Content Harry Potter
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On Saturday evening, 8th August, Professor Albus Dumbledore convened the inquest into Harry’s accident in the war room at Order Headquarters.  It had already been determined that no foul play had occurred, but that didn’t excuse the near-fatal miscommunication and poor judgment exhibited by the three members who set up and activated the charms.  One by one, they sat alone on one side of the long mahogany dining table to face a panel of Harry’s choosing: his guardian, his headmaster, and his godmother.  Harry sat to Remus’s left, watchful and, for the most part, silent.

     Mundungus Fletcher went first, and it didn’t take long for the panel to determine that, however incompetent he was, he had genuinely believed he was doing the right thing at the time.  A distraught Mad-Eye Moody was interviewed next, claiming all the blame and practically begging to be kicked out of the Order.  The panel declined.

     The feelings in the room with Dung and Moody had been sober, apologetic, and respectful.  Harry dearly hoped things were about to improve.

     Severus Snape swept into the war room and twirled to close the double doors, his black robes billowing.  You are so going to get it, Harry thought contentedly.  Snape’s beady eyes narrowed at Harry’s smile, and then he proceeded to studiously ignore him.  He sat back in his chair with his arms crossed, sleekly answering the panel’s questions.  He explained the charms he’d used and confirmed the timeline of events and decisions advanced by Dung and Moody.  It was all going depressingly well until Remus questioned him on the choice of panic room.

     “You could have used any room in the house,” Remus observed.  “Why did you choose that particular cupboard?”

     “There was a ready water source to freeze for masking the boy’s body heat,” Snape replied smoothly.

     Remus’s eyes narrowed.  “You could have found another way to achieve the same result.”

     “I was told timing was an issue,” countered Snape.

     “That’s not why,” Harry said coldly.  “You wanted to punish me.”

     “Don’t be ridiculous,” Snape sniffed, not even looking at him.

     “Punish you for what, Harry?” Elizabeth asked, leaning forward to look past Dumbledore and Remus.

     “Madam Ramsay,” Snape started in an oily voice, “you should understand that —”

     “It’s Mrs Lupin, Mr Snape,” Elizabeth said cuttingly.

     “Mrs Lupin then,” he said softly, his lips curling unpleasantly around the word.  “You need to know that the boy routinely sees conspiracies at every turn —”

     “Yeah?” Harry cut in irately.  Red sparks flashed in his moodstone.  “Well, you’ll forgive me if I’m starting to feel like people want me dead!”

     “Harry,” Remus said warningly before turning back to Snape.  “Speed may have been a factor, but you might just as easily have used the pantry and the old ice chest to the same effect.”

     “Exactly!” Elizabeth snapped bitterly.  “Instead, you summoned him into that rat-infested den of his godfather’s betrayer!” 

     Snape stiffened but said nothing.

     “Yeah!” Harry said unnecessarily, feeling a rush of gratitude for his godmother.

     Snape’s eyes whipped between the panel members then settled on Remus — and Harry.  The depth of loathing radiating from the man almost pushed Harry back in his seat.  Remus wasn’t feeling too chirpy about Snape, either, but he was doing a better job of hiding it.

     “Why Kreacher’s den?” Remus repeated coolly.

     “I’ve already answered your question.  I’m not going to —”

     “It’s because I saw that memory, isn’t it?” Harry said, cutting across him.  “That’s what this is all about.  Well, I’m sorry I saw what I did.  Believe me, I wish I hadn’t.  I’m sorry, all right!  But you’ve had it in for me since my first day at school.  Eleven years old and minding my own business!  What had I done to you then?”

     “The boy is clearly delusional,” Snape said indifferently.  “I’ve saved his overrated neck more times than —”

     “Or maybe it’s just that I exist?” Harry shot nastily.

     Snape’s sallow fingers curled menacingly.  Harry was confident those fingers ached to be closing around his neck.

     “Answer the question, Snape,” Remus said severely.  “Did you choose Kreacher’s den as some kind of twisted punishment?”

     Snape’s lips retracted over yellowing teeth.  “I might have known the boy would find a new champion amongst his father’s cronies.”

     “Your answer, Mr Snape?” Elizabeth bit with frigid politeness.  Harry could tell she was angry enough to leap across the table and rip out his beady black eyes.  Snape stiffened and his gaze sneaked to where his wand lay immobile on the table before Professor Dumbledore.

     “No,” said Snape.

     “You’re lying,” Harry stated emphatically.  “You wanted to teach me a lesson!”

     Snape’s eyes glinted dangerously, his knuckles white over clenched fists; Harry could tell he was close to losing it.

     “I refuse to sit here —” Snape started.

     “Didn’t you!” snapped Harry.

     “— while this arrogant —”

     “DIDN’T YOU!” Harry was on his feet, shaking off the hands trying to pull him back down.

     “— puffed up, pampered little prince —”

     “ANSWER ME!” roared Harry.  Snape was suddenly on his feet, too, his chair upturned and his lips shaking with rage and spittle.

     “— stands there and —”

     “You wanted to get me back!

     “YOU DESERVED IT!

     A hush fell over the room.  Snape, his nostrils flaring, his breathing ragged, belatedly realised what he had just admitted.  Feelings of anger, shock, and revulsion were washing over all three interrogators, but Harry’s rage fell sharply away.  He smiled slightly, knowing that he’d won, knowing he was right and that everyone knew he was right.

     “That wasn’t so hard, now was it?” he said coolly into the deathly quiet room.  Snape’s thin lips shook in silent fury; Harry’s moodstone had gone an ice-blue.  “I’d say you’ve made your point,” he continued, savouring the moment.  “I see a memory of something my father did to you twenty years ago, and you create a Summoning Charm so flawed and a panic room so foul that I literally get burned to death!”  Harry’s voice dripped with sarcasm.  “I reckon we just might be even by now, don’t you think?”

     Snape seemed to shrink, though he stood as rigid as ever.  A slightly confused look flickered in his eyes but was gone so fast Harry felt sure he must have imagined it and the sneer was firmly back in place.  Remus was suddenly on his feet and made to vault across the table, but Harry and Dumbledore each grabbed an arm and held him back.  No one was holding Elizabeth.  She was but a blonde blur as she vaulted the table and stabbed her fingernails into Snape’s face.  They crashed to the floor in a jumble of arms and legs.

     “Dissendium!” roared Dumbledore.                     

     Even as Elizabeth went tumbling to safety, Remus broke free and Snape was under attack again.  Although Dumbledore quickly separated the two men, Harry was certain he detected just a whiff of envy when Remus gave Snape a very bloody nose.

     Within moments, Dumbledore had a handful of wands and three former students silenced, tied up with ropes, and pinned like living portraits on different walls.  Although a tad bloody, no one seemed seriously hurt.  Harry, however, found himself clutching the table dizzily as the violent emotions he’d been holding at bay rolled over him from three directions at once.  Dumbledore lent him a steadying hand.  Harry glanced anxiously up and down the room and shook his head, trying to clear his vision.

     “They’ll be fine,” promised Dumbledore, ignoring the ‘portraits’ straining furiously against their ropes.  He led Harry around the table and out the door.  “Do feel free to chat amongst yourselves,” he invited archly over his shoulder.  He released the Silencing Charm and firmly locked the door behind him.

     “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” Harry asked anxiously.

     “I do,” Dumbledore said serenely.  “Those three need to get a few things off their chests.  And to be quite frank, my dear boy, I can’t think of a safer way to let that happen.  Too many things have been let fester for far too long.”

     Still woozy, Harry gripped the banister for support.

    “Here, sit a moment,” said Dumbledore.  Harry felt for the steps and sat down.  Dumbledore joined him, sweeping his abundant robes across Harry’s legs to warm him.  “Are you all right?” he asked kindly.

    “No,” Harry muttered in frustration.  “Why do you trust him?!  I mean, he just straight out lied to you!”

     Dumbledore exhaled a deep sigh.  “Harry, are you familiar with the adage ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’?  No?  You see, Harry, Professor Snape knows he will never be truly free whilst ever Voldemort is at large.  To put it simply, he will do whatever it takes to ensure Voldemort is finally and comprehensively vanquished.  It is in his best interests to see that any plans to defeat Voldemort succeed.  Harry, I trust Professor Snape because we share that common goal.”

     “He might be your friend,” Harry protested bitterly, “but he does everything he can to make my life a living hell.  And Sirius’s, too!  Always goading him, trying to get him riled up.  Accusing him of being a coward.  And all that messing about the day I got that fake vision.  He gave me every reason not to trust him, or I might have gone straight to him instead of getting caught by Umbridge.  Sirius would be alive today if —”

     “Harry, you cannot know that,” Dumbledore protested gently.  “But much of what you say is true,” he conceded grimly.  “And rest assured I shall be seriously reprimanding Professor Snape for his behaviour, both as revealed this evening and in other circumstances.  Harry, I must impress upon you the gravity and delicacy of the situation.  Every creature is at its most dangerous when its circumstances become desperate.  I do fear what may happen if the man was to be forced out of the Order — out of Hogwarts, even.  And yet I must weigh this against your own safety and well-being.  Harry, I want to ask you to trust me to deal with Professor Snape, even though you have every reason not to.”

     Harry stared into Dumbledore’s familiar blue eyes, this venerable old wizard who only two months earlier rescued him from Voldemort and saved Hermione and Ron and the others as well.

     “I died,” he grumbled bitterly, though he could feel the fight leaking out of him.  “How much worse does it have to get?”

     “Changes will be made,” Dumbledore assured him evenly.  “Might I suggest a written apology and also a period of probation?  On your return to school, if Professor Snape’s attitude has not materially improved by, say, Halloween, then we could talk again and decide if greater intervention is required.”

     Harry knew he was being manipulated, but he gave the proposal serious consideration.  Kicking Snape out of the Order would’ve been immensely satisfying, but the idea of the Great Bat having to rely on one Harry James Potter to give him a good report card was just too, too delicious to resist.

     “Thank you, Harry,” said Professor Dumbledore quietly.  “Come,” he said more brightly, helping him to his feet.  “Some hot chocolate, I think.  I find it always perks me up.”

******

Tap.  Tap.  Tap.

     Curled in a ball in her bed in the Leaky Cauldron Inn, cocooned like a silkworm, safe and warm, Elizabeth was nowhere near ready to wake up.

     Tap.  Tap.

     “Go away,” she whimpered, burrowing deeper inside her fluffy white quilt.

     Evil miaowed.  Elizabeth felt him leap off the bed and heard him scratching eagerly at the door.

     Shit!  Remus!

     Evil kept scratching and miaowing.  Elizabeth stayed perfectly still, hoping he’d give up.  She didn’t need to check a mirror to know she was in no condition to receive anyone, least of all Remus.  It wasn’t fair!  The boys were supposed to be off at some Quidditch game — she was supposed to have the whole day to herself!

     “Auntie Lizzie?” called a girl’s voice.

     Elizabeth froze in shock — then relief — then shock again.  She shoved the covers off her face and fumbled for her wand.

     “Alohomora!” she cried blearily.

     The door clicked open and Natalie screamed and tumbled joyfully into the room, tripping over Evil, leaping onto the bed, and smothering her aunt in hugs and kisses.

     “God, it’s freezing in here,” she declared, kicking off her shoes and diving under the quilt.  “Oooh, you’re so warm!  Why do you always keep it so cold in your room?”

     “Um ...” Elizabeth said, blinking dazedly as Natalie snuggled up to her and fired off a stream of questions and declarations about everything and anything.

     “Why haven’t you answered your WizChat?  We got in last night and they said you were in this room, but you were out.  How’s Harry?  Ron says he’s out of hospital.  What’s all this about Uncle Remus?  Are you two getting back together or what?  Dad’s taking me to see the Harpies!  I was so surprised when he pulled out the tickets!  I can’t wait!  Ron says he knows Gwenog Jones!  But I don’t know if he’s just being — you know.  He’s going, too — with Harry and their friends — but you probably already know all about that.  I didn’t tell him I was coming — he’s going to be so shocked when he sees me!  Wow, you look terrible!  Those mountain trolls must have been really horrible!”

     Elizabeth choked a laugh.  She closed her eyes and twisted her niece around to spoon cosily behind her.

     “Auntie Lizzie needs her beauty sleep, precious,” she pleaded, “... desperately.”

     Natalie snuggled into her then gasped and grabbed Elizabeth’s hand.  “WHAT have you done to your fingernails?”

     Elizabeth was saved responding by another tap on the door.

     “That’ll be Dad,” Natalie said cheerily, jumping up before Elizabeth could stop her.

     Elizabeth made a token effort to smooth her hair but then gave up, finding herself beyond caring at this point — especially considering the testiness of their last Doodles.  Julius, she knew, would be standing outside her door straight-backed and immaculately groomed, his sleek blonde hair tied at his nape with the slim red bow of a Wizarding Advocate, but he chose to stay in the hallway and relay via Natalie a request for a ‘private chat’ with his sister after breakfast.

     “Why not,” Elizabeth said fatalistically to Natalie.  “Be a dear and have them send up a tray?”

     “You look awful,” Julius declared bluntly, sweeping into her room half an hour later.

     “Nice to see you, too, Jules,” said Elizabeth sourly.  Things did not improve as their ‘private chat’ progressed.  “You knew and you didn’t tell me!” she shot angrily, having just discovered that her brother knew about Remus’s outing by the Daily Prophet two years before.

     “What if I did?” Julius snapped defiantly.  “Can you honestly tell me you haven’t wasted ten of the best years of your life pining over that — that —”

     “Remus is the finest man I have ever known!” Elizabeth cut in furiously.

     “I was going to say wife-deserter!”

     “Don’t even start with me today, Julius,” she said darkly, straining to resist the urge to slap him.

     “Elizabeth, you must concede by now that this marriage was doomed from the start.  The marriage contract alone took six lawyers three months to prepare —”

     “Oh yes,” she cut across him, “you were all so insistent that Remus could only be after me for my money that you made the marriage bond unbreakable for as long as we both loved each other.”  Julius lifted his chin defiantly.  Elizabeth laughed bitterly and shook her head.  “Don’t think I don’t know you’ve been trying to find a loophole in your legal masterpiece for the last ten years.  Remy would’ve given me a divorce and walked away without asking for a Sickle years ago if not for your iron-fisted love bind!”

     “I was trying to protect you!” Julius shot heatedly.

     “You were trying to control my life!”

     Brother and sister exchanged mutinous glares.  Though ten years apart, they could have been mistaken for twins, both possessing wide-set blue eyes, Nordic blonde looks, and stubborn jaws.  The longer Elizabeth stood there, being all self-righteous, the less she wanted to be; she knew Julius only wanted what was best for her.  He’d always been deeply protective of his baby sister.  When she fled England for Canada, he had packed up his wife, his law practice, his young children, and followed her.  Standing now in an anonymous bedchamber in London, Julius Ramsay, so commanding in a courtroom, didn’t want to fight either.  Spinning around in frustration, he sat with a thud on the bed, inspiring a dozen inflations of her puffy quilt.

     “What are you doing here, Lizzie?” he asked fitfully.  “And don’t give me some cock-and-bull story about Harry bloody Potter, or civil war, or fighting the good fight.”

     She sank beside him and slipped her hand in his, willing him to understand.

     “I love him, Jules,” she said thickly.  “I need him.  I found my soul mate once.  Without him, I’m only half the person I could be.”

     Julius inspected her hand, taking a good look at her knuckles and nails, which were not in the best state.

     “You want him back,” he told her hand.  It wasn’t a question.  A sob caught in Elizabeth’s throat and she nodded.  Julius lifted her fingers to his lips and kissed them, then exhaled a resigned sigh and said, “What can your big brother do to help?”

     Tears dribbled down Elizabeth’s cheeks.  Never before — never in ten years — had her brother ever tried to understand.  She threw her arms around his neck and everything came spilling out: Remus, the prophecy, the Black Forest, the heartbreaking agreement they’d made to go their separate ways, of surrendering all ties of fidelity, of there being a new, younger woman in his life ...

     Julius was deeply shocked, not least of which because Elizabeth had withheld her painful secret for ten long years.

     “You could have come to me,” he reprimanded her huskily.  Elizabeth had no answer to that; she just hiccupped helplessly as Julius carefully dried her tears with his fine cotton handkerchief.  “Divination’s a lot of superstitious nonsense, if you ask me,” he declared stoutly.  “In any case, once a month we can work with.  I’ll chain him up myself if I have to!  As for this other woman — she can’t be a patch on my Lizzie, now, can she?”  Julius’s lips twisted as he looked his sister up and down appraisingly.  “Well,” he conceded wryly, “maybe today she could.”

******

Harry was in the drawing room with his guitar and Susan Bones’s Fretful Favourites, trying to learn something beyond Greensleeves, when Bill Weasley knocked on the open door.  Harry checked the grandfather clock; they weren’t due to leave for the Holyhead Harpies / Puddlemere United Quidditch match until three o’clock.

     “Hi,” he said, smiling.  “Bit early aren’t you?”

     “Remus asked me to poke around in your brain to see if you’re completely nuts yet.”  Harry laughed at that, appreciating that at least Bill was honest about it.  “And I thought you might be missing this little guy.”  From behind his back, Bill revealed a saggy old basket.

     “Are we there yet?” hissed a dozy voice.

     “Frank!” Harry cried, setting down his guitar and loping across the room.  Frank’s head popped out of the basket, and he joyfully slithered into Harry’s arms and started telling him all about his adventures in the Bones’ household.  Harry tried to keep up as Bill started talking over Frank’s excited hisses.

     “Susan dropped him over this morning,” said Bill.  “She thought he might get a bit rattled by the crowds at the match.”

     “Did you miss me?” Harry cooed to Frank, finding his snakehead and pulling it up to rub against his cheek.

     “Oh, immeasurably, dear boy,” Frank assured him.

     “Liar,” Harry said.  Frank chuckled softly.

     Bill nodded to the Sunday Prophet spread across the coffee table and said teasingly, “Saw the article about you and Cho.  ‘Saved by the power of love’ and all that.  Had Mum and Ginny in tears.”  Harry groaned deeply.  As usual, the paper had taken a great many liberties with the truth and concocted some fairytale about Cho being the love of his life.  Bill looked around casually and added, “I thought I might find her here.”

     “I think she’s had enough of me for awhile,” Harry said, forcing a laugh.

     Bill said nothing to that.  Instead, he tossed Harry a bottle of Butterbeer, which Harry accepted gratefully, and they sat and chatted about music, Goblin politics, Egyptian curses ... everything and nothing, really.  Frank got comfortable stretched across the back of the couch, adding his two cents now and then between verses of Have You Met Miss Bones.  Harry found it so easy to talk to Bill; he was full of useful tips and trivia; he even gave him another guitar lesson, but called a halt when Harry’s new fingertips grew too red and sore.

     “Don’t worry,” Bill said easily, “they’ll callous up nicely in no time.”  His gaze drifted to the newspaper again.  “So,” he said delicately, “how are things going with Cho?”

     “Not fabulous,” Harry conceded.

     Bill frowned deeply and Frank sucked in an excited breath; neither of them had been too impressed with Cho’s antics during the party weekend.

     “Must have been a hard week on both of you,” Bill noted.  “Has she been keeping her word?  You know, not bringing up the past?”

     “Not exactly,” Harry said slowly, “but it’s not her fault — you can’t help what’s in your dreams ...”

     “And it keeps spilling onto you,” Bill suggested, wearing a look of disapproval that would have done his mother proud.

     “I guess,” Harry said uneasily; Bill couldn’t know it was actually him, Harry, who had badly messed with Cho’s head, not the other way around.  “But see,” he argued in his defence, “I already lost her twice this year — I don’t fancy going through that again.”

     “Not much of a reason to stay together,” Bill observed shrewdly.

     “Listen to Bill!” hissed a desperate voice in Harry’s ear.  Harry ignored his python; Frank had never been too fond of Cho.

     “You have seen Cho Chang, haven’t you?” he challenged Bill.

     Bill chuckled and said, “So, what else do you fancy about her?”

     Harry slumped back in his seat and regarded the ceiling.  “Well ... she’s smart ... and she’s got a wicked sense of humour ... and I like that she’s into Quidditch … and she fancies me a lot —” Harry stopped, suddenly realising how big-headed that sounded, and tried to backtrack, “I mean, no — I ...” but Bill was clearly amused.  “Shut up,” laughed Harry.

     “I seem to recall Ginny used to have quite a crush on you,” teased Bill.

     Harry rolled his eyes.  “Don’t remind me.  I’m still trying to live down being crash-tackled by that singing Valentine dwarf she sicked on me.”

     Harry suddenly realised who he was talking to, but Bill didn’t seem offended; he just drew a long swig from his bottle.  Harry did the same, recalling how Ginny hadn’t even known him — she’d just seen him, or heard his name or something — and got a crush on him.  But then again, prompted an honest voice inside his head, hadn’t he felt like that about Cho when he first saw her?  He hadn’t really known her either.

     “So, are you in love with Cho?” Bill asked, straight to the point.

     Harry almost spat out his Butterbeer.  He swiped at his lips and was ready to laugh off the question, but something held him back.  He could ask Bill.

     “How do you even know?” he asked very seriously.

     “You’ll know,” Bill said confidently.  “You’ll know in your gut.  You’ll get this — I don’t know — this warm feeling — this feeling that …”

     Bill paused in search of something that Harry dearly hoped was better than a sick feeling in your stomach (he already knew all about that).

     “For one thing, you can hardly stop thinking about her,” Bill said distantly (smiling a trifle dopily in Harry’s opinion).  “She’ll drive you nuts, but when you see something funny or beautiful, your first thought is to wish she were there to see it, too.  And you’ll end up doing and saying the daftest things — but you won’t care one little bit.  And the minute she’s gone home, you’re already planning how fast you can see her again.  And you’re desperate,” said Bill, on a roll now.  “You know full-well she’s too good for you and you’re scared as hell she’s going to find out before you’ve made yourself worthy of her.  And you don’t know whether you feel sick or wonderful half the time, but when she tells you she loves you ... well, you’ll want to shout it from the rooftops.”

     Harry stared blankly at the man.  “Rooftops.  Right,” he said, nodding numbly.  “Okay then.  Good to know.”

     Bill’s blue eyes twinkled with amusement.  “There’s nothing wrong with just fancying a girl, you know.  Especially at your age — perfect time of life to try on different crushes.  Things get a lot messier as you get older.”

     Harry blew out his cheeks; love was not nearly as much fun as he’d hoped it would be.

     “I don’t think I’m in love with her,” he said honestly.  “I can’t see myself shouting her name from the rooftops, anyway.  But, I dunno ... she was really good when I was sick — helping me in hospital and all ...”

     “Tricky,” Bill conceded fairly.

     “What do you think I should do?”

     Bill took a lingering sip of Butterbeer before answering.  “Look, don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to be madly in love with every girl you ever go out with, but in Cho’s case ...”  Bill hesitated again.  “Look, it’s your business, but I think with Cho you need to ask yourself whether the good outweighs the grief.”

     Harry pondered that.  For about three seconds.  “No.”

     “YES!” Frank hissed joyfully and fell off the back of the couch, landing with a great thud.  Undeterred, he raced under the couch and up Bill’s legs.  “I always knew I liked you!” he told him earnestly.

     “What’s he saying?” Bill asked curiously.

     “He’s telling me to listen to you,” Harry said, swiping playfully at Frank’s excitedly quivering tail.  “He really likes you right now.”

     “Why thank you, Frank,” said Bill.

     “Not at all,” Frank hissed graciously.

     Turning his attention back to Harry, Bill said delicately, “I think you probably know what you need to do about Cho.”

     Harry groaned deeply at the prospect.  “How do you break up with someone?”

     Bill’s lips twitched; Harry suspected he was enjoying this far too much.

     “I thought you’d already broken up a couple of times already,” Bill said.  “You should be pretty good at it by now.”

     “Yeah, well,” countered Harry, “yelling at each other in a public place always seems to do the trick.”

     “See,” Bill said cheekily, opening his arms wide, “already sorted.  Big game this afternoon — huge crowd of spectators — could be as many as two thousand people if you feel like putting on a show.”

     “Shut up,” laughed Harry.  “This is serious!”  But he was already feeling lighter and happier having finally made the decision to break it off with Cho.  His bright-green moodstone was certainly of the opinion he’d made the right choice.  “So, what do you think?” he said, rubbing his chin and launching into battle mode.  “Before the game?  After?  The hardest part’ll be getting her away from everyone ...”

     “That won’t be the hardest part,” Bill said knowingly.  “The hardest part’ll be figuring out what to say.”

     “That’s quite true,” Frank said wisely.  Harry’s moodstone suddenly turned a decidedly dirty brown.

     Bill spilled Frank onto the couch, slapped a hand on Harry’s knee and pushed off.  “Meet me on the roof in fifteen minutes and we’ll get going.  See you, Frank.”

     “Hang on!” Harry blurted, jumping up.  “What am I gonna say?  You can’t just —”

     “You’ll figure it out,” Bill said easily.  “Just be nice to her.  And truthful — but not too truthful.  Roof — three o’clock.”

     And then he was gone, leaving Harry standing in open-mouthed horror of the task before him.

******

“Do you think you could hold still for one minute?” Remus said exasperatedly as he tried for the third time to cast concealment charms over his ward.

     “What?  Oh, sorry,” mumbled Harry, standing still and glaring across the rooftop at Bill, who was failing to hide a smile.  Harry kept glaring at him anyway.  Whose brilliant idea was this anyway?

     The Holyhead Harpies/Puddlemere United match was being staged that day within a reasonable flying distance of London (about an hour in the direction of Kent) and so Harry, Remus and Bill were flying down and would be meeting up with everyone down there.  And Cho.  Harry’s stomach felt sick as he tried to work out what he was going to say to her.  Every idea he came up with seemed worse than the last.

     Sorry, I like you and all; I just don’t want to go out with you any more.

     Sorry, I don’t want you any more, no hard feelings.

     Sorry, but you drive me nuts.  You’re really pretty, though.

     Just be nice to her, Bill said.  Ha!  Easy for him to say — nothing Harry could think of even came close!

     The threesome finally got going.  As Harry soared through the clouds, his anxiety fell away, replaced instead by the sheer exhilaration of flying on a beautiful summer’s day.  The time passed far too quickly, and soon Remus was bringing them down into what at first looked like a construction site for a sprawling Muggle shopping mall.  Harry quickly learned the shopping mall was just an illusion for the Muggles, and they’d actually landed amongst colourful tents and souvenir stalls surrounding a regulation-sized Quidditch pitch.

     It took little effort to find the Weasleys amongst the milling spectators, but neither did it take long for the Boy-Who-Lived to be noticed.  Curious well-wishers were soon waving and calling out to him.  Thoroughly rattled, Harry spent the greater part of his energy just keeping his mental shields up in order to try to cope with the overexcited crowds.

     When Harry found Cho, she swiftly slid her hand in his and kissed his cheek, but she seemed pretty thrown by the crowd interest, too.  Cries of ‘don’t they look lovely’ and ‘isn’t she pretty’ followed them around.  There were also a few not-so-friendly voices but no one willing to stick around and show their face.  Harry and Cho’s friends surrounded them, sheltering them from the worst of it, but Fred and George had it all sorted.  They briskly led the growing Potter party down to the blue and gold striped Puddlemere United tent, where Oliver Wood and Viktor Krum warmly welcomed them all.  While his friends were scoring autographs and photos, Harry fell back and tried to clear his head.

     Cho drew him aside to whisper worriedly, “Are you okay?”

     “No, it’s fine,” Harry assured her.  “I just ... I’m just a bit tired from the flight down.”

     “Do you want to go find our seats?” she suggested.

     Harry nodded and they made to leave, but just then the tent exploded in a riot of hot-pink.  The Harpies had arrived.

     The seven Holyhead Harpies, captained by Gwenog Jones, strode towards the blue and gold Puddlemere United team.  The PU team had several women, but the Harpies were a class apart.  Each Amazon’s hair was a mass of fine braids charmed to wriggle and writhe in the air like snakes, and they wore sleeveless black robes with hot-pink capes billowing majestically from their shoulders in a fabric that rippled and whirled, as if alive.  Tall, toned, and tanned, they looked like they’d just stepped straight from some ancient Amazonian battle scene, each of them radiating an air of power and confidence that made Harry’s skin prickle with excitement.  The two teams greeted each other with bruising handshakes, and the DA watched on in awe as the players traded escalating insults as to the opposition’s chances of victory.  Harry could tell it was all for show, although Oliver, in particular, was taking it all extremely seriously.  Gwenog was just thundering at a secretly amused Krum that he better take a photo now to send to his mother because he wouldn’t be recognisable by the end of the match, when she stopped herself.  She spun around, her hot-pink cape slapping at Oliver’s face, on spotting — “HARRY!”

     Horrified, Harry watched all seven Harpies shriek as one and fly towards him.  The warrior women vanished, melting instead into seven doting doves, smothering Harry with hugs and kisses.  Harry very nearly passed out which only made the Harpies fuss even more protectively over him and Cho.

     “We’re going to win this one for you, Harry!” Gwenog promised him.  “RIGHT, GIRLS?”

     “FOR HARRY POTTER!” roared the Harpies, pumping their Firebolts high into the air.  All seven loosed a passionate Harpies’ Howler that violently shook the PU tent (Harry knew this because he was gripping a tent pole for dear life at the time).  And then they were gone in a blaze of hot-pink glory.  The PU team looked around at each other in dismay, but it was the expression on Oliver’s face that made Harry break out in a cold sweat.

     I am so dead.

******

It was the worst defeat that Puddlemere United had suffered in 178 years.  Natalie Ramsay was as ecstatic as her PU-supporter father was miserable.  Not only had the Harpies performed absolutely brilliantly, but they’d also donated their prize money to Saint Mungo’s Hospital in honour of their inspiring young hero, Harry Potter.  And even better, the announcer had made Harry stand up, and Natalie was finally able to spot where he and Ron were sitting.

     Natalie trained her Omnioculars on Harry’s group.  There was Cho sitting next to him.  Harry looked very pale and a bit wobbly as he sat back down.  He dropped his head into his hands, and Cho started rubbing his back as the crowd roared and cheered for him.  Natalie supposed he must still feel pretty sick.  Zooming in on the boy to Harry’s left, Natalie’s heart did a little flip on wondering if she was looking at Big Red.

     She and Ron had been corresponding practically non-stop for the last four days.  She found him so easy to talk to.  He had none of the airs and graces of the French-Canadian boys she was used to.  And he made her laugh so hard sometimes she couldn’t even write properly.  She took a good look at him now.  He seemed tall and he definitely had red hair, at least that much was true.  He was very freckled and had — Natalie zoomed in closer — clear blue eyes, long nose … Ron smiled at something and Natalie’s lips twisted upwards as well.  He had a lovely smile!

      Natalie suddenly realised her father’s Omnioculars were also pointing in Ron’s direction and she jumped guiltily, but then she remembered her father knew nothing about him.  Looking closer, she found his target some three or four rows above Harry: Uncle Remus.  He was older, of course, a bit greyer than she would’ve thought, thinner than he looked in her photo album, but it was definitely him.  She remembered her Dad telling her once that he and Uncle Remus used to go to Puddlemere United games together years ago; she imagined that neither of them was too thrilled with the thrashing the Harpies had given their team today.

     “Dad,” Natalie said in her most endearing-daughter voice, for she knew how much her father disliked her uncle, “is it okay if I go and say hi to Harry?”

     Natalie was shocked when her father immediately agreed and pulled his tiny owl, Rocket, from a pocket of his robes.  Natalie sneaked a look over his shoulder as he wrote ‘178 years!’ on the reverse of his business card.  Rocket flew off with the card in his beak, Natalie eagerly tracking his progress with her Omnioculars.

     She saw Uncle Remus catch the tiny owl in his lap and frown thoughtfully when he read the card.  Then he turned it over and smiled slowly.  He read both sides a couple of times then squinted into the stands, trying to spot the sender.  Finally pocketing the card, he penned a brief note in return.  He watched carefully to see where the owl went, but the air was thick with spectators zooming off on their brooms, and Rocket was quickly lost to view.  Natalie tried to grab the note on his return, but the tiny owl was having none of that and stayed well out of her reach.  Her father read the note and smiled to himself before turning to his daughter to say, “How would you like to meet the Harpies?”

******

Harry supposed he should have foreseen the crowd’s affect on him, but he hadn’t expected anything like this.  The whole three-hour game had been pure agony for him.  He didn’t want to admit it to anyone, but he’d barely watched the match; he’d spent most of the time trying in vain to escape the thundering emotions whipping all around him.  Elizabeth’s exercises had helped a bit — just enough for him to hide the worst of how much it was affecting him.  Right now, Harry was dead keen to just go home, go anywhere that didn’t have thousands of people screaming and cheering and feeling all around him.  Fortunately, as soon as the bulk of the crowds disappeared, Harry began to feel more like himself again, as if someone had suddenly turned off very loud music.  Cho was happier, too, when she saw him getting some colour back in his face.

     Their party had been invited to go down to the Harpies’ tent and Remus mentioned that Elizabeth’s brother might be meeting them.

     “Would that be Natalie Ramsay’s father?” Cho asked curiously.

     “Yes, actually,” replied Remus, surprised.  “How do you know Natalie?”

     “Oh, Harry — he introduced us in Diagon Alley,” explained Cho.  “We met when Harry was showing Natalie around.”

     Remus looked like he was trying to get his head around that.  It wasn’t working.

     “Natalie was your date?” he asked Harry.

     Harry groaned in frustration and Cho giggled sympathetically.

     Ron’s ears picked up.  “What about Natalie?”

     “All I did was show her around the shops!” moaned Harry.  “That’s it!”

     Remus looked unconvinced.

     “What about Natalie?” Ron persisted.

     “Her father’s here,” Cho offered helpfully.

     Ron’s face lit up.  “Is she here, too?”

     Remus’s frown deepened.  “And how do you know Natalie?”

     Harry answered for him.  “Pen pals.”

     Remus just shook his head — it was all clearly beyond him.

     As they neared the Harpies’ pink and black striped victory tent, Harry grew worried, not fancying the prospect of being set upon again by all those adrenaline-pumped Amazons.  He could sense Remus feeling nervous, as well, and wondered what kind of reception his guardian would be getting from Mr Ramsay after having ‘abandoned’ his sister all those years ago.  Natalie said her dad was still dirty about it.

     “Is that them?” Ron prompted, straining to see the entrance of the Harpies’ tent.

     Cho squinted through the crowd.  “Ah — yes, that’s Natalie.  I guess that’s her dad — I’ve never met him.”

     “Me either,” noted Harry, looking curiously as well.

     At first glance, Mr Ramsay, idly swinging a silver-topped cane, reminded Harry of Lucius Malfoy.  He had smooth sandy blonde hair under his indigo pointed hat and looked casually elegant in a set of matching robes topped with a lemon cravat.  As they drew closer, Harry saw Natalie excitedly grab her father’s sleeve and whisper something.  The man’s face came alive with pleasure as he looked down at his smiling daughter.  Harry breathed a sigh of relief; this was no Malfoy.  Ron wasn’t quick enough and Fred and George rushed forward to greet Natalie first.  She laughed off their attempts to kiss her hands and kept looking over their shoulders towards Ron, who was shifting awkwardly from foot to foot and blushing scarlet under his frayed pointed hat.  Fred and George didn’t seem at all put off (either by Natalie, or by the sternly disapproving gaze of Mr Ramsay).

     “George,” Remus said mildly, “are you planning on detaching my niece’s hand, too?”

     George dropped Natalie’s hand like a stone.  “Er, we’ll just be ...”  The twins were off like a shot into the noisy tent, and most of the Potter party raced after them.  Remus gamely offered his hand to his brother-in-law.

     “Julius,” he said calmly, though Harry knew how nervous he was.

     “It’s good to see you, Remus,” Mr Ramsay said smoothly, firmly shaking Remus’s hand.  “It’s been far too long.”

     Natalie’s eyes widened in shock; Remus was just as taken aback but covered better.

     “That it has,” he agreed hoarsely.

     Harry was deeply relieved for Remus; Mr Ramsay was guarded, certainly, but he did seem genuinely glad to see him.

     “Hi, Uncle Remus,” Natalie offered tentatively with a bit of a wave.  Remus smiled softly and bowed low to the girl he’d not seen for ten years.  Natalie smiled back shyly and sneaked grins to Harry and the others.

     Five minutes of the boisterous victory party was more than enough for Harry.  He stayed only long enough to congratulate the Harpies and smile weakly for the sports’ photographer; then he fled, mumbling something about the toilet.  Bill found him some while later sitting in the middle of the dark, deserted Quidditch pitch.  The Curse Breaker shot something silvery from his wand in the direction of the Harpies’ tent, and in that flash of light, Harry spotted Cho hovering in the background.  Bill looked between the pair.

     “I’ll just be over — erm — I’ll pop back in a bit.”

     Bill casually ambled off in the direction of the party tent, though Harry had no doubt the man would be maintaining close tabs on him; no one in the Order was too keen on letting the Boy-Who-Lived out of their sight for long.

     “Are you okay, Harry?” Cho ventured worriedly.

     Harry bristled.  What kind of weakling did she think he was?

     “Just fancied a bit of air,” he mumbled.

     Cho nodded and sat with him on the grass amongst the clover and wildflowers.  They just sat there in the dark holding hands.  Harry chided himself.  What was he waiting for?  They were all alone.  The distant sounds of the Weird Sisters belting out from the victory tent gave them privacy from eavesdroppers.  If he didn’t do it now ...

     “Listen, Cho ...” he started.

     “Harry, I ...” said Cho at the same time.  “Oh, sorry, no — you go first.”

     “No, you go,” offered Harry, but Cho was shaking her head.  Harry steeled himself for battle.

     “Cho, I want you to know ... um.  Look, I really appreciate how much you helped me in hospital — you were great, brilliant — um … see ...”  Harry struggled to remember his rehearsed speech.  It had all flown out of his head the minute he looked into Cho’s dark eyes.  He found himself babbling.  “Brilliant ... yeah — really — you know ... erm.”  He stopped and took a steadying breath, trying hard to conjure an escape route from this mess.  “Look, Cho, I’m not safe.  Far from it.  Thing is — I mean, things are going to keep happening to me — I’m on so many hit lists —”

     Cho sucked in a breath.  Her eyes welled with tears.  Crap — not tears, thought Harry desperately.  Focus! You can do this!

     “Professor Dumbledore said Fate wasn’t done with you,” Cho agreed faintly, “but I never realised ...”

     Harry pushed down the urge to wrap his arms around her.  “Cho, listen, you’ve been brilliant — helping me and all — it’s just ...”

     “Harry, you’re worth it,” she said earnestly.

     “No, I’m not!” Harry blurted desperately.  “Truly, I’m not.  Look, I can tell what all this is doing to you ...”

     Cho’s eyes sparkled with more tears.  “I can handle it,” she said tremulously.

     Harry shook his head emphatically.  “I don’t want you to handle this stuff — it tears you up too much inside.  And you heard Dumbledore’s speech — it’s only going to get worse.  Cho, I’m not the one you want.  I don’t know any poetry and I’m not as big and brave as you seem to think.”  Harry opened his arms wide and shook his head.  “This is all there is, Cho.  I’m not Cedric.  I’m Harry, just Harry.  Look,” he pushed on frankly, “I have to wonder if we’re really the best people for each other.  There’s just so much baggage —”

     Harry broke off when Cho burst into tears.  His spirits soared higher than the grandstand towers when he realised they were tears of relief.  She started blubbering about not having wanted to say anything until he’d fully recovered.  How she cared about him so much, but that it was all just too overwhelming for her to deal with.  How her nightmares were back and they were worse than ever.  How she hadn’t slept properly for days for worrying about him.  Harry stared dazedly at the raven-haired beauty — he couldn’t believe his luck!

     A soft thud hit Harry’s leg; it was a box of tissues.  Harry’s heart was thumping hard as he wrapped Cho tightly in his arms and let her spill her tears and fears all over him.  He fed her tissue after tissue and stammered that he understood and it was okay.

     Snuffling, Cho looked up at him tragically and suggested that maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.  A voice inside Harry’s head was screaming ‘YES!’, but he met Cho’s tragic look and raised it with an even deeper tragic sigh and nod.

     “I don’t want to lose you,” he said, adding hastily, “as a friend, I mean.”

     “Never,” she promised him with shining eyes.

     Harry exhaled a great sigh of relief.  Cho beamed at him through the last of her tears and Harry risked a lop-sided smile.

     “Tragic little pair, aren’t we?” he offered, trying hard not to sound too happy.

     Cho hugged him tightly.  Very tightly.

     “One last kiss?” she whispered huskily in his ear.  Harry found himself extremely pleased to oblige.

     Sitting there in the dark on the grass, the pair embraced and sank into the clover.  Harry put everything he had into that last embrace, and as he passionately kissed and caressed Cho Chang, he loaded up his mind with every sensual thought or desire he’d ever had about her, as if willing himself to purge her from his system.  Some while later, Harry dimly heard a throat being cleared somewhere out in the darkness.  Apparently, Bill was back.  Harry ignored him; he still had some purging to do.  The coughing from the edge of the pitch got rather louder.

     “Bill should really see someone about that cough,” Harry drawled wryly, lifting off a decidedly flushed Cho Chang.

     “I guess it’s time to go,” she agreed breathlessly.

     The music from the party tent had faded by now and the teens rose to their feet, smiling coyly at each other and brushing grass and wildflowers from each other’s clothes and hair.  Cho giggled and swatted away Harry’s wandering hands.

     “Thank you very much, but I think I can handle it.”

     “You really shouldn’t have to handle things on your own,” Harry said reasonably, helpfully plucking grass from her chest.

     Cho giggled and Harry grinned at her; he felt so good right now, lighter than air!  He knew that Cho felt the same.

     “So, I guess I’ll see you back at school,” he said.

     “On the Quidditch pitch?” prompted Cho.

     “If you like ...” he said suggestively.

     Cho blushed and laughed.  “You know what I mean.”  Her smooth brow creased.  “Oh, what should we tell people about us?  I don’t particularly want to turn up in the paper again tomorrow.”

     Harry and Cho agreed that not only was it nobody else’s business, there was already far too much attention on them.  They decided to just quietly tell their friends about it when all the media hoopla had died down.

     “I really do wish things turned out differently for us, Harry,” Cho said softly.  She gave him one last long and tender kiss, her fingers deep in his hair, his hands tight around her back, then she pulled away, breathless, and Disapparated with a loud crack.

     Standing alone in the centre of the black pitch, the Boy-Who-Survived-Cho-Chang inhaled deeply of the sweet night air and decided it hadn’t been such a bad game after all.  Bill sidled up to him and steered him back towards the Harpies’ tent.

     “So I’m guessing you and Cho didn’t break up after all,” he said dryly.

     “Oh no, we did,” Harry said brightly, handing Bill his tissues.

     Bill did a double take.  “But ...” he started.

     Harry smiled up at his personal Curse-Breaker and said with an innocent air, “Well, you told me to be nice to her ...”

******

The party was still in full swing when Bill and Harry slipped back into the tent.  The DA members stood scattered around the crowded tent, basking in the celebrity glow of First League Quidditch players.  Harry spotted Ron and Natalie deep in conversation in a corner.  Smirking, he decided his company was not required and went looking for Neville, intending to invite him and his parents to the island for a holiday.  Before he could even broach the subject, an excited Neville volunteered that he’d talked his grandmother into letting his parents come home for the rest of the summer.

     “She keeps saying they won’t know any different,” Neville said, shaking his head.  “We know the truth, though; that’s all that matters.  Mind you,” he added darkly, “if Malfoy makes one more crack about Saint Mungo’s ...”

     “Then he’ll have both of us to deal with,” Harry declared stoutly.

     Standing amongst his friends, nibbling on Harpies-shaped pretzels, Harry gazed around contentedly — for once in his life, all his little chess pieces were lining up exactly the way he wanted.  The Longbottoms were going to break free of Saint Mungo’s.  Remus had three whole weeks left of the summer to try to patch things up with his wife.  Ron looked like he might be falling for a girl who was actually interested in him.  And to cap it all off, Cho didn’t hate him!  Not even the occasional stinging in his scar could dampen Harry’s spirits right now.

     “You okay?” asked Ron, handing Harry a Butterbeer.  “You look a lot better than before.”

     “No, I’m good,” Harry assured him.  “Just needed to lie down for a bit.”

     Natalie’s lips twitched.  She reached out to pluck some grass from Harry’s jet-black hair and said, “What happened to Cho?”

     “Cho?”  Harry smiled softly.  “I’m afraid she had to go.”

******
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