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 Nineteen - Questions, Answers

By Mad Martha

       

"YOU STUPID BASTARD, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING, DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW FRIGHTENED I WAS, YOU COULD HAVE GOT YOURSELF KILLED "

It was at times like this that Harry was forcibly reminded that Ron got half his genes from Molly Weasley presumably the ones involved in voice and self expression, since the tone of this maximum decibel rant was remarkably like that of some of the Howlers Ron had received from his mother when they were at school.

Unfortunately, Ron was not several hundred miles away and expressing himself via an exploding red envelope. He was standing right next to Harry and unabashedly yelling at him in front of five other people, one of whom was Professor Dumbledore. The headmaster was placidly sitting behind the desk in his office, studying one of his peculiar little whirling machines in front of him and twiddling his thumbs, waiting for Ron to get it all off his chest.

Ron had a lot to get off his chest, and he wasn't finished yet.

" YOU COULDN'T JUST ESCAPE LIKE ANYONE ELSE, OH NO, YOU HAD TO CLIMB ON THE ROOF OF THE TRAIN AND ACT LIKE A BLOODY HERO "

It seemed to go on for a very long time. When he finally ran out of breath, Harry winced and said rather weakly, "Don't go on at me."

For a moment he thought Ron might spontaneously combust, but Hagrid suddenly put one huge hand on the angry redhead's shoulder and gave him a gentle shake, nearly knocking him over.

"Give over, now, Ron," he said gruffly, "yeh said yer piece."

"Yes, indeed," Dumbledore said gently. "Very impressive. I'm sure Harry is quite chastened and won't ah climb on the roof of any express trains again."

"I wouldn't bet on it," Ron said sourly, casting a searing look at his friend.

"Hear hear," Sirius said, equally dry, and giving his godson an eloquent glance.

Harry wished that he had the energy to feel a proper level of indignation. Instead, he was feeling wrung-out and really wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep.

Escaping from the train, he had Apparated to Hogsmeade and then run to the nearest point in the Hogwarts grounds, which happened to be Hagrid's hut (which was why the gamekeeper was here now). Hagrid had alerted Dumbledore and taken Harry up to the castle where, a couple of hours later, Moody and Sirius had appeared bringing with them Ron and Malfoy.

Harry assumed the pair of them had Apparated to Diagon Alley; in fact, Ron had refused to let Malfoy have his wand and when the third carriage finally slowed to a halt in the middle of nowhere, he had no choice but to summon the Knight Bus to rescue them. Moody and Sirius had caught up with the pair of them in Hogsmeade.

"I think the important detail here is that all three of you are safe," Dumbledore pointed out reprovingly. "The team sent out to deal with the Hogwarts Express have reported back that they were able to stop it before it crashed, which is an excellent result. It's unfortunate that two of the carriages were destroyed, but the third has been recovered, and frankly I think that under the circumstances you once again all escaped lightly. Things could have been much, much worse."

"What about Casper Prewett and the driver?" Harry asked, before anyone else could say anything.

There was a pause, and both Moody and Sirius looked grim.

"We've found them," Moody said abruptly.

Harry looked at his face and realised, with a sinking feeling, that he didn't want to ask further. But Ron didn't take the hint.

"So?" he demanded. "What happened? I thought the whole point of Casper being on the train was to prevent something like that happening!"

"Prewett and the driver are dead," Sirius told him curtly. "They were dumped in Knockturn Alley around midday - we don't know exactly when, because we were a little busy at the time."

"Oh God," Harry muttered, guessing what was coming. "What happened?"

"A series of timed explosions around key buildings in Diagon Alley," Moody replied, "notably the Ministry building and Gringotts, although some of the retailers were hit as well. Mostly people known to publicly support Dumbledore. The Leaky Cauldron was hit, and Florian Fortescue's - there were a couple of devices left near Ollivander's, but he found them before they went off. He's too canny to be caught out like that."

"It was Ollivander who raised the alarm," Sirius put in. "It would have been a lot worse if he hadn't."

Very pale, Ron turned to Moody. "What about Fred and George? Was their shop ?"

There was another difficult pause, and Sirius reached out to clasp his shoulder, but Ron wasn't having it and pulled away.

"What happened to them?" he demanded. "Are they okay? What about my Dad and Percy?"

"They're all fine," Moody said, with more kindness than was his wont. "The twins' shop was targeted and there was a bad fire, but they escaped. One of them had some minor burns and they both got a bad dose of the smoke, but they'll be alright."

"What about their business?" Harry asked Sirius quietly, but the older wizard shook his head.

"They weren't the only ones to lose their livelihood," Dumbledore said heavily. "Fortunately no one was killed, which is more important than mere property."

Try telling that to Fred and George, Harry thought bleakly. The twins' business had just started to show serious profits; if they had to start again from scratch, they might have problems getting backing for the venture. And in times like this, getting a loan from Gringotts would be difficult.

"This could be a good thing for you," Malfoy said unexpectedly, and the group jumped slightly at the sound of his voice. He had been keeping notably quiet on the fringe of the conversation. He saw their faces and raised a brow. "Well, at least that fool Fudge can't keep this out of the press any longer. How on earth is he going to explain away mayhem and destruction in the wizarding world's main commercial centre? Especially since Gringotts and the Ministry were attacked?"

"He has the Daily Prophet in his pocket," Ron said disgustedly. "They'll print what he tells them to - even that stupid Skeeter cow."

Harry looked at the others. "Were any of the newspaper offices targeted?"

There was a tiny pause, and he could have sworn his saw a ghost of a smile on Moody's lips.

"The Magical Times and Sorcery Gazette," the old Auror said.

"But not the Prophet?"

"They found one device that didn't go off."

The look Malfoy gave them was knowing. "But of course they did!" he said silkily. "They wouldn't want to be left out of the news, would they? Might look suspicious."

"The Daily Prophet has never been proven to have any incriminating links with Lord Voldemort's cause," Dumbledore said mildly.

"My father was a major shareholder in the Prophet," Malfoy retorted. "The best you can say of their board of directors is that they're ineffectual, trapped between Fudge's hysterical need to keep a lid on Death Eater activity and the Dark Lord's determination to have staff in place there who are sympathetic to his interests. You should look more closely at their offices. The editor has been in two camps for some time now, and at least two of the most recent senior management level appointments are Death Eaters. The Sports Editor, for example."

"Quentin McGann played for the Ballycastle Bats for six years before he retired with an injury!" Ron said, a little indignantly. "No one's ever accused him of having Dark sympathies!"

"Doesn't mean he hasn't got them. He was a guest at Malfoy Manor on a number of occasions, and judging by the tone of the after-dinner conversation, he was quite comfortable with the idea of the current order being overthrown." Malfoy sighed. "Look, the Daily Prophet is the most prominent English wizarding newspaper. The Dark Lord has been placing staff there because in the event that he takes over, he wants the Prophet to be his mouthpiece. No other press agency has the circulation or influence that they do in the wizarding world; no other newspaper is so well placed to spread propaganda."

Moody was looking at Dumbledore. "I've been saying that for years," he commented.

The elderly headmaster gave him a warning look. "And as I keep saying, Alastor, we have to be careful exactly which organisations we accuse of collaborating without hard evidence. Fudge's embargo on publicising Death Eater activity in any way, and his opposition to the Aurors, make it imperative that we act with circumspection. Don't forget that it is only a few years ago that he proposed disbanding the Facility altogether. We weathered that storm, but we may not be so lucky a second time, especially considering the political direction of the Ministry these days. Ms. Houpner-Merdie is unlikely to support our cause."

"There's still the Order," Moody said cryptically, "and I'd rather put my trust in them anyway."

The Order of the Phoenix, Harry thought, Dumbledore's hand-picked and covert version of the Dark Force Defence League.

"The Order has no official status, and hence no legal powers," Dumbledore said, with a note of finality in his voice. "Officially, it does not even exist. I maintain that wherever possible Voldemort's activities should be countered legally and openly - this battle will not be won by responding to his actions with yet more atrocities of our own making, and then attempting to cover them up. Two men died on the Hogwarts Express today. That they did so is not the fault of Harry or Ron or Draco, and I have no doubts that the case for self-defence will be irreproachable, but we must remember that where possible our enemies should be brought to justice alive and in reasonable health. The taking of human life for whatever reason is a terrible thing and should be avoided at all costs. I believe that you have always been of one mind with me in this, Alastor."

"Oh, I'm with you on upholding the due processes of the law," Moody retorted, "but you'll agree that the circumstances are a little different this time around, Albus. Whole sections of our community are sitting ducks, while Fudge sticks his head in the sand and people like the editor of the Prophet pretty much parrot whatever line Voldemort fancies feeding them. What good is due process going to do them if the Minister himself is denying there's a problem? Everyone knows Voldemort's back, but in nearly seven years I've yet to see one official acknowledgement of that fact. Fudge is still calling it a "maybe" situation, and our hands are tied. The law says bearing the Dark Mark is evidence enough to convict any Death Eater, but the truth is that we daren't bring charges against a single man or woman unless they're caught red-handed using one of the Unforgivable Curses. We couldn't bring charges against young Malfoy here, and he's Lucius Malfoy's own son - who we do have proof against, but who someone in our own ranks allowed to escape!"

"Scary, isn't it, having double agents in your midst?" Malfoy said, in his familiar tone of honeyed poison. He smiled at the other men, blithely ignoring the blistering glares sent his way by Hagrid, Ron and Sirius.

"Shut up, Malfoy," replied Harry, very wearily, before anyone else could say anything. He looked at Dumbledore almost pleadingly. "Professor ...."

"One moment, Harry." Dumbledore looked at the others. "Gentlemen, is that all? Our young friends here need to settle into their rooms and get some rest."

"I'll be wanting reports from Potter and Weasley," Moody warned. "In depth reports."

"What, not from me?" Malfoy mocked, and froze as the old Auror's magical eye suddenly swivelled around to pin him against the edge of the headmaster's desk.

Moody leaned in towards him and smiled nastily. "Oh, I'm particularly looking forward to your report on this, laddie." There was a tense pause, then he straightened up again and nodded to Sirius. "Come on, Black. We've work to do. Albus, I'll be seeing you again ...."

"Thank you, Alastor," Dumbledore said soberly, watching the other man stump to the door. "Be careful."

Sirius nodded to the headmaster. "I'll be back tomorrow to pick up their reports, Albus." He looked across at Harry and sighed. "Harry "

"Yeah, I know." Harry pushed his hair back from his face tiredly. "I'll try to stay alive, Sirius."

"You make it sound like such a chore," his godfather said irritably.

"No, endlessly fighting off Death Eaters is a chore," Harry retorted sourly. "Staying alive is just one of those things."

Sirius shook his head, but evidently decided to let the subject drop, for he stalked to the door without another word, clapping Hagrid on the shoulder in passing.

Dumbledore looked at the half-giant when the other men were gone. "Thank you, Hagrid."

"Not a problem, Professor," Hagrid replied. He sounded quite cheerful and unconcerned. "All's well that end's well, so they say."

A trace of a smile crossed the elderly professor's lips at this. "Quite."

"I'll be off, then. Make sure yeh come an' see me while yer 'ere, Harry." Hagrid clapped him on the back, nearly flattening him, and nodded to Ron. "An' yeh, Ron." He ignored Malfoy and headed for the door.

When he was gone, Dumbledore looked at the three of them for a moment and heaved a quiet sigh.

"Well, gentlemen, at least you arrived here safely and in one piece, so to speak. Now, rooms have been prepared for you in Gryffindor Tower I suggest you use this evening to settle in and rest. After you have written your reports for Alastor in the morning, we will start work."

Harry heaved an inner sigh of relief and picked up his bags (which Ron had rescued from their carriage before he and Malfoy abandoned it). Ron followed suit.

But Dumbledore hadn't finished. "Ron, Draco, would you mind waiting in my outer office for a moment? I'd like a word with Harry."

Ron exchanged a quick, puzzled look with Harry but led Malfoy out obediently.

Leaving Harry alone with the headmaster.

       

Harry had so much been in the habit of blurting out whatever was on his mind to Professor Dumbledore when he was at school, that it was perhaps no wonder that he should do exactly the same now. Two things had been bothering him a great deal from the moment Hagrid had ushered him into the room, and one of them came tumbling out of his mouth as soon as the door had closed behind Ron.

"Professor, where's Fawkes?"

Dumbledore, who had been looking rather sombre, suddenly smiled, his eyes twinkling behind his half-moon spectacles.

"He's hiding in my private rooms, Harry. He hasn't quite recovered all his feathers from his last Burning Day yet, and between the two of us, I think he's ashamed of showing himself while he looks so untidy. You know how vain he is."

Harry smiled back, relieved. It would have felt like a terrible omen had something happened to the phoenix just as it looked like Voldemort was preparing to up the ante in his campaign.

Then the smile slipped, and the other problem came bubbling back up in his chest. "I'm going to make a lousy Auror, aren't I?"

Dumbledore studied him for a moment, his head tilted slightly to one side. "Why do you say that, Harry?"

"I have to be the first person in recent history to nearly destroy the Hogwarts Express ...."

"You are forgetting that Voldemort actually managed to derail the train at the beginning of the last school year," the headmaster pointed out mildly. "Under normal circumstances the carriages would not have been set alight, of course, but you might give some consideration to the ultimate fate of the Hogwarts Express had the Death Eaters succeeded in removing the three of you from the train. My personal feeling is that it would have been derailed and set alight anyway, which would have distracted us from searching for you for some time."

He paused for a moment, still studying Harry thoughtfully. "And you still haven't explained to me why you think this incident makes you a bad Auror."

"It's not just this," Harry sighed. "It's my overall performance. I seem to spend most of my time reacting to the things that happen to me "

"Hardly unreasonable. A great deal 'happens' to you."

" And I seem to make really stupid judgement calls. Ron was right about me climbing onto the roof of the carriage. It was an idiotic thing to do. I should have gone into the end carriage with Malfoy, and we could have tackled the final Death Eater between the three of us."

"Sit down," Dumbledore said gently.

Harry wasn't sure he wanted to he had a strong urge to pace, which you couldn't do in one of the professor's comfy armchairs but although it had been couched in the gentlest way, it was clearly an order. He took the nearest chair and Dumbledore sat down opposite him with a soft sigh.

"Harry, if you have one overriding fault, it is that you have so little faith in yourself. I have often observed this in you in the past. You also seem to have a worrying lack of value for yourself. Tell me, what led you to conclude that climbing onto the roof of the train was the most viable option?"

"I was hoping to distract the last Death Eater and prevent him getting at Ron and Malfoy," Harry said promptly, then paused and sighed. "No, that's not quite right. I was more worried about Ron. I wasn't sure he even knew what was going on, and I was afraid it was him they were targeting."

"Fair enough reasoning as it goes, but I'm curious as to why you assumed either of your companions would be a more interesting target than yourself."

Harry blinked. "Well, we know that Voldemort is less interested in getting hold of me these days "

"No, Harry, we have the word of one highly biased individual that Lord Voldemort is less interested in you," the professor said gently. "I have no doubt that young Draco's account of Voldemort's interest in Ron is quite true. Equally, I have no doubts of Draco's own fears of being recaptured. But you seem to have forgotten that he is also someone who spent seven of his more formative years locked in intense rivalry with you. While it is admirable of you to have put aside your prejudices against him, you would be wise to look at some of his information with a very careful eye and consider whether his prejudices might not have led him to ... twist the facts a little."

"But he gave us that information under veritaserum!"

"Which will only tell us if the subject is telling the truth. Truth, you know, can be rather subjective, especially when it is only seen from one man's viewpoint. Draco believes you to be of less interest to Voldemort. Whether that is truly the case or not remains to be seen. After so many years, I personally would prefer to err on the side of caution."

Harry sagged slightly in his chair, rather grateful that considerations like this had not been plaguing his mind on the train. He wasn't sure what he would have done, although he suspected that his first instinct would still have been to protect Ron, and he said as much to Dumbledore, feeling his face heat up uncomfortably even as he admitted it.

The professor gave him a curious little smile. "Well, the young do tend to love rather fiercely. I see nothing wrong in that. You should, perhaps, try to remember that he is as capable of protecting himself as you are, though."

Unsure what to say to this, Harry fell silent until Dumbledore suddenly said, "Might I ask you something? How did you come by that pendant you're wearing?"

"Ron gave it to me for my birthday," Harry replied, a little surprised.

"Interesting. May I ...?"

"Of course. " He fumbled with the chain, fingers searching for the clasp, but he couldn't find it. "Damn. He said the catch was fiddly."

"No, don't take it off." Dumbledore leaned forward and carefully lifted the odd little gold wishbone shape on one fingertip. "Intriguing ... unusual shape." He released it and watched as Harry tucked it back inside the neck of his shirt, where it was normally hidden. "Well, I had better let you go. You need to rest."

Harry picked up his things and headed for the door. At the last moment, however, Dumbledore's voice made him turn back.

"Harry? The curse the third Death Eater cast at you what was it?"

"A full body-bind," he replied. "It didn't work, for some reason I felt it hit me, but it seemed to dissipate without taking effect."

The professor was looking very thoughtful. "Indeed? Yes ... very intriguing."

       

"Are you going to get out of there anytime soon?"

Harry started awake with a jolt and a yell, and nearly drowned himself in the process. "Bloody hell, Ron!" he spluttered, wiping foam out of his eyes. "Don't do that ...."

Ron was standing just inside the door of the main Gryffindor boys' bathroom, staring at him in exasperation. "You shouldn't fall asleep in the bath, you idiot!"

"It's not like I meant to," Harry muttered.

He slumped back against the warm porcelain of the tub and tried to get his breathing to slow down. He was thick-headed and dopey from the interrupted nap. He had been desperate for a bath when they finally made it to Gryffindor Tower, and sinking into the deep, hot, foamy water had been sheer bliss.

"How long have I been here?" he asked. The water was still hot, but that didn't mean anything. The tubs in all the bathrooms were charmed to prevent the water going cold.

"Nearly an hour," Ron huffed. He closed the bathroom door and tossed a selection of clean clothes onto a nearby bench. "Dobby brought dinner up twenty minutes ago."

"Crap. I'll have to go down to the kitchens later. I've got some stuff for the kids."

Harry was in the extraordinary position of being the first known human godparent to a House-elf or House-elves to be more precise. Dobby had married (if that was the correct term in the House-elf culture) a female called Ticksy just before Harry left Hogwarts, and they now had four children. He took his responsibilities as godfather seriously, although he wasn't able to visit them nearly as often as he would like.

"Leave it until the morning," Ron scolded, sounding eerily like his mother. "Dobby won't mind. He'll just be grateful to see you whenever you turn up."

"That's hardly the point." He rotated his head and winced, hissing slightly. "Yeeow! I think I strained a few things on that blasted train."

"Serves you right." Ron watched him trying to rub his own shoulders for a moment, and rolled his eyes. He began to strip his clothes off, making Harry blink and peer at him interestedly.

"Very nice. Should I whistle some appropriate striptease music?"

"You're such a comedian. Budge up a bit."

"Good thing these bathtubs are big," Harry commented, but he wriggled forward enough that Ron could slide in behind him.

The water rolled up to the rim of the bathtub like a miniature tidal-wave and heavy dollops of foam slopped over the side. Harry made a quick grab for a frantically quacking rubber-duck that was being washed perilously close to the edge of the tub.

"Is it me, or are you getting taller?" he demanded, as his partner's long legs stretched out on either side of him.

"I hope not," Ron said shortly. "It's hard enough getting jeans that fit now." He settled his back against the curve of the bath with a sigh and pulled Harry back against him so that he could rub his shoulders properly for him.

"Not a problem I suffer from," Harry grumbled. "Unfortunately." His lack of inches was a sore point. He barely scraped five foot six on a good day; by contrast, Ron was six foot two at the last measuring.

"There's nothing wrong with your height."

"Except that I'm practically a midget. Everyone is taller than me, including Hermione and even Malfoy, and I never thought that would happen he was always such a short-assed little git at school."

Ron snickered softly. "You know what Mum says it's not the inches the matter, it's the way you carry them."

"Yeah, but she only says that when she's putting one of you in your place!" Harry grinned reluctantly. "Usually followed by the bit about how none of you are so tall that she can't still put you across her knee and spank you."

"True. Doesn't mean she's not right, though." To Harry's mild surprise, he felt Ron drop a kiss on the crown of his head. "Did you wash your hair? It still smells smoky."

"That's nothing compared to my clothes. I'm amazed Dumbledore let me anywhere near his office smelling like that." Harry yelped as Ron found a sore knot in the middle of his shoulder blades.

"I brought you some clean stuff."

"Thanks," he gasped, fighting the urge to twist away from the kneading fingers.

"Can't have you wandering around in a towel. Malfoy might get the wrong idea."

"He'd probably be horrified. And he'd be even more horrified if he knew what you're doing now " Ron's right foot was rubbing gently up and down his calf, as if to distract him from the pleasure/pain of the massage.

If he expected Ron to snigger at the comment, he was disappointed. His partner's tone was oddly thoughtful as he said, "You think? I reckon he might surprise you."

Harry thought back uneasily to Malfoy's strange reaction, during their chess game, when he asked him if Ron's suspicions had any basis in reality. "I hope not. That's the last thing I want to deal with right now. Besides, what makes you say that?"

"His reaction, when he told me you were trying to distract that Death Eater so we could get away. I was so mad myself that I didn't notice it immediately, but he said a lot of stuff while we were on the Knight Bus that I'm sure he didn't mean to say."

"Such as?"

"Nothing you need to hear. But how I didn't smack him for it, I'll never know. I had fun telling him what I thought of him, though." Ron chuckled softly. "They were glad to turn us off the bus at Hogsmeade."

"Shit," Harry muttered. "Remus warned me a while ago that he might just be latching onto me because I've been nice to him. Just what we both wanted a needy Malfoy with a crush on me."

"Since when have you been nice to him lately?" Ron demanded, a laugh in his voice. "If you're not tormenting him with your sex life, you're throwing him into the nearest wall or shouting at him."

"Not intentionally." Harry propped one elbow on the rim of the tub and rubbed at his brow fretfully. His scar was itching; he hoped it wasn't an omen of something nasty to come. "I've been trying to be fair with him, but just lately I seem to be getting pissed off a lot quicker than usual."

"Has it occurred to you that you've had more reason to be pissed off?" Ron's fingers eased off his neck and slid up into his hairline, moving in gentle circles. "Look, don't worry about Malfoy. He's not going to try anything I told him exactly what I'd do to him if he did, and turning him into a ferret is just the tip of the iceberg."

Harry felt his muscles going slack in spite of himself, but perversely he fought it. "This isn't going to be a very relaxing couple of weeks, is it?"

"Depends on what you call relaxing. Me, I'm planning to make the most of our spare time." Ron's lips brushed the outer curve of his ear gently.

Harry sighed, but tried not to let the sensation distract him. It was difficult; Ron was very single-minded where certain things were concerned. "So why did you catch the Knight Bus, anyway? You could have Apparated if you'd "

"Harry." Warm breath tickled his neck.

"Hm?"

"You have this really annoying habit of talking about serious stuff when I'm trying to seduce you. Stop it."

       

Harry awoke early the next morning, despite his exhaustion of the night before. Weak, early morning light was trickling through a gap in the curtains and there was a chorus of birdsong outside.

He sat up on one elbow and looked around. The bed was vast but to Harry's amusement he saw that Ron was still trying to spread himself across the full width. Predictably, he was still sleeping like the dead, and after a moment or two Harry left him there and got up.

The three of them had been lodged at the top of Gryffindor Tower, in a suite of rooms above the dormitories that most certainly had not been there when Harry and Ron were at school. In between the bedrooms was a miniature common room, with a table and chairs and three deep, squashy armchairs over by the window. They also had use of the main common room downstairs and the bathrooms.

Harry glanced over at Malfoy's room as he walked out, but the door was shut tight and everything was still. He picked up his broom from where he had left it under the table with Ron's the night before, gave it a quick once-over to ensure nothing had happened to it in the excitement of the previous day, then headed downstairs at a brisk walk. It was too nice a morning not to take a broom-ride around the castle.

The crisp morning air was glorious. Harry took off from a little side courtyard near the rose gardens and commenced a leisurely sweep around the entire circumference of the castle: past the big greenhouses where Professor Sprout taught Herbology; up and around the tall Astronomy Tower that was Professor Sinistra's domain; around to the other tall tower where Professor Trelawney taught Divination; past Professor Dumbledore's offices and residence; ducking and diving in and around the many other lesser towers and over the inner courtyards. As always, he marvelled at how the school could look exactly the same on the outside as it ever did, while its inner dimensions sometimes seemed to change so radically.

Somewhere along the way he suddenly realised that he had picked up a companion. Thinking it was Ron he glanced back to the other rider, grinning, only for the smile to slide from his face when he saw a wind-ruffled shock of white-blond hair.

Great, just great. Malfoy was not someone he felt like sharing a cosy broomflight with this morning. And where had he got a broom from? If he had pinched Ron's Tsunami .

Annoyed, Harry dropped back until he was level with Malfoy. The other youth raised a casual brow at him and calmly dropped into 'cruise' mode so that the pair of them could talk without having to pay undue attention to their speed or direction. Harry followed suit and sat back on his broom, folding his arms. Malfoy's equally easy balance upped his irritation level. He had always been a good rider - not, perhaps, up to Harry's standard in his first year as Slytherin Seeker, but later Quidditch matches between their respective teams had always been a battlefield. In his more honest moments with himself, Harry acknowledged that he would never have become the Seeker he was had it not been for the level of competition Malfoy had provided.

"Where'd you get the broom, Malfoy?"

The blond youth raised both brows. "It's mine, of course. You don't recognise my old Nimbus 2001? I left it here when I finished school - I didn't think I'd need it again."

Now that he mentioned it, Harry recognised the neat shape of the old Nimbus line. His temper cooled, but only by a fraction.

"Why, what did you think it was - Weasley's new firecracker?" Malfoy asked, eerily echoing his thoughts. It was his turn to look annoyed. "Thanks, Potter. I'm not a common thief yet and besides, I value my skin a little more than that."

"There's not much I'd put past you," Harry retorted, "especially if you thought it might be worth a cheap dig at Ron."

"Cheap digs are all he can afford! You're not going to tell me that he bought and paid for that broom." Malfoy cast a contemptuous glance at Harry's Tsunami which, unfortunately for him, did not conceal the gleam of Quidditch player's lust in his eyes. "My God, Potter - two of them? That probably cleaned out even your notoriously bottomless vault at Gringotts."

It hadn't, but Harry wasn't about to tell Malfoy how the owner of Quality Quidditch Supplies had fallen over himself to work out a good deal for the famous Harry Potter. Being able to drop into a conversation with a prospective customer that Harry had bought two of the new brooms - better still, being able to tell the Nimbus manufacturers that he had - would do wonders for the man's business, and for once Harry himself hadn't objected to the idea.

Not when it meant that he'd got one of the brooms for nearly half its asking price, anyway.

"Jealous, Malfoy?"

It was a stupid question, and had he been thinking a little more carefully Harry would never have asked it. The look that Malfoy gave him in response said a whole lot of things that he didn't want to hear.

"Not of Weasley's broom," Malfoy replied very deliberately, and with that he knocked his broom back into normal flight mode and took off, turning in a steep curve and heading back the way he'd come.

Shaken, Harry preferred to swoop down to the main front courtyard and dismount, walking back to Gryffindor Tower and Ron.

       

To his surprise Ron was not only awake, but also dressed and seated at the table, with a sheet of parchment in front of him and a quill in his hand. He smiled when Harry walked in, but had obviously been chewing the end of his quill pensively.

Harry checked his broom over again and put it back into its carry-case, before joining him at the table. There was a stack of clean parchment in the middle of the table, along with a bottle of ink and several other quills.

"What are you doing?"

"Starting that report for Moody." Ron put the quill down, and eyed the blank sheet in front of him sourly. "I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say Upon Malfoy's entering the carriage with news of the attack, I proceeded to panic?"

Harry grinned. "Having nothing to say won't get you off the hook!" He pulled a sheet of parchment towards him and picked up a quill. "I suppose I'd better start mine, if Sirius is collecting them later."

"Good thinking." Ron watched him load the quill with ink and write his name neatly at the top of the sheet. "Good flight?"

"Yes, it's a nice morning. You should have come."

"Got up too late. Did you see Malfoy? He headed out of here with an old Nimbus about twenty minutes ago ...."

Harry put the quill down and propped one elbow on the table, resting his chin on his hand. He looked pensively out of the window. "Yeah, I saw him. Actually, I practically accused him of pinching your broom."

"Oh?" Ron was grinning.

"Hm .... Then we did the I don't need his broom/You're just jealous routine and he finished up by saying that it wasn't your broom he was jealous of."

Ron's smile slipped. "Is he deliberately trying to piss me off?"

"Probably." Harry sighed. "I told you it wasn't going to be a nice, relaxing week, didn't I? I don't know if I can cope with him doing this to me right now."

"Could you cope with it ever?"

"Huh?" Harry stared at Ron in surprise. "What do you mean?"

He was looking surprisingly thoughtful. "Just something I've wondered about . Look, don't take this the wrong way, but - do you find him attractive?"

Harry nearly fell off his chair. "What! Where the hell did that come from? No, of course I don't!"

"Seriously?" Ron was giving him a very curious look. "What, not even the slightest bit, physically?"

"Are you winding me up? No, I don't. I've never even thought about it."

"How do you know, if you haven't thought about it?"

Harry stared at him, bewildered and a little indignant. "Because it's never crossed my mind, you prat! Why would it? I hadn't even clapped eyes on him since we left school, until he turned up on our doorstep." He eyed Ron suspiciously, and flung the question back at him: "Why, do you find him physically attractive?"

"Yeah. He's not bad looking."

I don't believe this, I must have stepped into a parallel universe when I walked through that door . Harry shook his head, staggered. "I never thought I'd hear you say that."

Ron snorted. "I didn't say I fancied him! He's still the most annoying little git in history and I'd as soon punch him as look at him, but that doesn't mean he isn't good looking, Harry! Actually, that just makes him even more annoying."

Not sure what to say to this, Harry sat back and tried to consider the question objectively. It was surprisingly difficult. He supposed that Malfoy would be considered good-looking by most people's standards, but he honestly couldn't say that he personally found him attractive. He didn't find him unattractive; he just wasn't interested enough to make a judgement one way or another.

Harry looked up and found that Ron was watching him with an odd little smile, as though he found something about his expression amusing.

"What's funny?"

"You. You look lost." Ron leaned back in his own chair, fiddling with the quill. "Just out of curiosity, what do you find attractive about me? You've never said, you know."

Hadn't he?

It should have been an easy question, but Harry was almost immediately stumped. Funnily enough, he could remember being asked a similar question by Seamus not long after Neville had accidentally outed the pair of them to the entire household. At the time they hadn't been together for more than a couple of months and his bemused response had been something along the lines of "He's Ron", which hadn't really answered the question.

An older and more experienced Harry thought that it didn't explain anything at all. He thought Ron was very attractive but, pressed for an answer, he couldn't actually say why. He could have said that he thought he was good-looking, but then he thought the same of any number of people. Looks alone didn't interest Harry much, and he could probably have more readily explained why he thought Hermione was pretty. He just wasn't remotely interested in anyone else.

For the first time, this struck him as odd. For heaven's sake, by most people's standards he was gay, and he was certainly a normal, healthy adult male, presumably with the same drives that everyone else had. Why wasn't he checking people out, even casually? Most men did - he knew Ron certainly did, because his little comments about people when they were out and about were a constant source of amusement.

It was tempting to say "because you're my friend" but that was dangerous territory. To Harry himself it might explain everything because friendship was a vast and complex thing to him but one of Seamus's observations, back in those early days, had been that it looked like a really nasty case of best-friends-with-benefits to him; an accusation that Ron had not taken kindly. Besides, that wasn't even the half of it. If he'd only been attracted to Ron because he was his friend, then he might just as well have started a relationship with Hermione.

None of this was helped by the acute recollection of Malfoy asking Is it love or is it just sex? And how do you tell the difference? Between love and sex, where did attraction and friendship fall? Harry didn't know, and the fact that he didn't know bothered him.

Finally, he was forced to shake his head. "I can't answer that," he admitted, a little embarrassed. "I honestly don't know."

Ron's freckled face creased into a grin. "I'm glad you didn't say that in front of anyone they might have got the wrong impression."

Harry shrugged helplessly. "I don't know what to say. What do you find attractive about me?"

Ron's grin widened and he gave him one of those long looks that tended to end in situations like the one in the bathtub the night before. "Everything."

Harry blinked at him. "Everything? What even the fact that I'm short-sighted and sleepwalk?"

Ron nodded, the grin giving way to a look of complete seriousness. "Yeah everything."

       

The group that assembled in Professor Dumbledore's outer office was not very congenial. Malfoy, who had not returned to Gryffindor Tower after his morning broomflight, arrived first and was at his most saturnine. Psychoanalytical conversations notwithstanding, Ron was less than inclined to be friendly towards his old nemesis after Malfoy's comment to Harry that morning. And Harry, feeling ensnared on both sides in all sorts of unfamiliar emotional situations, was tense and jumpy.

It didn't feel like a recipe for success in any endeavour that meant them working together as a team, and privately that made Harry even jumpier. The memory of their first, excruciatingly painful magical connection was uppermost in his mind as he crossed the room purposefully and tapped politely on the inner door.

When they went inside, Dumbledore was tinkering with one of the many odd little whirring machines that seemed to litter every surface. He looked up and beamed at them.

"Ah, gentlemen! Good morning. Do take a seat I won't be a moment."

Ron and Malfoy both headed for the comfortable armchairs in front of the professor's desk, silently bristling at each other when they both aimed for the same chair, but Harry's attention was caught by something else the brilliantly plummaged bird perching on a stand by the window, rustling his feathers and peering beadily at them.

Harry walked over. It would be rather rude not to acknowledge him.

"Hello Fawkes," he said quietly, and smiled when the phoenix swished his long tail in response. To his surprise Fawkes made a sudden hop and landed on his shoulder, letting out a soft, quavering cry. At once, all the tension and unease in Harry seemed to fade away.

This was no surprise; it was part of the phoenix's magic. It had, after all, been Fawkes who saved his life and led him out of the Chamber of Secrets, healed him after Cedric Diggory's murder, and comforted him after the traumatic events that led to the death of Peter Pettigrew.

Harry was suddenly aware of Dumbledore standing in front of him.

"He does seem uncommonly fond of you, Harry," the professor commented, smiling.

Harry smiled back, stroking the bright feathers on Fawkes's breast gently. "The feeling's mutual," he said, "but don't tell Hedwig that!"

Dumbledore chuckled and stretched out a hand to the phoenix. "Well, sir, we have business this morning. If you are joining us, you'll have to find another perch, I'm afraid." Fawkes rustled his wings in a very decisive way and hopped back onto the stand in the window. "I see. If you change your mind, we will be over here."

He waved Harry towards the chairs and Harry took a seat on Ron's left, as far from Malfoy as he could get. Dumbledore took the fourth, between Malfoy and Ron, settling himself comfortably. He looked at the three of them assessingly for a moment, before his eyes came to rest on Harry again.

"Harry, I believe you have Draco's new wand."

"Of course." He handed the long, narrow box over and the professor passed it to Malfoy.

"I see no reason not to let you have this, Draco. There are many more than adequate protections in place here to prevent any, ah, incidents of any kind."

Malfoy flushed slightly at this comment, but said nothing. He took his new wand out of the box and examined it silently for a moment, before stowing it in the sleeve of his robe.

"Good. Now, wizard circles have any of you looked into the subject at all?"

"Hermione lent me a book by Nicholas Flamel," Ron said after a moment. "I couldn't make head or tail of it, but Harry was reading it on the train ."

"Ah!" Dumbledore looked pleased. "Excellent. Nicholas's book is probably the most complete volume on the subject in existence."

Harry was dismayed. "With respect, Professor, if that was the most complete book, then I'd hate to see the worst! He didn't really explain how a circle works at all - "

"That would be because he didn't know, Harry. Over his extended lifetime, Nicholas participated in three different circles, but by the time he died a few years ago he was no nearer discovering what made a circle work than he ever had been. He had theories, many of which I believe to be quite accurate, but given the lack of evidence and opportunity, it's hardly surprising that his research should remain incomplete." Dumbledore smiled at them. "You may imagine how pleased I was when I realised the three of you had formed a connection. The opportunities for further research are most exciting."

Harry hoped he didn't look as sour as Malfoy did, although he perfectly understood the blond youth's reaction to the word research. He wasn't sure he wanted to be a guinea pig in this himself.

"But first," the professor continued, apparently oblivious to the unease his words had created in his listeners, "we must focus on enabling the three of you to work together."

Malfoy's head came up at this. "I'm not interested in working with this pair, Professor," he said curtly. "All I want is to know how to control it so that it isn't constantly interfering in my life. Working with it is the last thing on my agenda."

Harry felt a tickle of anger at his dismissive tone, and Ron was gripping the arms of his chair as though he longed to strangle Malfoy, but Dumbledore's expression was calm and oddly compassionate as he looked at him.

"Unfortunately, my boy, you may have no choice in the matter. In order to learn how to control this, you will have to learn to work with the other members of your circle, and you may believe me when I say that the kind of power naturally generated by a wizard circle cannot simply be ignored. It must be used or there is every chance that it will use you - as Harry and Ron inadvertently demonstrated on Harry's birthday."

"You make it sound like the power exists as a separate entity in its own right, Professor," Ron commented - a rather scientific statement that made Harry look at him with a combination of surprise and amusement. Of course, Ron, being a Seer, knew a lot about powers that had a mind of their own.

"All magic exists as a separate force," the professor said calmly. "We merely control it and make use of it with the inexpert means at our disposal. As children we tried to instil into you and your peers a sense of respect for magic as the raw, elemental force that it is." He smiled faintly. "If you do not already know why, gentlemen, I suspect you will shortly find out."

 

End Part 19/30

 

 

Nayako - I didn't think it was a cliff-hanger particularly, as he dealt with the Death Eater and got off the train! There are certainly more battles to come, but of a different nature . The balance of fluff and angst is undoubtedly very important *grin*

PotterBrother - Sorry, I thought that was obvious. Getting off the train was no longer a problem because being on the roof of the train, he was outside the anti-Apparition wards and could Apparate. Is there significance in the wands? Maybe.

Sally - I don't think it's a matter of Malfoy getting over the "gay thing", it's a matter of him not having got over being Malfoy! How are they going to get to the bottom of the Nick Curtis thing now they're at Hogwarts? Maybe they aren't. But it wasn't him on the train. Whether I write more ficlets depends a lot on whether I have the time, I'm afraid. Real life is very stressed right now.

LadyRose - I'm glad you liked Chapter 18, although I'll admit that even I thought the train scene was slightly over the top. I think that's about as silly as the story gets, though *grin*

Quoth the Raven - I do admit that this chapter was a bit over the top! I got carried away, because it was such fun to write. Regarding the Jezebel, I'll give some thought to possibly writing up the incident Harry told Draco about, but I don't make any promises about any writing at the moment because life's upside down here *sigh* I'm glad you liked the griffin spell though!

Becchan - Glad you liked the action - there will be more, although a different sort of action. I suppose I just liked the idea of Harry being all physical *fans self*

SparkySparkles - Harry Apparates off the train *grin* And by now you've discovered just what Ron thinks of the whole thing! I love writing Harry's interaction with Sirius and Lupin, because it's just so interesting and I love them both as characters.

Jen - Something nasty happened to the driver and Casper Prewett . As for the "You're a pig and I'm leaving you and taking the children" comment, this is something my predecessor in my job used to say to our old boss whenever he gave her something particularly horrible to type. God knows where she got it from *grin*

Beth Ann - I'm thinking there could be a market for Frankenfingers *grin* As for Draco, well Tom Felton does look a bit like an extra from the Godfather in the movies I love the way he has slicked-back hair, although it's not as pretty as Daddy's ponytail.

Zi - Welcome! I'm glad you're enjoying it *smile*

Sally - You again? *laugh* Are you ever going to find out about Neville outing them? It's possible, I suppose, but it won't be in this story. My list of potential ficlets is getting longer by the minute! And you want a prequel. You don't want much, do you, especially as you want me to turn "Turning Back The Clock" into a series as well! Sorry, but I have only so much time, so it'll depend very much on what I have inspiration for. (But it's nice to know that you like my stories that much *smile*)

PoisonSnakey - Wizard westerns? Oh, nice image, I love it *grin* Not that a western gunfight isn't exactly what the duel between Snape and Lockhart looked like in The Chamber of Secrets!


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