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Clouds of steam drifted back along the gleaming red locomotive. A bustling throng of people swarmed upon the platform, doors slammed, and a swirling hubbub of chatter and shouts echoed off the brick arches.
‘There are a lot of people here,’ Fleur said.
‘I’d imagine Voldemort doesn’t want to kill an entire generation of witches and wizards. Not if he can avoid it.’ Harry shrugged and scanned the crowd. ‘Not many muggleborns, though.’
‘No surprises there,’ she replied. ‘The ones that fought back have vanished or are hiding. They wouldn’t send their children back to school, even if it’s probably safer there.’
Steam gushed from the distant engine and a shrill whistle pierced the cacophony of the crowd.
‘It’s leaving soon.’ Fleur wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t see why you can’t just apparate again. You could’ve spent half a day longer with me.’
‘Because while I can’t imagine Voldemort would openly attack the train, a student could easily disappear from it.’
A faint pout crept onto Fleur’s lips. ‘Katie.’
‘And Nev.’ Harry slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her close to press a kiss to her cheek. ‘And any of the others, if Voldemort goes after them.’
But mostly Katie and Nev.
‘You’re not their hero,’ she whispered. ‘Their dreams aren’t more important than yours.’
‘I’m not saving them for that.’ Harry watched the doors slam along the length of the train and stepped from her embrace. ‘I’m saving them because I don’t want them to die. Katie and Nev are my friends.’
Fleur caught his hand as he stepped onto the train. ‘I will continue our hunt, mon Cœur. It’s a short list of names.’
He bent and kissed her. ‘Be careful—’
‘I am more careful than you,’ she retorted. ‘You be careful. Albus Dumbledore’s scheming must be reaching its conclusion…’
Yes. My time’s running out. Harry gave her fingers a squeeze, and watched her waver and vanish. The faint taste of marzipan faded from his lips, an awful weight settling on his heart. I hate this. I wish it was still the Summer.
He disillusioned himself and strode through the compartments until he found Nev, Hannah, Susan Bones, Ron and Ginny. ‘Hello all,’ he said, abandoning his invisibility.
‘Bloody hell,’ Susan muttered.
‘Harry.’ Nev grinned. ‘Good timing, if a slightly dramatic entrance.’
Ron glanced up from a copy of their defence textbook and grunted, Ginny gave him a small wave and Hannah and Susan smiled.
‘Hermione just left to go to the prefects’ carriage,’ Hannah said.
‘Ron has decided not to go, despite claiming to be taking his responsibilities and education more seriously this year,’ Nev added.
‘Nobody does anything in the meeting except ignore Malfoy mouthing off and introduce themselves to the new prefects. I already know everyone in the year below because of Ginny and I have better things to do than listen to Malfoy.’ Ron raised his textbook. ‘This is more important.’
He’s grown up. Harry took a seat in the corner. Maybe I should’ve been more patient with him, it’s not like with me, he’d no reason to grow up early.
‘Hermione didn’t approve.’ Nev chuckled. ‘She said, and I quote, you have a responsibility to set a good precedent as a person in a position of influence and authority, and then she stalked off.’
‘She’s been like that all summer,’ Ron grumbled. ‘I told her I was going to take things more seriously now when I started actually studying and practising proper, useful magic, and she took it as an excuse to try and force quotes from muggle philosophers down my throat.’
‘Which ones?’ Hannah asked.
‘All of them, I think.’ Ron sighed. ‘If I hear that line from Gandhi again, I’ll set fire to the library at headquarters and throw myself into the flames.’
‘Which line?’ Harry asked. ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind?’
‘A man who was completely innocent offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act,’ Ron replied. ‘Dumbledore said it. Hermione likes it. It’s a good quote, but I’ve heard it a few times too many.’
And by a man, Dumbledore means me.
‘Katie and I have decided to protect you from Romilda Vane, Harry,’ Nev said. ‘Ginny saw her on the platform boasting about how she was going to get a really hot boyfriend this year.’
Ron snorted. ‘If she thinks you’re going to ditch that veela chick for her, she’s an idiot.’
Susan blinked. ‘Katie’s a veela?’
Nev snickered. ‘I’m sure you all remember Fleur Delacour from fourth year—’
‘That really pretty girl from France?’ Hannah asked.
‘She’s Harry’s girlfriend,’ Nev finished.
Susan frowned. ‘For how long?’
‘A year and a bit,’ Harry said. ‘I didn’t really want to add to Rita Skeeter’s gossip column, but now the secret’s out.’
Now everyone will try and take her away. His stomach twisted and writhed, a fist of panic clamping about his throat. But they can’t. He took a deep breath and squashed it all down. I won’t let them.
‘Mum was wrong,’ Ron muttered.
‘Yes she was,’ Harry said. ‘And I’d suggest that if she finds herself in our company again, she apologises to Fleur. Otherwise, she might not find herself in our company ever again.’
‘Yeah.’ Ron grimaced. ‘Sorry about that. She gets stuff stuck in her head and once it’s there, it’s hard to shake it loose. It’s a good thing Dumbledore told her not to interfere, to be honest. Mum was all for dragging you back to headquarters with us and separating the two of you permanently.’
‘That wouldn’t have been a very smart thing to try,’ Harry murmured, smothering a flash of cold fury.
Ron winced and set his book down. ‘Took us two days to cheer Bill back up after Fleur rebuffed him, you know. He was very taken with her. By the time he was done moping, Mum was almost grateful you got her first. Don’t think she liked the idea of having her as a daughter-in-law.’
He’ll never so much as touch her. Harry wrestled with the image of a burning ring of bronze upon Fleur’s finger and the tall shadow of a man whose hair kept fading red and wore a dragon fang dangling from his ear. I’ll kill him first.
A sharp rap echoed through the compartment and the door slid open.
‘Here’s trouble,’ Neville muttered. ‘Someone hide Harry and nobody eat or drink anything she gives him.’
‘Shut up.’ Hannah swatted him on the arm. ‘Don’t cause trouble.’
A dark-haired, dark-eyed girl strode into the compartment’s centre and shot Harry a smile, offering a slim slip of ribbon-bound paper. ‘Hiya Harry, I’m Romilda, Romilda Vane. It’s nice to finally meet you.’
‘Hi.’ Harry pulled the slip of paper from her fingers, avoiding glancing down the low neckline of her blouse. ‘What’s this?’
Romilda tossed one into Nev’s lap. ‘The new professor asked if anyone knew where you were. I volunteered to come find you.’
‘Thanks,’ Harry said, unrolling it and holding it up. ‘Dear Harry. I hope you would do me the honour of joining me for luncheon in compartment C. Professor H J Slughorn.’
‘He’s a Potions teacher,’ Ron said. ‘Snape’s teaching Defence. That’s why I’m reading this book first, the git isn’t going to grade any of us fairly. He’ll probably teach us everything wrong to soften us up for Voldemort.’
Susan twitched and Romilda let out a little gasp of shock, sidling close enough to let her legs brush against Harry’s and bathing him in strong, fruity perfume. Her fingers bunched in the material of her skirt and the hem fluttered about her thighs.
‘I guess we’d better go, Nev,’ Harry said.
‘Free food,’ Ron said. ‘Might as well take it. Probably better than the trolley, too.’
Romilda shot Harry a long look and fluttered her eyelashes. ‘I don’t know if you can take anyone with you, but I’d love to go.’
Nev snorted. ‘Romilda, did you know veela can throw fire if you upset them enough?’
‘No?’ She looked down her nose at him. ‘Is that, like, at all important?’
‘Food for thought,’ Nev said, ushering her aside so Harry could leave without having to brush past her.
A port-bellied, silver-moustached man in a fine-patterned waistcoat with straining brass buttons presided over a spread of expensive aperitifs arranged with a nonchalance that might’ve reduced Petunia to tears at her own inadequacy. He stood at the centre of a gaggle of students, caught up in three conversations at the same time, directing aperitifs and small glasses of elven wine to those around him. His belly protruded into the huddle like the swollen abdomen of a gorged spider.
His pale green eyes lit up when he caught sight of Nev and Harry. ‘Everyone is here! Take a seat, take a seat, take a seat.’
Harry found himself at Slughorn’s elbow staring across at Blaise Zabini and a pair of blonde Slytherin sisters.
‘Help yourselves.’ Slughorn poured Harry a generous measure of elven wine before passing the decanter down the table. ‘There’s no need to stand on ceremony at my informal little gatherings.’ He pushed a few dishes across the table at the pair of blonde girls. ‘Try these, Daphne and Astoria, they’re honey and lemon. Ought to help with that sweet tooth!’
Harry picked at the partridge he found in front of him, removing the wings and legs with surgical precision and taking small mouthfuls of rich, gamey meat. Slughorn attempted to converse with the anti-social Carrow twins, turning a little red in the face when all his smiles and charm won was silence.
‘I heard that you were a professor here once before, sir,’ Flora said just as Slughorn was beginning to look like he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
‘I was! This is my second tenure. Albus finally managed to tempt me back.’ He chuckled. ‘He’s been trying for years, of course, and I finally let him have his way. My retirement was growing a little too dull for my liking and I couldn’t resist his most generous offer.’
The conversation ebbed and flowed back about the table. Melinda Bobbins captured Slughorn’s attention for almost ten minutes, waxing eloquent about the apothecaries of her family, as Slughorn plied her with thin-sliced celery, red grapes, and an Italian blue cheese.
The two blonde girls watched with small smiles as Melinda’s proud babble drifted down the table.
I’m sure I’ve never seen them before. Are they actually students?
‘Ah, how rude of me!’ Slughorn twisted ’round. ‘You’ve probably not spoken much. I remember how the house rivalries were back in my days here. Harry, well, I guess I don’t have to introduce you, but this is Daphne and Astoria Greengrass.’
‘Charmed,’ Daphne murmured. ‘We’re actually big fans. I don’t suppose you could teach me that ice spell you used on Malfoy?’
Harry chuckled. ‘I’m sure it would suit you, but I’m afraid not.’
Slughorn chuckled. ‘Keep an eye on this pair, Harry. They’re not just very smart, but they’ll be devastatingly beautiful in a few years too.’ He leant forward and lowered his voice. ‘I heard a little rumour about duelling trophies.’
Daphne smiled and glanced away.
Astoria beamed. ‘We’ve got thirty four. And seven are golds. We usually compete as doubles, but Daph also has some individual ones.’
‘Delightful!’ Slughorn cried. ‘A shame there’s no trio event, the three of you would make a formidable team!’ He raised his glass and tapped his knife against it until the ringing quelled the chatter. ‘Welcome to my first little gathering! Hopefully the first of many!’
I hope they’re not too frequent. Harry glanced up and down the table as Slughorn greeted each and every person one by one. The food is pretty good, but I’ve got more important things to do.
‘Ah.’ Slughorn turned to Harry. ‘And how could I not invite you to our little gathering, Harry?’
Zabini sneered from the other side of the table.
‘It’s a pleasure to be here, sir,’ he said.
‘Indeed, my boy, indeed.’ Slughorn nodded, all three chins bobbing together. ‘When Dumbledore told me he had a student that might remind me of an old favourite of mine, I didn’t believe him, but now I’ve seen you, I can’t deny the resemblance. Lily Potter, your mother, was one of my best students when I last taught at Hogwarts. I have some photos of our old gatherings that I simply must show you.’
‘That would be very kind of you.’ Harry plastered a bright smile over his face. ‘Everyone tells me I have her eyes.’
Slughorn’s eyes grew dark. ‘The very same shade of green, my lad! She was a brilliant witch.’ He waved his knife across the table at Daphne and Astoria Greengrass. ‘A very good example for the two of you, yes indeed. Lily was a marvellously creative spellcrafter, and no slouch in a duel either, oh no. She had a Hiccupping Hex so potent it once broke a boy’s ribs after she lost her temper with him.’ Slughorn released a fond sigh. ‘Of course, she married that boy in the end, Harry. That’s why you’re here!’
Something tells me that my mother wasn’t the favourite Dumbledore compared me to. Harry pulled on the same roguish grin he’d often seen Sirius wear. That ought to throw him off.
The luncheon stretched on through four more courses, a light dessert, and on further until an informal tea. Harry placed himself in the corner with the Carrow twins on one side and the Greengrass sisters on the other. Both pairs of girls murmured to one another, ignoring him while he sipped a raspberry-flavoured tea and indulged his growing sweet tooth with a slice of marzipan-rich stollen.
‘Harry!’ Slughorn bustled over, squeezing his belly between the groups of chattering students and waving a thin, leather-bound book. ‘I thought you might appreciate this when I found it while packing to move into the castle; it’s the handful of photos from my little gatherings which have your mother in them.’
‘Thank you,’ Harry said. ‘I appreciate it. I’ve very few photos of my parents. I’ll have to find some way to repay you.’
‘Harry, my boy, you don’t repay someone for a gift!’ Slughorn clapped him on the shoulder and pressed the book into his hands. ‘But if you insist on reciprocating the favour, then I’ll let you know that I’m quite fond of crystallised fruit.’ He blinked, then shook his head and smiled. ‘Ambrosius sends me little packages from time to time. He owns Honeydukes, you know, but is still kind enough to remember an old mentor. One can never have too many sweets! Just ask Albus, I mean, Professor Dumbledore. Now you’d better hurry and change, not too long before we get into the station. Can’t have you coming into school looking so casual, can we, Harry?’
‘Of course not, sir,’ Harry said, abandoning his tea cup amidst a scatter of others upon the table. ‘And if I find something sweet, I’ll be sure to remember you.’
He hurried back to the compartment.
‘You missed all the introductions, Ron!’ Hermione scolded, fiddling with a silver chain around her neck. ‘You missed everything!’
‘Let me guess.’ Ron glanced up from his book. ‘Everyone said their names, which we all mostly knew already, then Malfoy annoyed the whole group for the next few hours.’
Hermione huffed. ‘Actually, he was very quiet. I heard his father got quite badly hurt back at the start of the summer.’
‘Hurt fighting for the wrong side,’ Ron snapped.
She winced and chewed at her lip, then turned around to face Harry. Her eyes went wide. ‘Harry… You need to get changed.’
He slipped his wand from his sleeve and transfigured his clothes into school robes. ‘Sorted.’ Harry took back his seat and turned to Nev. ‘What did you think of our new Professor?’
‘He liked you, those Greengrass girls, and a few others.’ Nev scowled. ‘Only spoke to everyone else once and then moved on once he realised they weren’t really rich, or smart, or gifted.’
‘He enjoys his little circle of friends and the favours they do for him,’ Harry said. ‘He stays in contact with them after they go off and do things, and reaps the reward of their long friendships. I think he’ll be a better teacher than Snape, though, and I can take the Potions NEWT with him here.’
‘What did you get in your OWLs?’ Hermione demanded.
‘Os mostly.’ Harry shrugged. ‘Got an E in Potions and Herbology, though, and only an A in Astronomy and a History of Magic.’
‘She got straight Os,’ Ron announced from behind his book. ‘Wouldn’t shut up about it for weeks.’
Hermione shot Ron a scathing look, then a huge smile spread across her face. ‘You did very well, Harry.’
But aren’t you just ecstatic that you did better.
He rolled his eyes. ‘Dumbledore asked me to replace him in helping Professor McGonagall with her research, so I must have done well in Transfiguration.’
‘You conjured and transfigured a giant raven,’ Nev said. ‘I heard—’
‘That raven was you!’ Susan burst out. ‘It took the examiners half an hour to get my wand back from the blasted bird! I was so nervous I thought I was going to be sick, or faint, or both!’
‘They could have just vanished it,’ Harry said. ‘Dumbledore said the examiners were to blame for not being able to bring themselves to get rid of my raven when they were supposed to.’
‘You sabotaged half of the students in our year,’ Hermione muttered.
‘Not intentionally.’ Harry ignored the little flicker of doubt that passed across her face. ‘Has anyone seen Katie?’
Hannah and Susan exchanged a glance, but shook their heads, Ron, Ginny, and Hermione just shrugged. Paranoia stabbed at him.
‘I’m sure she’s fine,’ Nev said.
‘She’s probably chattering about quidditch somewhere,’ Ginny added.
‘We’ll find her on the platform in a minute,’ Nev said.
The train ground to a halt next to Hogsmeade’s platform. Harry glanced about, gave them all a wave, then apparated away among the thestral carriages.
The two nearest skeletal, winged horses snorted and sniffed at his hands, pulling the carriage closer to nuzzle at his right wrist with cold noses. Their wide, dark, staring eyes gazed up at him with soft approval. A handful of students drifted past him, relieving him of his spectral company, and he spied, among a group of giggling girls, Romilda Vane.
Does she not know how to do buttons? Harry averted his eyes from her half-open top to scan the crowd for Katie. She’s fifteen-ish, she should be able to do buttons by now.
‘Waiting for someone, Harry?’ Romilda sidled across, batting her eyelashes. ‘You can come—’
‘Yes.’ Katie bounced over from amidst the crowd. ‘Me. Scram, little girlies.’
Romilda scowled, looking Katie up and down, then stalked away, her gang of girls in tow.
‘Check everything you eat or drink,’ Katie said, watching Romilda’s dark hair recede into the distance. ‘In fact, check it, then let me check it, too. I doubt you know as much about love potions as I do.’
Harry raised an eyebrow. ‘Expert, are you?’
She still likes you. Fleur’s words rose up from the back of his mind in a soft little whisper. She loves you, but she wants you to be happy. He smothered them.
‘Not like that.’ She dragged him toward the nearest carriage. ‘I don’t need a love potion for you, anyway. I’d just need to pretend to get stuck in a trick step.’
Harry snorted. ‘What are you doing, Stuck-in-a-Step-Katie?’
She laughed. ‘Come on. Before Romilda comes back and tries to jailbait you into Azkaban.’
Harry grimaced. ‘Thanks for that image.’ He paused with one foot in the carriage. ‘Not waiting for Nev?’
‘Do you want to find out how many more girls there are like Romilda? She’s not even the worst, either. Romilda, along with several others, thinks you’re attractive, and you’re famous, too, so they like that. There’re a handful of girls who read that Skeeter article about our relationship and took a much keener interest in you.’
Harry rolled his eyes and took a seat in the middle of one side. ‘One of them was probably you.’ He shot her a grin. ‘Put those enchanted handcuffs away, I’m not into being tied up.’
‘I notice you left out tying someone else up…’ Katie giggled. ‘And remind me which one of us was seduced by an older girl at a tender age and led astray?’ She dropped in beside him and leant against his side. ‘Although, I guess that was partly me…’
‘Mostly you.’ Harry snorted, then sighed as the levity drained away. ‘I’m sorry about our last visit, we were ambushed by Weasleys and things got a bit heated.’
‘I saw.’ Katie smirked. ‘You still owe us money. Well, Frenchie does.’
Harry fished through his pockets but found no coins. ‘Remind me how much in a bit and I’ll pay you back.’
She winked. ‘You don’t have to pay me back with money, Harry.’
‘We would die horribly,’ he said. ‘Fleur is very much the jealous type.’
‘And I bet you love that.’ Katie nudged his shoulder a couple of times and winked. ‘Wind her up a little bit, watch her get all pouty, flustered and possessive, then take advantage.’
‘I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind from time to time,’ Harry admitted. ‘I’m also fairly sure Fleur likes it too.’
Katie wriggled about on her seat and leant against his shoulder to stare out across the Black Lake, a faint smile on her lips.
Harry’s stomach twisted itself up in knots. Maybe Fleur was right. He tore his eyes away from the soft small smile on Katie’s face and watched the castle grow larger until the carriage rolled up before the entrance.
‘Coming?’ He prodded her in the thigh.
‘Takes more than one finger for that, Harry.’ She giggled and wagged a finger at him. ‘But you’ll have to do better than a short carriage ride to find out how many it is.’
Harry chuckled. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve picked up a few tips. You’d be surprised what I can do with one finger.’
‘Oh?’ Katie waggled her eyebrows and made a show of fanning her face with her hand. ‘And what can you do with one finger, Harry? What are you going to do to me now I’m trapped and helpless in this carriage with you.’
‘You’re the one blocking my exit,’ he accused. ‘You’ve trapped yourself.’
Katie laughed and jumped down. ‘Better me than Romilda. At least I’m legal. That little slut’s going to get some poor guy into a lot of trouble. One covert love potion and a couple of rumours and suddenly his life is ruined.’
Harry shuddered and grappled with a fist of sour heat and a churning stomach. ‘I really don’t like the idea of love potions. You’d be utterly helpless and you wouldn’t even know it well enough to try and escape.’
The humour slipped from Katie’s face. ‘Yeah, I bet you do.’ She screwed up her face and set off toward the Great Hall. ‘They’re horrible things. If I catch Romilda trying to dose you, I’ll hit her so hard I break my knuckles across her face.’
Gaps scattered the four long tables.
There’re a lot of missing muggleborns. Harry sidestepped the Greengrass sisters, who shot him an odd look, and slipped himself into one of the gaps in the middle of Gryffindor’s table.
‘Did I tell you that I’m the quidditch captain?’ Katie gushed.
‘No. Congratulations, Dark Quidditch Captain Lady. Have you planned to buy a new broom yet?’
‘I already have a professional grade one,’ Katie replied. ‘It was a present from a friend.’
‘I think it was lent to you by a friend.’ Harry tutted and shook his head. ‘You’re going to have to give it back this year at some point.’
I’ll be leaving halfway through if I can manage it.
She pouted. ‘You never specified how long I was able to keep it.’
‘I suppose I didn’t.’
‘It’s mine, then,’ she said.
‘Until I ask for it back,’ Harry added.
‘You decided not to play anymore.’
‘I was banned for life.’
‘Same thing,’ Katie whispered as Dumbledore began his welcome speech lighting his lectern with a wave of a bright-coloured, striped, gloved hand.
‘Not quite,’ he murmured back.
He glanced down the table as Dumbledore’s words about unity and togetherness washed over his head. Hermione caught his eye, studying him as if he were her Arithmancy homework. Harry waved at her and she twitched, looking away. Katie’s goblet clattered onto the table, rolling past the empty places next to her where Angelina and Alicia had always been and over the edge to the floor.
So like last year. Harry ignored the sharp, blue eyes observing him from afar. So like last year, but not. He summoned the goblet back with one hand, catching it by the stem as it floated toward his outstretched hand.
Blue eyes crinkled in the corner of Harry’s own, then Dumbledore turned to offer some remark to Snape, who stared down at his plate with a deep frown as Dumbledore piled celeriac onto it.
‘Look,’ Harry remarked to Katie. ‘Dumbledore’s trying to make sure Snape grows up to be big and strong.’
‘That or he’s finally decided to check and see if Snape really is a vampire.’ Katie scrunched her nose up. ‘I don’t like that man. He’s always been horrible to you.’
‘He’s also a Death Eater,’ Harry murmured. ‘And I’m fairly sure that Voldemort got your address from him.’
Katie’s fork slipped through her fingers and thudded onto the table. ‘He what?!’
Harry wrapped an arm ‘round her shoulders as she made to rise. ‘Don’t do anything,’ he whispered. ‘I’m going to sort it.’
She clutched at his arm. ‘My parents nearly died. I nearly died. If you hadn’t…’ Katie’s mahogany eyes met his and a little of the colour left her cheeks. ‘Harry…? What are you going to do…?’
‘Remind him that actions have consequences,’ he said. ‘Nothing you need to worry about, I’m just going to talk to him.’ Harry leant his head to one side. ‘Although, if he does something like it again, I might turn him into a lovely ice sculpture.’
Katie’s lips pressed into a thin white line and she glowered up at the teachers’ table. ‘If he does anything like that again, I’ll actually do something very Dark Lady.’