DISCLAIMER: The Harry Potter series and all the characters associated with it are the property solely of J. K. Rowling, her agents and publishers. No infringement of any rights is intended from the creation of this story. Nor is any money being made from it.
Circles of Power
Part Thirteen - Chess
By Mad Martha
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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:
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 "
"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.
"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."
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!"
"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.
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 wasnt 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."
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."
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?"
"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."
"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."
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.
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?"
"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.
End Part 13/30
Author's Note: Yeah, I know if you follow the dates J K Rowling used in Chamber Of Secrets, Harry's twenty-first birthday couldn't be on a Saturday. But really, I needed his birthday to be on a Saturday, so let's just pretend that she didn't mean it. Please?
Jen I've never actually been involved in a pillow-fight, so I've been deprived! It must be more fun with magic though.
Jadea I based the idea of them not fighting from Harry's reaction to his fight with Ron in "Goblet of Fire". There's a point I think after the Yule Ball where Harry avoids getting involved in a quarrel between Ron and Hermione specifically because he doesn't want to fall out with Ron again. I don't really see him as the brawling type unless he's forced. He's more of a passive-aggressive person.
PoisonSnakey As I explained to someone else recently, I got into the habit of ending chapters on cliff-hangers when I wrote X-Files fanfic, so you can expect a few more!
Nayako I knew there was a reason I was having problems uploading this chapter *unsticks Nayako and thwacks her with a pillow* Um ... I'm producing these chapters at high speed because they're already written! I never post WIPs it jinxes me and I'd never finish them. Besides, if you could see rubbish first drafts of a couple of the chapters ... *shudder* So "Circles of Power" is finished, all 30 chapters of it. Although there is a scene in Chapter 16 I suddenly decided to alter a little this evening.
Mermaid I tend to have limited sympathy for canon Draco, but don't worry I'm not wholly mean to him in this story!
SparkySparkles Yes, I really don't see the Slytherins as being the kind to have pillow-fights it's a bit too cuddly for them! So Draco really doesn't have a clue *grin*
Beth Ann I really enjoyed writing that scene. Maybe it's because I love interaction between Harry and his father's friends. Besides, I love Sirius and enjoy seeing him interact with Harry; I really ought to write something involving just the two of them. (Except that would mean even more delay on the Neville/Seamus story.)
Sally - *chuckles* Don't worry I won't hurt them much! They're my favourite couple too.
PotterBrother Glad you enjoyed it!
LadyRose Hope this chapter answered your question. As for Harry/Ron/Draco ... hm. Tricky question! Too many alpha males in that equation, I think *grin*
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