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-Five - Unsettlements

By Mad Martha

       

Harry was dreaming again.

       

Returning to London felt very strange.

Sirius came to collect the three of them from Hogwarts and accompany them home. This time they flew to Hogsmeade, Apparated to the Burrow (so that Ron could once again reassure his mother that they were alright) and after a quick cup of tea there, they took the Floo network to the student house.

They tumbled out of the living room fireplace to find Seamus making out with his latest girlfriend on the sofa. This was not an auspicious beginning, although just how inauspicious was not immediately apparent to Harry. He was more interested in dumping his bags in the attic bedroom and making sure that everything was just as they'd left it - what seemed like a lifetime ago. Then he and Ron went back downstairs to the kitchen to say hello to Hermione.

Things began to go downhill from there. Hermione no sooner clapped eyes on Harry than she exclaimed, "There you are! About time . Harry, what were you thinking of?"

He came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the kitchen, and looked at her blankly. "Eh?"

Ron slung an arm around his shoulders, grinning. "You know - midnight chat with Dumbledore?"

"Oh!" Harry blinked. "Hermione, I don't think now is a good time - "

He might as well have saved his breath.

"Honestly, Harry, I can't believe you said that! I felt sure it must have been a mistake, because I know how upset you were at not being included when we were at school. Moody is furious and I can't say I blame him, because we need you three, and thanks to you saying something stupid to Professor Dumbledore, Ron and Draco decided to say 'no' too - "

Feeling like he'd just been hit by an express train, Harry looked at Ron. "Did I just regress about ten years without noticing?"

Ron looked amused at this, but there was a wary look in his eyes when he glanced at Hermione. He opened his mouth to say something to her, but was interrupted by Neville's sudden entrance.

"Oh, hey! The wanderers return!" he said, looking pleased. Then he grinned and tapped Ron's hand where it was draped over Harry's shoulder. "You haven't forgotten rule number seven, have you? No naughty touching!"

Harry felt Ron tense up - and suddenly the redhead was gone, stalking out of the kitchen.

Neville looked stricken. "What did I say?"

"Um nothing, I think," Harry told him hastily. He was a bit surprised at Ron's abrupt departure himself. "Don't worry about it, Nev - it's been a long couple of weeks."

Hermione pursed her lips disapprovingly. "For heaven's sake, he can't be miffy already!"

Harry stared at her, wondering where her attitude had come from. This was more in keeping with the eleven-year-old Hermione who had once driven Harry and Ron mad, not with the poised adult she was now.

"I don't know," he replied quietly. "Perhaps he thinks he has a good reason. Hermione, what's the matter?"

She stared back at him for a moment and suddenly seemed to deflate. "I'm sorry," she muttered and she turned back to the stove, giving a cauldron of potatoes a poke with a wooden spoon. "It's been bad at work over the last couple of weeks. What with Bethany being murdered ."

Hermione had known Bethany better than the others. While they hadn't been friends exactly, they had sometimes studied and done their homework together. It had been horrible enough for Harry to witness, even at second hand, her violent death; he couldn't imagine how Hermione must feel.

"Do you know when her funeral will be?" he asked after a moment.

"Not yet. Her body hasn't been released."

Harry grimaced silently and looked down at the floor for a moment. Neville, apparently feeling that he wasn't wanted, took the opportunity to grab a bottle of butterbeer from the fridge and slip out of the kitchen again.

"Look," Harry said quietly, when he was gone, "I know what happened the other day must have come as a surprise to everyone "

"A surprise?" Hermione gave him a wry little smile. "Harry, you could have knocked most of us down with a feather. I don't think anyone was expecting you to turn down an offer to join the Order of the Phoenix, after the fuss you created when we were fifteen!"

He smiled too, but it was a little sad. "I'm not fifteen anymore, Hermione."

"No, you're not."

They looked at each other for a moment.

"Would it be rude to ask your reasons for refusing?" she asked finally.

"Not rude," Harry replied hesitantly, "but you might have to wait for an answer because to be honest, I haven't totally sorted it all out in my head yet."

To his relief, Hermione laughed at this. "I might have known!"

She put the wooden spoon down and reached out to him, and Harry stepped into the welcoming hug with relief.

"It's good to have you back, Harry. How was it?"

"It was weird," he said into her hair, "but interesting. Remind me to tell you about it sometime."

"I will." She let go. "Just ... promise me one thing. Promise you'll be careful now."

"I am careful!"

Hermione gave him an old-fashioned look. "Harry, this is me, remember? I know exactly how careful you aren't. And I heard all about the Hogwarts Express incident!"

Harry grinned a little sheepishly.

       

Dinner was initially a boisterous meal, with everyone wanting to talk about the past couple of weeks and question Harry and Ron about their trip to Hogwarts. The only person who was quiet was Draco; as before, he was mostly ignored by the rest of the housemates. Harry had been conscious of this before, but now it was uncomfortably noticeable to him and he wasn't sure what to do about it. The three of them had achieved a level of comfort in the past few weeks, and he had forgotten just how tense and difficult it had been in the house before.

But none of the others seemed to notice the change, until Draco quietly said, "Ron, could you pass me the vinaigrette please?"

Seamus stared at him, and it was not a friendly look. "Since when has he been 'Ron' to you?" he demanded.

There was a pause, and Harry tried frantically to think of something to say.

Ron beat him to it. "Oh, since we all slept together," he said casually. He handed the dressing bottle to Draco, apparently unaware of the stunned expressions around the table, and looked across at Neville. "Nev, are you finished with the spud dish?"

Kill me now, Harry thought, watching as Dean fought a losing battle against choking on a mouthful of salad. Seamus kept opening and closing his mouth, unable to think of a thing to say.

"You all ... slept together?" Ginny asked weakly.

"Of course," Draco replied, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. "We're very close."

"You're joking," Neville said disbelievingly.

"It was only the once," Harry told them, and instantly wished he'd kept his mouth shut.

"Oh, that makes all the difference then!" snapped Seamus. He looked outraged; why, Harry couldn't imagine. It seemed like extraordinary hypocrisy, considering that he had an uncomfortable memory of catching the lascivious Irishman in the bath with twin girls the Christmas before last.

And people complained about him and Ron getting bubblebath on the ceiling.

"Well yeah, I think it does," Ron commented dryly, "considering that we were all fully dressed and practically comatose at the time." He raised one auburn brow at Seamus's increasing ire. "Why, what did you think we meant?"

Fortunately, Seamus was struck speechless by this.

"And now you're all on first name terms?" Hermione alone was maintaining her composure.

"Something like that," Draco murmured, and he turned his attention back to his meal, apparently content at having helped Ron to set the cat among the pigeons.

Hermione eyed him. "I see." Clearly deciding to leave the matter there, she looked around the table and changed the subject. "Since everyone's here tonight, we ought to have a house meeting."

Reluctantly everyone followed her lead, although Seamus was still shooting looks of suspicion and dislike at Draco.

"It'll have to be short," Harry warned Hermione. "I've got Quidditch practice tonight, and I can't afford to miss it I've got a game next weekend."

"Then let's get on with it ...."

There was some muted grumbling, but they all settled down to discuss finances and the knotty problems that had arisen from having to have extra security added to the house before they could all move back in. By the time they were onto pudding, they had covered pretty much everything and Hermione was, with a little assistance from Seamus, able to balance the books again.

"I think that's everything," she said, finally pushing the account book to one side. "Does anyone have anything else to raise?"

"Yeah, I do," said Ron unexpectedly.

"Go on, then it's getting late."

"It's about the house rules," he said blandly, and Harry felt him suddenly tense up. "How come Seamus gets away with screwing his girlfriend on the living room sofa, while I get yelled at if I just put an arm around Harry?"

There was a startled silence, which was broken by a very nervous Neville.

"I didn't yell ...." he began apologetically.

"I wasn't getting at you, Nev," Ron told him sharply. "I just want to know why there's a different rule for me and Harry, when we've been living together for three years now. I mean, for God's sake, if you're not used to us being together by now, you never will be."

"Good point," Hermione said quietly. She looked down the table; Ginny was nodding agreement and so, to Harry's surprise, was Neville. Dean looked noncommittal, but Seamus was staring at Ron as though he'd grown an extra head.

"For cryin' out loud! We'd have moved if you'd said anything!" he protested.

"That's not the point, Seamus. If we'd been doing that, you'd have screamed bloody blue murder "

"That's different!"

Harry felt obliged to say something. "How is it different? I didn't particularly want to see you groping your girlfriend, but I didn't say anything. And it's not like Ron and I are going to start making out on the stairs or anywhere else in public view! I mean, have we ever?"

"It's bad enough when you forget the bloody privacy spell," Seamus muttered. His eyes would not meet Harry's.

"So?" Ginny put in unexpectedly. "You've forgotten a few times too - we all have at one time or another!"

Ron gave her a sharp look. "When have you ever needed a privacy spell?" he demanded.

"None of your business!" she snapped back. "Don't you start going all Percy-ish on me!"

"Hey - !"

"We're getting off the point here!" Hermione interrupted. "Seamus, what's the problem?"

Silence.

"Nothing," he said finally, and slumped back in his chair. His eyes still wouldn't meet Harry's or Ron's.

"Doesn't look like "nothing" to me," Ron told him curtly. "If you've got a problem with me and Harry, just spit it out."

"Leave it, Ron, can't you?" Dean asked in a weary tone.

"No, I've been leaving it for three years now! What's the matter, Seamus? Is it that if you don't have to watch me touching Harry, you can pretend we're not really gay?"

"Leave it." Dean was glaring now. "Jesus, Ron, what is your problem? You haven't been back in the house five minutes, and already you're picking fights!"

Ron stared at him for a second, then suddenly screwed up his napkin and threw it on the table. "Right! Fine!" he snapped and stood up sharply, shoving his chair back. Everyone made a grab for their water glasses as he jostled the table, then he was pushing past his sister and storming out of the room.

"Ron!" Ginny protested, but he was already gone and they could hear his feet stamping up the stairs. She cast a quick glance at Harry, who shook his head slightly, and pursed her lips. She got up from the table more slowly and followed her brother.

Harry dropped his own napkin on the table and sat back with a sigh.

"What the hell was all that about?" Dean demanded of him.

"Why are you asking me?" Harry wanted to know. "Seamus?"

"Yeah, right, just blame it all on me!" the Irishman snapped.

"Well, do you have a problem with Harry and Ron being gay?" Hermione asked him sharply. "Because that's what it's starting to look like from where I'm sitting."

Seamus glared. "Where's the sudden urge to get all touchy-feely in public coming from?" he wanted to know, pointedly ignoring Hermione's question. "I thought the pair of you wanted to keep it all under wraps?"

"We can't keep it a secret forever," Harry reminded him. "Sirius, Remus and most of Ron's family already know, but if the rest of the world has to find out then I want to be the one telling them, not some nosy reporter from the Prophet out for a scoop."

The others - with the exception of Draco, who was still keeping very quiet - stared at him.

"You think you can stop the Prophet having a field day with it?" said Dean. He snorted. "You're living in Cloud Cuckoo Land!"

Harry shrugged. "Maybe. It's worth a try though, and it has to be worth something if they're not the newspaper that breaks the story."

"You're never planning to do an interview?" Hermione demanded incredulously. She caught on quickly. "But you've always been so against it ...."

"You'd co-operate with the Skeeter bitch?" Some of Seamus's aggression drained away in the face of this startling news.

"No!" Harry stifled a chuckle. "God, no! Can you imagine? Witch Weekly's printed enough stories about me crying all over the place, thanks!"

There were a few muted chuckles at this.

"So what are you going to do?" Neville asked curiously.

"Well ." Harry glanced at Draco, hesitating. "This was your idea. You want to explain?"

The blond youth raised a brow at him, but shrugged and leaned forward. "The idea is that Harry picks one magazine, preferably one of the less hysterical ones, and offers to do a no-holds-barred, exclusive interview for them," he said, "but he makes it clear that this is a once in a lifetime, never to be repeated deal. It won't stop the other papers and magazines writing stories about him, but after one magazine gets the real thing straight from his mouth, it'll definitely discredit anything anyone else comes up with."

"Interesting idea," Hermione said into the quiet that followed this. "Who are you thinking of going to, Harry?"

"There's a magazine called Modern Warlock. It caters mostly for younger, professional types ."

"Good choice," Draco said, looking surprised and a little impressed. "Their circulation isn't large, but they have a good reputation."

"That's what I thought. Of course, I'd have to talk to the editor first and find out if he'd be interested." Harry fiddled with his napkin. "I'm guessing they might want to interview some of my friends as well, though. Are you up for it?"

Neville looked dubious. "Oh, I don't know ...."

"Well, not if you don't like it of course. But I'd rather any quotes they use come from people I trust, instead of them talking to people I hate or even making stuff up and attributing it to an unnamed 'friend' who doesn't exist."

There was another pause as the group looked at each other.

"Well, think about it," Harry said, and left it at that.

       

When Harry walked into the attic room, he found Ginny sitting in the armchair in front of the closet, looking exasperated, while Ron stalked around the room putting things from their bags away in drawers and cupboards. Ginny stood up when Harry appeared and gave him an eloquent look.

"I don't know how you put up with him," she said, and she glowered at her brother briefly. "You're welcome to his temper, Harry!"

When Ron continued to ignore her, she muttered something under her breath and left. Harry shut the door behind her and watched his friend for a moment, hands dug into his jeans pockets. Ron continued to rummage in the two bags, pulling out a couple of tightly-stoppered glass bottles.

"What do you want to do with these?" he asked casually.

It was the Polyjuice and Restoria Vitae Potions they'd made at Hogwarts. Dumbledore had presented them with a bottle of each before they left.

"Floor of the closet?" Harry suggested. Neither potion could be kept in the light, but he didn't want to put them in the kitchen pantry, even properly labelled. God only knew what Neville would do with them by accident. Polyjuice himself into an extremely lively Mandrake plant, probably.

"Good idea." Ron tucked them away in a corner of the closet where they were well-hidden by their winter cloaks.

Clearly he wasn't going to raise the subject of Seamus himself, so Harry did it for him.

"What was all that about in the house meeting?"

His friend shrugged, not looking at him. "I get pissed off with Seamus's attitude sometimes. I mean, why is it okay for him to rub my nose in his affairs, but I have to act like I'm celibate everywhere but in here?"

"It's never bothered you like this before," Harry pointed out quietly.

"Yeah, well maybe I hadn't noticed it much before."

The penny dropped. "We had a lot of freedom up at Hogwarts, didn't we? Everyone there already knew, so we didn't have to pretend."

"It's not just that." Ron pulled a bundle of dirty laundry from his bag and tossed it into the basket by the door. "We shouldn't have to pretend here, Harry; everyone's known about us for ages. And I don't think anyone really cares - except Seamus. That rule was added to the list because of him, not Neville or Dean or even Ginny. It was Seamus who kicked up a fuss right from the beginning."

Which was true, but

"He can't help it if he's uncomfortable with us being the way we are."

The redhead snorted derisively. "Yeah! Why, he shared a dormitory with us for seven whole years and never realised how close he came to being leapt on and ravished while he slept! Shock, horror. And God forbid he should have to share a house with us now unless he has proper safeguards in place to protect his non-existent virtue."

"Ron ...."

"No, sod it, Harry! We shouldn't have to take this shit from someone who's supposed to be a friend of ours. You think he shags his girlfriends on the living room sofa just for the fun of seeing Neville's expression or getting yelled at by Hermione? No, he does that to get at us, like he's got something to prove "

This was a little too paranoid for Harry's liking. "Hey, come on - take it easy ...."

Ron dropped the little book he'd just pulled out of Harry's bag onto the bed and rubbed at his temples fretfully. "I've got a lousy headache starting," he said, and his peevish tone succeeded in dragging Harry's horrified eyes away from where The Forbidden Artes had landed on the bedspread, unheeded by Ron who, until that point, hadn't even known of its existence.

Schooling his face into patient concern, Harry took his partner's arm and gently but deliberately drew him away from the bed.

"What's brought this on?" he asked. Ron was still rubbing at his eyes; Harry took the opportunity to slide his wand unobtrusively out of his sleeve and flick it at the little book, which jumped up and whisked itself away under the pillow on Harry's side of the bed.

"I don't know I didn't sleep very well last night."

"Are you dreaming again?" Harry was genuinely concerned, for over the last couple of nights at Hogwarts all three of them had suffered from nightmares, Ron in particular. He either couldn't or wouldn't talk about them.

"A bit." He shrugged it off brusquely. "I'll be alright. You're going to be late for Quidditch practice, you know."

Harry let it go. He didn't like Ron shutting him out like this, because they didn't normally keep secrets from one another; but he didn't exactly hold the moral high ground in that respect himself. He felt guilty about keeping the little book from Ron; on the other hand, he didn't want his partner to see some of the things he'd read in there.

"Yeah, I'd better go," he said with a sigh. "Are you coming?"

"Nah, what's the point? What are the chances of them needing the reserves?" Ron was a reserve Beater on the Aurors' team.

"Well, you never know .... "

But Ron wouldn't be pushed, and in the end Harry gathered up his broom and kit and left him to it.

       

The Inter-Agencies League borrowed the Tutshill Tornadoes' Quidditch ground for matches, and various of their teams also had permission to practice there when the Tornadoes weren't using it. Unlike less successful League teams such as the Chudley Cannons, the Tornadoes had no need to rent their pitch out to amateurs, so at least there were no scheduling headaches.

Harry discovered that the rest of the Aurors' team had already assembled when he arrived. He hurried into his practice kit, grabbed his Tsunami and jogged out onto the pitch to a chorus of cheerful catcalls from his team-mates and a stern rebuke from Maud Dingbottle, the coach. Although an Auror now, Maud had once been Seeker for the great Montrose Magpies and she was the very devil to please. She played reserve Seeker for the Aurors, an unnerving prospect for Harry whom she tended to shadow during practice games, making acid comments about his flying technique.

Muttering an apology, Harry ducked into the line-up and was surprised to find himself standing next to Sirius.

"Where's Marius?" he asked under the cover of one of Dingbottle's scathing speeches, referring to Marius Rooney, the usual Keeper.

"Out on assignment," his godfather muttered back. "Where's Ron?"

"At home, sulking - "

"When you two gentlemen have finished gossiping," the coach interrupted, glaring at Harry like Professor Snape. "Potter, I suppose it's too much to hope that you've bothered to pick up a broom for the past three weeks?"

"Well - "

Dingbottle didn't give him a chance to complete the thought. "Thought not. Do you realise that you'll be facing off against Charlie Weasley next week? If he's lost his edge while he's been chasing dragons around Eastern Europe, I'll eat my gauntlets." She gave him another searing look, and turned away. "Well, what are you all loafing around for? Into the air with you!"

That was a bit unfair, Harry thought. He'd been playing against Ron and Draco for at least an hour a day for the last five days, and no one could accuse the two of them of being slouches, particularly Draco.

He kicked off from the ground, muttering resentfully to himself, and got a wry grin in passing from Cho Chang, who was a Chaser on this team.

As he swooped up above the other players and positioned himself in the usual Seeker's spot above the three Chasers, he had one cheering thought: On his new Tsunami it was highly unlikely that the coach would be able to keep up with him long enough to make any remarks about his handling of it.

There was a faint clunk from below; Dingbottle had kicked open the wooden chest containing the four Quidditch balls. There were two sharp whooshes! as the Bludgers were released, and a fleck of bright gold zipped past Harry's nose as the Snitch escaped. Then the coach stooped to pick up the Quaffle and paused, glaring around at the team, including those reserves who'd managed to turn up.

"Now, I want to see some decent moves from the lot of you!" she called threateningly, and with that she tossed the Quaffle into the air.

       

When Harry finally left the pitch two hours later, it was growing dark and he was stiff and lathered with sweat. He staggered into the changing rooms with the others, ignoring Dingbottle's stream of criticisms - he'd caught the Snitch three times, what more did the woman want? - and headed for the showers with intense relief.

"I swear she's worse than Oliver Wood," he called to Sirius, who was in the next cubicle, "and I never thought I'd say that about anyone."

"There's a rumour that the Magpies threw a two-day party when she left," Sirius called back, and Harry laughed. He rinsed off and dragged a towel around his waist, heading back to the changing rooms to dry up and dress.

He was more than a little surprised to find Seamus waiting for him.

"Hullo," Harry said, staring at him. "What are you doing here?"

"I am not homophobic!" the sandy-haired Irishman informed him indignantly.

Oh God. This just put the cap on a perfect day. Harry had never felt less like dealing with any of his housemates, especially since he was surrounded by eight of his colleagues, most of whom supposedly didn't know about him and Ron.

"You've had a row with Ron, haven't you?" he said shortly. He began to sort through his clothes.

"He had the nerve to say - "

"I don't want to hear it!" Harry snapped, before Seamus could forget himself entirely and blurt out everything in front of the entire room. "Go home, Seamus. If you've got a problem with Ron - or with anyone else in the house - sort it out with them, not me!"

"But Harry - "

"No, Seamus!" Suddenly something seemed to go pop! inside Harry and he forgot that he was standing there in nothing but a damp towel, surrounded by staring Aurors, as a whole load of pent-up aggravation boiled out. "I can't believe you came all the way out here just to whine at me! What the hell is the matter with you all? For crying out loud, I'm not the head of the family with the final say on everything, and I'm not a neutral buffer zone between you all when you fall out! If you've got a problem with Ron or Draco or anyone else, just deal with it, will you? Yell at them or punch them or bloody well blast each other into oblivion if you want - just don't keep expecting me to sort out your problems or act like some kind of United Nations peacekeeping force in my own home! I'm fed up with it!"

A startled silence fell, and Harry was conscious of several pairs of intrigued eyes and ears waiting to see what would happen next.

Seamus looked disconcerted by this unexpected rant, and also decidedly put out. For a moment his mouth opened and closed silently, then he pulled himself together.

"Right!" he said, very stiffly. "Fine! I'll just piss off then, shall I?"

"You do that," Harry told him curtly.

Bristling with indignation, Seamus Disapparated.

"Don't let the door slap you on your way out," Sirius's voice commented laconically, and there was a smattering of chuckles around the changing room.

Harry was suddenly aware that he was standing there clad in nothing but a towel and an angry flush. He looked around and discovered that his team-mates, including his godfather, were all in equal states of undress.

"They'll be locking up here if we don't hurry up," he muttered, embarrassed, and began to dry off.

He was just buckling his kit-bag shut when Sirius gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder.

"Want to have supper with Remus and me?" he asked, grinning. "You domineering old head of the household, you."

Harry grinned back reluctantly. "Thanks, but I'd better not. I should go home and face the music "

"Alright, but it's your funeral. You must be a glutton for punishment."

"Well, you're the one who told me I ought to stand up to people more," Harry pointed out wryly.

       

Not wanting to deal with the others when he got home, Harry took the risk of Apparating directly into the bedroom. It was startlingly dark; the curtains had been pulled, the lights were off and he got the impression that a darkness charm had been cast in the room.

"Ron?" Harry had to feel his way across to the bed. The curtains on that were closed too. He drew his wand from his sleeve. "Lumos."

The tiny light didn't do much to dispel the blackness. Harry pulled the bed-curtains apart an inch or two and peered inside; Ron was sprawled across the bed fully dressed, with an arm over his eyes. "Ron?"

"Harry?" Ron moved slowly, shielding his eyes from the light and wincing as he sat up.

"Are you okay?" Harry pushed the curtains further apart and sat down on the edge of the bed. "God, you look like hell!"

"I feel like hell. My head's splitting."

"Have you had a headache potion?"

"Nah. I went downstairs to get one after you left, and Seamus nobbled me in the kitchen. I couldn't be bothered after that. I just wanted to lie down."

Harry gave him a concerned look and stood up. "Get undressed and into bed," he told his friend. "I'll fetch you a potion."

"'Kay."

The house was dark and quiet when he left their room, which was a little unusual considering that it was still quite early. Harry trotted purposefully downstairs to the kitchen, and nearly leapt out of his skin when Draco popped out of the pantry just as he was opening the door.

"Shit, Draco! You nearly gave me a heart-attack!" Harry stared him. "What are you doing in there anyway?"

"Looking for something a bit more exciting than butterbeer," the blond youth replied. "A stiff drink seemed like a fitting epilogue to the evening, but I can't find anything so I'm pinching a bar of Granger's chocolate instead. Do you think she'll mind?"

"Probably. Was there a huge row?" Harry began to rummage for Ron's special headache potions. Someone had had a tidying fit while the three of them were gone and nothing was in its usual place.

"Oh Lord, yes. Finnegan laid into Ron about that business at dinner I thought they were going to have a punch up, but Thomas and Granger stepped in and Finnegan took off somewhere "

"He turned up at Quidditch practice just as we were finishing and tried to have a go at me as well. I told him to get lost."

Harry finally located one of the glass vials of potion and backed out of the pantry, closing the door. Draco looked at the tiny container and raised a brow. "Headache?"

"Not me Ron."

"I thought he was looking a bit peaky earlier. Not on his usual form."

"Hm." Harry didn't really want to discuss it, even if he was on better terms with Draco these days. "He'll be alright in the morning." He was just heading back out of the kitchen, when something occurred to him and he turned back. "Are you okay for something to do?"

Draco gave him a sly smile. "Thanks, Potter, but I'm over twenty-one you know. I can amuse myself."

Harry thought about that for a split second and shuddered. "I don't want to know!"

       

Ron was sitting on the side of the bed in his pyjamas when Harry returned. It was still exceptionally dark in the bedroom, and in the feeble light from his wand the redhead looked washed out and ill.

"Here ." Harry poured half a glass of water from the jug on the nightstand and tipped a careful measure of the potion into it. He handed it to his partner. "You really don't look too good. Do you want me to see if Ginny's at home and - "

"No! God, no ." Ron drank the potion in three quick, distasteful swallows and handed the glass back. "I don't need Ginny fussing, thanks. I'll be fine."

Harry sat down on the edge of the bed next to him. "Look," he said hesitantly, "I know you're having nightmares. Do you want to talk about it?"

But Ron shook his head. "Not really."

"Ron ."

"Don't, Harry." Unexpectedly he leaned into him, resting his forehead on Harry's shoulder. "They're just dreams. They're probably nothing like accurate - they're not even the same twice in a row."

Which was the problem with dreams, even the prophetic ones. The future tended to be quite fluid, and of all the many divinatory methods dreams most often reflected that amorphous aspect. It was an irony that you could discover the most details about the future from a dream, but at the cost of certainty. Ron himself frequently observed, with considerable exasperation, that sometimes reading the tea-leaves was more reliable.

"Then why are you so bothered by it?" Harry asked him softly.

Ron didn't answer immediately, and when he did his voice was muffled by Harry's t-shirt.

"I don't want you to die."

Shock flooded Harry's veins like ice-water. For a moment he stared down at the copper hair of his friend, thinking No, he can't have found the book .... Then his brain slowly started to come out of its paralysis and move again.

Of course Ron hadn't found the book. If he had, he would have been ranting and raving at Harry by now, headache or no. It was only a stupid, unreliable dream. Only ....

"What makes you say that, you silly sod?" he asked, trying to keep his voice light and humorous.

Ron didn't move, almost as though he couldn't bear to look at Harry. "It keeps coming up as a theme. Not every time. Just some."

"Often?" A shrug. "But you've done heaps of Tarot predictions on me and I usually come out okay in those. And the Tarot's more reliable."

"I haven't done a spread lately."

"So do one when you're feeling better."

A pause, and then Ron pulled back, straightening up a little. "He's getting closer," he said abruptly.

"Who?"

"You Know Who."

"Voldemort?" Harry rubbed at his scar a little self-consciously. "I haven't felt any twinges or anything lately, and I think I would, considering everything that's happened over the last couple of weeks."

But his friend shook his head. "Not physically. He's coming closer psychically. Whatever's going to happen is coming closer."

Harry raised his brows. "How close?"

"I don't know. I wish I did."

He looked so exhausted and his eyes were drooping in spite of his efforts to stay awake. The headache potion tended to have a soporific effect. Harry shook his head and gave Ron a gentle nudge. "Come on, time for bed."

It was a measure of the redhead's condition that he didn't argue. But he did squint at Harry as he was sliding under the covers. "Are you coming to bed too?"

"In a minute."

Harry waited until Ron was settled and his eyes were closed, then he quietly slipped his hand under his own pillow and fished out his mother's little book. Closing the bed curtains, he went to sit in the armchair, where he could read The Forbidden Artes without disturbing his friend.

       

In spite of everything, Harry was amused at Draco's irritated expression when he emerged for breakfast the next morning. The blond wizard was clad in a long buff-coloured robe over his jeans and t-shirt.

"I found this in a batch of new clothes left for me this morning," he commented acidly, as he put a couple of slices of bread into the toaster. "I take it someone's trying to give me a hint."

"Looks more like an order to me," was Hermione's assessment, as she looked at the Auror's robe over the top of her copy of the Daily Prophet. "Speaking of which, you three might want to keep out of Moody's way this morning." Since Neville and Ginny were both sitting at the table at the time, she couldn't say much more than that, but she gave Harry a significant look before retiring behind the newspaper again.

Harry shrugged, but couldn't work up much anxiety about the prospect of Moody's ire; he was more concerned with Ron, who was still far too pale and quiet for his liking. To make matters worse, it was evident that Seamus was still bearing a grudge. He'd stormed in and out of the kitchen ten minutes earlier without speaking to anyone, and a matter of moments later Dean had followed him, equally silent but looking exasperated.

Something had changed in the student house; Harry couldn't put a finger on what it was, but he didn't like it.

There was nothing to be done about it this morning though, so he put it to the back of his mind and worried instead about what was waiting for them at the Aurors' Facility.

       

Usually, being paired off against Ron in physical training exercises was something of a challenge, for when he wanted he could easily predict every move you were going to make just before you made it. The situation had both advantages and disadvantages; it was excellent for deflating egos and training you to react without thinking first, but it was a limited advantage for Ron who could only sustain the foresight for a short period before developing an unpleasant headache.

Today, however, Harry not only found him less than a challenge, but was actually concerned that he might inflict some serious damage on his distracted partner. Their trainer unfortunately the Quidditch coach, Maud Dingbottle was quick to notice and brought Ron back to attention with a sudden slap to the back of his head.

"Wake up, Weasley!" she barked at him, as he stumbled from the unexpected blow. "Potter, stop babying him! Do you think a Death Eater'll give him a second chance?" She shook her head, exasperated. "I think it's time the pair of you were split up. Potter, work with Clare. Cottley, come over here with Weasley; Granger, you work with Twizzle for a while. And Chang, take that boy there " she gestured dismissively to Draco, who was pretty much a tyro at martial arts, "and put him through some basic exercises."

Cho gave Harry a rueful smile as he moved to take her place opposite Simeon Clare, but she didn't seem too bothered by the prospect of working with Draco; unlike the others who had all reacted with varying degrees of disgust when he'd arrived that morning with Harry, Ron and Hermione. All the same, Harry wished he had eyes in the back of his head and enough attention to split three ways. Now he was not only worried about Ron, but he was worrying about Draco too. He knew Cho rather well; she could smile good-humouredly at you all the while she was breaking your neck, and bow politely to your dead body when she was finished.

Consequently, Simeon was able to throw Harry on his back three times in a row, before Dingbottle's ire descended on him again. He reluctantly abandoned his companions to their fates, and concentrated on saving his own skin instead.

By the end of the morning, Harry at least felt he had acquitted himself well. Ron had woken up and put up a spirited defence against Meg Cottley (just as well - she was almost as deadly as Cho); and Draco appeared to be on unusually good terms with Cho Chang, considering the new collection of bruises he was nursing.

"That was entertaining," he commented in the changing rooms. "What comes next in the day's thrilling programme of events?"

"Lunch," Harry replied dryly.

After lunch, an owl arrived to inform the team that - once again - Percy Weasley had been sent a curse and needed assistance. Remus Lupin promptly handed the matter over to Harry and Ron, with instructions to take Draco with them.

Harry hesitated over this. "You know, he's not very fond of us at the moment," he pointed out reluctantly, remembering Percy's reaction at his birthday party.

"Doesn't matter," Lupin replied briskly. "He asked for Auror assistance; that's what he gets. If he makes a fuss, refer him back to me."

So, Harry, Ron and Draco set out for the Ministry. When they arrived at Percy's office, they were greeted by the secretary who looked after him and four other members of his team. She was giggling, but this was nothing unusual given the number of curses Percy seemed to attract, and Harry nodded to her briskly.

"What's the problem this time?" Ron asked casually.

The young witch managed to pull herself together enough to say nonchalantly: "Oh, you know him! He's just going bananas as usual." Then she clamped her bottom lip firmly between her teeth and quickly swung her chair around to her ancient typewriter, making a desperate stab at looking calm and efficient.

Harry sighed and rapped sharply on Percy's door before opening it.

He took one look at what was sitting behind the desk in the tiny office and quickly shut the door again, not sure he believed his eyes.

"Well?" Draco asked impatiently. "What's going on?"

Harry shook his head and opened the door again, pushing it wide open.

"Help me!" Percy squawked, outraged.

He was going bananas. Quite literally. Both his arms had turned into giant bananas and his hands were ripe bunches of five smaller bananas. As the three of them gawked, astonished, there was a tiny pop! and one of his ears turned into a little curving yellow fruit as well.

Ron gave a great snort of laughter and had to retreat to the outer office to get control of himself, leaving the other two to approach his brother's desk uncertainly.

"Holy shit!" Draco's tone was admiring. "Which curse is that?"

"Do something!" Percy raged at them. "Don't just stand there!"

There was another pop! and his left shoe burst at the seams, unable to cope with his foot suddenly changing shape.

"Percy, I'm not sure I know what to do," Harry told him helplessly. "I've never seen this curse before! Where did it come from?"

Draco was already gingerly lifting a torn envelope on the tip of his wand. "It's addressed by hand," he commented, squinting at the writing with his head on one side.

"Ron, for crying out loud, get in here and give us a hand!"

Ron appeared in the doorway, wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his robe. "Sorry Perce," he said, not sounding the least bit repentant. "What have we got?"

"A hand-written envelope," Draco told him. "I don't recognise the writing - do you?"

He passed the envelope over and Ron began to snicker again. "That explains everything! Percy, don't you recognise George's writing? It's on every flippin' birthday and Christmas card you get from the twins!"

Percy struggled to express his feelings around a pair of banana lips that had just appeared.

"So how do we change him back?" Draco asked, intrigued.

"I'm not sure we do, under the circumstances," Harry replied, studying Percy's banana hands with an admirable straight face. "Most of Fred and George's jinxes wear off after a while. Mind you, I'm not sure what effect having a banana for a head would have on a person ."

Percy squawked and nearly burst his golden skin trying to convey his agitation to them.

"Okay, okay!" Harry said hastily. "We'll get onto the twins at once and make them turn you back."

"There's never a camera around when you need one," Ron commented regretfully.

       

Fred and George were utterly unrepentant when Harry, Ron and Draco brought them into the Facility for the usual Stern Lecture about wastage of valuable Auror time.

"He's a patronising little git," was George's estimation of Percy. "He hasn't stopped lecturing and boring on at us since the shop got burned out. We got fed up of it."

"And besides, there was nowhere else to test the new jokes while we get the workshop refitted," Fred added, as though this was the most reasonable explanation in the world. "What did you think?" he asked brightly. "Banana Bunch Dust! Add it to your friends' drinks for a touch of monkey business!"

It didn't help that Ron seemed to think it was all a good joke and was inclined to let his brothers off with a friendly warning. Draco, amused by the whole affair, refused to venture an opinion, leaving Harry to try futilely to impress upon the twins a sense of guilt about the incident. In the end he gave up and instead complained bitterly to Sirius about the impossibility of imposing an on-the-spot fine on the culprits. Magical law hadn't yet caught up with the Muggle world in this respect, and taking Fred and George to court over the incident seemed a little excessive.

"Not to mention the marital disharmony it's likely to cause in the Potter-Weasley household," was Sirius's grinning observation. "I told you: You're too bloody nice for your own good."

Harry stomped back into the interview room, just in time to catch Fred trying to palm some suspect packages off onto Ron.

"If those are destined for Seamus, I don't want to know," he told his partner grumpily. The packets looked suspiciously like one of the twins' more popular inventions Scratch'n'Scratch Itching Powder. It was fifty percent stronger than standard itching powder, and three times as long-lasting. To Fred and George, he added sourly, "You can go."

George all but bounced out of his seat, grinning. "Thanks, Harry!"

"Yeah, you're a good egg, mate!" Fred added, clapping him on the shoulder.

Harry tried not to look grouchy. The twins were the twins, after all, and Percy was terribly irritating.

"Just ... try and leave Percy alone for a while, eh?" he pleaded. "It's bad enough when Mundungus Fletcher makes his teeth fall out. And I don't know how I'm going to look him in the eye now I've seen him as a bloody great banana."

In the background, he heard Draco give a refined snigger. The twins eyed the blond youth suspiciously, but apparently decided not to comment, for which Harry was grateful. It had been hard enough explaining his presence earlier.

"Look at it this way," George told Harry. "At least you won't get a Howler from Penelope later."

Ron perked up. "Really?"

"Yeah, she always sends a Howler if we stick a joke on Perce," Fred said casually. "It's usually pretty good for a laugh. Oh, hey! Have you two been invited to the party?"

"No, what party?"

"The one Mum's throwing at the weekend, after the Quidditch match," George told them. "We reckon it's the engagement party at last, since she made a big deal about saying Percy and Penny would be there."

"We haven't been invited," Ron said, looking a little hurt, "and we only saw her yesterday "

"Well, our owl arrived this morning, so yours is probably waiting for you. Besides, you know what Errol's like it's a wonder he's got any feathers left at his time of life."

Harry looked at Ron. "We have got to get your mum and dad a new owl for Christmas ...."

"Anyway, Mum said it would be a celebration, no matter who won the game on Saturday," Fred put in, grinning at Harry. "Charlie managed to get tickets for us, Merry and the kids, and Dad finagled tickets for Mum, Bill and Ginny. I don't know what Percy's doing, but I suppose he gets a ticket for himself anyway and can get one for Penny."

"Bill's going to be there?" Ron was understandably surprised, for his eldest brother was usually out of the country. "What about Gran? She's still staying with Mum and Dad."

George shrugged. "She doesn't want to go keeps predicting gloom and doom. But for crying out loud, it's a Ministry match! The security's bound to be tighter than a Gringotts vault."

But Harry didn't like the sound of this. Ron's grandmother didn't strike him as being the hysterical type; and he had to admit that security at the match had been at the back of his mind ever since he'd heard about the terrorist attacks on Diagon Alley.

When the twins had gone, he looked at Ron soberly. "Do me a favour, would you? Do a Tarot spread on the match and see if anything comes up."

 

End Part 25/30

 

 

Author's Note: Before I answer reviews, I apologise for the delay in posting this chapter. My father has been ill for several weeks and had some emergency surgery yesterday, so I spent the day keeping my mother calm and my brothers informed. By the end of the day I was exhausted, but I'm back on track now.

Rainyday - The tension between Ron and Draco is slipping quite a bit! I think they're starting to see that there are worse enemies than the annoying person who made classes a pain when they were kids. I'm glad you liked Harry being all adult and decisive - he's definitely growing up and grabbing life by the whatsits. Regarding Seamus, well you'll see from this chapter that the situation is developing! I think originally Harry and Ron didn't want more fuss than necessary when they were first outed to their housemates and agreed to the rules in the heat of the moment. Now, however, it's becoming an issue. About Kew Gardens - I had no idea it was a place in New York! Ha! Brilliant *grin* Actually, I was thinking of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (England), where there is a huge collection of rare plants. There is, of course, also a magical section (not many people know that!) where Neville raises things like potted mandrakes for St. Mungo's .

Quoth the Raven - Hold those thoughts on blood magic for just a little longer . Gryffindors being ruthless - well, there's a big gap between being ruthless and being evil. Ruthlessness is sometimes necessary, but the Gryffindor ideals of decency might sometimes hamper them from seeing that. As for Lily, well it's my personal take on her that she was a little more pragmatic than James. She was also a mother. The two things together could be quite a combination in an emergency situation. And it's obvious that they all suspected there was a traitor, they just didn't know who it was, so Lily decided to be ready for anything.

Sally - You're not as mad as you think, seeing Harrys and Rons everywhere. I embarrassed Beth Ann recently by overreacting to a lad in a restaurant who looked just like a more grown-up Harry *grin* And Harry's realisations about his responsibilities will certainly come in handy soon.

PotterBrother - I originally planned to put Lily in Slytherin, but I read in one of the online lexicons that JKR has already said in an interview that she was in Gryffindor. The trouble is that I don't see most of these interviews and tend to go mostly on what's in the books (or, occasionally, what's in the movies), so I was a little annoyed at having to change that. I haven't seen anything that says categorically that she was in the same year as James though. Actually, I can't recall seeing anything about Snape being in the same year as the Marauders either, but admittedly I haven't looked into that. I think there's an argument for sticking solely to what's in the books, because you can go mad trying to look up references to everything JKR has said in interviews. Besides, if she hasn't written the last two books yet, she could decide to change her mind on some details. But that's very much my personal point of view.

Kallisit - I think in this fandom people like exploring the more challenging pairings - that happens a lot in The X-Files and Buffy fandoms as well, I've noticed. I'm glad you like this though, and hope you'll stick with it until the end *smile*

Jillian - Glad you're enjoying it still *smile* I'm beginning to think Lily probably ruled James with a strong hand!

Jen - I think Harry must be fairly hardened to nightmares by now - he has a lot of them, poor boy. It must drive him nuts trying to work out the meanings all the time, though . Regarding Lucius and Draco, yes, it could be quite unpleasant if Lucius did consume Draco's blood. As for the advanced Wolfsbane Potion well, we'll see.

Arynnl - Glad you like it *smile*

SparkySparkles - Oh, I won't be writing a full-fledged sequel to this. Maybe some short stories, but nothing big. This one was enough!

Beth Ann - Oh well, you know how it is - you have an exciting, tiring day, you go to bed and you either can't sleep or you have exciting dreams. One of those annoying things! I've been brooding on whether Harry actually, at the very back of his mind, did have just a little bit of resentment for the previous refusal to let him join the Order. I mean, he's very noble but at the same time, he's just human. I think I'd be just a little bit piqued, especially if I found out one of my friends had been invited to join first, but I'm petty that way .

Mary Caroline Glad you're still here and enjoying it *smile* Only five more chapters to go, which seems extraordinary to me ....

Nayako How many chapters did you read in one go?! Glad you liked them, though. We're not far from the end now.

Ice Lupus I've tried your patented method for coaxing out new chapters and it doesn't work for me! Huh. Oh well. I've known people who never seem to realise that adults aren't perfect I can't decide if that's a good thing or not *smile* The bulk of people lose faith in their teens, which makes sense because it's only around then that you start to develop a strong awareness of the world at large and your own place in it. But I don't think Harry was ever totally convinced of it, although we do know that his faith in Dumbledore was rocked very badly in The Prisoner of Azkaban when Dumbledore admitted that there was nothing he could do to help Sirius. I'm eagerly awaiting The Order of the Phoenix at least partially because I suspect Harry's about to discover more instances of Dumbledore's fallibility. Let's just hope that he's old enough and mature enough to accept it. Regarding Dumbledore's offer to Harry to join the Order I think he did it because the Order wants the wizard circle on its side. Dumbledore as an individual respects Harry as a wizard in his own right, though. And why not? He knows Harry's potential better than almost anyone.


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