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Fics begun in 2003 (post-OOTP)

Author Notes:


Chapter Twelve



August 3

Harry followed Professor Flitwick and Lupin into Grimmauld Place’s cellar. “What are we looking for, exactly?” he asked.

“I’m seeking the keystone of the house,” Flitwick said. “Professor Dumbledore asked Headmaster Nigellus’s portrait, but it couldn’t recall the precise location. Why do you suppose we wish to locate the keystone, Mr. Potter?”

“Er… uh… because it ties the charm to the entire house?” Harry ventured.

“I’d give that answer at least two points,” said Flitwick. “We can anchor a Fidelius charm to a structure in other ways, but all require a tremendous amount of raw power. Professor Dumbledore did not bother with the keystone, of course, because he possesses the necessary ability and he also made himself the secret keeper. I could attempt to recast the charm without locating the proper stone, but there would be some risk of a flawed casting.”

“I think this is it,” said Lupin. “There are a number of runes inscribed on this particular stone.”

Flitwick perched a pair of glasses on his nose and peered at the stone. “Well spotted, Remus,” he said. “There are several charms linked to the stone, most of which are of the traditional variety – fertility for the head of house, and the like… and some rather nasty curses, one of which looks to be quite recent. It’s linked to a specific individual, which is something rarely done… quite difficult to accomplish, actually.”

“I know of that one,” Lupin said, “and it’s well warranted. Sirius placed it himself.”

“I’d rather not tamper with any of them,” Flitwick admitted. “None will interfere with casting of the Fidelius charm, but we should be mindful of these two in particular. They appear to be linking runes for blood feud curses, and we wouldn’t want to accidentally admit anyone from the affected family lines. I don’t know which families these indicate… sketch those two runes, would you, Remus? We may be able to identify appropriate banishing wards.”

Harry was fascinated but also feeling a bit lost. “Should I have taken Ancient Runes, Professor?” he asked.

“That’s an apt question, Mr. Potter,” said Flitwick. “Most of these are Common Runes, which we cover in the seventh year tuition for Charms and Defence. If you’ve an interest in pursuing a mastery for either field, however, you’ll need a fair grounding in Ancient Runes. You can pick that up by apprenticing at a later time, if you like.”

“Shall I unpack your kit?” Lupin asked Flitwick.

“Yes…” Flitwick said absently. “We may have a bit of a problem… I imagine that Professor Dumbledore used Mr. Black’s blood to circumvent any lineal restrictions?”

Lupin frowned. “Bother,” he said.

“You need blood from a Black family member, is that it? Can you use mine?” Harry asked. “I’m Head of the House of Black now.”

Flitwick’s eyebrows beetled. “Is that so? Are you the Head by blood or by kinship?”

“Sirius adopted me, more or less,” said Harry.

“No, no, that won’t do,” Flitwick sighed.

“Your great-aunt was a Black by blood,” Lupin told Harry.

Harry’s eyes widened. “Pardon?”

“Your great-uncle Charlus Potter was married to a Black; I can’t recall her name,” said Lupin. “It’s probably listed on the Black tapestry.”

“That won’t do, either; it’s a kin relationship,” said Flitwick.

Harry suddenly lit. “What about Mrs. Tonks?” he asked.

“Do you mean Nymphadora Tonks’ mother?” asked Flitwick. “Yes, she was Andromeda Black, wasn’t she?”

“Sirius did reinstate her to the family,” added Lupin.

“We need to move this along,” Flitwick said. “Once Dumbledore verbally revealed the secret to me, the existing charm began to dissolve. It won’t be more than another two hours before the charm collapses entirely. Even now, I’d say it only protects against those with directly harmful intent.”

After a brisk explanation, Mr. and Mrs. Tonks returned with Flitwick and Lupin to Grimmauld Place. Mrs. Tonks provided three drops of blood and then watched Flitwick use it to wet the stick ink. Harry couldn’t blame her for her caution; he knew enough about blood magic to understand how easily it could be misused. Once Flitwick mixed in the water and added fixing oils, she settled somewhat. Still, she followed along as Flitwick used the runic ink to inscribe the proper runes on the keystone and in various places about the house. She didn’t relax completely until Flitwick vanished the remaining ink.

Harry invited the Tonkses to remain. He felt it was appropriate that Mrs. Tonks know the location of the Black family home, and Lupin pointed out the need for Mr. Tonks to come and go on account of financial issues.

Flitwick gathered all present in the cellar. He asked Harry to kneel and touched the tip of his wand to Harry’s temple. After a deep breath, he said, “Fidelius.”

The room shimmered in a white light, and the normal draughtiness of the house suddenly became a gale. Harry blinked against the light and struggled to hold his ground against the magical wind. He blinked a second time and was sure that the house was slowly disappearing. The light receded, and the house was gone, the neighbourhood was gone; he and Flitwick and Lupin and the Tonkses appeared to be surrounded by nothingness. Then there was a dull clanging, felt as much as heard. First the neighbourhood reappeared, and then the house around them. When the clanging stopped, dust and debris fell from the stone walls of the cellar, as though the house had been picked up and roughly set down.

“Wh… where are we?” Mrs. Tonks asked.

“It would seem that the charm was successful,” Flitwick said. “I recall casting it, but I haven’t the faintest idea where I cast it or for whom.”

“This is the strangest thing,” said Lupin. “I’m positive I should know where we are…”

Harry snatched up a scrap of parchment from Flitwick’s kit and a stray quill. He found an ordinary bottle of ink amidst the supplies, and wrote:

Harry Potter’s house may be found at 12 Grimmauld Place, St. Pancras, London, UK

“Don’t show that to anyone whom you wish to exclude from the secret,” Flitwick warned.

“I’m comfortable with everyone here,” Harry said. He passed the scrap around, one to the next, and the feelings of confusion in the room dissipated. Harry set the bit of parchment along with the quill and ink next to Flitwick’s kit. “Now what?” he asked.

“I understand that Professor Dumbledore used this residence for, shall we say, more public purposes in the past?” Flitwick said. “If you wish to allow this, Harry, you’ll have to redistribute the information. Do it in just that fashion – never tell the location to someone aloud, even if that person is already in the know; it wouldn’t be worth the risk. Tell it twice aloud in succession, regardless of whether the listeners are aware of the secret, and you will collapse the charm. That is what Professor Dumbledore set in motion by telling both Lupin and myself. I wouldn’t keep a permanent written copy of the location, if I were you; recreate it as needed.”

“Did Dumbledore rewrite the secret each time?” Harry asked Lupin.

“I’m afraid he didn’t,” Lupin said with a frown. “I recommend you follow Filius’s advice on this.” Harry retrieved the parchment from the floor, withdrew his wand and incinerated it.

Mrs. Tonks shuddered. “I never go into our cellar,” she said. “It’s cold and draughty and full of vermin.”

“It’s nothing of the kind,” Mr. Tonks said. “You just don’t want to ferry things in and out of storage.”

Mr. and Mrs. Tonks broke into a round of friendly bickering, and Flitwick smiled as he re-packed his kit. “I look forward to the next school year,” he said to Harry. “You’ve shown a deeper interest in Charms than I’ve observed in your classes.”

“I’ll be taking things very seriously from now on,” Harry said.

Flitwick gazed at Harry for a moment as though he was searching for something, and then he nodded. “That’s a capital idea, given your history to date,” he said. “Might we be going? I have a round of golf this afternoon with two of my former apprentices – Roland Ettinger and Oscar Pomfrey.”

Mr. Tonks turned his attention to Flitwick. “I haven’t heard Oscar’s name in years,” he said; “I didn’t know he was still in England.”

“Oh, yes. He lived in Canada for a time, but he’s in Cornwall now – not far from my family’s home, actually,” Flitwick said. “He’s quite a bit older than you. From where do you know him?”

“I knew him on a professional basis, early in my career,” said Mr. Tonks. He looked to Harry and added, “Oscar is the brother of your school healer.”

“We’ll see you off, then,” Lupin said to Flitwick. He took Flitwick and the Tonkses to catch the Knight Bus at the far end of Grimmauld Place, while Harry returned to his reading. Shacklebolt had been merciless that morning and Harry wasn’t going to be made a fool.

August 4

“Once more, Potter!” Shacklebolt commanded.

“I’ve tried this five times – it’s hopeless!” Harry fumed.

“What is the surest path to defeat?” Shacklebolt boomed.

“The surest path to defeat is to quit before the battle is joined,” Harry replied in a mocking sing-song voice.

“Just for that, we’ll try it two more times. There is absolutely no reason why you can’t master this.  Everything else has come quickly, and that’s spoiled you!”  Shacklebolt put his face inches from Harry’s.  “Stand up and do it again!”

Harry shot Shacklebolt an icy look.  He set his stance and waited for an attack.  As soon as Shacklebolt began to cast, Harry attempted to tap his wand against his heel and mutter ‘Tripudio’.  In the process, he missed his heel, caused a portion of the dining room floor to jump out of place, and caught Shacklebolt’s slapping spell in the forehead.

“You have the concentration of a flobberworm!” Shacklebolt spat.

“I have dinner with the Grangers soon,” Harry moaned, as he struggled to his feet.

Shacklebolt smirked.  “I see the problem, then.  You should be thinking about me, and not Miss Granger.”

Harry rubbed at his forehead.  “I’m thinking about Mr. and Mrs. Granger,” he grumbled, “and I still don’t understand why we’re doing this.”

“Jumping gives you another option for dodging a cast spell, and it will make you less predictable,” Shacklebolt explained. 

“I thought you said I was unpredictable,” Harry protested.

“I said that you were undisciplined,” Shacklebolt said without a trace of a smile.

“The object is to dodge the spell, right?” Harry asked with exasperation.

Shacklebolt’s eyes narrowed.  “You have a better idea, Potter?”

“I preferred your approach the first morning,” Harry said cautiously.  “Yesterday and today, it’s like a classroom practical.”

Shacklebolt silently appraised Harry for a long while.  His words were measured when they finally came.  “I brought emotions into that first session that should have been left behind,” he said.  “I apologise for that; it didn’t serve you well. Control is a critical element in combat tactics.  I did tell you that I might not be an appropriate tutor.”

“I preferred the first morning,” Harry repeated.  “I learned more that way.”

Shacklebolt flashed an enigmatic smile.  “If you prefer live-action training, that can be arranged.  Personal combat training is usually given in half-day blocks,” he said.

“Eight o’clock until noontime, then… seven days a week?” Harry asked hopefully. 

Shacklebolt raised an eyebrow.  “I’ll say this for you – you’re hungry.  I can respect that.  Here’s another lesson for you, then: I can be unpredictable as well.”  Shacklebolt raised his wand to his own head, and Harry found himself face to face with Voldemort’s double.  “Time to die, Potter,” he added in a fair imitation of Voldemort’s voice.

Harry felt sudden bursts of panic and anger.  The room felt close and overheated, and everything seemed to slow down.  He scanned the room.  Shacklebolt had taken a good position, Harry recognised.  The dining room was long and narrow, and Shacklebolt had him pinned at one end.

“Control, Potter – that’s where you need the work,” Shacklebolt hissed.  “I’m coming for you.” 

Harry was able to effectively block everything that Shacklebolt threw at him, and the battle turned into a continuous exchange of charms and curses – neither of them withdrew or gained advantage.  They manoeuvred in a circle like two boxers stalking each other in the ring.  Their curses became more brutal, and they did the room no favours; two sessions’ worth of deflected spells had already severely damaged the wall panels and cracked the ceiling in a dozen places. 

Harry tried to nudge their circling toward the middle of the room, but Shacklebolt was onto him.  Instead, Harry found himself nudged backward until the wall was at his back.  He threw all his energy into maintaining a continuous shield against Shacklebolt’s barrage of puncturing curses. 

“This is the end, Potter,” Shacklebolt hissed.  “With you out of the way, I’ll pick off all of your little friends one by one.”

Harry’s hand shook with the effort of blocking the curses.  “Trying to irritate me, are you?” he panted.  How can I get around him? he wondered.

Shacklebolt stopped flicking his wand.  “Nice shield, Potter, but you can’t keep it up much longer.  Surrender!” he boomed.  “Surrender or I start with Weasley and the Mudblood.”

Harry maintained his shield in front of Shacklebolt’s wand, but it was badly flickering.  “Stop baiting me,” he warned.

“Do you know what he’ll do if he defeats you?” Shacklebolt said in his own voice.  “Do you understand what Death Eaters used to do with captured Aurors?  Imagine an entire day of Cruciatus Curses!  Imagine what he’ll do to those who support you.  I’ve heard tell of what Death Eaters did to women, Potter…”

The rest of Shacklebolt’s words came in slow motion, spoken underwater.  Harry took in the whole room, looking for any way out.  All the furniture and finishing had been removed – even the chandelier; there was nothing to summon.  He couldn’t conjure anything without ending the shield spell.  I have to get around him! he screamed to himself.  If I could get behind him, I’d have a chance!  In the midst of the strain of holding his shield in place, with sweat pouring into his eyes, he found himself riveted to a spot on the floor three feet behind Shacklebolt.  Reason escaped him.  If I could just get there…

Harry heard an intensely loud ringing in his ears, and Shacklebolt was no longer in front of him.  Where is he?  Harry wondered.  He couldn’t have Apparated forward, could he?  I was practically against the wall.  He spun around, half-afraid of finding Shacklebolt splinched. 

Harry stood six feet away from the wall.  Shacklebolt had turned to face him, his wand lowered and his face frozen in surprise.  Harry simply reacted; “Percussum,” he said, and knocked Shacklebolt to the floor.

Shacklebolt sat up very slowly, his hand pressed against the side of his jaw.  “Twice in three days, you’ve done something that I can’t explain,” he said woozily.  “We need to discuss this ‘control problem’ of yours… Potter?  Hello?”

Harry’s hands shook; he dropped his wand.  “I – I don’t understand what… how did I… I’ve never Apparated before…” he said quietly.

“I have no idea if that was Apparation.  If you Apparated, then you passed directly through your own defensive spell.  You should be splinched in the floorboards, at best,” Shacklebolt explained calmly.  “Of course, there was the bit with the table leg as well.  I was waiting to bring that up, in case it was a chance event. It most certainly was not.”

“You didn’t accept what Tonks said, then?” Harry asked.

“Tonks can be such a Muggle from time to time, building a fantasy to explain the obvious,” Shacklebolt chuckled.  “Stashing wand cores everywhere – spare me.  Only Moody is that paranoid.  You’re surely not paranoid… overly emotional, but not paranoid.”

Still on his knees, Harry rocked back and forth nervously.  He clasped his hands together to stop them from shaking.  He knew that Shacklebolt was watching him keenly, so he clenched his teeth and resisted the urge to say what he was thinking.

Shacklebolt saw right through him.  “Let it out,” he commanded. 

The quick analysis of Harry’s behaviour was like the decisive thrust in a duel.  Harry slumped in defeat.  “I’m afraid of what’s happening to me,” he blurted out.  “I’m afraid I’m going mad, or that I’m going to hurt someone, or… I don’t know…”

Shacklebolt spoke slowly and deliberately.  “A little fear is a good thing in combat – hold on to some of it.  You don’t know what’s happening to you, and apprehension about that is sensible.  Let me ask you this – do you think this fear will help you deal with whatever is happening to you?”

Harry couldn’t bring himself to look up or even to respond.  Shacklebolt continued, “I thought not.  You fight fear with knowledge, Potter.  For tomorrow, I want you to think of every incident in which you believe you’ve performed magic without a wand, as far back as you can remember.  For each incident, describe the circumstances – where you were, whom you were with, time of day, time of year, anything you can recall.  I also want you to describe how you felt – happy, sad, tired, keyed up… shaky, perhaps?  Can you manage that?  I wouldn’t want to cut into your dinner plans.”

Harry cringed.  “No reminders - I’m shaky enough as it is,” he said, and managed a faint smile.

Shacklebolt clambered to his feet, and extended a powerful hand to help Harry up.  “Tomorrow, we’ll have a go at your list.  We’ll see if we can’t put a name to whatever this is.  If you can name it, you can control it,” he said.

Harry closed his eyes, and took several long, calming breaths.  He opened his eyes, and asked, “Shall we work with the swords, then?”

Shacklebolt’s brow furrowed.  “Perhaps you’re a touch too hungry, Potter.  Go and read, if you’re inclined.  I’m sure that Miss Granger waits.  Tomorrow, promptly at eight o’clock.”  Shacklebolt swept through the door and out to the entry hall.  Harry caught a glimpse of Lupin and heard a flurry of muttering.

Harry was in no hurry to climb the stairs.  Hermione was doubtless immersed in sorting books.  He felt too edgy for deep conversation – and Hermione was not one for idle banter.  Idle banter was Ron’s speciality, and Harry missed that.  He missed Ron – the real Ron, not the git who had replaced him – and he had no idea what to do about it.

A strange sound came from the library, followed by a voice that he didn’t immediately recognise.  He heard the strange sound again, and placed it – it was a moan.  He raced to the door.  Tonks had her arm around Hermione’s shoulder; Bill Weasley was seated in front of her, holding her arm.  Winky looked on anxiously. Along with Shacklebolt, Bill and Tonks had been cleared to enter Grimmauld Place the previous evening in order to round out a complement of Order members for Hermione's watch.

“Just one more go, and we’ll have it licked,” Bill said reassuringly.  He flicked his wand, and said “Adtenuatus!”  Harry moved closer, and Hermione’s arm came into clear view just as it reduced to normal size.  He forced himself to hold back, as it was obvious that Bill had everything under control.       

“Better?” Bill asked gently.

Hermione nodded, even as she dabbed at her eyes with her free hand.  “It’s my own fault,” she said.  “I should have been more observant.”

“Looks innocent enough, doesn’t it?” Bill observed.  “The only indication of any kind is that tiny rune on the spine.  I would likely have opened it… that is, if the topic had the slightest appeal.”

“Why curse it at all?” Tonks asked.  “Did some medieval versions of Fred and George get hold of it?”

Bill chuckled.  “I can picture that… doubtful, though.  This one could have caused serious injury.  Thankfully, no lasting harm done.”

Hermione said, “Thank you for dashing over – terribly sorry for the bother.”

Tonks looked up.  “Wotcher, Harry.  Hermione found a right nasty book.”

Harry asked Hermione, “You’re all right, then?”

“I’m fine.  As Bill said, no harm was done,” she replied with obvious embarrassment.

Bill sat back in his chair.  “Perhaps I should have a look around while I’m here – you know, for any other unpleasantness?” he offered, and then asked Harry, “How goes training with Kingsley, then?  Hasn’t made any more attempts on your life, has he?”

I see that Tonks is chatty as ever, Harry thought.  “Today was interesting,” he mumbled.

“Tonks told us about the bit with the earring – smashing bit of improvisation, that,” Bill said.  “Where did you get the idea?”

Harry shrugged.  “He’d already crushed my glasses, so I couldn’t see much besides the light shining off his earring.  I was reading before hand – Chronicles of the Goblin Wars, and then Scandalous Tactics for Duelling …

Bill smirked.  “Ripping good book, isn’t it?  Some of his ideas simply won’t work, but you have to love it all.”

Harry nodded.  “It’s a brilliant book.  His ideas for rope conjuring work well enough.”

Bill winced.  “Please tell me that you didn’t use number eighteen…?”

“No!”  Harry exclaimed.  “Can you imagine?  That should be an Unforgivable!”

“Too true, too true!” Bill laughed.

Tonks looked blankly at Hermione.  “Do you have any idea what they’re talking about?”

Hermione shook her head.  “None whatever.  It sounds as if that might not be a bad thing, in this case.”

Harry recoiled in mock surprise.  “What’s this?  There’s a book that Hermione Granger doesn’t want to read?”

“I’m not that bad,” Hermione pouted.

Tonks patted her shoulder reassuringly.  “I’m sorry to say that you are that bad.”  Hermione swatted away Tonks’ hand.

“I hadn’t pictured you as the reading type, Harry,” Bill said.  “If you’re interested in tactics, then be sure to read Mastery of the Sword.  It’s ancient – written by a Chinese wizard called Sun-Tzu.  He wrote some military philosophy as well, something that Muggles seem to fancy.”

Harry nodded.  Looking around the library, he imagined that Hermione would be feeding him stacks of books for quite some time.  His eyes settled on a particular folio and it left him cold.

“Bill, how much do you know about what happened to Ron at the Ministry?” Harry asked.  Hermione shot him a questioning look.

Bill frowned.   “I know what I’ve been told – which isn’t much – and what I’ve heard in passing.  He was attacked by some creatures lurking about in the Department of Mysteries.  I’d imagine there are more than a few nasty surprises in there.” 

He shuddered and went quiet, but Harry motioned for him to press on. “I’ve heard reference to a ‘brain attack’, and I wonder what that actually means,” Bill continued.  “Whatever attacked him had fingers or claws or something that left those marks on his arms.  I know that the marks have been treated with Oblivious Unction – that says something about the active principle of the attack, but I’m not sure what it means.  He’s made the rounds, I can tell you, and there’s no evidence of possession or magical illness.  Still…” Bill paused.  He radiated unease.

“There’s something else?” Hermione asked cautiously.

Bill hesitated.  “Look… I want nothing said of this to Mum or anyone else in the family.  We don’t need a row over it, and it’s just an impression, but… when I’m around Ron, I can feel…”

Tonks became very serious.  “What can you feel, exactly?”

“It sounds as though you’ve felt it as well,” Bill observed, and Tonks nodded.  He explained, “The temperature drops – just barely.  Edginess sets in.  Auras dim, or flicker a bit.  It’s on the edge of perception.  It’s the echo of a curse – I know it.”

Tonks agreed.  “I was beginning to question myself.  Of course, you’d know a curse when you felt one.  I’d surely believe that those horrid things are capable –”

Bill cut her off.  “You saw them?  You saw what attacked him?”

“No, but… I received a briefing,” Tonks said.  “They were –”

Harry held up a hand to stop her, and took up the folio.  “We stumbled across this.  I’m afraid that I had a very good view of the things.  You’re not going to like it, but I think that someone in your family needs to have a look.”  He turned to the correct page, but held back.  “If you’d rather not…” Bill looked over the pages; he flinched once, but betrayed no other reaction. 

Tonks moved to peer over his shoulder.  “Those fit the description,” she whispered.

Bill let out a slow breath.  “Thank you for showing this to me,” he said grimly.  “It explains quite a lot, doesn’t it?”

Tonks mumbled, “Croaker trapped them… Croaker… I mean, he’s quite old, but couldn’t possibly… could he?”

Harry’s eyes narrowed.  “What?  Who’s Croaker?”

Hermione lit up.  “You think you’ve met the fellow who trapped the cognivores?” she asked.

Tonks answered, “There’s an Unspeakable named Croaker, but that was… what, a hundred twenty years ago?”

Hermione noted, “Professor Dumbledore was in his thirties at the time.”

“Merlin… Dumbledore’s really that old?” Tonks asked.  “I knew that he was teaching when he offed Grindewald, but still…”

“He’s a hundred years older than my mum and dad – hard to fathom, isn’t it?” Bill said.

“Should we see about talking to this Croaker fellow?” Harry asked.

“One of my old housemates works in the Department.  I’ll make enquiries,” Bill offered.

“What do you think we can do for Ron?” Hermione asked Bill.  Harry was relieved that she was the one to ask the question.

Bill stammered, “Hermione, let me… I’m not sure how to… the thing is…”

Tonks said to Hermione, “I suspect Bill’s trying to suggest that you stay behind the scenes for the moment.”

Bill looked relieved.  “I think he might talk to you, Harry.  He’s so changeable from moment to moment.  He seems to have gotten past this idea that you… you know…”

Harry said darkly, “No, I don’t know.  Perhaps you could explain for me.”   

Hermione lightly put her hand on Harry’s arm.  “Settle yourself – you were the one who suggested that I should go easy on Ron.”

Bill positively gibbered, “It’s just that he has these fits, if you like… totally unreasonable… it took him an entire day to put it aside…”

Tonks advised him, “Spit it out before Harry explodes, would you?  We’re all sitting within the blast radius.”  Harry glared at her.

Bill wrung his hands and said, “Ron thought that you and Hermione… went off on the motorbike and behaved just like he did with that classmate of yours.”

Hermione stiffened.  “How did they behave, precisely?” she asked icily.

“We didn’t go off and snog – Hermione came with me so that I wouldn’t do anything rash.  It was a very nice thing for her to do,” Harry protested.

“Thank you, Harry,” Hermione said, though her anger at Ron remained apparent.

Bill tugged at his collar.  “Well it’s just that… you see… it’s this – Ron didn’t exactly think that you were snogging…”

Harry ground his teeth, and Hermione turned flaming crimson.  “He was shagging that cheap tart?” she shrieked.  “I wish Fred and George had hit him in the arse with those fireworks – her as well, that… that… urgh!”

Harry said in a strained voice, “It takes two to shag, as I understand.  I doubt that Lavender dragged him out there.”

Bill said gently, “Look, it was… less than shagging but more than snogging, right?  I’m counting on discretion here – Charlie and I are the only ones who know anything of it, and I’m not excusing Ron’s behaviour.  It’s not just his carrying on with this… Lavender, was it?  He’s so, I don’t know, it’s as though he intends to have everything served up to him today, as though there’s no tomorrow…”

It struck Harry all at once.  He slumped into a chair as though he had been deflated.  “Of course – like there’s no tomorrow,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” Hermione asked sceptically.

“Don’t you see it?  He believes that there’s no tomorrow – no future,” Harry said, leading her to see what he already saw.

Her face went from flushed to pale.  “You don’t think… Merlin!  That explains everything, doesn’t it?”

“He’s still being a complete arse – but it all makes more sense,” Harry said.

Bill buried his head in his hands.  “Of course… he saw his own death,” he said in a ghostly whisper.  “He knows how it’s going to happen.”

Harry added sadly, “I think he knows when it’s going to happen.”

Hermione insisted, “Visions… Divination… p-p-prophecies… it’s all a crock, I tell you!  Ron doesn’t know how nor when he’s going to die, and Harry doesn’t – you – don’t… you… ever…” She had choked over the word ‘prophecies’. Her breathing was ragged; Harry couldn’t tell if her eyes were watering or if she was tearing up. It had to be the safeguard spell affecting her, he figured.

He knelt down and wrapped his arm around her.  “Let it go,” he said gently.  “It’s safe – everything’s safe.”  He didn’t dare say anything more obvious, but hoped that it would make a difference somehow.

“Why is Ron acting this way?” she whispered back.  “You should be the… you should… it’s you that…”

Harry worried that the safeguard was affecting her again.  He put his lips so close to her ear that they brushed against her hair.  “The difference between me and Ron is that he thinks he’s going to die, and I think I'm going to live,” he whispered.  It was a lie, but one that she needed to hear.  Her breathing steadied.

Tonks rested her hand on Hermione’s shoulder.  “Everyone’s worried about Harry.  You’ve nothing to be ashamed of.”  Relief washed over Harry – he knew that there would be no questions.

“May I take this book with me?” Bill asked.  Hermione nodded.

Bill turned to Harry.  “Will you consider talking to Ron?  Perhaps he’ll open up to you.”

“I might,” Harry said flatly.  “Perhaps he will.”

“Thank you for helping,” Hermione said weakly, extending her hand to Bill.

Bill took her hand.  “I’m sorry that Ron hurt you.  He’s developing a gift in that department.  I’ll have that look around now – see if there are any obvious dangers.”

“Mind if I observe – pick up some pointers on curse-breaking, perhaps?” Tonks asked. 

As soon as they moved away, Harry quietly asked Hermione, “Are you all right?”

“Cold,” she said distantly, “I’m cold.”

“I don’t like this,” Harry said.

“Getting worse each time,” she mumbled.  “Scary.”  Her eyes were slightly glassy.  He resolved to have that conversation with Dumbledore, and perhaps ask him about revealing the prophecy to a wider circle.  He could easily imagine Tonks accidentally triggering the safeguard, and then asking questions that only made things worse for Hermione.

“I think you should take a rest until we leave for dinner,” Harry suggested.  He helped her stand, and let her lean against him as they slowly left the library.

“Scary,” she mumbled again.

“That’s exactly how I feel about dinner,” Harry admitted.

Harry carefully led her down the stairs to the guest room she had claimed.  Winky had preceded them - the bed covers were turned down and the sheer curtains were drawn, muting the sunlight.

“Is this suitable, Harry Potter?” Winky asked.

“Very much so,” Harry answered quietly.  “Thank you, Winky.”

Hermione mumbled, “Thank you.”

“Winky is concerned about Miss Granger,” said the house-elf.

Hermione smiled faintly.  “Miss Granger will be fine,” she said with effort.  Winky nodded and left the room, closing the door behind her.

“Harry Potter wishes that were certain,” Harry muttered.

Hermione sat on the edge of the bed.  “My head is clearing,” she insisted.  “I’ll be fine.”

“You need to rest,” Harry said firmly.

Hermione lay down on her side.  “I need to feel warm again,” she said. 

Harry drew the bed covers over her, and she shook her head from side to side.  “Not enough?” Harry asked.  “I could try a warming charm.”

“Better idea,” she murmured and patted the bed beside her with an open hand. Harry froze, certain that he misunderstood.

She patted the bed again.  “Hold me,” she said.  “Worked after the spell, when we were on the sofa.”

Harry felt a little warm and a little dizzy.  “Erm… all right, then.”  He slipped off his shoes, walked around to the other side of the bed, and lay next to her atop the bed covers.

Hermione giggled, and Harry almost fell to the floor.  Hermione doesn’t giggle – not ever, he thought.  “Under here,” she said, shaking the covers with one hand as she continued to giggle.

Harry stammered, “I’m certain this should do the trick.”

“You’re blushing,” she observed distantly.

“Don’t you find this a little odd?” he blurted out.

“I'm sorry that you’re uncomfortable,” she said, eyes lowered.

“You don’t make me uncomfortable,” he insisted.  His breathing was fast.

“Good,” she murmured, and rolled over.  She backed into him, just as in his dream.

“Is this what best friends do?” he wondered aloud.

“I don’t know,” she mumbled.  He lowered his head to the pillow, trying to avoid contact with her hair.  He rested the back of his left hand on her cheek, checking to see if she was still cold.  She grasped his hand and pulled his left arm around her, and he was acutely aware of boundaries crumbling to dust.  She doesn’t mean any of this, he assured himself.  It’s the safeguard – she's half-asleep and giggling!  This doesn’t mean a thing; she’s just cold and that’s the end of it. 

He replayed his latest encounter with Shacklebolt in his mind, and thought of ways to avoid being backed to a wall.  He was too tired to dwell on his sudden Apparation – it was all getting to him, all the reading and all the practising and all the training with the bags and the weights and all the changes and all the anger and all the fighting and all the loss and the loneliness and the bloody Witch Weekly article and…

Hello, Harry.”

Harry sat up abruptly in the bed.  Hermione was nowhere to be seen.  He pushed his new glasses back into place, thankful for the Unbreakable Charm on the frames. 

Sirius sat in the chair next to the door.  “Are you going to say anything, or are you just going to stare?” he asked, and a smirk formed on his gaunt face.

I don’t understand – I don’t… how…erm, hello?” Harry managed.

Sirius broke into his familiar barking laugh.  “That’s a start.  I thought I’d drop by and see how you’re making out.”

I have so many questions!” Harry began excitedly.  “I…”

Sirius cut him off.  “My questions first, Harry – it’s the prerogative of the dead.  How’s your love life?”

Excuse me?” Harry asked, flustered.

I asked you about your love life,” Sirius repeated.

You visit me from the dead, and you’ve nothing better to ask than that?” Harry complained.

Sirius shrugged. “I have to live vicariously.  Besides, you know I have an interest on that front; you saw the oath I left for the Granger girl.”

We need to talk about that,” Harry grumbled.

Sirius waved him off.  “Later… we can talk about that later.  So, I was reading Teen Witch Weekly and…”

You were reading Teen Witch Weekly?  Setting aside that it was Teen Witch Weekly… you’re telling me that dead people can see it?” Harry asked dubiously.

Oh, we get all the papers here,” Sirius insisted. “They're a few days behind, of course.”

I guess I imagined something different for an afterlife,” Harry said.

Incredibly mundane, I’m afraid,” Sirius told him.  “Terrible traffic, paint peeling everywhere, nothing ever gets done… that, however, is a story for another time.  Back to your love life, then.”

Harry cringed.  “Of all the… I suppose you saw the Daily Prophet, as well?”

Sirius chuckled.  “Oh, yes.  That young lady in the Prophet photo – she was on that list, wasn’t she?”

Harry buried his face in his hands.  “This is a nightmare,” he moaned.

Oh, I don't know,” said Sirius. “It looks as though you're in a familiar place.”

Of course it looks familiar; it's your house, after all,” Harry said.

Some memories are hazier than others, I suppose. Perhaps it's a place I wanted to forget?” Sirius wondered aloud.

I could see why you wouldn't want to remember Grimmauld Place,” said Harry.

Sirius stroked his chin. “Grimmauld Place... why doesn't that ring true?”

You were stuck here for a year,” Harry groaned. “12 Grimmauld Place – it was your parents' home, for pity's sake!”

Oh, of course... yes, I didn't want to remember 12 Grimmauld Place... not the best of times... but I did want to remember you, Harry” said Sirius.

This is a strange dream. Why haven't I dreamed of you like this before?” Harry asked. “Is this a dream, or are you really visiting me?”

Sirius said, “What do you think, Harry? Is this just a garden-variety dream?  It could be so much more than that, of course, and all you have to do is play…”

A lurid jacket and pants worthy of Fred and George instantly replaced Sirius’ black robe.  He finished his thought with a cadence straight from the tackiest reader on the Beeb. “… ‘Who’s Harry’s True Love?’  Let’s meet the contestants!”

Lisa Turpin entered the room, wearing a gown that Harry vaguely recalled from the Yule Ball.  She smiled wanly, and stood next to Sirius. 

Still speaking in the affected cadence, Sirius announced, “Our first contestant for Harry’s heart is the lovely Lisa Turpin.  Representing Ravenclaw House, Lisa can out-think a dozen Hufflepuffs and still dance the night away.  Polite applause, please, for Lisa Turpin.”  Recorded applause resounded in the background, like a chat show on the telly. 

Sirius shook his head.  Returning to his normal voice, he said, “Not a flicker, Harry, nothing at all there.  I think we can move this along.  Thanks for playing, Lisa.  We have a Snuffles the Wonderdog statuette waiting for you backstage.  Bye-bye!” Lisa waved sadly and disappeared.

Back to his Beeb reader’s voice, Sirius announced, “Our second contestant is the captivating Gretchen Hargrove…”  He dropped the voice.  “Goodness, Harry – a scowl.  You didn’t appreciate that little kiss on the cheek, did you?  Well, a parting gift for Miss Hargrove, then.”  Harry heard a shrill scream outside the door, followed by pre-recorded laughter.  He tried willing himself to wake, to no avail.

Our third contestant is the voluptuous Daphne Greengrass,” Sirius intoned.  Daphne sauntered through the door in a tightly fitted top, a barely-legal mini and black heels.  Harry silently congratulated himself on his vivid imagination.  “Miss Greengrass is certainly the apple of every boy’s eye at Hogwarts, isn’t she?  Now, I know that her lineage is… well… rather dark, and she was certainly sorted to Slytherin for a reason, but still…”  Sirius laughed.  “Take a breath, Harry.  Miss Greengrass, if you’d please stand over there.” 

Daphne smiled faintly at Harry, but it was a sad smile somehow.  “I certainly didn’t expect that this would be about you.  I never thought you paid me any mind,” she said.  “That’s… sweet, really.  I… I don’t suppose you’d mind if I changed my clothes?  This is a bit much.”

Harry blushed.  “Erm… sorry.  I suppose that I should give you the benefit of the doubt, shouldn’t I?”  A pair of denims instantly replaced the mini, and her heels were exchanged for trainers.

She lowered her eyes.  “Thank you, Harry.  The boys I know aren’t nice enough to… what am I saying?  This is the strangest dream...”   

Our fourth contestant is the formidable Cho Chang,” Sirius went on.  Cho walked in, wearing a long black dress with a high slit. 

Not again… I’m tired of dreaming about you, Harry,” Cho pleaded, “so very, very tired.  This has to end.”

She’s as strong as you in her way, and quite intelligent – yet not very smart.  Of course, there’s a history between you.  The question is – could you overcome that, Harry?”  Harry knew the answer and it appeared that Sirius did as well.

Sorry, Miss Chang.  Thanks for dropping by,” Sirius said.  The floor opened, and she fell away.

More than halfway there, Harry, and only one finalist so far,” Sirius said.  “I was more inclined to lust than love, myself.  I’d completely understand, of course.  Hell, if I were younger…”

Sirius!” Harry protested.  He half-expected that the idea of Sirius ogling Daphne Greengrass would immediately wake him up.  He wondered if somehow the thought of Daphne was keeping him the dream, and the idea made him feel very uncomfortable.  He wondered why she was sad.

Fifth on our list is the… erm… unique Luna Lovegood,” Sirius announced.  Luna entered the room wearing a silver dress festooned with sparkles and butterbeer caps, and ratty trainers that peeked out from beneath.  She looked around curiously, smiled at Harry, and then pulled out a copy of the Quibbler from nowhere and began to read it upside down.  “You’re dead, in case you’ve forgotten,” she told Sirius absently. 

What can one say about Miss Lovegood… frankly, I don’t know,” Sirius wondered.  “There’s something about her company that you find beguiling, isn’t there?  Does she understand you, Harry?  Does she support you in some special way?  I don't understand this one.”

Harry struggled.  “Luna’s… innocent… but not innocent.  It’s hard to explain.  She takes a thrashing every day from nearly everyone, but she bounces back and keeps going.  I admire that.”

True love material, then?” Sirius asked.

Harry shrugged.  “I don’t know what love is.”

You should give yourself more credit, Harry,” Luna offered.

Sirius stroked his chin thoughtfully.  “I suppose you may not know.  Perhaps we have that in common… Let me ask this way: would it be painful to lose her?  Would you miss her if she weren’t there?”

Harry said, “Of course.  Luna’s a good friend.”

Luna smiled strangely.  “Thanks; I feel the same,” she said.  “Strange dream you’re having, isn’t it?  I’m not yet certain why I’m here, but I’ll take it as a compliment for the moment.”

Sirius raised an eyebrow toward Luna.  “Over by Miss Greengrass, then,” he said brusquely.  Luna curtsied and strode awkwardly across the room.  She looked Daphne up and down, shrugged, and returned to reading the Quibbler.  Daphne appraised the entire scene with the same vaguely sad expression as before.

Today’s sixth contestant is the spunky Ginny Weasley,” Sirius announced. 

Ginny entered the room with her arms crossed.  “What in the hell is going on here?” she demanded.  Then she caught sight of Sirius.  “You!” she howled.  “I’ve had quite enough of you!  Thanks for the money, thanks for the violin – now leave me alone!” 

She turned, and saw Harry sitting on the bed.  Her eyes widened.  She looked around the room.  “What the… this is my room at the… what sort of dream is this?”

I’ve been asking myself that for a while now,” Harry offered.

I know about your little kiss, of course,” Sirius said.  “I’ve developed a nasty habit of spying on you over the years, Harry Potter.  Do you really believe that she could give up on you that easily?”

Ginny protested, red-faced, “How dare you make assumptions about my feelings?”

Sirius’ eyes narrowed.  “I understand you better than you understand yourself, my dear little Ginny.  You’re so transparent.  You loved him so much that you almost lost yourself.  You have a tendency to do that, don’t you… losing yourself in powerful men.  You’re a bit obsessive, aren’t you?”

If this is about Riddle, you’re out of line,” Harry warned.  “She was eleven years old.”

Sirius shook his head.  “She has a tendency for questionable judgement, as well.  Opening an unfamiliar book… she didn’t think… she doesn’t think.  Rather like you, Harry – rush in first, and repair the damage later.  Quite a combustible pair, aren’t you?”

Ginny cried, “Why are you doing this?  You were so nice to me... then there was that horrid will, and now this!”

Harry seethed, “If you wanted to be sure that I wouldn’t miss you anymore, Sirius, then you’ve succeeded.”

Ginny looked down at herself.  She was wearing a short strapless dress.  “Look at this – it makes me look like a pole!  This is a complete nightmare!”

I’m sorry,” Harry said.  “Why don’t you pick something else, then?”

A jumper and jeans replaced the dress.  “Much better,” she said.  “Now, if I could only wake up…”

Sirius said, “Sorry, dear Ginny, but this is Harry’s show.  You’re just one of the players, albeit an important one.  Now, be a good girl and stand over by Luna.”

Harry thought it seemed as though Ginny was forced to walk across the room.  She immediately bombarded Luna with whispers and mutters; Luna appeared to reassure her.

Our last contestant should be self-evident,” Sirius announced.  “The resplendent Hermione Granger, ladies and gentlemen.” 

Hermione peered into the room.  “Harry?” she called.  “What’s going on here?  I… we… weren’t we in this room?” 

Harry sighed.  “I don’t know… I thought this was a dream… I still think it’s a dream… I don’t know anymore.”

Hermione looked down.  “Erm… I see I’ve changed clothes.  That puts it squarely in dream territory, don’t you think?”  She was wearing Harry’s white terry cloth bathrobe.  She pulled the front out from her body slightly, and blushed.  “Goodness!” she exclaimed.  “Definitely a dream!  At least this isn’t Transfiguration class.”

Harry sniggered.  “Is that a common dream, then?”  Hermione scowled at him.

Terribly familiar, aren’t you both?” Sirius observed.  “The very best of friends, clearly.  There’s more to it, though – isn’t there, Harry?  Face facts… she makes your pulse rise, doesn’t she?  I can feel it in you.”

Harry snapped, “Sirius, put a stop to this – now!”

Sirius gestured toward Luna, Ginny and Daphne.  “Perhaps you don’t want to choose at all, Harry.  I can respect that.  Ménage á cinc, then?”

Hermione and Harry simultaneously shouted, “Sirius!”

Daphne appeared hurt.  “Everyone has the wrong idea about me,” she said quietly.

Luna’s expression was unreadable.  “A typically male suggestion,” she said flatly.  “You greatly misjudge Harry – which is not surprising, of course.”

Ginny’s hands were defiantly at her hips.  “Of all the… I’d like to take your violin and shove it up your –”

Sirius gave a mock-frown.  “You can’t blame me for trying, Harry Potter.”  He returned to his game show cadence.  “All right, then.  It’s time for ‘Who’s Harry’s True Love?’ to come to an end.  You must make your final selection.  Who will it be?”

Harry crossed his arms.  “Sod off, Sirius,” he said firmly.

I asked you ‘Who will it be?’” Sirius hissed.

Harry gritted his teeth.  The dream was giving him a terrible headache.  “If you’re all-seeing, then you should already know the answer,” he snapped.

Sirius’ mouth smiled but his eyes failed to join in.  “Well, you may not be ready for true love… you’re surprisingly inexperienced, for one.  Frankly, I would have expected you to sample the fruits of your fame – I certainly would have, in your place.  Still, young love is so… delicious.”

Luna, Ginny and Daphne disappeared.

Harry found himself lying down in the bed, with Hermione.

Sirius said generously, “Enjoy yourselves!  Life’s terribly short.  You may as well say exactly what you’re thinking; after all, it’s just a dream – there’s nothing to lose, is there?”

Harry began, “But I still have so many questions, Sirius.  I…”

Sirius waved him off.  “I know most of what I need to know,” he purred.  “We’ll see each other again – very soon, I promise.  You’ll have all the time you need to ask questions then, both of you.  Patience!”  He winked, and disappeared in a flash.

Harry didn’t know what to make of any of it.  Hermione searched his face, and he was overwhelmed by how real it all seemed – her expressions, her voice, and the things she said.  He wondered if he was actually that observant. 

Hermione said, “I’m generally a very vivid dreamer; it stands to reason, since I’m prone to recalling detail.  I have to say… this is the most realistic dream I’ve ever had, even beyond the last one that I recall. Do you suppose this is an effect of the safeguarding spell?”

Everything about you seems so real,” he admitted.

Well, he did say to enjoy myself; I suppose I can test the limits a bit.  So… you feel… you know, that way about me?” she asked.

Harry swallowed hard.  “Erm… I think I might.  I fret about you, you know?  I think that’s what keeps me away – the thought of you being hurt.  What about you?”

Hermione hesitated.  “Yes… definitely in dream territory, aren’t we.  If anyone overheard, I’d be sent to St. Mungo’s for this – having a full-blown conversation with myself!”

Harry shook his head.  “It’s like listening to you in the Common Room – amazing, really… although I prefer being here like this.  You…erm…wear my robe well…” He felt his throat tighten as he spoke, and his head felt light and fuzzy.

I could give into this,” Hermione said.  “If it was real, I’d be so afraid of ruining our friendship.  I never want to lose that.  You know that I’ll probably muck up any relationship you ever have, always hanging about and all?  I hope you’ll forgive me for that, but I need you.  I’m afraid that I’ll push you away.” 

Harry traced the line of her jaw with his fingertips.  “You can’t push me away.  It’s just that I have to pull away, to keep you safe.  I do love you, you know.”

Hermione’s mouth formed a silent “O”.  She just stared at him.

Harry started to correct himself.  “What I meant, of course was… well, I meant that in a certain way… that is, I…”

Hermione leant in and kissed him, and the world exploded.  She backed away slightly, and looked at him nervously.  He couldn’t stop smiling, and he was the one who leant in for another kiss.  They devoured one another for a while, like two predators unleashed to feed. 

Harry came up for air, and Hermione said seriously, “I love you, as well.  Please tell me our friendship can survive this?”

Harry laughed.  “This is a dream, remember?  No one will be the wiser.”

Hermione snorted.  “That’s an excellent point.  I suppose that there are no consequences whatever.”

Well, I might have some difficulty looking at you later today,” Harry observed.  “So… Sirius promised that this could be a better-than-average dream –”

I think that’s assured, Harry,” Hermione giggled.  She ran her hand through his hair.  “I deserve a wicked dream, with the summer I’ve had.  We can do anything you like – surprise me.”         

Anything we like, you say?” Harry asked.  “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

That’s to be expected from you, isn’t it?  Honestly, this whole ‘true love’ business is going to tax me!  Well, then…I have a few things in mind.”  Hermione smiled seductively, which was something that Harry had never before contemplated.  “You see, it’s good to be well-read,” she added, and then whispered a few things in Harry’s ear – one involving whipping cream and chocolate - that took his breath away.

What on Earth have you been reading?” he gasped.  She laughed, and he smiled.  “This beats the stuffing out of dreams of Voldemort, I can tell you!” he said, and realised that he was wearing only boxers.

Hermione rolled atop Harry, kissed him deeply, and then teased, “I’m glad I come before Voldemort in your eyes...” She stopped abruptly.  “Harry?  Where did the bed go?  Where have we…? Oh, no… not this...”

Hermione quickly moved off and clutched together the front of her bathrobe.  Her face was frozen in stark terror.  Harry sat up and looked around the Transfiguration classroom.  They were atop the massive desk at the front.  Neville, Dean and Seamus all lay atop Ron, who struggled mightily.  He swore loudly and continuously, and his three dorm mates swore back.  Lavender and Parvati Patil gaped at them in mute shock, and a gaggle of Slytherins laughed hysterically.  Harry was grateful that Hermione had the robe, but wished he were clad in something more.

Oh, this is too much!” Draco Malfoy howled.  “Prince Potty and his Mudblood princess, about to shag on McGonagall’s desk!  And you thought probation was bad?” 

Pansy Parkinson tut-tutted, “Potter, I had no idea that you were so under-demanding.” Millicent Bulstrode made a terribly rude crack about Hermione’s appearance – Harry was furious but struck by the irony of the source – and Malfoy resorted to the same obscene gesture that he’d employed at the will reading.

This isn’t something I’d care to dream again,” Harry said quietly.

Hermione’s voice was uneven and strained.  “I’m usually presenting, without the benefit of a robe.  Professor McGonagall’s always standing right over there.”

As soon as Hermione pointed, McGonagall appeared before them.  It would have been impossible for her lips to become any thinner.  “Miss Granger and Mister Potter, you will explain yourselves at once!” she thundered.

I want to wake up now,” Hermione said weakly.  “Please, let me wake up.”

Harry put his arm around her.  “It’s all right,” he whispered.  “I won’t let you be hurt, not even in my dreams.”

Facing down McGonagall, he announced loudly, “We were just practising our Animagus transformations, Professor.”

McGonagall’s eyebrows raised a notch.  “I must have misheard, Mister Potter.  Did you say ‘Animagus transformations’?”

Yes, Professor,” Harry said.  “Why don’t we show them, Hermione?”

Harry, what in the devil are you talking about?” Hermione whispered frantically.

This is a dream.  Why can’t we transform, if we want to?” Harry whispered back.  “Just think of an Animagus form and follow my lead.” Harry concentrated, and immediately felt himself changing.  There were shrieks from his classmates; he hoped he hadn’t turned into a snake. 

He asked Hermione in a throaty roar, “How’s it coming, then?”

She growled back, “Quite well.  I imagine you might expect to become a snake; not in this dream, it seems.”  He turned awkwardly, unaccustomed to moving on four legs.  Next to him stood a sleek lioness with Hermione’s eyes.

Harry watched in awe as she moved effortlessly across the room and presented every impression of stalking the Slytherins.  Malfoy dove over two desks to get away from her.

Perfect,” he roared.  “You were made for this.” He followed her and bared his teeth at Malfoy.  She nuzzled him, and her nose brushed against his mane. 

So…the king of the jungle, eh?  Yes, exactly as I would expect,” she purred as the colours began to drift and the room fell away…

Harry was warm and comfortable, despite a lingering dull headache.  He slowly stretched, his senses still hazy from sleep.  He drew his left arm back and realised that his hand was trapped just below Hermione’s armpit.  When it occurred to him exactly what his hand was cupping through the bed sheet, he fought rising panic and very carefully disengaged himself.  Still foggy from the dream, he gently moved aside the bed covers wrapped around Hermione’s shoulder.  When he revealed her shirt collar, he breathed a very quiet sigh of relief – although a small part of him had hoped to see white terry cloth. He gingerly slid off the bed, and tiptoed to the door.  Looking back, he saw that Hermione looked relaxed with a hint of a smile on her face.  He was pleased – it was a far cry from the pained look too often on her face.

Time for a shower, he thought; a long one, I suspect.  It was at that moment that he remembered the dinner-to-come.  His concerns about looking at Hermione without blushing were washed away, and replaced by the thought of appearing terribly guilty before her parents.  Lupin had suggested that he bring flowers and a bottle of wine to the Grangers' home as gifts.  What wine goes with fear?  he wondered.

“What an interesting choice,” Mr. Granger remarked, as he peered closely at the bottle. “Care to sample it with me?”

Harry hesitated. “Remus bought it for me; I only told the shopkeeper what I was looking for. I didn’t, erm… I didn’t really know what I was doing, sir.”

“You’ve never had wine with dinner before?” Mr. Granger asked. When Harry shook his head, he continued, “Merlot is a fair choice. That’s not all you asked of the shopkeeper, is it?”

“Why would you say that?” Harry asked nervously.

“Anyone working in a wine market would have made a more conservative choice, if unprompted,” Mr. Granger explained. “This particular vineyard has a reputation for a more complex palate. I’ve never had any of their offerings, truthfully.” He expertly removed the cork from the bottle. “It should be a bit astringent at first. Let’s allow it to breathe, shall we?” He ran the end of the cork beneath his nose, and watched Harry’s expression. “A bit of a formality these days, I’ll grant you, but it’s still wise to check for mould.”

Mrs. Granger bustled into the kitchen. “The flowers are lovely, Harry,” she said. “I’m quite fond of delphinium.” Ten points to the Hogwarts side, Harry thought, thanks to Hermione.

She stopped, and eyed the bottle. “Te Awanga… a New Zealand merlot, eh? Was that intentional?”

Harry was becoming accustomed to an elevated pulse after fifteen minutes at the Grangers’, but he still felt a charge of nervousness. “I’m sorry, ma’am?” he said.

“Distinctive, but not audacious,” she smiled. “Do you fancy yourself a strategist, Mr. Potter?”

“Mother, are you trying to intimidate Harry, or are you just demonstrating your natural superiority?” Hermione snapped as she entered the room.

Mrs. Granger shot Hermione an icy look, and Harry took the opportunity to look away. Her mother had come so close to his instructions to the shopkeeper that she could have been snooping in the wine market. Thank Merlin that Hermione walked in, he thought.

Harry turned to the mixing bowl, balloon whisk and assemblage of ingredients before him on the island. Stick to what you know, Potter, he thought as he opened the bag of flour, but don’t get too comfortable. He knew there was little risk of that – the anxiety provoked by Mrs. Granger at every turn, Hermione’s abrupt distancing from him, and the mild embarrassment that struck each time he looked at her all conspired against confidence.

“Thomas, did you put our guest to work?” Mrs. Granger asked. “Harry, feel free to relax; we’ll manage everything.”

Harry quickly measured flour into the mixing bowl, formed a well in the centre, and broke an egg one-handed into the well. “I’m happier with something to do, Mrs. Granger,” he said honestly. “Besides, there won’t be time for the batter to rest if it isn’t started now. The joint will be ready in around an hour and a half, I’d wager.”

Mrs. Granger looked into the lower oven, and crossed her arms. Harry noticed with some satisfaction that she was smiling.

“I couldn’t find a baking dish,” Harry continued as he briskly whisked the mixture, “and I’m assuming that there are drippings or fat on hand.”

“You know your way around a kitchen,” Mrs. Granger said. “Perhaps you could encourage Hermione; she should be able to prepare something other than croque-monsieurs or bubble-and-squeak… Dora, if you eat all the carrots, there’ll be none left for boiling!”

Tonks, who had sidled up to the end of the counter, frowned. “Sorry, Cordelia,” she managed despite a mouthful of carrot.

Harry looked at Tonks, his eyebrow raised. Tonks swallowed forcibly, and explained, “You know I don’t care for my given name, Harry. Cordelia doesn’t care to call me by my last name. We… agreed to use my dad’s pet name.” Her expression made perfectly clear the level of agreement.

Hermione walked around the island. As she passed Tonks, she smoothly handed off a freshly peeled carrot. The two exchanged subtle grins. Harry made a point of not reacting, and returned his attention to the Yorkshire pudding batter taking form before him.

“Harry, I can handle that if you like,” Mr. Granger offered.

Harry shook his head. “Happy to do it,” he said, as he began adding milk.

Hermione peered into the lower oven at the joint of beef and roast potatoes. “Merlin! That’s enough to feed ten – we’ll be eating Sunday seconds all week!” she exclaimed.

“With your guards, I should think it would be closer to twelve,” Mrs. Granger said. “Harry, would you be put out if I asked for a second batch of batter?”

“And that's my cue to check on the wards,” said Tonks, and she exited the kitchen quickly and with unexpected grace.

“Not at all,” Harry said. He thought for a moment, and quickly added, “I didn't know there would be other guests, or I would have brought more wine.”

“Speaking of wine, Harry…” Mr. Granger said. He handed Harry a glass containing a small splash of merlot.

“Would you please excuse us for a moment?” Hermione said through a clearly forced smile. She grabbed her mother by the elbow and pulled toward the dining room.

Harry returned his attention to the wine. “First, we check to see if it’s clear,” Mr. Granger instructed. Harry gazed at the swirling merlot in his glass.

Mr. Granger passed the glass beneath his nose. “Another whiff… no mouldiness, no dustiness, nothing acrid.”

Harry went through the same exercise. “It smells… it smells like berries,” he observed. “Blackberries?”

Mr. Granger nodded. “Very good. A bit of a foodie, are you? Right then, time for a taste.” Harry took a careful sip.

He could hear Hermione’s voice rising in the dining room. “I should have known you wouldn’t make a Sunday dinner exception just for Harry! This is so unfair… don’t tell me to lower my voice! I can’t believe… please! As if you had any regard whatever for my feelings! I will not… no, I will not; I’ll gladly sit in the front room with…”

Harry looked to Mr. Granger for an explanation. Mr. Granger deadpanned, “Welcome to my summer, Harry. Given my druthers, I’d have picked Majorca.”

“What are they arguing about?” Harry wondered aloud. He took another sip of the merlot. It fascinated him how something could taste sweet and bitter all at once.

“A rather ill-advised idea on Cordelia’s part, I’m afraid,” Mr. Granger said. “Sometimes, Harry, you have to allow the consequences of a poor decision to unfold.”

“Are they always like this?” Harry asked nervously.

“It gives one pause, doesn’t it?” Mr. Granger acknowledged. “When one lets up, the other provokes. I must say, this is turning into an exceptional row – even by this summer’s standard.”

Mrs. Granger’s voice rose in waves. Harry couldn’t understand most of what she said. “…let me explain… unreasonable… disrespectful… think about the impression… houseful of maniacsreprehensible… tired of your cheek… questionable influence… use the intellect that God gave you for two blessed minutesdecent people… civilized!

Hermione thundered, “I will not be ambushed, and I will certainly not share a meal with Ron Weasley!and stomped into the kitchen.

Harry choked on the merlot and burst into a coughing fit. Mr. Granger asked him repeatedly if he was all right and offered a glass of water. Hermione took Harry’s wineglass from him, seized the bottle of merlot, filled the glass, and tossed it back in a single swallow. Mr. Granger closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Mrs. Granger was nowhere to be seen. The Weasleys are coming for dinner, Harry thought. I don't think there’s a right wine for that.

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