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 Fourteen - Coming Of Age

By Mad Martha

       

Friday night came around with unusual speed.

Harry and Ron were not the only ones going out; Seamus, Dean and Neville were all heading out to a wizard snooker match somewhere in London, Hermione was going out to dinner with Viktor Krum, and Ginny was going home to her parents for the weekend. In fact, the only one who was staying in was Malfoy, and that was largely because he had nowhere to go or anyone to go with. Harry felt rather bad about that, despite Malfoy's own assertion that he would be glad of the peace and quiet.

"All I ask is that you remember the privacy spell when you get back," he said in a long-suffering tone. "Since I can't have a sex life of my own at the moment, I'd rather not be forced to participate in someone else's."

In the event, however, it turned out that even he had somewhere to go. Hermione was just showing off a new and rather daring flame-coloured silk dress and matching robes before she left, when there was an abrupt whoosh from the chimney and Elijah Twizzle, one of their fellow junior Aurors, popped out of the fireplace. Round face beaming, he brushed soot off his buff coloured robes and ogled Hermione shamelessly.

"Say, that's a smashing frock, Granger "

"Good evening to you too, Eli," she said dryly. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"

"What? Oh! Moody's sent me to get Malfoy." He blinked around the room a little short-sightedly and adjusted his spectacles. The bumbling fool act was just that, though an act. Eli Twizzle was as sharp as they came. "There you are," he said, spotting Malfoy, who was viewing him with some annoyance. "Get your cloak."

"Why? What on earth does that old crackpot want with me at this time of night?"

"I didn't ask," Eli said blandly. "One doesn't ask Moody things like that. You can if you like, but you still have to come with me."

"Better get your cloak," Harry told him.

With a huff of exasperation, Malfoy disappeared up the stairs. When he returned, he was shrugging into his robes impatiently. "So much for a quiet evening on my own," he grumbled. He paused just before stepping into the fire and gave Hermione an appraising look. "If Krum doesn't ask you to marry him tonight, for heaven's sake curse him, woman. He obviously has no appreciation." He glanced over at Harry and Ron, who were both looking almost as surprised as Hermione. "Have a good evening."

And he disappeared up the flue, swiftly followed by Eli.

"I think I prefer him when he's snarky," Ron said sourly. He turned to Hermione. "Hadn't you better get going?"

"In a moment." And to Harry's surprise, she stood on tiptoe and kissed his forehead lightly. A delicate waft of fragrance drifted over him. "Have a lovely evening, Harry."

He smiled at her. "And you."

Hermione Disapparated, leaving the two of them on their own. Harry looked at Ron and began to grin.

"You're still not going to tell me where we're going, are you?"

Ron grinned back. "Nope!"

"So how am I supposed to dress for this?"

Ron screwed up his face, pretending to give it some consideration. "A bit fancy," he conceded.

"How fancy is a bit?"

"Use your imagination ...."

"You just want to see me do the girly thing where I pull everything out of the closet and complain that I have nothing to wear," Harry grumbled, but he was enjoying the mischief on Ron's face.

"Well, yeah! Go on, time's rolling on ...."

In the end they both did the "girly thing", chortling madly and fighting over shirts (which tended to be shared property). Ron bullied Harry into wearing a pair of black leather trousers he'd bought but not had the nerve to wear before, then liked the effect enough that he decided to wear a pair of his own. Harry eventually ended up in an emerald green silk shirt as well, while Ron's was a very deep blue. The major difference was in the style Harry's was much less flamboyant than Ron's, although it was still in a cut that would probably draw a lot of notice if he wore it around Muggles.

This was something that it had taken Harry a long time to get used to, let alone emulate; the wizarding community loved an extraordinary personal appearance. Clothing styles never went out of fashion, and it was not unusual to see people dressing in clothes that would not have looked out of place during the Victorian or even Mediaeval eras, or some wild mixture of the two. In fact, you looked highly out of place if you dressed like a Muggle wizard children wore Muggle style clothes, but usually some wizarding variant that allowed for a greater range of colour and self expression.

Ron finally rummaged around at the end of the closet which was dominated by buff coloured Aurors robes, and pulled out a couple of more festive versions, throwing them over the chair.

"I've left my wand downstairs," he said, frowning and fiddling with his cuffs. "I won't be a minute ...."

He disappeared down the stairs, leaving Harry to look at the two robes with amusement. Ron's was made of some soft, felt-like black material, but the collar, cuffs, front plackets and bottom hem were hand-stitched with coppery zodiac symbols that moved in the light. Considering how he complained about Ginny's choice of bed curtains, he was surprisingly fond of this fancy formal robe; but then, it had been made for him by his clairvoyant grandmother, who was thrilled to discover that at least one of her grandchildren had inherited her gift. By contrast, Harry's was made from a dark, tapestry-type cloth with metallic threads running through it that made it sparkle slightly when he moved; it had been a gift from Sirius at Christmas.

Both robes hummed subliminally with protective charms the givers had placed on them, and when Harry picked them up he could also feel the deep affection from the respective family members. He folded them over his arm, hoping he would be able to spend some time with Sirius the next day.

Then Ron reappeared and one look at his face told Harry that things were not going to plan. He looked stricken, but before he could say anything Pigwidgeon soared through the door after him and started zipping about the room, twittering madly.

"Cut it out, Pig! Harry ...." Ron looked lost for words for a moment, then he held up a tiny scrap of parchment. "Pig just brought me a note from the owner of the restaurant we were going to. It's a good thing I sent him to check on our table, because they swear they have no booking for us. And no spare tables for tonight either."

Harry was a little disappointed but more for Ron's sake than his own, because he knew his friend had been planning this for over a week. "It doesn't matter," he said reassuringly. "We can still go out, we'll just find somewhere else."

"I know, but I could kill them for this. It's not like I owled them about it either I actually went in person to book it "

"Don't worry about it! Believe me, I don't mind where we go."

Ron still looked uncertain. "Yeah, but it's your birthday I wanted it to be a bit special."

Harry grinned at him. "Ron, when was the last time we went out for an evening? It feels like we've spent the last two or three months ducking curses! Anywhere will be great." He held out the fancy black robe. "Here, put this on and we'll get moving."

Ron took the robe and began to shrug into it. "I knew I should have told that bloody restaurant manager it was you I was taking to dinner," he said wryly. "Catch them bungling a booking for the great Harry Potter!"

"I'm glad you didn't we probably would have had to share a table with Rita Skeeter."

Ron laughed and went to put Pigwidgeon in his cage. "Behave, and don't annoy Hedwig!" he told the little owl sternly. "Tell you what, Harry Mum's been twittering about seeing you this week, so let's stop off at the Burrow first so she can fuss over you. And Dad might be able to recommend somewhere to eat."

"Sounds good," Harry agreed. He pulled his own robe on and looked at Ron. "Ready?"

"Yep let's go."

       

Our luck is definitely not in tonight, Harry thought, when he fell out of the Burrow's kitchen fireplace only to find the place in darkness. Ron swore softly even as he caught his partner before he landed on the floor.

"Where on earth are Mum and Dad? And Ginny?"

"Gone out, by the looks of it," Harry replied, amused in spite of everything. "Along with everyone else in the wizarding world tonight!"

"But I thought Ginny ...." Ron sighed. "Women!"

"That's a bit hard on your dad!"

Ron snorted a laugh. "This is just typical though."

Harry glanced around and caught sight of a light through the kitchen window. "Hang on I think they might be out in the garden."

"That's really typical why didn't they leave a light on in here? Go on, Harry ...."

Harry pushed the garden door open and stepped outside.

Lights suddenly flared, dazzling him after the darkness of the kitchen. Then he was almost deafened by a multi-voiced shout.

"SURPRISE!"

       

Harry's first, irrational instinct, upon seeing the sea of smiling faces before him, was to bolt. He turned (to the accompaniment of much laughter and catcalling) but was stopped by Ron, who grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him back around again, chuckling.

"You are a devious little git!" Harry told him, torn between laughter and indignation.

Ron laughed outright. "I can't believe you actually fell for the 'no party' line, Harry! Did you seriously think we wouldn't celebrate on your twenty-first birthday of all things?"

"I thought I dunno what I thought ."

It seemed like everyone was there, all crammed into the Weasleys' back garden, including one or two people Harry felt reasonably sure he'd never met before. All of the Weasleys themselves were there, including Bill and Charlie, and a brace of aunts, uncles and cousins he'd met just the once. Hermione was there with Viktor Krum, Seamus, Dean, Neville, Sirius, Lupin, all his Auror friends, a number of the teachers from school including Dumbledore, and Hagrid of course, a batch of other school friends both from Gryffindor House and others, and a vast selection of people he knew from other areas of his life, including Ministry officials like Ludo Bagman and the Minister himself, Cornelius Fudge, and - judging by the robes - the entire England Quidditch team.

Harry was overwhelmed. Aside from the excitement of being attacked by Death Eaters on three different occasions, his previous birthdays had all been much lower key. Ron and Hermione's twenty-first birthdays had been big, noisy, friends 'n' family events, but this - this was in a league of its own.

Not sure quite what to do or how to react to all the huge smiles surrounding him, Harry went with his first instinct and headed straight for Hagrid (whom he hadn't expected to see until he went up to Hogwarts in a week's time), seizing him in a very emotional hug. The very big man with the very soft heart, who had been Harry's first and most constant friend in the wizard world, was utterly delighted.

"Look at yer!" he rumbled, squeezing him tightly enough to take his breath away. "Just look at yer - l'il 'Arry, all growed up ."

Which made Harry laugh, and just as well because otherwise he felt sure he might cry. Then Hagrid released him and he got a really good look at him and laughed even more.

"My God, Hagrid, that jacket ...."

It was an extraordinary and frightening garment in orange plaid, but Hagrid beamed as though Harry noticing it was the biggest compliment he could hope for.

Harry knew exactly who he had to thank for this party, so the next people he headed for were Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. She was wreathed in smiles, but when Harry hugged her there was definitely a hint of a maternal tear or two.

"Well!" she said, patting him and smoothing the front of his shirt. "Don't you look nice? I told Ron to make sure you dressed up a bit!"

Harry grinned at her. "Thank you, Mrs. Weasley."

"Oh well, dear ...." She began to tear up again and quickly handed him over to her husband.

Harry was all prepared to shake hands with Mr. Weasley, so he was surprised to be pulled into a firm hug by him too.

"Your own parents can't do this for you, Harry, so we were determined to make sure you had the kind of party they would have wanted to give you." Mr. Weasley stepped back slightly, still gripping Harry's shoulders. He studied him for a moment, before smiling slightly and saying, "I'm sure Sirius and Remus have told you this a score of times, but Harry, I know your mother and father would have been very proud of you. God knows, Molly and I are."

Sirius was standing only feet away; when Harry looked across at him, he smiled. Perhaps he realised that things were getting a little too emotionally charged for his godson, for he said, "Absolutely. And what Arthur said about this being the party James would have wanted you to have? Very true you can expect the dancing girls to jump out of the cake any minute now."

This brought a roar of laughter from everyone, and suddenly Harry was swept into a whirlwind of hugs, kisses, back-slaps and handshakes as everyone tried to congratulate him at once.

Some time later, he was grabbed by Ron and Hermione and dragged over to one of the big trestle tables loaded with food at the edge of the garden.

"You remember what you were saying about a birthday cake?" Hermione told him. "Well ...."

It was huge, the size of a large card table, and decorated to look exactly like a Quidditch pitch. To Harry's amusement and delight, there were even tiny animated players having what looked like a particularly rough game. Minuscule bludgers were whizzing around, occasionally causing the animated audience in the stands to squeal, and there seemed to be a lot of blatching and cobbing going on to Harry's experienced eye. Studying it more closely, he was even more amused to see that the two teams playing were the Chudley Cannons (of course) and the Holyhead Harpies.

"This can't be right," he pointed out. "The Cannons are winning!"

This caused a lot of amusement from the England Team, who Quidditch players to their marrow were standing around watching the cake with professional interest, and earned him a punch on the arm from Ron.

"Are you ready for our match next month?" a quiet voice said in Harry's ear.

He turned to find Charlie Weasley at his shoulder, grinning at him. Harry began to laugh. "No! Are we really playing the Magizoologists this time?"

Charlie played Seeker on the Magizoologists' Quidditch team in the Inter-Agency League; Harry played the same position for the Aurors.

"We drew the red ball this time," Charlie said. He held out a tall, knobbly bottle of butterbeer to Harry. "Have a last, friendly drink with me before the battle?"

"You'll slaughter me," Harry told him, accepting the bottle. "I haven't even been to practice matches for the last three months."

"You think I'm not counting on that?"

They grinned at each other, but the conversation had already caught the attention of the England Captain - none other than Oliver Wood, Harry's old captain from the Gryffindor Team.

"You're still playing for the Inter-Agency League, at least?" he said to Harry. There was a touch of mournfulness in his tone that made Ron snicker softly.

"Yeah, but not as often as I'd like." He tried to change the subject slightly. "You've got a new Chaser, I see."

Wood nodded. "Lucy Pugh - she plays for the Harpies."

"I won't get too close to her then!" Harry joked, referring to the all-female Harpies' habit of aggressively fending off would-be rivals and suitors with their broomsticks.

But Wood wouldn't be deflected. "I heard the Wigtown Wanderers offered you another trial last year."

"Yes but it's just not possible, Oliver. Nothing much has changed since I was sixteen, except that I'm five years older. I'd still be a moving target for a Certain Person and it's unfair to the other members of the team to put them at risk like that."

This was a reference to a very flattering offer to sign him up made by the Wanderers during his sixth year at Hogwarts. It would have made him the youngest professional Quidditch player in five hundred years, and at the time Harry had been quite keen to take them up on it, but with Voldemort on the loose it simply hadn't been possible. There was no way to protect Harry from attack when he was in the air; and no way to protect those around him. He had been bitterly disappointed, both then and when the Chudley Cannons echoed the offer the following year.

In a small, carefully hidden corner of his heart, Harry knew he would still prefer to be a professional Quidditch player, but it was one dream that he never dwelled upon. There was no point, and besides, being an Auror wasn't such a bad second best. At least he still got to play in the Inter-Agency League. And this time he would get to play opposite Charlie, who had also been a renowned school champion at Hogwarts.

Harry suspected that Wood would nevertheless have continued arguing the point, for he was single-minded to the point of mania, but fortunately Sirius and Arthur Weasley caused a diversion by appearing with several bottles of champagne.

"You are not going to nurse a butterbeer all evening," Sirius told his godson firmly as he wrestled with the cork on his bottle.

"I wouldn't dream of it," said Harry, smiling. And then without even thinking about it he neatly caught the cork as it exploded out of the bottle.

It was hard to tell who groaned the louder, Charlie or Oliver Wood, but there was no doubt whose pain was more acute at this display of excellent Seeker reflexes.

       

Cautiously sipping from his glass, Harry was just contemplating sampling some of the extensive array of nibbles Ron was already steadily grazing in that annoying way that naturally thin people had when he heard a rather self-conscious cough at his shoulder. He turned, surprised, to discover Percy standing just behind him.

"Oh, hi Percy ...." Harry's friendly smile faded. The third Weasley son was looking rather grim.

"Can I have a word, Harry?"

"Yes, of course "

"In private."

Confused, but not arguing, Harry followed Percy across the garden to a relatively quiet spot on the far side, under a tree. When he turned to look at Harry, Percy looked positively agitated.

Surprised, Harry said, "Is this about Mundungus Fletcher? Because Ron and I "

"No, it's not," Percy cut him off sharply. He seemed to be struggling to find words to express himself. "Fred and George have been saying ... well, I know it's not true, of course, but ... but I thought you ought to be told, so that you can set the record straight, Harry. Of course, you can be sure I gave them a good telling off, because some things are just beyond a joke, but Fred and George ... well, you know what they're like, and they seem to have no sense of family pride, but to say things like ... like that about you of all people ...."

"Things like what?" Harry asked, bewildered, wondering what on earth the twins had been up to now.

"They're saying ...." Percy actually had to pause and take a deep breath to steady himself. He looked genuinely distressed. "I know it's not true, Harry, and I wouldn't have said anything, especially tonight, but I thought I might not have another chance to talk to you for a while, and I can't let them carry on spreading rumours like that around."

"Percy, just spit it out. What are Fred and George saying about me?"

"They're saying that ... that you and Ron are ... improperly involved."

Harry stared at him, not quite sure he understood was the older man was saying. Percy had, after all, had to squeeze the words out around lips that appeared to be too stiff to open properly.

"Ron and I are what?"

"Involved in an improper relationship," Percy clarified, with an expression of acute pain at having to be so blunt. He mistook Harry's startled expression, adding, "Yes, I know, I'm sorry. I wouldn't have said anything to you, but if people start to talk .... And there's no point in even trying to talk to Ron about it, because you know what he's like he'd just cause a big fuss ...."

"Percy ...." Harry stared at him helplessly, not knowing how to deal with this and inwardly cursing the twins. For all their mischief-making they weren't completely without judgement, and they must surely have realised that if they of all people told Percy this piece of family news, he would take it entirely the wrong way. He experienced a moment of pure cowardice, wanting simply to make some noncommittal response and escape, but that wasn't the way to handle this. Left to his own devices, Percy would only make matters worse by trying to deal with the "rumours" he believed to be circulating.

"Um, Percy ... it's ... it's not a rumour or a lie. It's true. Ron and I are in a relationship together."

Silence. Harry looked at Percy in trepidation, knowing that he shouldn't expect any ringing endorsements from this brother, and saw the dawning realisation and horror in the other man's eyes. Far worse than that, though, was the sudden step back he took, as though Harry was contagious.

"This is a joke, isn't it?" he managed after moment, and produced a rather sickly grin. "I know you've always enjoyed a laugh with my brothers but "

"No joke, Percy." Harry's stomach was now tied up into worse knots than when he'd had his row with Ron a week or so ago. "We've ... um ... been together for three years now."

The silence that stretched out between them fast turned from strained to ugly. Percy's look of horror was now coupled with disgust and anger, and Harry hadn't a clue what to say to him. He wished desperately that Ron or Hermione were there with him; neither of them were ever at a loss for words. Then he remembered Ron's temper and mentally scratched him off the list. It was better that he shouldn't hear about this if possible.

Finally, unable to stand the atmosphere any longer, Harry said "Look, I know this is a shock for you "

"A shock!" Percy all but spat the word out. "I can't believe that the pair of you could be so so inconsiderate of the family .... If Mum and Dad find out "

"They already know," Harry told him curtly. "We told them ages ago, and they don't have a problem with it."

Percy's eyes practically popped out, and Harry would have laughed at his ludicrous expression if he hadn't wanted so badly to throw up.

"My God," Percy breathed finally. "I can't believe .... What is everyone thinking, for crying out loud? Don't you have any sense of decency? Do you know what this will do to us as a family if it comes out? And ... and ... it's disgusting ...."

"Percy," another voice suddenly said coolly, from behind Harry. "Get lost. Now."

"But "

"Now Percy. And if you say another word about this to anyone, I'll hex you from here to the middle of next week."

Percy's eyes glittered angrily as he pulled his robes primly around himself. "Believe me, I won't be saying anything about this," he snapped, sounding much more like his usual prissy self. He cast a searing look at Harry and stalked away.

There was a pause during which Harry did battle with his nerves and stomach. He had been putting up with little digs about his sexuality from Malfoy for weeks, but that had been less than nothing compared to the shattering confrontation he had just had with Ron's brother.

"Are you okay, Hal?"

Bill. It had to be; he was the only one who ever shortened his name. Harry didn't remember exactly when that had happened; Bill had just suddenly stopped calling him Harry one day and called him Hal instead. He turned to face the eldest Weasley son, ill-prepared to deal with another attack but unable to do anything else.

Instead, the expression that met him was full of calm sympathy. Trembling slightly with relief and reaction, Harry remembered the champagne flute in his hand and downed the contents in one gulp. A stupid thing to do; he was unused to the alcohol and it gave him an almost frightening rush to the head.

"Shit ...."

"Careful." Bill reached out a hand to steady him. "Are you okay?"

"No," Harry muttered, and leaned against the tree. All his pleasure in the unexpected treat of the party was gone.

"Don't let Percy get to you."

"I should probably be grateful to him. He's just reminded me of what most people's reactions will be." Harry frowned suddenly and looked at Bill, a little nervously. "Did you already know?"

Bill smiled slightly. "Yeah. Dad told Charlie and me when we arrived this afternoon. He was supposed to be telling Percy as well, but maybe he didn't get a chance. He'll kill Fred and George for doing that."

"But aren't you ... I mean, do you mind?"

"No, why should I? It's your life, and Ron's." He seemed so calm and accepting. "It's not even that big a surprise. I noticed this last year " He grabbed Harry's left wrist and tapped the thin gold band on it with one finger. An identical bracelet never left Ron's wrist. Bill smiled at Harry's expression. "It was the misdirection spell on it that caught my attention. I notice things like that, it's my job."

"And we thought we were being clever!"

"Well, it was a good idea." Bill studied his face for a moment. "Look, Hal I mean it, don't worry about Percy. You must have already realised that he wouldn't be very supportive, but no one else in the family's going to care. Your love-life's your own business, after all."

"Not according to the Daily Prophet," Harry said dryly.

Bill made a few uncomplimentary remarks about the Daily Prophet, the people who worked there, and the press in general. "I saw that article by Padma Patil," he commented, disgusted. "What a load of crap they churn out! The Boy Who Lived! It doesn't seem to have dawned on any of them that you're not a boy anymore." He shook his head and suddenly held up his own glass of champagne in salute. "Happy birthday! Today, at least, no one can deny you're a man."

He was just finishing his drink, when Ron stormed up. His blue eyes were flashing with fury.

"What did Percy say to you?" he demanded of Harry.

"Ron ...." Harry tried to calm him down, but he wasn't having it.

"No, dammit, Harry! What did he say? And don't try to tell me he didn't, because that small-minded, sanctimonious little swine is spouting off to Dad about us right now!"

"Then let Dad deal with him," Bill intervened firmly. "He'll sort him out "

"That's not the point, Bill! Who the hell does Percy think he is, giving Harry a hard time at his own birthday party? And if you could hear him over there, whinging about how disgusting and immoral we are ha! That's a joke! If he's so concerned about what people think, why hasn't he married Penelope after all this time? He's been shagging her long enough! And anyway, it doesn't take half an eye to see that what he really cares about is his precious Ministry career, like that's going to go anywhere anyway, with the way Fudge and the others feel about Dad and Dumbledore "

"Ron!" Harry and Bill both said together, trying to shut him up before his raised voice attracted any unwanted attention.

He stopped, but his chest was heaving with agitation. Anger was practically steaming off him in wisps, but Harry saw the hurt and confusion in his face as well, and felt his gut twist with resentment against Percy. They had known all along that, of all the family, he would probably take the news the worst, but Harry didn't think it was much to ask for him to let his disapproval manifest itself in silence. Not that Percy had ever been one to keep his mouth shut about anything he held an opinion on; it was only the threat of his mother's retribution that kept him from expressing his disapproval of his father sometimes. Saying what he really thought of Ron and Harry was small beer by comparison.

"Leave it," Bill warned him sharply. "You are not going to start a fight with Percy tonight, Ron, do you hear me? Just stay away from him, and let Mum and Dad sort it out. I think Hal's probably had enough of Percy tonight, without you starting a brawl about it."

This neatly diverted Ron's attention, and he looked at Harry apologetically. Harry guessed that had Bill not been there he would probably have touched him; apparently Bill thought so too, because he rolled his eyes and pushed away from the tree.

"I'm going to get another drink. Don't forget to take him to meet Gran, Ron! She's been dying to see you both since she arrived. See you later, Hal." And he wandered off.

Harry watched him go, then turned back to Ron. To his relief he saw that the anger had faded a little, but instead it had been replaced by distress.

"Bloody Percy," the red-head said bitterly. "Of all the places and times he could have picked for his moralising, and it had to be here and now ...."

"I think he was in shock," Harry said, rather lamely.

"He'll be in St. Mungo's when I've finished with him! Who does he think he is?"

"Let it go, Ron. He can't help being the way he is."

They looked at each other, and suddenly Ron snickered. "Yeah, I'll remember that line the next time he starts. 'Percy, I can't help being gay any more than you can help being a total prat'."

Harry laughed softly. "Just don't say it tonight. Bill was right I've had enough of Percy for one evening."

"Percy's a lot to take even if you only see him once a year," Ron grumbled. "No wonder Penelope won't marry him. Can you imagine being stuck with that, week in, week out?"

Harry didn't want to venture an opinion on the fair Penelope's motives. He suspected that she saw a side of Percy most of his family didn't, but he didn't feel generous enough towards Percy at the moment to try and convince Ron of that. So instead he said, "Are you going to introduce me to your gran?"

At this Ron grinned. "Why bother?" he asked, his eyes sparkling wickedly. He waggled his fingers in the air, and dropped his voice to spooky tone. "She's already met you on another plane."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Re-introduce us then, for those of us that don't remember the encounter!"

       

They set off back across the garden, detouring to the tables to grab some food and another drink. Then Ron led Harry over to a spot by the pond where an elderly witch in elaborately embroidered robes was sitting at a small table covered with the kind of bits and pieces Professor Trelawney had always been fond of cluttering her classroom up with.

Harry had heard enough anecdotally about Ron's grandmother to know that her table, chair and the tools of her trade went everywhere with her. Ron had told him years before that his earliest memories of Granny Weasley were of her sitting in their kitchen, endlessly laying out her Tarot cards as she talked to the various members of the family around her. He also remembered being the only one of the children allowed to sit on her lap and play with her rune-sticks and casting stones. This seemed to Harry to be a sign that she had known from early on that Ron would be gifted with the Sight; although if that was the case, she had kept the information very close to her chest. The Weasleys as a family had been quite shocked when he started showing signs of the gift.

She looked up when they approached, a tiny birdlike figure with fierce blue eyes, and a big smile broke over her face. "Ronald! About time too!"

"Hi Gran." He stooped to kiss her. "Sorry I haven't been over already, but Percy was stirring things up ...."

She snorted. "Don't say any more! He's been moralising to me ever since he arrived. That boy has a broomstick stuck so far up his rear end, you can see the tail twigs when he opens his mouth. He didn't get that trait from my side of the family ...."

Ron grinned at Harry's startled expression. "Gran, this is Harry Potter. Harry, this is my gran, Iris Weasley. Don't worry, she's always this blunt."

"And you're always this cheeky," she scolded affectionately, reaching out and tweaking his nose. She turned back to Harry, giving him an appraising look. "Well give me your hand, young man!"

Caught on the hop, Harry flushed and held out his right hand. She seized it in a strong grip and gave him a look of mild surprise over the top of her half-moon spectacles.

"Oh my that's a fine, strong aura you have there!"

Ron looked triumphant. "I keep telling him that, but he thinks I'm making it up! He jinxes every spread I do for other people if he's in the room."

"Hm." She gave Harry another measuring look. "Well, don't stand around, the pair of you sit, sit!"

Harry and Ron found a couple of chairs and pulled them up on either side of the old lady's table. No sooner had Harry sat down than she scooped all her Tarot cards together and handed the pack to him.

"Shuffle those!" she told him, in a tone that brooked no opposition. She pushed a large, irregular chunk of clear crystal towards Ron. "And you make yourself useful by looking into that and seeing if young Charlie's going to have any more little ones."

"I already know that, Gran," he told her. "I cast Merry's horoscope when they got married. They're going to have four."

"Then you can tell me if Bill's going to have any, can't you? Since I'm not going to get any great-grandchildren out of you, I want to know what I can expect from the others."

Harry saw Ron give his grandmother a quick, startled look, which she returned with one of sly amusement. "I'm not stupid, Ronald," she chuckled, her eyes flicking to Harry. They were twinkling with mischief. "I knew the minute I touched his hand. Not that I didn't expect something of the sort it's always the same with the male Seers."

"Eh?"

"It's a woman's gift, boy, and always has been."

"Gran!" Ron rolled his eyes in an oh please! way. "You sound just like Professor Trelawney when you say things like that ...."

Harry began to wonder if anyone at the party was still unaware of him and Ron, and whether Percy had been the only person who didn't know. Still, she didn't seem to be the slightest bit upset about it.

"I don't know about the great-grandchildren," he offered, beginning to grin. "He eats like he's pregnant ...."

"Shut up, Harry!"

The old lady chuckled. "Well, shuffle those," she reminded Harry. "Let's see what's in store for the pair of you."

"Why bother?" Ron argued. "All Harry's spreads are the same death, mayhem, You-Know-Who "

"We'll see," she interrupted him, and gave him a quelling look. "You may have a strong gift, Ronald, but you've a long way to go before you have my experience. Now tell me what you see in that crystal for Bill."

"I need something of his to hold ...."

His grandmother sniffed, but pulled a small lacquered box towards her and opened it. Inside, Harry could see a collection of locks of hair in varying colours, each one tied neatly with a small piece of ribbon. She sorted through them carefully, and eventually took out one particular lock of dark red hair and gave it to Ron. "Try that."

"How did you get Bill to give you some of his hair?"

"Some of us have an old lady's charm."

It was Ron's turn to sniff, but he slipped the loop of hair over the middle finger of his left hand and picked up the crystal, cupping it in his hands and tilting it so the light from the lamp on the corner of the table didn't interfere with it.

His grandmother watched him for a moment, then she turned back to Harry and plucked the pack of cards from his fingers.

"Let's see what we have here, shall we?"

She began laying the cards out in rows of seven, three in total, one under another. Unlike Ron, she laid them face up as they came from the pack, studying the images as she went along. "There you are," she commented to Harry at one point, tapping one card. "The Emperor. Now, that's very interesting ...."

"That's not my usual card," Harry said, surprised. "I usually appear as the Knight of Swords."

"In Ronald's spreads, perhaps. But my perspective will be different from his. Besides, I'm not looking at your worldly tasks or your immediate challenges."

"Oh ...."

"Where am I?" Ron asked unexpectedly. Clearly he wasn't as engrossed in the crystal as he seemed.

"What have you seen for young Bill?" his grandmother asked him pointedly.

"Not much. He's going to get married, but I can't get anything about kids."

"Who's he marrying?" Harry asked interestedly. Bill had been carrying on an on/off affair with Fleur Delacour for several years now.

"Nobody I recognised," Ron said irritably. "She was Indian, though she was wearing a sari."

His grandmother looked surprised, but Harry was less so. "Makes sense he's been working in India for a year now ...."

"So where's my card?" Ron asked his grandmother again, with barely disguised eagerness. Since he never saw himself in his own spreads, he was always interested in how other Seers saw him.

Her eyes twinkled, and she pointed to a card. "The Magician also very interesting."

"The Magician and the Emperor?" Ron tilted his head, studying the cards for a moment. "That's an unusual combination."

"Knowledge and power?" Harry ventured, trying to remember the meanings from his Divination lessons.

"Free-will and creativity versus authority and stability," the old lady said in a dry tone. "It's a good combination. This is a strong spread."

"What are you looking for?" Ron wanted to know.

"The long-term prospects for the pair of you. How far ahead have you looked for Harry before?"

"I don't usually bother trying for more than six months ahead, because I get really mixed results. Besides, since I can't see myself clearly there's no point in trying a partnership spread."

"This is a lifespan spread."

Harry saw Ron's brows go up. "That explains the mix of Major Arcana. Does that mean that he's showing up as the Emperor because that's his long-term position in his own spread? No one starts out with a powerful card like that, and his immediate spreads always show him as the Knight of Swords."

"The knight has to win his spurs," his grandmother said cryptically.

"Does that mean I have to grow into the Magician as well?" Ron persisted.

"Very possibly ."

"So who am I now?"

She offered him the remainder of the deck, and Harry was amused to see the familiar quirky Weasley smile on her lips. Ron gave his grandmother narrow look, but pulled a card from the pack. When he flipped it over, Harry couldn't suppress a snort of laughter.

The Fool.

"Enthusiasm, initiative, passion and folly," the old lady said blandly. "Does that sound like you?"

When he didn't answer but merely glowered, she turned back to the spread of cards on the table, still smiling. Her fingers traced the images thoughtfully before she said, "There's a lot happening here. Strife, followed by peace ... the attainment of immediate goals ... changes in lifestyle and direction ... settlement and contentment ... ambitions realised ... new challenges ... power and direction ...."

She suddenly looked up and gave Harry a very searching look. "What would you say your greatest ambition is, son?"

"Aside from seeing Voldemort defeated?" he asked lightly. "Playing Seeker on the England team, probably."

She seemed to find that amusing. "Aside from that as well?"

Harry gave her a bemused look. "I don't know."

"Where do you see yourself being in ten years' time? Or, better, twenty years?"

His brow furrowed. "I don't really know. I've never thought about it."

"Then I'd say you're in for some surprises both of you." Her fingers were tapping lightly on the card symbolising the World, which lay at the end of the spread. It was flanked by the Ace of Cups and Nine of Staves.

All cards of the ultimate attainment of power and success.

       

The stack of parcels and cards waiting to be opened was embarrassingly large. Harry had to enlist Hermione's assistance in organising them and helping to keep tags with gifts, or he would have had no hope of sending appropriate thank-you notes to the givers later.

"I feel awful about this," he muttered to her at one point. "Some of these are from people I don't even know."

She looked sympathetic, but said, "It's reflected glory, Harry. It's the same as people sending presents to the Queen and Royal Family. It's not just that they wish you well - but also that it makes them feel a bit special for having done it, as though they've briefly been part of your life."

"But I'm not special, Hermione! What have I done to deserve this except accidentally survive a curse when I was a baby?" He looked slighted desperate.

"Oh, Harry ." She tucked her hand through his arm and squeezed it affectionately. "What will it take for you to realise that we all think you're special?"

"But - "

"No buts!"

Harry was unconvinced but let it go, resigning himself to writing a pile of messages the next day to people he had never met and knew nothing about.

The party really seemed to be getting into its stride now, with loud music, dancing and fantastic displays of fireworks organised by Fred and George. Eventually Harry chased Hermione away to dance with Krum and continued opening the stack of cards on his own. Every so often an owl would arrive with yet another one, many of which turned out to be from friends of his parents who, although they had never met Harry, wanted to wish him well.

"It almost makes you feel sorry for the Daily Prophet," a familiar voice said in his ear unexpectedly.

Harry whipped around. "Malfoy!"

The other youth gave him a slight smile. "I think you and I were the only people who didn't know about this shindig," he commented, saluting Harry with a glass of wine.

Harry gaped for a moment, then suddenly laughed. "You know, I even saw Moody here a minute ago, but it never occurred to me to wonder where you were!"

"Yes - I was firmly escorted here and told not to try any funny business," Malfoy commented wryly. "I've spent most of the evening trying to avoid Weasley's mother - apparently she wants to 'give me a good talking to'."

Harry chuckled. "You can hide behind my pile of presents if you want, but only if you're prepared to help me open them."

"A vicarious thrill, but I'll take what I can get." Malfoy obligingly began to slit envelopes for him.

"What were you saying about the Daily Prophet?" Harry asked.

"That you should feel sorry for them. They've probably been going mad trying to find out whether you're having a party and if they can wrangle an invitation . I notice the Patil twins aren't here."

Harry shuddered. "No, and Ron says he refused to invite Lavender Brown too, just in case. She's big friends with Parvati."

"Haven't they set up shop together as fortune-tellers?" Malfoy asked curiously.

"Yes, but never say anything about that in Ron's hearing! He says they're a pair of frauds. They only scraped through their Divination NEWTs on theory - they both failed the practical entirely."

"I'm not surprised, with that crackpot Trelawney teaching them."

Harry shrugged. "To be fair, she's good on the theory of Divination. Even Ron has to admit that he learned most of his technique from her. She just doesn't have much of the gift herself. She tried to fail Ron, you know - she hated him for developing the Sight." He glanced at Malfoy. "How did you know about Lavender and Parvati's business?"

He shrugged. "They advertise in Witch Weekly sometimes."

"You read Witch Weekly?" Harry tried not to laugh at the idea.

"I'll read anything, Potter. Knowledge is power."

Harry was about to respond to this when another owl swooped in and dropped a letter into his hands. This one was different from the others; it wasn't a card, but simply a sheet of stiff, cream-coloured parchment, folded in three and sealed with a blob of dark green wax. In thick, flowing black script it bore Harry's name on the front, but nothing else.

Harry tore it open without thinking, unfolded it and felt ice-water flood through his veins. There were just three words hand-written across the centre of the page in the same strong, flowing hand as the direction on the front.

Happy Birthday, Harry.

There was no signature. It didn't need one.

Harry stared at it numbly for a moment, then turned the paper over and folded it up. Where the broken seal fitted back together he now saw that the wax had been stamped with the Dark Mark.

"Are you all right, Potter?"

He looked up to see Malfoy giving him a strange look.

"I'm fine," he replied, but his voice sounded odd even to him. Before Malfoy could ask, Harry pulled out his wand and tossed the folded parchment into the air.

"Incendio!"

The piece of paper burst into flames and crumbled into ashes before it reached the ground.

"What did you do that for?"

Harry glanced at the other youth and saw from his face that he had suspicions of what the paper had been.

"Someone's idea of a joke," he said curtly, and went back to opening the other envelopes.

Malfoy didn't question him further.

       

It should have put a pall over his entire evening, but Harry slowly realised that what he really felt wasn't panic, anger or fear ... it was relief. He hadn't quite believed it when Ron said Voldemort had nothing bad planned for this weekend, and at the back of his mind he knew he had been waiting all evening for something terrible to happen.

Now something had happened, and it was something really quite innocuous. For a while he brooded on why Voldemort should have chosen to do something so small and seemingly insignificant. People like Sirius and Moody had been saying for months that they were expecting him to make another attempt on Harry's life on his twenty-first birthday, if only for the sheer dramatic impact of it.

But it was dawning on Harry that Voldemort would not do it unless he had a reasonable chance of success. To try to kill his nemesis on such an important occasion, and fail, would be worse than not trying at all. Harry was surrounded not only by his loved ones, but also a staggering array of Aurors, Unspeakables, Obliviators and other wizards and witches of varying degrees of power, most of whom would be braced for an attack all evening despite their seeming calm.

Voldemort wasn't a fool, and his desire to kill Harry was very specific. He could have poisoned the sheet of paper or done any number of other things to it to harm his enemy. He hadn't.

No, Voldemort wanted to kill Harry himself, and he wanted to do it in person, in front of his supporters and probably in front of certain of his enemies. He wanted to look Harry in the eyes when he did it, and he wanted to use the Avada Kedavra curse. He wanted to finish the job he had started twenty years ago.

Knowing that, Harry felt quite calm. Really, it wasn't anything he hadn't known since his confrontation with the Dark wizard after the Tri-Wizard Cup Final.

And suddenly he didn't want to hang around on the edges of the party while everyone else was having a wonderful time.

"Screw this," he said to Malfoy, and dumped the stack of envelopes back on the table. "Come on, let's get another drink."

Surprised but quite willing, Malfoy followed him through the throng to where Sirius and Lupin were presiding over a startling array of bottles, casks, demi-johns and other oddly-shaped receptacles. There was a gaggle of rather good-looking witches hanging around the pair of them, and from the sounds of scandalised laughter Sirius was telling some really reprehensible jokes. Hagrid was sitting at one end of the table, getting very red-faced and jovial over a bucket-sized tankard and at the other end Dumbledore was entertaining a large group of older and more dignified wizards with anecdotes from his career as a headmaster. Meanwhile, in front of the table was a red-headed gaggle; the Weasley boys, minus Percy but plus a tall, older cousin, apparently mixing cocktails.

As Harry approached, Ron held up his glass and added a couple of drops of an acid-green liqueur from a tiny bottle. The contents of the glass foamed up and emitted a stream of brightly coloured sparks.

"Close," was Bill's critical assessment. "What does it taste like?"

"Are you going to drink that or smoke it through a hookah?" Harry asked before Ron could answer.

"Do you want the clean answer to that?" Then Ron caught sight of Malfoy and got a pained expression. "Bloody hell, you again!" he said. "Honestly, you're like a case of the clap no sooner do we get rid of you than you're back again."

"I bow to your superior experience in the matter," Malfoy retorted, and he wandered off.

"Have I just been insulted?" Ron demanded of Harry, who smiled.

"No comment. You're not going to drink that, are you?"

Ron rolled his eyes. "No, I'm going to rub it on."

"Ron, you know what happens when you get drunk ...."

"Harry ...." Ron picked up a second glass, already filled with a magenta-coloured concoction that steamed incongruously around its little umbrella and olive, and pushed it into Harry's hand, "I'm banking on it."

He grinned at Harry, and took a swig from his glass that made his eyes water and steam come pouring out of his ears and nostrils. His brothers and cousin burst into laughter at his stunned expression.

"Okay," he wheezed, when he got his breath back, "maybe that was too much Chartreuse ...."

       

More food and drink was consumed; the cake was cut and distributed; and people began to get very tipsy and excitable. It was just after eleven-thirty when Harry avoided a conga line led by Dumbledore, and quietly slipped out of the garden gate when no one was looking. He made the five minute walk up to the paddock behind the Burrow, and when he got there he flopped out in the cool grass and lay staring up at the stars.

He was just a little bit drunk, enough that he felt that curious sense of anticipation that comes from having had several strong drinks when you're not used to it.

He looked at his watch. Twenty minutes to go.

Twenty minutes until he was genuinely twenty-one years old.

He looked up at the constellations and tried to make himself identify them, but they wouldn't stay still, and the noise of the party kept interrupting. It didn't matter. He felt too buzzed to care about astronomy anyway.

He glanced at his watch again. Fifteen minutes.

Then he heard footsteps, and smiled.

"I thought I might find you up here," Ron said. He dropped something on the ground next to Harry with a dull thud, and sat down. "You know, this party wasn't exactly what I had in mind for your birthday," he sighed.

Harry gave him a cockeyed look. "Why? It's been great."

Ron gave him a candid look. "Well actually, I was thinking more along the lines of a couple of nights of unbridled lust in an exotic location, but Mum had her heart set on the big party, so ...."

Harry grinned at him. "It's a great idea. Put "unbridled lust in exotic location" on the top of our List Of Things To Do When The World Isn't Going To Hell". He glanced at the thing Ron had brought with him and gave it a prod. It felt soft and yielding. "So what's that?"

"Have a look."

Harry pulled his wand out of his sleeve and said "lumos". The small light flared in the darkness and illuminated a thick bundle of blankets. He raised a brow at his friend.

"I had a feeling you might not appreciate having to share a room with Fred, George and Cousin Chris tonight," Ron said casually. "It's a nice night no reason why we shouldn't stay out here."

Harry began to grin again. "There's nothing like being surrounded by nature."

"Oh yeah I like a bit of nature!" Ron took a large bottle from under his arm and held out a couple of glasses. "Hold these a minute ...."

"What's this?"

"Courtesy of Sirius, who reckons he rescued a couple of these from the wreckage your eighteenth birthday party and decided to hang onto them until the big two-one." Ron studied the label. "Caligula's Finest Original Ice Champagne very fancy! Is Sirius a wine buff?"

"He'd like us to think so," Harry said, amused, watching Ron wrestle the cork out of the bottle. It ejected itself with a musical pop and the champagne bubbled up vigorously. "Whoa! Don't spill any ...."

Ron poured out two glasses and propped the bottle carefully against the bundle of blankets. "What's the time, Harry?"

He checked his watch again. "Eleven fifty-five."

"Good. I've got just enough time to give you this, then ...." Ron knelt up slightly so that he could dig in the pocket of his trousers and fish out a small wooden box the size of his palm.

Harry felt a rush of pleasure and excitement. "Is that my present?"

"Yeah .... Hang onto the champagne a sec." Ron opened the box and pulled out a slender gold chain with a pendant hanging from it shaped like a wishbone. He scooted around behind Harry and fiddled with the clasp, trying to get it undone. "Why do they make these things so tiny ...? No there it is " He swung the pendant around Harry's neck and managed to fasten the clasp again. "There ...." He planted a kiss on the back of Harry's neck for good measure, making him smile.

Harry brushed his fingers over the little gold pendant wonderingly and felt a sudden rush of tingling warmth through his fingertips, not unlike the feeling his wand had given him the first time Ollivander put it into his hand.

"Is it charmed?"

"Yes." Ron returned to his place in front of Harry and sat down crossed-legged, taking one of the glasses of champagne.

Harry blinked at him when he said no more. "What does it do?"

But Ron only smiled. He leaned forward and grabbed Harry's wrist, squinting at his watch in the dim light. "Nearly there one minute to go. Do you want to do a countdown?"

"Nah."

They leaned together, watching the second hand ticking down to midnight.

- Ten

- Nine

- Eight

"Going to make a wish?"

"Maybe."

- Five

- Four

- Three

- Two

- One ....

"Happy birthday, Harry."

Ron solemnly touched his glass to Harry's and took a sip. Seeing his startled expression when he swallowed, Harry also took a gulp, and gasped.

"Whoa, Sirius!" It was like liquid ice flowing down his throat, but exploded into fire in his belly. The alcohol hit him almost immediately, making his head seem at once clearer and more disconnected.

"Sirius does know his wine," Ron managed, giving the drink an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

"I'll say ...."

Harry took another, more cautious sip and savoured the effect. Then he leaned back in the grass again, balancing his glass carefully on his stomach. Ron sprawled out next to him, and they grinned at each other a bit idiotically.

"So, are you drunk, Harry? Because you know what happens when we get drunk."

Harry chuckled. "I'm banking on it!"

"Good." And Ron leaned in to kiss him.

       

Some time later, Harry snuggled up to Ron contentedly and ruminated that only one thing was lacking to make it the perfect ending to a perfect birthday, and that was a comfy feather bed. But blankets and a balmy summer night were a good second best, and he certainly wasn't complaining ....

He drifted off to sleep with a smile on his lips.

End Part 14/30

 

 

Author's Note: I feel I ought to apologise for an unexpected attack of the Scary Fanfic Leather Trousers in this. They do pop up in the oddest places, and the only explanation I can offer is that I used to be an X-Files fanfic writer. It's all David Duchovny's fault for being photographed in a pair ....

Ice Lupus It's a nicely reasoned argument, but I still have no comment to make on the subject of pairings or threesomes!

Sally The time I update tends to vary a little bit depending on how busy I am, but it's usually between 9.00 pm and midnight. That said, I can't guarantee it. Life's a bit frenetic at times around my house.

Quoth the Raven Oh, I'm glad you liked that scene! I really enjoyed writing it, because I do love looking at Harry's relationship with Sirius and Lupin. I hoped my reading of Ron's behaviour seemed right. He's not a bad or manipulative person, but even the best of us can subconsciously get into the habit of accepting other people's behaviour patterns when they happen to suit us.

PotterBrother So, were your suspicions correct? *grin* Seriously, I couldn't have gone through this story without a party, could I!

DarkPhoenix484 I have nothing against WIPs, they just don't work for me as a writer. Thanks for your good wishes! I hope the story lives up to your hopes.

Moon-child Sorry about that. It was saying "chapter does not exist" to me the next morning, and if it had continued I would have tried re-posting the following night. I think sometimes Fanfiction.net gets overloaded.

Beth Ann I'm humming and pretending not to hear about the interview, so you can stop sending that evil whammy my way! But I'm doing my best with Neville/Seamus. They're arguing at the moment *sigh*

SparkySparkles I fear you, but am still not commenting on Harry, Ron and Draco! Glad you're still enjoying it though.

Nayako 30 chapters plus an epilogue did I mention the epilogue before? Well, there is one. And yes, they're not dead ... yet *laughs evilly*

Jen The wizard circle is quite an important point in its own way. Malfoy is still Malfoy though and always will be *smile*

LadyRose Yes, I think Draco probably will enjoy his opportunities in future *grin* As for a threesome well, there's threesomes and there's threesomes *looks enigmatic*


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