly fifteen minutes down the narrow country lane, past all the original cottages and more modern bungalows, until they came to a large plot of land right on the outskirts.

    The old five-bar gate was damaged and the gravel driveway severely overgrown. The garden was worse, covered in weeds, ivy, overgrown rhododendrons and brambles. A number of other plants, none of which were to be seen in Muggle gardens, had taken a firm hold, their mysterious blooms wafting heavy perfume in the warm, summer air, and their seed pods weighed down with fruit. Head-high grasses showered the two of them with pollen and seeds, and vines grabbed at their shoes, as they pushed their way along a nearly invisible pathway. The place was buzzing with insect life.

    Abruptly all that seemed to stop. Harry pushed his way out of the undergrowth and stepped into an area that had once been a building. Following him, Ron stifled an exclamation.

    It was little more than concrete foundations, a couple of standing walls, and a lot of rubble. Nothing grew there, not even moss or lichens, and the sound of insects had stopped. But it hummed with magic, the residue of long-dead protection spells and an evil curse of such magnitude that Ron twitched uncomfortably under the pressure of it.

    "This was your parents' house, wasn't it?" he said, more to break the uncomfortable silence than anything else.

    "Yep. This is the house where I was born," Harry said quietly. He folded his arms and looked around. It hadn't changed much since the last time he had been here. "The plot of land still belongs to me," he continued idly, "but there's no point in trying to sell it or build anything here. It's tainted. Dumbledore asked the Unspeakables to find a way of cleansing it years ago, but nothing they've tried works."

    Ron took a few wary steps into the ruins and looked around. "It's like the Avada Kedavra Curse to the power of ten," he said softly. He reached out to one of the standing walls, but stopped just before his fingers could touch the stonework. "Harry, what the hell happened that night? Even You-Know-Who couldn't make that curse more powerful than it already is."

    Harry shrugged. "All I know is that it rebounded from me and hit him, and when it did the whole house exploded. Hagrid says he found me in the rubble near where the front door would have been. I was still wearing my romper-suit, but everything else, including my cradle, was destroyed." He hesitated, then added with a little difficulty, "Sirius says my mum and dad's bodies were found in the back garden."

    "Sirius was here, wasn't he?"

    "He arrived just after Hagrid, and lent him his bike so that he could take me to Dumbledore."

    Harry stepped past Ron and slowly began to walk through the ruins, in places turning the rubble over with his foot. He had no idea what he was looking for, but he couldn't shake the feeling that the words of his mother in his dream had been meant literally.

    "So why have we come here?" Ron asked behind him. When Harry didn't respond, he tried again. "Is it some kind of pilgrimage because you're twenty-one today?"

    Harry smiled at this. "No."

    "What then?"

    "I dreamt about my parents last night."

    Ron looked at him a little doubtfully. "You dream about your parents a lot, Harry."

    "Yeah, I know, but this was different."

    "What happened?"

    "They saw me off on the Hogwarts Express." Harry continued to pick through the rubble as he talked. "Dad was talking about the things I was going to have to do soon, and Mum kept telling me to come and look in the house because there was something important here that I'd need."

    "Do you think this was another true-dream?"

    "I have been having a lot of them lately."

    "We can't be sure of that until some of them come true …."

    "Some of them have come true. We have to work with Draco Malfoy, don't we?"

    Ron grimaced. "It doesn't follow that this is a true-dream though, Harry. Especially since you dream about your mum and dad so often."

    Harry tried not to feel annoyed. It was Ron's job to play devil's advocate in these situations, after all. "This one was different. I was grown up, for one thing. And my dad … my dad said that I might not see them again, because I had to move on."

    The red-head didn't know quite what to say to this.

    "And my mum said you'd better look after me," Harry added, managing a grin for his friend.

    Ron rolled his eyes. "I'm trying, but you keep doing dangerous things!" He wandered across the cracked ruin of the floor and peered through the remains of a doorway. "You can tell the Unspeakables have been here," he commented. "Can you feel the notice-me-not spells everywhere? I wonder why they bothered?"

    "Godric's Hollow is a Muggle village," Harry said, following him through the doorway. "Sirius and Remus are the only wizards living here these days. If there are Muggle families around, the kids would be drawn to a place like this, so they probably put the spells up to prevent them hurting themselves. Especially since the curse residue is still really strong."

    "Wizard kids would know better," Ron said. He crouched down and poked at something metallic sticking out of a pile of masonry. "Oh …."

    "What?" Harry was at his side immediately.

    Ron managed to ease the object out of the rubbish and held it up wordlessly.

    It was the mangled remains of a child's mobile. The metal frame was still intact, although badly twisted, but only two of the charms, a tarnished moon and star, still hung from it. Harry took it from him, carefully brushing clinging dirt from the charms with his fingertips.

    "Yours?"

    "Yeah." Harry felt a lump forming in his throat. "I've seen it before. When Sirius brought me here a couple of years ago he created an illusion of parts of the house to show me what it was like. This was hanging above my cradle in the nursery."

    "Think this is what you're looking for?"

    "No." He didn't know how he knew, but he was positive it was something else. "Let's keep looking."

    So they combed the remains of the building, turning over rubble and trying to find the remnants of what had once been a happy family home. There wasn't much left.

    "The Aurors took a lot of stuff away for examination after the explosion," Harry said at one point, frustrated.

    "Then it's probably still in storage at the Facility," Ron pointed out reasonably. "We can take a look on Monday."

    "But Mum said it would be here."

    "Harry ...."

    "Yeah, yeah, I know." Conscious of Ron's worried eyes on the back of his neck, Harry made an effort to relax. "I'm being stupid about this, aren't I?"

    "No, but it's a lot to expect from a dream. You don't have a clue what you're looking for and even if you did, it's not like you even consciously remember living here, so your chances of finding whatever it is after twenty years are pretty low."

    "I know. It's just ... well, I suppose I thought it would be obvious when I got here."

    "It could still have been moved." Ron watched him, concerned. "Look, we'll take a look in the stores on Monday. If nothing there leaps out at you, I'll try looking in the crystal ball. In fact ...." He took the crushed mobile from Harry and ran his fingers over it lightly. "Yeah, I thought so. There's some good emotional residue on this. Let's take it with us and I'll try a reading on it tonight. Straight clairvoyancy is more Gran's area than mine, but if I can't get anything, we can owl it to her and see what she makes of it."

    "Okay. Thanks." Harry felt some of the tension leaving him at the idea of positive action. "Maybe we should – " He stopped; Ron's head had suddenly come up as though he was listening to something. "What?"

    "There's someone here."

    Harry turned and looked around, then walked across to the gap in the walls where the front door had once been, and looked out.

    Perhaps twenty yards away, a youth stood in the middle of the overgrown garden path. He was tall and thin, like Ron, but had short black hair and was dressed in a Muggle-style black t-shirt and jeans. He was watching them suspiciously.

    Harry stepped out of the building, folding his arms casually so that his hand could easily reach inside his sleeve for his wand if necessary.

    "Can I help you?" he asked pleasantly.

    The youth dug his hands into his jeans pockets and stared at him disconcertingly for a moment or two. He didn't look much younger than Harry himself, but there was something about him that made the hair stand up on the back of Harry's neck.

    "You're trespassing," he said finally. He had the faintest trace of a local accent in his voice.

    "Am I?" Harry glanced around very deliberately. "It looks deserted to me. Why, are you the owner?"

    There was a pause while the youth continued to study him. Eventually he said, "Owners are dead."

    "Really?"

    "Died years ago. Gas explosion."

    "Is that so?" Harry studied him back, wondering what it was about this Muggle that bothered him. Maybe it was the eyes. Harry didn't have much experience with mental illness, but the youth didn't look very stable.

    The young man seemed to decide on something then, because he took his hands out of his pockets and took a few steps forward. "I'm Nick Curtis," he said. "I live in the village."

    "Hello," Harry replied warily. He wasn't sure he wanted to reciprocate by giving this very strange stranger his name.

    "I've seen you before," Nick continued. "You visit Mr. Black sometimes, don't you?"

    Sirius is going to love this. He thinks the villagers ignore him. "That's right. He's my godfather."

    "Ah." As if this information broke the ice, the youth grinned at him. "You'll be the one that lived, then."

    Harry blinked in surprise, and heard Ron make a tiny sound behind him. "I'm sorry?"

    "The baby! The owners' little boy. He lived when the house blew up."

    "I suppose I am." Harry was astonished. "How did you know about that?"

    "People talk," Nick said, shrugging. "So …. You'll be looking to come back and rebuild the house, will you?"

    "Not really. I work in London, so it wouldn't be practical." Harry wondered if all the locals were so inquisitive.

    "Oh." The youth stared at him for a minute or two as though waiting for Harry to say more, but when he didn't, he shrugged again. "I'd best be off then. I was just checking, you know - seeing who was nosing around."

    "Bye then." Harry watched as Nick reluctantly retreated back down the path and waited until he was well out of sight. Then he turned back to look at Ron. "Okay, that was weirder than some of Neville's girlfriends …."

    Ron looked disturbed. "Yeah, but the big question is - how did he get past all the anti-Muggle spells?"

    "More to the point, how did he know about me?" Ron gave him a questioning look. "Sirius told me the locals knew nothing about me or my parents, only that the house blew up, killing the two strangers who had just moved in. So how did he know?"

    "I think we need to talk to Sirius about this. He didn't feel like an ordinary Muggle to me - that's what alerted me to him being in the garden in the first place."

    "Yeah, but what was it about him that was so weird?" Harry wondered.

    "You want me to pick just one thing about him out of a whole bunch that were weird?" Ron shook his head. "I don't know - maybe he wasn't a Muggle at all. I've heard about kids who are wizards but don't have enough magic to go to schools like Hogwarts. They can be born to Muggle families as much as wizard families, but they don't get any kind of magical education at all and sometimes they never even find out that they have magic."

    Harry stared at him. "What happens to them?"

    Ron shrugged. "Mostly they just grow up like other Muggles. The ones in wizard families go to other schools, but if they don't have much magic to start with they're not allowed to own a wand. Haven't you heard Neville say how worried his family were that he wouldn't have enough magic to go to Hogwarts? That's what could have happened to him, and if you come from a very old wizard family there's a big stigma attached to it."

    "Why? It's not like it's the kid's fault!"

    "Well, sometimes they can go a bit … nuts," Ron said uncomfortably. "I mean, think about it. In some ways, only having a tiny bit of useless magic is worse than being a squib, who has no magic at all. And if you were born and brought up as a Muggle, and didn't know anything about magic anyway, the weird stuff that happened around you could easily drive you round the bend."

    It made sense; and having been brought up in precisely those circumstances, he could well understand what Ron was saying. But it left a nasty taste in Harry's mouth, and he wondered what happened to those poor devils from old wizard families who somehow failed to match up to the standards set for them and went mad as a result.

    "Well, this bloke didn't look too normal to me," he said after a moment. "Let's go and have a chat with Sirius about it."

    xXx

    "Nick Curtis? The name doesn't ring any bells, but it's not like I know any of the locals anyway." This was Lupin; Sirius was out when they arrived back at house.

    "They seem to know you - or Sirius, anyway," Harry told him. "He said he'd seen me visiting Sirius before."

    Lupin gave him a startled look. "How could he? You can't have been into the village more than twice since we've lived here."

    "He knew who I was as well," Harry continued. "He didn't actually know my name - or I don't think he did - but he knew I survived the explosion in the house."

    "What was really weird was that he referred to Harry as "the one who lived"," Ron pointed out. "That's a bit of a big coincidence, don't you think? But no way did he feel like a normal Muggle, professor, and we were wondering if he could be one of those kids who are born with just a bit of magic?"

    Lupin considered it, looking disturbed. "It's possible, I suppose, but very unlikely. You get children with low levels of magic, but the ones who can't be trained at all are very rare, especially among Muggle families. And there certainly aren't any other wizard families around here for miles. But he shouldn't have been able to get into your parents' house at all, Harry - the place is covered with strong anti-Muggle spells to stop the local children having accidents."

    There was a noise from out near the back door, and Sirius walked in. He was dressed in full Auror's robes and frowning slightly, but his expression lightened when he saw Harry.

    "I thought you two must be here," he said, grinning. "I saw the new hot-rods in the shed."

    "Want to try mine later?" Harry offered.

    "I'm too old to enjoy riding a racing broom …."

    "Yeah, right. Like you were too old to chat up all the best-looking women last night!"

    "Ah, well there's old and there's old!" Sirius chuckled. "Yeah, I'd love to try it, but some other time maybe. We've got a bit of an incident in progress at the moment."

    "Such as?" Harry saw the frown reappear and felt a twinge of unease. "What's happened now?"

    "The Magical Law Enforcement Squad have asked us to consult on a possible kidnapping case," Sirius explained. "The family aren't being very co-operative and they have a certain reputation, so we've been asked to help."

    "Is the victim anyone we know?" Lupin asked.

    "She's someone Harry and Ron know, and young Malfoy more so. It's Pansy Parkinson."

    "Malfoy's ex," Ron said at once. "Who the hell would have the bad taste to kidnap her?"

    "We don't know for certain that she has been kidnapped, but she vanished nearly a week ago on her way home from a party and nobody admits to knowing anything."

    "Who raised the alarm?" Harry asked.

    "Her grandmother. We've been questioning her parents all afternoon, but the pair of them aren't saying much - not surprising, really. They were supporters of Voldemort the last time around, and Moody's been waiting for one of them to put a toe out of line for the last five years. They're not going to talk to him about anything if they can help it."

    Harry was disturbed by this. He hadn't liked Pansy in the slightest, but the idea that her own parents were unwilling co-operate in a search for her was unpleasant.

    "What about Malfoy?" he asked.

    "He wasn't much help either." Sirius sighed. "He suggested that she might just have Apparated off to a friend's place and not bothered to tell anyone – apparently it wouldn't be the first time. But he didn't sound convinced, and we've yet to find a friend of hers who'll admit to knowing where she is. So we're forced to consider another possibility."

    There was a strained silence, broken reluctantly by Ron.

    "You Know Who?" he said, his mouth twisting on the words.

    "Making people disappear is an old trademark of his," Lupin said sombrely.

    "But surely if she's one of his supporters – "

    "That doesn't mean much," Sirius interrupted curtly. "There were very few women in Voldemort's inner circle before, and I don't suppose that has changed. A very young and superficial witch of no outstanding ability would have little or no value to him in her own right."

    "But her own parents!" Harry said before he could stop himself.

    "Yes, well you've seen first hand what devoted Death Eater parents can be like," Lupin pointed out. "Young Malfoy is a case in point."

    "So what do we do now?" Ron asked.

    "Nothing," Sirius said grimly.

    "But - "

    "Ron, there's not much we can do except question her family and friends," Lupin put in. "The Magical Law Enforcement Squad will handle the bulk of enquiries until strong evidence comes to light of it being Death Eater activity."

    "There is always the remote possibility that she fell foul of a Muggle attacker," Sirius admitted. "She was in a predominantly Muggle area when she went missing. We've passed certain information onto their authorities, just in case, but I have a bad feeling about this. Ron …."

    "Get me something of hers to hold and I'll try the crystal ball," he said at once. "I remember her aura pretty well from school, so it shouldn't be too difficult to get a fix on her."

    "Harry …." Sirius gave him an apologetic look. "I hate to ask you to do this, but I need you to talk to Draco and see what you can get from him about the Parkinsons. He won't talk willingly to me or anyone else, but he seems to be more comfortable around you. We need to know what Voldemort might want from Pansy, if it was him who took her."

    "I'll try," Harry replied wryly, "but after last night he might never speak to me again."

    "Eh?" Sirius and Lupin both stared at him, and Harry felt himself colouring up once more.

    "Oh, it's a theory of Professor Dumbledore's," he said, wishing he hadn't mentioned it. It didn't help that Ron was chortling about it.

    "A theory about what?" Lupin asked, surprised.

    "Oh, of course - you weren't there this morning, were you?" Ron said, grinning. "Sirius saw it - Harry accidentally conjured up a four poster bed in Dad's paddock last night."

    "A what?"

    Sirius began to laugh. "A very large and frilly feather bed, Remus. Harry made the mistake of wishing for one late last night."

    "How on earth did you manage that?" Lupin, to his credit, seemed more interested in the technical side of the incident.

    "Wizard circle in action," Ron said, still grinning, although his ears were starting to turn red.

    "But I took Draco back to the student house myself," Lupin said, confused. "How could you have been in contact - ?"

    "That's Dumbledore's theory," Harry said, heartily embarrassed now. "Something we were doing might have … um … formed a spontaneous connection. Unfortunately, it probably involved Draco more than he would like."

    There was a pause, during which Sirius's grin widened to a point where it must have been painful. Then the penny seemed to drop for Lupin. For a moment he looked both staggered and amused; then he shook his head wryly.

    "Oh dear. I think you're going to be a little bit unpopular when you get home."









    Chapter Text

    Being plagued by serious thoughts did not stop Harry or Ron enjoying their flight back to London on the new broomsticks.

    "More fun than a crate full of Hagrid's Blast-Ended Skrewts," was Ron's happy assessment when they dismounted in the back yard of the student house, both wind-blown and on a speed-induced high.

    "Definitely more fun than that," Harry retorted, but he was grinning widely. The thought of riding this broom during the Inter-Agency Quidditch match next month gave him a real tingle of anticipation.

    The euphoria lasted precisely five minutes, which was how long it took them to rack up the brooms, remove their outer robes and wander through to the kitchen in search of a cold drink. Hermione and Seamus were there, clearing dishes from dinner.

    Hermione looked up when they walked in and gave Harry an odd look of relief and anxiety. "You're home!"

    "What's up?" Harry tossed his robe over the back of a chair, and looked at her.

    "Harry, we need to have a chat before you speak to - "

    "Potter, can I have a word?"

    Harry looked around, surprised, and saw Malfoy standing in the kitchen doorway. One look at his face made his stomach drop, for the blond youth was wearing the most rigid expression he had ever seen.

    Ron saw it too and at once took offence.

    "What's your problem, Malfoy?" he demanded, bristling.

    "Ron …." Harry touched his arm warningly, and gave Hermione a sharp look which she understood immediately. "Sure, Malfoy. Come into the study."

    "Harry!" Ron protested, but Hermione and Seamus were already there, preventing him from following as Harry led Malfoy away.

    "Quick thinking," Malfoy said curtly, when the study door was shut behind them. "Pity you didn't use a little of that last night."

    "Yes, I wanted to speak to you about that. I believe we may owe you an apology - "

    "May? There's no may about it! Excuse me, Potter, but I don't think it's too much to ask the pair of you to keep your revolting sex lives to yourselves!"

    Whoa! Harry was startled by the naked fury on Malfoy's face. He was almost beside himself; so enraged that he was clearly having difficulty keeping it in check. But there was also something else going on, some kind of pain behind the rage, and seeing that was only thing that prevented Harry responding almost as intemperately as Ron would have done.

    "Look," he said, in as conciliatory a tone as he could manage, "I'm sorry, but we had no idea that would happen. For what it's worth we did have a privacy spell up, but clearly it wasn't strong enough. Dumbledore's taught us a better one, and that should sort it out in future."

    Malfoy wasn't appeased. "You don't get it, do you?" he hissed. "What - did the pair of you have a good laugh with Black and Weasley's family and the others when you found out what had happened? Understand me, Potter - if we were the last three people on earth, I would not want to be involved in some sick ménage à trios with the pair of you, especially one that I have absolutely sod all control over. It's bad enough that I'm stuck in this house with you and your pathetic little friends; worse that I'm in a position where I'm forced to work with you and Weasley towards the destruction of all my friends and family, with no recognition of what that means to me. But to be put through what happened last night frankly makes me think that perhaps I'd be better off with my father and the Dark Lord after all - at least they never subjected me to Jezebel and pretended it was for anything other than the deliberate entertainment of others!"

    Harry stared at Malfoy, stunned. The grey eyes were blazing and the pale skin white to the point of translucency. Malfoy was so agitated that he had his arms tightly wrapped around his middle, as if to prevent himself lashing out. But the pose didn't look aggressive to Harry; it looked more like the defensive posture of a child who had been hit once and knew he was going to be hit again.

    Then Malfoy's last statement registered.

    Almost a year before, the Aurors had staged one of their periodic raids on Knockturn Alley. On this occasion the specified target had been someone trading in doctored snuff and tobacco, so one of the shops turned over had been a perfumier called the "Casbah Intoxica". The owner, a Veela, specialised in producing aphrodisiacs – not the fake rhino-horn kind peddled by Muggles, but the wizard variety which not only worked but had varying degrees of dangerousness. Jezebel, a perfume concocted from a base of succubus musk, wasn't lethal but nevertheless came high on the danger list because of the victim's inability to control himself under its influence.

    Harry, detailed to question the shop's owner (risky in itself, given what she was), had made the mistake of demanding that she open up her storerooms and refusing to take no for an answer. The Veela turned away for one second, supposedly to get her keys – and when she turned back she was armed with a flask full of Jezebel, which she promptly threw at Harry.

    In the two or three seconds before it took effect, he remembered thinking what a revoltingly sweet smell it had, like rotting honey. Then the arousal hit, with all the subtlety and sensuality of a sledgehammer to his groin.

    He had been utterly helpless in its grip, and had it not been for Mad-Eye Moody's swift action he felt certain he would have raped someone – anyone, and that was the worst part. The effects were so blinding as to make him incapable of recognising who was in front of him. All he had felt was an all-consuming, unthinking, and physically painful lust that had taken a full twenty-four hours to wear off.

    "When were you subjected to Jezebel?" Harry asked Malfoy quietly.

    "None of your fucking business."

    One minute, raging fury; next, the shutters had gone up and an iceberg would have looked more emotional than Malfoy did then. Harry felt his own temper flare and wrestled it down. This was too serious to allow himself to be distracted from the subject.

    "You brought it up, Malfoy. Now you can damn well tell me what you meant by that."

    "Nothing – just nothing. If you think I'm parading my private life in front of you for your amusement, you can think again." Malfoy's tone was bitter, raw and hateful, the voice of a thousand teenaged quarrels in the corridors of Hogwarts.

    Harry wasn't having any of it. "If you think I would find anything remotely amusing about a certain perfume called Jezebel, then you're grossly mistaken. I've been dosed with that stuff – "

    "So I heard!" The sneer was back.

    " – And it was one of the worst experiences of my life," he continued doggedly. "Most of the other Aurors – including Ron and Sirius – seem to think it was funny. I don't blame them for that because unless you've experienced it, it's impossible to realise just how – how – terrifying it is. The humiliation alone is bad enough, but the – the loss of control ...." Even after all this time, Harry had the greatest difficulty describing the incident which had been so hilarious to his colleagues and so mortifying to him, but he kept going, believing that it was the only way to get to the bottom of Malfoy's outburst. "Washing it off didn't make any difference. Moody ended up locking me in one of the cells overnight – he didn't think it was funny either."

    "Then imagine what it's like being dosed with it three nights in a row, with no escape," Malfoy said. His voice was cool, but it was evident that he was maintaining the artificial calm with an effort. "Imagine what it's like being the centre piece of someone's party when you're under its influence."

    Harry felt physically sick at the idea.

    "I can't imagine what that must have been like," he said, dry-mouthed. "But if you're suggesting what happened last night bore any resemblance to that, then I think you're being grossly unfair to Ron and me."

    "How would you know?" Malfoy snapped. "You may not have chained me to a wall and sprayed me with aphrodisiac potions, Potter, but you didn't give me any choice about being involved in your little fun and games, did you? The harder I tried to free myself, the more I was dragged in."

    Harry realised he was gritting his teeth. This was far, far more information about Malfoy's abuse at the hands of his father and Voldemort than he ever expected to hear, and frankly he didn't want to hear about it at all because he hadn't a clue how to deal with the information. He was horrified, and genuinely sorry for the other youth, and he regretted what had happened the night before more than ever, but there wasn't much he could do to put things right other than to apologise and promise not to make the mistake again. Especially since Malfoy, having dumped all this information into his lap, was now making it extremely difficult to give him sympathy or help.

    What a mess, Harry thought tiredly. "Look, I've said I'm sorry and believe me, I didn't want this to happen any more than you did. It's not like either of us get a kick out of voyeurism, you know. We've got a better privacy spell now, and you have my full permission to hammer on our door and yell at us if it doesn't work. Beyond that, I don't know what you want from me."

    "I want rid of you, Weasley and the rest of your gang," and Malfoy's voice dripped with venom. "I want out of this wretched little hovel, I want my wand back, and I want to get on with my life."

    "Well, I'm very sorry!" Harry snapped back, losing patience with him. "There's not a lot I can do about any of that! For the time being at least you're stuck with Ron and me, so you'd better get used to it. I don't like it any better than you do, Malfoy, because I can't imagine anyone in the entire world I'd want to be stuck with less, except possibly Voldemort himself, but if I can live with it, then so can you!"

    If he hadn't happened to be glaring at Malfoy as he said this, Harry would have missed the sudden flash of intense hurt and pain that crossed the blond youth's face. It was gone in a split second, but it was enough to make him regret having been so harsh.

    Whatever his mouth might be saying, Malfoy was one very mixed-up individual under the hard, angry façade. Not for the first time in the last couple of months, Harry wondered just how much of his malicious exterior was a front to hide fear and insecurity. Admittedly, he had been a uniquely nasty and spiteful child, but given the things Harry now knew about Draco Malfoy – especially this latest revelation – he was inclined to cut the adult a great deal more slack.

    "I'm sorry," he said, for what seemed like the umpteenth time. "I didn't mean that."

    "Of course you did," Malfoy shot back at once, but the retort seemed to lack energy this time. "Why the hell wouldn't you mean it? It's not like we've ever been friends, after all. I've no illusions on that score, Potter."

    "No," Harry agreed, but a little sadly. "But I did think that at least we'd stopped being enemies. And even if we were enemies, Malfoy, I wouldn't have deliberately used something like that as a weapon against you. Really and truly, neither of us knew that would happen. If you'd asked me a couple of days ago, I would have said it was impossible – I think even Dumbledore was surprised."

    There was a long silence. Then Malfoy sighed, and some of the tension seemed to go out of his body.

    "I know that," he said. His voice was still curt, but it had definitely lost its edge. "I know enough about you to know that you don't have it in you to pull off a stunt like that deliberately. Weasley might, if he was pushed, but you wouldn't."

    "Not if he really knew what it would do to you," Harry said sharply. "Give Ron a bit of credit, Malfoy – he's neither malicious nor a sadist."

    "I'll have to take your word for that. I'll absolve him of any malice last night, anyway."

    "Thank you!" Harry knew his tone was acid but couldn't help it.

    "Oh, give me a break, will you?" The snap was back in Malfoy's voice. "I didn't get any sleep last night, and then I was dragged out of bed this morning by your beloved godfather for yet another inquisition about my friends. I'm doing my best, Potter, but I'm not exactly on top form right now!"

    "Fair enough," Harry replied, still trying to keep things amiable. "I didn't get a lot of sleep myself – "

    "I know you didn't." Malfoy gave him a look of mingled amusement and exasperation. "Oh, for heaven's sake, don't start blushing! You'd have something to blush about if you knew exactly how graphic my introduction to your love-life was."

    "Wonderful." Harry wondered if it was possible to be more embarrassed than he had been today. "Don't tell Ron that – he'll throw a fit."

    "The likelihood of me telling Weasley anything and being believed is vanishingly small."

    "Hm." Harry decided not to comment on that. "So, what did Sirius want you for?"

    "To talk to me about my friends, as I said."

    "Did he tell you about Pansy Parkinson?"

    Malfoy's face had become unreadable again. "Yes, of course he did. He wanted to know where I thought she might be."

    "And what did you tell him?"

    "Is this another inquisition, Potter? I told him that I don't know – which is the absolute truth, by the way. I haven't seen Pansy in months and consequently have no idea where she might be."

    Harry looked at him. "She's been missing for a couple of weeks, none of her friends know where she is, and her parents don't want to talk about it. Speculate a little, Malfoy – where do you think she might be?"

    Malfoy shrugged. "Your guess would be as good as mine."

    "Would Voldemort take her?"

    "Possibly, although I can't imagine why. Her family aren't important enough in his circle to use her as a hostage, and she has nothing in her own right to interest him."

    "Are you sure about that? Is she a Death Eater?"

    Malfoy shrugged again. "She has the Dark Mark, certainly, but that's purely a symbol of loyalty to his cause. Quite honestly, Potter, I have no idea what has happened to her. Unkind as it might seem to you, Pansy is a nobody. She works in my uncle's constituency office, producing campaign material. Her only real interests appear to be shopping, gossiping with her friends and reading cheap women's magazines." He gave Harry a small, twisted smile. "For all I know, she could have been spirited away by your Auror friends – as they've done with me."

    "We don't make people disappear, Malfoy," Harry told him sharply. "You're here for your own safety – something you were very keen on when you first turned up, remember?"

    "My father won't wait forever to recover me, you know. At some point he's going to come for me, and all the barriers on this house won't stop him."

    "Yes, well, we're not going to be here much longer," Harry said tiredly. "We'll being going up to Hogwarts in less than a week, and if he thinks he can whisk you out of there without a struggle, he's mistaken."

    "I hope so," Malfoy said morosely. "I really do hope so, for all our sakes."

    xXx

    "Do you think Malfoy's telling the truth about Pansy?"

    Ron was lying on his stomach across their bed, watching as Harry folded and hung up his clothes neatly.

    "I don't see how he can be lying," Harry replied. "Let's face it; he hasn't been out of sight of one or other of us for a couple of months. Pansy only disappeared a couple of weeks ago. Besides, it didn't seem to me that he was lying."

    "How could you tell?" Ron grumbled. "Were his lips moving?"

    "I think he was too rattled." Harry slowly tucked his clothes away in the closet, wondering how much he should tell Ron of his conversation with Malfoy.

    You should tell him all of it, you idiot, he thought. Since when do you keep things from Ron?

    You didn't tell him about the real effect Jezebel had on you, did you? You've let him laugh about it all this time.

    That's different ....

    You didn't tell him about the conversation you had with Malfoy when you were playing chess with him, either, the insidious little mental voice reminded him. Actually, you didn't tell him about the chess game at all, did you?

    You shouldn't have done that. He won't like it much when you do tell him.

    He'll like it even less if you don't tell him at all, and he finds out about it by accident.

    How would that happen?

    Well, let me think – maybe Malfoy would tell him?

    He wouldn't!

    Yes, he would. Like a shot. Malfoy is still Malfoy, remember?

    Bugger.

    "Harry?" Ron was frowning at him. "Are you alright?"

    "Yeah, I'm fine." Harry closed the closet door and went over to the bed, sitting on the edge of it pensively. Ron rolled over onto his side, watching him curiously.

    "What's up?"

    "Malfoy told me some stuff earlier – not willingly, but I think he was too angry to mind what he was saying. It made me think a bit."

    "Think about what?" Ron's brow furrowed. "What was he so pissed off about anyway?"

    Harry smiled in spite of himself as he looked down at his friend. "What do you think? He wasn't too happy about getting involved in our impromptu wizard circle last night. Remember? He got a front row seat."

    "Yeah, well I'm not exactly thrilled about him being involved either, but you don't hear me kicking up about it, do you?"

    "It had a more powerful effect on him than either of us realised," Harry said slowly.

    Ron gave him a suspicious look. "More powerful in what way?"

    Harry sighed and leaned back against one of the bedposts. "I never told you what it was like getting dosed with Jezebel that time, did I?"

    Ron sniggered softly. "I think it was pretty obvious, Harry!"

    "Was it? Did Moody tell you why he locked me up for a whole day in one of the cells?"

    "Well, no, but ...." Ron tilted his head to one side suddenly, studying Harry's face. His grin began to fade. "What's this got to do with Malfoy?"

    "He locked me up to stop me attacking you," Harry continued doggedly, ignoring the question for the time being. "Well ... you, Sirius, Hermione - anyone really. I completely lost control. It was horrendous – you've no idea. And talk about painful! There are good reasons why it takes a man a while to recover from an orgasm, Ron, and believe me, after about the sixth or seventh in a row, I more aware of that than I liked. I kept wanting to throw up, and I think I would have passed out if the damned potion would have let me. When it finally passed off, I felt like someone had kicked me in the balls with steel toe-capped boots. But that wasn't the worst part – the worst was knowing that I could quite easily have raped someone; most likely you since you were only just outside the shop. I wouldn't have been able to stop myself."

    Ron was staring at him, shocked. "Why didn't you tell me this before?" he asked, after several moments' stunned silence. "You let us all have a good laugh about it ...."

    Harry shrugged. "I didn't particularly feel like talking about it at the time. Most of the seniors, like Sirius, were laughing and telling me to put it down to experience, and everyone else thought it was the funniest thing that Harry Potter should get socked with an aphrodisiac in public .... I thought if I stood there and said that I felt like I'd been raped, people probably wouldn't take it very well. Simeon Clare even told me it was a shame I didn't have a girlfriend because she would have thought her birthday had come early. All I could think was that I already had a boyfriend and he wouldn't like what would have happened if he'd been standing next to me when that damn potion took effect."

    "You should have told me, Harry!"

    The distress in Ron's voice made Harry flinch, although he understood the redhead's reaction.

    "I'm telling you now," he pointed out.

    "Yeah, but ...." Ron pushed one hand through his hair, looking baffled and upset. "I gave you hell that week because you kept pushing me away, and you never explained why. If I'd known – "

    "What could you have done?"

    "I could have been there for you."

    Harry closed his eyes briefly. It was such a simple phrase for Ron to use, but it meant so much. "Yeah, I realise that," he said quietly, after a pause. "I should have told you at the time, but I didn't. I'm sorry."

    "Don't say that." Ron sat up and tugged on Harry's arm. "Come here, you great lug." He pulled Harry into an awkward embrace. "Don't keep stuff like this from me again, okay?"

    "Okay." Harry rested his forehead against Ron's shoulder for a moment. He wondered if this meant he had to confess everything to Ron right now.

    Ron took the decision away from him. "So tell me what this has to do with Malfoy."

    They released each other reluctantly and Harry swung his legs up onto the bed, stretching out next to Ron. Trying to sound as factual as possible, he related what Malfoy had unexpectedly told him earlier about being subjected to Jezebel by his father and Voldemort.

    Ron wrinkled his nose, looking uneasy and a little disgusted by these revelations. "Nasty," he commented. "Not that it doesn't confirm what I've always thought of Lucius Malfoy and Voldemort. Sick bastards."

    "Yeah. I think it left Malfoy a bit ... traumatised, for want of a better word. He certainly didn't like being pulled into what we were doing last night."

    "It's not like we did that deliberately!" Ron said sharply.

    "No, but he wasn't thinking too clearly when he spoke to me. He calmed down eventually."

    "Hm." Ron looked unconvinced but left it at that. "So what happens next?"

    "I'll have to have another go at him about Pansy's parents I suppose," Harry replied. "It wasn't a good time to push him this evening, but Sirius will want more than he gave me today."

    "Will he talk to you?"

    Harry smiled faintly at Ron's sceptical tone. "Yeah, I think he will. He's talked to me before about other stuff – he seems to be a bit less prickly when there's no one else around."

    "Great. And when was the last time no one else was around?"

    That sounded a bit aggressive. Harry eyed Ron warily. "Last week, when I had to stay at home? I played chess with him one afternoon."

    There was a pause. Ron was giving him an unreadable look. "You did, did you?"

    "Yeah. He's quite a good player."

    "Yeah?"

    "He's not as good as you, of course."

    "Really?"

    "Really. I beat him twice," Harry said in a small voice. He chanced a look at Ron and was relieved to see that his partner was fighting back a grin.

    "I think you'll find there are a lot of things he's not as good at as me," the redhead informed him blandly.

    "I'll take your word for it," Harry assured him fervently.

    "You'd better!" Ron aimed a mock punch at Harry's arm and they launched into a wrestling match that ended with Ron pinning Harry to the bed, tickling him, and Harry yelling for mercy.

    "Playing chess with him now, are you? Is that what they're calling it these days?" Ron finally let up and sat back, putting his hands on his hips. "He's got a bloody nerve!"

    Harry laughed breathlessly. "Are you going to let me tell you about the weird conversation we had?"

    "I dunno – how queasy is it going to make me?"

    They were interrupted by someone hammering on the door.

    "Cut it out, you two!" Dean's voice roared from outside. "Use a bloody privacy spell!"

    "BOG OFF!" Ron roared back, making Harry collapse into helpless laughter again. "Honestly, you can't even tickle someone around here without getting yelled at ...."

    "I don't think it's the tickle that bothers them so much as the slap and tickle!"

    "Yeah, well we'll get around to the slap and tickle later ... when you've told me all about this conversation."

    Harry grinned up at him. "Are you going to sit on me all night?"

    Ron raised a brow. "Is that a leading question?"

    Harry began to laugh again, but he managed to push Ron off and dragged himself up a bit so that he was sitting back against the pillows. Ron settled himself next to him, half reclining against the pillows too, but propped up on one elbow so he could see Harry's face.

    "So go on – tell me about this famous conversation."

    "He offered me some advice on my publicity problems," Harry said blandly.

    "He did what?" Ron stared at him, clearly not sure if Harry was simply winding him up.

    "Seriously. He'd make a good PR man, you know – he knows all the moves."

    "Yeah, I'm getting that impression! So what are the mighty guru's words of wisdom on you and Rita Skeeter?"

    So Harry related the conversation he'd had with Malfoy over the breakfast table a week ago, finishing with his suggestion of doing a warts-and-all interview for one publication. Then he told Ron about the ideas he'd had for improving on that.

    Ron digested this for a while. "It all depends on how far you're prepared to go," he said finally. "If the whole point is to get them off your back about things like who you're going to marry, then you're going to have to tell them gay, aren't you? Otherwise they'll still be bugging you for years to come."

    "Realistically, they're not going to stop completely anyway," Harry admitted. "But I think Malfoy's point was that if I cover as much as I can in one interview and make it clear that I'm never going to do another interview for anyone, then maybe they'll back off a bit. I can't stop the likes of Rita Skeeter reporting on what I do, short of taking out an injunction against her – " He paused and blinked at Ron. "Is that even possible against the wizard press? I know you can do it with Muggle newspapers."

    Ron smiled. "Yeah, but you have to go through the Ministry and you have to have a really good reason to do it. Talk to Neville. I think his gran took out an injunction when he was a baby to stop the press hounding him. The only reason the same thing wasn't done for you was probably because your legal guardians were Muggles."

    "So I wouldn't get one now because I'm an adult."

    "You might, if it could be proved that she was interfering with your work as an Auror. But you'd have to prove it wasn't in the public interest for people to know."

    "Huh. Well, anyway, spilling the beans won't stop her sniffing around, but it'll limit the damage she can do." Harry rolled onto his back and stared up at the canopy of the bed pensively. "Malfoy's main point – which I agree with – was that I wouldn't want someone like Rita Skeeter breaking the news in the press about you and me. And he's right about it coming out sooner or later, no matter how careful we are. We've been incredibly lucky so far."

    "Does that bother you?" Ron's voice was very quiet.

    Harry glanced at him, surprised. "Only inasmuch as I hate people prying into things that are no business of theirs. And I hate the idea of you being hounded because of it. Let's face it – no matter how it's presented, there are going to be people who ... who aren't very kind about it, and some of them are going to turn on you."

    Ron shrugged. "There are going to be people who turn on you because of it," he pointed out. "You're going to get a rough deal however it's presented."

    "Yes, but I'd rather it was me who makes the decision when and how. Rather than shock-horror headlines saying stuff like Is the Boy Who Lived Queer? - do you know what I mean?"

    "Yeah."

    "So, are you game for it? Because I won't do it if you're not happy about it." Harry looked at him anxiously. "I'm not intending to name names, but people are going to work it out fast enough."

    "The worst part is already over," Ron said calmly. "We told my parents, we told Sirius, and people like Moody know. So it's not like they can find anyone really important and cause a row, is it? And if you're prepared to stand up and admit you're gay in public, then I'm right there with you, obviously."

    "It's a big step, though."

    Ron looked at him. "Who are you trying to convince, me or you?"

    "Both, probably," Harry admitted.

    "So don't make the decision now. I don't suppose you were planning on doing this tomorrow, were you? Fine, wait until we get back from Hogwarts and see how you feel then."

    Harry found himself smiling at Ron's matter-of-fact tone. The night they had broken into the Auror Facility to speak to Malfoy, the blond youth asked him if he always did as Ron told him, and he remembered saying "When it makes sense – and it often does". This was clearly one of those occasions.

    "In the meantime," the redhead continued casually, "how about a bit of that slap and tickle we were discussing a minute ago?"

    Harry began to laugh.

    xXx

    For once Harry was having a normal dream – normal inasmuch as it involved harvesting big blue pumpkins in Hagrid's pumpkin patch and chasing off the leprechauns that were trying to steal them. He was just starting to get really annoyed with Ron, who was sitting crossed legged on top of giant toadstool and giving him useless advice, when something woke him with a start.

    For a moment he lay very still, wondering what had happened. Then he realised that Ron was sitting bolt upright next to him.

    "Ron?" he murmured sleepily. He reached out a hand to pat his friend. "Are you okay?"

    "No."

    It took Harry a moment to register this, then he dragged himself up onto an elbow, squinting in the darkness. "What's wrong?"

    "I don't know." Ron's voice was tense, frightened. "Something's happening – we need to get up." And he was scrambling out of bed before Harry could protest.

    Harry had barely got a foot out of bed before Ron was lighting the lamps and rummaging in the closet for his clothes. Wondering what the hell was going on, he found his spectacles and put them on, and followed Ron to the closet, watching as his friend scrambled into jeans and a shirt.

    "Ron, will you tell me what's going on?"

    "I don't know what's going on," Ron said curtly. Unlike Harry, he was wide awake, which was most unlike him. He found Harry's clothes and tossed them at him. "Come on – get dressed. We have to wake the others."

    "What? But – "

    Ron was already opening the bedroom door. He bounced off the privacy spell and swore, yanking his wand out of his sleeve so that he could take it down, and was off down the stairs before Harry could stop him. Swearing himself, Harry struggled into his jeans and a sweatshirt and hurried down the stairs after him.

    Ron was already hammering on doors, yelling to the others to get up. Harry was left to try and explain what was going on to an irate Ginny and Dean as his partner ran down the next flight of stairs and began to hammer on Seamus and Neville's doors in turn.

    "Vot is going on?" an indignant and heavily accented male voice demanded.

    Harry turned to see Viktor Krum standing in Hermione's doorway with a sheet around his waist. Ordinarily this would be a prime opportunity for teasing Hermione, especially since Krum had most definitely not been in the house when he and Ron went to bed, but Harry was too frazzled to do more than note that it was him.

    "I don't know. Ron's going nuts about something – look, let's just get everyone up and see if we can work out what's going on."

    Ginny made a few sharp comments about her brother, but reached for her dressing gown and wrapped it around herself. Krum disappeared back into Hermione's room, presumably to get some clothes on and rouse his girlfriend.

    Harry hurried down the stairs, pushing past an outraged Dean, and hammered on Malfoy's door.

    "Alright, alright, I'm awake ...." Malfoy pulled his door open and peered blearily at Harry. "What the hell is going on, Potter?"

    "I don't – " Harry stopped. Something was suddenly registering as very wrong to him. He looked up and saw Hermione and Krum standing in the middle of the stairs, both of them frozen in a listening position.

    It was nothing audible. But suddenly Harry was aware that the background hum of the magical alarms on the house had stopped.

    Malfoy sensed it too. He stared at Harry for a split second, white as a ghost, and Harry saw him swallow. "Oh shit ...."

    "Everyone get downstairs now!" Ron all but shrieked from where he stood on the last flight of stairs.

    No one needed telling twice, not even Neville or Malfoy.

    They all stumbled into the living room and stared around at each other. Seamus had his arm around a strange girl with long blonde curls; she looked petrified. Harry didn't blame her; his own guts were freezing with dread. He exchanged glances with Krum, then looked across at Ron. His partner had that weird, fey look he sometimes got when he was locked into one of his crystal-gazing trances.

    "Ron?"

    Ron's eyes met his, but he was definitely off with the fairies somewhere. "It's coming," he muttered unhelpfully.

    "Great," Dean said tensely. "What's coming and what do we do now?"

    "The house alarms are gone," Harry said, his voice sounding very strange even to himself, "and Ron's going nuts about something. I think you should all get out of here now, before anything else happens."

    "But – "

    "No arguments," Hermione said unexpectedly. "We're Aurors; you're not. Get out just in case, Dean."

    Harry nodded, relieved at her support. "Neville, you take Ginny home to the Burrow and tell Mr. Weasley what's happening. He'll know who to contact. Dean, go to the Ministry and wake them up. Seamus – " He hesitated. He had been intending to ask Seamus to get Sirius, but there was the girl to think of.

    Seamus seemed to read his mind. "Nev, take Trudie to the Burrow with you and Ginny," he said. Trudie tried to protest, but he put a hand over her mouth. "No, go with Neville. The Burrow's safe." He looked across at Harry. "I'll go to Godric's Hollow."

    "Yes. The Facility might know something's wrong already, but Sirius and Remus are at home tonight and won't."

    Within moments, the five of them had gone through the fireplace, leaving Harry, Ron, Hermione, Malfoy and Krum together in the living room.

    "Now what?" Malfoy whispered tensely. He kept looking up at the ceiling as though expecting Death Eaters to come crashing through it like paratroopers.

    "I don't know." Harry grabbed Ron, giving him a gentle shake. "Ron, come back." When Ron's eyes remained confused and faraway, he shook him harder and gave him a slap. "Ron! Come back, we need you here."

    A tiny gasp and Ron was suddenly back to full awareness. Harry hung onto him until he got his balance, then released him. "What was that all about?"

    "Death Eaters – on their way here – "

    Krum strode forward. "How many?" he demanded.

    "Three – maybe four."

    Malfoy swore. "Potter, we have got to get out of here! They're coming for us, don't you see? Shit – we're all three of us in one place, how bloody stupid is that?"

    Harry looked across at Krum. "He's right. Viktor, can you get him out of here?"

    "What! Potter – "

    "Shut up!" Harry told him curtly, and something in his expression silenced Malfoy. Harry turned back to Krum. "Ron, Hermione and I are bound to stay – it's our job. But Malfoy's effectively a non-combatant and the Floo's fixed so he can't use it on his own. Can you get him to some place safe?"

    Krum hesitated, then nodded.

    "Good. Go."

    Krum shot a quick, anxious glance at Hermione, then grabbed Malfoy and shoved him, protesting, into the fireplace and they were gone.

    Just in time.

    Like a brick crashing through an ice-covered lake, something punched through what was left of the house protections. Harry saw the spells on the walls briefly become visible as they buckled and tore, and felt the inner shriek of the charms as they were ripped apart. Magic, obscenely powerful magic with a signature wholly unlike his own, flowed through the house like hot breath and was gone again in a heartbeat. Then Harry felt a dull jangling across his nerves – a remnant of the anti-Apparition spells letting him and the others know that someone, probably several someones, had just Apparated into the house.

    He glanced to his left, catching Ron's eyes, then to the right, gathering up Hermione. She nodded to him.

    They were Aurors. The oaths they had sworn when they began their training would not allow them to simply try and escape themselves when they knew there were Death Eaters nearby. It was their duty to try and apprehend them.

    "Wands out, everyone," he said quietly, taking charge. "Hermione, you take this floor. Be careful. Make sure it's clear and set up wards to make it stays that way. Then follow me and Ron, but I want you to set up wards behind us. Okay?"

    "Clear," she said softly. No arguments. Not in a hostile situation.

    "Ron, we'll take it floor by floor. You've got my back."

    "Clear." No arguments from him either. They had done this in training too many times.

    Harry took a deep, slightly shaky breath.

    "Let's go."

    xXx

    Harry wished he had thought to put his watch on. He guessed it was about two or three o'clock in the morning, for the darkness still had a silky, blanket-like silence to it, but it was impossible to be sure. The passages and stairs were lit only by the faint glow of street lights through the landing windows. It was just about enough for him to climb the stairs without tripping up, but he wasn't about to make any kind of light that would alert their unwanted guests to his approach. Instead, Harry set up a minor shield spell in front of himself that would alert him to the presence of any traps on the stairs.

    Hermione peeled away from them as soon as they reached the bottom of the staircase and darted off to the left to secure the front door and passage. Harry waited long enough for her to come back and make her way along to the kitchen, then he started up the stairs as silently as he could.

    They had done this a hundred times in training, but although Harry always felt nervous when he went into one of Moody's training mazes, it was nothing like the horrible, crawling anticipation of the real thing. If they encountered a Death Eater now, it wouldn't be Moody or Sirius or Lupin or any one of a dozen other Aurors in disguise who tackled them with a non-fatal, albeit rather painful, binding curse. This would be someone much more dangerous and they would probably be striking to kill.
    Or, in Ron's case, to kidnap, which was why Harry was keeping him between himself and Hermione.

    They reached the first landing without mishap, and Harry signed to Ron to watch the second flight of stairs while he checked out the rooms on this floor. He had barely checked the bathroom, however, before Ron was signalling to him frantically. He had heard something on the floor above.

    Harry was torn. Standard procedure said he should finish checking this floor anyway, but there was no way he was sending Ron up those stairs alone. It wasn't a matter of sentiment; it was a basic risk assessment that said that, of the two of them, Ron was currently in more danger of attack than he was. Hermione was still checking the ground floor.

    Not knowing what else to do, he left the first floor rooms and joined Ron at the foot of the stairs. They started to climb once more.

    There was definitely someone upstairs; it wasn't so much a matter of audible sound but a feel of weight, breath and magic in the air. Skin crawling, Harry flattened his back against the wall and strained his eyes, trying to see in the gloom. There was even less light on this floor, where there was no landing window out onto the street.

    He had barely reached the curve of the banister - ironically where he, Ron and Malfoy had been crouching when Dean's bolster set off its own chain of events - when there was a flash from one of the doorways.

    Harry dropped, feeling the curse howl over his head, and heard it crack the plaster of the wall behind him as it struck. With admirable speed Ron cast a spell in response and a ball of brilliant blue-white light hurtled towards Hermione's bedroom door with the force of a rocket launcher, shattering it. There was a sharp gasp of pain from behind it, probably more from the flying splinters than the curse itself, but it was enough. Harry threw a full body-bind curse in the direction of the sound and had the satisfaction of hearing another gasp and a thud.

    It didn't mean the intruder was fully petrified, of course, but he had been injured at the very least and that was enough. Harry hurtled up the last couple of steps, keeping low, and cast a stunning spell through the doorway just in case. Another flash of light came from somewhere in the region of Dean's room; Harry dodged it and sent a long stream of cold fire back, but the attacker was already out of the way and Harry did not want to follow them down to the end of the passage, where the tactical advantage was all on the other man's side. On the other hand, he didn't want to give them a chance to get away if he could help it.

    A sudden display of fireworks from the floor below warned him that Hermione had encountered unexpected resistance, and focussed his mind sharply. What he needed was something to do his job for him – something that would be less at risk being sent into the rooms at the end of the passage. Harry grimaced for a moment, but he had long learned the advantage in using his natural talents.

    "Serpensortia," he whispered, pointing his wand at a spot on the floor two or three feet away.

    Conjuring and handling snakes was a particular ability of Voldemort's, which was Harry's principal objection to it, but when it came to safeguarding himself and his friends, he was willing to use almost anything to hand.

    The snake that flowed from the tip of his wand to land with a dull thud on the floor was a huge boa constrictor; deadly enough, but not poisonous and more easily controlled than its smaller, more temperamental cousins. The lidless yellow eyes fixed on Harry expectantly, and he forced back his natural dislike of the reptile.

    "Seek. Find. Hold," he whispered to it, shuddering inwardly at the hissing Parseltongue syllables issuing from his lips. Short, to-the-point phrases were best with creatures that had such a radically different mindset to humans. "Go - " and he pointed down the passage.

    With the barest flicker of a forked tongue, the giant serpent uncoiled itself and slithered away with eerie speed and silence. With any luck it would surprise the other Death Eater and get him in a tight grip before he could stop it.

    Ron was wide-eyed when Harry turned back to him, his expression saying more loudly than words that he really didn't like it when his friend did things like that.

    Me neither, Harry thought grimly. It had taken a long time for him to see that being a Parselmouth could be an advantage, and he still wasn't wholly convinced. Snakes were Voldemort's natural allies, and dealing with them was not only risky, but made Harry feel just the tiniest bit dirty. On the other hand, I don't like it when you take an unexpected walk on the Astral Plane either, Ron, but it was just as well you did tonight.

    Then Ron turned away, scuttling back to the head of the stairs. Now it was Harry's turn to watch his friend's back as they tried to find a vantage point where they could help Hermione without putting themselves at extreme risk. She seemed to be holding her own nicely, although it was a little frightening to watch - her particular forte was fire, and for a moment it looked as if the whole of the first floor was in flames. Only the lack of real smoke clued Harry that this was witch-fire, although it probably looked real enough to her assailant.

    The curses being cast were coming from two directions; Neville's room and Seamus's. It reminded Harry a little of the wizard pillow fight - and that gave him an idea. As far as he could tell, his room and Ron's had not been touched; he pointed his wand up the narrow attic stairs and snapped "Accio pillows!"

    There were eight pillows on their king-size bed, and all eight came hurtling out at his command. Ron caught on to the idea at once; one benefit of the two of them being so close. He whipped control of four of the pillows from Harry at once and sent them down to Hermione. She sent the first two flying towards her assailants at top speed; they blasted them out of the air almost immediately, but that had been the merest distraction.

    Harry, Ron and Hermione sent the final six pillows flying in three volleys of two, and at the last minute transfigured them into a hail of objects - hammers, knives, rocks, exploding dung-bombs. One Death Eater was instantly bludgeoned to the ground; the other dodged just in time and clearly decided to give up the fight. Harry felt the crude tingle across his skin as he Apparated out of the building, and a second tingle moments later told him that they had lost the other Death Eater on the floor above.

    Watching Hermione walk through the cold witch-flames to examine the body of the second Death Eater they had caught was unnerving, and Harry stayed braced just in case, but she stunned the man without remorse, just in case, and left him where he was while she methodically checked the other rooms. Then she put out the artificial fires with a flick of her wand.

    "All the door locks are dead," she called up to Harry softly, referring to the magically animated locks Bethany Bloom had installed when Malfoy moved in. "I can't open Malfoy's - it must have jammed shut when he left it."

    "Figures," Ron said, equally softly. Malfoy's lock had been difficult from the start, being rude, defiant and uncooperative towards its owner - Bethany's idea of humour.

    "Leave it for now," Harry said. "If we can't get in, then anyone inside probably can't get out either."

    Turning away, he went to check on the second floor. Aside from the stunned and petrified body of the first Death Eater, there was nothing to find apart from the wreckage of Hermione's bedroom door and a number of scorch-marks on the walls from spent hexes. Even the snake appeared to have gone, which suggested that it might have hitched a ride with the Death Eater who got away.

    Ron went up to check on their room and reported back that nothing had been touched. He was frowning as he came back down the stairs.

    "Is it just me, or was that a remarkably pointless exercise on their part?" he asked. "They made all that effort, taking down the alarms and shields, just to fling a couple of curses at us and run away? And leaving behind two bodies?"

    The same question had been bothering Harry, but he had other things on his mind. "Here, give me a hand to tie this one up and lug him downstairs ...."

    By the time both the captives were dumped unceremoniously in the passage, it was obvious that Dean, Seamus and Neville had done their jobs. The first person to arrive was Arthur Weasley, swiftly followed down the chimney by Bill, but before either of them could do more than demand to know if everyone was all right, Sirius, Lupin and a dozen other Aurors, MLE officers and Ministry warlocks started Apparating into the living room.

    "This is getting to be a habit," Hermione muttered irritably. "Why can't they all turn up when we actually need them, not ten minutes afterwards?"

    The next hour was a confused mess of explanations, punctuated by searches and different people Apparating in and out of the house. Krum returned with Malfoy once the all-clear was given, and the captives were taken away to be revived and questioned, while the house was examined for damage. Harry had a sneaking feeling that none of them would get back to bed again that night, for Moody, when he arrived, had a particularly intent gleam in his normal eye as he examined everything.

    For the time being, however, they all had something more important on their minds; Malfoy's bedroom door, which was still refusing to open. It was almost as if it had been fused into the frame.

    Finally, Lupin made them all stand back and he used a severing charm to cut between the door and the frame, slicing open the lock and hinges in the process. The door, bereft of support, fell in at the merest push and Lupin stepped over it into the room.
    When he emerged, a few seconds later, he was very pale.

    "Alastor – " he said tersely.

    For a moment, Moody's magical eye went crazy, flicking back and forth from Lupin's face, to the empty door frame, to the other wizards gathered on the landing, and back to Lupin again. Then he and Sirius stepped forward, following the other man back into the room.

    Harry didn't know what made him follow the senior Aurors to the doorway and look inside. It wasn't morbid curiosity, but more a nasty prickle up his spine that told him the answer to the mystery of the Death Eaters' attack lay beyond the threshold.

    For a moment he couldn't see anything, for the other men were in the way. Then Lupin stepped back from the head of the bed.

    At first Harry stared uncomprehendingly. The thing on the bed didn't look real; it was as stiff and posed as a mannequin in a shop window. Confused, his eyes drifted away from it – and fixed on the wall above the head of the bed. Lurid red letters had been daubed across the faded wallpaper:

    WAS IT GOOD FOR YOU TOO?

    Then, as with a Magic Eye picture, his focus seemed to change and the figure on the bed made sense. Transfixed, Harry felt his stomach contract sharply and suddenly he felt quite light-headed. It was Pansy – of course it was Pansy, how could he have thought it was anything or anyone else? But her face, her body ... she was a pitiful wreck compared to the vivacious, trouble-making girl he had known at Hogwarts. Laid out across Malfoy's bed in an obscene posture, her naked form was battered and bruised and covered in horrifying runes and symbols, some painted onto her body in inks and blood, others cut into the flesh as they had been on Malfoy himself. Her face, slack in death, was discoloured and the remains of her make-up was streaked around her eyes as though she had wept. There was a ligature mark around her neck, and welts around her wrists and ankles.

    "Harry!"

    That was Lupin's voice, sharp with dismay and concern, but it was Sirius who whipped around and seized his arm, pushing him from the room.

    "Harry, no, don't look – "

    "It's Pansy," Harry heard himself say faintly. He couldn't seem to stop staring around Sirius's shoulder.

    "I know. Just don't – "

    "Why is she there?" Why are you saying such stupid things? his mind demanded, but his voice seemed to be connected to a different part of his brain, a part that didn't want to connect the dots. "Why did they leave her there?"

    "Why the hell do you think?"

    Malfoy's voice was harsh, but held the same strange, shell-shocked note as Harry's. When Harry turned to look at him, he was leaning against the wall and for a moment his face looked utterly haggard with misery and self-loathing; then he pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes for a second or two, and when he took them away again the cold, indifferent mask was back in place. "They put her there as a message to me, Potter. Why else would she be in my bed?"

    He must have been standing behind his shoulder, Harry realised, when he looked through the door. And yet in the space of a heartbeat he was behaving as though it was an everyday occurrence. Sudden, unreasoning fury gripped him, and he had the blond youth pinned up against the wall before he was fully aware of his own intentions.

    "Don't you dare stand there and act like this is nothing, Malfoy!"

    "Harry, no!"

    Hands grabbed at him, trying to drag them apart, but Harry refused to let go of the other youth's shirt, shaking him like a rag doll.

    "She was your girlfriend! You treated her like shit for years, and she let you make a complete fool of her, and now she's dead because of you – "

    Somehow Krum and Sirius managed to prise his fingers from Malfoy and pull him away; released, Malfoy slid down the wall into a heap on the floor, where he sat staring up at Harry with empty eyes.

    "Yeah," he said dully, "I treated her like shit because I thought if I did that, they might leave her alone. Good plan, don't you think, Potter? Pity it didn't work."

    Chapter Text

    Harry stared up at the bedroom ceiling and tried to will himself to sleep, but despite his exhaustion it wasn't happening. It wasn't the right bedroom ceiling, and the bed beside him was empty.

    Moody had put them all through a gruelling ten hours of questioning after the incident, during which every decision Harry had made was raked over and turned inside out. He had come in for some strong criticism, mostly for his decision to investigate the second floor before completing a check of the first. His explanation, that he had been trying to avoid putting Ron at unnecessary risk, had not gone down well; Moody had been of the opinion that his judgement was skewed because it was Ron and that he should have taken Hermione upstairs with him, leaving Ron to deal with the lower floor.

    Hermione had come under fire for allowing Harry to take charge in the first place, when she would obviously have been the more objective commander; and the only one of them to come out of the affair with any kudos at all was Ron himself, for his swift action in alerting everyone and his efficient back-up of Harry. Even so, Moody had a few sharp comments to make about him allowing himself to be overwhelmed by the vision that had awoken him.

    At the end of the process they were all wrung out and ready to drop. Then Moody dropped the final bombshell. Since the student house was currently unsafe, they would all be moved to temporary lodgings for the next few days - and Ron, Harry and Malfoy were to be split up, for their own safety. Malfoy would be kept at the Auror Facility until it was time to catch the train to Hogwarts; Ron was sent home to his parents' house; and Harry had to stay with Sirius and Lupin.

    Harry sighed and turned over for the umpteenth time, thumping his pillow. This was his room - the room Sirius and Remus had given him for the long summer holiday he had spent with them before embarking on his final year at Hogwarts. Unfortunately, it didn't have entirely wonderful associations for Harry, for it had also been the most miserable summer holiday of his life, and that was saying something. He had fallen out with Ron a matter of days before they finished their sixth year, which was to set a pattern for their interaction throughout the holidays and well into the following school year.

    Harry closed his eyes determinedly once more, only to open them again a few minutes later. The image of Pansy Parkinson's brutally defiled body would not be pushed to the back of his brain, no matter how hard he tried. If Ron had been with him, they could perhaps have talked it over and got past the worst of the shock, at least enough to sleep. As it was, it was early afternoon on a hot summer day and he was alone with his problem.

    In the end he gave up and got up, dragging himself into the bathroom for a shower that did little either to wake him up or relax him. Gritty-eyed and irritable, Harry dressed and went downstairs to make himself some tea.

    To his surprise Sirius was still at home, although he looked to be on the verge of leaving. He looked up as Harry walked through the living room and gave him a sharp, appraising glance.

    "Are you all right? I thought you'd still be asleep."

    "I couldn't sleep," Harry muttered.

    Sirius followed him into the kitchen, watching as he put the kettle on to boil. "What's wrong?"

    "Like I just said," Harry told him grumpily, "I couldn't sleep."

    The older man leaned against the worktop, sighing. "I'm sorry you had to see the girl like that - "

    "Why?" Harry snapped, before he could stop himself. "You keep telling us that we'll see worse things than dead bodies when we take up our assignments."

    "That was pretty nasty even by Voldemort's usual standards," Sirius told him quietly. "Nasty enough to shock young Malfoy, and he's seen some gruesome things since he left school. Probably even before then, if the truth was known."

    "So it was aimed at him." Harry scooped tea into the pot with controlled viciousness.

    "Yes, although I would imagine it was intended to be seen by the widest possible audience. The only detail missing was the Dark Mark above the house, and I'm sure that was only forgotten because you surprised the Death Eaters before they could cast it." Sirius watched Harry for a moment or two before adding, "You shouldn't take what Moody said too much to heart, you know. He would have criticised any of us the same way, and you did extremely well even so. Considering how unprepared you all were, it's an excellent result to have captured two of them and taken no casualties yourself."

    "He's not going to let Ron and I work together when we finish our training, though, is he?"
    Sirius blinked. "What makes you say that?"

    "He thinks my judgement is flawed where Ron's concerned."

    "Do you think it is?"

    Harry grimaced as he poured boiling water onto the tealeaves. "I don't know! How am I supposed to tell? I thought I was doing the right thing when I kept Ron between Hermione and me."

    "And it wasn't necessarily the wrong thing to do, either. You made a judgement based on the circumstances as you saw them. With hindsight, perhaps you could have done better - it's Moody's job to point that out, so that next time you'll perhaps look at things differently. Like it's his job to point out that your judgement could be flawed where Ron is concerned."

    "What? Just because I sleep with him?"

    "But you don't just sleep with him, do you?" Sirius replied mildly. "We'd all be a lot less concerned about the pair of you if that was the case. But there's an emotional attachment between you, and you'd be more than human if that didn't affect the decisions you make where he's concerned."

    Harry stared at him. "And that makes us a liability working together?"

    Sirius chose not to answer him immediately, which was not reassuring. "Not necessarily," he said finally, "but it raises questions, certainly."

    "What kind of questions?"

    "How far will you go to protect Ron? How far would he go to protect you? Would the responsibility you feel for each other override your responsibility to your mission? Ultimately, Harry – would you put others at risk because of your commitment to each other? Would you put the whole cause at risk because of it?" Sirius sighed at the look on Harry's face. "He's your Achilles' heel, Harry, and you're his. If Voldemort discovers that, it'll magnify the risk to the pair of you immeasurably."

    "Then we've all got a problem," Harry said flatly, "because in case you've forgotten, Ron, Malfoy and I have just become an unholy threesome. You can't separate us forever - and judging by the other night, it wouldn't do you much good if you tried."

    "I'll settle for keeping the three of you safe until I put you on the train to Hogwarts," Sirius advised him wearily. "The rest I leave to the experts. Now, if you'll be okay for a few hours, I have to go and hear what they found from Pansy's body. Moony'll be home shortly, so you won't be on your own for more than an hour or so."

    "I'll be fine," Harry replied, subdued. "I'm going to try and get some of my thank-you notes written."

    "I don't think Hedwig's going to thank you for that," his godfather said wryly.

    xXx

    Harry was meticulous about things like sending thank-you notes when he received presents; an admirable trait, but one which became a burden at times like this. During the first ten years that he lived with the Dursleys, he had never received anything from anyone that required a written response – due to the Dursleys being his only relatives and him not having any friends. His first Christmas at Hogwarts, however, had brought a small selection of gifts from friends, including Ron's then largely unknown mother, and had started Harry in the habit of writing personal notes of thanks.

    From then on, birthdays and Christmas had been transformed for him. Most boys of his age would have been severely disappointed to receive such a relatively meagre haul of gifts, but for Harry every single offering, from the Invisibility Cloak passed to him anonymously by Dumbledore to the smallest box of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans given by a shy first year Gryffindor girl when he was sixteen, was wonderful.

    The task of sending notes had not, then, been onerous. Admittedly, the number he sent seemed to increase with each passing year, but this year was unique. Harry devoutly hoped that the wizarding community had got it all out of their system, because he honestly didn't think he could cope with such a mammoth task again.

    His wrist had just started to ache when Lupin walked in, looking weary. Harry abandoned his quill without regret and went to make some more tea, which the older man accepted with relief.

    "What a day," he said, sipping the hot liquid.

    "What happened?" Harry asked, concerned.

    Lupin sighed. "Apart from having to witness the examination of poor Pansy Parkinson?" he asked dryly. Harry flinched. "That was the worst part, but it's been eventful all round."

    "What happened with those Death Eaters we caught?"

    "Nothing. They're dead."

    Harry stared, shocked.

    "How?" he demanded.

    "A slow-acting poison, we think. They probably took it before they set out and would have been given the antidote if they returned successfully." Lupin shook his head. "Effectively a suicide mission – can you imagine? We didn't realise until it was too late. One was dead in his cell when Kisbie went in to question him, and the other died before the mediwizards could arrive."

    "Do we know who they were?" Harry asked after a moment. He and Ron hadn't had time to unmask them after the battle at the house.

    "Yes, unfortunately. One was a member of the Mcnair family and the other was Gregory Goyle. You knew him, didn't you?"

    "He was a close friend of Malfoy's." Harry turned away, fiddling with his teaspoon. He had always detested Malfoy's thuggish friends but, like Pansy Parkinson, they had been schoolmates and contemporaries of his. Childhood disagreements were a far cry from violent death in adulthood.

    "So here we go again," Lupin said very quietly, his tone morose. "Voldemort's filthy war .... And a bunch of youngsters caught up in it again, dying for causes they have no hope of understanding or benefiting from. That boy should have been starting out in a normal life, not aiding and abetting in the murder of a girl he went to school with."

    "Goyle knew what he was getting into when he became a Death Eater," Harry said sharply.

    "Did he?" Lupin's eyes were sad when they met the younger man's. "Do you really think he fully understood what it meant to pledge himself to Voldemort? Young Malfoy didn't, and he knew far more about it than his friends did. They're all far too young, Harry – you're far too young to fully understand the issues here, and you have a better understanding of Voldemort's motivations than most. None of you should be involved in this at all – not you, not Malfoy, not Ron or Hermione."

    "If that's true, then why were we accepted for training as Aurors?" demanded Harry, shocked to hear his father's friend saying these things.

    "Because we have no choice. We have to have as many soldiers in this war as possible."

    This echoed a comment of Malfoy's too closely for Harry's comfort.

    You're an Auror, Harry Potter, a foot-soldier in Dumbledore's war. The Muggles have a term for it: gun fodder ....

    "I never agreed with any of you being accepted for training as Aurors," Lupin was saying, jerking Harry out of his thoughts. "You least of all. I know Sirius and I have never said this before, Harry – there didn't seem to be much point – but this is not what James and Lily would have wanted for you. I can say that with absolute certainty."

    For several minutes Harry was too shocked to respond. This was the second intense conversation he'd had with one of his father's friends in less than two hours, and his sleep-deprived brain really wasn't up to the task right now. On the other hand, a natural opportunity to say such things might never come again.

    "Yeah, well," he said finally, swallowing, "it's not exactly what I would have wanted, either, but under the circumstances it's what I need to do." He stared into his mug, aware that Lupin was studying him.

    "What would you have wanted to do, if Voldemort wasn't an issue?" the older wizard asked.

    Harry managed a smile. "Need you ask? I wanted to play Quidditch professionally. I always had this dream of playing for England."

    Lupin smiled back. "James would have liked that. He would have liked it a lot."

    "Yeah, well there's not much chance of that now, is there?"

    "I wouldn't say that. You're just barely twenty-one – I don't think there's a door that's closed to you at this point."

    "I can't play professional Quidditch with Voldemort on the loose," Harry said flatly, and drained his mug. "Actually, I'm taking a risk every time I fly with the Angels." 'Angels' was the Aurors' team name.

    "It adds a certain motivation towards catching him," Lupin suggested affably, trying to diffuse the tension.

    For a moment they stared at each other, Harry incredulous. Then he saw the funny side and snickered. Lupin's sense of humour was weird.

    "I'll remember that the next time I meet him." He never doubted that there would be a next time. "'Sorry, Voldemort, old man, but you're standing in the way of my career. Be a good chap and off yourself, would you?'"

    Lupin laughed. He finished his tea and rubbed his face. "I'll never be able to sleep after all this. I think I'll spend some time trying to rescue the vegetable patch - those beans are going to be a complete loss otherwise."

    "Need a hand?" Harry wasn't the world's most enthusiastic gardener, but it was preferable to his thank-you notes, at least for a while.

    "You might regret offering when you see some of the weeds out there."

    xXx

    The garden was baking in the summer heat. Harry stripped down to his t-shirt and old cut-off jeans, and set about pulling weeds out of the herb garden, while Lupin tackled the bean patch. It was tough work, but it kept his mind nicely occupied for a while; the kind of weeds a wizard's garden developed required considerably more concentration than their Muggle counterparts.

    He had been working steadily for nearly an hour, and was dirty, sunburned and sweating, when a tiny ball of feathers suddenly flew into the garden and hurtled around his head, twittering wildly. It was Pigwidgeon. Harry sat back on his heels and managed, with an effort, to persuade the tiny owl to come to his hands and give up the message he was carrying.

    The scrap of parchment was from Ron, of course.

    I'm going completely nuts here. Save me! When I'm not being nagged by Mum, Ginny and Merry, Millie and Molly are climbing all over me, calling me "Uncle Wonny".

    Merry was Charlie's wife; Millie and Molly their two-year-old twin daughters. Harry laughed and stood up, brushing earth from his knees. He took the note inside and found a quill to scribble a quick reply on the back:

    You never complain when I climb all over you.

    He fastened the note to Pigwidgeon's leg and tossed him out of the window. Then he decided that since he was inside again, he might as well get cleaned up and start preparing dinner.

    He'd just finished peeling the potatoes when an unexpected voice said, "It's a bit different when you climb all over me."

    "Ron!" Harry whipped around, staring at his friend in astonishment. "How did you get here?"

    "Down the chimney; how else?" Ron pinned him up against the kitchen worktop with a hand on either side of him. "You're sunburnt. What have you been doing?"

    "Weeding. Ron, you shouldn't be here – "

    "Bugger that. I can't sleep and I've got nothing to do except be ordered around by my mother and sister all day." Ron's blue eyes were dark with irritation and something else. "I reckon I'm as safe here as anywhere else, so I might as well spend some time with you. I missed you." He dropped one hand and Harry felt him trailing a finger around the leg of his shorts. "What's with these?"

    He shrugged, smiling faintly. "It's hot."

    "That's one word for it." Ron leaned closer, pushing him back against the worktop.

    This is not a good idea, Harry realised even as he let Ron kiss him. Unfortunately, hormones were a lot stronger than common sense at that moment, and he was all too willing to let go and enjoy himself.

    It was stupid really. You would think they had been split up for a week, not a matter of hours. But what he had told Malfoy over their chess-game was perfectly true; he was hyper-aware of Ron's presence at all times, and being forcibly separated was … difficult. Having Ron here now was like a long drink of cool water on a hot day to Harry.

    How far they might have taken things was open to debate, had not Sirius's voice suddenly exclaimed, "What the HELL!"

    They shot apart as though scalded. Harry felt the heat surge to his face and Ron looked as though he'd been dipped in a cauldron of boiling water, but Sirius … Sirius was livid.

    "What do the pair of you think you're playing at?" he roared.

    Harry felt absurdly like a teenaged girl caught making out on the sofa with a boy her father disapproved of. It was almost as embarrassing as the time Neville had petrified the student house dinner-table with the words "Are you sleeping with Ron?"

    Sirius rounded on Ron before either of them could say anything. "What are you doing here?" he demanded. "The whole point of sending you away from Harry was to keep you safe! How can the pair of you be so stupid as to - "

    "Sirius."

    Lupin never had to raise his voice to utter a rebuke. Sirius took one look at his grave face and turned away, literally clutching at his hair with one hand in frustration.

    Lupin stepped away from the back door, still covered in earth and carrying a rake in one hand, and gestured with calm authority to Ron. "Come on. Home with you."

    Ron cast a frustrated look at Harry, but there was nothing else to be done. With great reluctance he took a pinch of Floo Powder from the bowl on the shelf and tossed it into the fireplace, stepping into the flames and muttering "The Burrow!" sullenly.

    When he was gone, Harry braced himself for a round of recriminations. Sirius looked about ready to throw another fit. But Lupin merely raised his brows at the younger man.

    "Not in the kitchen, Harry," he said calmly.

    Harry had been expecting a lot of things, but not that. He opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, at loss for words, before feebly saying, "Okay …."

    "You look like you need a shower. Go on."

    This was definitely a dismissal, and one look at the other two men's faces told him he'd better not push his luck. He headed out of the room and up the stairs, taking them two at a time, until he reached the top and curiosity overcame him. Eavesdropping would normally have been beneath him, but he felt indignant enough about Sirius's extreme reaction not to care too much right now. He crouched on the top step and strained his ears, wondering what Lupin was going to say.

    He had missed most of Sirius's initial bluster when he was running up the stairs, but Lupin's response was quite clear.

    "For heaven's sake, Sirius, they're young! What on earth did you expect?"

    "I expected a little more responsibility from the pair of them - "

    "And of course you were so very responsible yourself at twenty-one, weren't you?"

    "That was different!"

    "Of course it was - it always is!" The irony in Lupin's voice was unmistakable.

    "I didn't have Voldemort breathing down my neck - "

    "Nonsense! We all had Voldemort breathing down our necks - the situation wasn't that different. So the risks are a little higher for Harry! What do you want to do? Lock him in an ivory tower? Well, you wouldn't have that right even if he was still a boy, which he's not. He's a grown man and has a right to decide for himself what risks he'll take."

    Sirius said something that Harry couldn't make out, which brought a very audible sigh from his friend.

    "Padfoot, old friend, I don't want to hurt your feelings but you're not his father. And I like to think that James would have reacted a little more sensibly a few minutes ago!"

    Another indistinguishable comment from Sirius. Lupin's response was very sharp this time.

    "Who do you think you're fooling? You didn't react that way when you caught him with Cho Chang, and he was barely seventeen then! And don't say that was different too! The only difference was the sex of his partner - "

    Sirius's response was audible this time, and very annoyed. "Are you trying to tell me you wouldn't have been embarrassed, Remus?"

    "Probably, but I hope I would have had the sense to make myself scarce, rather than making a scene like that. You've known for a long time that he and Ron are involved, and you've given a very good impression of not being bothered by it, so why - "

    "It's one thing to know about it in the abstract, but quite another to be confronted with it!"

    "Well, I suggest you get your head sorted out before you see Harry again, because I think that subtle distinction might be rather lost on him."

    There was a pause, and Harry began to feel uncomfortable. He was beginning to wish he hadn't listened in on this conversation after all; this was an issue he didn't want to confront with someone who was as close to him as Sirius.

    It was perfectly true that Sirius's reaction to catching him in flagrante with Cho had been miles away from this; not surprisingly he had thought it hugely funny and never stopped teasing Harry afterwards. But then, that was the typical red-blooded male reaction and if there was one thing Sirius was, it was your typical red-blooded male. He reminded Harry a lot of Seamus who, though an excellent person in every other respect, most definitely fell into the "wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am" category where relationships were concerned. In fact, the only thing stopping Sirius cutting a swathe through the witches now was the lingering taint of his years in Azkaban.

    He supposed he should have been more surprised at his godfather's calm acceptance when he told him about his relationship with Ron, but he had been too relieved at the time to question it. But what Sirius said was quite true: there was a world of difference between knowing about something and actually seeing it with your own eyes. Sirius had just been brought face to face with the reality of Harry's sexuality and it was something he hadn't been prepared for.

    Listeners never hear any good of themselves, Harry reminded himself. Very quietly, he stood up and went to his room.

    It was only when he was stepping into the shower cubicle and caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror that he saw the ruddy brand on his neck. He touched it self-consciously, thinking it was hardly surprising that Sirius should overreact when he caught an eyeful of his godson being given a bloody great hickey by another man.

    The mirror tutted at him severely, sounding just like Madam Pomfrey, the matron at Hogwarts. Harry ignored it and took his shower, feeling pensive. He supposed he was lucky Sirius hadn't walked in on anything more than a rather enthusiastic groping session. He didn't think they would have gone further than that – neither of them was particularly interested in sex in odd places – but you never knew.

    When he returned to his room, draped in towels, Pigwidgeon was zooming around the ceiling. Harry made him wait while he dried off and pulled on some clean clothes, then he retrieved the message. Ron's handwriting, never very neat, was all over the place; evidence of his agitation.

    What the hell was all that about?

    He found a quill and wrote back:

    Sirius just discovered that his godson has a sex life. I think maybe he thought we did quilting in the evenings.

    Which was a little unkind to Sirius, but acid enough to tweak Ron's mercurial sense of humour. Harry waved the piece of parchment around for a moment to dry the ink, then rolled it up and secured it to the little owl's leg and let him out of the window.

    He was reaching the stage now where he felt perhaps he ought to go back downstairs but his embarrassment wouldn't let him. Resisting the urge to bite his nails, Harry sprawled out on his bed and stared up at the ceiling, mentally poking at what he had overheard.

    Perhaps half an hour later there was a knock at his bedroom door. He stared at it for a moment before calling, "Come in."

    Sirius walked in. He looked every bit as prickly and defensive as Harry felt, which was not a good sign, but he didn't immediately launch into any angry reprimands, which was promising. Instead he walked over to the bed and sat down on the side of it.

    "Make yourself at home!" Harry told him, heavy on the irony.

    "Thank you, I have!" Sirius retorted, equally ironic. There was a moment of uneasy silence between them, then he muttered, "Sorry I shouted at you earlier." He was not good at making gracious apologies.

    "S'alright." Harry wasn't great at accepting them either.

    They stared at each other warily, neither wanting to be the first to look away. Finally, Harry rolled his eyes and sighed.

    "I haven't grown an extra head, Sirius!" He decided to be blunt. "For crying out loud, we were just kissing. You got a bigger eyeful than that when you walked in on me and Cho!"

    "Cho was a bit more attractive than Ron," his godfather pointed out.

    At least he wasn't dithering around the subject.

    "That depends on your point of view, doesn't it?"

    "Hm." Sirius was still eyeing him a bit doubtfully.

    "We really weren't going to go any further than that, you know," Harry told him.

    "I'm glad about that. I don't know if I could ever have faced that set of saucepans again if you had."

    Typical Sirius humour, and his godson was glad to hear it. But he sighed and rolled his eyes again melodramatically, just for appearances' sake.

    "For someone who ragged me about Mum and Dad's sex life when I broke the sordid news to you, you're a bit squeamish, aren't you?"

    "Yeah, but I distinctly remember telling you that I didn't fancy seeing the pair of you make out on the kitchen table!"

    Harry stared at him, wide-eyed, for a moment before realising that this was literally quite true ... then he began to laugh. Sirius's ruffled expression reminded him of Hedwig when she was particularly offended about something.

    The corner of Sirius's mouth twitched, but he gave Harry's leg a sharp prod. "That's all very well, but that's not the point - Ron shouldn't have been here, Harry."

    "I know he shouldn't," Harry retorted, getting himself under control with an effort. "I didn't ask him to come; he just turned up. He was fed up of being nagged by his relatives, and I know how he feels!"

    That earned him a slap on the knee. "Watch it!"

    "Hey! Enough of the parental abuse!"

    Sirius groaned. "All right, enough said! Don't do it again, or at least not where I can see you. Oh, and dinner's nearly ready." He stood up.

    "Thanks." Harry sat up, giving him a thoughtful look. "Sirius, are you ... okay ... about me and Ron?"

    His godfather gave him a sharp look and shrugged. "Yes ... yes, I am, really." Harry wasn't convinced and his face must have said so, because Sirius sighed and sat down again. "I am, Harry, honestly. I don't have a problem with it. I was just a bit ... taken by surprise, that's all."

    Harry blinked and looked down at his hands. "I'm sorry."

    "Why?" To his surprise, the older man reached out and gripped his shoulder hard, giving it an affectionate shake. "You wouldn't apologise if the situation were reversed, would you? Harry, it's hardly your fault if I have trouble getting my head around the subject."

    Harry still wasn't convinced. "I think I took your acceptance of things for granted."

    "I'd prefer to view that as a positive thing," Sirius said quietly. "If there's one thing I've noticed over the years, Harry, it's that you don't take very much for granted at all. If we've actually reached a point where you feel you can expect certain things from me as a right, then that's all to the good."

    His godson wasn't entirely sure he bought into the reasoning behind that, but he decided to let it go. Sirius hadn't finished.

    "I told you when we first had this discussion – more than anything, I want you to be happy. If being with Ron is what makes you happy, then that's all there is to it."

    xXx

    By the time Harry finally fell back into his bed that evening he was tired beyond belief, worn out by the effects of an emotionally draining day as much as the lack of sleep from the night before. For a moment he lay staring up into the darkness, one hand flung out across the pillow that would normally be on Ron's side of the bed, then he shook his head slightly and resolutely closed his eyes.

    He did not expect to dream, which of course was exactly what he did.

    xXx


    He was lying in a meadow full of long summer grasses heavy with pollen, the sun pouring down onto him and the sky impossibly blue. For a moment he blinked, wondering where exactly he was. Then he turned his head slightly and met a pair of familiar blue eyes.

    Ron was grinning at him mischievously. He was sprawled out on his stomach in the grass beside Harry, twisting a couple of stalks together into a kind of rough corn-dolly.

    "You took a while to get here, didn't you?" he said.

    "That depends on where 'here' is," Harry replied. He gave his friend a curious look. "Is this someplace I know?"

    "Yes and no." Ron sat up and offered Harry a hand, pulling him up too. They were sitting in a meadow above a small village; it looked vaguely familiar. "This is the Astral Plane."

    "The what?"

    Ron chuckled. "Did you think you were dreaming?"

    "Well, considering that as far as I know I'm asleep ...."

    "Sleep's a good time to go for a walk on the Astral Plane. How do you think I found out about those Death Eaters the other night? Someone was trying to mask them from me in the real world, but I still found them here." Ron looked pensive for a moment. "Good thing I was here, or we might never have known until it was too late."

    Harry stared at him. "So what are we doing here now? And how did I get here? I don't know anything about the Astral Plane ...."

    "Well ... I brought you here, to be honest. I wanted to talk to you and it seemed like the only way after the way Sirius reacted this afternoon."

    "Oh ... okay. Is this safe?"

    Ron shrugged. "Define 'safe' for me. You've got to be a bit careful, because the spirits wandering around here are mostly dead people and they tend to have things on their mind. And if you run into living ones they usually have an agenda, so - "

    " – it's better to avoid anyone else you encounter?"

    "Something like that."

    Harry gave him an odd look. "Isn't this where clairvoyants like your gran come to contact spirits?" Ron nodded. "You don't go in for clairvoyancy, though, so why do you come here?"

    Ron's smile was not entirely easy. "I don't always have a choice, Harry. I can choose not to deliberately use the gift of clairvoyancy, but that doesn't make me any less clairvoyant. Does that make sense?"

    Harry looked at him worriedly. "Are you telling me that you can't stop spirits contacting you?"

    "Something like that. Because I haven't attempted to connect with a spirit-guide, they mostly ignore me. But sometimes I get pulled onto the Astral Plane by them – usually when I'm asleep – because there's something they're determined to tell me. That's what happened the other night. "

    "Shit."

    "Yeah. I don't like clairvoyancy. Talking to the dead is ... creepy. And it's one of those borderline gifts – it's too close to necromancy for comfort. Someone with a strong gift of clairvoyancy can raise the dead really easily."

    Harry was aware of that; necromancy had been covered in Defence Against the Dark Arts during their final year at Hogwarts. It was one of a number of areas of magic which, while not being inherently evil as such, were considered to have no good purpose and consequently were banned by the Ministry of Magic. Needless to say, it was highly attractive to Dark wizards as a result.

    Despite the blazing sunshine Harry began to feel cold. "Could you do that?"

    Ron nodded.

    "Holy shit. How long have you known about this?"

    A shrug. "As long as I've had the gift, really. That's why I've never bothered with clairvoyancy much - I think it's better to stay away from the whole thing. Gran doesn't agree with me - but then, she's not me, is she?"

    Not for the first time, Harry was quietly impressed with the depth of Ron's self-knowledge. It occurred to him that of the two of them, Ron was probably going to make the better Auror in the long run. It wasn't simply a matter of their respective gifts, but also they way they used them. Ron's knowledge of his own abilities and how best they could be used was very acute; Harry, by contrast, was only too aware that while he was a strong wizard, he was really only an Auror because circumstances had pushed him in that direction. His natural gifts lay elsewhere.

    Ron was watching the play of emotions across his face with a slight smile. "The trouble with the Astral Plane is that you tend to find yourself thinking about stuff a lot," he commented. "I spent a lot of time here during the last year of school, before we got together. I think maybe that's why I came around to the idea of being gay and attracted to my best mate quicker than you did."
    Harry raised his brows at him but didn't dispute the statement. "So is that why we're here now - to think?"

    "No, we're here to meet Gran actually. I sent her the mobile we found at your parent's place and she wants to talk to us about it."

    He stood up and Harry followed him. Now he had a better perspective, he realised where he was.

    "That's Godric's Hollow down there."

    "Yeah.. Come on - Gran's waiting for us at your mum and dad's place."

    In a blink of an eye they were there, standing just outside the ruins of the walls. Harry flinched a little when he saw the remains of the building; it looked worse here, for the taint of the Avada Kedavra curse was clearer, hanging like a green shadow over everything.

    Ron's grandmother was standing a few feet away, wearing a bright blue robe and watching Harry quietly. In her hands she held the mobile they had found - only now it was whole, and Harry saw that the charms hanging from it were moons and stars, suns, clouds and, below the others, broomsticks and Snitches. It was a Quidditch mobile.

    The old lady smiled when she saw Harry's surprise. "Do you not remember what it looked like?" she asked him.

    He shook his head. "I don't think Sirius could have remembered what it really looked like either, because it only had moons and stars on it when he showed me the illusion of the house."

    "What can you get from it?" Ron asked his grandmother.

    "Very strong vibrations, and not just from that filthy curse - there's some other kind of magic associated with this and the house," she said quietly, running her fingers over the object gently. Then she shook her head. "Well, let's see what the house was like …."

    And to Harry's amazement the walls suddenly began to rebuild themselves, the green glow of Avada Kedavra retreating as rough old stonework rapidly extended itself upwards. Windows with painted wooden frames and shutters appeared, the front door developed a little trellis-work frame around it hung with roses, and a thatched roof grew over the whole. Weeds in the garden crept backwards until a neat gravel pathway and tidy little borders were revealed.

    "Shall we go inside?"

    Harry hesitated, but this was his home for heaven's sake …. He put a hand on the front door and pushed it open.

    After the heat outside, the stone-flagged passage just inside the house was cool and inviting. This went far beyond anything Sirius had been able to show Harry via illusion; he could stretch out his hand here and touch the sprigged wallpaper, see the tiny cracks in the ceiling when he looked up, and breathe in the scent of mingled pot pourri, herbs and magic that lingered in the air. Indeed, the smell alone made him close his eyes for one stunned second, for he remembered it. He had been told time and again at school, by Professors Snape and Sprout, that smell triggered the memory more acutely than any of the other senses combined, but it was only now that he was realising the truth of this.

    There was a long woven rug down the length of the passage, and a narrow wooden table against the wall with a bunch of keys and a pot of quills standing on it. Harry touched the keys and picked them up, running his fingertips over the tooled leather key-ring with its worn Gryffindor shield on it. These keys surely belonged to his father.

    "Harry," Ron said gently, "I know you want to look around, but we don't have long. Where would you have been the night your parents died?"

    Harry shook off the spell of touching those keys with difficulty. He put them down and tried to think about Ron's question. "Um … it was night-time, so I probably would have been in the nursery. Upstairs …."

    "Okay, let's go."

    There were framed photographs hanging on the walls when they climbed the steep wooden staircase. Many of the people Harry saw in these pictures he had already seen once before in his life, when he looked into the Mirror of Erised when he was a boy; they were relatives. Although it gave him a jolt to pass one picture and realise that it was of a much younger Aunt Petunia.

    The first room they walked into on the second storey was clearly his parents' bedroom. A beautifully carved wooden sleigh-shaped bed dominated it, covered with a knitted bedspread in shades of blue. A matching wooden dressing table under the window was cluttered up with all sorts of knickknacks; his mother's make-up, items of jewellery, sets of cufflinks, a rolled up tie. A chair next to the bed had a worn brown robe tossed carelessly across it.

    An odd squeaking noise made Harry jump and look around; Ron sheepishly held up a small stuffed animal that he had trodden upon.

    "Yours?" he asked Harry with a grin.

    "We're wasting time," Ron's grandmother warned them.

    Harry reluctantly led the way out of the master bedroom - closing the door carefully behind him, although he knew that was irrational - and looked around. One other door stood open, like an invitation.

    They walked inside and it was obvious that they had found their goal. This room was decorated in delicate shades of pastel blue, with traditional teddy-prints on the wallpaper, and it had soft, squashy furnishings. A magnificent wooden cradle stood in the centre of the room with Harry's mobile hanging above it; the cradle itself was carved all around the rim with letters of the alphabet. It was empty apart from the mattress, pillow and baby blankets, and a teddy bear that looked as though it had had at least one previous owner.

    "Now that we're here, what do we do?" Harry asked quietly. He was finding all of this rather unsettling - this evidence of the happy, family home that should have been his, not just for a few short months but throughout his childhood and beyond.

    "There are particularly strong spells on this room," Ron's grandmother said softly, looking around. "I can feel the vibrations - we need to look into this more deeply."

    "How?" Harry was no clairvoyant and had never really understood the subject even though he studied Divination with Ron.

    But Ron stilled him with a touch on the arm. "Leave it to Gran – this is her area of expertise."

    She was looking around the room, fingering the 'real' mobile in her hands. Then the room darkened and the door was blasted open with a rush of hot air and evil magic.

    Harry jumped and felt Ron grab his arm again, as though to restrain him. The three of them were not alone in the room anymore; a young woman with long, dark auburn hair was standing over the cradle with a dark-haired baby in her arms. She was hunched protectively around her child with her back to the door, and her sweet face was a mask of terror.

    The figure that strode confidently through the doorway was one of the many that haunted Harry's nightmares, even though the face of this particular incarnation was less familiar to him. The long black robes and hood could not hide the red lizard eyes of Voldemort, and his face – more human then – was twisted into a triumphant smile.

    "Give me the boy!" he snapped at the young woman.

    She quickly put the baby into the cradle, and turned to face her enemy, her body deliberately placed to block his view of her son.

    "No, not Harry! Leave him alone, take me, kill me instead – "

    "Give him to me – "

    "No, please – I'll do anything, just don't hurt Harry – "

    "Stand aside, you silly girl!"

    "No - "

    Voldemort raised his wand and Harry cried out, feeling Ron desperately hanging onto him as he tried to intervene. What good such an intervention could have done he didn't know, but it was an academic question.

    "AVADA KEDAVRA!"

    And there was the rush of green light, his earliest conscious memory, and his mother was falling ... falling ....

    Harry didn't realise that he too had fallen to the floor, all the strength going out of him as he witnessed his mother's murder. His eyes were riveted on Voldemort, who kicked aside Lily Potter's body without a second thought and leaned over the cradle. Through the bars Harry could see himself, fifteen months old, sitting up and looking on quite placidly with nothing more than an expression of mild curiosity, as the most evil wizard the world had ever known bent over him and pointed his wand at him.

    Horribly, Voldemort laughed, high pitched and cold as ice. "That's a good boy, Harry!" he said in a sing-song tone. "Sit quite still now, and soon it will all be over ... you'll never trouble me again ...."

    He raised his wand again, and Harry could feel Ron hugging him tightly. But Harry wasn't afraid; he wanted to see this, wanted to know what had happened that night -

    "Avada Kedavra!"

    The rush of air, of green light, that high, cold laugh again ....

    The curse struck.

    And something strange happened. As Harry, Ron and Iris Weasley watched, astounded, the evil green glow seemed to flow rapidly over baby Harry's body and sink into his skin. Then, as fast as it had begun, the green light seemed to ooze out of him again and flow back towards Voldemort's wand. It happened so quickly that Harry felt sure that he would have missed it if he blinked.

    Certainly it happened too fast for Voldemort to stop it. The wizard shrieked as the curse recoiled back through the wand and into him. He went rigid, his body jerking like a monstrous puppet for several moments.

    Then the curse exploded back out of him – not out of his wand, but literally out of him. As Harry watched in shock, Voldemort seemed to vaporise; there was no other word for it. But the curse itself didn't disappear. For a split second it seemed to hang in the air like a cloud of green gas which rapidly grew in size until it filled the room. The pressure in the air was horrifying, pressing outwards until the walls of the house gave way in a terrifying explosion –

    "STOP!"

    The room suddenly reverted to sunlit and empty, leaving Harry huddled on the floor with Ron, trembling in reaction. Even Ron's grandmother was breathing irregularly, shaken by what they had just witnessed. It was she who had called a halt to the scene.

    Ron spoke first. "Christ, Harry - how the hell did you survive that?"

    Harry shook his head numbly, having difficulty processing what he had just seen. Voldemort's destruction was nothing - he was still staring at the spot where his mother's body had fallen. For years he had heard audio replay of the incident they had just witnessed including, sometimes, the sound of his father telling his mother to take the baby and run. But now he had visuals to go with the soundtrack and it was more horrifying than he had ever imagined. It was not simply witnessing her death; it was seeing Voldemort kick her body aside as though she was nothing but an object in his path. The callous indifference of the act made Harry shake to his marrow.

    "This isn't what we're looking for," Iris Weasley stated, breaking into Harry's reverie. "We need to go back further and discover why the curse destroyed the house."

    "Gran," said Ron, uneasily, "I don't think Harry's up to more - "

    "No!" Harry interrupted him sharply. "We need to do it - I need to know, and we might never have another opportunity like this."

    Ron's grandmother looked at him searchingly for a moment, then nodded. "Very well."

    And the scene changed again.

    It was another bright day. Sunlight poured through the nursery window, and Harry guessed that it must be summer there. Three adults were standing around the cradle, and he felt his chest begin to tighten with emotion as he identified them: his mother, his father and Sirius Black. Sirius looked so much younger and more carefree, lacking twenty years on his age and the lines of pain that the death of friends and years in Azkaban had carved into his face. Lily Potter was bright-faced and beautiful without the terror of the fatal confrontation with Voldemort. And her husband ….

    There was a good reason that people told Harry that he looked like his father; this was the face he saw in the mirror every morning. Harry's eyes searched the face of James Potter hungrily, taking in the easy grin and sparkle of a man who, despite being forced into hiding with his wife, was happy at least for this one moment.

    Sirius was stretching up above the cradle; he was hanging up the mobile. "Remus hoped this might inspire little Harry to great things when he's older," he was joking. "We're depending on you two to produce an entire Quidditch team, you know!"

    "Give us a chance!" James retorted, laughing. "Seven children? I'm not a Weasley, you know!"

    "Produce your own Quidditch team, you wretch!" Lily told Sirius fondly.

    "Who, me? Not likely! It's enough being godfather to this one." Sirius patted the side of the cradle, and his smile slipped slightly. "Have you boosted the protections on this house, James? You don't want to take any chances."

    "Of course. Come and look for yourself - I suppose you'll want to report back to Dumbledore that you found everything secure."

    "I'd better."

    The two men exited the room, discussing protection spells, leaving Lily Potter behind with the baby. She watched them go, then very softly closed the door behind them; there was an oddly intent expression on her face. Harry, Ron and his grandmother watched as she quickly leaned over the side of the cradle, presumably checking on the sleeping baby; then she straightened up purposefully and pulled her wand out of her robes.

    For the next ten minutes the three of them watched as she circled the room, casting a complex net of charms over the walls, floor, ceiling and windows of the nursery. Every so often she would pause and touch her wrist with the tip of the wand, drawing a drop of blood which she would touch to the corners of the room where the walls met the ceiling or floor, or onto the window frames as though pinning the spell to the fabric of the building with it.

    The magic was incredibly advanced and complex. Harry could feel the spells sinking into the building itself, through the floors and into the foundations and beyond. Most of the charms he didn't even recognise. He could tell from the general feel of them that they were spells of power and protection, but this was magic-weaving of a complexity well beyond his current abilities - and Harry was no slouch with charms.

    Finally, Lily Potter stood in the middle of the room and uttered a final incantation. The web of spells, which was so powerful as to be almost visible to the naked eye, suddenly sank away until the even the background vibrations were imperceptible.

    Looking drained and a little worried, Harry's mother sagged where she stood for a moment. Then she went and opened the door again, and returned to the side of the cradle - just before her husband and his best friend returned.

    The two men were talking earnestly about the Fidelius Charm, a conversation Harry realised had to precede Sirius's decision not to become his parents' secret keeper. Neither man seemed to realise that powerful magic had just been enacted in the room, and Lily didn't enlighten them.

    The figures faded away, leaving Harry alone in the room with Ron and his grandmother.

    "Your mother told you to look in the house?" Iris Weasley asked Harry directly.

    "In my dream, yes .... She said there were things here I could use." Harry felt a little dazed. He was having difficulty coming to terms with all the things he had seen this evening, let alone processing the information.

    "It doesn't have to be literal, you know," Ron told him. "Just because she used the word "things" doesn't mean she meant solid objects."

    Harry shook his head. He felt indescribably tired and his brain was simply refusing to process everything. Ron's grandmother stepped over and touched his arm gently.

    "Enough," she said firmly. "I don't think we'll find anything more here." A wave of her wand and the nursery disappeared. They were standing in the garden of the ruined house again. "Time to go home and sleep," she instructed the two of them. "Think about this in the morning, when you're more rested. Ronald, I think you - "

    Ron threw up a hand suddenly, silencing her. A look of alarm crossed his face. "He's here again!"

    "Who?"

    "That bloke who was in the garden the other day – "

    Exhaustion forgotten, Harry was suddenly alert. He slipped his hand into his pocket and found his wand. "Where?"

    Ron tilted his head to one side as though listening. "Round the back."

    "You go that way and I'll take this ...."

    "Boys – "

    "Wait here, Gran!"

    They took off without waiting for her response, Harry taking the gravel path around the front of the house. The garden was just as overgrown here on the Astral Plane as it had been in reality; he soon found himself pushing aside tall, bushy grasses and brambles.

    The rear garden was even more overgrown, but Harry saw at once where a path had been forced through the foliage. He remembered that there was a low wall bounding the property at the rear, with a small gate leading out onto a narrow lane. Without waiting for Ron, Harry plunged down the crude avenue that had been trampled through the tall weeds.

    The old gate was hanging off its hinges with age. Harry pushed it aside with a rusty screech and ran out into the lane. It was shadier here, the tall Devon banks topped with sycamore trees on either side turning it almost into a tunnel of dappled light. There was no one to be seen.

    Seconds later Ron also ran out, looking from one side to the other.

    "Where is he?"

    "Gone," Harry said, annoyed. "Look, are you sure he was here?"

    "Positive. I'd know that aura anywhere."

    "Damn. What the hell was he doing here?"

    "Forget "what" and ask yourself "how"," the redhead said grimly. "If he has no magic, how the hell did he throw himself onto the Astral Plane?"

    "Can't Muggles do that?"

    "No. They only think they can. It takes magic, training and control."

    "If he was here, he was spying on us," Harry said slowly.

    Their eyes met uneasily.

    "Then he was spying on us the other day, too."

    "Shit ...."

    "Come on, let's get back to Gran."

    She was waiting for them where they had left her, her face grim. "Never do that again, Ronald!" she snapped when they approached. "This isn't the real world! What did you think you were going to do if you caught him? You can't hunt someone down here and hold them for questioning! And what have I told you about controlling your emotions? There are disturbed spirits here who could seriously hurt you both."

    "He's a spy, Gran," Ron retorted, stubbornly. "We needed to know – "

    "Then go home and find him in the real world!" She huffed an exasperated sigh. "You should go home anyway. Harry isn't trained for this – he's going to suffer for it in the morning."

    Harry grimaced, guessing what that meant, but shook his head. "It was worth it, if only to find out that someone's watching this place."

    Although what that could mean, he didn't know.

    Chapter Text

    Morning found Harry rummaging desperately in the bathroom medicine chest for headache potions. He had never suffered from migraines before but this one was a killer, the full experience - pain, nausea, flashing lights and light sensitivity. It had taken all his resolution to drag himself out of bed in search of a remedy, and he'd already had a close encounter with the toilet as a result.

    If this is what Ron goes through every time he uses his Sight, it's a miracle he ever bothers, he thought grimly, and clenched his teeth against another lurch in his stomach.

    "Are you all right?"

    That was Lupin; Harry identified him purely by the sound of his voice, for when he tried to look at him all he could see was a haze of painful, coloured spots.

    "No," he managed. "Bad head. Got any painkillers?"

    "They're in the kitchen cupboard. Go back to bed and I'll bring you some."

    In the end, he had to help Harry back to his bedroom door, though. Harry could hardly bear to open his eyes enough to see his way. Back in bed, he tried not to concentrate on the pounding ... weird how it seemed to be all on one side of his head. Even his teeth ached. The pain was so intense that he felt himself breaking out in a sweat.

    There was a murmur of voices, then a gentle hand on his shoulder. He felt a cup pressed against his lips; he didn't want to swallow, with his stomach in such rebellion, and he coughed and spluttered as something truly foul was forced down his throat.

    It took a couple of minutes, but the pain began to ease and his stomach stopped churning. Harry risked cracking his eyes open. The curtains were still pulled across the window, but there were no flashing, dancing spots in front of his eyes. Instead, he met the concerned face of Remus Lupin.

    "That's the last time you help me in the garden on a hot day," the older wizard said mildly, "at least without a hat. How are you feeling?"

    Harry gave the question careful consideration. "Not too bad," he said finally, with intense relief.

    "Good. Stay put for a while – that potion takes thirty minutes to work completely. I'm going to get dressed and start breakfast."

    Lupin left, but Sirius was standing just inside the doorway, still in his pyjamas and looking concerned. "Are you sure you're alright? I didn't think you suffered from migraines."

    "I don't," Harry muttered.

    "Hm." Sirius apparently realised there was more going on here than met the eye, but he let it go, at least for a while. "Take it easy for a while."

    "Right. No problem."

    His godfather chuckled and left him alone.

    xXx

    Lupin had not been joking; the potion took exactly half an hour to work completely, at which time Harry felt the last vestiges of discomfort leave him completely. It was an immense relief to him.

    All the same, he was left prey to some sobering thoughts as he finally took his shower and shaved. Ron never recovered so easily from his migraines, no matter what potions Harry forced him to take. Which meant that either Ron was being a drama queen (not wholly impossible, though unlikely) or his migraines were so bad that even the best potions were only partially effective on him.

    The idea that anything could be worse than the headache he had woken up with was deeply unsettling to Harry. It was even more unsettling to think that Ron could voluntarily put himself through that kind of misery to do the kind of thing he had done last night.

    Sirius and Lupin were lingering over their breakfast tea and newspapers when Harry slid into his seat at the table. Lupin put the Daily Prophet down for a moment to survey him critically.

    "You're looking a lot better. Headache gone?"

    "Totally, thanks." Harry helped himself to toast and marmalade.

    Sirius was also scrutinising him critically. "What brought that on?" he wanted to know.

    Harry eyed him warily. "What makes you think anything brought it on?"

    "Because I know you and you've got that 'guilty teenaged shenanigans' look on your face."

    "Hm." Harry munched on his toast and refused to be drawn on the subject.

    "Hedwig brought you a message," Sirius said, giving up without a fight. He pushed the slip of paper across the table.

    "Oh – thanks." Harry unfolded it, knowing even before he did so that it would be from Ron.

    How are you feeling this morning?

    There were a lot of things Harry would have liked to have said in response to this innocent enquiry, but the piece of paper was far too small. He found a quill and scratched out a brief reply, stating blandly that he'd had the headache from hell when he first awoke, but he was fine now. Hedwig swooped down to his shoulder as he was doing so and accepted a crust from his toast while he finished.

    When she'd taken the note, Harry brooded grimly over his other-planer adventures as he finished his breakfast. He badly wanted to know who the so-called Muggle interloper really was.

    "Sirius, do you have a local telephone directory here?" he asked suddenly. He knew they had a telephone installed, although he'd never found out why.

    "It's on the shelf underneath the telephone," Sirius said, surprised. "Why?"

    "Just curious about something. 'Scuse me ...." Harry left the table and went to find the directory. It was pretty small, but this part of Devon wasn't heavily populated. He flicked through until he found the C's and ran his finger down the page. There were twelve entries for Curtis, one of whom was located in the Godric's Hollow area.

    So it was entirely possible that this Nick Curtis (if that was his real name) did indeed live in Godric's Hollow as he claimed, in which case he was certainly Muggle-born.

    Harry put the directory back and returned to the table, still brooding. Sirius was giving him a thoughtful look.

    "Find what you were looking for?"

    "Hm."

    "Are you sure you're alright?"

    "Yep." Harry hesitated, then said, "You remember that Muggle Ron and I met at the house the other day? Is there any way we could find out who he is?"

    Sirius raised his brows. "Why would we want to?"

    There was no getting around it; he was going to have to confess to his late-night walk upon the astral. "I, um, saw him again last night."

    Lupin put his newspaper down sharply. "Where?"

    Harry sighed. "On the Astral Plane."

    "On the ...." Sirius stared at him. "What the hell were you doing on the Astral Plane?"

    "Meeting Ron, I would imagine," Lupin observed dryly before Harry could reply.

    "You make it sound like I was sneaking out to meet him behind the tool-shed," Harry said, aggrieved.

    "Since the Astral Plane is supposedly not a great deal safer than the tool-shed, I'm not sure I see what difference it makes." Lupin gave him an exasperated look. "Well, that explains the migraine at least. Harry, why are you so determined to put yourself at risk? It is not safe for you to be meeting Ron at all at the moment. If you can find your way onto the Astral Plane, so can Lord Voldemort's Seers – and somebody trained in clairvoyancy can inflict a lot of damage on you there."

    "We met Ron's grandmother there," he said irritably. "She and Ron are pretty experienced in these things, you know."

    "That's not the point!" Sirius snapped. "If Voldemort's agents find you there, there's an outside chance they can track you back to your physical location. What's so important that you would risk something like that?"

    "Yeah, I can quite believe you'd think meeting my other half was unimportant in the grand scheme of things," Harry snapped back before he could stop himself.

    "That's enough from the pair of you," Lupin said sharply, before Sirius could respond to the attack. "Harry, that was uncalled for. It seems to have escaped your notice that we're not just trying to keep you safe here, but Ron and Draco as well. We can't do that if even one of you is determined to thwart our efforts at every turn."

    "We're not trying to thwart your efforts!" Harry said, exasperated. "We were trying to find something out when that bloke just appeared – "

    "Trying to find out what?" Sirius demanded.

    "Something I dreamed about!"

    Sirius sat back in his chair and folded his arms, just looking at his godson. Too late, Harry realised why he was looking so pissed off. He was supposed to keep a log of his dreams and turn it in to Sirius.

    "I didn't have a chance to tell anyone," he said defensively, knowing even as he said it that it sounded a bit feeble. "It was the night after the party, and things were kind of busy the next day if you remember."

    "You obviously told Ron!"

    "Of course I told Ron! I tell him everything."

    "Oh dear," Lupin murmured vaguely. He picked up his newspaper again, apparently leaving the argument to Sirius to sort out.

    "So perhaps you should tell me about this dream now?" Sirius suggested with exaggerated patience.

    But Harry really didn't want to. The subject of his parents was such a difficult one to broach with Sirius and Lupin at the best of times, and he couldn't help feeling … protective … of his dreams of them anyway. But Sirius wasn't going to be fobbed off.

    "Mum told me to go and look in the house," Harry muttered, deeply uncomfortable with saying even that much. He focussed on his plate, pushing a bit of toast around it unhappily, and there was an awkward silence.

    "To look for what?" Sirius asked finally.

    "I don't know." Harry let out a frustrated sigh. "That's why we went to the house, to see if there was anything we could find. But there's not much left."

    "Most of the stuff that could be identified is in storage at the Facility."

    "That's what Ron said. We did find something though - a bit of an old kid's mobile, with moons and stars - "

    Lupin put the newspaper down. He looked a bit odd. "I gave you that, when you were a baby."

    Harry nodded quickly. "A Quidditch mobile! Ron's Gran did this thing … well, I don't know what she did, but we saw Sirius hanging it up above my cradle." He glanced at his godfather warily. "You said something to Dad about producing a full Quidditch team and he told you he wasn't a Weasley …."

    Sirius got up very abruptly, grabbing his plate and walking hastily out to the kitchen. Harry bit his lip and looked at Lupin, but although he looked grave he didn't appear to be unduly concerned.

    "Give him a minute," he said quietly, seeing Harry's expression. "That was a difficult time for him."

    Harry nodded, but didn't know what to say. Actually, there were very few things he could say on the subject that wouldn't be upsetting to his father's friends.

    "You weren't there," he said finally. "Sirius hung the mobile …."

    Lupin nodded. "I don't remember exactly why - I had business elsewhere, or it was a full moon or something similar, I suppose. I imagine it was one of the reasons Sirius began to suspect I might be the traitor in our circle."

    After a short while Sirius returned and quietly took his seat. He looked at Harry for a moment. "Just how much did Mrs. Weasley get from that mobile?" he asked.

    "More than I was expecting," Harry replied, then he shrugged. "Not that I was expecting much at all, and certainly not what she did. We … we saw how it happened. When Voldemort killed Mum." It was difficult admitting that, and he had to fix his eyes very firmly on the toast rack for a minute before he could continue. "Then we went back a bit further and saw you with Mum and Dad. There was other stuff."

    "You saw how Voldemort was destroyed?" Lupin asked quickly.

    "Yes, but I didn't really understand how it happened …."

    Sirius let out a long breath. "Can you write all of this down? Everything you saw?"

    "I suppose." Harry looked at them. "This is important, isn't it?"

    "Important! My God …." Sirius rubbed his eyes. "Have you any idea how many clairvoyants have tried to do exactly what Ron's grandmother did last night? According to Moody, the Unspeakables spent years trying to work out what happened to Voldemort that night - they gave up in the end. And Mrs. Weasley managed to call all of that up from a broken child's mobile!"

    "Did she?" Lupin asked softly. "Arabella Figg spent months working on some of the debris, including parts of Harry's cradle. All she got was residue from the curse. Why should that mobile be any different?"

    The two men looked at Harry, who blinked under the scrutiny. "Don't look at me – I haven't a clue how she made it happen. Ron would know, I suppose."

    "We'll have to have a chat with him anyway – Moody won't be satisfied with just your version of events." Lupin folded up his newspaper and put it beside his plate. "I'll go and see him before I go into the Facility."

    Sirius caught sight of Harry's expression and snorted. "No, Harry – you're coming with me!"

    xXx

    The storage rooms at the Aurors' Facility were located in a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the Ministry buildings that looked like a cross between natural caves and older sections of the London Underground. (Simeon Clare, one of Harry's fellow trainees, swore that parts of the storage areas were in disused sections of the Tube and that he had seen the old signs on the walls – but he liked to spin tall stories.) Harry felt reasonably certain that they had been built by the same individual who had designed the vaults at Gringotts, which probably meant that their original designer had been Merlin himself. They were cool and dry, and had that unnatural stillness and silence that came with being many hundreds of yards underground.

    This was not a place you visited without a lamp, a location spell and letting someone know you were down there. Recording and maintenance of the stores was managed by the Unspeakables, but the storage areas were vast enough that you could wander for hours – or possibly even days – and not encounter another living soul. It was deeply unnerving. Harry preferred not to go down there without someone for company, but with Ron sequestered at the Burrow and the rest of his fellow trainees out on routine field training, he had no choice.

    The location spell worked on the same principle as the Four Points Spell. He placed the little silver arrow on the flat of his palm and murmured "Point me" to it. The arrow swivelled to point down one of the many passages and Harry began to walk, at intervals checking the map one of the archivists had given him before he set out.

    It was a wonder anyone ever found anything that had been stored here. The place was an immense stash of boxes, files, racks, shelves, drawers, bookcases, crates, barrels, and oddly shaped glass receptacles. It was like the world's most extraordinary junk shop. Harry had to walk for nearly an hour before he found the area designated as holding evidence from his parents' house, and then he had to start moving and shifting everything to find what he was looking for. There were three skip-like crates holding nothing but rubble, masonry, slates and broken beams from the fabric of the house itself.

    Fortunately there was some semblance of order, in the form of careful labelling. He soon found the crates marked "kitchen", "master bedroom", "study" and – most importantly – "nursery".

    The nursery box was full of blackened junk – bits of wood that turned out to be the shattered remains of his cradle, scraps of cloth that might have been curtains, the tattered head of a soft toy. Harry needed no more evidence than the soot on his fingers to know that all of this had been at ground zero.

    No wonder Ron had been stunned by his survival of the incident. Harry hadn't just survived the Avada Kedavra Curse; he had survived the rebound as well, which may well have been the greater miracle that night.

    Sifting through it all was time consuming and emotionally draining for him, especially since he still had no idea what he was looking for. Having Ron there would have been an enormous help, not just for moral support but also in his capacity as a psychic. Harry was reduced to running his fingers over every painful reminder of a lost childhood home and hoping he would get some kind of warning tingle or premonition.

    Come on, Mum – I need a little help here ....

    More bits of cradle ... a broomstick-shaped charm from the mobile, twisted and blackened ... the cap from a bottle ... a baby's pacifier shaped like the head of an elephant ... the glass eye from a teddy bear or similar ... the shaped wooden handle from a drawer ... something long, thin, smooth and a little charred ....

    Harry pulled the object out, holding it up to his lamp for a closer look. It couldn't be ....

    It was.

    No one who owned one of Ollivander's creations could fail to recognise the slim rod and handle of a magic wand made by the master wand-maker's own hands. It had been badly damaged by the explosion, the tip almost reduced to charcoal and great nicks taken out of the rod, but Harry felt the warm tingle of magic as soon as he ran his fingers down it. Willow, he thought, tracing the fine grain of the wood.

    Before he had even consciously thought about it, Harry raised the wand in his right hand and brought it down through the air in one smooth swish. Golden sparks spluttered from the damaged tip.

    "A nice wand for charm work," Mr. Ollivander's voice drifted back to him from ten years previously.

    This was his mother's wand.

    He had found what he was looking for.

    xXx

    Back in the office, Harry rummaged through the drawers in Ron's desk until he found one of the long, thin silk scarves he kept for holding or wrapping up psychically charged objects. It was the work of moments to wrap his mother's wand and stow it inside his robe. At this point Harry wasn't sure what he intended to do with it, but for some obscure reason he didn't want anyone to know he had it. He was even a little shocked that it had been in storage at all; wands didn't 'die' with their owners, and the usual procedure was to snap them and place them in the coffin with the deceased witch or wizard, to prevent them being used by anyone else.

    Then, trying to act like he didn't have a guilty secret on his mind, he began to go through his in-tray on his desk. There were a few letters; a thick bundle of reports still dealing with the fall-out from the raid on Knockturn Alley; a training module that he was behind schedule with; a request from another Auror for notes on the Mundungus Fletcher incidents; and, unpleasantly, a copy of the preliminary report on Pansy Parkinson's death. Harry didn't feel up to dealing with the latter at all, and carefully stowed it away in a folder for perusal at a later date. He checked Ron's tray as well and found that it was equally full.

    Well, if he was going to work, his partner could too instead of loafing around in his parents' garden, enjoying the sun. Smiling to himself, Harry scribbled a note to that effect and attached it to the thick pile of work, before securing the lot and giving it to one of the Facility's mail-owls. Then he sat down to try and clear some of his backlog.

    It was early afternoon before he finished. Feeling his stomach rumble, Harry decided it was time to find Sirius and insist on being allowed to visit Florean Fortescue's for some lunch. He walked out into the main office and was surprised to find Sirius already there, with Draco Malfoy in tow.

    After the Death Eater incident at the house, Malfoy had reverted to his usual surly, sarcastic self around Harry and Ron. Apparently he was still at odds with Harry, because his first comment upon seeing him was to ask Sirius: "What's it like having a poof for a godson, Black?"

    Sirius's glare could have blistered paintwork, but his tone was studiedly affable. "I don't know, Malfoy. What's it like having a cold-blooded murderer for a father?"

    Ouch. Malfoy scowled but fell silent.
    Harry raised a brow at his godfather. "I was hoping for lunch, but not if you're going to fight."

    "We're fine," Sirius replied blandly. "We've got an errand to run first. Want to come?"

    "Doing what?" Harry asked warily.

    "We're buying a wand."

    Harry was a little surprised at this, but didn't question it. "Okay, but I want to visit Flourish and Blotts while you're in Ollivanders."

    Sirius grumbled a little about security but finally agreed. They met up again three quarters of an hour later for lunch, during which Harry and Sirius chatted amiably and Malfoy maintained his stubborn and rather sulky silence, toying sullenly with a salad. Harry felt a certain amount of sympathy for him - it must have been an horrendous shock, seeing Pansy the way he had - but was impatient of his behaviour and hoped that he was not going to behave like this during their stay at Hogwarts.

    When they got back to the Facility, Lupin was waiting for them.

    "I have a message for you from Ron," he told Harry a little dryly, when they walked in.

    Harry brightened immediately. "Yes?"

    "He said to tell you that you're a pig, and he's leaving you and taking the children."

    Harry laughed. "I love him too!"

    xXx

    Walking through King's Cross Station the next morning to the barrier between platforms nine and ten gave Harry a strong sense of déja vu. There were Muggles all over the place, none of them taking the slightest bit of notice of the three oddly-dressed men heading purposefully towards a solid wall.

    "Harry, you go first," Sirius said tensely, glancing around at the commuters milling about on the platforms. "I'll follow with our friend here ...."

    Harry nodded, and leaned casually against the barrier. He felt the odd but familiar sensation of sliding through the gateway, and moments later was walking out onto Platform Nine and Three Quarters. The gleaming red engine that was the Hogwarts Express was standing at the platform, little puffs of smoke and steam curling around its wheels. The only thing missing from the picture was the seething crowd of Hogwarts pupils, all of whom had arrived back in London a couple of weeks earlier.

    Sirius appeared through the barrier with Malfoy, frowning and looking at his pocket watch.

    "You'd better hurry up," he told the two younger men. "The train's almost ready to leave."

    Malfoy coolly turned on his heel and stalked away to board the first carriage, without a word to the other two. Harry watched him go and gave Sirius a rueful smile.

    "This is going to be fun. I wonder where Ron is?"

    "Arthur was going to drop him off earlier, so he's probably already on board." Sirius fished in his robe and pulled out a long narrow box. "Here, you need to look after this. Give it to Dumbledore when you get there."

    The box was stamped with the Ollivander logo.

    "Is this Malfoy's new wand?"

    "Yes. Dumbledore said he should have one, but Moody wasn't happy with the idea of him carrying it around."

    Harry lifted the lid curiously and peered at the wand. "Is this made of holly?" he asked, surprised.

    Sirius raised a brow. "Yes, it is – holly and unicorn tail-hair. Why?"

    "That's funny," Harry said slowly, replacing the lid. "My wand's holly too – holly and phoenix feather." He blinked. "And so is Ron's, now I come to think of it – holly and dragon heartstring. How weird is that?"

    "Maybe it's not, under the circumstances. Anyway, you need to get moving. And Harry – "

    They looked at each other, and Sirius shook his head. He was looking stressed and worried, an expression that highlighted all the premature lines Azkaban had set in his face and briefly made him look ten years older than he really was.

    He sighed quietly. "Just take care of yourself, will you? You're all the family I have."

    Harry dumped his bags on the ground and stepped forward to hug his godfather fiercely. "You and Remus had better take care of yourselves too, while I'm gone. If anything happened to one of you, I don't know what I'd do."

    Sirius gripped him tightly for a moment, then let him go. Harry stepped back, and grinned as an idea suddenly occurred to him.

    "Besides, you realise that if we're family that makes you related to Aunt Petunia?"

    Sirius let out a bark of horrified laughter. "Go on, get on that damned train already!"

    Harry picked up his bag and the long dragon-hide case containing his Tsunami, and climbed aboard the first carriage. The door had barely slammed behind him before he heard the whistle and felt the first shudder of the train beginning to move. He leaned back out of the window.

    For a moment there was that sense of déja vu again as Harry remembered his dream, of looking out from the train and watching as his parents vanished into the distance. Then it was gone again, and Sirius was raising his hand in farewell. Harry waved back silently and remained at the window until the train had pulled out of the station and he was no longer able to see the platform.

    xXx

    The Hogwarts Express normally had eight or nine carriages, to cope with an entire school full of children, but as it was only returning to the north to collect those teachers who would be spending the summer away from the school, there were only three carriages on this occasion.

    Harry walked down the corridor, noting that Malfoy had chosen to sequester himself in the carriage and compartment nearest to the engine, and kept going. Ron, he suspected, would be in the farthest possible carriage from Malfoy; nor was he mistaken. The redhead was leaning out of the lowered compartment window when he walked in, and whipped around, grinning, when he heard Harry arrive.

    "About time you turned up," he said.

    Harry dumped his luggage on one of the seats, smiling, and hugged his partner tightly.

    "I thought you were going to leave me and take the children?" he joked.

    Ron chuckled. "Nah, I decided to leave the children instead. Literally. Charlie's kids are going to grow up like Fred and George, God help us. I was glad to get out of the house - Mum kept blaming me when slugs turned up in her saucepans. She said I was encouraging them." He released Harry with a trace of reluctance. "What's been going on? Lupin turned up yesterday and gave me a right bollocking."

    "Didn't he tell you?" Harry flopped out on one of the seats and pushed his hair back off his face. "I just mentioned our trip onto the Astral Plane and he and Sirius went nuts. Apparently people have been trying for years to do what your Gran did the other night."

    "I wish them the joy of Gran's reaction," Ron said acidly, taking the seat opposite. "She won't be too happy when a bunch of Aurors turn up on her doorstep, demanding to know what she was doing. I wrote some notes for them, but I'll bet you a Galleon that Moody won't be satisfied. Oh, and thanks so much for all that work yesterday." He gave Harry's knee a gentle poke with his foot.

    "Why should I be the only one to sit around on a sunny day, writing reports on Mundungus Fletcher?"

    "Hm. Did you read that report on Pansy?"

    "No. Call me a coward, but I'm leaving it until the memory's a bit less fresh."

    Ron nodded but didn't say anything further. His expression had turned a bit grim.

    "You can always punish me for the work later," Harry suggested after a moment or two, when it seemed like his friend was brooding a little too much.

    Ron looked up and grinned. "You're getting a bit saucy in your old age, aren't you?"

    "I learned all I know about saucy stuff from this bloke I knew at school." Harry dragged his bag over the seat to him and rummaged around inside, extracting a couple of chocolate bars. "Apparently the lunch trolley won't be on today, so I grabbed some stuff from a shop at King's Cross for lunch. Here - "

    Ron took the bar, raising a brow at the Twix logo. "You needn't have worried." He pointed to a sturdy wicker basket in the corner of the seat. "What do you think that is? Catch my mum letting us go without grub!"

    "Corned beef sandwiches?" Harry asked, grinning.

    "If it is, you can eat them! What about face-ache?"

    "Malfoy? I bought enough for him too, but I don't know if he'll condescend to join us. He's in a hell of a mood."

    "Just like old times then." Ron unwrapped the Twix and examined one of the unfamiliar bars suspiciously before biting into it. "Mmf! It's a bit like a Frankenfinger," he said, around a mouthful of biscuit crumbs and caramel.

    "Without the sugar maggots," Harry said absently. Frankenfingers were a Honeydukes speciality - horridly realistic biscuit fingers wrapped in fluffy nougat and chocolate, with a hard toffee fingernail on the end. They came in a box of ten, surrounded by wriggling candy maggots. "You know, considering how paranoid Sirius and the others have been over the past couple of days, I'm amazed they allowed the three of us to travel up to Hogwarts on our own."

    "They haven't. Casper Prewett's up front with the driver." Prewett was a senior Auror. "I reckon we're probably safe enough on the train. It's not like many people know we're going up to Hogwarts anyway." Ron stretched his long legs out and propped his feet up on the seat next to Harry.

    Harry frowned. "The question is - is Voldemort one of the privileged few who know?"

    "I knew I could rely on you to look on the bright side. Relax, will you?" Ron wriggled a little, getting comfortable. He patted the seat beside him. "Come and give your Uncle Ron a cuddle," he invited.

    Harry raised a brow at him and hooked a finger into the collar of his robe, pulling it down slightly. The love-bite was still quite vivid.

    "The last time I gave my Uncle Ron a cuddle I got bitten," he said pointedly.

    His partner sniggered. "You didn't complain at the time!"

    Which was perfectly true. "Just as well we didn't go any further. Sirius would have had a heart-attack."

    "Hm. Has he got over that yet?"

    "Just about." Harry decided to accept the invitation and joined Ron on the other seat. He sprawled out along the length of it, with his head on his partner's lap. "What do you reckon we're going to be doing at Hogwarts?"

    "Dunno. If just touching each other causes explosions, I want to know how the hell we're ever supposed to be able to work together without killing someone."

    "I meant to ask Hermione," Harry admitted, annoyed with himself. "Somehow I never got around to it."

    "I did." Ron rummaged in one of his own bags and pulled out a bulky book. "She found this for me – I was reading it yesterday, but it doesn't make much sense. You were always stronger on charms work. See what you make of it."

    He gave it to Harry, who studied the cover doubtfully. Worn gold lettering said Circles And Cyclones: Using Wizardry In Combination And The Dangers Surrounding It. He glanced up at Ron, who had pulled out a smaller volume for himself - The Black Mirror: A History Of Clairvoyancy In The Dark Arts. It was tempting to ask questions about that, but Harry knew better than to ask Ron about certain aspects of the Sight. For one thing, he rarely understood the answers; and for another, there was a good chance that he might not like the answers.

    He turned back to his own book and opened it, immersing himself in the introduction.

    xXx

    One thing I believe may hold the key to the success of certain wizarding partnerships, and that is this: One wizard must provide the technical knowledge; one the power; and the third shall be the focus and amplifier for the whole. Certainly this would seem to have held true for the two wizarding circles of which I have been privileged to be a part –

    The book had been written by the late Nicholas Flamel in the 1800s, a man who certainly had unusual experience of wizard circles even before his collaboration with Albus Dumbledore and Claudius Clare in the mid-twentieth century. The bulk of it seemed to be a scholarly work covering the history of known wizard circles down the centuries. The practicalities of working in a circle took up less than three chapters, although Flamel did advance a few theories as to why such circles occurred so rarely.

    Like Dumbledore, Flamel believed that wizards were, by and large, born incapable of successfully melding their powers. Some of this, he theorised, was due to the natural incompatibility of one wizard's magical 'signature' with another's. But some of it also lay in the fact that compatible wizards might never meet each other; the odds of three (or, very rarely, more) compatible wizards all being in the same place at the same time were very small.

    Flamel also believed that there was an element of incompatibility between wizards spilling over into the personalities of those involved. There is no creativity without conflict, alas! he wrote at one point, before launching into a scathing (and, to Harry's mind, wholly irrelevant) attack upon the 'troublesome' personality of Gertrude Tickitt, one erstwhile member of his first wizard circle.

    Harry had to admit, though, that this particular theory fitted their current situation rather well, bearing in mind the long-standing hostilities between himself and Ron, and Malfoy. If conflict meant creativity, then he supposed it might even explain the feather bed.

    Flamel's final theory talked of that essential third wizard in the group, the one who focussed and amplified. He believed that such wizards were born very rarely, making wizard circles otherwise impossible. However, he didn't offer an explanation for this theory, leaving Harry suspicious and puzzled by it.

    If this theory was true, which of the three of them was the amplifier? Himself? Ron?
    Malfoy?

    It couldn't be a coincidence that the first, dangerous connection had been formed when Malfoy accidentally fell on top of him and Ron during the pillow-fight.

    Ron stirred and sighed then, interrupting Harry's train of thought. He looked up at his friend; he was putting a bookmark between the pages and closing the book. He glanced down at Harry and smiled.

    "Fancy some lunch? It's well past one o'clock."

    "Good idea." Harry closed his own book and sat up, swinging his legs to the floor.

    Ron gave a little sigh of relief, rubbing his thigh. "Ow! Dead leg ...."

    "Why didn't you say so before? I'd have moved."

    "No, it was nice."

    They exchanged silly grins and Harry stood up, grabbing his bag. He unzipped it and began pulling out plastic packets of sandwiches, bottles of cola and fruit.

    "I suppose I'd better go and see if his lordship will condescend to join us," Harry sighed. He squeezed past Ron, who was investigating the contents of Mrs. Weasley's basket, and walked out into the corridor.

    The train appeared to be making good progress. The countryside they were passing through had changed from an urban landscape into rolling fields interspersed with very occasional farmhouses and buildings. Not for the first time, Harry wondered exactly what part of the Scottish Highlands Hogwarts was located in, and what route the train took to get there. He had flown there once, and it was quite a performance; you had to set a specific location-finding spell into the broomstick's in-built compass and trust the broom to take over at the right moment. And it was rather disconcerting to be flying over Aberdeen one moment, and then suddenly be somewhere else entirely.

    Of course, he and Ron had flown there in Mr. Weasley's Ford Anglia once, following the train, but at twelve years old neither of them had thought of taking notes on the route.

    The carriage was swaying gently as he walked down the corridor, and Harry felt the usual silly amusement at the way the carriages swayed in opposite directions to each other as he crossed over the links. When he reached the first carriage, Malfoy was standing in the corridor. He had lowered one of the windows and was resting his folded arms on it, staring out morosely while a brisk draft whipped his pale blond hair around messily. He had stopped gelling his hair up while he had been living with Harry and the others (out of necessity, for while the Aurors would pay his board while he lived at the student house, they stopped short of paying for unnecessary luxuries like hair-gel) and the effect had taken some of the harsh edge from his overall appearance. Harry privately thought it suited him better, making him look less like an extra from The Godfather, but he doubted this very self-controlled individual would agree.

    Malfoy didn't look up when he approached, but he knew Harry was there.

    "What do you want, Potter?" His tone was cool, uncaring, and Harry had to wrestle with the urge to snap back.

    "Nothing. I came to see if you wanted some lunch."

    At this, Malfoy straightened and turned to look at him. One pale brow lifted. "Lunch?"

    "Yeah, you know – the meal you eat at midday. We've got some sandwiches and stuff if you're hungry."

    Malfoy managed to convey by body language alone that he wouldn't touch anything Harry and Ron were eating with a bargepole. "I'm not hungry."

    "Suit yourself. It's going to be a long journey though."

    "I do remember." The smooth voice dripped acid. "Why would you care?"

    "I don't. I care about having to drag your sorry, fainting backside up to the castle from Hogsmeade Station!" Harry made a disgusted sound in his throat and turned away, heading back down the carriage. Why had he even bothered? He was a nasty, ungrateful, spoiled brat who –

    THUMP.

    Harry stopped dead. What the hell was that? The noise had come from the roof of the carriage. He looked up, then turned around and looked at Malfoy. The blond youth was also looking up at the roof, puzzled.

    Thump, THUMP.

    The two of them stared at each other, wide-eyed. Then Malfoy glanced out of the carriage window. Harry's eyes followed his and saw what he was looking at. It was a brilliantly sunny day and the train was casting a dark shadow down the banks of the railway track as it moved.

    Three lumpy shadows moved on the roof of the carriage where none should have been.

    "Shit! CASPER!" Harry let out a roar that would have done a drill sergeant proud and pushed past Malfoy to try and get to the engine compartment. "Casper, we've got COMPANY!"

    "Oh great, tell them where we all are, will you?" Malfoy gasped. "Potter, where's my wand?"

    "Get out of my way, Malfoy!"

    "Potter!"

    Harry ignored him and wrenched the door open that led to the driver's compartment.

    There was no one there.

    He stared blankly for a split second, then stepped inside and looked around, disbelievingly. The cramped compartment was empty and there was no sign that anyone had ever been there. The train was hurtling along the tracks by itself.

    Harry came closer to having a panic attack in that moment than he ever had in his entire life. No driver. No senior Auror. The three of them stuck on a runaway express train with three or more probable Death Eaters on the roof – an express train that was set up with anti-Apparition spells to prevent silly Seventh Year pupils Apparating in and out of it for a joke.

    He pushed his way back out of the driver's compartment, feeling himself begin to shake inside. Malfoy was staring up at the ceiling again, his face as pale as the night they had found Pansy in his bed. He looked at Harry.

    "What are we going to do? Where's Prewett?"

    "I don't know." Harry had to force the words out around the Ben Nevis-sized lump in his throat. "He's not there. The driver's gone too."

    "What!"

    "We've got to get down the other end of the train."

    "You have to be kidding me – "

    "Ron's down there, you moron!" Harry tried to push past him, but Malfoy blocked the way.

    "Do you think I give a shit where your boyfriend is? We have to – "

    Harry grabbed him by the front of his robe and shook him violently. "It's him they're after! I'm not leaving him down there on his own! And your fucking wand's down there in my bag! Now shut UP and come on – "

    He all but threw Malfoy out of his way and began to run down the swaying corridor, his brain swimming with a thousand conflicting thoughts. He didn't have a clue what they were going to do; all he could think of was to get to Ron before the Death Eaters did.

    The door into the carriage exploded inwards with a burst of fireworks, sending glass and other shrapnel flying up the corridor. This time it was Malfoy who seized Harry and dragged him to safety in the nearest compartment.

    "Do something, Potter!"

    He pulled out his wand, but his mind was blank. Where the hell were all the defensive spells when you needed them? Malfoy was swearing unsteadily, his hands clamped painfully on Harry's shoulders.

    "Call yourself a fucking Auror – "

    They could hear footsteps coming up the carriage. Harry seriously considered breaking the window and escaping that way, but it was a dangerous drop from a fast moving train, Ron would still be left in the end carriage, and there was no way of knowing what was waiting on the roof. He raised his wand.

    And a spell came to him, a spell he couldn't ever remember having read about or learned.

    "Griffinaris!"

    Something big and golden exploded from the end of his wand, something with fur and feathers and wings – for a moment he thought it was a hippogriff, but it was less than a quarter of the size. It was a griffin, with the body of a small lion and the head and wings of an eagle. Its tail lashed angrily as it crouched on the floor of the compartment, and it opened its beak to let out an ear-shattering screech before it launched itself out of the door.

    There was a cry of alarm from the Death Eater, followed by a roar and a belch of flames from the griffin. The cries turned to shrieks and Harry could smell smoke and burning flesh.

    Malfoy released him, more than a little startled. "Bloody hell, Potter, how did you do that? I could never get that spell to work – "

    "Never mind!" Now was not the time to admit that he had no idea how he did it. "Let's get out of here while we have a chance – "

    The corridor was on fire and the griffin had created absolute mayhem. Two Death Eaters were rolling in agony on the floor of the corridor, burning fiercely, and the carriage was filling rapidly with smoke. The griffin was screeching, enraged, trying to find a way out of the tightly enclosed space.

    Coughing, Harry pointed his wand at the flames and managed to choke out "Pyrus finitum! Aquae!" The flames ignored his dampening spell, but a thick spray of water fountained from his wand, clearing a passage through them. Pulling his robe up around his head, Harry plunged through, jumping over the bodies of the two shrieking Death Eaters.

    The griffin now stood in the way of them getting from one carriage to another. The creature was crouching low on the floor, staring at Harry with weird amber eyes and emitting a hair-raising growl. Harry levelled his wand at it warily.

    "Finite incantatum!"

    The griffin let out a startling roar and spewed flames at him; he flattened himself against the wall of the carriage just in time, but the hem of Malfoy's robes caught fire and he had to put the flames out with some agitated flapping. His language was appalling.

    "Potter, do something!"

    "Will you stop saying that? I don't notice you making any fancy moves!" Harry did the only thing he could think of and spat a curse at the nearest window, blasting the glass out of it. A sharp wind barrelled through, fanning the flames. "Go on, dammit – fly out the window! Get lost!"

    The griffin bounded towards the source of breeze, still screeching, and scrambled up to the window. For a moment it clung to the edge of the frame, feathers ruffling, then with a final shriek it launched itself out and flew away.

    Harry bolted for the door out of the carriage, with Malfoy at his heels, and leapt across the link to the next. There was at least one Death Eater left, possibly more – he had to get to Ron. They charged down the corridor and were just reaching the next door when Harry heard scrabbling on the roof above.

    "Shit ...."

    Making your way down the roof of a moving train could not be easy, as this Death Eater was evidently discovering. If Harry could get to him while he was still on the roof, it might swing the advantage their way and give Ron and Malfoy a chance to escape.

    He swung around and grabbed Malfoy.

    "Listen to me and don't argue," he said. "I'm going to distract the bloke – or blokes – on the roof. While I'm doing that, I want you to go into the next carriage to Ron and get your wand. Then I want the pair of you to separate the end carriage from the rest of the train. Got it?"

    Malfoy gaped at him. "You want – are you mad? Separate the carriages? What for?"

    Harry badly wanted to slap the little git for wasting time. Hanging onto his patience with a thread, he explained, "When the end carriage is separated, it'll lose momentum and come to a halt. Then you and Ron can get the hell out of there and Apparate to safety. Understand?"

    "But – "

    "This train has no driver, Malfoy! It's going to crash – maybe not immediately, but very soon. This at least gives you and Ron a chance to escape."

    "And what are you going to do, oh wise one?" Malfoy demanded acidly.

    "I'll think of something, dammit. Once I'm on the roof, I can Apparate too."

    "Always supposing our friends out there give you the option!" Malfoy's breath was coming very quickly, and the sarcasm was suddenly gone, leaving only earnestness behind in his face. "Harry, this isn't a game – those men are not joking. If they can't capture you, they will kill you and without the slightest hesitation. Voldemort doesn't care anymore if he gets you alive or not."

    "If I'm dead I won't care either," Harry retorted and shoved the other youth towards the door. "Now go!"

    Malfoy looked like he might argue for a moment, but then he shook his head and wrenched the door open, plunging into the next carriage.

    Harry watched him go, and braced himself for what he had to do next.

    xXx

    Now that he was poised to do it, Harry wasn't quite sure how he was going to get out of the carriage and onto the roof. The linkages between the carriages weren't like the ones on the trains in old movies, which were open; these were enclosed. Short of separating the carriages himself, Harry couldn't get out that way, and he didn't want to give the man on the roof enough warning that he could jump from one carriage to the next.

    So he was going to have to go out of the window. A breath of hot air and smoke warned him that the fire in the first carriage was beginning to spread to the second, and it gave him the extra motivation he needed to get moving.

    Levelling his wand at the nearest window, he murmured a soft disintegration charm. The glass crumbled into powder, leaving the frame empty and a brisk wind whipping through it. Harry leaned out of it precariously and looked up; there was a kind of ridge or guttering a couple of inches below roof level that might make a sufficient hand-hold. He ducked back into the carriage long enough to strip off his robe, which would only hamper his movements, stuck his wand securely into the waistband of his jeans, then pulled himself back out of the window frame.

    The scramble that followed made him grateful that the Aurors put almost as much emphasis on physical training as they did on magical. Harry was young, fit and strong and had no fear of speed or heights, but this was unlike anything he had ever tried to do before. Trying to claw his way onto the roof of the carriage with the howling pressure of the wind battering at him and few hand-holds was beyond terrifying. Later he couldn't remember exactly how he managed it, for getting hold of the guttering was one thing but finding somewhere to put his feet was another entirely.

    Somehow he managed it and dragged himself onto the roof. Then it was another battle to stay there. There were no hand-holds whatsoever, apart from a kind of ventilation chimney halfway down the carriage, and the wind pressure was incredible. He had to flatten himself against the roof just to prevent himself being blown off, and he was sure that one sharpish bend would see him thrown off anyway.

    Ahead of him was the Death Eater he was looking for. Harry assumed he was using something like the Sticky-Foot charm, because although the wind was buffeting him viciously, he was upright and preparing to leap from the second carriage to the third.

    Harry lifted his head and shouted to distract him. The wind whipped the words away at once, but the man must have heard something for he turned to look. The sudden grin on his face suggested that he found Harry's prone position very amusing.

    Laugh it up, Harry thought grimly as he tried to drag himself up enough to get at his wand. Laugh as much as you like, so long as it gives the others time to escape.

    He managed to raise himself enough to get his wand out before he flopped gracelessly back onto his belly, clinging to the smooth surface of the carriage roof with the bare fingertips of his left hand and the toes of his shoes.

    I bet Buster Keaton never had this problem.

    The appearance of a wand wiped the smile from his adversary's face. Abandoning any plans to jump carriages, the Death Eater turned to face Harry, swaying uncertainly with the movement of the train and the pressure of the wind.

    Of course, Buster Keaton had the scriptwriters on his side ....

    He managed to mutter the Sticky-Foot charm and dragged his knees up under him. The Death Eater levelled his wand at him. Harry was willing to bet that he wasn't about to conjure a flock of doves for his entertainment and made a supreme - and very risky - effort to get his right foot under himself.

    The Death Eater shouted something he couldn't hear because of the wind.

    Harry's right foot locked onto the smooth surface beneath him and gave him enough stability to sit up and raised his wand arm.

    Too late.

    The curse, a bright yellow blur, whirled towards him like a Catherine-wheel, moving far too fast to be deflected. Harry had one thought fixed in his mind as he braced himself for its impact: At least it's not the Avada Kedavra curse -

    It struck him like a pile-driver, knocking him onto his back with one foot still stuck to the roof and the other painfully bent beneath him. A familiar acid-burn tingle travelled across his limbs.

    Full body-bind - he wants to disable me -

    There was a counter-curse. Unfortunately it had to be cast before the hex struck.
    Then the tingling vanished. Harry, expecting to be numb from head to foot, was startled. Hey, what?

    The curse hadn't worked.

    Don't question it! Just lie still - he'll be coming to check on you any minute -

    Harry forced himself to lie there rigidly - not easy with the jolting of the train - and wait. He couldn't hear a damn thing other than the whistling wind and rattle of the carriage on the tracks. He wondered anxiously if Ron and Malfoy had managed to get away.

    This was reminiscent of one of those training exercises he had told Malfoy about; the one where Ron had played the Death Eater and nearly caught Harry by pretending a stunning spell had hit him when it hadn't.

    Harry had almost fallen for it … almost, but not quite.

    A shadow fell across him, and Harry reacted without even consciously thinking about it. His wand whipped up to point at the man standing over him -

    "STUPEFY!"

    The curse was so close-range that it hurled the Death Eater backwards, wrenching him off his magically-assisted feet. Harry, scrambling to pull himself upright from the awkward position he lay in, was just in time to see the stunned body roll from the top of the train and crash into the thick bushes that lined the railway track on either side. In a split second it was left behind.

    Bugger.

    He would have liked another trussed up Death Eater to present to Moody to soften the old Auror's inevitable rant at him. Harry was in no doubt that his performance this time was pretty poor.

    He managed to get both feet beneath him and looked down the length of the carriage towards the end; to his relief the third carriage had been separated and was slowly drifting away from its companions. Two figures were standing precariously in the doorway and Harry could see that Ron was shouting, although he couldn't hear a word of it because of the wind. He looked nearly frantic.

    Seconds later, Harry realised why. Flames were roaring out of the carriage windows, and the first carriage was an inferno. He needed to get off the train, and quickly.

    Fortunately, that was no longer a problem.

    Chapter Text

    "YOU STUPID BASTARD, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING, DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW FRIGHTENED I WAS, YOU COULD HAVE GOT YOURSELF KILLED – "

    It was at times like this that Harry was forcibly reminded that Ron got half his genes from Molly Weasley – presumably the ones involved in voice and self expression, since the tone of this maximum decibel rant was remarkably like that of some of the Howlers Ron had received from his mother when they were at school.

    Unfortunately, Ron was not several hundred miles away and expressing himself via an exploding red envelope. He was standing right next to Harry and unabashedly yelling at him in front of five other people, one of whom was Professor Dumbledore. The headmaster was placidly sitting behind the desk in his office, studying one of his peculiar little whirling machines in front of him and twiddling his thumbs, waiting for Ron to get it all off his chest.

    Ron had a lot to get off his chest, and he wasn't finished yet.

    " – YOU COULDN'T JUST ESCAPE LIKE ANYONE ELSE, OH NO, YOU HAD TO CLIMB ON THE ROOF OF THE TRAIN AND ACT LIKE A BLOODY HERO – "

    It seemed to go on for a very long time. When he finally ran out of breath, Harry winced and said rather weakly, "Don't go on at me."

    For a moment he thought Ron might spontaneously combust, but Hagrid suddenly put one huge hand on the angry redhead's shoulder and gave him a gentle shake, nearly knocking him over.

    "Give over, now, Ron," he said gruffly, "yeh said yer piece."

    "Yes, indeed," Dumbledore said gently. "Very impressive. I'm sure Harry is quite chastened and won't – ah – climb on the roof of any express trains again."

    "I wouldn't bet on it," Ron said sourly, casting a searing look at his friend.

    "Hear hear," Sirius said, equally dry, and giving his godson an eloquent glance.

    Harry wished that he had the energy to feel a proper level of indignation. Instead, he was feeling wrung-out and really wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep.

    Escaping from the train, he had Apparated to Hogsmeade and then run to the nearest point in the Hogwarts grounds, which happened to be Hagrid's hut (which was why the gamekeeper was here now). Hagrid had alerted Dumbledore and taken Harry up to the castle where, a couple of hours later, Moody and Sirius had appeared bringing with them Ron and Malfoy.

    Harry assumed the pair of them had Apparated to Diagon Alley; in fact, Ron had refused to let Malfoy have his wand and when the third carriage finally slowed to a halt in the middle of nowhere, he had no choice but to summon the Knight Bus to rescue them. Moody and Sirius had caught up with the pair of them in Hogsmeade.

    "I think the important detail here is that all three of you are safe," Dumbledore pointed out reprovingly. "The team sent out to deal with the Hogwarts Express have reported back that they were able to stop it before it crashed, which is an excellent result. It's unfortunate that two of the carriages were destroyed, but the third has been recovered, and frankly I think that under the circumstances you once again all escaped lightly. Things could have been much, much worse."

    "What about Casper Prewett and the driver?" Harry asked, before anyone else could say anything.

    There was a pause, and both Moody and Sirius looked grim.

    "We've found them," Moody said abruptly.

    Harry looked at his face and realised, with a sinking feeling, that he didn't want to ask further. But Ron didn't take the hint.

    "So?" he demanded. "What happened? I thought the whole point of Casper being on the train was to prevent something like that happening!"

    "Prewett and the driver are dead," Sirius told him curtly. "They were dumped in Knockturn Alley around midday - we don't know exactly when, because we were a little busy at the time."

    "Oh God," Harry muttered, guessing what was coming. "What happened?"

    "A series of timed explosions around key buildings in Diagon Alley," Moody replied, "notably the Ministry building and Gringotts, although some of the retailers were hit as well. Mostly people known to publicly support Dumbledore. The Leaky Cauldron was hit, and Florian Fortescue's - there were a couple of devices left near Ollivander's, but he found them before they went off. He's too canny to be caught out like that."

    "It was Ollivander who raised the alarm," Sirius put in. "It would have been a lot worse if he hadn't."

    Very pale, Ron turned to Moody. "What about Fred and George? Was their shop …?"
    There was another difficult pause, and Sirius reached out to clasp his shoulder, but Ron wasn't having it and pulled away.

    "What happened to them?" he demanded. "Are they okay? What about my Dad and Percy?"

    "They're all fine," Moody said, with more kindness than was his wont. "The twins' shop was targeted and there was a bad fire, but they escaped. One of them had some minor burns and they both got a bad dose of the smoke, but they'll be alright."
    "What about their business?" Harry asked Sirius quietly, but the older wizard shook his head.

    "They weren't the only ones to lose their livelihood," Dumbledore said heavily. "Fortunately no one was killed, which is more important than mere property."

    Try telling that to Fred and George, Harry thought bleakly. The twins' business had just started to show serious profits; if they had to start again from scratch, they might have problems getting backing for the venture. And in times like this, getting a loan from Gringotts would be difficult.

    "This could be a good thing for you," Malfoy said unexpectedly, and the group jumped slightly at the sound of his voice. He had been keeping notably quiet on the fringe of the conversation. He saw their faces and raised a brow. "Well, at least that fool Fudge can't keep this out of the press any longer. How on earth is he going to explain away mayhem and destruction in the wizarding world's main commercial centre? Especially since Gringotts and the Ministry were attacked?"

    "He has the Daily Prophet in his pocket," Ron said disgustedly. "They'll print what he tells them to - even that stupid Skeeter cow."

    Harry looked at the others. "Were any of the newspaper offices targeted?"

    There was a tiny pause, and he could have sworn his saw a ghost of a smile on Moody's lips.

    "The Magical Times and Sorcery Gazette," the old Auror said.

    "But not the Prophet?"

    "They found one device that didn't go off."

    The look Malfoy gave them was knowing. "But of course they did!" he said silkily. "They wouldn't want to be left out of the news, would they? Might look suspicious."

    "The Daily Prophet has never been proven to have any incriminating links with Lord Voldemort's cause," Dumbledore said mildly.

    "My father was a major shareholder in the Prophet," Malfoy retorted. "The best you can say of their board of directors is that they're ineffectual, trapped between Fudge's hysterical need to keep a lid on Death Eater activity and the Dark Lord's determination to have staff in place there who are sympathetic to his interests. You should look more closely at their offices. The editor has been in two camps for some time now, and at least two of the most recent senior management level appointments are Death Eaters. The Sports Editor, for example."

    "Quentin McGann played for the Ballycastle Bats for six years before he retired with an injury!" Ron said, a little indignantly. "No one's ever accused him of having Dark sympathies!"

    "Doesn't mean he hasn't got them. He was a guest at Malfoy Manor on a number of occasions, and judging by the tone of the after-dinner conversation, he was quite comfortable with the idea of the current order being overthrown." Malfoy sighed. "Look, the Daily Prophet is the most prominent English wizarding newspaper. The Dark Lord has been placing staff there because in the event that he takes over, he wants the Prophet to be his mouthpiece. No other press agency has the circulation or influence that they do in the wizarding world; no other newspaper is so well placed to spread propaganda."

    Moody was looking at Dumbledore. "I've been saying that for years," he commented.

    The elderly headmaster gave him a warning look. "And as I keep saying, Alastor, we have to be careful exactly which organisations we accuse of collaborating without hard evidence. Fudge's embargo on publicising Death Eater activity in any way, and his opposition to the Aurors, make it imperative that we act with circumspection. Don't forget that it is only a few years ago that he proposed disbanding the Facility altogether. We weathered that storm, but we may not be so lucky a second time, especially considering the political direction of the Ministry these days. Ms. Houpner-Merdie is unlikely to support our cause."

    "There's still the Order," Moody said cryptically, "and I'd rather put my trust in them anyway."

    The Order of the Phoenix, Harry thought, Dumbledore's hand-picked and covert version of the Dark Force Defence League.

    "The Order has no official status, and hence no legal powers," Dumbledore said, with a note of finality in his voice. "Officially, it does not even exist. I maintain that wherever possible Voldemort's activities should be countered legally and openly - this battle will not be won by responding to his actions with yet more atrocities of our own making, and then attempting to cover them up. Two men died on the Hogwarts Express today. That they did so is not the fault of Harry or Ron or Draco, and I have no doubts that the case for self-defence will be irreproachable, but we must remember that where possible our enemies should be brought to justice alive and in reasonable health. The taking of human life for whatever reason is a terrible thing and should be avoided at all costs. I believe that you have always been of one mind with me in this, Alastor."

    "Oh, I'm with you on upholding the due processes of the law," Moody retorted, "but you'll agree that the circumstances are a little different this time around, Albus. Whole sections of our community are sitting ducks, while Fudge sticks his head in the sand and people like the editor of the Prophet pretty much parrot whatever line Voldemort fancies feeding them. What good is due process going to do them if the Minister himself is denying there's a problem? Everyone knows Voldemort's back, but in nearly seven years I've yet to see one official acknowledgement of that fact. Fudge is still calling it a "maybe" situation, and our hands are tied. The law says bearing the Dark Mark is evidence enough to convict any Death Eater, but the truth is that we daren't bring charges against a single man or woman unless they're caught red-handed using one of the Unforgivable Curses. We couldn't bring charges against young Malfoy here, and he's Lucius Malfoy's own son - who we do have proof against, but who someone in our own ranks allowed to escape!"

    "Scary, isn't it, having double agents in your midst?" Malfoy said, in his familiar tone of honeyed poison. He smiled at the other men, blithely ignoring the blistering glares sent his way by Hagrid, Ron and Sirius.

    "Shut up, Malfoy," replied Harry, very wearily, before anyone else could say anything. He looked at Dumbledore almost pleadingly. "Professor ...."

    "One moment, Harry." Dumbledore looked at the others. "Gentlemen, is that all? Our young friends here need to settle into their rooms and get some rest."

    "I'll be wanting reports from Potter and Weasley," Moody warned. "In depth reports."

    "What, not from me?" Malfoy mocked, and froze as the old Auror's magical eye suddenly swivelled around to pin him against the edge of the headmaster's desk.
    Moody leaned in towards him and smiled nastily. "Oh, I'm particularly looking forward to your report on this, laddie." There was a tense pause, then he straightened up again and nodded to Sirius. "Come on, Black. We've work to do. Albus, I'll be seeing you again ...."

    "Thank you, Alastor," Dumbledore said soberly, watching the other man stump to the door. "Be careful."

    Sirius nodded to the headmaster. "I'll be back tomorrow to pick up their reports, Albus." He looked across at Harry and sighed. "Harry – "

    "Yeah, I know." Harry pushed his hair back from his face tiredly. "I'll try to stay alive, Sirius."

    "You make it sound like such a chore," his godfather said irritably.

    "No, endlessly fighting off Death Eaters is a chore," Harry retorted sourly. "Staying alive is just one of those things."

    Sirius shook his head, but evidently decided to let the subject drop, for he stalked to the door without another word, clapping Hagrid on the shoulder in passing.

    Dumbledore looked at the half-giant when the other men were gone. "Thank you, Hagrid."

    "Not a problem, Professor," Hagrid replied. He sounded quite cheerful and unconcerned. "All's well that end's well, so they say."

    A trace of a smile crossed the elderly professor's lips at this. "Quite."

    "I'll be off, then. Make sure yeh come an' see me while yer 'ere, Harry." Hagrid clapped him on the back, nearly flattening him, and nodded to Ron. "An' yeh, Ron." He ignored Malfoy and headed for the door.

    When he was gone, Dumbledore looked at the three of them for a moment and heaved a quiet sigh.

    "Well, gentlemen, at least you arrived here safely and in one piece, so to speak. Now, rooms have been prepared for you in Gryffindor Tower – I suggest you use this evening to settle in and rest. After you have written your reports for Alastor in the morning, we will start work."

    Harry heaved an inner sigh of relief and picked up his bags (which Ron had rescued from their carriage before he and Malfoy abandoned it). Ron followed suit.

    But Dumbledore hadn't finished. "Ron, Draco, would you mind waiting in my outer office for a moment? I'd like a word with Harry."

    Ron exchanged a quick, puzzled look with Harry but led Malfoy out obediently.
    Leaving Harry alone with the headmaster.

    xXx

    Harry had so much been in the habit of blurting out whatever was on his mind to Professor Dumbledore when he was at school, that it was perhaps no wonder that he should do exactly the same now. Two things had been bothering him a great deal from the moment Hagrid had ushered him into the room, and one of them came tumbling out of his mouth as soon as the door had closed behind Ron.

    "Professor, where's Fawkes?"

    Dumbledore, who had been looking rather sombre, suddenly smiled, his eyes twinkling behind his half-moon spectacles.

    "He's hiding in my private rooms, Harry. He hasn't quite recovered all his feathers from his last Burning Day yet, and between the two of us, I think he's ashamed of showing himself while he looks so untidy. You know how vain he is."

    Harry smiled back, relieved. It would have felt like a terrible omen had something happened to the phoenix just as it looked like Voldemort was preparing to up the ante in his campaign.

    Then the smile slipped, and the other problem came bubbling back up in his chest. "I'm going to make a lousy Auror, aren't I?"

    Dumbledore studied him for a moment, his head tilted slightly to one side. "Why do you say that, Harry?"

    "I have to be the first person in recent history to nearly destroy the Hogwarts Express ...."

    "You are forgetting that Voldemort actually managed to derail the train at the beginning of the last school year," the headmaster pointed out mildly. "Under normal circumstances the carriages would not have been set alight, of course, but you might give some consideration to the ultimate fate of the Hogwarts Express had the Death Eaters succeeded in removing the three of you from the train. My personal feeling is that it would have been derailed and set alight anyway, which would have distracted us from searching for you for some time."

    He paused for a moment, still studying Harry thoughtfully. "And you still haven't explained to me why you think this incident makes you a bad Auror."

    "It's not just this," Harry sighed. "It's my overall performance. I seem to spend most of my time reacting to the things that happen to me – "

    "Hardly unreasonable. A great deal 'happens' to you."

    " – And I seem to make really stupid judgement calls. Ron was right about me climbing onto the roof of the carriage. It was an idiotic thing to do. I should have gone into the end carriage with Malfoy, and we could have tackled the final Death Eater between the three of us."

    "Sit down," Dumbledore said gently.

    Harry wasn't sure he wanted to – he had a strong urge to pace, which you couldn't do in one of the professor's comfy armchairs – but although it had been couched in the gentlest way, it was clearly an order. He took the nearest chair and Dumbledore sat down opposite him with a soft sigh.

    "Harry, if you have one overriding fault, it is that you have so little faith in yourself. I have often observed this in you in the past. You also seem to have a worrying lack of value for yourself. Tell me, what led you to conclude that climbing onto the roof of the train was the most viable option?"

    "I was hoping to distract the last Death Eater and prevent him getting at Ron and Malfoy," Harry said promptly, then paused and sighed. "No, that's not quite right. I was more worried about Ron. I wasn't sure he even knew what was going on, and I was afraid it was him they were targeting."

    "Fair enough reasoning as it goes, but I'm curious as to why you assumed either of your companions would be a more interesting target than yourself."

    Harry blinked. "Well, we know that Voldemort is less interested in getting hold of me these days – "

    "No, Harry, we have the word of one highly biased individual that Lord Voldemort is less interested in you," the professor said gently. "I have no doubt that young Draco's account of Voldemort's interest in Ron is quite true. Equally, I have no doubts of Draco's own fears of being recaptured. But you seem to have forgotten that he is also someone who spent seven of his more formative years locked in intense rivalry with you. While it is admirable of you to have put aside your prejudices against him, you would be wise to look at some of his information with a very careful eye and consider whether his prejudices might not have led him to ... twist the facts a little."

    "But he gave us that information under veritaserum!"

    "Which will only tell us if the subject is telling the truth. Truth, you know, can be rather subjective, especially when it is only seen from one man's viewpoint. Draco believes you to be of less interest to Voldemort. Whether that is truly the case or not remains to be seen. After so many years, I personally would prefer to err on the side of caution."

    Harry sagged slightly in his chair, rather grateful that considerations like this had not been plaguing his mind on the train. He wasn't sure what he would have done, although he suspected that his first instinct would still have been to protect Ron, and he said as much to Dumbledore, feeling his face heat up uncomfortably even as he admitted it.

    The professor gave him a curious little smile. "Well, the young do tend to love rather fiercely. I see nothing wrong in that. You should, perhaps, try to remember that he is as capable of protecting himself as you are, though."

    Unsure what to say to this, Harry fell silent until Dumbledore suddenly said, "Might I ask you something? How did you come by that pendant you're wearing?"

    "Ron gave it to me for my birthday," Harry replied, a little surprised.

    "Interesting. May I ...?"

    "Of course. " He fumbled with the chain, fingers searching for the clasp, but he couldn't find it. "Damn. He said the catch was fiddly."

    "No, don't take it off." Dumbledore leaned forward and carefully lifted the odd little gold wishbone shape on one fingertip. "Intriguing ... unusual shape." He released it and watched as Harry tucked it back inside the neck of his shirt, where it was normally hidden. "Well, I had better let you go. You need to rest."

    Harry picked up his things and headed for the door. At the last moment, however, Dumbledore's voice made him turn back.

    "Harry? The curse the third Death Eater cast at you – what was it?"

    "A full body-bind," he replied. "It didn't work, for some reason – I felt it hit me, but it seemed to dissipate without taking effect."

    The professor was looking very thoughtful. "Indeed? Yes ... very intriguing."

    xXx

    "Are you going to get out of there anytime soon?"

    Harry started awake with a jolt and a yell, and nearly drowned himself in the process.

    "Bloody hell, Ron!" he spluttered, wiping foam out of his eyes. "Don't do that ...."

    Ron was standing just inside the door of the main Gryffindor boys' bathroom, staring at him in exasperation. "You shouldn't fall asleep in the bath, you idiot!"

    "It's not like I meant to," Harry muttered.

    He slumped back against the warm porcelain of the tub and tried to get his breathing to slow down. He was thick-headed and dopey from the interrupted nap. He had been desperate for a bath when they finally made it to Gryffindor Tower, and sinking into the deep, hot, foamy water had been sheer bliss.

    "How long have I been here?" he asked. The water was still hot, but that didn't mean anything. The tubs in all the bathrooms were charmed to prevent the water going cold.

    "Nearly an hour," Ron huffed. He closed the bathroom door and tossed a selection of clean clothes onto a nearby bench. "Dobby brought dinner up twenty minutes ago."

    "Crap. I'll have to go down to the kitchens later. I've got some stuff for the kids."

    Harry was in the extraordinary position of being the first known human godparent to a House-elf – or House-elves to be more precise. Dobby had married (if that was the correct term in the House-elf culture) a female called Ticksy just before Harry left Hogwarts, and they now had four children. He took his responsibilities as godfather seriously, although he wasn't able to visit them nearly as often as he would like.

    "Leave it until the morning," Ron scolded, sounding eerily like his mother. "Dobby won't mind. He'll just be grateful to see you whenever you turn up."

    "That's hardly the point." He rotated his head and winced, hissing slightly. "Yeeow! I think I strained a few things on that blasted train."

    "Serves you right." Ron watched him trying to rub his own shoulders for a moment, and rolled his eyes. He began to strip his clothes off, making Harry blink and peer at him interestedly.

    "Very nice. Should I whistle some appropriate striptease music?"

    "You're such a comedian. Budge up a bit."

    "Good thing these bathtubs are big," Harry commented, but he wriggled forward enough that Ron could slide in behind him.

    The water rolled up to the rim of the bathtub like a miniature tidal-wave and heavy dollops of foam slopped over the side. Harry made a quick grab for a frantically quacking rubber-duck that was being washed perilously close to the edge of the tub.

    "Is it me, or are you getting taller?" he demanded, as his partner's long legs stretched out on either side of him.

    "I hope not," Ron said shortly. "It's hard enough getting jeans that fit now." He settled his back against the curve of the bath with a sigh and pulled Harry back against him so that he could rub his shoulders properly for him.

    "Not a problem I suffer from," Harry grumbled. "Unfortunately." His lack of inches was a sore point. He barely scraped five foot six on a good day; by contrast, Ron was six foot two at the last measuring.

    "There's nothing wrong with your height."

    "Except that I'm practically a midget. Everyone is taller than me, including Hermione and even Malfoy, and I never thought that would happen – he was always such a short-assed little git at school."

    Ron snickered softly. "You know what Mum says – it's not the inches the matter, it's the way you carry them."

    "Yeah, but she only says that when she's putting one of you in your place!" Harry grinned reluctantly. "Usually followed by the bit about how none of you are so tall that she can't still put you across her knee and spank you."

    "True. Doesn't mean she's not right, though." To Harry's mild surprise, he felt Ron drop a kiss on the crown of his head. "Did you wash your hair? It still smells smoky."

    "That's nothing compared to my clothes. I'm amazed Dumbledore let me anywhere near his office smelling like that." Harry yelped as Ron found a sore knot in the middle of his shoulder blades.

    "I brought you some clean stuff."

    "Thanks," he gasped, fighting the urge to twist away from the kneading fingers.

    "Can't have you wandering around in a towel. Malfoy might get the wrong idea."

    "He'd probably be horrified. And he'd be even more horrified if he knew what you're doing now – " Ron's right foot was rubbing gently up and down his calf, as if to distract him from the pleasure/pain of the massage.

    If he expected Ron to snigger at the comment, he was disappointed. His partner's tone was oddly thoughtful as he said, "You think? I reckon he might surprise you."

    Harry thought back uneasily to Malfoy's strange reaction, during their chess game, when he asked him if Ron's suspicions had any basis in reality. "I hope not. That's the last thing I want to deal with right now. Besides, what makes you say that?"

    "His reaction, when he told me you were trying to distract that Death Eater so we could get away. I was so mad myself that I didn't notice it immediately, but he said a lot of stuff while we were on the Knight Bus that I'm sure he didn't mean to say."

    "Such as?"

    "Nothing you need to hear. But how I didn't smack him for it, I'll never know. I had fun telling him what I thought of him, though." Ron chuckled softly. "They were glad to turn us off the bus at Hogsmeade."

    "Shit," Harry muttered. "Remus warned me a while ago that he might just be latching onto me because I've been nice to him. Just what we both wanted – a needy Malfoy with a crush on me."

    "Since when have you been nice to him lately?" Ron demanded, a laugh in his voice. "If you're not tormenting him with your sex life, you're throwing him into the nearest wall or shouting at him."

    "Not intentionally." Harry propped one elbow on the rim of the tub and rubbed at his brow fretfully. His scar was itching; he hoped it wasn't an omen of something nasty to come. "I've been trying to be fair with him, but just lately I seem to be getting pissed off a lot quicker than usual."

    "Has it occurred to you that you've had more reason to be pissed off?" Ron's fingers eased off his neck and slid up into his hairline, moving in gentle circles. "Look, don't worry about Malfoy. He's not going to try anything – I told him exactly what I'd do to him if he did, and turning him into a ferret is just the tip of the iceberg."

    Harry felt his muscles going slack in spite of himself, but perversely he fought it. "This isn't going to be a very relaxing couple of weeks, is it?"

    "Depends on what you call relaxing. Me, I'm planning to make the most of our spare time." Ron's lips brushed the outer curve of his ear gently.

    Harry sighed, but tried not to let the sensation distract him. It was difficult; Ron was very single-minded where certain things were concerned. "So why did you catch the Knight Bus, anyway? You could have Apparated if you'd – "

    "Harry." Warm breath tickled his neck.

    "Hm?"

    "You have this really annoying habit of talking about serious stuff when I'm trying to seduce you. Stop it."

    xXx

    Harry awoke early the next morning, despite his exhaustion of the night before. Weak, early morning light was trickling through a gap in the curtains and there was a chorus of birdsong outside.

    He sat up on one elbow and looked around. The bed was vast but to Harry's amusement he saw that Ron was still trying to spread himself across the full width. Predictably, he was still sleeping like the dead, and after a moment or two Harry left him there and got up.

    The three of them had been lodged at the top of Gryffindor Tower, in a suite of rooms above the dormitories that most certainly had not been there when Harry and Ron were at school. In between the bedrooms was a miniature common room, with a table and chairs and three deep, squashy armchairs over by the window. They also had use of the main common room downstairs and the bathrooms.

    Harry glanced over at Malfoy's room as he walked out, but the door was shut tight and everything was still. He picked up his broom from where he had left it under the table with Ron's the night before, gave it a quick once-over to ensure nothing had happened to it in the excitement of the previous day, then headed downstairs at a brisk walk. It was too nice a morning not to take a broom-ride around the castle.

    The crisp morning air was glorious. Harry took off from a little side courtyard near the rose gardens and commenced a leisurely sweep around the entire circumference of the castle: past the big greenhouses where Professor Sprout taught Herbology; up and around the tall Astronomy Tower that was Professor Sinistra's domain; around to the other tall tower where Professor Trelawney taught Divination; past Professor Dumbledore's offices and residence; ducking and diving in and around the many other lesser towers and over the inner courtyards. As always, he marvelled at how the school could look exactly the same on the outside as it ever did, while its inner dimensions sometimes seemed to change so radically.

    Somewhere along the way he suddenly realised that he had picked up a companion. Thinking it was Ron he glanced back to the other rider, grinning, only for the smile to slide from his face when he saw a wind-ruffled shock of white-blond hair.

    Great, just great. Malfoy was not someone he felt like sharing a cosy broomflight with this morning. And where had he got a broom from? If he had pinched Ron's Tsunami ….

    Annoyed, Harry dropped back until he was level with Malfoy. The other youth raised a casual brow at him and calmly dropped into 'cruise' mode so that the pair of them could talk without having to pay undue attention to their speed or direction. Harry followed suit and sat back on his broom, folding his arms. Malfoy's equally easy balance upped his irritation level. He had always been a good rider - not, perhaps, up to Harry's standard in his first year as Slytherin Seeker, but later Quidditch matches between their respective teams had always been a battlefield. In his more honest moments with himself, Harry acknowledged that he would never have become the Seeker he was had it not been for the level of competition Malfoy had provided.

    "Where'd you get the broom, Malfoy?"

    The blond youth raised both brows. "It's mine, of course. You don't recognise my old Nimbus 2001? I left it here when I finished school - I didn't think I'd need it again."

    Now that he mentioned it, Harry recognised the neat shape of the old Nimbus line. His temper cooled, but only by a fraction.

    "Why, what did you think it was - Weasley's new firecracker?" Malfoy asked, eerily echoing his thoughts. It was his turn to look annoyed. "Thanks, Potter. I'm not a common thief yet and besides, I value my skin a little more than that."

    "There's not much I'd put past you," Harry retorted, "especially if you thought it might be worth a cheap dig at Ron."

    "Cheap digs are all he can afford! You're not going to tell me that he bought and paid for that broom." Malfoy cast a contemptuous glance at Harry's Tsunami which, unfortunately for him, did not conceal the gleam of Quidditch player's lust in his eyes. "My God, Potter - two of them? That probably cleaned out even your notoriously bottomless vault at Gringotts."

    It hadn't, but Harry wasn't about to tell Malfoy how the owner of Quality Quidditch Supplies had fallen over himself to work out a good deal for the famous Harry Potter. Being able to drop into a conversation with a prospective customer that Harry had bought two of the new brooms - better still, being able to tell the Nimbus manufacturers that he had - would do wonders for the man's business, and for once Harry himself hadn't objected to the idea.

    Not when it meant that he'd got one of the brooms for nearly half its asking price, anyway.

    "Jealous, Malfoy?"

    It was a stupid question, and had he been thinking a little more carefully Harry would never have asked it. The look that Malfoy gave him in response said a whole lot of things that he didn't want to hear.

    "Not of Weasley's broom," Malfoy replied very deliberately, and with that he knocked his broom back into normal flight mode and took off, turning in a steep curve and heading back the way he'd come.

    Shaken, Harry preferred to swoop down to the main front courtyard and dismount, walking back to Gryffindor Tower and Ron.

    xXx

    To his surprise Ron was not only awake, but also dressed and seated at the table, with a sheet of parchment in front of him and a quill in his hand. He smiled when Harry walked in, but had obviously been chewing the end of his quill pensively.

    Harry checked his broom over again and put it back into its carry-case, before joining him at the table. There was a stack of clean parchment in the middle of the table, along with a bottle of ink and several other quills.

    "What are you doing?"

    "Starting that report for Moody." Ron put the quill down, and eyed the blank sheet in front of him sourly. "I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say – Upon Malfoy's entering the carriage with news of the attack, I proceeded to panic?"

    Harry grinned. "Having nothing to say won't get you off the hook!" He pulled a sheet of parchment towards him and picked up a quill. "I suppose I'd better start mine, if Sirius is collecting them later."

    "Good thinking." Ron watched him load the quill with ink and write his name neatly at the top of the sheet. "Good flight?"

    "Yes, it's a nice morning. You should have come."

    "Got up too late. Did you see Malfoy? He headed out of here with an old Nimbus about twenty minutes ago ...."

    Harry put the quill down and propped one elbow on the table, resting his chin on his hand. He looked pensively out of the window. "Yeah, I saw him. Actually, I practically accused him of pinching your broom."

    "Oh?" Ron was grinning.

    "Hm .... Then we did the I don't need his broom/You're just jealous routine and he finished up by saying that it wasn't your broom he was jealous of."

    Ron's smile slipped. "Is he deliberately trying to piss me off?"

    "Probably." Harry sighed. "I told you it wasn't going to be a nice, relaxing week, didn't I? I don't know if I can cope with him doing this to me right now."

    "Could you cope with it ever?"

    "Huh?" Harry stared at Ron in surprise. "What do you mean?"

    He was looking surprisingly thoughtful. "Just something I've wondered about …. Look, don't take this the wrong way, but - do you find him attractive?"

    Harry nearly fell off his chair. "What! Where the hell did that come from? No, of course I don't!"

    "Seriously?" Ron was giving him a very curious look. "What, not even the slightest bit, physically?"

    "Are you winding me up? No, I don't. I've never even thought about it."

    "How do you know, if you haven't thought about it?"

    Harry stared at him, bewildered and a little indignant. "Because it's never crossed my mind, you prat! Why would it? I hadn't even clapped eyes on him since we left school, until he turned up on our doorstep." He eyed Ron suspiciously, and flung the question back at him: "Why, do you find him physically attractive?"

    "Yeah. He's not bad looking."

    I don't believe this, I must have stepped into a parallel universe when I walked through that door …. Harry shook his head, staggered. "I never thought I'd hear you say that."

    Ron snorted. "I didn't say I fancied him! He's still the most annoying little git in history and I'd as soon punch him as look at him, but that doesn't mean he isn't good looking, Harry! Actually, that just makes him even more annoying."

    Not sure what to say to this, Harry sat back and tried to consider the question objectively. It was surprisingly difficult. He supposed that Malfoy would be considered good-looking by most people's standards, but he honestly couldn't say that he personally found him attractive. He didn't find him unattractive; he just wasn't interested enough to make a judgement one way or another.

    Harry looked up and found that Ron was watching him with an odd little smile, as though he found something about his expression amusing.

    "What's funny?"

    "You. You look lost." Ron leaned back in his own chair, fiddling with the quill. "Just out of curiosity, what do you find attractive about me? You've never said, you know."

    Hadn't he?

    It should have been an easy question, but Harry was almost immediately stumped. Funnily enough, he could remember being asked a similar question by Seamus not long after Neville had accidentally outed the pair of them to the entire household. At the time they hadn't been together for more than a couple of months and his bemused response had been something along the lines of "He's Ron", which hadn't really answered the question.

    An older and more experienced Harry thought that it didn't explain anything at all. He thought Ron was very attractive but, pressed for an answer, he couldn't actually say why. He could have said that he thought he was good-looking, but then he thought the same of any number of people. Looks alone didn't interest Harry much, and he could probably have more readily explained why he thought Hermione was pretty. He just wasn't remotely interested in anyone else.

    For the first time, this struck him as odd. For heaven's sake, by most people's standards he was gay, and he was certainly a normal, healthy adult male, presumably with the same drives that everyone else had. Why wasn't he checking people out, even casually? Most men did - he knew Ron certainly did, because his little comments about people when they were out and about were a constant source of amusement.

    It was tempting to say "because you're my friend" but that was dangerous territory. To Harry himself it might explain everything – because friendship was a vast and complex thing to him – but one of Seamus's observations, back in those early days, had been that it looked like a really nasty case of best-friends-with-benefits to him; an accusation that Ron had not taken kindly. Besides, that wasn't even the half of it. If he'd only been attracted to Ron because he was his friend, then he might just as well have started a relationship with Hermione.

    None of this was helped by the acute recollection of Malfoy asking Is it love or is it just sex? And how do you tell the difference? Between love and sex, where did attraction and friendship fall? Harry didn't know, and the fact that he didn't know bothered him.

    Finally, he was forced to shake his head. "I can't answer that," he admitted, a little embarrassed. "I honestly don't know."

    Ron's freckled face creased into a grin. "I'm glad you didn't say that in front of anyone – they might have got the wrong impression."

    Harry shrugged helplessly. "I don't know what to say. What do you find attractive about me?"

    Ron's grin widened and he gave him one of those long looks that tended to end in situations like the one in the bathtub the night before. "Everything."

    Harry blinked at him. "Everything? What – even the fact that I'm short-sighted and sleepwalk?"

    Ron nodded, the grin giving way to a look of complete seriousness. "Yeah – everything."

    xXx

    The group that assembled in Professor Dumbledore's outer office was not very congenial. Malfoy, who had not returned to Gryffindor Tower after his morning broomflight, arrived first and was at his most saturnine. Psychoanalytical conversations notwithstanding, Ron was less than inclined to be friendly towards his old nemesis after Malfoy's comment to Harry that morning. And Harry, feeling ensnared on both sides in all sorts of unfamiliar emotional situations, was tense and jumpy.

    It didn't feel like a recipe for success in any endeavour that meant them working together as a team, and privately that made Harry even jumpier. The memory of their first, excruciatingly painful magical connection was uppermost in his mind as he crossed the room purposefully and tapped politely on the inner door.

    When they went inside, Dumbledore was tinkering with one of the many odd little whirring machines that seemed to litter every surface. He looked up and beamed at them.

    "Ah, gentlemen! Good morning. Do take a seat – I won't be a moment."

    Ron and Malfoy both headed for the comfortable armchairs in front of the professor's desk, silently bristling at each other when they both aimed for the same chair, but Harry's attention was caught by something else – the brilliantly plummaged bird perching on a stand by the window, rustling his feathers and peering beadily at them.

    Harry walked over. It would be rather rude not to acknowledge him.

    "Hello Fawkes," he said quietly, and smiled when the phoenix swished his long tail in response. To his surprise Fawkes made a sudden hop and landed on his shoulder, letting out a soft, quavering cry. At once, all the tension and unease in Harry seemed to fade away.

    This was no surprise; it was part of the phoenix's magic. It had, after all, been Fawkes who saved his life and led him out of the Chamber of Secrets, healed him after Cedric Diggory's murder, and comforted him after the traumatic events that led to the death of Peter Pettigrew.

    Harry was suddenly aware of Dumbledore standing in front of him.

    "He does seem uncommonly fond of you, Harry," the professor commented, smiling.

    Harry smiled back, stroking the bright feathers on Fawkes's breast gently. "The feeling's mutual," he said, "but don't tell Hedwig that!"

    Dumbledore chuckled and stretched out a hand to the phoenix. "Well, sir, we have business this morning. If you are joining us, you'll have to find another perch, I'm afraid." Fawkes rustled his wings in a very decisive way and hopped back onto the stand in the window. "I see. If you change your mind, we will be over here."

    He waved Harry towards the chairs and Harry took a seat on Ron's left, as far from Malfoy as he could get. Dumbledore took the fourth, between Malfoy and Ron, settling himself comfortably. He looked at the three of them assessingly for a moment, before his eyes came to rest on Harry again.

    "Harry, I believe you have Draco's new wand."

    "Of course." He handed the long, narrow box over and the professor passed it to Malfoy.

    "I see no reason not to let you have this, Draco. There are many more than adequate protections in place here to prevent any, ah, incidents of any kind."

    Malfoy flushed slightly at this comment, but said nothing. He took his new wand out of the box and examined it silently for a moment, before stowing it in the sleeve of his robe.

    "Good. Now, wizard circles … have any of you looked into the subject at all?"

    "Hermione lent me a book by Nicholas Flamel," Ron said after a moment. "I couldn't make head or tail of it, but Harry was reading it on the train …."

    "Ah!" Dumbledore looked pleased. "Excellent. Nicholas's book is probably the most complete volume on the subject in existence."

    Harry was dismayed. "With respect, Professor, if that was the most complete book, then I'd hate to see the worst! He didn't really explain how a circle works at all - "

    "That would be because he didn't know, Harry. Over his extended lifetime, Nicholas participated in three different circles, but by the time he died a few years ago he was no nearer discovering what made a circle work than he ever had been. He had theories, many of which I believe to be quite accurate, but given the lack of evidence and opportunity, it's hardly surprising that his research should remain incomplete." Dumbledore smiled at them. "You may imagine how pleased I was when I realised the three of you had formed a connection. The opportunities for further research are most exciting."

    Harry hoped he didn't look as sour as Malfoy did, although he perfectly understood the blond youth's reaction to the word research. He wasn't sure he wanted to be a guinea pig in this himself.

    "But first," the professor continued, apparently oblivious to the unease his words had created in his listeners, "we must focus on enabling the three of you to work together."

    Malfoy's head came up at this. "I'm not interested in working with this pair, Professor," he said curtly. "All I want is to know how to control it so that it isn't constantly interfering in my life. Working with it is the last thing on my agenda."

    Harry felt a tickle of anger at his dismissive tone, and Ron was gripping the arms of his chair as though he longed to strangle Malfoy, but Dumbledore's expression was calm and oddly compassionate as he looked at him.

    "Unfortunately, my boy, you may have no choice in the matter. In order to learn how to control this, you will have to learn to work with the other members of your circle, and you may believe me when I say that the kind of power naturally generated by a wizard circle cannot simply be ignored. It must be used or there is every chance that it will use you - as Harry and Ron inadvertently demonstrated on Harry's birthday."

    "You make it sound like the power exists as a separate entity in its own right, Professor," Ron commented - a rather scientific statement that made Harry look at him with a combination of surprise and amusement. Of course, Ron, being a Seer, knew a lot about powers that had a mind of their own.

    "All magic exists as a separate force," the professor said calmly. "We merely control it and make use of it with the inexpert means at our disposal. As children we tried to instil into you and your peers a sense of respect for magic as the raw, elemental force that it is." He smiled faintly. "If you do not already know why, gentlemen, I suspect you will shortly find out."

    Chapter Text

    Bang!

    "See! If you weren't in such a damned hurry to put yours on, that wouldn't have happened."

    "Screw that - it was you getting your elbow in the way - "

    "You have ten fingers for a reason, you moron!"

    "You have two eyes as well, but are you using them? No!"

    "Look, can we just start that section again?"

    "Let him do it if he thinks he's so sodding clever."

    Harry took a step back from the table, sucking on a burnt fingertip and glowering at his two companions resentfully.

    Dumbledore had told them that before they could even attempt to work as a circle, they had to learn to co-operate with each other. To that end, they were going to perform a series of exercises that made them work as a team, the first of which was building a complicated card castle out of several packs of Exploding Snap cards - without magic.

    They had been at it for an hour now, and the semi-constructed castle had blown up five times already. This was largely because Malfoy and Ron were continually sabotaging each other's efforts and ignoring every attempt Harry made at mediating between them. Since constructing any kind of card castle from Exploding Snap cards involved intense concentration, it was small wonder that they were failing so badly.

    On top of this, after listening to them for ten minutes or so Dumbledore had laid down a further decree: From that point onwards they were to call each other by their first names, not by their surnames as they had been doing. Not surprisingly, Ron and Malfoy managed to turn this into another means of tormenting each other. They stopped calling each other anything at all, bar insults, so that when they did use each other's Christian name it came out sounding bitingly sarcastic.

    This was like every tense mealtime encounter from the past twelve weeks all rolled together. And for someone like Harry, who basically liked a quiet life and retreated from quarrels and bad atmospheres, it was torture. He was amazed at how the pair of them could keep it up; the insults flew without let up, neither of them remotely at a loss for a riposte, and each comment was uttered with startling venom. They had even deconstructed each other's family history at one point, leaving Harry to wonder how Ron knew so much about Malfoy's – Draco's! – ancestry.

    It had to be a wizard thing. Certainly family feuds were a big thing in the wizard world, as he had discovered during one of the few History of Magic lessons that he had actually been able to concentrate in. Perhaps it had something to do with the relative smallness of the wizard community compared to the wider Muggle world, but everyone seemed to know each other, and insults and slights were remembered as vividly as inter-marriages down the generations.

    Ron could name the various families his aunts, uncles and cousins had married into going back about five generations. Considering that all the Weasleys were extremely prolific, that was saying something and it had been quite an eye-opener to Harry when he found out. Ron had casually mentioned that he was distantly related to their Ravenclaw classmate Terry Boot, and quoted the exact relationship ("My great-great-aunt Sybilla married Rufus Boot in 1906 and they had five sons ..."). It triggered a weird common room discussion of mutual ancestry that had left Harry and the Muggle-borns in the group wide-eyed with astonishment.

    It had also left Harry wondering about his own ancestry. His mother, of course, had been Muggle-born but there had never been any suggestion that his father had been anything other than a pureblood wizard. Since he didn't really have anyone to ask about this but Sirius, who was still on the run at the time, the matter had been pushed to the back of his mind by more important matters like potions homework, but now he was wondering again.

    "Hey, Harry? Are you in there?"

    Ron was waving a hand in front of his face, and Harry realised with a start that he had been staring blankly into space for the last few minutes. The cards had all been restored to their former pristine condition, and the other two were waiting to start again, Draco in particular looking quite disgruntled at Harry's inattention.

    "Are you all right, Flower?"

    Harry blinked at the ridiculous endearment and saw the impish smile lurking in Ron's eyes. "Just thinking … Pumpkin."

    Draco made a disgusted sound in his throat. "When the pair of you are done making eyes at each other, can we get on with this?"

    "What - you mean you're actually going to start co-operating, so that we can build this thing after all?" Harry asked blandly.

    The blond wizard shot him a dirty look and heaved an impatient sigh. Harry picked up a stack of the cards, taking care not to drop any of the volatile things.

    "Okay, let's try again …."

    xXx

    "What you were saying earlier …." Harry said quietly, as he and Ron picked their way through the lower level corridors.

    "Hm?"

    "What was that all about?"

    "Calling you 'Flower'? That was winding Malfoy up. And it worked - did you see his face!"

    "No, not then - this morning, when we were writing our reports. Why did you suddenly come out with that stuff about him being attractive?"

    Ron gave him a sideways look. "Are you still thinking about that?"

    Harry flushed slightly. "Well, yeah - I kind of thought that was the point."

    "Maybe." The corner of Ron's mouth twitched mischievously.

    "What's that supposed to mean?"

    Ron only chuckled, making Harry stare at him in frustration, deeply puzzled.

    Not for the first time, he was forced to wonder if he really knew his partner as well as he thought he did. At school, Ron had been a fairly uncomplicated person, but then he had started developing the Sight and suddenly whole aspects of his personality underwent a subtle change. Most of the time he was still the straightforward person he had always been - at least on the surface - but then something would set him off and they would have surreal moments like that morning when he would say or do the strangest things. Harry had learned to take most of it in his stride, but every once in a while he was caught on the hop.

    He would have liked to pester Ron further, but they had reached their destination. Harry reached out to the picture on the wall of a bowl of fruit and tickled the big green pear. It giggled and wriggled, and suddenly there was a green handle where the pear had been. He turned it and the door swung open abruptly, spilling the two of them into the enormous school kitchens.

    The kitchens were practically dead at this time of year, with only a small handful of the House-elves working there to maintain the tiny number of staff remaining at Hogwarts during the holiday. The rest would be working elsewhere in the building, performing the necessary repairs and refurbishment before the new term started.

    Dobby, however, would certainly be there as he viewed caring for Professor Dumbledore as his particular responsibility. This was mostly Harry's doing. When he left Hogwarts, Dobby had been very keen to go with him, especially when he heard that Harry and several of the other Gryffindors were planning to share a house for a while. Harry, however, had viewed the devoted House-elf's plan with misgivings. That a few of his housemates (Ron among them) would be delighted to have a House-elf to pick up after them he didn't doubt, but one of the other residents in the proposed student house was Hermione, who still held strong views on the exploitation of elves. Harry also suspected that it would be very bad for him to have Dobby fussing around him all the time. He wasn't a lazy person by nature, but that didn't mean he couldn't become one. So with great difficulty he had persuaded the House-elf to stay at Hogwarts, mostly by dint of telling him that he relied on him to watch over Professor Dumbledore. Since Dobby was almost as attached to the elderly headmaster as he was to Harry, the ploy worked admirably.

    Harry barely had time to straighten himself up and adjust his spectacles before there was a chorus of excited squeals and four tiny bodies hurled themselves at him. He let out a startled "Oof!" and sat down with a bump on the tiled floor, which only gave the juvenile House-elves better access to him.

    "Harrypotterharrypotterharrypotterharrypotter – "

    Ron leaned against the nearest wall and laughed himself breathless as Harry tried futilely to fend the little ones off. Unlike their very restrained and respectful elders, the children had been raised 'free' and were not in the least bit shy. Harry knew for a fact that they behaved like angels around just about everyone else; but he was a different case, as he had made clear to them right from the start. So he had only himself to blame when they climbed all over him and rifled through his pockets.

    He had got wise to the pick-pocketing early on, especially when squabbles had broken out over anything the infant elves found there. So the most they found today was his wand (which none of them touched – they knew better) and his wristwatch, which they respectfully left alone, although Ting, the smallest of them, hung over his arm and went cross-eyed as he watched the second hand ticking around. Not finding anything didn't prevent the other three from taking a second inventory; a scrunched up handkerchief was discovered in his back jeans pocket and promptly whisked away, presumably so that their mother could launder it for him before he left.

    When they returned Dobby was with them, as beaming and tearful as ever at the sight of his hero.

    "Harry Potter, sir! Harry Potter! Dobby is happy as he never was before!" He seized Harry around the middle, squeezing him until he thought his eyes might pop out, then turned to Ron and did the same to him. "Harry Potter's Wheezy!"

    Ron snorted a laugh and patted the elf on the shoulder. "Hullo, Dobby!"

    "You're looking well, Dobby," Harry observed. He didn't bother to get up from the floor; the children were once again rummaging in his robes in the vain hope that the presents they knew he had for them might have magically appeared while they were gone. "That's a wicked sweater you're wearing!"

    It was a lurid Fairisle pattern tank-top, teamed with a pair of baggy khaki shorts; Dobby beamed at the compliment. "'Tis a present from Professor McGonagall, sir, " he confided.

    "Really?" That was a surprise. Harry wondered what Dobby had done that merited such an unusual reward from the strict Transfiguration professor. "Well, we've got a present for you too."

    Ron produced one of the neat little gift bags from Madam Malkin's shop in Daigon Alley and handed it to the elf with a grin. Dobby was overcome, weeping happy tears as he pulled out a new selection of socks in all shades, hues and patterns. Socks were still his favourite item of clothing.

    "And I suppose you all want your presents," Harry said to the young House-elves, and grinned at the excited squeaks in response. He took his wand out of his sleeve and tapped a spot on the floor in front of him. A little pile of brightly wrapped parcels appeared, and he handed them out.

    It was only a collection of simple Muggle-type toys, such as wooden building blocks and other hand-made children's games. He had to be careful exactly what he gave them because of the regulations covering elves and other non-human creatures, but simple, non-magical things like these were unexceptional and gave the little ones a lot of amusement.

    Squeaks of excitement ensued as they peeled off the wrapping paper. Little Ting deposited himself in Harry's lap while he examined his jumping acrobat toy; the others hurtled off somewhere, either to play with and squabble over the toys, or to show them to their mother. Meanwhile Dobby had whipped up a tea tray and cakes and, prompted by Ron, was talking about what had happened during the past school year.

    His acute memory for details was always a source of surprise to the two wizards. Knowing how fond they both were of Quidditch, Dobby related inter-House games and scores for them, complete with notable incidents on the pitch. Then he told them about the teachers and Dumbledore, dwelling in particular on Snape who, apparently, had suffered considerable ill-health over the past year.

    This particular piece of news made Harry twitch for he knew - as Dobby did not - that any ill-health the Potions Master was suffering was almost certainly connected to his work as a spy in Voldemort's ranks. Harry didn't have any particular fondness for Snape who, besides being rude, hostile and generally unpleasant, remained to this day one of his severest critics. On the other hand, the man was currently undertaking a task which Harry wouldn't have wished even on him, and was suffering for it. As one of Dumbledore's spies, Snape ran appalling risks and Harry had to admire him for his courage if nothing else.

    "Does Professor Dumbledore know about Professor Snape's illnesses?" he asked the House-elf.

    "Oh yes, sir!" Dobby told him proudly. He lowered his voice confidentially. "Professor Dumbledore particularly relies upon Dobby to tell him when Professor Snape is sick. Sometimes Professor Snape will not tell Professor Dumbledore otherwise. But Dobby does not say to anyone else. Dobby is very discreet, sir, very discreet indeed."

    "I'm sure you are," Harry told him approvingly. But the look he exchanged with Ron was one of concern. That Snape should feel a need to conceal what was happening to him from Dumbledore was ... disquieting.

    "What about Dumbledore himself?" asked Ron after a moment. "He's doing alright, isn't he?"

    "Oh yes, sir!" Dobby assured him brightly. "Dobby takes very good care of Professor Dumbledore, although sometimes ...."

    He stopped and Harry felt a sudden tightening of his gut.

    "Sometimes?" he prompted.

    Dobby looked most reluctant to go on. He shifted uncomfortably under his favourite wizard's eyes. "Dobby keeps Professor Dumbledore's secrets," he said after a moment, and his expression was indecisive.

    "Of course you do. I wouldn't expect you to do anything else," Harry said at once, understanding the House-elf's dilemma. Dobby worked for Dumbledore and even though he wasn't technically in servitude to the headmaster as the other House-elves were, strict discretion was understood to be part of the contract between them.

    Ron was less impressed by this.

    "You can tell Harry, Dobby," he pointed out sternly, although it seemed to escape him that he wasn't necessarily included in that statement.

    Dobby came to a decision and moved a little closer to the two young men, dropping his voice.

    "Dobby would say that the good Professor Dumbledore is old, Harry Potter," he said.

    Harry's brows drew together slightly. "Well yes, Dobby, we know that, but – "

    "And Professor Dumbledore is tired, sir. Sometimes Dobby thinks that Professor Dumbledore would like to rest."

    This was disturbing enough to silence even Ron. The two wizards stared at the solemnly nodding House-elf in varying degrees of dismay and consternation.

    "But ... but he's Dumbledore," Ron managed finally, suddenly sounding a lot less than his twenty-one years. "We ... what would we do without him?"

    "Dobby has said too much," the House-elf squeaked, alarmed by their reactions.

    "No, no! It's alright, Dobby, I'm glad you told us," Harry reassured him quickly. "It's just that – Dobby, Dumbledore's not ill, is he?"

    "Oh no, Harry Potter sir! Just ... old. Dobby thinks Professor Dumbledore would like to see the end of the war with He Who Shall Not Be Named soon, sir. Dobby thinks Professor Dumbledore worries about it."

    xXx

    "I know Dumbledore's old," Ron said uneasily, as they walked back to Gryffindor Tower, "but he's alright, isn't he? He always seems okay to me when I see him ...."

    "Maybe we just haven't been looking," Harry replied. He was as disquieted as his partner. "Or maybe he's been keeping up a very good face. I can remember a couple of times when we were at school – he looked, well, old and kind of haggard for a second or two. It would be gone so quick, I thought I was imagining it. But he's been fighting Voldemort for decades, hasn't he? And there was Grindelwald before that. I suppose you would get pretty tired of it after a while. Hell, I'm tired of it and I'm a fraction of Dumbledore's age."

    "Maybe that's why You Know Who's dragging this out," Ron said morosely. "He's just hanging on until Dumbledore dies of old age ...."

    "Don't say that!" Harry told him fiercely. "We are not going to waste our lives on another twenty or thirty years of war with that monster! And I am not going to see Dumbledore die an old and disappointed man, not knowing if everything is going to go to hell when he's gone!"

    "Easy!" Ron stopped, holding up his hands in surrender and looking a little startled at Harry's outburst. "I'm with you, honest! Just ... take it easy. We're doing our best, aren't we?"

    "Are we?" Harry stalked up to the Fat Lady's portrait. "Puffskein!"

    She harrumphed at his tone but swung her picture frame open so that they could enter the Gryffindor common room, and he climbed through the hole in the wall.

    When Ron followed him through, he was waiting for him and pounced.

    "No, we are not doing our best," Harry snapped, poking an astonished Ron in the chest with a sharp forefinger. "Look at that crap this morning! We should have been able to build that card castle between the three of us easily. But did we ever get it above three storeys? No, we didn't, because we were too busy sniping at each other to try and co-operate. If we can't learn to work together, Ron, we're wasting Dumbledore's time here. And while we're wasting it, Voldemort is trying to kill people – like your family."

    There was a pause as he got his breath back and Ron looked stunned by the tirade. Then the redhead said quietly, "Are you going to say all this to Draco?"

    "Say all what to me?"

    The blond wizard was standing halfway up the stairs leading to the boys' dormitories and their suite of rooms. Harry turned and stormed up to him before he was fully aware of what was happening.

    "No more faffing around!" he said sharply, poking him in the chest just as he had Ron.

    Draco looked affronted. "Potter, I can assure you – "

    "No! No more arguments and petty sniping, no more sabotaging each other's efforts and wasting time. We do what Dumbledore says and we learn to work together. And my name is Harry."

    Draco's mouth opened and closed for a moment, clearly as surprised as Ron at Harry's ferocity. Then he blinked. "Oh. All right."

    "All right?" Harry stared at him, totally wrong-footed. "That's it? All right?"

    "What did you want me to say?"

    I'm going to hit the annoying little git .... Harry folded his arms to prevent himself doing just that, and glared at the two of them. "So. What next?"

    "That's what I was coming to tell you," Draco said dryly, eyeing him with pardonable wariness. He held up a rolled-up piece of parchment. "We have our instructions for the next task."

    "And?"

    "And it's a treasure hunt."

    xXx

    "Maybe Dumbledore got fed up of us arguing and decided to do us in," Ron said, panting a little from the hair-raising climb they had just made from one part of the roof to the next.

    The treasure hunt had so far been full of these energetic moments, enough to keep them thoroughly occupied. Had they wanted to quarrel they probably couldn't have done so, but in any case Harry and Ron were far fitter than Draco, thanks to their Auror training, and they were frequently having to give him a helping hand. Arguing had been put aside for now.

    "I can think of easier ways to kill us," the blond youth grunted now. He was bent over, hands on his knees, taking deep breaths while Harry perused the next clue. It had been tucked into the claws of one of the many gargoyles around the roof of the castle. Unfortunately, the previous clue hadn't been very specific about which gargoyle it was, so they'd had to check a great many before they found it.

    And then, of course, they'd had to persuade the gargoyle to let them have it.

    "At least it's not in verse," Harry commented, keeping a tight grip on the parchment to prevent the wind whipping it out of his fingers. "Look where amber pools, to the joy of Viper and Rosamundi." Harry frowned. "Viper and Rosamundi?"

    "Sounds like plants," Draco said, straightening up.

    Ron raised his brows. "Greenhouses?"

    They looked out over the crenellations. Below them spread the school grounds – the wide gravel courtyard and broad meadow leading down to the lake, with a narrow strip that was the rose gardens. Harry trotted across the width of the roof and looked out over the other side. The castle was built in a sprawling series of courtyards, quadrangles, towers and miniature bridges. This side merely overlooked a wide, sunny courtyard outside the Arithmancy and Study of Ancient Runes classrooms.

    None of the Herbology greenhouses seemed to be visible from here. Bemused, Harry looked across at the other two and shrugged helplessly. There were twelve greenhouses scattered around the grounds; he didn't fancy trying to search all of them without more information on what they were looking for.

    "I hate to be the one who suggests this," Draco said, when Harry rejoined them, "but perhaps there's some significance in where the clue was hidden."

    They looked over the edge again, peering at the ugly stone gargoyle where it perched a couple of feet below them. The stone eyes stared back at them balefully. It wasn't really animate, but Dumbledore had temporarily magicked it into acting like it was and it was a nasty-tempered, snappy brute.

    "I think ... if we were on the same level as the gargoyle, we might be able to see around that sticking-out bit of the wall," said Ron doubtfully.

    They all looked at each other.

    "Yeah, but to get to it you'd have to hang right over the edge," Harry pointed out.

    "Yeah," Ron sighed, "and since I'm the tallest of us ...."

    They managed it by dint of hanging onto his belt and the back of his shirt, but Harry wasn't in the least bit happy about the exercise. At one point it looked like Draco might crack a joke about dropping Ron but one quick glance at Harry's face silenced him. Ron took the further risk of grabbing the gargoyle around the neck, which didn't make either of them happy.

    Finally he yelled and they dragged him back. He was windblown, rumpled and sweating, his face scarlet from being held upside down for several minutes.

    "I don't want to do that again," he stated shakily, tucking his shirt back into his jeans properly.

    "Agreed," Harry told him, as pale as his friend was red. "Did you see anything?"

    "Yeah – it's greenhouse six. The sun's hitting the glass, which I guess is what Dumbledore meant by 'amber'."

    Silence.

    "Great," Draco said after a moment. "That's the one with all the man-eaters, if my memory serves me. Viper and Rosamundi – of course! Rosamundi Cruciens and the Viper Vine. Two of the deadliest plants in Professor Sprout's collection."

    "The Viper Vine – isn't that the one that nearly killed Millicent Bulstrode in our sixth year?" asked Ron.

    Draco actually looked amused. "Give it credit for trying! That's quite a mouthful even for a man-eating plant."

    "What pisses me off is that we had to climb all the way up here, just to climb back down again," Harry grumbled, ignoring the other two. "Screw that ...." He pulled his wand out of his pocket. "Accio Tsunami!"

    "Good thinking," Ron said approvingly, and took out his own wand.

    xXx

    Professor Sprout's greenhouses housed everything from the most innocuous herbs to the most terrifying plants in the magical world. Greenhouse six housed those that consumed living animal flesh; consequently only the most advanced students in Herbology were allowed to work inside. Harry had never had more than two or three practical sessions in there in his entire time at Hogwarts, although Neville Longbottom – the Professor's prize pupil in their year – had completed an advanced dissertation for his NEWTs based on several of the monstrous vegetables.

    "Have you ever actually worked in here?" Harry asked Draco nervously, as they stood their brooms against the wall outside.

    To his disappointment, the blond youth shook his head. "Herbology's not my best subject," he admitted. "I was fine with the book work, but useless with the practical."

    "We need Neville," Ron muttered, echoing Harry's thoughts. "We'll probably be alright if we stick to the paths, right?"

    "Probably ... none of the plants in here can walk, can they?"

    "No, they're all in greenhouses eleven and twelve – I think."

    "Okay ... wands out and for God's sake keep a bloody good grip on them."

    "Tell you what," Harry said, beginning to sweat slightly, "let's think about this a bit before we go inside, shall we?"

    "What's to think about?" Draco asked, a little sharply. "The next clue is hidden somewhere around the Viper Vine and Rosamundi plants. We have to retrieve it and get out again – "

    "Just like that?" Harry demanded, growing annoyed. "Draco, that place is full of man-eating plants – they're not going to just let us walk through and rummage around their roots. We need a plan."

    "Is this the same Harry Potter who faces down Death Eaters before breakfast?"

    "I can make a guess at what Death Eaters are thinking!" Harry snapped back. "Who the hell knows what a plant is thinking, beyond the fact that a prime meal has just walked up to it?"

    "Can we calm down?" demanded Ron. "I'm scared enough already. If we start arguing, half of those plants in there are going to nab us as soon as we walk through the door! I haven't forgotten that Psyche Lily we grew in our last year, Harry. The bloody thing nearly took your hand off when we had a fight over the trowels."

    "We need a plan," Harry repeated, looking defiantly at Draco. "Some defensive spells lined up at least."

    Draco shrugged. "There aren't many plants that like fire."

    "We don't want to set Sprout's collection on fire – "

    "Cold fire then! For crying out loud, let's just get this over with. I don't want to go in there any more than you do, but delaying tactics won't make it go away."

    Which was true, but it was a little embarrassing to realise that he had been caught out that easily. Harry took his wand out again reluctantly and gripped the handle.

    "Okay, let's go. And everyone keep their eyes peeled ...." Swallowing hard, he turned the handle of the greenhouse door and pushed it open.

    Hot, moist air enveloped them, accompanied by a rich smell of compost, leaf-mould and chlorophyll ... and underneath the sickly sweet smell of decaying animal flesh that comprised whatever the plants had been fed on that day. Harry broke into an instant sweat and felt his gorge rise slightly at the thought. The hair on the back of his neck prickled. He took a few steps inside and heard the clunk as Ron allowed the greenhouse door to swing shut behind him.

    The paths in this greenhouse were very wide and the plants were set well away from the fences bordering them; simple safety precautions. Small gates were set at intervals, securely latched against accidental entry, and signs were posted along the fence giving clear warnings of the dangers involved. Of course, none of this would prevent some of the plants from reaching out and trying their luck with the unwary.

    Harry really hoped they weren't unwary. For all Draco's joking, Millicent Bulstrode had been very lucky; she received only a mild mauling from the Viper Vine before she was rescued, but it could have been very nasty indeed. He wasn't looking forward to tackling the plant when it came to collecting their next clue.

    The greenhouse was worryingly quiet. They walked quickly along the middle of the path, trying not to make too much noise, Draco leading as he remembered where the plant had been located four years previously. Harry was acutely aware of the way the heavy, perfumed blooms on some of the plants turned to follow them as they passed, and he could feel the tension rolling off Ron as he tried to keep an eye on what was happening behind them.

    They were just climbing a short flight of steps up to the upper levels of the greenhouse, when Draco came to an abrupt halt.

    "Uh oh," Harry muttered, peering around him.

    A curtain of fine, lacy vines with delicate heart-shaped leaves hung down over the top step, blocking their way. The leaves were waving gently in a non-existent breeze.

    "Back," Draco told it sternly, with more confidence than he probably felt. The leaves shook slightly as though they were laughing at him. He raised his wand and pointed it at them. "I said back!"

    Quick as a flash, another vine came whipping through the air behind Harry. He barely had time to turn before Ron, acting on pure instinct, snapped out a spell and flicked his wand at it. Then the vine was gone again, and something was making an eerie keening sound a few feet away.

    Harry turned, adrenaline charging through his veins, and saw that the curtain of leaves was slowly, reluctantly lifting away from the steps.

    "Let's go," he breathed, and they hurried on.

    But the plants were silent no longer. An ominous rustling had started and numerous branches were swaying aggressively. A couple of the bigger blossoms leaned as close to the fence as they dared, snapping and drooling, and one gigantic pod fired a volley of nasty little darts in their wake.

    They were almost running now. "Not much farther," Draco panted, ducking a puff of luminous, sweet-smelling dust tossed his way by a delicate-looking succulent.

    Then they were there, and came to a skidding halt, staring up, horrified.

    "Oh God – it's bigger."

    That's an understatement, Harry thought numbly. The Viper Vine had been about eight feet tall at its main trunk when he last saw it, and Professor Sprout had always been careful to keep it pruned back so that it didn't get out of hand. But apparently she had changed her policy since they had been pupils, for the thing was a monster now – nearly as high as the ceiling and boasting many tough-looking branches. 'Vine' was something of a misnomer, for while it certainly preferred to support itself on other trees around it (this specimen had several thick branches wrapped around the nearest weight-bearing plants), it was perfectly capable of growing strongly enough to be self-supporting if it had to.

    A few feet away from it was the Rosamundi Cruciens, or Crucifying Rose, a deceptively innocent-looking tree with endearing, sweet-scented, pink blooms. It had vicious little thorns, every one of them tipped with a fast-acting poison that paralysed its victims so that they couldn't struggle; one tiny pinprick was enough, although in practice most victims snagged themselves numerous times in their struggles. What couldn't be seen – because if you could see it, it was too late for you – was the mouth that opened in the thick, gnarled trunk. Reputedly it had teeth that were even sharper than its thorns; Harry didn't like to think how that piece of information had been obtained.

    Hanging from one of the inner branches of the Rosamundi Cruciens was a little, rolled-up scroll. To get to it, someone would have to walk past the Viper Vine and reach between the outer branches of the rose; and the gap was low down and very small. It was unlikely that Ron or Draco could do it.

    Harry felt light-headed at the very idea. He didn't consider himself an especially brave person – most of his 'bravest' actions had occurred in situations he had no control over – but he would gladly have faced Voldemort and the worst of his henchmen put together rather than do this. Man-eating plants terrified him in a way that very few other things did; his feet were rooted to the spot and he could feel a cold trickle of sweat working its way down his back.

    "What do you think?" Draco was murmuring. "Summoning Spell?"

    "Too easy," Ron demurred. His eyes were roaming everywhere, trying to watch all the rustling plants around them at once. "Look at it - it's tied pretty securely to that branch. Someone's going to have to go in and get it."

    Harry found that he couldn't make his mouth work. His eyes were pinned on the scroll with a kind of horrified fascination.

    "Don't be stupid!" Draco hissed sharply. "Even if you could get past the vine, which of us could get a hand into that gap without scratching himself?"

    There was a pause and Harry knew that they had both come to the same conclusion as him.

    "No way," Ron said flatly. "That vine – "

    "I think that's the point," Draco pointed out. "I'm guessing that one or other of us has to hold off the vine while Harry gets the scroll. And someone else has to keep a lookout for anything else that fancies taking a bite out of us in the meantime."

    "Shit, shit, shit ...." Ron looked anxiously at Harry. "Harry?"

    Harry swallowed and moistened his lips. It was difficult; his mouth had gone dry. "Okay," he heard himself say, and wondered if this meant that he was finally ready to book himself into the secure wing at St. Mungo's.

    "Let's get on with it," said Draco. He gripped his wand firmly. "Ron, you keep a sharp lookout for anything coming up behind us. Harry, get ready – I'm going to try to hold the vine off with a freezing spell."

    "Most freezing spells don't work on plants!" Ron snapped, pulling his own wand out.

    "This one will – stop arguing! Ready, Harry?"

    No! a part of him wailed. But his hands moved entirely independently of his brain, and he was clutching his wand in one hand and the latch on the nearest gate with the other. He couldn't speak; the best he could do was nod.

    Draco aimed his wand at the Viper Vine. "Rigora forcea!"

    The vine's waving branches went rigid.

    Harry had the gate unlatched and was inside the fence before he fully realised what he was doing. The Rosamundi tree was looking more and more menacing as he stepped towards it. When he reached the outermost branches, he dropped to his knees and went forward on all fours, concentrating on not snagging himself and not dropping his wand.

    A sudden flurry of rustling of vegetation somewhere behind him made the hairs stand up on his arms. Something was happening, but he didn't dare take his attention from the rose. The scroll was hanging less than a foot away – Harry stretched out his empty hand very carefully and inserted it into the gap between the branches. It occurred to him that he wasn't simply going to be able to take the scroll; he would have to untie it first, and he was bathed in a fresh wave of cold sweat at the realisation. But if he untied it, it would drop to the ground. He would have to get his arm out and crawl in further to pick it up.

    Damned if he did and damned if he didn't! Unable to see a way around it, Harry got his fingers around the string holding the scroll and began to pluck at it very carefully. It was rough gardener's twine and resisted his efforts. Taking a risk, he plucked at it more sharply; it began to loosen.

    The noises behind him were becoming more ominous, distracting him. Twice he lost his grip on the twine and it fell out of his reach, forcing him to reach further inside the branches to retrieve it. But at long last he gave it a sharp tweak and the knot came apart. The scroll tumbled down through the branches to the rich leaf-mould below and Harry took a deep, steadying breath before he began to pull his hand back.

    He was nearly free when someone screamed.

    Harry couldn't help it; his head whipped around and his arm jerked just the slightest bit upwards with the movement. Thorns bit into the skin of his wrist and before he could stop himself he had yanked his hand back with a stifled cry.

    For a split second he registered two things: That Ron and Draco were struggling frantically in the middle of a seething mass of vines; and that the skin of his hand and arm was covered in tiny red scratches from the Rosamundi Cruciens. His arm was already completely numb.

    By the time he realised exactly what was happening, he was passing out.

    xXx

    Once again Harry found himself waking up slowly in a strange bed. He let himself drift with his eyes shut for a moment or two, wondering where he was this time.

    Then he heard soft voices a few feet away.

    "Just because I've accepted that we have to work with you doesn't mean I've given you a carte blanche to throw yourself at Harry. Touch him, and I swear I'll rip your balls off – understand?"

    "Insecure, aren't we? For crying out loud, I wasn't doing anything – "

    "Yeah, right!"

    "Jealousy is so unattractive! Does he know you get like this? What's the matter – afraid I'll give him a taste of something you can't provide?"

    "Like you have anything to offer these days except a pretty face!"

    A low chuckle. "Tell me, did he manage to answer your question about what he found attractive in you?"

    There was a curl of fury in the other voice. "What!"

    "You think I didn't hear? Those are my rooms too, you know. I was reluctant to interrupt such an intimate moment, but it made very amusing listening. Must be embarrassing to put your heart on the line and find that the other person doesn't feel the same way – "

    The tone of the conversation was growing steadily more vicious. It was too much; Harry struggled for full consciousness, murmuring "Don't ...."

    "Harry?"

    He managed to drag his eyes open at last and found that he was lying in a familiar infirmary bed. There were floral screens on either side of him, but weak evening sunlight was pouring through a window on the opposite side of the ward.

    Ron was sitting next to his bed, the light catching on his bright hair and turning it a fiery copper. Harry glanced around but couldn't see Draco anywhere, and when he looked at Ron his friend looked perfectly calm. There was even a book lying open in his lap, as though he'd been sitting there for some time.

    Ron closed the book and tossed it onto the end of the bed. He looked concerned as he leaned over and touched Harry's wrist. "Are you okay?"

    Harry blinked at him. Perhaps he had been dreaming after all, but it hadn't felt like a dream. Then he noticed that Ron's arms were covered in tiny scratches and bruises.

    "What happened to you?"

    The redhead grinned. "I got cuddled by a randy plant. What about you? How are you feeling?"

    Harry grinned back weakly. "I feel dead – again."

    "Funny you should say that. You got a pretty heavy dose of venom, but luckily Professor Sprout was waiting to rescue us."

    "Good. What about Draco?"

    "He got cuddled too, but he yelled more than I did. Talk about a shrinking virgin – you'd have thought it really was deflowering him, if you'll pardon the pun." Ron winked at him mischievously. "Obviously no one's ever told him about lying back and enjoying it."

    Harry felt a tickle of happy laughter and wished he had the energy to indulge it. Instead, he lay there and enjoyed simply looking at his friend's expression, although after a moment or two Ron shifted under his gaze and gave him a quizzical look.

    "What?"

    "Hm?"

    "Why are you looking at me like that? You've got a soppy grin on your face ...."

    Harry smiled. "I was just thinking that I understand what you were asking me."

    Ron looked at him questioningly.

    "I know what it is I find attractive about you," he clarified and watched, pleased, as the tips of Ron's ears began to turn pink.

    "Oh?"

    "Yeah ...." Harry curled his fingers gently around Ron's hand. "It's the way you laugh. It's the way you make me laugh. It's the way you can just shrug off some of the crap things that happen to us, or crack a joke about them so they don't seem so bad. You're one of the bravest people I know, but you're the last person to admit it and no one else ever seems to notice because you're always standing next to bloody Harry Potter who's supposed to do all the brave stuff because everyone expects it ...."

    He took a breath and continued: "It's stuff like ... the way your ears go red when you're embarrassed, and the way you still get covered in chocolate when you eat a Chocolate Frog, like you did when you were twelve. Except that now I get to lick your fingers for you .... It's your freckles and red hair and the way you never seem to put any weight on, no matter how much you eat.

    "It's the way you get jealous about other people hitting on me – don't believe anyone who says it's not sexy, because it is, and it means a lot to me that you feel that strongly. It's the fact that I've known you for ten years and there are still new things to find out about you. And it's because you're my friend too, and you're always there for me, especially when I'm ill or injured or have a nightmare or sleepwalk. I know I can talk to you about things – anything, especially weird or stupid things – and you'll understand and you won't laugh at me.

    "And ... and it's because I can't imagine spending the rest of my life with anyone but you. You're totally special to me. I've got other friends, like Hermione and the others, and family like Sirius and Remus, but it's not the slightest bit the same because they're not you. I know I don't say it much, Ron – and in fact I'm sure I haven't said it lately at all – but I do love you. It's not a matter of what you look like or even what kind of person you are. It's the whole package and something else besides. It's you. And I love you."

    The grin that had spread across Ron's face was almost shy.

    "That's good," he said after a moment, and his voice wobbled slightly with emotion, "because I love you too."

    xXx

    Beyond the screens, unseen by Harry or Ron, Draco Malfoy halted at the sound of the conversation and froze, listening. Minutes later, still unseen and unheard by them, he silently retreated again.

    Chapter Text

    The next morning, Harry awoke in his infirmary bed to yet another low voiced exchange.

    "I don't see why you're being so pig-headed about it. I think I have a right to see it."

    "Well, I don't. That information is confidential - "

    "Then you shouldn't leave it lying around, should you?"

    This was becoming tiresome. Harry opened his eyes with a sigh. "What are the pair of you arguing about now?"

    Ron and Draco were standing at the foot of his bed, glaring at each other. They both jumped when he spoke and turned to look at him sharply.

    Ron hurried around the end of the bed to his side. "Hey, how are you today?" he greeted Harry, smiling.

    Harry considered the question for a moment. "Not too bad … I think." He slowly pulled himself into a sitting position and looked at the two of them. "What's going on?"

    Ron grimaced. "He wants to see the report on Pansy."

    Harry looked at Draco in surprise. "What on earth would you want to see that for?"
    Draco had his arms crossed over his chest and was looking particularly stubborn and uncooperative. "I have a right to know what was done to her."

    "Not from confidential Auror files you don't!"

    "Ron …." Harry rubbed his face, wishing he was not quite so groggy with sleep. "Draco, you saw her body. You can't possibly want to know more than that - I know I don't, and it's my job. Besides, Ron's right. The report is confidential, and we can't show it to you even if we wanted to."

    "Great. Another cop-out."

    "Draco!" Harry flopped back against his pillows wearily. "I'm not having an argument with you about it. Rules are rules - "

    "And you're so well-known for following the rules!"

    "- I didn't make them and I can't change them. If you're so desperate to see the report, send an owl to Sirius."

    Silence. Harry sighed and looked at Ron. The redhead raised a brow at him and the corner of his mouth twitched, but all he said was, "Fancy some breakfast?"

    "Yes please."

    "I'll see what I can scrounge."

    He hurried off, leaving Harry with a very sour-looking Draco. He studied him for a moment, but the blond youth didn't seem inclined to say anything or even look at him, which left him wondering why on earth he was even hanging around.

    "How are you today?" he asked finally.

    Draco shrugged. "I'm all right."

    "Ron said you both got a bit mauled yesterday."

    "He exaggerates."

    Harry had to bite his tongue to stop himself saying something pretty sharp in response to that. In a patient tone he was far from feeling, he asked, "What's the matter?"

    "Nothing."

    "Then why are you lurking around my bed, looking so bloody miserable?" demanded Harry, exasperated.

    Draco's head shot up and the look he gave him was so searing, so full of … something … that Harry felt like he'd been thumped in the stomach. For a moment he stared back, wide-eyed, shocked and totally pinioned by the emotion blazing in those grey eyes. Then Draco hastily looked away, freeing him.

    Shit, Harry thought numbly, when the hell did that happen?

    "You nearly got killed by that Rosamundi plant yesterday …."

    Somehow Harry found his voice again.

    "And I nearly got killed by Death Eaters the day before. I nearly get killed all the time - it's a feature of my life - "

    Draco wasn't listening. "The vine got you too, did Weasley tell you? I lost control of it. If Professor Sprout hadn't been there - "

    "Well, I never thought Dumbledore would let us be killed just to prove a point. Draco, no one's blaming you! You nearly got eaten yourself, in case you've forgotten."

    "Not really. That particular plant had other things on it's mind, apparently."

    Harry grinned; he couldn't help it. "So I heard."

    "I suppose Weasley thought being groped by a man-eating vine was funny!" Draco was not amused.

    "Laughing at it is better than the alternative," Harry pointed out. He shook his head at the other man's stubborn expression. "You were arguing with Ron last night. Why?"

    "I was not …."

    "Yes, you were. I overheard you. Why were you arguing?"

    Draco snorted humourlessly. "Perhaps because he was being a complete prick as usual!"

    "And you weren't?" Harry said sharply. "What were you arguing about?"

    The look Draco gave him now was more controlled; his eyes were veiled. "He's a jealous little so-and-so, isn't he?"

    "He can be, when he thinks he has reason. Stop giving me the run around - what did you do to set him off?"

    The blond youth fiddled with the edge of the nearest floral screen. "Doesn't it get on your nerves?"

    "No, people not answering my questions gets on my nerves!" Harry gave him an exasperated look. "Draco – "

    "All I did was come here during the evening to see how you were. Apparently I should have asked His Majesty's permission first. The way he tore into me, you'd have thought I was ravishing your unresisting body ...."

    Harry looked at him and Draco flushed very slightly. Considering how fair-skinned he was, it equated with a full-scale blush on anyone else.

    "You were winding him up, Draco."

    "So?" He gave Harry a wry little half-smile. "Harry, if you're holding onto some notion about sufficient time and exposure making Weasley and me the best of friends, you're living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. It's not going to happen. There's too much history between us – "

    "Is this where you give me a load of bullshit about family rivalries and grudges passed down from one generation to the next?" Harry asked him blandly. "Spare me! That has to be the most pathetic excuse I've ever heard for two people refusing to get along. Like anyone really cares what his Cousin Peter seven times removed did to your Great-great-great-great-grandfather!"

    "If you'd actually been brought up among other wizards, you wouldn't be so dismissive of family history," Draco said stiffly. "But in any case, it's nothing to do with that – "

    "I know it's not. And I think we need to talk about what it's really about, don't you?"

    "No, I don't actually. I really don't think there's much point."

    "There's a point when it's setting you and Ron at each other's throats as soon as my back's turned," Harry said, a little more sharply than he intended. "There's a point when the three of us have to somehow find a way of working together that won't kill one of us. And there's definitely a point when you keep looking at me like I'm your last hope for breakfast."

    There was a stiff silence. Harry sighed and tried to modify his tone.

    "Draco ... we've been here before. I really and truly don't want to hurt you, but you must realise that there is absolutely no chance of anything ever happening between you and me. Ron and I are a fixture, and there's not and never has been any room for third parties in our relationship – not in any shape or form. I'm just not interested in other people."

    "You already told me this - "

    "Yes, but were you listening?" Harry demanded. "Are you listening to me now? Draco, be realistic! You don't love me - I'm willing to bet you don't even really fancy me. You're lonely and - "

    "Don't presume to tell me how I feel!" Draco snapped savagely. "And I don't need your pity, Potter!"

    "Good, because right now I'm finding it hard to feel anything but a strong urge to wring your neck!" Harry snapped back. "Whatever it is, get over it! Stop picking fights with Ron, and do me a favour - try to remember that if any of this goes wrong, it's probably me who'll die!"

    He flopped back against his pillows, exhausted by the argument, and with that one of the screens was pulled aside and a forbidding Madam Pomfrey bustled up to him.

    "I might have known I'd be seeing you again at some point," she said and picked up one of his wrists, feeling for his pulse. She gave him a sharp look and touched his forehead. "You're trembling and clammy …. What have you been doing?"

    "Nothing," Harry said unconvincingly. He was surprised at how drained he felt.

    The matron looked at Draco suspiciously. He shifted uncomfortably under her glare.

    "What have you been doing to him?" she demanded. "I warned you yesterday - he needs to rest and he's not to get over-excited. He got a dose of venom strong enough to knock out a dragon …."

    Ron appeared around the screens then, carrying a large sack and with Dobby in tow. The House-elf was carrying a covered tray.

    "What's going on?" the redhead wanted to know. He dumped the sack at the foot of Harry's bed with a grunt.

    Madam Pomfrey sniffed disapprovingly. "He's being silly and getting himself all worked up about something," she said severely. She pinned Harry with a fierce eye. "If you don't calm down, I'll have to give you a potion and send the others away. Now eat your breakfast."

    She glowered at them all and stalked off again.

    "What's going on?" Ron repeated, looking at the two of them. He relieved Dobby of the breakfast tray and the House-elf, reduced to alarmed silence by Draco's glower, scampered off again without a word.

    "Nothing," Harry sighed. He made himself sit up again so that Ron could give him the tray. "What's in the sack?"

    "Something you ordered from Flourish and Blotts apparently. It took six of their biggest post-owls to deliver it."

    "Oh! About time those turned up ...." Harry felt more interest in the sack, if he was honest, than he did in his breakfast now that it had arrived. He surveyed the plate of toast, bacon and eggs without enthusiasm. "Anyone fancy a slice of toast?"

    "Excuse me, but you're supposed to be eating this yourself!" Ron scolded.

    Draco snorted. "I'm going to leave if you're going to have a domestic quarrel!"

    "No, don't," Harry said quickly. "Have a look through that sack for me, would you?"

    "Why, what is it?"

    "Believe it or not, I'm taking your advice."

    The blond wizard shot him a rather odd look, but opened the sack and peered inside.

    "I got Flourish and Blotts to send me a copy of every magazine and periodical they stock," Harry continued. "I thought if I could pick out one that didn't seem too hysterical, I could maybe persuade myself to do that interview after all ...."

    "I knew I should have sent you my bill," Draco commented. He began pulling out handfuls of magazines and newspapers.

    "Let's see!" Ron took a bunch of the magazines and sorted through them. "Harry, I'm warning you now - if you do an interview for Witch Weekly, I'll leave you."

    "What would I talk to them about?" Harry scoffed. "My favourite recipe for sponge cake?" He began to eat his breakfast, feeling more cheerful.

    "You'll never convince them that you're gay," was Draco's observation. He pulled out another handful. "Hm! I had no idea that Flourish and Blotts stocked copies of Playwizard. That's rather low-brow of them .... Are you thinking of doing a photo-shoot?"

    "Not if it involves taking my clothes off. Besides, in case you haven't noticed you have to be good-looking before they'll photograph you."

    Draco looked at Ron, all animosity temporarily erased. "Is he fishing for compliments?"

    Ron sighed. "No. He actually believes that he's short and ugly."

    The blond youth stared at Harry disbelievingly. "Every nubile woman in our world has been throwing herself at you since you were fourteen – and you think you're ugly?"

    Harry gave him an old-fashioned look and pushed his fringe back to expose his scar. "They only see this." Then he began to chuckle. "And I notice you didn't argue about me being short!"

    It took Draco a moment or two to come up with a suitable retort. "There's a term for it, Harry," he managed finally, "Pocket Venus!"

    Harry choked on his eggs and Ron had to thump his back.

    "Transfiguration Today ... Potions Review ... Which Broomstick? – those won't be interested. Teen Witch and Wizarding Hunks probably would be, but you'd have to tone down the content or every parent in Britain will be sending you hexes. What's this – Cosmopolitan? I've never seen that one before ...."

    "That's a Muggle magazine – do Flourish and Blotts stock them?"

    "Probably. It looks like they stock everything. These look like Muggle magazines too."

    "Oh, let's see!" said Ron, intrigued.

    Draco handed them over. "The pictures don't move," he commented disparagingly.

    "Muggle photographs and pictures don't," Harry replied. He chewed another piece of toast thoughtfully. "Did Colin Creevey become a freelance photographer when he left school?" he asked suddenly. "I know he talked about it for ages – "

    "Yeah, he did," Ron said absently, flicking through one of the Muggle magazines. "He's got a studio above one of the shops in Diagon Alley. Ginny still sees him sometimes."

    "Hm. If it has to involve photos, I don't suppose I'd mind Colin ...."

    For the next hour, the three of them were engrossed in reading through the huge pile, all arguments forgotten.

    "How much is two hundred and fifty thousand pounds, Harry?" Ron asked at one point.

    "A quarter of a million," he replied without thinking.

    "It's reassuring to be in the presence of such genius," Draco remarked sardonically.

    Ron tweaked Harry's toes through the bedspread. "I meant, how much is it in Galleons, you prat!"

    "God, how should I know? A lot, probably. I think the conversion rate is about seven Sickles to the pound at the moment."

    "So that's ...." Ron flopped onto his back across the end of the bed and tried to work it out.

    "Should I fetch Madam Pomfrey?" Draco asked, a moment or two later. "It looks like you might have strained something – "

    "Shut up. That's about ... one hundred and three thousand Galleons! Wow ...."

    "What are you reading?" Harry asked suspiciously.

    "There's a quiz in this magazine – " Ron showed him.

    It was a Muggle magazine devoted to games and crosswords, and in the middle pages was a giant, fold-out puzzle. It reminded Harry of the enormous, prize-winning Christmas crossword in the Little Whinging Gazette that his aunt and uncle always tried (and failed) to complete each year. This one looked more like a cross between an acrostic and Snakes and Ladders, although the clues seemed to be based on a chess game. No wonder Ron had latched onto it – especially since those lucky few who could complete it would be entered into a prize draw with a share in a maximum prize of a quarter of a million pounds.

    "Ron ...." Harry was reluctant to disillusion him. "Even if you complete it, the chances of you actually winning are – "

    "About a zillion to one," Draco murmured helpfully.

    "Shut up, you. Ron, the people who buy these puzzle magazines do it as a hobby. They take it really seriously. People who do it as a one-off don't stand a chance ...."
    Ron's face fell, and Harry felt like a total killjoy.

    "How would you get the form to them anyway?" he pointed out, weakening. "I don't think they accept owl post ...."

    "You get the Owl Post Office to do it for you," Draco commented, rolling his eyes. "I think they have an address where Muggle-style mail is dropped; then they relay it by normal mail. How on earth do you think the Ministry and places like Gringotts do business with the Muggle world?"

    The redhead brightened. "Okay! Does anyone have a quill?"

    xXx

    "I feel like we've wasted a day," Harry commented softly, when he was curled up in bed with Ron that night.

    Madam Pomfrey had released him just before dinner, on the understanding that he was to spend the evening resting. They had dinner with Professor Dumbledore, then spent the evening sprawled out on the sofas in the Gryffindor common room, looking through yet more magazines.

    Ron spooned up a little closer to him and rested his chin on Harry's shoulder. "Why?"

    "I don't know. I just have this weird feeling that things are starting to happen and we can't afford to mess around."

    "Dumbledore didn't seem worried."

    "No, but I worry about Dumbledore."

    "Don't," Ron advised him. "Worry about whatever nightmare team-building task he's got in store for us tomorrow."

    "I'm not going to drive myself crazy thinking about that. This is Dumbledore we're talking about! He doesn't think the way other people do."

    "So don't worry about anything! Just sleep."

    "I never 'just' sleep," Harry grumbled, but he dragged a pillow further under his ear, punched it a bit and tried to settle down.

    Ron waited patiently until he'd stopped wriggling and wrapped himself around him again. "You're not a restful person, you know that?"

    "Well, I don't seem to lead a very restful life. I spent ten of my first eleven years trying to outrun Dudley, and since then I seem to have spent it trying to outrun Voldemort one way or another. Something tells me that even if we got rid of him tomorrow, I'd still be trying to outrun something. It's a vicious pattern I'm stuck in."

    "No, you're not. If we got rid of Voldemort tomorrow, you'd spend the rest of the summer in a hammock somewhere with me."

    The idea charmed Harry. He turned over and said to Ron solemnly, "Let's get rid of Voldemort tomorrow."

    Ron smiled. "Not if you don't get some sleep."

    "Oh, alright." Harry turned over again, and Ron tucked himself around him once more.

    There was a lengthy pause during which Ron began to drift off, only to be jerked awake by Harry suddenly saying, "I'm worried about Draco too."

    Ron swallowed a sigh. "Why?"

    "He gave me such a look this morning …."

    "You're not responsible for Malfoy's facial contortions, Harry."

    "It's not that I seriously think he fancies me but - "

    "Harry."

    "What?"

    "You are not going to put the world to rights tonight. Okay? Forget about Dumbledore, Voldemort and Malfoy for now. You can deal with it all in the morning."

    "Oh. Okay."

    Harry heard Ron huff impatiently and grinned, waiting.

    "And stop trying to wind me up, you annoying little git!"

    Harry laughed softly. "'Night Ron!"

    "Hmf!"

    xXx

    Harry awoke feeling surprisingly light-hearted and positive the next morning. Idly wondering what the day's programme would be, he took himself off to the bathroom and indulged in the luxury of a morning bath, instead of his normal hasty shower.

    Ron wandered in while he was still submerged and daydreaming, but declined his invitation to join him with a sweet, if somewhat bleary smile and hopped into the nearest shower stall instead. He reappeared just after Harry had climbed out of the tub and watched interestedly as he set out his shaving kit. It had been a gift from someone for his birthday and Harry, a little amused at the old-fashioned set of brush, soap-bowl and razor, had been using it on and off ever since.

    Much more amusing, however, was Ron's reaction; the redhead was even more intrigued by it than his partner was. He dried himself off this morning and got his own shaving kit out, keeping one eye on Harry the whole time.

    Harry brushed the lather over his cheeks and tried to ignore the way Ron was looking at him. He wasn't sure if the redhead was flirting with him deliberately or not; Ron had always been an outrageous flirt, although Harry hadn't paid much attention until the day his friend had suddenly turned it on him.

    "It's a bit of a performance, isn't it?" Ron said unexpectedly, as he smoothed a handful of Bubbleman's Self-Lathering Shaving Cream over the lower half of his face. His attention was barely on what he was doing, for he was following Harry's movements avidly. He had a thing about watching Harry shave, but rarely got a chance to indulge it. "If you did this every day, you'd never get to work on time." He dipped his safety razor in his basin to wet it and began to shave himself with quick, confident strokes.

    It was true that using old-fashioned shaving soap and a brush was time-consuming, and expanded what was normally a swift and haphazard task into something closely approaching a ritual. But after his first dubious attempt, Harry had to admit that there was something rather enjoyable about working up the lather and swirling it onto his face with the brush.

    "Obviously I'm not going to do this every day. But since time is something we seem to have a lot of at the moment ...." Harry let the sentence trail off and finished applying the soap. He rinsed the brush and picked up his razor, giving it a quick dip in the basin before making the first stroke along his jaw.

    Not for the first time, he cursed having very dark hair. Black stubble was so unattractive, which meant he had to be absolutely religious about shaving and often did so twice in a day, depending on what he was doing. Not a problem that Ron had, although Neville had commiserated with Harry more than once on the miseries of a five o'clock shadow that often appeared significantly earlier than five o'clock.

    He was tempted to suggest to Neville that he tried this method of shaving instead, the next time he saw him. Harry wasn't sure if it was his imagination, but he seemed to get a better result by using soap and a brush, although admittedly it might just be the new and wickedly sharp razor that had come with the set. He had never used a cutthroat-style razor before, but the extra care it took seemed to pay off. Whatever it was, it was certainly worth it if only for the lack of painful razor-burn.

    Harry caught sight of Ron's rapt expression in the mirror and had to suppress a smile. What the hell was it that he found so fascinating about this simple act anyway?

    "Breathe," he advised him, and laughed when the redhead jumped. It was lucky Ron was using a safety razor or he might have cut his own throat. He had been utterly transfixed. "You are seriously kinky," Harry told him, green eyes twinkling with amusement.

    "Are you complaining?"

    "No, although it beats me why this should be such a turn-on for you."

    Ron's lips twitched but he finished shaving in silence, before suddenly saying, "I used to like watching my dad shave when I was a kid."

    It was Harry's turn to nearly cut himself and he shot a glare at his innocently smiling partner. "Okay, let's not explore that train of thought."

    "Just an observation!" Ron splashed water over his face liberally and dried off.

    "Yeah, right …." Harry made his next stroke more cautiously. "I'm glad I never caught you staring like that at anyone when we were at school. I'm used to it now, but I think it probably would have freaked me out completely a few years ago."

    "I wasn't interested back then. It was more fun watching Seamus secretly checking his chest for hair - that was good for a few laughs in the morning."

    Harry had to put the razor down and grip the sides of the basin for a moment until he got himself under control.

    "Look, will you piss off and get dressed, while I finish here!" he demanded finally, still shaking with suppressed laughter. "I'm going to die a messy death at this rate …."

    Ron chuckled and gathered up his stuff. "See you in a minute!"

    "Yeah, okay."

    Harry finished shaving and rinsed off in peace and quiet. He was just towelling off and looking for his underwear when he heard the door open again behind him.

    "What did you forget?" he asked, knowing Ron's penchant for leaving stuff lying around.

    "To knock, apparently," a dry voice commented.

    Harry shot upright, dragging a towel in front of himself rather belatedly. Draco was standing in the doorway, pyjama-clad and carrying his own towels and shaving kit, eyeing Harry with sly amusement.

    "Nice … broom, Potter."

    "Piss off, Malfoy!"

    There was nothing like being caught naked to reduce you to schoolboy-level insults. Harry was bitterly aware that he was absolutely scarlet and at a loss for something original to say. He had never been good at dealing with embarrassing situations with aplomb.

    "Excuse me, but I was under the impression that this was a communal bathroom!" Draco sauntered in, closing the door nonchalantly behind him, and dumped his gear on a nearby bench.

    "There are three other bathrooms! Why do you – "

    "This is the nearest one to our rooms. What's your problem, Harry? You didn't seem to be in a hurry to throw Weasley out!"

    Harry spluttered indignantly. Unfortunately, he couldn't seem to come up with a single argument other than: "That was different!"

    "Tut!" Draco was enjoying this entirely to much for Harry's comfort. "You know, you do blush beautifully. And in all sorts of unexpected places!"

    "And you'll bleed in all sorts of unexpected places if you're not careful!" he snapped, recovering his tongue if not his poise. He looked around for his wand only to remember that he'd left it on the bedside table upstairs. Bugger. "This is not funny – "

    "On the contrary, it's hilarious. It's been a while since the boot's been on the other foot, hasn't it?" Draco folded his arms, deceptively casual, and Harry was acutely aware that the blond youth was holding his wand.

    Harry forced himself to straighten up and tuck the damp towel back around his waist. It gave him at least the illusion of dignity. "What do you want, Draco?"

    Draco leaned a hip against one of the basins and studied him for a moment. "Now that could be considered a leading question," he drawled. "What if I were to say "you", Harry?"

    "I'd remind you that when I wanted to talk about this with you, you refused to discuss it, and that furthermore I told you then that I'm not available and not interested," Harry replied with curt precision. And isn't it just like you, Draco-bloody-Malfoy, to wait until you've got me cornered and at a disadvantage before you decide you'll talk about it? "What's more, I don't feel like discussing it now. So drop the attitude and turn around, please. I'd like to get dressed."

    Draco smiled at him sweetly. "Oh please – don't mind me! I'm very open minded."

    "Somehow I doubt that!" No way was he going to drop the towel again in front of the other man and he wasn't about to amuse him by trying to struggle into his underwear with it still around him. "Screw it ...."

    Harry grabbed his things in an untidy pile and stalked to the door, only to be stopped by the tip of Draco's wand lightly pressed to the hollow of his throat.

    "Something I have found out about wizard circles," the blond wizard told him, still smiling, "is that the power balance can shift in the most unexpected directions. I'll be interested to discover just who out of the three of us has control of the circle – won't you?"

    "You're still wearing the Seal of Honour, Draco," Harry reminded him softly.

    They stared at each other for a moment, cloudy grey eyes meeting forest green. Then something in Draco's expression changed, softened.

    "I wouldn't hurt you, Harry – you do know that, don't you?"

    Harry blinked, a little surprised by the earnest tone. "No, I don't," he replied frankly, after a moment's consideration. "Little games like this don't exactly make me want to trust you."

    "What do I have to do to make you trust me?"

    "You can't make anyone trust you, Draco. Trust is earned ... and you just lost some credit." Harry very carefully pushed the wand away. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I want to get dressed."

    xXx

    The great hall that hosted every meal, feast and ball Hogwarts held was echoingly empty without the long tables, chairs and banners hanging on the walls. It was also distinctly odd to look up and see not only the rafters but also the ceiling, instead of the enchanted view of the sky outside. The charm was apparently taken down over the summer for maintenance reasons.

    Harry was glad to see that Ron and Draco were as uneasy at the vast, empty space as he was. He hadn't said anything to either of them, but Hogwarts felt like an entirely different entity without its usual vast throng of students and teachers to give it warmth and life.

    He had always felt that the castle was a living thing in some way unique to it alone, but it wasn't until now that he realised that it also seemed to have a personality. While its function as a school was being fulfilled, that personality was warm, benign, nurturing and homelike. But during the sleepy summer months, when it was empty of all but a very few residents, it became something else. Not necessarily unwelcoming, but … different.

    Standing with them in the centre of the room, Dumbledore seemed unaware of their unease, although Harry doubted that was the case. The elderly wizard let them get their bearings for a moment or two, then gently cleared his throat.

    "Today I think we need to start looking at easing the three of you into combining your magic," he said, smiling at them. "From observing you, I have a fair idea which of you fulfils which role in the circle, but I would like to see you actually merge magics just to be sure. So we are going to try and recreate the circumstances under which you accidentally combined energies the first time."

    Harry tensed at once. He couldn't help it; all he could remember of that first incident was the excruciating pain he had experienced. Dumbledore's eyes flicked to him for a moment as though aware of his thoughts, but the professor said nothing. He merely took a few steps back and waved his wand, producing a large pile of pillows, cushions and other soft, squashy objects of varying sizes, colours and patterns in front of them.

    "Now, you will have noticed that we are in the largest enclosed space that the castle boasts," he continued calmly. "You need a little room to work in. You may also be aware that there are dampening spells in place around the walls, similar to those in many of the classrooms. They should prevent any excess eruptions of energy, although I seriously doubt that the effects of your working together today will be anything like the first, inadvertent explosion you experienced." This was directed very subtly at Harry.

    "I would suggest that you start by doing exactly what you were doing on that day. You will probably need to be in physical contact, at least at first."

    Dumbledore retreated to the edge of the room, and the three of them eyed each other uncertainly.

    "Okay," Ron said a little nervously, "so what were we doing at the time?"

    "Pillow fight," replied Harry, feeling his stomach begin to turn over despite Dumbledore's assurances. "Um … I think you were trying some kind of repelling charm, right?"

    "I was trying to keep out of the way," Draco put in dryly.

    "Not very successfully!" Ron shot back at him.

    There was a tiny pause and they all looked at each other.

    "I think we need some help here," Harry decided. He looked across at Dumbledore, who was watching them with a tiny smile. "Um … Professor, would you mind, er, throwing a few pillows at us?"

    "Certainly!" he said with distinct enjoyment, and suddenly one of the larger pillows - really it was more like a big beanbag - levitated itself and hurtled towards Harry.

    It happened so quickly that they had no time to really sort themselves out. Harry managed to repel the first couple of pillows by himself, and then it was suddenly like an action replay of the pillow fight - minus a few housemates and a couple of flights of stairs.

    "You really do need to concentrate on merging your energies," the headmaster called, after five frantic minutes. He was effortlessly warding off any missiles sent his way.

    Reluctantly, Harry gathered the other two with his eyes and reached out to touch Ron, clasping his elbow. Then he felt Draco put a hand on his shoulder. He supposed he had been expecting the same hair-raising burn of power along his nerves as he had felt the first time, so it was a distinct let-down when nothing happened. They continued banishing the cushions as they had before.

    Dumbledore called a halt after a few minutes. "I think you're missing the point," he commented, rejoining them. "During that first incident, Draco wasn't actively involved, was he?"

    "Well, no - he didn't have a wand," Ron replied.

    "And I believe he was in physical contact with you and Harry both at the same time?"
    Draco frowned. "How much use is this circle going to be if we all have to be touching each other at the same time?"

    "Patience," the professor cautioned. "Naturally you won't always have to be in physical contact - as Harry and Ron proved on Harry's birthday. But until you become settled as a working circle, some element of physical contact will be needed, at least to establish a link between you. Physical contact can also enhance the power levels, you'll find. As you grow stronger as a group, the amount of energy you will be able to call upon will increase, but you will always find that the closer you are together physically, the more intensity you will be able to give to your work."

    He stepped back again. "Try again. Only this time, try to recreate the circumstances exactly."

    Ron looked at Harry and Draco and wiped sweating palms on the seat of his jeans. "I was casting a banishing charm, right? Okay then …."

    Harry reluctantly reached out and cupped his elbow again, aware of the sticky heat of Ron's skin. It was hot even in the Great Hall, and they were all sweating. He watched Draco tuck his wand into his jeans pocket, and the blond youth laid a hand on each of their shoulders.

    That was all the opportunity they had to prepare themselves before Dumbledore sent four cushions flying at them simultaneously.

    Ron reacted almost on instinct, flicking his wand at the missiles -

    - and there was a brilliant flash, leaving a pattern of coloured stars on the inside of Harry's eyelids.

    This wasn't like the previous occasion. Harry felt the power surge up, but not painfully; this was more like the sensation you got riding over a humpbacked bridge at speed - an odd feeling of breathlessness and exhilaration, like pulling sharply out of a fast dive on his broomstick.

    He didn't realise he'd squeezed his eyes shut until he heard a series of violent thumps and Ron's excited whoop. He cracked one eye open and then the other.

    The four pillows were scattered against the opposite wall, two of them sagging in a pile of stuffing where they'd burst upon impact.

    And he, Ron and Draco were still on their feet, unharmed.

    Well, mostly.

    "Ow!" Ron said to him pointedly. "Are you going to let go of my elbow anytime soon?"

    "Sorry," Harry replied sheepishly, and released him. There was a little ring of livid finger-marks on the freckled skin, which he rubbed at guiltily. He hadn't realised he was gripping his friend so tightly. "Sorry - I'll kiss it better later."

    "You'd better!" Then Ron grinned. "That was pretty cool! Did you see it?"

    "Um ...."

    "I'll get excited when we do something a little more spectacular than throw a few pillows around," Draco commented dryly. "I can do that on my own."

    "Picky picky ...."

    "That was more the thing, gentlemen." Dumbledore joined them again. "Now, let's try that again, only this time I want Draco to be the one actually casting the charm ...."

    They spent the next hour banishing and summoning pillows, taking it in turns to be the one casting the charm. They all did rather well, but it quickly became clear that the best results were achieved when Ron was doing the casting, regardless of the spells they used. Considering that he had only ever been an average student in Charms, this was rather surprising.

    Dumbledore, however, seemed unsurprised. He called a halt and conjured up four chairs, a small table and a tray of cold drinks.

    "I think," he said, as they all sat down and took a glass, "we can safely say that of the three of you, Ron is the focus of the circle. I thought that might be the case, after the four-poster bed incident." He winked at Harry. "You'll recall that although it appeared to be Harry who accidentally transfigured the blankets into a bed, it was Ron who managed to reverse the process.

    "Draco, you would appear to provide the arcane or knowledge element. Like Hermione Granger, you are often stronger in book learning than you are in practice, and I'm well aware that your father supplemented your education with elements that were not part of our standard syllabus. You told me that that on the Hogwarts Express Harry managed to use a charm – one certainly not taught by Professor Flitwick - to conjure the griffin; a charm which you had never been successful with yourself. But Harry, of course, doesn't recall ever having learned it.

    "And Harry – not surprisingly, you appear to be the source of power behind the circle. You are an unusually powerful wizard and always have been, making up in strength what you occasionally lack in finesse."

    Dumbledore sipped his drink and smiled gently at them. "You might be interested to know that according to the International Confederation of Wizards, the correct term for a wizard of your type, Harry, is a warlock – a wizard whose magical power outstrips his technical skills. Your godfather, Sirius, falls into that category too. Draco, on the other hand, would be classified as a sage – your exact polar opposite, in that his technical knowledge far outstrips the limits of his power."

    "So what does that make me?" Ron wanted to know.

    "What you have always been, my dear boy – a Seer. Your magic is intimately entwined with your clairvoyant abilities."

    "But does that have any bearing on me being the focus of the circle?"

    The professor pondered this for a moment or two. "To be honest, I couldn't say," he admitted. "I wouldn't have thought so. Claudius – Claudius Clare, that is, the focus of my circle – certainly wasn't a Seer. In fact I was never able to establish exactly what it was that made Claudius the focus, and I'm quite sure that Nicholas didn't either. And his research into the subject was, of course, considerably more extensive than my own. All I can tell you, Ron, is that you have some innate ability to channel, control and refine the energies generated by the three of you."

    Ron nodded, but Harry could tell that he was thinking furiously about this.

    After a moment, the redhead said quietly, "So is this why Voldemort wants me, do you think?"

    "It is possible," Dumbledore admitted soberly, "although how he could possibly have known that you are what you are is a mystery to me. Draco, you told us that your father and Lord Voldemort wanted you for a particular purpose, and when it became apparent that you would be of no use to them, they lost interest in you." Draco grimaced, but nodded. "Tell me, did they ever try to make you work in a wizard circle, or anything that resembled a wizard circle?"

    "My father made me work with him on numerous occasions during my teens," Draco admitted. "And shortly before I left school, there was an occasion during the Easter holiday when the Dark Lord was staying at Malfoy Manor. He was certainly interested in working with groups of people, but I didn't think anything of it because they weren't doing anything like this – they weren't trying to raise power, it looked more like research. He was very interested in old forms of magic that had been lost or that had fallen out of use – partly, my father said, because one of the reasons he couldn't kill Harry when he was a boy was because of some old, lost form of magic. It was never fully explained to me, but that was when he started experimenting with the Enviolus Curse."

    "But Lord Voldemort never tried to work with you and your father, or something similar?"

    Draco tensed. "Not until after I left school. He made me run through some of the ritual magic with him that I'd been working on with my father. We went over and over it for hours – I did exactly what they told me to do, but Lord Voldemort wasn't happy and following that I was pushed to one side. Which is when my father – when he started draining me."

    "So he could have been trying to set up a wizard circle, but failed because you were not the focus he needed to make it work."

    Harry was thinking about Nicholas Flamel's all but useless book on the subject. "So if it's just a matter of having a focus, then why have Ron and I never managed to create a circle with someone else – Hermione, for example?"

    "Because it isn't simply a matter of having a focus, my boy," Dumbledore replied, looking at him over the top of his spectacles. "All three of the wizards involved must be compatible in some way. What makes the focus-wizard so important is his rarity. There are probably a number of compatible groups of wizards in existence, but a very few individuals who are capable of acting as a focus. Indeed, it is possible that Ron is the only one currently in existence."

    "But Nicholas Flamel's book seemed to suggest – "

    "Yes – I'm afraid you had to know Nicholas to understand some of his trains of thought. Reading that book cold might well give you the impression that all a circle needs is the focus. And as that volume is the only treatise on the subject, it may well be where Lord Voldemort has taken his own information from."

    "So even if Voldemort got hold of me, there's no guarantee that any wizard circle would work?" asked Ron hopefully.

    "I really don't know," Dumbledore said calmly. "I would have thought it unlikely myself, but I would be unwilling to discount the possibility entirely."

    "Better hope that it would work," Draco told Ron grimly. "Believe me, you don't want to find out what happens when he's thwarted."

    Ron gave him a sharp look. "You think so? Well, considering that Harry's had dreams where I help Voldemort to use a wizard circle to kill him, I think I'd actually prefer the alternative."

    "Gentlemen," the headmaster interjected gently, before a quarrel could start. "I think it's time we started again, don't you? This time shall we try a little transfiguration?"

    xXx

    They spent the rest of the morning working on various forms of wand-work, starting with the very basic elements they had all learned in their first year at Hogwarts, up to the more complicated subjects tackled in their final year. By lunchtime all three were exhausted.

    They had their lunch with Dumbledore, where he gave them their next task ... which was something rather unexpected.

    "Meditation?" Harry repeated rather doubtfully. He glanced involuntarily at Ron, and saw that the redhead was looking intrigued.

    "I believe you covered it during your fifth year of Divination," the professor commented mildly.

    "I didn't take Divination," Draco said at once. He looked a little suspicious, as though he suspected Dumbledore of having some nefarious ulterior motive for his suggestion.

    "Ron and Harry will be able to teach you the basic techniques. What I am suggesting is that the three of you meditate together. I think you will find that it is an excellent method of increasing the link between the three of you and allowing you to operate as a circle without physical contact."

    Of the three of them Ron was the least concerned by this idea, which was not, perhaps, unreasonable given that he had the most experience with the esoteric. He turned the idea over in his mind for a minute or two before asking, "What sort of meditation form did you have in mind, Professor?"

    Dumbledore smiled at him. "As to that, I think I may safely rely upon your judgement. You should bear in mind what I said about strengthening the links between the three of you, though."

    "Great," Draco said sourly, as they made their way back to Gryffindor Tower. "Now we're at the mercy of Weasley and whatever crackpot notions he picked up from Trelawney ...."

    "Is that the best complaint you can come up with?" Harry demanded of him wearily. "Because if it is, why don't you just save your breath?"

    "Whinge, whinge, whinge …." Ron chimed in lightly.

    He gave the Fat Lady the password and climbed through the portrait hole. When the others followed him in, they found him looking around the common room thoughtfully.

    "Not in here," he decided. "I don't think we could possibly get comfortable enough …. And we all need to change into something looser-fitting."

    "Why?" demanded Draco. He was standing in the middle of the common room floor with his arms crossed uncompromisingly.

    "Because, you prat, you can't meditate successfully if your jeans are cutting you in half."

    "Some of us wouldn't find our jeans cutting us in half if we didn't insist on wearing them so tight!" the blond youth retorted acidly. He started up the stairs, only to turn back at the last minute with a wicked gleam in his eye. "Trying to showcase what you don't have, Weasley?"

    He disappeared up the stairs, leaving Ron to glare after him.

    "Ignore him," Harry said soothingly. "I like you in those jeans."

    "Hm." Ron still looked a little put out, but he shrugged. "I'm trying to think of the best place to do this - it needs to be fairly easy on your rear."

    "I hesitate to suggest this, but … how about the middle of our bed? It's big enough, especially if we all sit back to back."

    "Good thinking."

    Which was what they did.

    While Ron was trying to explain the basic principles of meditation to a sceptical Draco, Harry couldn't help but reflect that this was one of the weirder weeks he had spent in his life. Considering that his life up to this point had included spending ten years sleeping in a Muggle cupboard, discovering that magic really did exist, shopping with a half-giant, speaking to snakes, tackling a nesting dragon, and being attacked constantly by the most evil wizard in the world, this was no mean feat. He wondered idly if his life would always be strange, and decided that it beat the alternatives.

    Although if someone had told him five years ago that one day he would be sitting in the middle of an enormous bed, clad only in his boxer shorts and a t-shirt, back to back with a similarly clad Ron Weasley and Draco Malfoy, and murmuring an ancient mantra as an aid to meditation, he suspected he would have sent them straight to Madam Pomfrey for a tonic.

    As he began to let his mind drift peacefully, Harry's final thought was to wonder what was coming next. After man-eating plants, enhanced charms and transfiguration, and meditation, it was probably going to be something really good ….

    Chapter Text

    In a blink, it seemed, another week passed.

    Following Dumbledore's instructions, the trio spent an hour of every afternoon meditating; initially together in physical contact, and then at slowly increasing distances.

    Mornings were spent on wand-work. They were now quite successfully working without physical contact, an achievement that pleased even Draco (although he tried very hard to look as though he was unimpressed). Possibly this had something to do with the fact that they were now accomplishing between the three of them quite advanced magics that none of them had ever succeeded in before; spells that Harry and Ron had never learned, and that Draco himself had learned but had been unable to use until now.

    The day they managed to construct the Exploding Snap card castle with each of them in a different part of the castle and the cards themselves in a fourth was a watershed, and a cause for celebration. A beaming Dumbledore congratulated them, then chased them out of the castle with the recommendation that they relax for a couple of hours, perhaps by playing Quidditch.

    Which they did, although as Ron pointed out, it wasn't quite as much fun when you knew you could control the Bludgers and Snitch without even touching them. Even Draco chuckled at that. All the same, they had a riotous game followed by a leisurely flight around the castle grounds. The mood was so unusually harmonious that Ron even swapped brooms with Draco briefly so that the blond wizard could try out the Tsunami's paces.

    They came back to earth with a bump when they returned to the castle, however, for Sirius was waiting for them on the main landing pad.

    "What are you doing here?" Harry wanted to know, when they'd got the greetings over with. He shouldered his broom and let Sirius lead the way down the outside stairs to the courtyard below.

    His godfather was looking as windblown as he, Ron and Draco were, and was carrying his own broom as though he'd just arrived.

    "I've been in Pontypridd," Sirius said.

    "What for?"

    "We'll come to that in a minute. Remember your friend Nick Curtis? The Muggle kid with the abnormally long nose that he kept sticking into other people's business?"

    "Yes, of course – "

    "We've been looking into him since you left – it hasn't been easy. His Muggle relatives in Godric's Hollow weren't keen on talking about him."

    "Why not?" That was Ron.

    "Well, initially we thought it was because they knew he was a wizard and didn't want anything to do with him – a bit like the Dursleys with Harry. So we ... applied a bit of pressure." Sirius raised a brow at them to imply that the 'pressure' had been magical in nature. "Turned out they'd been subjected to a memory charm. Anyway, they weren't sure where young Nick was, because he suddenly decided to up and go off somewhere with 'a friend' the day I put the three of you on the Hogwarts Express. Odd, isn't it?"

    "Did you find out anything about him?" Harry asked.

    "With a struggle. His parents didn't know anything about him having magic, which was no big surprise, but when I talked to the Ministry they confirmed that he's on the Register."

    Harry blinked. "What register?"

    Draco rolled his eyes. "There's a Register of Births that makes a note when a witch or wizard is born, no matter who the parents are. There's a similar register here at Hogwarts, but that only makes a note of children who have enough magic to qualify for schooling here. That's how you get your letter – even when you're living in the depths of Surrey with the Muggles from hell, apparently."

    "Anyway," Sirius broke in impatiently, "it proves that Nick Curtis has some magic, even though it wasn't enough for him to receive formal schooling. What was really interesting was the date his birth was registered. You told me he looked about your age, right?"

    Ron nodded. "Early twenties at most, although I would have said late teens, personally."

    "I thought it was odd when I met his parents, because they were in their seventies. He's actually a couple of years older than me."

    Silence.

    "If this man supposedly has no useable magic," Draco said, after a moment, "how on earth can he cast illusions and memory charms?"

    "And take a walk on the Astral Plane?" added Ron.

    "And what were you doing in Pontypridd?" Harry wanted to know.

    Sirius reached into his robes and pulled out a photograph. "I wanted to show this to the witch who saw Ron the day when he was diverted by Voldemort's lackeys." He gave the picture to Harry. "It took some finding, but this is the real Nick Curtis. We got it from his Muggle employment records, although he's never held down a job for very long. They have these places where people go to find work - "

    "Job centres," Harry supplied quietly.

    "Right. We got it from one of those. He has some kind of mental condition that makes it difficult for him to work, apparently."

    "I didn't think he looked very stable when we saw him."

    Harry studied the picture. It was recognisably of the man he and Ron had seen in the grounds of the Potter family home, but easily twice the age. He passed the picture to Ron silently.

    "Anyway, that's the man our witness saw with Ron that day," Sirius continued quietly, "which means he's probably the Death Eater who acted as a vessel for Voldemort when he took control of Ron."

    Draco took the picture out of Ron's fingers and studied it, shaking his head. "He's no one I recognise," he said. "And it doesn't explain how a supposedly magic-less man could do all those things."

    "It might," Sirius replied. "I need to talk to Dumbledore about it. But it's worrying that he's suddenly run off."

    "He knew we saw him on the Astral Plane," Ron said. He was beginning to look upset. "He ran from us ...."

    "Which begs the question of whether he saw what your grandmother was doing and passed the information on." Sirius sighed and took the picture back. "Just in case, we talked Iris into staying with your parents for a while, and we've increased the protections on the Burrow again. The last thing we need is for Voldemort to decide she knows something he doesn't about the night Harry's parents died."

    "How long is "a while" though?" It was a rhetorical question; Ron folded his arms tightly over his chest and turned away as he said it. His face was tight with distress.

    "I don't know. Possibly not long. Things are definitely hotting up – you probably haven't had time to keep track of the news, but there have been more Death Eater attacks, in France and Holland. We thought Voldemort was still in England – "

    "He was, just before I escaped from him," Draco put in.

    " – but he might not be any longer. He has a lot of supporters in Germany and Eastern Europe. The information Viktor Krum has been passing to us is worrying, very worrying. Eastern Europe was Grindelwald's old stomping ground; they have a whole different attitude to the Dark Arts there." Sirius shook his head. "I need to talk to Dumbledore."

    "What about here?" Harry demanded, as they walked through a side door and into one of the long, cloister-like passages of the castle. "Have there been more attacks?"

    "There have been ... incidents," Sirius conceded, and Harry grimaced at the cautious phrase. He had been an Auror long enough to know what that meant.

    Fear. Paranoia. People trying to choose sides. Threats.

    Disappearances and deaths.

    "Has Fudge admitted there's a problem yet?" Draco asked dryly.

    "He's vacillating," Sirius said shortly. "Don't ask me how, but he actually got the Daily Prophet to report that the terrorist attacks in Diagon Alley were the work of a Muggle religious group. Amazing how no one asked how Muggles could have got into the Alley in the first place, or how they even knew it was there."

    Draco let out a bark of mirthless laughter.

    "You think that's funny?" Sirius demanded, nearly snapping at him. "The wizarding world doesn't need more excuses to blame Muggles for their own mistakes! Fudge has probably made things ten times worse now, because some people will actually join Voldemort thanks to that report. Arthur Weasley was nearly in tears when I saw him yesterday … years of his hard work down the drain because the Minister can't get to grips with the real problem. My God! Voldemort must be laughing his head off at us. He doesn't need to do anything, just let Fudge get on with it for him."

    "And what's Antonia Houpner-Merdie got to say on the subject?" asked Ron hurriedly.

    "She put out a carefully-worded statement deploring the violence and asking what the Minister intends to do to raise security in Diagon Alley. So we currently have some of our more experienced Aurors being wasted on pointless guard-dog duty around the Alley." Sirius glanced over this shoulder at the three of them and his face was grim. "We need you back in London."

    They continued on to the headmaster's office in silence. Harry gave the password to the stone gargoyle when they arrived and it leapt aside, allowing them to take the moving staircase up to the office above. It was Sirius who knocked and opened the door, however, and afterwards Harry wondered why he hadn't known, just from the sudden violent stiffening of his godfather's shoulders, who would be waiting for them inside that office.

    For when he and the others stepped inside, it was to see Professor Snape sitting with Dumbledore in the armchairs before his desk.

    xXx

    Harry had been present at enough encounters between Sirius Black and Severus Snape to know that the violent antipathy they nursed for each other couldn't possibly be just because of a dangerous prank Sirius had once played on Snape when they were both schoolboys. It didn't even begin to explain the loathing Snape had for James Potter, who had rescued him from that prank; or why even now Sirius had to be physically restrained when he clapped eyes on the Potions Master. It didn't explain, either, why Snape was so vindictive towards Remus Lupin.

    Trying to talk to the two surviving Marauders about it, however, was pointless; Lupin remained resolutely tight-lipped on the subject, while Sirius always talked his way around it. Consequently, Harry rather regretted not having a suitable opportunity to question Peter Pettigrew on the subject before the man committed suicide, for the mystery kept popping up at intervals to drive him nearly insane with curiosity.

    Most of the time he shoved the problem to the back of his mind, but it was at times like this that he desperately wanted to know, because at the very least it would make handling the situation easier if he knew what had caused it in the first place.

    Or possibly not; Dumbledore presumably knew all about it, but it hadn't increased his ability to control the two men. He still had to fall back upon his considerable authority as headmaster and the most powerful wizard currently living.

    Today Harry was just in time to see Snape's expression turn to pure poison and hear Sirius say a word that impressed even him with its inventiveness and venom, before both men were in each other's faces.

    With speed born of experience Ron seized the back of Sirius's robes, dragging him back, and Harry jammed himself into the minuscule gap between the two men, reasonably confident that neither one would attempt to hex the other while he was in the way. Well, Sirius wouldn't anyway; and if Snape did, then Harry was happy to let Sirius murder him.

    Distance did not stop the flow of invective, however; only Dumbledore roaring "SILENCE!" achieved that.

    A little breathless at the sudden excitement, Harry firmly pushed Sirius back even further and straightened up, glancing warily between the two men. Snape was like a pillar of black ice, only the glittering of his eyes and flared nostrils betraying his feelings, but Sirius was openly livid and visibly grinding his teeth. Harry caught sight of Draco, who was standing against the wall just inside the door. The blond youth's eyes were wide with astonishment at what he had just witnessed.

    "Well!" Dumbledore said then, his voice grave with displeasure. "Not five minutes ago, I had the pleasing experience of telling Severus what achievements our three young friends here had made in less than two weeks, and not least the very great efforts they have all made to overcome longstanding differences between them. Needless to say, it is extremely disappointing to me that the same cannot be said of their elders. I am well aware by now, gentlemen, that you cannot be prevailed upon to put aside your disagreements, but I will remind you that my office is not a battleground and further that I will not tolerate the pair of you pursuing your private little feud at the expense of the cause we all serve. I hope I make myself clear!"

    Whew! Harry thought, appalled. I'm glad that wasn't directed at me. It wasn't so much the words but the tone; Dumbledore was a master of voice control and nuance. The speech was enough to make Harry flush with discomfort; a quick glance at Ron and Draco showed that they too were a bit pink in the face. Sirius was a deep, unflattering magenta under his tan.

    Snape, however, showed no reaction whatsoever other than to step back a few paces, his eyes never leaving Sirius's face.

    "Very well," the headmaster continued coolly. "Sirius, I believe you have urgent matters to discuss with me. I will be with you in a moment. Gentlemen," and he turned to Harry, Ron and Draco, "as I mentioned, I have been discussing your progress with Professor Snape. The next stage of your training I think falls rather more in his province and so, if you will forgive me, I'll hand you over to him until I have concluded my business with Sirius."

    Harry hoped his feelings upon hearing this weren't written as blatantly across his face as they were (albeit briefly) across Ron's. He suspected they were. His heart sank at the idea of having Snape as a tutor again, especially since the Potions Master's expression seemed to suggest that he was going to enjoy having control over Sirius's godson once more.

    There was nothing to be done but bow to Dumbledore's judgement, though. Snape gathered the three of them up with a knife-like glance and swept to the door.

    Sirius stopped Harry just as they were leaving. "I want to speak to you before I go," he said quietly.

    Harry nodded and tried to grin. "Later."

    xXx

    It was like being back in a Potions detention again. The three of them, sweating and (in Harry and Ron's case, at least) resentful, sat at separate desks in the dungeon classroom, copying down notes on a complicated potion as Snape dictated.

    Harry was finding it difficult to concentrate; his stomach was rumbling insistently, for they had missed lunch thanks to Snape dragging them off so abruptly. He supposed sourly that meals were an irrelevance to the austere Potions Master; but while one missed meal was hardly a disaster, it made him grumpy and restless. Oh well, it would be good practice if Voldemort got his hands on him again. It was unlikely that he would be much interested in feeding his captive regularly either, and even if he did, Harry didn't think it would be a good idea to eat anything offered to him by the dark wizard ….

    "You might consider paying attention, Mr. Potter," Snape's voice said suddenly, making him jump. The Potions Master was standing at his shoulder, having appeared there silently as he often had when Harry was a student. "You'll be making this potion later, and we wouldn't want any accidents befalling the three of you, would we?"

    Harry glanced up at him, irritated at the blatant intimidation tactics Snape used, looming over him like some great, black crow. "I am paying attention," he said curtly. "It's hardly my fault if you speak too fast."

    There was a tense pause, and he could feel Ron and Draco both looking at him with covert astonishment. Harry didn't care. His eyes were fixed on the Potions Master and he was silently daring him to say something.

    Go on, you son of a bitch. Say it. Try to punish me, like you did when I was a kid, and see what I'll do. I'm a grown man and I don't have to take this shit from you any more.

    There was a silent battle of wills, and Harry saw Snape stiffen. Quick as a flash, he reached out and twitched Harry's roll of parchment from him. There was another tense pause as he held it up to read - then dropped it back onto the desk negligently.

    "Well, well, well!" he commented, and a sneer twisted his lean face. "Will wonders never cease? It would appear that you were indeed paying attention … a pity you had to start now, instead of ten years ago."

    He swept away to the front of the classroom, leaving Harry to grit his teeth and try not to destroy his quill when his hands clenched into fists. The Potions Master turned his attention to Draco and addressed the rest of his comments to him alone, as though Harry and Ron were two morons incapable of understanding him.

    "You need to study the procedure for this potion very carefully before you attempt it." He picked up a small book bound in red leather, which he handed to the blond youth. "I've marked the relevant passages. That will be all."

    And he turned away, walking through the door behind his desk into his private office.

    The three of them stared at each other for a moment, then Draco gathered up his things and jerked his head towards the door.

    "Come on …."

    Ron heaved a huge sigh of relief when they left the room. "Merlin! I swear he gets worse. And I'm absolutely starving." He checked his watch. "Yep, it's nearly three o'clock. I'm surprised neither of you could hear my stomach, I thought it was going to start playing the 1812 Overture …."

    But Draco was looking at Harry. "What on earth was that happy little confrontation about?" he asked. "For a minute there, I thought you were going to stick your wand up his nose or something."

    Harry grinned unwillingly at the image, but he was still annoyed. "He pisses me off. He still treats me like I'm twelve years old, and I'm fed up of him transferring his 'feelings' for my Dad and Sirius onto me. He should get over it already."

    "So should your beloved godfather," Draco pointed out, although in an unusually reasonable tone of voice, "but it looked to me like he was being just as pig-headed."

    "That's just the way Sirius is."

    "Well, bearing a particularly nasty grudge is the way Snape is. What's it all about, anyway?"

    "God only knows," Harry sighed. "I've been trying to find out for years now. It started with a practical joke that went wrong when they were at school together, but there has to be something else to it because you saw what they're like."

    Draco opened his mouth to ask another question, but was interrupted by Hedwig suddenly swooping down and landing on Harry's shoulder. She was carrying a note in her beak.

    "Where've you been all day? Gossiping in the owlery?" Harry asked her affectionately, as he took the small, rather grubby sheet of paper. She hooted at him in a dignified way and ruffled her feathers a little. Harry opened the note and was pleased to see Hagrid's untidy handwriting. "Hagrid wants to know if we'll have a late lunch with him. I wonder how he knew?"

    xXx

    Walking through the door of Hagrid's hut, they were greeted by excited yelps. Two enormous pups tumbled out of a large, cut-down crate in the corner by the gamekeeper's bed and loped clumsily on huge paws to greet them.

    Hagrid's faithful (if cowardly) boarhound Fang had finally met his Maker at Easter, and these were presumably his successors. Grinning, Harry bent to let them sniff his hands, but to everyone's surprise it was Draco who dropped to his knees and scooped them up, allowing them to lick his face and slobber on his shirt.

    "What?" he demanded defensively, when he saw three surprised faces looking at him. "I always wanted a dog. My father wouldn't let me have one."

    "Well, at least now we know what to get him for Christmas," Ron muttered to Harry as they sank into Hagrid's immense chairs. Harry gave him a rather surprised smile – never would he have expected to Ron say that – but didn't comment.

    Hagrid himself continued to eye Draco rather fixedly for a moment or two, although whether this was due to the blond youth's unexpected weakness for puppies, or simply because it was Draco Malfoy, it was difficult to determine. Finally the half-giant seemed to give himself a little shake and turned to pouring tea into four only slightly chipped mugs.

    It was a measure of how far he'd come that although Draco looked at his rough, pitcher-sized mug for a moment, he didn't actually say anything about it. They all looked a little suspiciously at the enormous plate of sandwiches that Hagrid laid out, though; thick slices of unidentified meat hung out of the bread. He caught them and his beard twitched in amusement.

    "It's ham," he said firmly, eyes twinkling. "Never saw a stoat that big before, did yeh?"

    "You never know what you're going to find in the Forbidden Forest," was Ron's opinion, but he picked up a sandwich and took a hearty bite out of it. "Mmf ... wha's the pickle, 'Agrid?" he mumbled around the mouthful.

    Hagrid gave him a sidelong look, and Harry knew he was teasing now. "Finish yer sandwich an' I'll tell yeh."

    The look of dismay on Ron's face was so comical that Harry snickered helplessly. He grabbed a sandwich himself, and after a moment's hesitation Draco followed suit. Hagrid relieved him of one of the pups, and took a seat himself.

    "So what've yeh all bin up to, then?"

    They spent a pleasant hour telling him about their work with Dumbledore and trying to wheedle him into telling them about his negotiations with the giants. In this they were largely unsuccessful, although Harry took some comfort in the fact that, so far as anyone could tell, the giants had not yet joined Voldemort's side. The best possible result, of course, would be if they joined Dumbledore's cause instead, but Hagrid did admit that he thought this unlikely.

    "Too many people puttin' 'em down fer too long," he said, shaking his head. "Best we can 'ope fer is 'em stayin' out of it."

    "Are things getting very bad, Hagrid?" Harry asked quietly.

    "Bad enough," was the short reply. Hagrid busied himself for a moment, removing the empty sandwich plate, pouring more tea and producing another platter full of small fruit cakes. "There's more folks disappearin'. Some of 'em were under suspicion last time aroun'. Reckon they're joinin' 'im, wherever he is."

    "Who are they?" Draco suddenly asked. He had been staying out of the conversation until now, and was currently on his knees again, rolling a small ball for the pups to chase.

    Hagrid's eyes hardened slightly. "Never yeh mind," he said sharply. "Yer old man'll be with 'im already, I reckon."

    Draco flushed slightly. "I was wondering about my mother, actually."

    "She's still at Malfoy Manor, an' that's where she'll stay if she knows what's good fer 'er."

    "She must be wondering where I am." Draco fiddled with the ball, not looking at the others.

    "Well, let 'er wonder." But Hagrid's tone was merely gruff now. "Better fer both of yeh if she don't know. What she don't know she can't be made ter tell."

    xXx

    The afternoon was beginning to slide into evening when they left Hagrid's hut and walked slowly back up to the castle. Draco seemed disinclined to join in the rather desultory conversation between Harry and Ron, and they left him alone to his thoughts.

    Harry had to admit to himself that it hadn't occurred to him that Draco's mother might be worrying about him, or vice versa. She hadn't struck him as being the motherly type on the one occasion he had seen her, but there were many ways of showing affection and just because Draco's family had always seemed to him to be the antithesis of Ron's didn't mean they didn't love each other. Although he suspected that Draco could well do without the kind of 'love' Lucius Malfoy appeared to feel for his son.

    They were nearly at the main entrance when Sirius appeared on the gravel pathway from one of the side entrances. He spotted them and walked over.

    "There you are! I've been looking everywhere for you."

    "Sorry," Harry apologised. "We've been having lunch with Hagrid."

    "Lunch? I wondered if Snape would let you eat before he took you off." Sirius dug out his pocket watch and glanced it. "I can't hang around much longer if I'm to be home before dark. Harry, walk with me?"

    "Of course." Harry looked at Ron. "I'll catch up with you."

    He turned around, and he and Sirius began to walk back through the gardens and down to the lake. Not much was said until they reached the lake edge and Sirius began to pick up stones, skipping them across the water.

    "How's it going?" he asked Harry finally.

    "Pretty good. Didn't Dumbledore tell you?"

    "Yes, but I wanted to hear about it from you. Do you feel you're more in control of things now?"

    That was an odd way of putting it, Harry thought. "I don't know about that. Everything we do here is buffered, isn't it? We won't really know what we're really capable of handling until we're using the circle for real."

    "What about young Malfoy? Is he co-operating?"

    "He's fine." Harry smiled a little wryly. "We'll be having a group wedding at the end of the summer – want to be my best man?"

    Sirius snorted a laugh. "Well, at least you're not all fighting like cats in a sack. When do you think you'll be back in London?"

    "I don't know. Didn't Dumbledore say?" Harry sighed. "We can't stay here all summer. Besides, I have a Quidditch match the week after next."

    "All Dumbledore will say is that you're making excellent progress." Sirius skipped another stone pensively.

    "Look, what happens when we get back to London, anyway?" Harry wanted to know. "What are we going to do? We can't carry on the way we were, surely?"

    "Oh no. If you're a working wizard circle, then that's how we need you to operate. That's why I asked if young Malfoy is co-operating – a wizard circle is of no use to us if one member won't co-operate with the others."

    Harry stared. "Are you saying that if we can all work together successfully, then Draco would work with us ... as an Auror?"

    Sirius shrugged. "What else? We have to do something with him, and with the way things are going we really do need everyone we can lay our hands on. So, what do you think? Will he work with you – and us?"

    "I don't know – I'll have to ask him, I suppose." Privately, he was very unsure indeed. It could go either way with Draco; his was not a simple personality, and Harry wasn't sure how much reliance they could place on him. He might say one thing one day, and change his mind the next. "Some kind of show of faith might be a good idea," he suggested.

    "What did you have in mind?"

    "Well ... he was asking about his mother today."

    "We can't afford to let him pass owls back and forth to her, Harry," Sirius said bluntly. "She could be the most reliable person in the world – which I'm afraid Narcissa Malfoy isn't – and it would still be a terrible risk. We have no idea how much contact she still has with Lucius, or what kind of surveillance the Death Eaters have over her. She's pretty much under house arrest at the moment, but that's not worth much. We've had her under constant watch and turned the Manor over three times in the last couple of months."

    "Did you find anything?"

    "No. Doesn't mean there's nothing to find, though. I'd love to get Ron up there and see what he makes of the place, but that's not feasible at the moment."

    "Some information about her, at least. Something I can tell him to reassure him. I think he's genuinely worried about her, and what his disappearance has done to her."

    Sirius laughed humourlessly. "Yes, she's put on a couple of award-winning performances about that for our benefit! Lots of histrionics about her baby boy going missing – funny how every other parent of a Death Eater clams up when their kids go missing, but Narcissa instantly points the finger at us. Makes you wonder just how she knows that Voldemort and Lucius don't have him. She forgets that I know what a cold piece of work she is, though." He glanced at Harry. "I leave it to you to judge whether Draco's really concerned about Narcissa – you know him better than I do – but I hope for his sake that he's under no illusions about what she's really like. But if you think it'll do some good, you can tell him from me that she was fine when I saw her two weeks ago. And yes, she was expressing concerns about his welfare, but we didn't tell her anything because we're still maintaining official denial about him. Will that do?"

    "It'll have to, I suppose."

    Sirius nodded. "I should get going."

    They turned back.

    "You'll never reach London before dark on a broomstick," Harry commented, as they began to climb the outer staircase that led to the landing pad.

    "I'm not going to try. I'll just fly as far as Hogsmeade, then Apparate to Godric's Hollow."

    "You're going home tonight?"

    Sirius gave him a crooked smile. "It's a full moon."

    Of course. He would be keeping Lupin company during his werewolf transformation. Being an Auror, it wasn't always possible for Sirius to be there, but Harry knew that if he could maintain the vigil with his friend, he always did. Having been in the house on a couple of occasions during a full moon, he knew that even though the Wolfsbane Potion made the transformation easier and less dangerous for Lupin, it was nevertheless unpleasant.

    "I don't want to leave Remus on his own this time around if I can avoid it," Sirius continued unexpectedly, as they reached the landing pad. His lips tightened a little. "We picked up a couple of suspects for the Diagon Alley bombing a week ago. Definitely Death Eaters, although whether we can secure a conviction I don't know. But one of them had the nerve to tell Remus that if he would change sides, Voldemort could cure him. And he gave him some sickening spiel about how creatures like him would receive their true recognition when Voldemort came into power. Moody was practically hopping with joy, because any kind of rant like that just adds to our case against them, but Remus was pretty shaken up. He didn't say anything at the time, but he's been very quiet since."

    "No one who knows Remus could possibly believe he would go over to Voldemort, no matter what he was offered!" Harry spluttered, revolted.

    But Sirius's smile was bitter. "Plenty of people are ready to believe it, Harry. Think about it for a minute – how many people do you know who are prepared to invite him to dinner? And that interview was typical. Any other Auror would be trusted to interview a suspect on his own, but not Remus – because of what he is, there had to be a second witness present. His evidence would never be credited in court." The Animagus shook his head. "I'm telling you, Harry, if – when – we deal with Voldemort this time, things are going to have to change. We need to kick useless bigots like Fudge out of office and put decent men like Arthur Weasley and Lewis Castell in. And we need to tackle blind prejudice against people like Remus and Hagrid."

    "Amen to that," Harry said soberly.

    xXx

    The potion Snape had made them copy down was called Restoria Vitae and was reputed to return life to the dying. It had not been brewed in over two hundred years. Where he had found the recipe Harry couldn't imagine, and why he should be hoarding it was an even bigger mystery. The potion in question could only be brewed by a wizard circle.

    Unfortunately for the three of them it could also only be brewed during a full moon, which was why they were kneeling in a circle around a large cauldron in the middle of the night. They were also working in a light trance, so to avoid any mistakes in identity each of them was wearing a different colour robe; Harry a vibrant red, Draco a light blue, and Ron in a rather dramatic black.

    Harry had argued about this initially: "This isn't how I saw it in my dream …."

    "What you saw in your dream was probably influenced by what you knew of the situation at the time," Ron had retorted with maddening matter-of-factness. "This makes sense knowing what we know now."

    Now they were on their knees by the cauldron, which was suspended by a chain from the ceiling over a fire in a pit below it. The room was one Harry had never been in before, a bare, circular stone place at the top of one of the towers, lit only by moonlight through arrow-loupes at regular intervals in the walls.

    Most of the ingredients had been prepared and placed in the cauldron before it was hoisted over the fire; the rest could only be added during a ritual incantation. But before that could happen, they had to successfully build and maintain a mental link between the three of them under trance, which was why they were now holding their hands out over the hot steam above the cauldron, touching wand-tip to wand-tip.

    The vapour given off by the ingredients already stewing in the pot was mildly psychoactive. As Harry felt himself sinking further and further under its influence, the outer edges of the room - where Dumbledore and Snape stood, being as unobtrusive as possible - blurred and became indistinct. All he could focus on was Ron, Draco and the cauldron beneath their hands … and the sticky, golden threads he could see forming in the air between the three of them.

    This is the link then, he thought vaguely, watching the threads with detached fascination. Almost at once he could see a tiny flaw in the connection - the threads binding him to Ron were a great deal strong than those between the two of them and Draco. The weakness probably wouldn't matter today, provided that they did everything right, but under other, more stressed circumstances ….

    We'll have to do something about that.

    There was no obvious signal, but Harry knew the moment when they had to move. Thanks to the drugging properties of the vapours, it felt like he was trying to walk under water. Slowly, deliberately, each of them drew their wands back and stood up.
    The threads between them held.

    Although Ron would still act as the focus, by prior agreement Draco took the lead in this experiment. He had the greater knowledge and understanding of the potion recipe, and of the ritual they were following. Slipping his wand into his sleeve, he took a sprig of Rosemary from the pocket of his robe, tore a few pieces off it and sprinkled them into the potion, bruising the leaves between his fingers as he did so.

    "Riordis."

    Ron took a handful of coarse, brown powder - dried, ground up Mandrake root - from his pocket and sprinkled a pinch into the cauldron.

    "Ciadis."

    Finally, Harry himself held his clenched fist over the cauldron before opening it and releasing the single, very precious pinch of dust into the mixture. Powdered unicorn horn.

    "Mierkisne."

    The potion boiled up, releasing violent bursts of steam like the troubled surface of hot mud springs. Drawing their wands again, the three of them reached out above the potion, touching wand-tips once more. Then they each took a measured three steps anti-clockwise; the distance was marked out on the floor in white chalk to avoid mistakes, and – still maintaining the contact between them – lowered the wands slightly so that they were pointing downwards in an inverted pyramid shape.
    ("Macbeth's three wizards," Draco had commented, dryly humorous, when he explained the procedure to Harry and Ron earlier.)

    "Riordis," Draco repeated.

    "Ciadis."

    "Mierkisne," Harry murmured and felt the power leap inside him, surging out along those sticky gold threads that linked the three of them together, down their wand arms, through their wands –

    - and into the potion that seethed inside the cauldron.

    There was a flare of brilliant white light; Draco had warned them of this, and Harry closed his eyes reflexively against the painful glare, fighting to keep his wand arm steady. What he had not expected was the sudden wind that howled through the arrow-loupes into the room and whipped around them, grabbing at his robes and driving his hair up into spikes.

    Then it was gone, and the fire beneath the cauldron had blown out. They were left in the eerily moonlit room with half a cauldron of glinting, silvery liquid and a very odd smell.

    xXx

    "'Interesting' ... . Is that the best he can do – interesting? Ungrateful git."

    "Stop complaining. That's probably the most positive comment we've ever had from Snape."

    "Speak for yourselves. I always got good marks from him."

    "Teacher's pet."

    "Besides, he hasn't tested it yet ...."

    Ron flung himself into one of the squashy armchairs in their little common room and gave Harry a jaundiced look. "What makes you think he'll be any more complimentary when he satisfies himself that it works? And do we get that potion back when he's finished with it? We made it, after all."

    "Why, what are you planning to do with it?" Draco wanted to know. He also flopped out, looking drained.

    "You never know. A potion like that could come in handy."

    "Only if you're a mediwizard for the Chudley Cannons."

    "That's a low blow even for you, Malfoy."

    "Hey!" Harry intervened quickly. "Don't start name-calling just because you're tired."

    "Tired doesn't begin to describe how I feel." Draco dragged himself back out of the chair's embrace. "I'm going to bed ...."

    "No, you're not – not yet. We need to talk."

    Ron and Draco both stared at Harry with a mixture of disbelief and irritation.

    "Come off it, Harry, I'm going cross-eyed here. Can't it wait?"

    "No." Harry rubbed his eyes wearily and perched on the arm of a chair. "I'm so knackered, I'll forget about it if we don't talk about it now."

    Ron groaned, but sat back. "Go on."

    Draco merely looked resigned. "Spit it out, Potter."

    Harry took a deep breath and plunged in. "Was I the only person who noticed that we had a problem?"

    Ron peered at him owlishly. "Such as?"

    "Such as … the link worked, but there was a weakness at one point that I could see when we were under the trance."

    Draco groaned. "I might have known you'd see that." He sighed and dragged himself upright again. "Why don't you just say it? What you're really saying is that I'm the problem, because the weakest point in the link was with me."

    "Not necessarily," Harry replied as soothingly as he could. "If anything it lies with all three of us, because the weakness wouldn't be there if there wasn't a problem with the way we interact. Ron and I are very close; it stands to reason that we link together more easily. But we don't know you so well, and we're certainly not as close to you. And the three of us have … history. We're not going to overcome that just by sharing quarters for a couple of weeks. But we need to do something about it, because it's going to be a danger point when we're doing this for real, rather than just as an experiment."

    Draco raised one pale brow at him. "Who said anything about us doing this for real?"

    "Sirius did. Things are getting bad fast, and he wanted to know if we could be replied upon as a team."

    "And just who was your respected godfather speaking on behalf of?"

    "The Aurors, in the first instance."

    Draco looked amused at this. "They want me to work with the Aurors now?"

    "You were planning on doing something else with your spare time?" asked Ron, blandly. "Going back to your father and Voldemort, maybe?"

    "There's no need to be facetious."

    "I learned everything I know about being facetious from you …."

    "Leave it!" Harry warned his friend sharply. He turned back to Draco. "Look, forget about what everyone wants from us for now, and just assume that at some point we're going to have to link like that again. One thing's certain - I don't want to try anything as complicated as that potion again without trying to fix the link, because if it snaps at the wrong moment one of us could be killed."

    Almost certainly me, he added silently. That first, painful surge of power between them was always at the back of his mind.

    Ron was giving him a thoughtful look. "What are you suggesting?"

    "I don't know. What would you suggest?" Harry ran an impatient hand through his hair, rumpling it wildly.

    "Dumbledore wants us to try something similar tomorrow," Draco pointed out.

    "No." Harry's tone was final. When the blond youth raised a questioning brow again, he elaborated, "I think we've gone beyond a stage where even Dumbledore can dictate how we manage ourselves. There's a weak spot in the link. We need time to work on that, for our own safety. So … we're not trying anything tomorrow. Do you both agree?"

    Ron nodded calmly, and after a brief pause Draco also inclined his head in agreement.

    "Although I'm curious to know how you think we're going to overcome ten years of history in a day or so," he added.

    "We won't know what we can do until we try," Ron said, before Harry could answer. "I have a suggestion."

    "Indeed?"

    "Yeah - you going to listen to it, or have you got some insightful comments of your own to make?"

    Draco's mouth twitched slightly. "Fire away."

    Ron was looking at Harry. "Remember when we finished school and we went away for a couple of weeks to sort ourselves out?"

    In spite of his exhaustion, Harry's brows rose and he was hard put to suppress a smile. "No, I don't remember that - why would I remember that?"

    His partner gave him a look. "Seriously."

    "Yes, I remember. Of course I remember! Why?"

    "We had some issues," Ron said pointedly, "and it didn't look like we were ever going to be able to talk about it normally, so in the end …."

    "We got drunk." Harry dug his hands into the pockets of his jeans and looked up at the ceiling for a moment. "Okay. But what are you suggesting the three of us talk about when we're plastered?"

    "Everything."

    "Everything?" Draco shifted in his seat, the only visible sign that he was uneasy about this. "What do you mean, everything?"

    "Life, the universe, magic, families - you know, everything," Ron replied. "The stuff people talk about to their close friends."

    "Really." Now his tone was very dry. "I must have had a different breed of close friend, then, because I can't ever recall talking about those things to Goyle and Crabbe. Far too risky in our circle. Besides, I don't get drunk. It's undignified and you never know what the hell's going to come out of your mouth that you might regret later."

    "That knocks that idea on the head then," Harry said with a sigh, "although considering what happened the last time we got drunk, it's probably just as well."

    "And what was that?" Draco wanted to know.

    "You must remember. It involved a four poster bed." Harry rubbed his face again. It had to be nearly three o'clock in the morning and he was starting to feel really light-headed. "Any other bright ideas?"

    Silence.

    "Great. So where do we go from here?"

    "To bed, I would suggest," said Draco firmly, and he stood up.

    "We'll give it some more thought in the morning," Harry decided. He stood up too, and offered a hand to Ron to pull him up out of his chair.

    "You're assuming you'll see me before lunch," was the blond youth's retort as he crossed the room to his bedroom, but the comment was good-natured and Harry grinned.

    "Come on, Ron …. What are you doing?"

    Ron had stopped beside the wide circular table and was looking at something - a small wooden box that had been standing in the middle of it. It was the box he kept his 'special' set of Tarot cards in.

    He looked up at Harry and there was an arrested look on his face.

    "I have an idea …."

    Chapter Text

    "How do you know this will work?" Draco wanted to know.

    "I don't," Ron replied absently, sorting his bits and pieces fussily. "It's worth a try though. Harry and I were going to have a go anyway."

    Draco looked across at Harry, who was sitting to one side of the low table, hugging his knees to his chest and clearly trying to stay out of the discussion. "And was Harry aware of this?"

    "Yep."

    The blond youth studied Harry's unhappy body language and his lips twitched. "I see. I'm beginning to get an idea who wears the trousers in this relationship."

    Harry's expression became wry, but he still declined to comment. Ron, on the other hand, smiled as he touched his wand tip to the wick of the single candle in the centre of the table. It was a peculiarly wicked little expression that made him look unnervingly like his brothers, George and Fred.

    "Well, of course," he commented. "You didn't honestly think Harry was in charge, did you? There'd be four poster beds all over the place if I let that happen."

    This roused Harry to mild indignation. "Hey!"

    Ron gave him a sweet smile that was somehow even more disturbing than the evil smirk. He pushed a rosewood box across the table to his partner. "Do me a favour and sort out the Major Arcana cards, would you?"

    "Do I have to?" Harry eyes the box with barely concealed dislike. "These damn cards of yours give me the creeps."

    "Don't be a baby." Ron began to crush a selection of powerfully-scented herbs in a small mortar pilfered from the potions lab. "I'm not suggesting we make a full pack - we'd be here all week doing that. There are twenty-two cards in the Major Arcana, though. Seven each for you two, and eight for me, shouldn't be too tasking."

    "Not too tasking he says," Draco muttered. "I hope you've taken into account the fact that I can't draw."

    "You don't have to be able to, that's the beauty of this. It's a bit like spirit writing."

    The blond youth regarded him with horror. "No way! I am not getting involved in anything that involves possession - "

    "It's not possession!" Ron said, exasperated. "Will you stop jumping to conclusions and just shut up for a minute? Honestly …."

    Harry separated out the Major Arcana cards and put the rest of the pack, wrapped in their silk shroud, back into the box. "What do you want me to do with these?"

    "Shuffle them up a bit and deal them out into three piles. I think that's the fairest way to divide them up. We'll be using these as a base pack, which is a bit risky, but I don't have any of my other cards with me."

    "Why don't you borrow a set from Trelawney's classroom?"

    "Because she's still here, remember? She never leaves Hogwarts. And you can't have forgotten how much she likes me - as in not at all. I'm not asking to borrow anything of hers."

    Ron finished pounding the herbs and tipped the powder into the top of a large oil burner. Then he added water.

    "Okay, Harry, dish the cards out."

    Harry handed one small stack to Draco, one to Ron and kept the third in front of himself. Draco fingered his hesitantly, but didn't turn them over to look.

    "Don't you have to have the Sight for this?" he asked.

    "You do have the Sight," Ron told him impatiently. "You could never dream true if you didn't have at least a little of it. You have enough for this, anyway."

    "What do we have to do?" Harry asked quietly.

    "Well ... I could tell you how I did it, but that would take too much time and there's no guaranteeing it would work if we all tried separately. I suggest the three of us link together, and I take you two under with me."

    "And then what do we do?" Draco wanted to know.

    "You'll find out when we get there. We just need to make sure we have everything to hand first, because we won't consciously be making the cards." Ron handed each of them a set of cardboard 'blanks', a calligrapher's pen and ink. Then he picked up his wand and looked at them. "Everyone ready?"

    "No," Draco muttered, but he took his wand out and the three of them touched wand tip to wand tip.

    With his free hand Ron lit the candle in the oil burner, then picked up a leftover pinch of the powdered herbs and sprinkled it into the flame of the tall candle in the middle of the table.

    Almost at once they were enveloped in a thick, heavily-scented cloud of fumes. Harry gasped as the smell hit the back of his throat and felt himself becoming light-headed. His vision blurred unpleasantly and the floor seemed to tilt underneath him.

    "Just try to breathe normally, Harry," Ron's voice said from a great distance.

    Harry wasn't at all sure he wanted to breathe any more of the stuff. The room was fading out on him, and his last thought before it winked out altogether was that it would be just his luck if he passed out and ruined the entire experiment.

    xXx

    "Ow!"

    He batted away pinching fingers and opened his eyes to find that he was sitting in the middle of a dirt track. To either side of him was rolling moorland - scrubby grass, patches of heather and occasional gorse bushes, interspersed with rocky outcroppings.

    "Are you with us?"

    He squinted up and saw Ron bending over him. "Where are we?"

    "Where we intended to be." Ron offered him a hand and pulled him to his feet.

    Draco was standing a few feet away, looking around him with a disgruntled expression.

    "This is bleak - the kind of place Lord Voldemort likes," he commented.

    Harry had to agree with him. It looked pretty barren and abandoned to him. "So where is 'here', anyway?" he wanted to know.

    Ron shrugged. "I think it's an aspect of the Astral Plane, but don't quote me on that."

    "And what do we do now that we're here?" Draco asked.

    "We walk. Believe me, it won't stay like this forever. Oh - and we'd better get our wands out, just in case."

    They started walking.

    "This place reminds me of Dartmoor," Harry commented after a few minutes' silence. "Remember trekking across the moor with your dad and Sirius a couple of years ago, Ron? The mist came down so fast ...."

    "Muggles have died on Dartmoor," Ron replied. "They do this thing every year where groups of them trek across all ten of the Tors and camp out. Dad told me that a group of Muggle kids died of exposure trying to do that once. But that was years ago."

    "Why on earth would anyone want to walk across a place like this?" Draco demanded. "The Muggles must be mad."

    "It's a challenge," Harry said, with a shrug.

    "We did it because Dad and Sirius had been asked to look over a stone circle that had popped up in the middle of nowhere," Ron added. "We couldn't fly or Apparate there because of all the Muggle tourists wandering about. Dad had the time of his life, but it was pretty scary when the mist suddenly rolled in because we weren't sure where we were, even with the Four Point Spell. We could have kept walking, but that's the sure way to end up in a bog."

    "And did the stone circle just pop up out of nowhere?"

    "Nah, it was some Muggles messing around. It was pretty good for a fake, mind you, but nothing magical."

    "I don't know why you bothered."

    "There was always the possibility that it was Death Eater work," Harry pointed out.

    Draco snorted. "The Dark Lord and his followers are quite happy to use the stone circles already in existence, Harry, without wasting time building more."

    "Heads up, people," Ron said abruptly. "Here we go …."

    "Where the hell did that come from?" Draco demanded.

    Looming out of the landscape in front of them was a decrepit stone building that had certainly not been there a matter of moments before. The dirt road they were walking on petered out, and the ground started to rise on a gentle slope. It was growing darker as well, the sky filling with heavy grey clouds that seemed to be attracted to the derelict monument.

    "What on earth is that?" Harry breathed, staring up at the building which seemed to grow more and more massive as the minutes passed.

    Ron sounded apprehensive. "It's the Falling Tower."

    "But it's not falling," said Draco, rather foolishly.

    The sudden bolt of lightening made the three of them nearly leap out of their skins. It hit the ramparts of the tower like the crack of doom, shattering the already fragmented stonework. A crumbling gargoyle that had been perched precariously on the ramparts broke loose and tumbled to the ground in a hail of masonry.

    There was a dramatic roll of thunder and the lightning struck again. More stonework broke loose and a whole corner of the tower developed a crack that rent it from top to bottom.

    "We might want to get out of here!" Ron shouted over the thunder. Sudden wind howled, tearing at his robes and whipping his words away.

    "How?" Harry shouted back.

    Great chunks of rock were breaking free from the building now, and rolling down the hill. The three of them stumbled backwards hastily, clutching at each other to keep their balance and trying to avoid the debris that was falling from the rapidly collapsing tower.

    "Run!" Ron yelled and took to his heels.

    Not stopping to question or argue, the other two followed.

    xXx

    In the Gryffindor Common Room, the only sound to be heard was the ticking of the ancient clock above the mantelpiece and the whispering of Draco's pen over the first of his card blanks.

    No sign of their extraordinary adventure showed on any of the three young wizards' tranquil faces.

    xXx

    Events were moving apace now.

    "You could have warned us it would be like this," Draco grumbled, as his rubbed his shoulder.

    Racing from the Falling Tower, they had promptly found the Chariot standing in the road, which had been useful for they'd been able to hop inside and take a ride for a while. Unfortunately, it had taken them to a grassy arena where they'd encountered Strength - not in its usual Tarot form of a man taming a lion, but instead as an athlete practising lifting rocks. Draco had been challenged to do something similar, which wasn't nearly as amusing as it sounded.

    "Three down," Harry sighed, as they walked along. It was getting extremely hot all of a sudden.

    "Four," Ron replied. "Don't look up - we're being tested by the Sun."

    "Charming," Draco muttered, easing the neck of his robe with a finger.

    "So what's next?" wondered Harry.

    "Whatever that is up ahead," Ron replied, pointing to something that seemed to be sprouting out of the grass.

    It was a stone circle.

    "Do I want to know what this is?" Draco asked uneasily, as they hesitated outside it.

    "Um … the Wheel of Fortune?" Harry suggested uncertainly. The stones were quite low, barely knee-height; he stooped to peer at one and jumped back with an exclamation when the carving on it - a grotesque face - twisted to glare at him.

    "They're all the same," Ron said, walking around the edge of the circle. "I think - I think they're people. Or were. Don't go inside it."

    "Okay …."

    They all skirted around the edge of the circle and hurried on, not wanting to take too close a look at it.

    "That's five," Draco said, very quietly.

    The day wore on, and the three of them began to grow hot, sticky and tired. There seemed to be long periods where they walked and nothing happened to them, then two or more of the cards' subjects would appear at once.

    Twice they were caught in traps. Harry accidentally stepped off the edge of a cliff that had appeared from nowhere and landed in one pan of a giant pair of scales below (Justice), which forced Ron and Draco to think creatively in order to counterbalance the scales and get him out. The second time Ron stepped into a hidden loop of rope hanging from a tree and found himself dangling upside down by one foot (the Hanged Man).

    By the time they encountered the Lovers - represented, oddly, by a pair frolicking Peacocks in a leafy garden - they were more interested in stopping to quench their thirst at a pretty fountain, sculpted to look like a young girl pouring water from a Greek vase. (Much to Harry's amusement, she looked remarkably like Hermione.) Draco was all for staying there a while, but Ron urged them to keep moving.

    "What I want to know," Harry commented, as they reluctantly stepped back onto the path that would lead them out of the garden, "is how on earth you managed to do this on your own before - and for a whole Tarot deck."

    "I was young and stupid," Ron said, but his grin was as tired as he was. "By the way, I think that was Temperance we just saw."

    "Temperance?"

    "The girl with the urn and the water. Classic depiction of Temperance."

    "Oh good," Draco responded, without enthusiasm. "How many have we covered now?"

    They kept walking.

    xXx

    They passed other cards now almost incidentally ... Judgement (an elderly man with a mischievous twinkle in his eye who was the image of Professor Dumbledore), the Fool (Fred Weasley at his most manic), the Empress (a motherly woman who looked just like Molly Weasley), the Hierophant (alarmingly, a man who looked a lot like Professor Snape), and the High Priestess (Professor McGonagall, looking benign). Meanwhile, the day was starting to draw to a close. As night fell and the Moon rose above, a curiously unpleasant chill swept over them.

    "The Moon's not a positive card," Ron explained, seeing the unease on Harry and Draco's faces. "What you're feeling is a reflection of what the card represents. It'll probably pass when the Star appears."

    But long before then the next trial appeared.

    Looming out of the darkness came a long, crook-backed, stone wall, over eight feet in height and damaged in places. In the middle of it was a tall gateway built out of a massive skeleton. The bones were hunched over to form part of the archway and the figure seemed to lean upon the handle of a huge, wicked-looking scythe to complete the arch. There was no gate, only the tattered remains of a cloak hanging from the skeletal shoulders to block the entrance.

    "Oh … Death," Ron said, rather unnecessarily.

    "Am I right in thinking the Death card only represents alterations in circumstances?" asked Draco, studying the skeletal gate nervously.

    "As in an abrupt and radical change," Ron agreed.

    "Then walking through that gateway shouldn't be too dangerous, should it?"

    "You want to go first?" Harry asked him dryly.

    That gave the blond youth a pause.

    Harry smiled and shook his head. "Come on, let's get it over with," he said.

    He stepped up to the gate and - a little reluctantly - reached out to push the filthy, ragged cloak aside. To his surprise it moved of its own accord and, still hesitant, he stepped across the threshold … emerging into a stone room lit by a heavy iron candelabra hanging from the low ceiling. In front of him a figure in heavy, concealing robes stood with its back to him.

    And without warning icy cold fire flared in his scar, making him cry out and double up with the pain, clasping at his forehead.

    xXx

    In his seat at the low table in the Gryffindor Common Room, opposite Ron, Harry's body jolted and his eyes flew open, staring blindly ahead of him. For several moments his hands, so busy in their unthinking work, stilled upon the cards in front of him.

    Unknown to him, the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead grew red and inflamed, standing out on his brow like a brand.

    xXx

    "Harry!"

    Identical gasps of alarm; two pairs of hands grabbing his arms and supporting him.

    "Harry, what's the matter? "

    "What happened?"

    It was hard to draw breath, and even harder to gather his wits, but somehow he did both. "We have to get out of here - go back - "

    "We can't go back." That was Draco, calm and precise, although his eyes were fixed upon the figure before them who had still not moved. "The gateway's gone."

    "Oh God …."

    The cloaked figure let out a low, hair-raising chuckle, beginning to turn, and the three of them became very still.

    "Not quite … God … yet." it said. The voice was high, cold and slightly sibilant.

    When it finally faced them, Harry could taste the bile rising up in his throat. For he knew that bone-white face with its flattened nose and red, cat-pupilled eyes. It was the face that haunted a thousand of his dreams, the face of a figure that had dogged his footsteps, silent and invisible, for twenty years. This was the form of the creature who had lured his father's friend into betrayal, murdered his parents, sanctioned the deaths of Cedric Diggory and Pansy Parkinson, and held the wizarding world in the grip of terror for the better part of half a century.

    It was Voldemort.

    Harry could tell just by the frantic grip on his arm that, however calm he might look, Draco was terrified. Ron's grasp was no less tight, but the look on his face was more one of anger and loathing. Of course, of the three of them only Ron had never yet had a personal encounter with the Dark Lord and consequently had no experiences to base his reactions upon. Harry hoped this wouldn't drive him to do or say anything foolhardy.

    The dark wizard smiled, a horrifying twist of the lips. "Well, well, well," he murmured. "Harry Potter … and friends. How delightful. Would you, by any chance, be looking for this?"

    He held up one bony, white hand clasping a gold circlet studded with gems. Harry stared uncomprehendingly.

    "What is it?" he asked.

    "The Emperor's diadem," Ron said, before Voldemort could reply.

    "Why would I want that?"

    Voldemort's smile stretched even wider. "Why indeed?"

    Ron glared at him. "Look at yourself, Harry - look at all of us."

    Harry glanced down at himself - and did a double-take. His plain, buff-coloured Auror's robe was gone, replaced by a heavy robe of purple velvet trimmed with ermine. By contrast, Draco wore an almost monk-like robe of plain brown cloth with a cowled neck, while Ron's was black velvet stitched all over with esoteric symbols in silver thread.

    "The Hermit," the redhead explained, gesturing to Draco, "and the Magician. You're the Emperor."

    "Not quite," Voldemort said, still smiling that ghastly smile, "not quite. The Emperor can hardly rule without his crown, can he?"

    Harry studied his nemesis for a moment or two, wondering what the significance of this exchange was. He had lost count of the cards they had passed and couldn't think what this must represent.

    "Alright," he said finally, "I'll bite. May I have the crown, please?" He held out his hand.

    Voldemort smiled, turning the heavy band of gold between his fingers. "What will you give me in return?"

    Harry blinked. "You expect me to pay you for it?"

    "Of course. Nothing in this life comes without a price, Harry. So – what will you give me for your crown?"

    He shrugged, bemused. "I don't know. What's it worth to you?"

    "More to the point," the older wizard replied with ominous gentleness, "what is it worth to you?"

    "Harry," Ron interposed, "don't bargain with him."

    Harry looked at his friend. "Why not?"

    "Because it's a bad idea to do deals with the Devil."

    And the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Harry had somehow forgotten the Devil card in the Tarot, despite it turning up regularly in his own spreads over the past three or four years. Of course it would be Voldemort; no other card would suit him quite so well.

    Ron was right; doing deals with the Devil – or with Voldemort – was a bad idea.

    On the other hand, he wasn't sure he saw another way out of this current impasse.

    Harry folded his arms and regarded the dark wizard thoughtfully. "I assume there's something particular you want from me."

    The smile on Voldemort's lips did not reach his eyes. It never had. "Just your life, Harry. Just your life. Is this – " he held up the diadem, "worth such a price?"

    His first instinct was to say that no crown, no piece of jewellery or decoration, was worth a man's life. But the words stuck in Harry's throat. After all, this wasn't reality, this was the Tarot. The diadem could never just be a piece of decoration. Uncertain, he turned to look at Ron and Draco.

    "What does it mean?" he asked Ron in an urgent undertone. "What does the crown mean to the Emperor?"

    The redhead looked worried. "The Emperor is the card of worldly authority and knowledge," he said softly. "It's leadership, wisdom and judgement. It's the power card, the one that says you're a big success in life, the one everyone looks to to lead them. So the crown is symbolic. In history, a monarch who lost his crown was an exile at best and dead at worst. Look at Charles the First – Louis the Sixteenth – they had their power taken away and their heads chopped off. Their people turned on them when they failed as rulers. And when the card of the Emperor is inverted, it symbolises weakness and failure."

    "In other words, if you let Lord Voldemort keep the diadem, you're giving in to him and admitting that he's the greater man," Draco added, equally softly. "You're giving him power – your power."

    "But isn't giving him my life the same thing?" Harry whispered back.

    "Depends on what he means by life," Draco began, but Ron interrupted him furiously.

    "No, Harry! Don't you realise how dangerous this is? I don't know what this place is, but it shares a lot of characteristics with the Astral Plane. And if you die on the Astral Plane, you're stuck in a limbo. You can't go back to your body because you're dead, but you can't move on either because your body's still alive!"

    "Life might not mean physical life, though!" Draco put in sharply. "Giving someone your life can also mean giving them service – look, when Death Eaters pledge themselves to the Dark Lord, they pledge their lives in his service, to do his will. Harry, if you do that, you're never your own man again. It could be worse than dying or giving up the crown."

    Harry stared at the two of them helplessly. "Where's a good dictionary when you need one?" he muttered. "I think I need a definition of 'life' here."

    He turned back to Voldemort. "What do you mean by 'life'?" he demanded.

    The wizard smiled, shrugging slightly. "The breath in your lungs. The blood in your veins. The fire in your heart ...."

    Harry wrinkled his nose that the lyrical phrasing ... and suddenly paused, thinking furiously. Something about the words sounded a chord inside him.

    The blood in your veins .... What was it about blood and Voldemort?

    Realisation hit, and with it a surge of triumph.

    Harry raised his head, eyes ablaze. "In that case, you've already had my life!" he exclaimed. "Wormtail took blood from my veins to restore you, when I was fourteen." He held out his hand triumphantly. "Give me the crown!"

    For a moment Voldemort stared at him in disbelief, and Harry could feel the equally astonished stares of Ron and Draco on his back.

    Then the body of the dark wizard seemed to tremble and crack, crumbling into swiftly dust. The crown fell to the ground and rolled to Harry's feet. After a second or two he stooped to pick it up, but, uncomfortable with the idea of it, he did not put it on.

    When he straightened up again the stone room was fading away, leaving the three of them standing on the brink of another cliff. It was still dark, but high up in the sky a single brilliant Star was shining.

    "I think we've made it," Ron said, after a moment. His voice was wobbly with relief as he gestured out over the edge of the cliff and said, "Look ...."

    The land spread out like a patchwork below them was distant but brilliantly detailed. Harry could see Hogwarts in the distance and the village of Hogsmeade and, closer to them, the lights of Diagon Alley.

    "And this is?" Draco prompted wearily.

    "The World," Ron replied. "The final missing card. That's it – we've done it."

    And the world of the Tarot dissolved into mist around them.

    xXx

    Pain. White hot, searing pain.

    Harry groaned and lifted his head from the table. His temples were pounding like a drum. Squinting a little, he could just make out that the candles had burned themselves out and that daylight was pouring through tiny gaps in the curtains at the great, long windows of the Gryffindor Common Room.

    Before him on the table were scattered tarot cards – Ron's own set, mixed with the twenty-two cards of the new pack they had created. Empty bottles of ink were clustered in the centre of the table; dried-up quills had tumbled to the floor. Two other heads still rested uncomfortably amid the mess; Ron's pillowed on one arm, the other dangling limply to the floor, and Draco's simply resting on the bare board, one lock of his white-blond hair black and spiky where it had somehow dipped into the ink.

    Harry felt like death warmed over and he would have liked nothing more than to put his own head down on the table and go back to sleep. Common sense told him that this was not a good idea. Though the mere idea nearly killed him, somehow he dragged himself to his feet and over to the others. Waking them was almost as impossible as getting himself upright, but he couldn't face having to transfer them to bed magically.

    Draco was more responsive than Ron. Harry bullied him into getting up and between the two of them they somehow hoisted the redhead up between them and staggered slowly, painfully up the stairs to their rooms.

    When they entered their little common room, the first things they saw were three cups in the centre of the table, with a note propped up against them. It was an extra effort, but Harry stopped and read the note aloud. It was in Dumbledore's handwriting:

    Harry,

    The cups contain a potion to restore the three of you. Please drink it and rest. I should very much like to talk to you all later.

    Albus Dumbledore

    "Hm." He read it again, shrugged a little and handed one of the cups to Draco. "Drink that."

    It tasted foul. The two of them swallowed it down as quickly as they could, screwing up their faces against the taste, then Harry pinched Ron's nose while Draco tipped most of the potion down his throat. The redhead spluttered and protested incoherently but drank it.

    Making a final, supreme effort, the three of them lurched through the door into Harry and Ron's bedroom, although by that time it was hard to say who was supporting whom.

    Never had a bed looked more inviting. Harry and Draco heaved Ron onto it, and Harry took a moment to pull his friend's trainers off. Then he flopped out bonelessly beside him.

    And slept ....

    Chapter Text

    Harry was dreaming again.

    xXx

    In his dream he walked down the centre of a deserted Diagon Alley. It was night-time and the shops were closed; even The Leaky Cauldron and the handful of restaurants in the street were shut up, and the street lamps were dimmed.

    And yet there was light and movement. Handheld lamps flared, illuminating the agitated crowd outside the Ministry buildings, and the sound of many voices carried back to Harry as he approached. He walked up to them and through them as unseen as though he was draped in his invisibility cloak. And yet he wasn't. So far as they were concerned, he wasn't there.

    He passed the ring of Aurors at the doorway, one of whom was his godfather, Sirius, and noted absently that to one side was his fellow junior Auror Simeon Clare. He was being sick in the gutter, leaning helplessly against the wall with tears streaming down his face as he did so. Remus Lupin stood beside him, one hand on his back, speaking quietly to him.

    Something terrible had happened, but Harry had known that even as he walked down the street. Above the building that housed the Auror Facility and Department of Mysteries hung the ominous image of the Dark Mark, the brilliantly green skull shining malevolently in the darkness. A peculiar stench hung around the doorway too, one that seemed to comprise a mixture of fear and anger just below the more obvious and terrible smell of blood and viscera and worse.

    Drifting past Sirius and the other Aurors, Harry slipped soundlessly through the doors and into the lobby.

    The smell here was a hundred times worse, like that of a slaughterhouse. Had this not been a dream he would probably have been throwing his guts up like Simeon outside. There was blood everywhere, painted over the walls and floor in the fine spray of a severed artery. The magic mirror portal was dull and grey, giving no reflection for once, and leaning up against it were two bodies, a slightly built young woman and a heavy-set older man. From the unnatural positions and sagging postures Harry at first felt sure that the two people must be dead, but when he approached cautiously the eyes of one snapped open and looked directly at him.

    It was Bethany Bloom, the Unspeakable doorkeeper of the Facility. Bizarrely, she was dressed in robes Harry remembered her wearing to the Sixth Year Yule Ball, the ones embroidered with oak leaf patterns. They were soaked with blood; her blood. Her dark chestnut hair had been braided up elaborately but the style was pulled apart, as though by a struggle, and it too was matted with drying blood.

    Where the robes fell open at the front the matching gown, with its fitted bodice, was a ruin. Someone – probably the man lying beside her, whom Harry had no difficulty in identifying as her father, Salmar Hawke – had gutted her with a very large knife that even now lay in the middle of the lobby's mosaic floor. Her innards were practically hanging out in her lap and the source of all the blood had probably been the giant central vein leading to the heart. How she could possibly still be alive Harry didn't know. Yet she was, and when she saw him – as no one else had done – she moved and tried to speak.

    Careless of the blood and mess surrounding her, Harry fell to his knees and took her hand.

    "Bethany – "

    "Harry ...." Her voice was weak, choking, and laden with pain. "Harry, you ... you have to know – "

    "Hush, don't try – "

    "No, Harry! You have to know ... have to understand .... When I die, so will he ...." He left hand made a feeble movement towards the other body, but her strange amber eyes were fixed on Harry's urgently.

    Harry stared. "But ... he's still alive?"

    A grim smile crossed her pale lips. "Not for long ... not for long .... He couldn't kill me, Harry ... don't you see? It was the blood."

    Harry shook his head, not understanding. "What do you mean?"

    "You must see ... must understand .... It was all about the blood, Harry, all in the blood. The blood is the life. Remember what he did to me before. He ... made himself vulnerable to me. He came here ... to kill me. But he killed himself too. When I die ... he dies." A look of fierce joy crossed her face. "I'll be happy ... to take him with me!

    "But you must remember, Harry ... it's all in the blood. The blood is the life."

    xXx

    Harry awoke with a jolt, his eyes staring blindly up at the canopy above the bed.

    The blood is the life .... Blood, blood ... what was it about blood? What had Bethany said - ?

    Bethany ....

    Harry sat up so sharply that he woke Ron.

    "Harry, what - ?" The redhead was a bleary-eyed mess, propping himself up on one elbow to squint at his partner in confusion. "What's the matter? Why are you – Oh my God! What's he doing in here?"

    Still peacefully slumbering on the other side of Ron was Draco. Harry felt a remote tickle of amusement at Ron's appalled expression before his dream caught up with him again. He lurched out of bed, feeling light-headed, and clutched at the bedpost for a moment.

    "I have to see Dumbledore – "

    "Why?" Ron sat up properly, rubbing his face and groaning. "God, I feel like shit. Why are we all in here together?"

    "I don't know. Draco probably found it easier to flop out in here." Harry looked around for his shoes, but all he could find were Ron's trainers. "Kipper boxes" Molly Weasley called them, with motherly amusement at her son's big feet.

    "What's going on?" That was Draco, apparently waking up too although his eyes remained closed and he didn't move.

    "I have to see Dumbledore," Harry repeated. "Something ...." He swallowed hard, remembering the dream image of Bethany with her stomach ripped open. "I think something horrible has happened." God, how he hoped it hadn't really happened.

    Ron stared at him for a moment, then pulled himself to the end of the bed and let himself sort of drop over it, landing on his feet. Like Harry, he had to grab at the bedpost to keep himself upright. "Are those my trainers?"

    "Well, they aren't mine." Harry finally located his own over by the window. How had they got there? Never mind, it wasn't important. He began to pull them on. "Draco, are you getting up?"

    "Must I?" The blond youth sat up reluctantly. He looked unusually dishevelled and there were dark smudges under his eyes. "I feel like something died inside my head," he complained.

    How odd, Harry thought bleakly, so do I. He felt very strange and detached, listening to the familiar bickering of the other two while he waited impatiently for them to sort themselves out.

    "Please tell me I didn't sleep with the pair of you last night," moaned Draco.

    "You didn't sleep with the pair of us last night," Ron said obligingly. "Of course it's a lie, but I'm sure you won't mind that."

    "Ha ha. Very funny." Draco's method of getting up was no more elegant than theirs. He rolled over the side of the bed and only just managed to stop himself landing in a heap on the floor by grabbing at the bedside table. "Better make a note in your diary – this is the first and last time in history that a Weasley sleeps with a Malfoy."

    "Don't worry, I'll make sure everyone knows how boring it was." Ron was making heavy weather of tying his laces.

    "Thank God I was out cold. I dread to think what the pair of you got up to."

    "Precisely nothing," Harry put in suddenly, annoyed. "I'm not interested in putting on a performance for you or anyone else."

    "Though it'd be worth it just once, to see your face," Ron chipped in.

    "There are easier ways of making me throw up," Draco retorted.

    "Excuse me, but I need to see Dumbledore," Harry interrupted, before the pair of them could take the sniping match any further.

    "Why?" Draco was having almost as much trouble with his shoe laces as Ron.

    Harry gritted his teeth. "Because I think something horrible has happened," he repeated, in a tone that got the attention of both of them. "Are you coming?"

    No more bickering. Ron and Draco finished putting their shoes on and stood up, a little unsteadily.

    "Good." Harry breathed a sigh of relief. "Let's go."

    xXx

    Dumbledore was standing in front of the fireplace in his office when the three of them arrived, talking gravely with Mad-Eye Moody's head, which was perched in the flames.

    If he lived to be a hundred - which didn't seem very likely most days - Harry would never get used to this particular method of wizard communication.

    Feeling a bit awkward, he hung back as Dumbledore said, "Yes, they've just arrived, Alastor. I'll tell them what has happened, but I don't anticipate them being with me for much longer. Until the end of the week, perhaps."

    "As soon as you can let them go, we need them, Albus," the grizzled head of the elderly Auror replied, and the magical eye swung around in their direction although he didn't address them.

    "Of course," the headmaster said soberly. "Until then, be careful."

    Moody merely nodded and vanished with a loud pop. Dumbledore turned to look at them and sighed when he saw Harry's face.

    "I see I have nothing to tell you, Harry. How did you know?"

    "A dream," Harry said, and the sick misery surged up in his chest. "How - how did it happen?"

    "How did what happen?" Draco interrupted, looking from one to the other of them. "Harry hasn't told us anything …."

    "I regret to have to inform you that Bethany Bloom was murdered in the night," the headmaster said quietly. His eyes trailed over the three of them, resting briefly on Ron's stricken face before returning the Harry. "Her father accosted her at the Auror Facility entrance while she was on duty there. I … won't upset you with the details."

    "He stabbed her," Harry said. Stabbed her with a ritual knife, like he tried to do when she was sixteen. Looking at Dumbledore's face, he knew that the professor knew exactly how Bethany had died, but neither of them were going to relate that to Ron or Draco unless they had to.

    "Yes. But she managed to fatally injure him in the process. They were both dead by the time assistance arrived."

    Dumbledore was looking terribly old and tired again. He slowly walked to a chair and took a seat, waving them all into the chairs facing him.

    "It's at times like this that I truly wonder where mankind will end," he commented, a little bitterly. "She was his only surviving child and yet from the first hour of her birth he abused her. One cannot fathom what goes through the mind of such a man."

    "He was insane," Draco put in curtly. "The whole family - "

    "My dear boy, while it's perfectly true that there is instability in many members of the Hawke family, the condition is easily controlled by means of a simple potion. But Salmar himself was never conclusively diagnosed as suffering from it. He may well have used it as an excuse but the truth is that whatever sickness he suffered from, it was not an involuntary condition. He was as sane as Voldemort, and consequently had no more excuse for his behaviour other than an inexplicable wickedness in his nature."

    This was the first time Harry had ever heard Dumbledore speak so; the first time the elderly wizard had ventured an opinion on the subject of Voldemort and his motivations.

    There was a long silence.

    Finally, Dumbledore stirred and looked at the three of them again. "Forgive me," he said. "I fear I'm brooding. Tell me about your venture with the Tarot cards. Was it a success?"

    "I think so," Ron said, when Harry said nothing. "I haven't had a chance to look at the cards yet, but I'll show them to you as soon as we've - ah - tidied up a bit."

    The table in Gryffindor common room had still been a mess when they hurried through that morning. The House-elves had cleaned around it but had apparently been unwilling to touch anything on it.

    "Good … good. Excellent." But it was clear that the professor's mind was on other things. "Very well. I suggest you all have breakfast and make your way to Professor Snape's classroom in, say, an hour. I believe he is ready to give his full analysis of your first potion, and to give you instructions on the next couple of projects he has in mind."

    He looked up and gave the three of them a small smile. "As I'm sure you heard me say to Alastor Moody, we can't keep you all here forever. We need to bring our work together to a close by the end of the week so that the three of you can return to London where, unfortunately, you are sorely needed."

    Guessing that this was a dismissal of sorts, Harry glanced at Draco and Ron and got up. "Will we see you later, Professor?" he asked uncertainly.

    "Certainly! I hope to see you for dinner, if not for lunch."

    "He's getting too old for this," Draco said unexpectedly, as they walked back to Gryffindor Tower in a morose silence.

    "That's probably why Voldemort's waiting," Harry replied curtly. "He's hoping Dumbledore will just die of old age." He stopped in front of the portrait of the Fat Lady. "Puffskein." The picture swung open and they climbed inside.

    "I need a shower," Draco muttered, and he disappeared up the stairs.

    Harry helped Ron to tidy the table in the common room. They got rid of the stubs of the candles and empty ink bottles, and the twenty-two new Tarot cards were separated out from the redhead's own pack and wrapped up in a square of back silk. Even Ron didn't seem to want to linger and look at their work. "We'll worry about those later," was all he said, as he stowed them away in a slender wooden box with a sliding lid.

    When they returned to their rooms at the top of the tower, Draco was sequestered in his own room with the door tightly shut. A trace of steam from one of the bathrooms and a scattering of toast crumbs among the breakfast dishes on the table showed that he had at least bathed and eaten. Apparently he wanted to keep himself to himself for a while.

    Shrugging, Harry followed Ron's example and grabbed his towel and shaving kit, heading for the bathroom. No bath this morning; there wasn't time, and in any case he wasn't in the mood. He was a little surprised, though, when Ron stepped into the shower cubicle with him and matter-of-factly began to scrub his back for him.

    "Tell me about this dream you had."

    Harry felt his shoulders tense. "Ron ... you don't want to know how she died."

    "I'll know anyway. We'll get the report, like we did with Pansy's murder."

    Harry still hadn't been able to read that report. "I don't know for certain if I really saw exactly how she died. It ... didn't look right. She was dressed for a party, in her Yule Ball robes ...."

    "Do you have any really good memories of her?"

    That seemed like a strange thing to say. Harry turned to look at his friend; without his glasses everything tended to look a bit fuzzy around the edges, even up close, but Ron always stood out in sharp relief to him. Ron's face was sombre, his eyes sad.

    "Um ... I remember the first time I saw her fly." Bethany had been a natural Animagus, from an inborn talent rather than a spell; it was rare, but it was a family trait among the Hawkes. Her Animagus form had been an owl. "And at the Sixth Year Yule Ball, when I finally got her to dance ...." It clicked. She had been wearing the same robes in his dream.

    "It wasn't really about her death," Ron told him.

    "So she was trying to tell me something, but I don't understand it."

    "Tell me." Ron handed him the sponge and turned around so that Harry could scrub him.

    "She kept saying the blood is the life." Harry swabbed his friend's shoulders and back, but his mind was not on the task. "She said that was how she killed her father. What does it mean?"

    "Blood is life. She shared blood with her father, of course, but how that could kill him I don't know." Ron stuck his head under the stream of water for a moment, then began to rub shampoo into his hair. He was still thinking. "'The blood is the life' .... I've heard something like that before, but I can't remember where."

    "Sounds Biblical," Harry remarked.

    "Could be. Or maybe Jewish. They have a different kind of magic - Kabbalism. That's why there were no Jews at school with us. They have their own academies."

    Harry was ashamed to admit that he had never even noticed. Hogwarts had always seemed to him to have a broad range of races attending.

    "We'll look it up in the library later," Ron told him, as he began to rinse off.

    xXx

    In the event, they didn't get the opportunity. Their encounter with Snape that day took all day, starting with his brisk opinion of their potion ("It works") and swiftly followed by yet another never-ending stream of instructions for the next potions he wanted them to make. Ron recognised the first one.

    "Isn't this the Polyjuice Potion?" he blurted out without thinking.

    "It is." Snape gave him a narrow look, but Ron utterly failed to notice Harry's warning glare.

    "But we're supposed to be leaving by the end of the week, and this takes two weeks to brew – "

    Sometimes, Harry reflected in exasperation, it seemed like Ron's body had grown up leaving his brain behind – somewhere back in their second year at school, apparently. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Draco casting his eyes heavenward. They were both too far away to kick the redhead under the table, and besides it was already too late. The nasty little smile that crossed Snape's face was all too familiar.

    "Would it be indelicate to ask where you came by that information, Mr. Weasley?" he asked silkily. "As the Polyjuice Potion is not covered in any syllabus in this school?"

    Ron opened his mouth – and shut it again. He glanced at Harry and a guilty flush crept across his cheeks. Snape also looked in Harry's direction and the cold black eyes seemed to spark with sinister pleasure.

    "Boomslang skin," he murmured idly.

    "Before you ask again," Harry said, sighing, "no, I really didn't steal it from your private stores. God, I can't believe you're still dredging this up after nearly ten years - "

    "You would be surprised at what I remember, Mr. Potter. And I believe we have had this conversation before. Are you aware of what happens to a person who tries to lie under Veritaserum?"

    Harry raised a brow at him. "Of course. I've tried it."

    "Then you will be aware that it doesn't allow for shading of meanings, 'hair splitting' or 'grey areas' in your response."

    "If you think I'm going to sit here and let you dose me with truth potions, just to satisfy your morbid curiosity, think again," Harry advised him coolly.

    He hoped Snape wouldn't push the issue though. The Polyjuice incident was irrelevant, but there were other things - specifically a small vial of poison he had lifted when he was sixteen – that he really didn't want anyone to find out about. He was sure Snape had noticed its absence at some point, but had no idea if the man had connected it back to him.

    "I wasn't stupid enough to let you bully me into that when I was fourteen, let alone now," he continued, staring the older man in the eyes boldly. "I know the truth of the matter, and that's enough."

    "For one person to know the truth isn't always enough, Mr. Potter, as your godfather would no doubt point out to you, were he here now." Snape was giving him an unnervingly narrow look in return. "A childhood prank – which, so far as I can ascertain, appeared to have no purpose to it – is an extraordinary reason to hold your tongue in adulthood. Indeed, your loyalty to Miss Granger might be considered somewhat perverse under the circumstances."

    I wonder how he found out that Hermione took it? Or is that just a lucky guess? For a moment the two of them stared each other down, Snape's expression twistedly amused. Then Harry took the wind out of his sails entirely.

    "If that's the case, then you won't mind telling me what the problem is between you and Sirius, will you?" he said, smiling at the sudden rigidity of the Potions Master's expression. "The real problem, that is."

    For a moment Snape seemed to struggle with some baser instinct. Then he was himself again, seething with his usual suppressed rage and ill-will.

    "Familiar as you may be with the Polyjuice Potion – although I personally question that, considering that you don't have the ever-resourceful Miss Granger here with you today – this second mixture will be something entirely new to you and will require the utmost care in its preparation. I would suggest you cease chattering and pay attention."

    The three of them hadn't exchanged a single word until Ron's ill-judged comment. Eyeing Snape with annoyance, Harry picked up his quill again.

    "Especially," Snape added coldly, "as this particular potion may well benefit someone close to you, Mr. Potter, if you are successful."

    Confused, Harry studied the incantation. It looked oddly familiar, although the accompanying list of ingredients seemed wrong .... "Is this the Wolfsbane Potion?"

    "One point to Gryffindor," said Snape, sardonically. "It is indeed a variation of the Wolfsbane Potion. Possibly a more permanent remedy for the condition ... if, as I said, you are successful."

    A cure for Remus Lupin? Was that possible?

    xXx

    If Snape's intention had been to make Harry shut up and behave like a good little boy, then it worked magnificently. Having the carrot of a possible cure for Lupin's lycanthropy dangled in front of him was enough to ensure his, and Ron's, complete attention to the project. (Draco paid attention too, although more because he couldn't bear to be outshone by the other two in his star subject.)

    Typically, Snape tortured Harry by making them go over the Polyjuice Potion first, and at tedious length.

    "One of the primary reasons for the length of time involved in making the Polyjuice Potion is the need to ensure the proper stewing of certain resilient ingredients," he lectured coolly. "A strong and talented wizard may be able to reduce this period by the application of judicious magic, breaking down the ingredients more rapidly than would naturally occur. I myself have succeeded in reducing the simmering period by a whole week in the past." His smile was wintry. "A wizard circle should – at least theoretically – be able to concoct the potion in a matter of forty-eight hours or so. No doubt we will see."

    The note of doubt in his voice made Harry raise his hackles, but he controlled the impulse to say something.

    "He's just jealous," Ron muttered, under the cover of preparing all the ingredients and setting up the cauldron.

    "You noticed that too?" Draco added dryly, in an undertone.

    It was difficult to tell if their first attempt was successful. The primary problem was achieving and maintaining the link between them; without the drug-induced trance of their previous attempt, it was impossible to tell if the link was working fully now or not. But their magic seemed to combine satisfactorily, stewing the Bicorn horn and tougher plant fibres much more quickly than was normal.

    After a brief inspection of the cauldron's contents, Snape sniffed and grudgingly decided that it was progressing well enough. They moved it to a lower flame on one side of the classroom, where it could simmer uninterrupted until the next morning.
    Even more grudgingly, he permitted them to snatch half an hour for a quick lunch, before launching in on the new and improved Wolfsbane Potion.

    The biggest problem with the original Wolfsbane Potion, and the reason why it was so difficult for Lupin himself to make it, was that it needed to be brewed and consumed during the five-day run up to the full moon. Nor did it keep for more than a week or so. This didn't wholly preclude a werewolf making it for himself, but Lupin had reluctantly explained to Harry once that his powers of concentration and ability to control his less human aspects were significantly reduced during that period. He was not an able potion-maker at the best of times, and several of the ingredients were potentially poisonous if incorrectly prepared, even to him. One minor slip could be lethal.

    Snape's new potion replaced the one unstable ingredient, the pollen and stamens of the Moonsong flower, that needed to be prepared during the crucial five-day period, with something more stable; the dried root of the plant. He then rebalanced the ingredients by increasing the amount of Tincture of Mandrake, and had also tinkered with a few of the other ingredients. Harry, not a star potions student, wasn't sure why, although he understood that the Moonsong root would give the potion a longer shelf-life.

    The inclusion of Moonsong in any form made him wince, though. The plant was hideously expensive, especially the vulnerable root, because it grew in just two locations in Europe – here at Hogwarts, in Professor Sprout's greenhouses, and in the hidden, magical section of Kew Gardens where Neville worked. Harry had no idea how Lupin currently paid for his Wolfsbane Potion, but he strongly suspected that the much wealthier Sirius had something to do with it. Whether even that would be possible with this potentially much more expensive version of the potion was questionable.

    And if it could only be made by a wizard circle, then matters became even more complicated. Although Harry would willingly make the potion every month for the rest of his life, for free, if it meant Lupin would be free of his curse.

    So they prepared the ingredients, set up a cauldron again, pounded, mixed, stirred and simmered for a couple of hours. Then the three of them assembled around the cauldron, established the link between them and performed the incantation, focussing their combined power on the steaming potion.

    Whether it worked was anyone's guess.

    Like the Polyjuice Potion, it required several hours to stew and one final, essential ingredient – a single hair from the subject. Harry didn't like to ask how Snape intended to get that single hair or how he would test the finished potion.

    It was dark when they finally left the dungeons and dragged themselves, exhausted, back to Gryffindor Tower. Dinner had long since been and gone.

    Dumbledore, however, had not forgotten them. A meal was waiting in their little private common room, plus three more cups of potion with another message propped against them.

    Harry, Ron and Draco,

    I suspect another restorative might be of assistance after your labours today. Drink it AFTER you have eaten and get a good night's rest. I will talk with you all later.

    Albus Dumbledore

    None of them questioned this, but ate thankfully and drank as instructed. It seemed to Harry that his potion tasted slightly different to the one they had drunk the other night, but considering the state he'd been in at the time, he knew he was probably imagining it. Feeling very sleepy, he bade Draco a good-night and followed Ron into their room, where the two of them collapsed thankfully into bed.

    xXx

    But despite the potion, Harry's sleep was not very restful. His dreams seemed determined to return, gruesomely, to Bethany Bloom's murder and he semi-awoke countless times with her desperate words ringing in his ears. Finally, feeling exasperated and hunted, Harry got up – carefully, so as not to wake the peacefully slumbering Ron – and got dressed.

    The clock in the main common room had an ordinary face with numbers and two hands. It was barely two o'clock in the morning. Harry picked up a lantern from the mantelpiece, let himself out through the portrait hole, and headed for the library.

    Prowling around in the dark like this reminded him of countless midnight adventures during his school days, mostly, it had to be admitted, under the security of his invisibility cloak. Hopefully it wasn't a mistake to have come without it tonight, although it wasn't as if Argus Filch, the cantankerous old caretaker, could say anything about the movements of a former pupil who was currently Dumbledore's guest. Come to think of it, Harry hadn't seen hide nor hair of Filch or his detestable cat, Mrs. Norris, since they had arrived at Hogwarts. Perhaps the man spent the summer elsewhere, possibly with family, although Harry's mind boggled at the idea of Filch being married, let alone having children.

    The library was as still and silent as ever at this time of night, though like the rest of the castle it had a slightly different feel to it during the sleepy summer months. Harry softly murmured a charm Hermione had taught him during their Upper Sixth year and lamps all around the enormous chamber slowly glimmered into life.

    The blood is the life .... Harry wanted to know what the significance of blood was, and why it could kill Bethany's father. Somehow he didn't think it was likely to be in those parts of the library that were open to ordinary students, so he made his way to the Restricted Section.

    From his initial fumbling efforts as a first year student he had gradually learned how to effectively use the resources here. Now his fingers trailed lightly over the spines of the books, shelf after shelf, seeking out likely-looking volumes and dragging them out to one of the broad study tables in the middle of the room. He had quite a wall of books in front of him by the time he sat down to read.

    Blood ... blood ... blood .... Blood in a thousand different varieties: dragon's blood, unicorn's blood, elf's blood, troll's blood, blood of bat, blood of hound, blood of toad, blood from a stone, human blood, Muggle blood, wizard blood ....

    Blood magic.

    Harry stopped, one finger resting on the index page, and took another quick peek at the cover of the tiny, fat volume. It was bound in a particularly ugly kind of leather that might, he thought nauseously, even be human skin, and the cover bore the title The Forbidden Artes in faded gilt letters. The print was very small and cramped, as though the printer had tried to squeeze as much information in as he possibly could, and to maximise on that still further there was an Expanding Charm on the pages so that several hundred more were bound into the covers than it should logically have been able to hold.

    Dark magic. It figured. Harry located the relevant page and began to read.

    xXx

    "It's a little late for bedtime reading, don't you think?"

    Harry jumped with a gasp and stared, heart hammering, at the figure in front of the table. It was Dumbledore peering at him over the top of his half-moon spectacles, his eyes twinkling.

    "My boy, are you aware that it's past four o'clock in the morning?"

    "Professor! You nearly gave me a heart-attack - !" Harry frowned, surprised to see that the elderly headmaster was fully dressed in his daytime robes. "What are you doing up, sir?"

    Dumbledore chuckled and slowly took a seat on the opposite side of the table. "You are not the only night-owl, Harry. At my age, one needs less sleep. Besides, I might ask the same question of you – did you not drink the potion I left for you?"

    "It didn't seem to work," Harry told him apologetically. "I had some things on my mind, so I thought I might as well spend the time researching."

    The professor examined one or two of the books and his brows rose. "Given the nature of your chosen study material, I'm surprised you haven't fallen asleep in spite of yourself."

    Harry grinned a little. "Well ... I'll admit I've been wishing for Hermione to help me out here. Or even Draco, although I'm not about to go and wake him up. It's ... interesting though."

    "Indeed? Have you found what you were looking for?"

    "I hope so."

    "Then the loss of sleep might not be considered wasted. Surprising what one can discover in the quiet hours of the night ...." Dumbledore seemed to ponder this for a moment, before looking up and meeting the younger wizard's eyes. A small, rueful smile crossed his lips. "Dear me! I do seem to ramble rather a lot these days, don't I?"

    Harry smiled back. "I'm used to it – Ron rambles all the time."

    The headmaster chuckled and sat back in his chair. "May I ask you something, Harry? Something that has been on my mind for a little while?"

    "Of course - "

    "When you were a young man of fifteen, I'm afraid I rather offended you by refusing to let you join the ranks of a secret organisation of mine. I think my reasons for doing so may have seemed inadequate to you at the time."

    Harry blinked. "You mean the Order of the Phoenix? Oh ... yes, I remember." He blushed. "I'd like to be able to tell you I've grown out of the habit of shooting my mouth off when I'm really annoyed about something, but I don't think I have. As Mr. Fudge can tell you."

    Actually, he'd been more than annoyed about being excluded from the Order, especially when it took Sirius away on secret missions more and more frequently, and for longer and longer periods of time. And especially when it seemed he was being excluded from matters that intimately concerned him and his future. His anger about it had peaked around the time Peter Pettigrew had been caught, but by the time that whole incident was over – including the excitement of Sirius's retrial and acquittal – there had been other things to occupy Harry's mind. He'd simply got over it and never really thought much about it since, especially since he was now an Auror in training.

    Dumbledore's lips twitched at the reference to Harry's annoyance at the timing of the elections, but was not deflected. "Perhaps you had good reason to be cross with me at the time. I think I was still in the habit of treating you as a child, despite ample evidence that you were anything but."

    "You did what you thought was right," Harry replied, bemused. "I've always had the utmost respect for your judgement, Professor, even if I didn't like what you were saying."

    "My judgement!" The elderly wizard chuckled softly. "My dear boy, I do hope you are not one of those members of our community who labour under the misapprehension that my wisdom and judgement are infallible!"

    "Well ... no one's infallible," Harry said, grinning a little, "but your judgement is less fallible than most."

    "You flatter me." Dumbledore twiddled his thumbs for a moment, gazing thoughtfully at one of the glowing lamps that hung from a bracket on the end of the nearest bookshelf. "If you could turn back the clock, Harry ... would you be so eager to join the Order of the Phoenix?"

    Harry blinked at the question. If he could turn the clock back .... He knew more now about the work and ideals of the Order than he had when he was a boy. Most of the information had come from Sirius and Lupin, both from observing them and from occasional comments the two men had let slip. Set up, as it was, to be the ultimate opposition to Voldemort and his Death Eaters, the Order operated only on the highest of principles. "Which can set some pretty frustrating limits on what we can do," Lupin had said once. To this day Harry wasn't sure if he'd been meant to overhear that remark or not.

    As with the comment Lupin had made only a couple of weeks ago, about how Harry's parents would not have wanted him to waste his life fighting Death Eaters, it had given him a lot to think about. And he had been thinking about it more and more lately.

    Like it or lump it, Harry wasn't facing these things on his own any more. There had been a time when he felt that he was squaring up to the horror of Voldemort entirely alone, despite the supposed backing of people like Dumbledore. He had felt that way when Dumbledore gravely refused him admittance the Order of the Phoenix; as though the people who patently expected him to save them from the Dark Lord were somehow at the same time denying him help and support in the endeavour.

    But as he grew older, things changed. The advent of his relationship with Ron had changed his perspective on the concept of being 'alone' with the problem, and working with people like Sirius as an Auror had broadened it further. Lately, working so closely and intensely with Ron and Draco had changed his viewpoint again.

    He wasn't alone with the problem; for better or worse there were two other people in the equation now, people who could not be pushed away or ignored or left out of consideration. And now that he knew more of what the three of them were capable of together, Harry was beginning to wonder if he could afford to judge their little troika by other people's standards. Or whether he could afford to let other people dictate how they used their unique abilities.

    Dumbledore was still patiently waiting for an answer.

    To Harry it felt like he was about to make a tremendous, pivotal decision in his life; something that would forever change how he dealt with other people and they with him, the first real step into adulthood. It was an even more extraordinary moment because this would be the first time he had ever separated his aims from Dumbledore's.

    But he did it anyway.

    "No, Professor," he said quietly, "I don't think I would."

    xXx

    Dumbledore was gone, but for a while after he left Harry stared blindly at the opposite wall.

    To his surprise, the headmaster hadn't been angry or offended, or even disappointed, by his reply. He merely sat there for a moment, looking at Harry, and then he smiled. In fact, he looked quite pleased.

    "Do you know - I'm glad to hear it!"

    Harry stared.

    "But Professor …." His voice trailed off. He wasn't quite sure what to say.

    "Yes, Harry?"

    "You're not … offended or anything, then?"

    Dumbledore chuckled. "Good lord, no!" He saw Harry's puzzled face and smiled. "As I said, Harry, I've been in the habit, in the past, of treating you like a child when it should have been obvious that you were anything but. It's reassuring to see that not only are you not a boy anymore, but that you are confident enough in yourself to make decisions that are sometimes in opposition to the ideas of others." When Harry continued to stare at him, he added, "We have talked about you doubting yourself before, you know, when you first arrived here.

    "You've changed a great deal in the last few weeks, Harry - you've grown up and, more to the point, you've grown into yourself. Don't be afraid of making decisions that others might not like. Don't be afraid to trust your own judgement."

    Not sure what to say to this, Harry remained silent and after moment or two of thought, Dumbledore quietly got up.

    "I shan't disturb you any longer, my boy. But do at least try to get an hour or so of sleep if you can." His eyes were twinkling again. "I believe Professor Snape is keen to test your potions tomorrow - or today I should say."

    And he left as quietly as he had arrived.

    But for a long while Harry was unable to do more than stare into space, pondering what the professor had said.

    Was he more grown up than he had been when he arrived here at Hogwarts? Had he really changed so much in such a short space of time? Would it have made such a difference if he had never come here … or if recent events simply hadn't occurred?

    Yes, he realised, it would have. Not, perhaps, because of the last couple of weeks, although that had certainly had an impact. But he'd been changing since this whole strange scenario had begun, right from the moment Ron, influenced by Voldemort, had tried to kill him.

    Was he old enough - mature enough - to strike out on his own now, without constantly referring back to the people who had supported and guided him since he was eleven years old?

    No one could answer that question; only time would tell.

    xXx

    Before Dumbledore arrived Harry had been onto what seemed like a very promising line of research. With an effort he dragged himself back to it, uncomfortably aware of the rapidly approaching dawn. He didn't want to be here when Ron and Draco awoke, let alone for them to come looking for him.

    Blood magic, Harry was discovering, was a hugely complicated subject. It could be very basic (swearing blood-brotherhood) to highly complex (spells that were anchored by the judicious application of blood). To say that blood was the essence of life was to grossly oversimplify the concept; blood had the most extraordinary powers of any substance known to man. The potential for its use in evil-doing was terrifying; consequently all blood-magic involving human blood was, by the definition of the International Confederation of Wizards, dark magic and therefore illegal.
    Hogwarts had not included blood-magic on its syllabus in over three hundred years, aside from passing references in Defence Against the Dark Arts.

    Books on its use were still in existence, however, largely as reference manuals for persons such as Aurors who needed to identify blood-magic when they saw it.

    Harry felt a fraction less guilty about researching it when he saw that.

    The quantity of information was overwhelming, though, especially when he wasn't sure exactly what he needed to know. He skipped sections on the more harmless stuff (such as blood-brotherhood and blood-healing) and still had a great deal to work his way through.

    Blood potions … blood charms … blood curses … blood oracles … blood sacrifice -

    Harry stopped there and squinted at the pages warily. Some of the material was really stomach churning ….

    The Procurement Of Power Through Blood Ritual.

    He twitched, remembering the sickening runes carved into Draco's skin when he first turned up on the doorstep of the student house. Was it possible that this had been some kind of blood ritual? Salmar Hawke had done something similar to Bethany, Harry remembered, during his abduction and attempted murder of her when she was sixteen. He bent to read further.

    Should the seeker so desire to draw upon the power of another, as if of his own magicks, he shall first consume the living blood that he might then take unto himself a part of that individual and become as one with him ….

    Harry stopped again, feeling sick. Had Lucius Malfoy actually done .. that? Had he drunk Draco's blood? Had Salmar Hawke done so with Bethany? And if so, what possible reference could that have to Harry's situation? Reluctantly he continued reading.

    Until he came to one tiny footnote:

    Beware the wizard who shall take power unto himself thus, lest the giver's life force shall run out, for the blood is the life. The life of the seeker becomes unto one with the giver, and should the life of the giver run out then he shall take unto him the life of the seeker until both are dead.

    Harry sat back, stunned. This, then, had been Bethany's dying message: That one who stole power through blood irrevocably bound his life to his victim's.

    When Salmar Hawke fatally stabbed his daughter, he had actually stabbed himself as well. The shared blood had proven his downfall.

    But surely he'd known this would happen when he performed the ritual in the first place? Harry stared down at the little book, puzzled. It was an ancient volume, probably several hundred years old, and had been tucked away almost invisibly between two much larger books in the corner of a bottom shelf. And Harry hadn't seen any other references to this subject in the other books he'd looked at.

    Perhaps, quite simply, Hawke hadn't known. If this book was so old, and if blood-magic had been deemed illegal for so long, it was possible the knowledge was otherwise lost or incomplete.

    Harry would have liked to call it a piece of luck that he had discovered the little book himself, but knowing what he now knew about blood magic – and it's implications for him - he wasn't sure that luck was the word. Nevertheless, it was certainly an answer and one which he needed to consider in some detail.

    He sat back in his chair with a sigh and glanced reflexively at his watch. It was nearly half past five and dawn was poking weak fingers of light through the long library windows. He ought to go back to Gryffindor Tower and try to get an hour or so of sleep.

    Scanning the enormous heap of books that ought to be returned to their shelves, he stood up and, clumsy from being sat in one place for so long, he accidentally joggled the table. The little book, The Forbidden Artes, tumbled to the floor and its front cover, already damaged where it was bound to the spine, tore off completely. Harry swore softly and bent to pick it up.

    Something inside the damaged cover flashed, catching his eye.

    It was a beautifully illuminated bookplate bearing the school's coat of arms, one of a kind routinely stocked by Flourish and Blotts for Hogwarts students. It was clearly much newer than the book itself. Harry peered at it, surprised - and drew in a sharp breath.

    Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus.

    This book belongs to

    LILY EVANS

    "If this book should chance to roam
    box its ears and send it home"


    Harry's eyes burned with shock. After a moment or two of staring, he mechanically fitted the cover back into place and fumbled for his wand, tapping it and whispering hoarsely "Reparo". The cover mended itself seamlessly, but Harry could not stop staring.

    He owned so few things that had belonged to his parents - an invisibility cloak and a handful of photographs. Now, out of the blue, there was this … but what in hell had he just discovered? What was a teenaged girl called Lily Evans, a bright and popular pupil, Head Girl in her day, doing with this - a book on the dark arts? An ugly book describing in detail all the worst possible elements of evil wizardry ….

    Harry straightened up, thinking hard.

    He knew almost as little about his parents as he possessed things that had once belonged to them. And he knew far more about his father than he did about his mother; James Potter, the popular Gryffindor Seeker and Head Boy, Animagus and leader of the foursome known as the Gryffindor Marauders, who had married Lily Evans, the Head Girl.

    Who had Lily Evans been?

    Forgetting the rest of the books, Harry left his table and walked quickly down between row after row of shelves until he came to the back wall of the room. Hanging on the wall was an immense replica of the Hogwarts coat of arms carved out of wood, and beneath it were the four House Rolls containing chronological lists of students in their Houses. The rolls also contained brief details of each student's career at the school, which you could access if you were interested.

    When Harry looked down at the Gryffindor list, it was displaying the previous year's intake. For a moment he struggled to recall his father's year group; then he quoted it softly to the Roll. It scrolled back to display that year.

    Sirius Black
    Antonia Diggle
    Madeline Hook
    Martin Inker
    Remus Lupin
    Peter Pettigrew
    James Potter
    Beth-Ann Quillers
    Sophy Wigginbotham

    No Lily Evans. Harry blinked at the list for a moment, for he knew she had been a Gryffindor – Sirius and Remus had told him so. But now he came to think about it, no one had ever specifically said that she was in the same year as his father. He tried again, quoting the following year, and after a moment it scrolled into sight.

    Leah Bickle
    Lily Evans
    Darius Minch
    Peter Ollerinshaw
    Adeline Potts
    Alfred Potts
    Aaron True
    Sonia Tickelmore
    Zoltan Wellesley-Blythe

    "Open 'Lily Evans'," he said softly to the roll, and her entry slowly expanded.

    Lily Evans: Prefect; Head Girl; Gryffindor Quidditch Team (Reserve Chaser); Gryffindor Debating Team (Captain); Member of the Advanced Charms Group; Member of the Advanced Potions Group; O.W.L.s in Charms, Transfiguration, Potions, Arithmancy, History of Magic, Astronomy, Care of Magical Creatures, Herbology, Study of Ancient Runes, Defence Against the Dark Arts. N.E.W.T.s in Charms, Transfiguration, Potions, Arithmancy, History of Magic, Herbology, Study of Ancient Runes, Defence Against the Dark Arts.

    Bloody hell! Harry thought. She was another Hermione! There were a lot of surprises in the entry; no one had told him his mother was on the Reserve Quidditch team, for example. Harry himself had briefly been a member of the Advanced Charms Group that Professor Flitwick ran on Saturdays, until it got in the way of Quidditch practice. But –

    Member of the Advanced Potions Group? Snape ran that these days, and Harry wouldn't have touched it for all the Galleons in Gringotts, but Snape had been in the same year as his father and had probably been a member of the Group himself back then ....

    Which begged the question: How well did Snape know Harry's mother?

    xXx

    The nursery was full of summer light, as it had been the last time Harry was here. The dark-haired baby was in the cradle, playing with his toes; the Quidditch mobile swung lazily above him. In the background he could just about hear the far-off voices of his father and Sirius talking.

    His mother was busy setting her enchantments on the walls, murmuring softly under her breath as she drew a tiny droplet of blood from her wrist with her wand.

    "Mum?" Harry went to her side, watching her actions without understanding.

    "What is it, Harry?" Her voice was distracted.

    "What are you doing?"

    "Setting protection spells so that he can't get to you." She drew another drop of blood and touched it to the wall, whispering something to it.

    "I don't understand. This isn't normal magic – we weren't taught this at school – "

    "I should hope not. We didn't give our lives to save you, just so that you could become a Death Eater." It was bizarre hearing such words coming out of the mouth of such an innocent-looking young woman. "Did you find my book?"

    "Yes, but – "

    "Good, that should tell you what you need to know."

    Harry was becoming frustrated. "Mum, can't you just tell me yourself? What were you doing with a book like that? What are you doing now? Is this what stopped Voldemort killing me?"

    "He couldn't kill you, Harry – that's what I died for, I couldn't let him touch you." Lily Potter didn't take her attention from her spells for one moment.

    "But these spells – "

    "Harry, if you've read my book you must understand how significant blood is. Blood is life. I gave my life for you, don't you see? That's a more powerful magic than anything Voldemort could do – because he would never give his own life for anything or anyone, do you understand?" For a brief moment she paused and her green eyes, so like Harry's own, bored into him. "That's the difference between us and him. We know there are more important things, things more important than our own lives." She shook her head slightly. "Your father understood that, but I never did quite make him understand that sometimes the end justifies the means. That's why I didn't tell him about this."

    Harry thought he was beginning to understand what she was saying, but it didn't make him feel any easier. "That's ... a bit Slytherin of you. You were a Gryffindor!"

    "You think Gryffindors can't be ruthless when they have to be?"

    "I suppose." Certainly being a Gryffindor was no proof against turning bad, as Pettigrew had proven.

    A tiny smile crossed her lips even as she continued with her spells. "It's all about the choices you make, Harry. I was ambitious, I wanted to be the best, but never at the expense of others."

    "And were you?" Harry asked curiously. "Were you the best?"

    "I was Head Girl, wasn't I? And I got what I wanted - I got your father. And I got you." She looked at him then, and her smile was brilliant. "And you were worth it, Harry. You were worth everything."

    xXx

    "Where were you last night?"

    Harry dragged himself into his seat at the breakfast table, feeling like something that had been dredged up from the murky bottom of the lake. He'd had precisely one and a half hours of sleep. He blinked drearily at Ron and tried to nudge his brain up to speed.

    "Hm?"

    "Last night," Ron repeated, aggravated. "Where were you? You were gone half the night."

    Harry stared at him, puzzled. "If you knew I was missing, why didn't you look for me?"

    It made perfect sense in his head; it was only when the words were out of his mouth that he realised how accusatory they sounded.

    Ron's annoyance visibly cranked up a notch. "I didn't come looking for you because I had somewhere else to be!" When Harry continued to look blank, he said, "The potions, you idiot! Those cups of potion Dumbledore left for us – they had a Summoning Charm on them. One minute I was fast asleep, and the next – bam! - I was standing in the middle of the staff room in my pyjamas!"

    "And the other people in the room were undoubtedly grateful that he was wearing anything at all," Draco commented mildly, helping himself to toast and marmalade. "I know I was."

    Harry could only concentrate on one thing at once. Brow furrowed, he stared at Ron. "But what were you doing there?"

    "More to the point," Draco said, before Ron could respond, "why were you not there? Where were you?"

    "In the library." Harry was still staring at Ron.

    The redhead made an exasperated sound in his throat. "It was a meeting of the Order of the Phoenix, Harry. Some of them, anyway. Dumbledore summoned us there because he wanted to ask us to join them."

    There was a pause.

    "But Dumbledore was in the library with me."

    "We know that! When you didn't turn up, he used the Marauders' Map and headed off to find you!"

    "So that's what happened to the Map!" Harry was assailed by a sudden and endearing vision of Professor Dumbledore tapping the parchment with his wand and declaring "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good". The eccentric old headmaster had probably thoroughly enjoyed himself.

    Draco let out a noisy sigh and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Let's focus on the important details, shall we?"

    "Yeah, like what did the pair of you talk about?" Ron demanded. "He was gone for over half an hour, and when he came back he said you'd turned the offer down."

    Harry squinted, trying to remember the exact details of his conversation with Dumbledore. "Was that what it was all about?"

    "Harry!"

    He looked at Ron; his friend was staring at him in patent bewilderment. "What?"

    "Harry, did you really say no to him when he asked you to join the Order?"

    "Well ... yes, I suppose I did."

    "You suppose? But ...." Ron ran out of ideas and stared at him helplessly. "You were so desperate to join when you first found out about it."

    Harry wasn't sure what to say. He was still too bemused at discovering the conversation in the night had a real purpose behind it. "Did he still ask you two to join?"

    "Oh yes." Draco dished himself up some bacon and after a moment's consideration added a poached egg as well. "I suspect the enthusiasm was a little dampened where I was concerned, but you have to give them credit – they still asked me."

    "So what did you both say?"

    "No," Ron told him flatly, and turned back to his own plate.

    Harry stared. "No?"

    "No."

    "Er ... why?"

    "For the most lunatic reason you could possibly imagine." A tiny smile was playing around the corners of Draco's mouth. "Because you said no."

    "What!"

    "I know! Barking mad, isn't it? I can't imagine what came over me, but I can assure you that it seemed to make perfect sense at the time."

    "But ...." He rubbed at his temples fretfully; he had the most awful headache starting. "Who was there, then?"

    "Dumbledore and Moody," Ron related around a mouthful of toast, "Sirius, Remus, Mundungus Fletcher, Dad, Mrs. Figg, a whole bunch of the senior Aurors and some people from the Ministry – not Fudge, and not Percy, but Bill was there and a couple of goblins from Gringotts' Board of Directors, Hagrid, McGonagall, Flitwick and Sinistra – "

    "You made one glaring omission," Draco commented, and Harry noted the silky wickedness in his voice.

    Ron scowled. "Yeah, go on - say it, since it seems to amuse you so much."

    Harry looked from one to the other. "What are you talking about?"

    Draco smiled. "What Ron was clearly not going to tell you was that your friend Granger was there."

    "What!" yelped Harry, for the second time in five minutes. "But – but ... she ... what?"

    "Yeah, that's what I said," Ron grumbled. "Never a word to us, but she said she's been a member for nearly a year now. Krum's in on it too, although he wasn't there last night."

    "Apparently we saw only a small representation of the entire Order," Draco put in. "I think I'm impressed. Lord Voldemort knows of their existence, of course, but I don't think he has any idea just how big the organisation really is. Let's hope no one takes it into their head to tell him, because his supporters might do something rash."

    Harry was still trying to get his head around all of this. "So when you said 'no thanks', what happened?"

    Ron shrugged. "They swore us to secrecy and sent us back to bed."

    "I think some of them were a bit miffed," Draco added. He looked amused. "Granger certainly was. What did she say to you, Ron?"

    He flushed. "Never mind. She'll get over it." He looked at Harry. "I still can't believe you said no. Why did you do it?"

    Harry fiddled with his fork for a moment, recalling the conversation with Dumbledore. Then he thought of the dream of his mother and what she'd said about his father: "I never did quite make him understand that sometimes the end justifies the means ...."

    And he thought of the things he'd read in that little book, The Forbidden Artes, a book which even now was hidden away in his bag under the bed a matter of feet away from where he was sitting. His stomach twisted.

    Finally he said, "I did it because I couldn't help thinking that if I joined the Order of the Phoenix, I'd have to do what someone else was telling me and probably have very little say in the big decisions. And I've been thinking lately that I ought to take more responsibility for my problem with Voldemort – not wait for someone to tell me how to deal with him."

    There was a long pause and he became conscious that Ron and Draco were looking at him as though he'd eaten one of Fred and George's suspect sweets and suddenly exploded into a giant flamingo. The latter recovered first.

    "Well, I think I've heard everything now," he commented dryly.

    xXx

    When the three of them arrived in the dungeons later that morning, it was to find Snape bottling the new Wolfsbane Potion, while Remus Lupin looked on thoughtfully from where he sat on the edge of a desk at the front of the classroom.

    As the three of them walked in, Snape handed Lupin one of the bottles.

    "You should take it in the same week-long period as the original mixture," he told the other man curtly. "I would be obliged if you would also keep notes on the effects."

    "Thank you, Severus." Lupin stowed the bottle inside his robes. "I appreciate your efforts."

    Snape's brows lifted. "The potion may have been of my devising, Lupin, but the actual effort in making it you owe to our new wizard circle."

    "Indeed," and Lupin looked around, smiling when he saw them. "Then I'm grateful to all of you."

    "You're going to test the new Wolfsbane Potion?" Harry asked him uneasily, taking a step forward.

    "Of course." Lupin seemed quite unconcerned. "If it works as Severus believes it will, it'll be beyond price to me."

    Harry looked at Snape. "You never did explain exactly what difference this potion will make."

    Snape gave him a cool look. "It should enable the werewolf to retain human form as well as faculties during the full moon. There may be some urge to transform, but it should be controllable – a little like the Animagus transformation."

    "As I said," Lupin said, smiling, "beyond price, if it works."

    Harry could certainly see that and part of him rejoiced at the possibility that his friend might finally have full control of his condition. But he was still suspicious.

    "What if it doesn't work?" he demanded. "Is just one test subject sufficient?"

    "As one test subject is all we currently have, it will have to be sufficient," was Snape's curt response.

    "It'll work," Ron said unexpectedly.

    The others looked at him, surprised; he looked a little surprised himself. While Harry, Snape and Lupin has been talking, he had stepped up to Snape's desk and quietly picked up one of the spare bottles of potion. He was handling it now, a slightly embarrassed smile on his lips

    Draco broke the sudden silence.

    "I wish you wouldn't do that," he told Ron, sounding exasperated. "It's creepy."

    "Welcome to our world," Harry told him dryly.

    Lupin chuckled and stood up. "I'll keep you informed, Severus, despite Ron's ringing endorsement."

    "Oh no! Far be it for any of us to deny the Inner Eye." Snape was his usual offended, snappy self. "Perhaps Mr. Weasley would care to enlighten us as to the probable success of the other potion?"

    "I'll leave you to it," Lupin said mildly. "Harry, may I have a quick word?"

    They stepped out into the corridor, where Harry turned to his father's friend worriedly.

    "Remus, are you sure you want to be a guinea-pig for this? It's a big risk – "

    "Not so very big, Harry. Believe me, Snape would have spent months, even years, working on this before he ever let you three near it. No matter how big his grudge against me, his pride won't let him make a mistake with one of his own concoctions." Lupin smiled. "Besides, Ron has already said it will work!"

    "Ron still has a nearly thirty percent failure rate," Harry pointed out.

    "Harry, I'm shocked!" Now the older man was laughing. "I'll pretend I didn't hear you of all people saying that!" Then he shook his head. "That's not what I wanted to talk to you about, anyway."

    Harry pushed his hair out of his eyes, feeling uncomfortable. "Is this about last night?"

    "You know, I'm sure we told Ron and Draco not to talk about it to anyone ...."

    "Including me? Come off it!" he scoffed. Then he sobered. "Are you ... disappointed in me?"

    "No," Lupin told him quietly. "Sirius was a little shocked, I think, but I promise I am nothing but proud of you." He hesitated, then continued, "It isn't always easy to go against what others expect of you, or what they think is best for you, but I think you've done the right thing."

    "I'm glad you think so. Ron and Draco reckon I'm bonkers."

    "And yet they still followed your lead," the other man pointed, smiling. "They obviously have faith in your judgement."

    "I don't suppose many people will have after this," Harry commented gloomily.

    "Well I won't lie to you. Some people – Moody, for example – won't take this well, especially considering your close association with Draco these days. Don't let that knock you off course. I think you have your own, very good reasons for going your own way, and what's more so does Dumbledore. You have to do what's right for you, Harry."

    Harry bit his lip. "Let's just hope I am right."

    Chapter Text

    Returning to London felt very strange.

    Sirius came to collect the three of them from Hogwarts and accompany them home. This time they flew to Hogsmeade, Apparated to the Burrow (so that Ron could once again reassure his mother that they were alright) and after a quick cup of tea there, they took the Floo network to the student house.

    They tumbled out of the living room fireplace to find Seamus making out with his latest girlfriend on the sofa. This was not an auspicious beginning, although just how inauspicious was not immediately apparent to Harry. He was more interested in dumping his bags in the attic bedroom and making sure that everything was just as they'd left it - what seemed like a lifetime ago. Then he and Ron went back downstairs to the kitchen to say hello to Hermione.

    Things began to go downhill from there. Hermione no sooner clapped eyes on Harry than she exclaimed, "There you are! About time …. Harry, what were you thinking of?"

    He came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the kitchen, and looked at her blankly. "Eh?"

    Ron slung an arm around his shoulders, grinning. "You know - midnight chat with Dumbledore?"

    "Oh!" Harry blinked. "Hermione, I don't think now is a good time - "

    He might as well have saved his breath.

    "Honestly, Harry, I can't believe you said that! I felt sure it must have been a mistake, because I know how upset you were at not being included when we were at school. Moody is furious and I can't say I blame him, because we need you three, and thanks to you saying something stupid to Professor Dumbledore, Ron and Draco decided to say 'no' too - "

    Feeling like he'd just been hit by an express train, Harry looked at Ron. "Did I just regress about ten years without noticing?"

    Ron looked amused at this, but there was a wary look in his eyes when he glanced at Hermione. He opened his mouth to say something to her, but was interrupted by Neville's sudden entrance.

    "Oh, hey! The wanderers return!" he said, looking pleased. Then he grinned and tapped Ron's hand where it was draped over Harry's shoulder. "You haven't forgotten rule number seven, have you? No naughty touching!"

    Harry felt Ron tense up - and suddenly the redhead was gone, stalking out of the kitchen.

    Neville looked stricken. "What did I say?"

    "Um … nothing, I think," Harry told him hastily. He was a bit surprised at Ron's abrupt departure himself. "Don't worry about it, Nev - it's been a long couple of weeks."

    Hermione pursed her lips disapprovingly. "For heaven's sake, he can't be miffy already!"

    Harry stared at her, wondering where her attitude had come from. This was more in keeping with the eleven-year-old Hermione who had once driven Harry and Ron mad, not with the poised adult she was now.

    "I don't know," he replied quietly. "Perhaps he thinks he has a good reason. Hermione, what's the matter?"

    She stared back at him for a moment and suddenly seemed to deflate. "I'm sorry," she muttered and she turned back to the stove, giving a cauldron of potatoes a poke with a wooden spoon. "It's been bad at work over the last couple of weeks. What with Bethany being murdered …."

    Hermione had known Bethany better than the others. While they hadn't been friends exactly, they had sometimes studied and done their homework together. It had been horrible enough for Harry to witness, even at second hand, her violent death; he couldn't imagine how Hermione must feel.

    "Do you know when her funeral will be?" he asked after a moment.

    "Not yet. Her body hasn't been released."

    Harry grimaced silently and looked down at the floor for a moment. Neville, apparently feeling that he wasn't wanted, took the opportunity to grab a bottle of butterbeer from the fridge and slip out of the kitchen again.

    "Look," Harry said quietly, when he was gone, "I know what happened the other day must have come as a surprise to everyone – "

    "A surprise?" Hermione gave him a wry little smile. "Harry, you could have knocked most of us down with a feather. I don't think anyone was expecting you to turn down an offer to join the Order of the Phoenix, after the fuss you created when we were fifteen!"

    He smiled too, but it was a little sad. "I'm not fifteen anymore, Hermione."

    "No, you're not."

    They looked at each other for a moment.

    "Would it be rude to ask your reasons for refusing?" she asked finally.

    "Not rude," Harry replied hesitantly, "but you might have to wait for an answer because to be honest, I haven't totally sorted it all out in my head yet."

    To his relief, Hermione laughed at this. "I might have known!"

    She put the wooden spoon down and reached out to him, and Harry stepped into the welcoming hug with relief.

    "It's good to have you back, Harry. How was it?"

    "It was weird," he said into her hair, "but interesting. Remind me to tell you about it sometime."

    "I will." She let go. "Just ... promise me one thing. Promise you'll be careful now."

    "I am careful!"

    Hermione gave him an old-fashioned look. "Harry, this is me, remember? I know exactly how careful you aren't. And I heard all about the Hogwarts Express incident!"

    Harry grinned a little sheepishly.

    xXx

    Dinner was initially a boisterous meal, with everyone wanting to talk about the past couple of weeks and question Harry and Ron about their trip to Hogwarts. The only person who was quiet was Draco; as before, he was mostly ignored by the rest of the housemates. Harry had been conscious of this before, but now it was uncomfortably noticeable to him and he wasn't sure what to do about it. The three of them had achieved a level of comfort in the past few weeks, and he had forgotten just how tense and difficult it had been in the house before.

    But none of the others seemed to notice the change, until Draco quietly said, "Ron, could you pass me the vinaigrette please?"

    Seamus stared at him, and it was not a friendly look. "Since when has he been 'Ron' to you?" he demanded.

    There was a pause, and Harry tried frantically to think of something to say.

    Ron beat him to it. "Oh, since we all slept together," he said casually. He handed the dressing bottle to Draco, apparently unaware of the stunned expressions around the table, and looked across at Neville. "Nev, are you finished with the spud dish?"

    Kill me now, Harry thought, watching as Dean fought a losing battle against choking on a mouthful of salad. Seamus kept opening and closing his mouth, unable to think of a thing to say.

    "You all ... slept together?" Ginny asked weakly.

    "Of course," Draco replied, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. "We're very close."

    "You're joking," Neville said disbelievingly.

    "It was only the once," Harry told them, and instantly wished he'd kept his mouth shut.

    "Oh, that makes all the difference then!" snapped Seamus. He looked outraged; why, Harry couldn't imagine. It seemed like extraordinary hypocrisy, considering that he had an uncomfortable memory of catching the lascivious Irishman in the bath with twin girls the Christmas before last.

    And people complained about him and Ron getting bubblebath on the ceiling.

    "Well yeah, I think it does," Ron commented dryly, "considering that we were all fully dressed and practically comatose at the time." He raised one auburn brow at Seamus's increasing ire. "Why, what did you think we meant?"

    Fortunately, Seamus was struck speechless by this.

    "And now you're all on first name terms?" Hermione alone was maintaining her composure.

    "Something like that," Draco murmured, and he turned his attention back to his meal, apparently content at having helped Ron to set the cat among the pigeons.

    Hermione eyed him. "I see." Clearly deciding to leave the matter there, she looked around the table and changed the subject. "Since everyone's here tonight, we ought to have a house meeting."

    Reluctantly everyone followed her lead, although Seamus was still shooting looks of suspicion and dislike at Draco.

    "It'll have to be short," Harry warned Hermione. "I've got Quidditch practice tonight, and I can't afford to miss it – I've got a game next weekend."

    "Then let's get on with it ...."

    There was some muted grumbling, but they all settled down to discuss finances and the knotty problems that had arisen from having to have extra security added to the house before they could all move back in. By the time they were onto pudding, they had covered pretty much everything and Hermione was, with a little assistance from Seamus, able to balance the books again.

    "I think that's everything," she said, finally pushing the account book to one side. "Does anyone have anything else to raise?"

    "Yeah, I do," said Ron unexpectedly.

    "Go on, then – it's getting late."

    "It's about the house rules," he said blandly, and Harry felt him suddenly tense up. "How come Seamus gets away with screwing his girlfriend on the living room sofa, while I get yelled at if I just put an arm around Harry?"

    There was a startled silence, which was broken by a very nervous Neville.

    "I didn't yell ...." he began apologetically.

    "I wasn't getting at you, Nev," Ron told him sharply. "I just want to know why there's a different rule for me and Harry, when we've been living together for three years now. I mean, for God's sake, if you're not used to us being together by now, you never will be."

    "Good point," Hermione said quietly. She looked down the table; Ginny was nodding agreement and so, to Harry's surprise, was Neville. Dean looked noncommittal, but Seamus was staring at Ron as though he'd grown an extra head.

    "For cryin' out loud! We'd have moved if you'd said anything!" he protested.

    "That's not the point, Seamus. If we'd been doing that, you'd have screamed bloody blue murder – "

    "That's different!"

    Harry felt obliged to say something. "How is it different? I didn't particularly want to see you groping your girlfriend, but I didn't say anything. And it's not like Ron and I are going to start making out on the stairs or anywhere else in public view! I mean, have we ever?"

    "It's bad enough when you forget the bloody privacy spell," Seamus muttered. His eyes would not meet Harry's.

    "So?" Ginny put in unexpectedly. "You've forgotten a few times too - we all have at one time or another!"

    Ron gave her a sharp look. "When have you ever needed a privacy spell?" he demanded.

    "None of your business!" she snapped back. "Don't you start going all Percy-ish on me!"

    "Hey - !"

    "We're getting off the point here!" Hermione interrupted. "Seamus, what's the problem?"

    Silence.

    "Nothing," he said finally, and slumped back in his chair. His eyes still wouldn't meet Harry's or Ron's.

    "Doesn't look like "nothing" to me," Ron told him curtly. "If you've got a problem with me and Harry, just spit it out."

    "Leave it, Ron, can't you?" Dean asked in a weary tone.

    "No, I've been leaving it for three years now! What's the matter, Seamus? Is it that if you don't have to watch me touching Harry, you can pretend we're not really gay?"

    "Leave it." Dean was glaring now. "Jesus, Ron, what is your problem? You haven't been back in the house five minutes, and already you're picking fights!"

    Ron stared at him for a second, then suddenly screwed up his napkin and threw it on the table. "Right! Fine!" he snapped and stood up sharply, shoving his chair back. Everyone made a grab for their water glasses as he jostled the table, then he was pushing past his sister and storming out of the room.

    "Ron!" Ginny protested, but he was already gone and they could hear his feet stamping up the stairs. She cast a quick glance at Harry, who shook his head slightly, and pursed her lips. She got up from the table more slowly and followed her brother.

    Harry dropped his own napkin on the table and sat back with a sigh.

    "What the hell was all that about?" Dean demanded of him.

    "Why are you asking me?" Harry wanted to know. "Seamus?"

    "Yeah, right, just blame it all on me!" the Irishman snapped.

    "Well, do you have a problem with Harry and Ron being gay?" Hermione asked him sharply. "Because that's what it's starting to look like from where I'm sitting."

    Seamus glared. "Where's the sudden urge to get all touchy-feely in public coming from?" he wanted to know, pointedly ignoring Hermione's question. "I thought the pair of you wanted to keep it all under wraps?"

    "We can't keep it a secret forever," Harry reminded him. "Sirius, Remus and most of Ron's family already know, but if the rest of the world has to find out then I want to be the one telling them, not some nosy reporter from the Prophet out for a scoop."

    The others - with the exception of Draco, who was still keeping very quiet - stared at him.

    "You think you can stop the Prophet having a field day with it?" said Dean. He snorted. "You're living in Cloud Cuckoo Land!"

    Harry shrugged. "Maybe. It's worth a try though, and it has to be worth something if they're not the newspaper that breaks the story."

    "You're never planning to do an interview?" Hermione demanded incredulously. She caught on quickly. "But you've always been so against it ...."

    "You'd co-operate with the Skeeter bitch?" Some of Seamus's aggression drained away in the face of this startling news.

    "No!" Harry stifled a chuckle. "God, no! Can you imagine? Witch Weekly's printed enough stories about me crying all over the place, thanks!"

    There were a few muted chuckles at this.

    "So what are you going to do?" Neville asked curiously.

    "Well …." Harry glanced at Draco, hesitating. "This was your idea. You want to explain?"

    The blond youth raised a brow at him, but shrugged and leaned forward. "The idea is that Harry picks one magazine, preferably one of the less hysterical ones, and offers to do a no-holds-barred, exclusive interview for them," he said, "but he makes it clear that this is a once in a lifetime, never to be repeated deal. It won't stop the other papers and magazines writing stories about him, but after one magazine gets the real thing straight from his mouth, it'll definitely discredit anything anyone else comes up with."

    "Interesting idea," Hermione said into the quiet that followed this. "Who are you thinking of going to, Harry?"

    "There's a magazine called Modern Warlock. It caters mostly for younger, professional types …."

    "Good choice," Draco said, looking surprised and a little impressed. "Their circulation isn't large, but they have a good reputation."

    "That's what I thought. Of course, I'd have to talk to the editor first and find out if he'd be interested." Harry fiddled with his napkin. "I'm guessing they might want to interview some of my friends as well, though. Are you up for it?"

    Neville looked dubious. "Oh, I don't know ...."

    "Well, not if you don't like it of course. But I'd rather any quotes they use come from people I trust, instead of them talking to people I hate or even making stuff up and attributing it to an unnamed 'friend' who doesn't exist."

    There was another pause as the group looked at each other.
    "Well, think about it," Harry said, and he left it at that.

    xXx

    When Harry walked into the attic room, he found Ginny sitting in the armchair in front of the closet, looking exasperated, while Ron stalked around the room putting things from their bags away in drawers and cupboards. Ginny stood up when Harry appeared and gave him an eloquent look.

    "I don't know how you put up with him," she said, and she glowered at her brother briefly. "You're welcome to his temper, Harry!"

    When Ron continued to ignore her, she muttered something under her breath and left. Harry shut the door behind her and watched his friend for a moment, hands dug into his jeans pockets. Ron continued to rummage in the two bags, pulling out a couple of tightly-stoppered glass bottles.

    "What do you want to do with these?" he asked casually.

    It was the Polyjuice and Restoria Vitae Potions they'd made at Hogwarts. Dumbledore had presented them with a bottle of each before they left.

    "Floor of the closet?" Harry suggested. Neither potion could be kept in the light, but he didn't want to put them in the kitchen pantry, even properly labelled. God only knew what Neville would do with them by accident. Polyjuice himself into an extremely lively Mandrake plant, probably.

    "Good idea." Ron tucked them away in a corner of the closet where they were well-hidden by their winter cloaks.

    Clearly he wasn't going to raise the subject of Seamus himself, so Harry did it for him.

    "What was all that about in the house meeting?"

    His friend shrugged, not looking at him. "I get pissed off with Seamus's attitude sometimes. I mean, why is it okay for him to rub my nose in his affairs, but I have to act like I'm celibate everywhere but in here?"

    "It's never bothered you like this before," Harry pointed out quietly.

    "Yeah, well maybe I hadn't noticed it much before."

    The penny dropped. "We had a lot of freedom up at Hogwarts, didn't we? Everyone there already knew, so we didn't have to pretend."

    "It's not just that." Ron pulled a bundle of dirty laundry from his bag and tossed it into the basket by the door. "We shouldn't have to pretend here, Harry; everyone's known about us for ages. And I don't think anyone really cares - except Seamus. That rule was added to the list because of him, not Neville or Dean or even Ginny. It was Seamus who kicked up a fuss right from the beginning."

    Which was true, but –

    "He can't help it if he's uncomfortable with us being the way we are."

    The redhead snorted derisively. "Yeah! Why, he shared a dormitory with us for seven whole years and never realised how close he came to being leapt on and ravished while he slept! Shock, horror. And God forbid he should have to share a house with us now unless he has proper safeguards in place to protect his non-existent virtue."

    "Ron ...."

    "No, sod it, Harry! We shouldn't have to take this shit from someone who's supposed to be a friend of ours. You think he shags his girlfriends on the living room sofa just for the fun of seeing Neville's expression or getting yelled at by Hermione? No, he does that to get at us, like he's got something to prove – "

    This was a little too paranoid for Harry's liking. "Hey, come on - take it easy ...."

    Ron dropped the little book he'd just pulled out of Harry's bag onto the bed and rubbed at his temples fretfully. "I've got a lousy headache starting," he said, and his peevish tone succeeded in dragging Harry's horrified eyes away from where The Forbidden Artes had landed on the bedspread, unheeded by Ron who, until that point, hadn't even known of its existence.

    Schooling his face into patient concern, Harry took his partner's arm and gently but deliberately drew him away from the bed.

    "What's brought this on?" he asked. Ron was still rubbing at his eyes; Harry took the opportunity to slide his wand unobtrusively out of his sleeve and flick it at the little book, which jumped up and whisked itself away under the pillow on Harry's side of the bed.

    "I don't know – I didn't sleep very well last night."

    "Are you dreaming again?" Harry was genuinely concerned, for over the last couple of nights at Hogwarts all three of them had suffered from nightmares, Ron in particular. He either couldn't or wouldn't talk about them.

    "A bit." He shrugged it off brusquely. "I'll be alright. You're going to be late for Quidditch practice, you know."

    Harry let it go. He didn't like Ron shutting him out like this, because they didn't normally keep secrets from one another; but he didn't exactly hold the moral high ground in that respect himself. He felt guilty about keeping the little book from Ron; on the other hand, he didn't want his partner to see some of the things he'd read in there.

    "Yeah, I'd better go," he said with a sigh. "Are you coming?"

    "Nah, what's the point? What are the chances of them needing the reserves?" Ron was a reserve Beater on the Aurors' team.

    "Well, you never know .... "

    But Ron wouldn't be pushed, and in the end Harry gathered up his broom and kit and left him to it.

    xXx

    The Inter-Agencies League borrowed the Tutshill Tornadoes' Quidditch ground for matches, and various of their teams also had permission to practice there when the Tornadoes weren't using it. Unlike less successful League teams such as the Chudley Cannons, the Tornadoes had no need to rent their pitch out to amateurs, so at least there were no scheduling headaches.

    Harry discovered that the rest of the Aurors' team had already assembled when he arrived. He hurried into his practice kit, grabbed his Tsunami and jogged out onto the pitch to a chorus of cheerful catcalls from his team-mates and a stern rebuke from Maud Dingbottle, the coach. Although an Auror now, Maud had once been Seeker for the great Montrose Magpies and she was the very devil to please. She played reserve Seeker for the Aurors, an unnerving prospect for Harry whom she tended to shadow during practice games, making acid comments about his flying technique.

    Muttering an apology, Harry ducked into the line-up and was surprised to find himself standing next to Sirius.

    "Where's Marius?" he asked under the cover of one of Dingbottle's scathing speeches, referring to Marius Rooney, the usual Keeper.

    "Out on assignment," his godfather muttered back. "Where's Ron?"

    "At home, sulking - "

    "When you two gentlemen have finished gossiping," the coach interrupted, glaring at Harry like Professor Snape. "Potter, I suppose it's too much to hope that you've bothered to pick up a broom for the past three weeks?"

    "Well - "

    Dingbottle didn't give him a chance to complete the thought. "Thought not. Do you realise that you'll be facing off against Charlie Weasley next week? If he's lost his edge while he's been chasing dragons around Eastern Europe, I'll eat my gauntlets." She gave him another searing look, and turned away. "Well, what are you all loafing around for? Into the air with you!"

    That was a bit unfair, Harry thought. He'd been playing against Ron and Draco for at least an hour a day for the last five days, and no one could accuse the two of them of being slouches, particularly Draco.

    He kicked off from the ground, muttering resentfully to himself, and got a wry grin in passing from Cho Chang, who was a Chaser on this team.

    As he swooped up above the other players and positioned himself in the usual Seeker's spot above the three Chasers, he had one cheering thought: On his new Tsunami it was highly unlikely that the coach would be able to keep up with him long enough to make any remarks about his handling of it.

    There was a faint clunk from below; Dingbottle had kicked open the wooden chest containing the four Quidditch balls. There were two sharp whooshes! as the Bludgers were released, and a fleck of bright gold zipped past Harry's nose as the Snitch escaped. Then the coach stooped to pick up the Quaffle and paused, glaring around at the team, including those reserves who'd managed to turn up.

    "Now, I want to see some decent moves from the lot of you!" she called threateningly, and with that she tossed the Quaffle into the air.

    xXx

    When Harry finally left the pitch two hours later, it was growing dark and he was stiff and lathered with sweat. He staggered into the changing rooms with the others, ignoring Dingbottle's stream of criticisms - he'd caught the Snitch three times, what more did the woman want? - and headed for the showers with intense relief.

    "I swear she's worse than Oliver Wood," he called to Sirius, who was in the next cubicle, "and I never thought I'd say that about anyone."

    "There's a rumour that the Magpies threw a two-day party when she left," Sirius called back, and Harry laughed. He rinsed off and dragged a towel around his waist, heading back to the changing rooms to dry up and dress.

    He was more than a little surprised to find Seamus waiting for him.

    "Hullo," Harry said, staring at him. "What are you doing here?"

    "I am not homophobic!" the sandy-haired Irishman informed him indignantly.

    Oh God. This just put the cap on a perfect day. Harry had never felt less like dealing with any of his housemates, especially since he was surrounded by eight of his colleagues, most of whom supposedly didn't know about him and Ron.

    "You've had a row with Ron, haven't you?" he said shortly. He began to sort through his clothes.

    "He had the nerve to say - "

    "I don't want to hear it!" Harry snapped, before Seamus could forget himself entirely and blurt out everything in front of the entire room. "Go home, Seamus. If you've got a problem with Ron - or with anyone else in the house - sort it out with them, not me!"

    "But Harry - "

    "No, Seamus!" Suddenly something seemed to go pop! inside Harry and he forgot that he was standing there in nothing but a damp towel, surrounded by staring Aurors, as a whole load of pent-up aggravation boiled out. "I can't believe you came all the way out here just to whine at me! What the hell is the matter with you all? For crying out loud, I'm not the head of the family with the final say on everything, and I'm not a neutral buffer zone between you all when you fall out! If you've got a problem with Ron or Draco or anyone else, just deal with it, will you? Yell at them or punch them or bloody well blast each other into oblivion if you want - just don't keep expecting me to sort out your problems or act like some kind of United Nations peacekeeping force in my own home! I'm fed up with it!"

    A startled silence fell, and Harry was conscious of several pairs of intrigued eyes and ears waiting to see what would happen next.

    Seamus looked disconcerted by this unexpected rant, and also decidedly put out. For a moment his mouth opened and closed silently, then he pulled himself together.

    "Right!" he said, very stiffly. "Fine! I'll just piss off then, shall I?"

    "You do that," Harry told him curtly.

    Bristling with indignation, Seamus Disapparated.

    "Don't let the door slap you on your way out," Sirius's voice commented laconically, and there was a smattering of chuckles around the changing room.

    Harry was suddenly aware that he was standing there clad in nothing but a towel and an angry flush. He looked around and discovered that his team-mates, including his godfather, were all in equal states of undress.

    "They'll be locking up here if we don't hurry up," he muttered, embarrassed, and began to dry off.

    He was just buckling his kit-bag shut when Sirius gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder.

    "Want to have supper with Remus and me?" he asked, grinning. "You domineering old head of the household, you."

    Harry grinned back reluctantly. "Thanks, but I'd better not. I should go home and face the music – "

    "Alright, but it's your funeral. You must be a glutton for punishment."

    "Well, you're the one who told me I ought to stand up to people more," Harry pointed out wryly.

    xXx

    Not wanting to deal with the others when he got home, Harry took the risk of Apparating directly into the bedroom. It was startlingly dark; the curtains had been pulled, the lights were off and he got the impression that a darkness charm had been cast in the room.

    "Ron?" Harry had to feel his way across to the bed. The curtains on that were closed too. He drew his wand from his sleeve. "Lumos."

    The tiny light didn't do much to dispel the blackness. Harry pulled the bed-curtains apart an inch or two and peered inside; Ron was sprawled across the bed fully dressed, with an arm over his eyes. "Ron?"

    "Harry?" Ron moved slowly, shielding his eyes from the light and wincing as he sat up.

    "Are you okay?" Harry pushed the curtains further apart and sat down on the edge of the bed. "God, you look like hell!"

    "I feel like hell. My head's splitting."

    "Have you had a headache potion?"

    "Nah. I went downstairs to get one after you left, and Seamus nobbled me in the kitchen. I couldn't be bothered after that. I just wanted to lie down."

    Harry gave him a concerned look and stood up. "Get undressed and into bed," he told his friend. "I'll fetch you a potion."

    "'Kay."
    The house was dark and quiet when he left their room, which was a little unusual considering that it was still quite early. Harry trotted purposefully downstairs to the kitchen, and nearly leapt out of his skin when Draco popped out of the pantry just as he was opening the door.

    "Shit, Draco! You nearly gave me a heart-attack!" Harry stared him. "What are you doing in there anyway?"

    "Looking for something a bit more exciting than butterbeer," the blond youth replied. "A stiff drink seemed like a fitting epilogue to the evening, but I can't find anything so I'm pinching a bar of Granger's chocolate instead. Do you think she'll mind?"

    "Probably. Was there a huge row?" Harry began to rummage for Ron's special headache potions. Someone had had a tidying fit while the three of them were gone and nothing was in its usual place.

    "Oh Lord, yes. Finnegan laid into Ron about that business at dinner – I thought they were going to have a punch up, but Thomas and Granger stepped in and Finnegan took off somewhere – "

    "He turned up at Quidditch practice just as we were finishing and tried to have a go at me as well. I told him to get lost."

    Harry finally located one of the glass vials of potion and backed out of the pantry, closing the door. Draco looked at the tiny container and raised a brow. "Headache?"

    "Not me – Ron."

    "I thought he was looking a bit peaky earlier. Not on his usual form."

    "Hm." Harry didn't really want to discuss it, even if he was on better terms with Draco these days. "He'll be alright in the morning." He was just heading back out of the kitchen, when something occurred to him and he turned back. "Are you okay for something to do?"

    Draco gave him a sly smile. "Thanks, Potter, but I'm over twenty-one you know. I can amuse myself."

    Harry thought about that for a split second and shuddered. "I don't want to know!"

    xXx

    Ron was sitting on the side of the bed in his pyjamas when Harry returned. It was still exceptionally dark in the bedroom, and in the feeble light from his wand the redhead looked washed out and ill.

    "Here …." Harry poured half a glass of water from the jug on the nightstand and tipped a careful measure of the potion into it. He handed it to his partner. "You really don't look too good. Do you want me to see if Ginny's at home and - "

    "No! God, no …." Ron drank the potion in three quick, distasteful swallows and handed the glass back. "I don't need Ginny fussing, thanks. I'll be fine."

    Harry sat down on the edge of the bed next to him. "Look," he said hesitantly, "I know you're having nightmares. Do you want to talk about it?"

    But Ron shook his head. "Not really."

    "Ron …."

    "Don't, Harry." Unexpectedly he leaned into him, resting his forehead on Harry's shoulder. "They're just dreams. They're probably nothing like accurate - they're not even the same twice in a row."

    Which was the problem with dreams, even the prophetic ones. The future tended to be quite fluid, and of all the many divinatory methods dreams most often reflected that amorphous aspect. It was an irony that you could discover the most details about the future from a dream, but at the cost of certainty. Ron himself frequently observed, with considerable exasperation, that sometimes reading the tea-leaves was more reliable.

    "Then why are you so bothered by it?" Harry asked him softly.

    Ron didn't answer immediately, and when he did his voice was muffled by Harry's t-shirt.

    "I don't want you to die."

    Shock flooded Harry's veins like ice-water. For a moment he stared down at the copper hair of his friend, thinking No, he can't have found the book .... Then his brain slowly started to come out of its paralysis and move again.

    Of course Ron hadn't found the book. If he had, he would have been ranting and raving at Harry by now, headache or no. It was only a stupid, unreliable dream. Only ....

    "What makes you say that, you silly sod?" he asked, trying to keep his voice light and humorous.

    Ron didn't move, almost as though he couldn't bear to look at Harry. "It keeps coming up as a theme. Not every time. Just some."

    "Often?" A shrug. "But you've done heaps of Tarot predictions on me and I usually come out okay in those. And the Tarot's more reliable."

    "I haven't done a spread lately."

    "So do one when you're feeling better."

    A pause, and then Ron pulled back, straightening up a little. "He's getting closer," he said abruptly.

    "Who?"

    "You Know Who."

    "Voldemort?" Harry rubbed at his scar a little self-consciously. "I haven't felt any twinges or anything lately, and I think I would, considering everything that's happened over the last couple of weeks."

    But his friend shook his head. "Not physically. He's coming closer psychically. Whatever's going to happen is coming closer."

    Harry raised his brows. "How close?"

    "I don't know. I wish I did."

    He looked so exhausted and his eyes were drooping in spite of his efforts to stay awake. The headache potion tended to have a soporific effect. Harry shook his head and gave Ron a gentle nudge. "Come on, time for bed."

    It was a measure of the redhead's condition that he didn't argue. But he did squint at Harry as he was sliding under the covers. "Are you coming to bed too?"

    "In a minute."

    Harry waited until Ron was settled and his eyes were closed, then he quietly slipped his hand under his own pillow and fished out his mother's little book. Closing the bed curtains, he went to sit in the armchair, where he could read The Forbidden Artes without disturbing his friend.

    xXx

    In spite of everything, Harry was amused at Draco's irritated expression when he emerged for breakfast the next morning. The blond wizard was clad in a long buff-coloured robe over his jeans and t-shirt.

    "I found this in a batch of new clothes left for me this morning," he commented acidly, as he put a couple of slices of bread into the toaster. "I take it someone's trying to give me a hint."

    "Looks more like an order to me," was Hermione's assessment, as she looked at the Auror's robe over the top of her copy of the Daily Prophet. "Speaking of which, you three might want to keep out of Moody's way this morning." Since Neville and Ginny were both sitting at the table at the time, she couldn't say much more than that, but she gave Harry a significant look before retiring behind the newspaper again.

    Harry shrugged, but couldn't work up much anxiety about the prospect of Moody's ire; he was more concerned with Ron, who was still far too pale and quiet for his liking. To make matters worse, it was evident that Seamus was still bearing a grudge. He'd stormed in and out of the kitchen ten minutes earlier without speaking to anyone, and a matter of moments later Dean had followed him, equally silent but looking exasperated.

    Something had changed in the student house; Harry couldn't put a finger on what it was, but he didn't like it.

    There was nothing to be done about it this morning though, so he put it to the back of his mind and worried instead about what was waiting for them at the Aurors' Facility.

    xXx

    Usually, being paired off against Ron in physical training exercises was something of a challenge, for when he wanted he could easily predict every move you were going to make just before you made it. The situation had both advantages and disadvantages; it was excellent for deflating egos and training you to react without thinking first, but it was a limited advantage for Ron who could only sustain the foresight for a short period before developing an unpleasant headache.

    Today, however, Harry not only found him less than a challenge, but was actually concerned that he might inflict some serious damage on his distracted partner. Their trainer – unfortunately the Quidditch coach, Maud Dingbottle – was quick to notice and brought Ron back to attention with a sudden slap to the back of his head.

    "Wake up, Weasley!" she barked at him, as he stumbled from the unexpected blow. "Potter, stop babying him! Do you think a Death Eater'll give him a second chance?" She shook her head, exasperated. "I think it's time the pair of you were split up. Potter, work with Clare. Cottley, come over here with Weasley; Granger, you work with Twizzle for a while. And Chang, take that boy there – " she gestured dismissively to Draco, who was pretty much a tyro at martial arts, "and put him through some basic exercises."

    Cho gave Harry a rueful smile as he moved to take her place opposite Simeon Clare, but she didn't seem too bothered by the prospect of working with Draco; unlike the others who had all reacted with varying degrees of disgust when he'd arrived that morning with Harry, Ron and Hermione. All the same, Harry wished he had eyes in the back of his head and enough attention to split three ways. Now he was not only worried about Ron, but he was worrying about Draco too. He knew Cho rather well; she could smile good-humouredly at you all the while she was breaking your neck, and bow politely to your dead body when she was finished.

    Consequently, Simeon was able to throw Harry on his back three times in a row, before Dingbottle's ire descended on him again. He reluctantly abandoned his companions to their fates, and concentrated on saving his own skin instead.

    By the end of the morning, Harry at least felt he had acquitted himself well. Ron had woken up and put up a spirited defence against Meg Cottley (just as well - she was almost as deadly as Cho); and Draco appeared to be on unusually good terms with Cho Chang, considering the new collection of bruises he was nursing.

    "That was entertaining," he commented in the changing rooms. "What comes next in the day's thrilling programme of events?"

    "Lunch," Harry replied dryly.

    After lunch, an owl arrived to inform the team that - once again - Percy Weasley had been sent a curse and needed assistance. Remus Lupin promptly handed the matter over to Harry and Ron, with instructions to take Draco with them.

    Harry hesitated over this. "You know, he's not very fond of us at the moment," he pointed out reluctantly, remembering Percy's reaction at his birthday party.

    "Doesn't matter," Lupin replied briskly. "He asked for Auror assistance; that's what he gets. If he makes a fuss, refer him back to me."

    So, Harry, Ron and Draco set out for the Ministry. When they arrived at Percy's office, they were greeted by the secretary who looked after him and four other members of his team. She was giggling, but this was nothing unusual given the number of curses Percy seemed to attract, and Harry nodded to her briskly.

    "What's the problem this time?" Ron asked casually.

    The young witch managed to pull herself together enough to say nonchalantly: "Oh, you know him! He's just going bananas as usual." Then she clamped her bottom lip firmly between her teeth and quickly swung her chair around to her ancient typewriter, making a desperate stab at looking calm and efficient.

    Harry sighed and rapped sharply on Percy's door before opening it.

    He took one look at what was sitting behind the desk in the tiny office and quickly shut the door again, not sure he believed his eyes.

    "Well?" Draco asked impatiently. "What's going on?"

    Harry shook his head and opened the door again, pushing it wide open.

    "Help me!" Percy squawked, outraged.

    He was … going bananas. Quite literally. Both his arms had turned into giant bananas and his hands were ripe bunches of five smaller bananas. As the three of them gawked, astonished, there was a tiny pop! and one of his ears turned into a little curving yellow fruit as well.

    Ron gave a great snort of laughter and had to retreat to the outer office to get control of himself, leaving the other two to approach his brother's desk uncertainly.

    "Holy shit!" Draco's tone was admiring. "Which curse is that?"

    "Do something!" Percy raged at them. "Don't just stand there!"

    There was another pop! and his left shoe burst at the seams, unable to cope with his foot suddenly changing shape.

    "Percy, I'm not sure I know what to do," Harry told him helplessly. "I've never seen this curse before! Where did it come from?"

    Draco was already gingerly lifting a torn envelope on the tip of his wand. "It's addressed by hand," he commented, squinting at the writing with his head on one side.

    "Ron, for crying out loud, get in here and give us a hand!"

    Ron appeared in the doorway, wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his robe. "Sorry Perce," he said, not sounding the least bit repentant. "What have we got?"

    "A hand-written envelope," Draco told him. "I don't recognise the writing - do you?"

    He passed the envelope over and Ron began to snicker again. "That explains everything! Percy, don't you recognise George's writing? It's on every flippin' birthday and Christmas card you get from the twins!"

    Percy struggled to express his feelings around a pair of banana lips that had just appeared.

    "So how do we change him back?" Draco asked, intrigued.

    "I'm not sure we do, under the circumstances," Harry replied, studying Percy's banana hands with an admirable straight face. "Most of Fred and George's jinxes wear off after a while. Mind you, I'm not sure what effect having a banana for a head would have on a person …."

    Percy squawked and nearly burst his golden skin trying to convey his agitation to them.

    "Okay, okay!" Harry said hastily. "We'll get onto the twins at once and make them turn you back."

    "There's never a camera around when you need one," Ron commented regretfully.

    xXx

    Fred and George were utterly unrepentant when Harry, Ron and Draco brought them into the Facility for the usual Stern Lecture about wastage of valuable Auror time.

    "He's a patronising little git," was George's estimation of Percy. "He hasn't stopped lecturing and boring on at us since the shop got burned out. We got fed up of it."

    "And besides, there was nowhere else to test the new jokes while we get the workshop refitted," Fred added, as though this was the most reasonable explanation in the world. "What did you think?" he asked brightly. "Banana Bunch Dust! Add it to your friends' drinks for a touch of monkey business!"

    It didn't help that Ron seemed to think it was all a good joke and was inclined to let his brothers off with a friendly warning. Draco, amused by the whole affair, refused to venture an opinion, leaving Harry to try futilely to impress upon the twins a sense of guilt about the incident. In the end he gave up and instead complained bitterly to Sirius about the impossibility of imposing an on-the-spot fine on the culprits. Magical law hadn't yet caught up with the Muggle world in this respect, and taking Fred and George to court over the incident seemed a little excessive.

    "Not to mention the marital disharmony it's likely to cause in the Potter-Weasley household," was Sirius's grinning observation. "I told you: You're too bloody nice for your own good."

    Harry stomped back into the interview room, just in time to catch Fred trying to palm some suspect packages off onto Ron.

    "If those are destined for Seamus, I don't want to know," he told his partner grumpily. The packets looked suspiciously like one of the twins' more popular inventions – Scratch'n'Scratch Itching Powder. It was fifty percent stronger than standard itching powder, and three times as long-lasting. To Fred and George, he added sourly, "You can go."

    George all but bounced out of his seat, grinning. "Thanks, Harry!"

    "Yeah, you're a good egg, mate!" Fred added, clapping him on the shoulder.

    Harry tried not to look grouchy. The twins were the twins, after all, and Percy was terribly irritating.

    "Just ... try and leave Percy alone for a while, eh?" he pleaded. "It's bad enough when Mundungus Fletcher makes his teeth fall out. And I don't know how I'm going to look him in the eye now I've seen him as a bloody great banana."

    In the background, he heard Draco give a refined snigger. The twins eyed the blond youth suspiciously, but apparently decided not to comment, for which Harry was grateful. It had been hard enough explaining his presence earlier.

    "Look at it this way," George told Harry. "At least you won't get a Howler from Penelope later."

    Ron perked up. "Really?"

    "Yeah, she always sends a Howler if we stick a joke on Perce," Fred said casually. "It's usually pretty good for a laugh. Oh, hey! Have you two been invited to the party?"

    "No, what party?"

    "The one Mum's throwing at the weekend, after the Quidditch match," George told them. "We reckon it's the engagement party at last, since she made a big deal about saying Percy and Penny would be there."

    "We haven't been invited," Ron said, looking a little hurt, "and we only saw her yesterday – "

    "Well, our owl arrived this morning, so yours is probably waiting for you. Besides, you know what Errol's like – it's a wonder he's got any feathers left at his time of life."

    Harry looked at Ron. "We have got to get your mum and dad a new owl for Christmas ...."

    "Anyway, Mum said it would be a celebration, no matter who won the game on Saturday," Fred put in, grinning at Harry. "Charlie managed to get tickets for us, Merry and the kids, and Dad finagled tickets for Mum, Bill and Ginny. I don't know what Percy's doing, but I suppose he gets a ticket for himself anyway and can get one for Penny."

    "Bill's going to be there?" Ron was understandably surprised, for his eldest brother was usually out of the country. "What about Gran? She's still staying with Mum and Dad."

    George shrugged. "She doesn't want to go – keeps predicting gloom and doom. But for crying out loud, it's a Ministry match! The security's bound to be tighter than a Gringotts vault."

    But Harry didn't like the sound of this. Ron's grandmother didn't strike him as being the hysterical type; and he had to admit that security at the match had been at the back of his mind ever since he'd heard about the terrorist attacks on Diagon Alley.

    When the twins had gone, he looked at Ron soberly. "Do me a favour, would you? Do a Tarot spread on the match and see if anything comes up."

    Chapter Text

    Harry awoke on the morning of the Quidditch match to find Ron already awake and laying out Tarot cards at the foot of the bed.

    "What are you doing?" he asked drowsily.

    Ron looked up and smiled. "Just checking. I still can't see anything happening at the match today - I even tried the casting stones and crystal ball earlier, and all I get is a big load of nothing. I don't know what Gran's getting so worked up about."

    He scooped the cards into a pile and tidied them up absently.

    "You're awake early," Harry observed, pulling himself upright. "Are you still dreaming?"

    Ron shrugged. "A bit. Don't worry about it - it's general gloom and doom, which could just be caused by stress as much as anything else."

    Which was true. The atmosphere in the house hadn't lightened much; Seamus was still not on speaking terms with Harry and Ron, and Dean was being a little stand-offish too. And on top of that, at work Moody had been decidedly … well … moody with them, for want of a better word. It had been a tense week and Harry was hoping the game today, which everyone seemed to be attending, would lighten things up a little.

    "I got an owl earlier," Ron said, breaking into his thoughts. "Charlie wants to know if he can borrow my broom today."

    They looked at each other, and Harry grinned. "Yeah?"

    "Hm. What do you reckon?"

    Harry shrugged. "Ron, it's your broom."

    "I know, but it seems a bit like an act of treason, considering that he's on the other team." Ron was clearly indecisive. "On the other hand, I don't know if Mum'll let me in the house if I don't lend it to him. He's my brother after all."

    Harry chuckled. "Then lend it to him! It takes more than a good broom to catch the Snitch."

    But still Ron hesitated. "I dunno …. If you're sure?"

    "I'm sure. Send him an owl." Harry began to slide out of bed, and paused. "Better not tell anyone, though, just in case. Dingbottle'll have my guts for garters!"

    So after breakfast Ron headed out to deliver his Tsunami to his brother. Harry, however, feeling that seeing Charlie before the match would be pushing his luck, spent the morning at Godric's Hollow instead and made a nuisance of himself with Sirius and Lupin until it was time to take a portkey to the stadium.

    xXx

    It wasn't until he was in the changing rooms and could hear the noise from the stands above, that Harry truly appreciated the level of interest in this game.

    "How many people are here, for crying out loud?" he demanded, as he buckled on the shin pads that were designed to reduce Bludger injuries.

    "I think it's just the acoustics," Sirius replied, although he looked a bit doubtful. "All the Ministry departments are here, though, with their families. There are some people from the big league teams as well. And the press."

    "Great," Harry muttered sourly. He hadn't sweetened on the press over the years, in spite of his recent decision to allow an interview.

    He finished strapping the protective pads on, and began to pull on his outer robes. He wasn't fond of the colours of the Aurors' team; sky blue and beige, with a silly motif in the centre of the chest - two crossed broomsticks with a pair of wings and a halo, and the word "Angels" underneath.

    "They're making enough noise for a World Cup out there," Cho Chang commented, wandering in from the women's side of the changing rooms. She gave the back of Harry's robes a tug, straightening them up.

    She was just about to tidy his hair as well when Ron walked in, and she stepped back with a grin. Cho knew what Ron was like.

    "Where's Draco?" Harry wanted to know.

    "Out in the stands with Hermione," Ron replied. "It's heaving out there. Harry, Oliver Wood's here."

    Harry groaned. "What idiot gave him a ticket?"

    "One of the Tornadoes probably," Sirius put in, grinning. "He's the England Captain, Harry! What did you expect?"

    Maud Dingbottle walked in then, bouncing on her toes with tension.

    "Come on, you lot!" she called, and team began to assemble near the doors. She looked them over for a moment, chewing her bottom lip. "This is going to be a rough game," she said finally, her eyes raking over them all. "The Magizoologists aren't nicknamed 'the Beasts' for nothing. Don't give them any chances - especially you, Potter."

    For a moment it looked like she might say more, but she shook her head and stepped back. "All right! Off with you!"

    The team quickly began to file out to their launching point. At the last minute, though, Ron grabbed Harry's arm and held him back. His blue eyes were warm with affection.

    "Draco said to tell you that if you fall off, try to do it near our stand so he can grab your broom and take your place," he said, grinning.

    "That's helpful," Harry nodded. "Thank him for me, will you?"

    There was a pause. Then Ron leaned in and gave him a quick kiss. "Good luck!"

    "POTTER!" the coach's voice roared.

    Harry grinned. He grabbed Ron, dragging his head down for another kiss. "See you later!"

    And he hastily jogged after the rest of the team.

    xXx

    The noise from the stands was deafening as the team climbed the steps up to the launching point. Harry took his position next to Sirius at the head of the group, and gripped his Tsunami firmly.

    Feeling the adrenaline beginning to gallop through his veins, he did a few of the breathing exercises Oliver Wood had taught him ten years ago, when he had first joined the Gryffindor Quidditch team.

    Forget that this is Charlie Weasley you're facing, he chanted to himself silently. Forget that you know any of them. Forget that they're even people. They're just obstacles in your way ….

    "Are you okay?" Sirius muttered to him.

    "Shouldn't I be asking you that?" he muttered back.

    The doors in front of them opened and sunlight streamed in. Harry blinked; the stadium was full to bursting point. This couldn't possibly be just Ministry people, their families and a few extras here and there. It looked like half the wizard community of Britain had turned up.

    Then the magnified voice of Darius Kittle, one of the foremost wizard sports' commentators, rang out.

    "GOOD AFTERNOON, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, AND WELCOME TO THE MINISTRY OF MAGIC INTER-AGENCIES LEAGUE!"

    There was a roar of approval from the stands, along with a few blasts on horns and the odd sound of old-fashioned football rattles.

    "WE WELCOME YOU TO THE SECOND SEMI-FINAL OF THE SEASON - THE AUROR ANGELS VERSUS THE MAGIZOOLOGIST BEASTS!"

    Harry wondered how Kittle managed to say that without stumbling over the words; judging by the snorts and chuckles behind him, he wasn't alone. The crowd appeared to have no problem with it, though, and another roar greeted the announcement. No one could say the wizard community wasn't enthusiastic about its sport.

    "WHICHEVER TEAM WINS TODAY WILL PLAY THE SPEAKERS - THE DEPARTMENT OF INTERNATIONAL MAGICAL CO-OPERATION TEAM - IN TWO WEEKS' TIME FOR THE INTER-AGENCIES LEAGUE CUP!"

    Another roar of approval.

    "SO WITHOUT DELAY, LET'S BRING ON THE TEAMS! PLEASE WELCOME THE MAGIZOOLOGIST BEASTS - CARNAHAN, INKER, BELMONT, WIGGINBOTHAM, BOOT, MURRAY AND WEASLEY!"

    An almighty cheer went up from the crowd, especially from the Beasts' supporters' side where banners with their dragon logo were being enthusiastically waved. Seven figures on broomsticks, all dressed in the Beasts' colours of dark red and green, streaked out over the pitch from the opposite side of the stadium.

    Harry let go of his Tsunami and the broom hovered at mounting height next to him. He mounted up, aware that his team-mates were doing the same, and waited tensely.

    "AND ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE, PLEASE GIVE A BIG HAND TO THE AUROR ANGELS - BLACK, CHANG, CLARE, RITTEL, QUILLERS, MCGEACHY AND POTTER!"

    Harry kicked off from the ground and shot out over the pitch, swooping up over the stands and around in a wide arc, making a full circuit of the stadium before sliding easily into position at the top of his team's formation opposite the other Seeker. He glanced around briskly when he got there, and saw that there was a tattered but prominent white banner being held aloft in the Aurors' stand that said POTTER FOR PRESIDENT! in slightly crooked, flashing letters.

    Someone had retrieved the Gryffindor banner made for his very first game at Hogwarts. He smiled and relaxed slightly at the show of support from his friends.

    The quick flight around the pitch had calmed and centred Harry, and he was now totally focussed on the game. Part of him was dimly aware that the Seeker opposite was Charlie Weasley - indeed, Charlie had grinned and tipped him a little salute when Harry took his place - but he was coolly ignoring that detail. The familiar red hair and blue eyes had no impact upon him.

    This is no one you know. This is just another opposing Seeker you have to get past.

    Meanwhile, Darius Kittle was continuing with his practised commentary.

    "AND NOW, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WOULD YOU PLEASE GIVE A WARM WELCOME TO OUR REFEREE FOR TODAY - HEAD OF MAGICAL GAMES AND SPORTS, AND FORMER BEATER FOR THE WIMBOURNE WASPS, LUDO BAGMAN!"

    Another cheer rose from the stands as Bagman's familiar and rather portly figure strode onto the pitch, carrying his broomstick and waving genially. Someone had clearly managed to prevail upon him not to wear his faded old Wasps kit, and instead he was wearing the crisp black and white striped robes of a League referee.

    There was a tense pause as Bagman stopped by the wooden chest containing the balls, and gave the usual admonitions to the team captains, Martin Inker and Sullivan McGeachy.

    Silence fell in the stands.

    Bagman kicked open the box and the Bludgers shot into the air, closely followed by the Golden Snitch, which seemed to hover indecisively between Harry and Charlie before shooting off at high speed.

    Then the Quaffle was tossed into the air and Bagman's whistle blew.

    "AND THEY'RE OFF!" Kittle shrieked.

    Cho snatched the Quaffle almost before the whistle blew and was gone, streaking through the air towards the goal with Simeon Clare and Monica Rittel swooping after her, weaving through the opposition.

    She ducked a Bludger, nearly collided with one of the opposing Chasers and lost her grip on the Quaffle. Quick as a flash, one of them knocked the ball out of her hands and was whisking away down the pitch, hotly pursued by Simeon and Monica. Beth-Ann Quillers lobbed a Bludger in the Chaser's direction, making him swerve, but it wasn't enough and within seconds the Quaffle was whistling towards the hoops.

    Bam!

    There was a roar from the crowd - approval from the Aurors' side, disappointment from the Magizoologists - as Sirius knocked the red ball away almost casually and straight into Monica's hands. She whirled in a steep arc and almost immediately ran into the Beasts' Chasers but Harry, seeing a gap, swooped down and scattered them. Monica was through, tossing the ball to Simeon, who almost at once lobbed it back as one of the opposing Beaters hit a close Bludger at him. He caught a passing blow to the shoulder which knocked him briefly off course, but Monica was already gone, marked by Cho, Beth-Ann and Sullivan as she streaked up the pitch.

    Harry's diversionary tactic had given her an almost completely clear run and within seconds the Angels had scored their first goal.

    The spectators went mad.

    Harry, very pleased, swooped back into position high above the main action of the game and resumed his search for the Snitch, aware of Charlie Weasley's startled and suddenly grim stare.

    Harry didn't play at Quidditch, as the other Seeker had just discovered.

    xXx

    "Weasley, lend me your omnioculars, will you?"

    "In a minute!" Ron had the glasses Harry had bought for him years ago at the Quidditch World Cup practically glued to his face as he followed his friend's swift movements around the pitch.

    "Can you see the Snitch at all?" Draco demanded, exasperated. His own omnioculars were in his bedroom at Malfoy Manor, of course, and he felt like he was missing half the action on the pitch.

    "No," Ron told him shortly. "The Beasts haven't scored yet – Sirius is a better Keeper than Marius!"

    "That I could work out from here! What's Harry doing now?"

    "Making a nuisance of himself to the Beasts' Chasers – ow! Damn! That was close!"

    The Beasts' supporters were going mad; one of their Chasers had scored. A Beater had lobbed a Bludger at Sirius just as he swooped to block the Quaffle, and he had received a nasty blow to the shoulder, knocking him off course at the crucial moment. The Aurors' supporters were screaming foul, but as Ron was already saying, technically it was a legal move.

    "Damn!" he shouted in disgust, taking the omnioculars from his eyes. "Ten all! Come on, Cho!"

    The Chinese woman was in possession of the Quaffle again, swooping and diving up the pitch.

    Draco grabbed the omnioculars while Ron's attention was elsewhere.

    "Hey!"

    "Come on, Potter, what are you playing at? There are a hundred diversionary moves you could make to get Weasley off your back!"

    Charlie was indeed tailing Harry very closely now, apparently determined to foil any more moves he might make to interfere with the Beasts' players.

    Cho had passed the Quaffle to Simeon Clare, who was shooting into the goal for another try. He ducked a Bludger, avoided one of the Beasts' Chasers and threw the red ball, but unfortunately he was at the wrong angle, and the Beasts' Keeper fended it off easily. It was back in the hands of the other teams' Chasers, although Beth-Ann got in a very pretty blow with a Bludger that knocked Lucy Wigginbotham into a tail-spin.

    There was a hair-raising moment when it looked like the young woman might actually fall from her broom; then Charlie Weasley broke off his pursuit of Harry and swooped in to help her. Martin Inker signalled Bagman for time-out as the mediwizards hurried onto the pitch to look over the Chaser. Meanwhile, the Angels were taking the opportunity to go into a huddle.

    "What's going on now?" Ron demanded impatiently.

    "I'm not sure – Harry seems to be arguing with McGeachy."

    There was definitely some kind of tense discussion going on, Harry gesturing sharply to Cho and Monica.

    "I should think Harry's quite a difficult player for a captain to have on the team," Hermione commented, taking a sip from a bottle she'd stowed inside her robes. She hadn't said much up to now, as she was concentrating on the game.

    "Why?" demanded Ron.

    "Well, he's used to being captain himself, isn't he? You only have to listen to him commentating the games on WWN to know that he has strong ideas about player deployment."

    Ron looked at her as though she was crazy. "Hermione, we're all like that when we're listening to the game on WWN."

    "I'm not." She took another sip from her bottle.

    "Can I have a swig of your drink? I'm parched."

    "No. You should have brought your own."

    "They're off again," Draco said. "Wigginbotham's back in the air."

    "Gimme my omnioculars – "

    "Hey, I'm watching!"

    "Piss off, Malfoy, they're mine – "

    A brief wrestling match ensued, making Hermione roll her eyes in exasperation.

    "Honestly! Children will play ...."

    "And fools will watch," Ron retorted, wrenching the glasses out of Draco's hands. "Thank you!" he snapped sarcastically and put them back to his eyes, spinning the dials to adjust the focus. "Monica's got the Quaffle! GO MONICA!"

    Monica streaked up the pitch, but was ambushed by two of the Beasts' Chasers. She lost the Quaffle to Colin Boot, and was reduced to chasing him back down the pitch.

    "Pity," Ron said, disappointed. "That was a good run. Come on, Harry – surely you've had a sniff of the Snitch by now?"

    xXx

    Harry hadn't seen the tiniest flutter from the Snitch yet, which was rather frustrating. His only consolation was that Charlie evidently hadn't seen it either. The opposing Seeker had been marking him very determinedly since Harry's last diversionary manoeuvre against the Beasts' Chasers, and it was beginning to annoy Harry. He needed uninterrupted space to look for the Snitch, which Charlie clearly wasn't going to give him ... but Harry had a plan.

    He waited until a slight tussle developed between the two sets of Chasers, then suddenly whipped his head around as thought he'd spotted something –

    - and launched into a terrifying high-speed dive straight into the centre of the group.

    Quick as a flash, Charlie was after him.

    This was the Wronski Feint as it was meant to be used, by a very good, very determined Seeker on the very best and fastest broom. All the same, it was also a very dangerous manoeuvre. The knot of Chasers scattered as he ploughed through them but Harry was pleased to see, out of the corner of his eye, that Cho, as per their plan, was poised on the edge of the group.

    The ground was coming up horribly fast, far faster than it ever would have on his old Firebolt. Harry hung on to his broom and his nerves, hearing the wind howl past him. He could hear the sound of a second broom just behind him and, dimly in the background, the noise of the crowd screaming.

    At the last minute, he hauled back on the handle, throwing all his weight towards the bristles. With less than a foot to spare, the Tsunami levelled up, tilted back and he was screaming back upwards in a dizzying corkscrew.

    How Charlie managed to pull out of that dive as well, Harry wasn't sure. When he was finally able to look back, the other Seeker was swooping very low and fast across the pitch, trying to regain some control. His face was red and set – an expression Harry knew all too well from having seen it on Ron's face a few times.

    Charlie Weasley, the most phlegmatic of all the Weasleys, was absolutely furious.

    Harry shrugged inwardly, coolly amused. That Charlie had been fooled was entirely his own fault. What he found far more interesting was that the opposing Seeker apparently didn't have quite as much control of his broom as Harry did. It would take another Seeker – someone like Maud Dingbottle perhaps – to see it, but there was the tiniest hint of an imbalance in the way Charlie was flying. He had pulled out of the dive but at a cost, and he had been lucky not to be ploughed. The new, faster Tsunami had almost proved too much for him.

    That too was Charlie's own fault, Harry thought clinically. He had only flown the Tsunami once and very briefly, on the day when Ron had taken delivery of it. Harry, on the other hand, had had nearly a whole month to get used to the feel of his new broomstick. The irony was that Charlie's own broom was a perfectly good Golden Arrow and had he been riding that he might have given Harry a run for his money, despite the greater speed of the Tsunami. Speed, after all, was not everything – manoeuvring counted for more, as did familiarity with your broom. On top of that, Harry for once had a size advantage; being shorter and far lighter in build than his opponent, he had less handling and manoeuvring problems.

    Now Charlie was fighting to get his broom back under full control and up in the air. And in the meantime, not only did Harry have time to search for the Snitch, but Cho Chang had been able to take advantage of the other players' distraction and grab the Quaffle. Even now she and Simeon Clare were streaking down the pitch, way ahead of the opposing Chasers and Beaters, towards the goal.

    The crowd was going mad.

    xXx

    Ron chuckled wickedly as he watched Harry's performance and Charlie's reaction.

    "Oh dear – it's not going to be a happy party tonight," he commented as he handed the omnioculars over the Draco.

    To add insult to injury, Cho had potted the sweetest goal and despite the Beasts' Keeper doing his best to grab the Quaffle and push it back to his own side's Chasers afterwards, Monica had flitted in and grabbed it from under their noses. She, Cho and Simeon were now tossing it almost casually back and forth between themselves as they shaped up for another try. Meanwhile, the Beaters on both sides were doing their damnedest to knock out both Seekers and failing miserably. Both Harry and Charlie were far too good to be caught out by mere Bludgers.

    Draco was viewing the two Seekers with a sportsman's eye.

    "Is that your broom your brother's riding?" he asked Ron.

    "Yeah – he asked if he could borrow it this morning."

    "What does he normally fly?"

    "A Golden Arrow, I think - it was a present from his in-laws. But he didn't want Harry to have the advantage with the Tsunami."

    "Pity." Draco handed the glasses back. "He should know better; riding an unfamiliar broom is almost always a mistake. He's not quite properly balanced, can you see? The tail-twigs are a fraction too high. He should have adjusted his seat and the foot-rests – the broom's calibrated for you, but he's not as tall."

    "Huh." Ron studied his brother through the omnioculars and was forced to conclude that Draco was right. "He's a bloody good rider, though. He's probably noticed by now, and he'll adjust it if they go into time-out again."

    "If he does, don't forget to adjust it back before you ride it again, or you'll find yourself sliding off the end." Draco had a sudden thought. "Has it occurred to you that if you get called in as a reserve today, you won't have a broom to ride?"

    "I've got Harry's Firebolt in the changing rooms, but I won't be called. Sullivan and Beth-Ann are too good."

    "That depends how long this game goes on for," Hermione commented. "Since they haven't even seen the Snitch yet, we could be here until midnight – YES! Well done, Monica!"

    "Thirty: ten – brilliant!" Ron was delighted, although he would have been even happier if the Snitch had shown itself.

    This was shaping up to be one of those drawn-out games that had flurries of action interspersed by long periods where the Chasers did nothing but pass the Quaffle around and dodge Bludgers. Although it was equally a let-down if the Snitch was caught within the first hour. You wanted some kind of game for your money, after all.

    "Tell me something," Draco said suddenly, after a moment or two of silent watching. "Why is Potter messing around as an Auror? It doesn't take a talent scout to realise that he'd make a first class professional Quidditch player, so why isn't he earning himself a small fortune as a real Seeker, instead of wasting his time on this amateur rubbish?"

    There was a pause as Ron tried to decide how much of this statement had been a compliment to Harry, and how much a backhanded insult to the Angels. In the end he decided simply to answer the question.

    "He was offered trials by the Wigtown Wanderers and Chudley Cannons when we were still at school," he replied, his attention apparently still on the game.

    Draco shot him a look. "I heard rumours of that, but I assumed it was just the usual Gryffindor posturing …."

    "Well, it wasn't. He really wanted to take one of them up on it, but Dumbledore advised him not to because of You Know Who. Aside from making him a flying target, it would be too big a risk for the rest of the team. For the same reason, he hasn't taken up any of the offers of trials from other teams since then. And he's a had a few - Oliver Wood never lets up on him."

    "Pity," the blond youth said quietly. "He's good. Certainly he's a lot better at this than he is at being an Auror."

    Ron broke off his intense scrutiny of the game to glare at him. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

    "Come off it, Weasley! I'm not saying he's bad at the job, but compared to the rest of you his heart obviously isn't in it. You, Granger, Cho Chang - you're naturals at the job. Harry? He's like a Cleansweep Seven in a rack of Firebolts. In fact, I'd say that in his heart of hearts he probably enjoys the job about as much as I do - and trust me, at the first possible opportunity I'm looking for something more cerebral."

    Silence. Ron was stuck for something to say to this, and Hermione, though plainly eavesdropping the conversation, was keeping her own counsel.

    Finally Ron turned back to the game, but Draco's comments had clearly struck a chord with him.

    "I'd like nothing better than for him to be a professional Quidditch player," he said quietly, "but with You Know Who on the loose, what point is there in even thinking about it?"

    "Well, with any luck His Nibs won't be on the loose for much longer, will he?" Draco replied equally quietly, and he turned back to the game too. "Come on, Potter - where's that damn Snitch?"

    xXx

    Harry was growing a little frustrated himself. It wasn't often the Snitch disappeared for the whole first hour of the game, and it left him with nothing to do except play tag with Charlie and dodge the Bludgers. And Charlie was sticking so close to him now that even that was difficult.

    The game was definitely getting dirtier. Bagman, Harry decided, was almost as bad a referee as he was a Ministry official. There was quite a bit of cobbing going on during the scrums between the Chasers, especially on the part of the Beasts, but so far a foul had yet to be called by anyone but the spectators. On the other hand, Quidditch was not a game for the faint-hearted and you expected the action to get very rough indeed, regardless of whether some of the moves were strictly legal or not.

    Besides, Bagman had utterly failed to learn his lesson over the years; he was still an inveterate gambler and he'd probably wagered a year's earnings on this game, if Harry knew him. Rigging the game, even if it was by something as minor as poor refereeing, was certainly not beneath him.

    A sudden flash caught Harry's eye, and without even consciously thinking about it, he was gone, straight after the tiny flicker of gold that was almost certainly the Snitch finally making an appearance.

    With a whoosh, Charlie was right beside him.

    The tiny winged ball whipped up high above the stands at a dizzying pace, some three or four broomlengths ahead of the two Seekers. Harry had a small advantage over his opponent, when the Snitch performed one of its gravity-defying changes of direction -
    SLAM!

    Charlie hit Harry side-on. Technically this was a foul called 'blatching', but it was a grey area as the victim had to be able to prove that the perpetrator was actually "flying with intent to collide", which was nearly impossible. And besides, everyone did it. It was like being hit in the hip and shoulder simultaneously by a pile driver; for once Charlie's extra size was an advantage against the lighter player. Knocked violently off course, Harry recovered himself to find that his opponent had gained a lead of nearly two broomlengths and was rapidly closing on the Snitch.

    Harry didn't waste time swearing or losing his temper. Bringing his Tsunami around sharply, he urged it on in a sharp arc, hoping to come around at the Snitch from the other direction. They were both closing on it now, Charlie in the lead, hand outstretched -

    - when the Snitch changed direction again, dropping sharply by as much as ten feet and veering slightly from its previous course.

    Harry was after it in a heartbeat. H