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 Twenty - Take Three Wizards

By Mad Martha

       

Bang!

"See! If you weren't in such a damned hurry to put yours on, that wouldn't have happened."

"Screw that - it was you getting your elbow in the way - "

"You have ten fingers for a reason, you moron!"

"You have two eyes as well, but are you using them? No!"

"Look, can we just start that section again?"

"Let him do it if he thinks he's so sodding clever."

Harry took a step back from the table, sucking on a burnt fingertip and glowering at his two companions resentfully.

Dumbledore had told them that before they could even attempt to work as a circle, they had to learn to co-operate with each other. To that end, they were going to perform a series of exercises that made them work as a team, the first of which was building a complicated card castle out of several packs of Exploding Snap cards - without magic.

They had been at it for an hour now, and the semi-constructed castle had blown up five times already. This was largely because Malfoy and Ron were continually sabotaging each other's efforts and ignoring every attempt Harry made at mediating between them. Since constructing any kind of card castle from Exploding Snap cards involved intense concentration, it was small wonder that they were failing so badly.

On top of this, after listening to them for ten minutes or so Dumbledore had laid down a further decree: From that point onwards they were to call each other by their Christian names, not by their surnames as they had been doing. Not surprisingly, Ron and Malfoy managed to turn this into another means of tormenting each other. They stopped calling each other anything at all, bar insults, so that when they did use each other's Christian name it came out sounding bitingly sarcastic.

This was like every tense mealtime encounter from the past twelve weeks all rolled together. And for someone like Harry, who basically liked a quiet life and retreated from quarrels and bad atmospheres, it was torture. He was amazed at how the pair of them could keep it up; the insults flew without let up, neither of them remotely at a loss for a riposte, and each comment was uttered with startling venom. They had even deconstructed each other's family history at one point, leaving Harry to wonder how Ron knew so much about Malfoy's Draco's! ancestry.

It had to be a wizard thing. Certainly family feuds were a big thing in the wizard world, as he had discovered during one of the few History of Magic lessons that he had actually been able to concentrate in. Perhaps it had something to do with the relative smallness of the wizard community compared to the wider Muggle world, but everyone seemed to know each other, and insults and slights were remembered as vividly as inter-marriages down the generations.

Ron could name the various families his aunts, uncles and cousins had married into going back about five generations. Considering that all the Weasleys were extremely prolific, that was saying something and it had been quite an eye-opener to Harry when he found out. Ron had casually mentioned that he was distantly related to their Ravenclaw classmate Terry Boot, and quoted the exact relationship ("My great-great-aunt Sybilla married Rufus Boot in 1906 and they had five sons ..."). It triggered a weird common room discussion of mutual ancestry that had left Harry and the Muggle-borns in the group wide-eyed with astonishment.

It had also left Harry wondering about his own ancestry. His mother, of course, had been Muggle-born but there had never been any suggestion that his father had been anything other than a pureblood wizard. Since he didn't really have anyone to ask about this but Sirius, who was still on the run at the time, the matter had been pushed to the back of his mind by more important matters like potions homework, but now he was wondering again.

"Hey, Harry? Are you in there?"

Ron was waving a hand in front of his face, and Harry realised with a start that he had been staring blankly into space for the last few minutes. The cards had all been restored to their former pristine condition, and the other two were waiting to start again, Draco in particular looking quite disgruntled at Harry's inattention.

"Are you all right, flower?"

Harry blinked at the ridiculous endearment and saw the impish smile lurking in Ron's eyes. "Just thinking pumpkin."

Draco made a disgusted sound in his throat. "When the pair of you are done making eyes at each other, can we get on with this?"

"What - you mean you're actually going to start co-operating, so that we can build this thing after all?" Harry asked blandly.

The blond wizard shot him a dirty look and heaved an impatient sigh. Harry picked up a stack of the cards, taking care not to drop any of the volatile things.

"Okay, let's try again ."

       

"What you were saying earlier ." Harry said quietly, as he and Ron picked their way through the lower level corridors.

"Hm?"

"What was that all about?"

"Calling you 'flower'? That was winding Malfoy up. And it worked - did you see his face!"

"No, not then - this morning, when we were writing our reports. Why did you suddenly come out with that stuff about him being attractive?"

Ron gave him a sideways look. "Are you still thinking about that?"

Harry flushed slightly. "Well, yeah - I kind of thought that was the point."

"Maybe." The corner of Ron's mouth twitched mischievously.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Ron only chuckled, making Harry stare at him in frustration, deeply puzzled.

Not for the first time, he was forced to wonder if he really knew his partner as well as he thought he did. At school, Ron had been a fairly uncomplicated person, but then he had started developing the Sight and suddenly whole aspects of his personality underwent a subtle change. Most of the time he was still the straightforward person he had always been - at least on the surface - but then something would set him off and they would have surreal moments like that morning when he would say or do the strangest things. Harry had learned to take most of it in his stride, but every once in a while he was caught on the hop.

He would have liked to pester Ron further, but they had reached their destination. Harry reached out to the picture on the wall of a bowl of fruit and tickled the big green pear. It giggled and wriggled, and suddenly there was a green handle where the pear had been. He turned it and the door swung open abruptly, spilling the two of them into the enormous school kitchens.

The kitchens were practically dead at this time of year, with only a small handful of the House-elves working there to maintain the tiny number of staff remaining at Hogwarts during the holiday. The rest would be working elsewhere in the building, performing the necessary repairs and refurbishment before the new term started.

Dobby, however, would certainly be there as he viewed caring for Professor Dumbledore as his particular responsibility. This was mostly Harry's doing. When he left Hogwarts, Dobby had been very keen to go with him, especially when he heard that Harry and several of the other Gryffindors were planning to share a house for a while. Harry, however, had viewed the devoted House-elf's plan with misgivings. That a few of his housemates (Ron among them) would be delighted to have a House-elf to pick up after them he didn't doubt, but one of the other residents in the proposed student house was Hermione, who still held strong views on the exploitation of elves. Harry also suspected that it would be very bad for him to have Dobby fussing around him all the time. He wasn't a lazy person by nature, but that didn't mean he couldn't become one. So with great difficulty he had persuaded the House-elf to stay at Hogwarts, mostly by dint of telling him that he relied on him to watch over Professor Dumbledore. Since Dobby was almost as attached to the elderly headmaster as he was to Harry, the ploy worked admirably.

Harry barely had time to straighten himself up and adjust his spectacles before there was a chorus of excited squeals and four tiny bodies hurled themselves at him. He let out a startled "Oof!" and sat down with a bump on the tiled floor, which only gave the juvenile House-elves better access to him.

"Harrypotterharrypotterharrypotterharrypotter "

Ron leaned against the nearest wall and laughed himself breathless as Harry tried futilely to fend the little ones off. Unlike their very restrained and respectful elders, the children had been raised 'free' and were not in the least bit shy. Harry knew for a fact that they behaved like angels around just about everyone else; but he was a different case, as he had made clear to them right from the start. So he had only himself to blame when they climbed all over him and rifled through his pockets.

He had got wise to the pick-pocketing early on, especially when squabbles had broken out over anything the infant elves found there. So the most they found today was his wand (which none of them touched they knew better) and his wristwatch, which they respectfully left alone, although Ting, the smallest of them, hung over his arm and went cross-eyed as he watched the second hand ticking around. Not finding anything didn't prevent the other three from taking a second inventory; a scrunched up handkerchief was discovered in his back jeans pocket and promptly whisked away, presumably so that their mother could launder it for him before he left.

When they returned Dobby was with them, as beaming and tearful as ever at the sight of his hero.

"Harry Potter, sir! Harry Potter! Dobby is happy as he never was before!" He seized Harry around the middle, squeezing him until he thought his eyes might pop out, then turned to Ron and did the same to him. "Harry Potter's Wheezy!"

Ron snorted a laugh and patted the elf on the shoulder. "Hullo, Dobby!"

"You're looking well, Dobby," Harry observed. He didn't bother to get up from the floor; the children were once again rummaging in his robes in the vain hope that the presents they knew he had for them might have magically appeared while they were gone. "That's a wicked sweater you're wearing!"

It was a lurid Fairisle pattern tank-top, teamed with a pair of baggy khaki shorts; Dobby beamed at the compliment. "'Tis a present from Professor McGonagall, sir, " he confided.

"Really?" That was a surprise. Harry wondered what Dobby had done that merited such an unusual reward from the strict Transfiguration professor. "Well, we've got a present for you too."

Ron produced one of the neat little gift bags from Madam Malkin's shop in Daigon Alley and handed it to the elf with a grin. Dobby was overcome, weeping happy tears as he pulled out a new selection of socks in all shades, hues and patterns. Socks were still his favourite item of clothing.

"And I suppose you all want your presents," Harry said to the young House-elves, and grinned at the excited squeaks in response. He took his wand out of his sleeve and tapped a spot on the floor in front of him. A little pile of brightly wrapped parcels appeared, and he handed them out.

It was only a collection of simple Muggle-type toys, such as wooden building blocks and other hand-made children's games. He had to be careful exactly what he gave them because of the regulations covering elves and other non-human creatures, but simple, non-magical things like these were unexceptional and gave the little ones a lot of amusement.

Squeaks of excitement ensued as they peeled off the wrapping paper. Little Ting deposited himself in Harry's lap while he examined his jumping acrobat toy; the others hurtled off somewhere, either to play with and squabble over the toys, or to show them to their mother. Meanwhile Dobby had whipped up a tea tray and cakes and, prompted by Ron, was talking about what had happened during the past school year.

His acute memory for details was always a source of surprise to the two wizards. Knowing how fond they both were of Quidditch, Dobby related inter-House games and scores for them, complete with notable incidents on the pitch. Then he told them about the teachers and Dumbledore, dwelling in particular on Snape who, apparently, had suffered considerable ill-health over the past year.

This particular piece of news made Harry twitch for he knew - as Dobby did not - that any ill-health the Potions Master was suffering was almost certainly connected to his work as a spy in Voldemort's ranks. Harry didn't have any particular fondness for Snape who, besides being rude, hostile and generally unpleasant, remained to this day one of his severest critics. On the other hand, the man was currently undertaking a task which Harry wouldn't have wished even on him, and was suffering for it. As one of Dumbledore's spies, Snape ran appalling risks and Harry had to admire him for his courage if nothing else.

"Does Professor Dumbledore know about Professor Snape's illnesses?" he asked the House-elf.

"Oh yes, sir!" Dobby told him proudly. He lowered his voice confidentially. "Professor Dumbledore particularly relies upon Dobby to tell him when Professor Snape is sick. Sometimes Professor Snape will not tell Professor Dumbledore otherwise. But Dobby does not say to anyone else. Dobby is very discreet, sir, very discreet indeed."

"I'm sure you are," Harry told him approvingly. But the look he exchanged with Ron was one of concern. That Snape should feel a need to conceal what was happening to him from Dumbledore was ... disquieting.

"What about Dumbledore himself?" asked Ron after a moment. "He's doing alright, isn't he?"

"Oh yes, sir!" Dobby assured him brightly. "Dobby takes very good care of Professor Dumbledore, although sometimes ...."

He stopped and Harry felt a sudden tightening of his gut.

"Sometimes?" he prompted.

Dobby looked most reluctant to go on. He shifted uncomfortably under his favourite wizard's eyes. "Dobby keeps Professor Dumbledore's secrets," he said after a moment, and his expression was indecisive.

"Of course you do. I wouldn't expect you to do anything else," Harry said at once, understanding the House-elf's dilemma. Dobby worked for Dumbledore and even though he wasn't technically in servitude to the headmaster as the other House-elves were, strict discretion was understood to be part of the contract between them.

Ron was less impressed by this.

"You can tell Harry, Dobby," he pointed out sternly, although it seemed to escape him that he wasn't necessarily included in that statement.

Dobby came to a decision and moved a little closer to the two young men, dropping his voice.

"Dobby would say that the good Professor Dumbledore is old, Harry Potter," he said.

Harry's brows drew together slightly. "Well yes, Dobby, we know that, but "

"And Professor Dumbledore is tired, sir. Sometimes Dobby thinks that Professor Dumbledore would like to rest."

This was disturbing enough to silence even Ron. The two wizards stared at the solemnly nodding House-elf in varying degrees of dismay and consternation.

"But ... but he's Dumbledore," Ron managed finally, suddenly sounding a lot less than his twenty-one years. "We ... what would we do without him?"

"Dobby has said too much," the House-elf squeaked, alarmed by their reactions.

"No, no! It's alright, Dobby, I'm glad you told us," Harry reassured him quickly. "It's just that Dobby, Dumbledore's not ill, is he?"

"Oh no, Harry Potter sir! Just ... old. Dobby thinks Professor Dumbledore would like to see the end of the war with He Who Shall Not Be Named soon, sir. Dobby thinks Professor Dumbledore worries about it."

       

"I know Dumbledore's old," Ron said uneasily, as they walked back to Gryffindor Tower, "but he's alright, isn't he? He always seems okay to me when I see him ...."

"Maybe we just haven't been looking," Harry replied. He was as disquieted as his partner. "Or maybe he's been keeping up a very good face. I can remember a couple of times when we were at school he looked, well, old and kind of haggard for a second or two. It would be gone so quick, I thought I was imagining it. But he's been fighting Voldemort for decades, hasn't he? And there was Grindelwald before that. I suppose you would get pretty tired of it after a while. Hell, I'm tired of it and I'm a fraction of Dumbledore's age."

"Maybe that's why You Know Who's dragging this out," Ron said morosely. "He's just hanging on until Dumbledore dies of old age ...."

"Don't say that!" Harry told him fiercely. "We are not going to waste our lives on another twenty or thirty years of war with that monster! And I am not going to see Dumbledore die an old and disappointed man, not knowing if everything is going to go to hell when he's gone!"

"Easy!" Ron stopped, holding up his hands in surrender and looking a little startled at Harry's outburst. "I'm with you, honest! Just ... take it easy. We're doing our best, aren't we?"

"Are we?" Harry stalked up to the Fat Lady's portrait. "Puffskein!"

She harrumphed at his tone but swung her picture frame open so that they could enter the Gryffindor common room, and he climbed through the hole in the wall.

When Ron followed him through, he was waiting for him and pounced.

"No, we are not doing our best," Harry snapped, poking an astonished Ron in the chest with a sharp forefinger. "Look at that crap this morning! We should have been able to build that card castle between the three of us easily. But did we ever get it above three storeys? No, we didn't, because we were too busy sniping at each other to try and co-operate. If we can't learn to work together, Ron, we're wasting Dumbledore's time here. And while we're wasting it, Voldemort is trying to kill people like your family."

There was a pause as he got his breath back and Ron looked stunned by the tirade. Then the redhead said quietly, "Are you going to say all this to Draco?"

"Say all what to me?"

The blond wizard was standing halfway up the stairs leading to the boys' dormitories and their suite of rooms. Harry turned and stormed up to him before he was fully aware of what was happening.

"No more faffing around!" he said sharply, poking him in the chest just as he had Ron.

Draco looked affronted. "Potter, I can assure you "

"No! No more arguments and petty sniping, no more sabotaging each other's efforts and wasting time. We do what Dumbledore says and we learn to work together. And my name is Harry."

Draco's mouth opened and closed for a moment, clearly as surprised as Ron at Harry's ferocity. Then he blinked. "Oh. All right."

"All right?" Harry stared at him, totally wrong-footed. "That's it? All right?"

"What did you want me to say?"

I'm going to hit the annoying little git .... Harry folded his arms to prevent himself doing just that, and glared at the two of them. "So. What next?"

"That's what I was coming to tell you," Draco said dryly, eyeing him with pardonable wariness. He held up a rolled-up piece of parchment. "We have our instructions for the next task."

"And?"

"And it's a treasure hunt."

       

"Maybe Dumbledore got fed up of us arguing and decided to do us in," Ron said, panting a little from the hair-raising climb they had just made from one part of the roof to the next.

The treasure hunt had so far been full of these energetic moments, enough to keep them thoroughly occupied. Had they wanted to quarrel they probably couldn't have done so, but in any case Harry and Ron were far fitter than Draco, thanks to their Auror training, and they were frequently having to give him a helping hand. Arguing had been put aside for now.

"I can think of easier ways to kill us," the blond youth grunted now. He was bent over, hands on his knees, taking deep breaths while Harry perused the next clue. It had been tucked into the claws of one of the many gargoyles around the roof of the castle. Unfortunately, the previous clue hadn't been very specific about which gargoyle it was, so they'd had to check a great many before they found it.

And then, of course, they'd had to persuade the gargoyle to let them have it.

"At least it's not in verse," Harry commented, keeping a tight grip on the parchment to prevent the wind whipping it out of his fingers. "Look where amber pools, to the joy of Viper and Rosamundi." Harry frowned. "Viper and Rosamundi?"

"Sounds like plants," Draco said, straightening up.

Ron raised his brows. "Greenhouses?"

They looked out over the crenellations. Below them spread the school grounds the wide gravel courtyard and broad meadow leading down to the lake, with a narrow strip that was the rose gardens. Harry trotted across the width of the roof and looked out over the other side. The castle was built in a sprawling series of courtyards, quadrangles, towers and miniature bridges. This side merely overlooked a wide, sunny courtyard outside the Arithmancy and Study of Ancient Runes classrooms.

None of the Herbology greenhouses seemed to be visible from here. Bemused, Harry looked across at the other two and shrugged helplessly. There were twelve greenhouses scattered around the grounds; he didn't fancy trying to search all of them without more information on what they were looking for.

"I hate to be the one who suggests this," Draco said, when Harry rejoined them, "but perhaps there's some significance in where the clue was hidden."

They looked over the edge again, peering at the ugly stone gargoyle where it perched a couple of feet below them. The stone eyes stared back at them balefully. It wasn't really animate, but Dumbledore had temporarily magicked it into acting like it was and it was a nasty-tempered, snappy brute.

"I think ... if we were on the same level as the gargoyle, we might be able to see around that sticking-out bit of the wall," said Ron doubtfully.

They all looked at each other.

"Yeah, but to get to it you'd have to hang right over the edge," Harry pointed out.

"Yeah," Ron sighed, "and since I'm the tallest of us ...."

They managed it by dint of hanging onto his belt and the back of his shirt, but Harry wasn't in the least bit happy about the exercise. At one point it looked like Draco might crack a joke about dropping Ron but one quick glance at Harry's face silenced him. Ron took the further risk of grabbing the gargoyle around the neck, which didn't make either of them happy.

Finally he yelled and they dragged him back. He was windblown, rumpled and sweating, his face scarlet from being held upside down for several minutes.

"I don't want to do that again," he stated shakily, tucking his shirt back into his jeans properly.

"Agreed," Harry told him, as pale as his friend was red. "Did you see anything?"

"Yeah it's greenhouse six. The sun's hitting the glass, which I guess is what Dumbledore meant by 'amber'."

Silence.

"Great," Draco said after a moment. "That's the one with all the man-eaters, if my memory serves me. Viper and Rosamundi of course! Rosamundi Cruciens and the Viper Vine. Two of the deadliest plants in Professor Sprout's collection."

"The Viper Vine isn't that the one that nearly killed Millicent Bulstrode in our sixth year?" asked Ron.

Draco actually looked amused. "Give it credit for trying! That's quite a mouthful even for a man-eating plant."

"What pisses me off is that we had to climb all the way up here, just to climb back down again," Harry grumbled, ignoring the other two. "Screw that ...." He pulled his wand out of his pocket. "Accio Tsunami!"

"Good thinking," Ron said approvingly, and took out his own wand.

       

Professor Sprout's greenhouses housed everything from the most innocuous herbs to the most terrifying plants in the magical world. Greenhouse six housed those that consumed living animal flesh; consequently only the most advanced students in Herbology were allowed to work inside. Harry had never had more than two or three practical sessions in there in his entire time at Hogwarts, although Neville Longbottom the Professor's prize pupil in their year had completed an advanced dissertation for his NEWTs based on several of the monstrous vegetables.

"Have you ever actually worked in here?" Harry asked Draco nervously, as they stood their brooms against the wall outside.

To his disappointment, the blond youth shook his head. "Herbology's not my best subject," he admitted. "I was fine with the book work, but useless with the practical."

"We need Neville," Ron muttered, echoing Harry's thoughts. "We'll probably be alright if we stick to the paths, right?"

"Probably ... none of the plants in here can walk, can they?"

"No, they're all in greenhouses eleven and twelve I think."

"Okay ... wands out and for God's sake keep a bloody good grip on them."

"Tell you what," Harry said, beginning to sweat slightly, "let's think about this a bit before we go inside, shall we?"

"What's to think about?" Draco asked, a little sharply. "The next clue is hidden somewhere around the Viper Vine and Rosamundi plants. We have to retrieve it and get out again "

"Just like that?" Harry demanded, growing annoyed. "Draco, that place is full of man-eating plants they're not going to just let us walk through and rummage around their roots. We need a plan."

"Is this the same Harry Potter who faces down Death Eaters before breakfast?"

"I can make a guess at what Death Eaters are thinking!" Harry snapped back. "Who the hell knows what a plant is thinking, beyond the fact that a prime meal has just walked up to it?"

"Can we calm down?" demanded Ron. "I'm scared enough already. If we start arguing, half of those plants in there are going to nab us as soon as we walk through the door! I haven't forgotten that Psyche Lily we grew in our last year, Harry. The bloody thing nearly took your hand off when we had a fight over the trowels."

"We need a plan," Harry repeated, looking defiantly at Draco. "Some defensive spells lined up at least."

Draco shrugged. "There aren't many plants that like fire."

"We don't want to set Sprout's collection on fire "

"Cold fire then! For crying out loud, let's just get this over with. I don't want to go in there any more than you do, but delaying tactics won't make it go away."

Which was true, but it was a little embarrassing to realise that he had been caught out that easily. Harry took his wand out again reluctantly and gripped the handle.

"Okay, let's go. And everyone keep their eyes peeled ...." Swallowing hard, he turned the handle of the greenhouse door and pushed it open.

Hot, moist air enveloped them, accompanied by a rich smell of compost, leaf-mould and chlorophyll ... and underneath the sickly sweet smell of decaying animal flesh that comprised whatever the plants had been fed on that day. Harry broke into an instant sweat and felt his gorge rise slightly at the thought. The hair on the back of his neck prickled. He took a few steps inside and heard the clunk as Ron allowed the greenhouse door to swing shut behind him.

The paths in this greenhouse were very wide and the plants were set well away from the fences bordering them; simple safety precautions. Small gates were set at intervals, securely latched against accidental entry, and signs were posted along the fence giving clear warnings of the dangers involved. Of course, none of this would prevent some of the plants from reaching out and trying their luck with the unwary.

Harry really hoped they weren't unwary. For all Draco's joking, Millicent Bulstrode had been very lucky; she received only a mild mauling from the Viper Vine before she was rescued, but it could have been very nasty indeed. He wasn't looking forward to tackling the plant when it came to collecting their next clue.

The greenhouse was worryingly quiet. They walked quickly along the middle of the path, trying not to make too much noise, Draco leading as he remembered where the plant had been located four years previously. Harry was acutely aware of the way the heavy, perfumed blooms on some of the plants turned to follow them as they passed, and he could feel the tension rolling off Ron as he tried to keep an eye on what was happening behind them.

They were just climbing a short flight of steps up to the upper levels of the greenhouse, when Draco came to an abrupt halt.

"Uh oh," Harry muttered, peering around him.

A curtain of fine, lacy vines with delicate heart-shaped leaves hung down over the top step, blocking their way. The leaves were waving gently in a non-existent breeze.

"Back," Draco told it sternly, with more confidence than he probably felt. The leaves shook slightly as though they were laughing at him. He raised his wand and pointed it at them. "I said back!"

Quick as a flash, another vine came whipping through the air behind Harry. He barely had time to turn before Ron, acting on pure instinct, snapped out a spell and flicked his wand at it. Then the vine was gone again, and something was making an eerie keening sound a few feet away.

Harry turned, adrenaline charging through his veins, and saw that the curtain of leaves was slowly, reluctantly lifting away from the steps.

"Let's go," he breathed, and they hurried on.

But the plants were silent no longer. An ominous rustling had started and numerous branches were swaying aggressively. A couple of the bigger blossoms leaned as close to the fence as they dared, snapping and drooling, and one gigantic pod fired a volley of nasty little darts in their wake.

They were almost running now. "Not much farther," Draco panted, ducking a puff of luminous, sweet-smelling dust tossed his way by a delicate-looking succulent.

Then they were there, and came to a skidding halt, staring up, horrified.

"Oh God it's bigger."

That's an understatement, Harry thought numbly. The Viper Vine had been about eight feet tall at its main trunk when he last saw it, and Professor Sprout had always been careful to keep it pruned back so that it didn't get out of hand. But apparently she had changed her policy since they had been pupils, for the thing was a monster now nearly as high as the ceiling and boasting many tough-looking branches. 'Vine' was something of a misnomer, for while it certainly preferred to support itself on other trees around it (this specimen had several thick branches wrapped around the nearest weight-bearing plants), it was perfectly capable of growing strongly enough to be self-supporting if it had to.

A few feet away from it was the Rosamundi Cruciens, or Crucifying Rose, a deceptively innocent-looking tree with endearing, sweet-scented, pink blooms. It had vicious little thorns, every one of them tipped with a fast-acting poison that paralysed its victims so that they couldn't struggle; one tiny pinprick was enough, although in practice most victims snagged themselves numerous times in their struggles. What couldn't be seen because if you could see it, it was too late for you was the mouth that opened in the thick, gnarled trunk. Reputedly it had teeth that were even sharper than its thorns; Harry didn't like to think how that piece of information had been obtained.

Hanging from one of the inner branches of the Rosamundi Cruciens was a little, rolled-up scroll. To get to it, someone would have to walk past the Viper Vine and reach between the outer branches of the rose; and the gap was low down and very small. It was unlikely that Ron or Draco could do it.

Harry felt light-headed at the very idea. He didn't consider himself an especially brave person most of his 'bravest' actions had occurred in situations he had no control over but he would gladly have faced Voldemort and the worst of his henchmen put together rather than do this. Man-eating plants terrified him in a way that very few other things did; his feet were rooted to the spot and he could feel a cold trickle of sweat working its way down his back.

"What do you think?" Draco was murmuring. "Summoning Spell?"

"Too easy," Ron demurred. His eyes were roaming everywhere, trying to watch all the rustling plants around them at once. "Look at it - it's tied pretty securely to that branch. Someone's going to have to go in and get it."

Harry found that he couldn't make his mouth work. His eyes were pinned on the scroll with a kind of horrified fascination.

"Don't be stupid!" Draco hissed sharply. "Even if you could get past the vine, which of us could get a hand into that gap without scratching himself?"

There was a pause and Harry knew that they had both come to the same conclusion as him.

"No way," Ron said flatly. "That vine "

"I think that's the point," Draco pointed out. "I'm guessing that one or other of us has to hold off the vine while Harry gets the scroll. And someone else has to keep a lookout for anything else that fancies taking a bite out of us in the meantime."

"Shit, shit, shit ...." Ron looked anxiously at Harry. "Harry?"

Harry swallowed and moistened his lips. It was difficult; his mouth had gone dry. "Okay," he heard himself say, and wondered if this meant that he was finally ready to book himself into the secure wing at St. Mungo's.

"Let's get on with it," said Draco. He gripped his wand firmly. "Ron, you keep a sharp lookout for anything coming up behind us. Harry, get ready I'm going to try to hold the vine off with a freezing spell."

"Most freezing spells don't work on plants!" Ron snapped, pulling his own wand out.

"This one will stop arguing! Ready, Harry?"

No! part of him wailed. But his hands moved entirely independently of his brain, and he was clutching his wand in one hand and the latch on the nearest gate with the other. He couldn't speak; the best he could do was nod.

Draco aimed his wand at the Viper Vine. "Rigora forcea!"

The vine's waving branches went rigid.

Harry had the gate unlatched and was inside the fence before he fully realised what he was doing. The Rosamundi tree was looking more and more menacing as he stepped towards it. When he reached the outermost branches, he dropped to his knees and went forward on all fours, concentrating on not snagging himself and not dropping his wand.

A sudden flurry of rustling of vegetation somewhere behind him made the hairs stand up on his arms. Something was happening, but he didn't dare take his attention from the rose. The scroll was hanging less than a foot away Harry stretched out his empty hand very carefully and inserted it into the gap between the branches. It occurred to him that he wasn't simply going to be able to take the scroll; he would have to untie it first, and he was bathed in a fresh wave of cold sweat at the realisation. But if he untied it, it would drop to the ground. He would have to get his arm out and crawl in further to pick it up.

Damned if he did and damned if he didn't! Unable to see a way around it, Harry got his fingers around the string holding the scroll and began to pluck at it very carefully. It was rough gardener's twine and resisted his efforts. Taking a risk, he plucked at it more sharply; it began to loosen.

The noises behind him were becoming more ominous, distracting him. Twice he lost his grip on the twine and it fell out of his reach, forcing him to reach further inside the branches to retrieve it. But at long last he gave it a sharp tweak and the knot came apart. The scroll tumbled down through the branches to the rich leaf-mould below and Harry took a deep, steadying breath before he began to pull his hand back.

He was nearly free when someone screamed.

Harry couldn't help it; his head whipped around and his arm jerked just the slightest bit upwards with the movement. Thorns bit into the skin of his wrist and before he could stop himself he had yanked his hand back with a stifled cry.

For a split second he registered two things: That Ron and Draco were struggling frantically in the middle of a seething mass of vines; and that the skin of his hand and arm was covered in tiny red scratches from the Rosamundi Cruciens. His arm was already completely numb.

By the time he realised exactly what was happening, he was passing out.

       

Once again Harry found himself waking up slowly in a strange bed. He let himself drift with his eyes shut for a moment or two, wondering where he was this time.

Then he heard soft voices a few feet away.

"Just because I've accepted that we have to work with you doesn't mean I've given you a carte blanche to throw yourself at Harry. Touch him, and I swear I'll rip your balls off understand?"

"Insecure, aren't we? For crying out loud, I wasn't doing anything "

"Yeah, right!"

"Jealousy is so unattractive! Does he know you get like this? What's the matter afraid I'll give him a taste of something you can't provide?"

"Like you have anything to offer these days except a pretty face!"

A low chuckle. "Tell me, did he manage to answer your question about what he found attractive in you?"

There was a curl of fury in the other voice. "What!"

"You think I didn't hear? Those are my rooms too, you know. I was reluctant to interrupt such an intimate moment, but it made very amusing listening. Must be embarrassing to put your heart on the line and find that the other person doesn't feel the same way "

The tone of the conversation was growing steadily more vicious. It was too much; Harry struggled for full consciousness, murmuring "Don't ...."

"Harry?"

He managed to drag his eyes open at last and found that he was lying in a familiar infirmary bed. There were floral screens on either side of him, but weak evening sunlight was pouring through a window on the opposite side of the ward.

Ron was sitting next to his bed, the light catching on his bright hair and turning it a fiery copper. Harry glanced around but couldn't see Draco anywhere, and when he looked at Ron his friend looked perfectly calm. There was even a book lying open in his lap, as though he'd been sitting there for some time.

Ron closed the book and tossed it onto the end of the bed. He looked concerned as he leaned over and touched Harry's wrist. "Are you okay?"

Harry blinked at him. Perhaps he had been dreaming after all, but it hadn't felt like a dream. Then he noticed that Ron's arms were covered in tiny scratches and bruises.

"What happened to you?"

The redhead grinned. "I got cuddled by a randy plant. What about you? How are you feeling?"

Harry grinned back weakly. "I feel dead again."

"Funny you should say that. You got a pretty heavy dose of venom, but luckily Professor Sprout was waiting to rescue us."

"Good. What about Draco?"

"He got cuddled too, but he yelled more than I did. Talk about a shrinking virgin you'd have thought it really was deflowering him, if you'll pardon the pun." Ron winked at him mischievously. "Obviously no one's ever told him about lying back and enjoying it."

Harry felt a tickle of happy laughter and wished he had the energy to indulge it. Instead, he lay there and enjoyed simply looking at his friend's expression, although after a moment or two Ron shifted under his gaze and gave him a quizzical look. "What?"

"Hm?"

"Why are you looking at me like that? You've got a soppy grin on your face ...."

Harry smiled. "I was just thinking that I understand what you were asking me."

Ron looked at him questioningly.

"I know what it is I find attractive about you," he clarified and watched, pleased, as the tips of Ron's ears began to turn pink.

"Oh?"

"Yeah ...." Harry curled his fingers gently around Ron's hand. "It's the way you laugh. It's the way you make me laugh. It's the way you can just shrug off some of the crap things that happen to us, or crack a joke about them so they don't seem so bad. You're one of the bravest people I know, but you're the last person to admit it and no one else ever seems to notice because you're always standing next to bloody Harry Potter who's supposed to do all the brave stuff because everyone expects it ...."

He took a breath and continued: "It's stuff like ... the way your ears go red when you're embarrassed, and the way you still get covered in chocolate when you eat a Chocolate Frog, like you did when you were twelve. Except that now I get to lick your fingers for you .... It's your freckles and red hair and the way you never seem to put any weight on, no matter how much you eat.

"It's the way you get jealous about other people hitting on me don't believe anyone who says it's not sexy, because it is, and it means a lot to me that you feel that strongly. It's the fact that I've known you for ten years and there are still new things to find out about you. And it's because you're my friend too, and you're always there for me, especially when I'm ill or injured or have a nightmare or sleepwalk. I know I can talk to you about things anything, especially weird or stupid things and you'll understand and you won't laugh at me.

"And ... and it's because I can't imagine spending the rest of my life with anyone but you. You're totally special to me. I've got other friends, like Hermione and the others, and family like Sirius and Remus, but it's not the slightest bit the same because they're not you. I know I don't say it much, Ron and in fact I'm sure I haven't said it lately at all but I do love you. It's not a matter of what you look like or even what kind of person you are. It's the whole package and something else besides. It's you. And I love you."

The grin that had spread across Ron's face was almost shy.

"That's good," he said after a moment, and his voice wobbled slightly with emotion, "because I love you too."

       

Beyond the screens, unseen by Harry or Ron, Draco Malfoy halted at the sound of the conversation and froze, listening. Minutes later, still unseen and unheard by them, he silently retreated again.

 

End Part 20/30

 

 

Beth Ann If I was going to stage a take-over, I'd want to make sure I had the press on my side if I could. Having to forcibly close down press agencies doesn't do much for one's image ....

Mary Caroline I really don't see him suddenly putting on a growth spurt and rivalling Ron, do you? *grin*

SparkySparkles Glad you liked the bathtub and Ron yelling .... But no. No more ficlets. I'm sorry, but a girl has to sleep sometimes!

Mermaid I think chapter 19 is about as naughty as I generally get, although I'm always trying to push myself a bit further. Glad you liked the action too!

Jen To answer your question, yes, it was the charm. I feel Harry's pain too. I'm not particularly short for a woman (I'm around 5 foot 10) but I'm the shortest person in my family, not counting my mother! Everyone else is over 6 foot. It's annoying.

Bgirl Glad you're still enjoying it!

Quoth the Raven Regarding the wizard circles, it's certainly possible for a wizard to be part of more than one circle, but you have to bear in mind that they are very rare in any case and really the only reason Nicholas Flamel was in three was due to his unusually long lifespan. It is theoretically possibly for a wizard especially the amplifying wizard to be part of more than one circle at a time. But that doesn't mean that putting any two wizards together with a known amplifier will automatically create a circle; it just makes it slightly more likely.

PotterBrother We'll be getting to grips with the Malfoy situation shortly, so expect more interaction!

Sally I hope you like Harry's response to Ron's question *smile* Regarding slower chapters, I think a story as long as this one needs slow chapters here and there, if only to give the characters a bit of a break. Besides, I can't develop situations or characters if they're doing nothing but reacting to crises! Too stressful. Regarding the Order of the Phoenix launch, no, I'm afraid I definitely won't be in Piccadilly on the 20th, as I live quite a long way from London actually, I'll be lucky if I can belt out early on the Saturday morning and pick up my reserved copy from the local branch of WHSmiths. 'Tis a pity, but that's life. Have fun!

Ice Lupus Glad you liked the train scene. Regarding Ron finding Draco attractive, I would stress that he only notes Draco's physical attraction; he's not saying he necessarily wants to ravish him! Nicholas Flamel's book is good as far as it goes, but the trio are going to have to find out for themselves what they can do with the circle and what it can do for them. What concept did I choose as the foundation for magic in this? That's a difficult question to answer, because I don't think I followed a "concept" as such as lot of what I've written is based on the Harry Potter books, but mostly I made it up as I went along! I mentioned at the end of chapter one that this story didn't have a real plot until I was several chapters into it, so a lot of the things you're reading developed as I wrote. I've only recently started to be more structured in my writing, but even when I start a story with the plot mapped out, a great deal of what happens in it develops along the way.


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