This chapter’s for Elizabeth, as a small gesture of how much I appreciate the support you show me. A heartfelt thank you.

If you prefer audiobooks, listen to the audio version created by Sam Gabriel below!

A comical drawing marked the page beneath his fingers: a small, childlike form under a tattered sheet. Harry let himself recall the grey flesh and gaping maw that lay beneath with a soft chill and a prickle down his spine.

‘I will assume, since you have been given ample time, that you have read the chapter on lethifolds, specifically Dementors,’ Snape drawled. ‘So if I see any books still open I will be… displeased.’

Almost every book in the class snapped shut.

‘Mr Malfoy and Miss Granger.’ Snape’s eyes flashed ‘Do you somehow think yourselves above my instruction?’

Hermione closed her book with a quiet, irritated sniff and Malfoy’s shut with a sullen thump, flopping over the edge of the desk and thudding to the floor. Snape’s lip curled.

Let’s see how important being on my good side is to you? Harry shot him a beatific smile and left his book open on the desk.

Snape turned away.

Nice to know.

‘Did Snape just pass up another opportunity to take points away from you?’ Nev whispered.

‘I suspect Dumbledore may have instructed him to curb his enthusiasm toward my detention tally.’


‘He’s a part of the Order of the Phoenix, a spy for Dumbledore amongst Voldemort’s ranks.’

‘That’s brave of him,’ Nev murmured.

‘It’s only bravery if you’re risking something,’ Harry replied. ‘Snape only risks others.’

‘Still. To face and lie to Voldemort every time, knowing that each time he is summoned might be his last…’ Nev shrugged. ‘That requires a fair bit of courage.’

‘He doesn’t lie to Voldemort,’ Harry said. ‘Snape is more a servant of two masters than a spy. He does whatever he is ordered by either and does his best to destroy Voldemort for his own reasons rather than the betterment of Britain.’ He fell silent as Snape swept past the back of the class to destroy the small paper Dementor Pansy Parkinson had charmed to spew ink over Hermione’s notes.

‘That sounds much less brave,’ Nev said.

‘Bravery is the prerogative of the blind,’ Snape dawled from two feet over Nev’s head. ‘Being brave does not mean that you will win, Mr Longbottom. Of all the people in this class, you should know that best.’

Nev’s fists balled on the top of the desk and Harry put a hand on his shoulder.

‘Granger.’ Snape turned away with a sneer. ‘You’re likely to know the answers, no doubt you’ve already devoured this textbook. How would you repel a Dementor?’

‘The Patronus Charm,’ Hermione said.

‘I said how would you repel it, Granger,’ Snape said. ‘Are you capable of casting the charm?’

‘Yes.’ Hermione beamed. ‘Harry taught some of us how to do it.’

‘Did he now?’ Snape murmured, fixing Harry with an irritated stare.

Ah. I’ve ruined your lesson plan, haven’t I? Well, Nev and the DA have.

‘Well, then.’ Snape swept back to the front of the class. ‘Perhaps we shall test Mr Potter’s teaching prowess. Let’s go around the class and see who can produce anything of a true patronus. Mr Malfoy, perhaps you would be so kind as to go first.’

‘Potter managed it years ago.’ Malfoy sneered. ‘It can’t be hard.’ He pushed himself out of his chair, standing tall and proud in front of the class. ‘Expecto Patronum,’ he whispered.

A rush of silver mist swirled from his wand into a bright hippogriff that snorted and champed, pawing at the ground.

A hippogriff. Really? Harry chuckled to himself. That’s the form of his positive emotions?

‘Very good, Mr Malfoy,’ Snape said. ‘What memory did you use?’

‘That’s none of your business, ‘ Malfoy said, sitting down. ‘I said it wasn’t hard.’

‘Continue down the rows,’ Snape instructed. ‘For those of you like Mr Malfoy, who has been trying since third year, I expect to see a similar result.’

Malfoy scowled and stared up at the ceiling.

A succession of small bursts of silver mist made their way across the desks toward the back where Nev and Harry sat, interspersed with the occasional creature from those he’d taught in the Room of Requirement. A lean, lithe mountain lion growled around Ron’s waist before fading from the room, much to Hermione’s pride.

They’ve actually all managed to get pretty close to casting it.

‘Miss Granger,’ Snape prompted. ‘You’re taking a long time, for someone who sounded so confident.’

Hermione raised her wand, chewing at her lip. ‘Expecto patronum,’ she muttered.

A bright, four-winged moth hovered above her head, rubbing its legs against its head, fluttering its wings. The class’s eyes moved on to the next in line.

A moth. Death. Despair. Salazar’s last patronus was a moth. Harry studied the moth. Interesting. Are her nightmares so bad she’s struggling to hold onto her positive emotions?

Nev’s silver wolf sat on its haunches upon the desk.

‘Ah,’ Snape drawled. ‘Now for the main event, Mr Potter?’

‘Everyone has already seen mine back in third year.’

‘Then you won’t mind demonstrating once more.’ Snape’s eyes gleamed. ‘Don’t be shy, Mr Potter, you’re a celebrity, remember.’

‘But you’re the professor, sir.’ Harry smiled. ‘Surely you should be the one demonstrating? Unless… for some reason, you can’t?’

Some reason like being an apathetic shell of a man.

The class held its breath.

‘Expecto patronum,’ Snape spat and a brilliant, silver doe leapt from his wand to spring around the room.

How dare he? Harry’s breath caught on the fist of ice clamped around his heart. Its chill coursed through his veins with each shuddering beat . He loved her. He loved her like I love Fleur. And he betrayed her. His stomach churned, flashing hot and cold, writhing like a barrel of snakes. Harry swallowed bile. How dare he ruin something perfect?!

‘Expecto patronum,’ he hissed.

The towering anzu dispersed Nev’s wolf with one taloned foot, spreading its wings in a flash of silver light that shattered every other surviving patronus in the room. Snape’s doe burst apart, collapsing like a punctured cloud, and Hermione’s moth scattered into mist. Silence hung over the class.

‘Anzu,’ Hermione murmured. ‘They’re an extinct magical eagle of Mesopotamia associated with fire, enthrallment, and destruction.’

‘Thank you, Miss Granger,’ Snape drawled. ‘You do not have to recite the dictionary definition of everything you come across.’

The damage is already done, but they never would’ve understood the truth anyway.

Hermione stared at the anzu with a dark expression and gnawed her lip so deep blood smeared her teeth. Harry banished it, and the anzu vanished with a soft, ominous screech.

‘I think that will be all for today,’ Snape said. ‘Mr Potter, it appears, has already taught this class. If you would be so kind as to stay behind, Mr Potter, so I can discover if there are any of my other classes that I no longer need to teach.’

‘Have fun,’ Nev murmured on his way out.

‘You dislike the form of my patronus,’ Snape said, as the last of the students left.

‘I do. It shows exactly what it was you ruined when you betrayed her.’

Snape flinched. ‘Then you hate it almost as much as I both love and loathe it.’

‘I trust you asked me to stay behind for something more than discussing your patronus?’ Harry asked.

‘I wanted to know if the rumours I’ve heard about you and Beauxbatons’s former Triwizard Champion are true, but there seems little point in asking now.’

‘There would have been little point in asking before,’ Harry retorted. ‘I’ve no intention of betraying her.’

The corner of Snape’s mouth crooked and he ushered Harry into his office. ‘How is your attempt to sway Professor Slughorn going?’

‘He intends to assess my progress over the next few weeks, I suspect, so I have until about Christmas to convince him.’

A scatter of gifts, a handful of reminders of my mother and of Riddle, and Slughorn will be happily supporting me for one reason or another. Harry inspected the interior of Snape’s office out of the corner of his eye. I just need to make sure Snape continues to help me progress.

Snape watched him with a soft gleam to his eyes.

‘What?’ Harry demanded.

‘There are times when you look very much like your mother,’ Snape said. ‘Whenever you finally decide to use your brain you get the same glint in your eyes that she used to.’

A bright point of cold welled up over Harry’s heart. ‘Perhaps if you were so fond of her, you shouldn’t have got her killed.’

Snape winced. ‘I did not know,’ he murmured. ‘I told him before I knew.’

And look what happened. She was killed. And I was left to be nothing for over a decade.

Harry turned away from Snape before he lost control of his temper.  ‘What’re you brewing?’

The same small cauldron rested on Snape’s desk, spewing thick, white mist across the desk and floor. The scent of mistletoe berries, salamander’s blood, and juniper drifted to Harry;s nose.

‘A potion to arrest the effects of the headmaster’s most recent act of foolishness,’ Snape said. ‘It keeps the curse he contracted at bay.’

So that’s how he’s survived. Harry’s breath caught. If Snape dies, then Dumbledore probably dies too. I’d be half-free! His wand slipped into his hand.

Snape peered down into the cauldron. ‘I’ve almost brewed enough of this to keep Dumbledore going for a few months.’ He wafted white mist away and tossed in a handful of white berries. ‘By the time you’ve convinced Slughorn and taken your NEWTs, he should have ample supply.’

Not free. Harry ground his teeth and slid his wand away. I need my NEWTs.

‘I should head back to the common room,’ Harry said.

‘Have a good evening,’ Snape replied

‘Thank you.’

He hurried back to the common room and gave the password to the Fat Lady.

‘… you’re coming, Ron!’ Hermione yelled as it swung open.

The Fat Lady winced. ‘That one was much quieter last year. Spent less time sneaking about the castle after hours too.’

‘Don’t blame me.’ Harry raised his hands at her accusing stare. ‘I’m not involved.’

‘You’re always involved.’ She sniffed. ‘Sirius Black was after you when I was so violently assaulted.’

‘He was after Peter Pettigrew, actually,’ Harry said. ‘Turned out to be a nice chap in the end.’

The Fat Lady eyed him as if he’d gone mad, but swung the rest of the way aside. Harry strolled through, following the sound of commotion.

‘I don’t want to go to your stupid party,’ Ron gritted. ‘I have no obligation to go when I could better spend my time here studying.’

Hermione threw her hands up in the air. ‘You can’t study all the time, Ron.’

‘Hark,’ Nev whispered. ‘You are black, says the pot to the kettle.’

‘What’s so great about this party anyway?’ Ron demanded. ‘Slug Club rubbish? Is this another crush like you had on Lockhart?’

Hermione went crimson. ‘Professor Slughorn is hosting a small gathering for students he thinks have the potential to go far, and I, having been invited, need a date.’

Katie cackled from near the fireplace. ‘Calm down over there Roneo and Hermiet.’

‘A date.’ Ron’s ears went red. ‘Well why didn’t you just say so? Ridiculous girl.’

‘So you’re coming?’ Hermione asked.

‘Yes.’ Ron sighed. ‘But you really need to work on how you ask guys to go with you to things. Even I was never that bad.’

Someone coughed something that sounded a lot like Fleur Delacour and Ron went red again, brightening further still when he caught sight of Harry.

‘Why’re you laughing, Harry?’ Nev called. ‘You’re invited too and you don’t have a date either.’

‘Merde,’ Harry swore.

‘I think I saw Romilda in the library,’ Nev offered.

‘I will curse you.’ Harry glanced around the room, noting the careful disinterest of a lot of the girls. ‘I suppose there is only one thing for it. Nev, would you accompany me to the party?’

Nev sputtered. ‘I don’t think Hannah would approve, but I will ask her.’

‘Has anyone seen Neville’s cactus?’ Harry called.

‘You still don’t have a date.’ Romilda Vane flounced across the room. ‘But you can take me.’

Harry shot Nev a glare. I thought you said she was in the library.

‘Yes he does,’ Katie piped up, rising from her chair beside the fire. ‘I will take pity on you, Harry.’

‘I’m sure Harry can make up his own mind,’ Romilda said.

A fair few disappeared toward the dormitory, babbling excuses. Nev made to sneak past, but Harry cast a sticking charm on his chair.

‘You’re responsible for this,’ he muttered. ‘You’re going nowhere and I’m going to encourage Katie to ask Luna to ask you all sorts of things now.’

Nev blanched, then grinned. ‘You have to survive tonight, first. If Katie doesn’t get you, Fleur will.’

An uncomfortable knot of heat twisted in Harry’s stomach. I’ve a nasty feeling you might be right, Nev. He tried to smother Fleur’s words, but they rose up in the back of his head regardless. She loves you, but she wants you to be happy. You’ll see. At some point, she won’t be able to resist.

A spell burst in brilliant red sparks against the fireplace, then Katie slapped Romilda’s wand out of her hand, sending it bouncing across the floor.

‘Go to bed, Romilda,’ Katie snapped. ‘Buy a uniform that fits, wash your face, and do the buttons up on your blouse for once. Harry likes his girls a bit older.’ She turned and winked at him.

Harry plastered a smile across his face. I hope you mean Fleur…

Romilda threw one last smile at Harry as she bent down to pick her wand up, making no attempt to keep her skirt from riding up. Katie growled and she fled up the stairs.

‘So, have you asked Hannah yet, Nev? I need a date and Katie’s scared away your competition.’

Ron came back down, wearing smarter dress robes than he had managed for the Yule Ball. He let out a loud sigh. ‘Oh, good, no Romilda. That girl’s a bloody menace.’

‘Take Katie.’ Nev shrugged. ‘She’s not going to throw herself at you like Romilda, and she’s not terrible company.’

‘I suppose I could.’ Harry shot her a look out of the corner of his eye. ‘But she has to promise to be good. No Dark Ladying.’

‘I need to find a dress.’ Katie flapped her hands in the air. ‘I am not prepared for this.’

‘Just transfigure something,’ Harry suggested, changing his robes into the same style as he had worn to the Yule Ball.

‘No!’ Katie darted up the stairs to the girls’ dormitories.

‘Will Fleur mind?’ Ron asked.

Nev snorted. ‘I—’

‘I don’t think so,’ Harry said.

I’m dead. She’ll be furious. Panic clamped its fist about his heart. Harry shoved it down. No. No she won’t. She’ll understand.

Hermione descended the stairs. No bags hung under her eyes and her teal dress robes plunged low enough to show off a slim silver chain dangling in her cleavage. Ron gaped and turned red in the face.

             Harry dragged his eyes away from the pair of them. They’re going to give me nightmares if I think about them too much.

‘Who’s Harry going with?’ Hermione asked.

‘Katie.’ Nev squirmed on his chair. ‘Harry… Come on, let me go.’

Hermione pursed her lips. ‘That’s good; when did you ask her?’

‘He didn’t.’ Nev grinned. ‘Katie was protecting him from Romilda Vane.’

‘Oh.’ Hermione sounded about as convinced as Harry felt.

‘I’m ready.’ Katie bounced down the stairs; her hair scattered over a dark green, close-fitting dress. ‘Do I look okay, Harry?’

‘You look great,’ he said. ‘But you could go a bit more gothic and Dark Lady. Don’t want your minions to think you’re soft.’

‘You just had that dress lying around, did you?’ Hermione asked.

‘Yes.’ Katie beamed and grabbed Harry’s arm, looping hers through his. ‘Just in case.’ She leant on to her toes. ‘And guess what I’m not wearing underneath, Harry.’ Her breath washed across his cheek with a faint scent of Firewhiskey. ‘No seashell bra. No bra at all.

I shouldn’t have let Fleur tell me. He cast one more look at the emerald dress. Ignorance was bliss.

‘We should go,’ Harry suggested. ‘Or McLaggen will eat all the best food.’

Hermione rolled her eyes. ‘You’ll be fine with him. He only eats meat and carbs. It’s the Greengrass sisters you had to all but physically wrestle for the ice cream last time. I think Astoria was about five seconds away from stabbing you with her spoon.’

‘The two pretty, blonde girls in Slytherin?’ Katie’s grip on his arm tightened. ‘What is it with you and sweet-toothed blondes, Harry? Do I need to dye my hair?’

‘Well, you eat enough alcoholic chocolates to have the sweet-tooth part covered,’ Harry replied. ‘So I guess that’s the only difference.’

‘So unfair.’ She pouted and tugged him toward the exit. ‘You know, I heard they’re both kind of cold-hearted, though.’

Hermione and Ron trailed them, whispering to one another.

Harry raised his finger. ‘One, I’ve barely spoken more than three words to either of them, it’s not like we’ve been secret friends for years. Two, I’m fairly sure the whole cold-hearted thing was just because they ate that entire bowl of giant ice-cream.’ He sighed. ‘I can’t believe I lost the tug of war over the ice cream to a girl half my size.’

Katie snorted. ‘What flavour was it?’

‘Chocolate chip. And pistachio.’

‘Urgh, together?’

Harry shook his head. ‘No. Well, not to begin with. They mixed it together.’

‘That’s just… why?’ Katie bounced over the trick step and toward Slughorn’s lab. ‘They’re not even great flavours. Rum and raisin is better.’

‘Maybe they’re not budding alcoholics.’

‘I’m not budding,’ Katie retorted. ‘I’m fully flowered.’

‘Yeah, a rose in a garden of empty whiskey bottles,’ Harry quipped.

‘A rosé by any other name.’ Katie giggled and stumbled over her feet.

Hermione and Ron skirted around them.

Harry chuckled. ‘A rosé too many by the looks of things.’

Katie leant on his arm and beamed at him as they entered a room scattered with aperitif-laden small tables and bottles of elven wine.

‘Aha,’ Slughorn cried. ‘Hermione! And you must be Ronald! Come in, come in, and help yourself to an aperitif. The pâté is delightful and I’m sure I saw something a little healthier floating around for those not already lost down the path to temptation.’

‘Thank you.’ Hermione squirmed. ‘Horace.’

‘And Harry!‘ Slughorn’s exclamation startled everyone nearby. ‘You came.’

‘Of course, professor.’

‘I had such trouble tempting your mother to these gatherings.’ Slughorn sighed. ‘In the end, I had to convince several quite notable people to join us just to tempt her. She never liked the aperitifs much either.’ He winked. ‘And this must be the infamous Miss Bell.’

‘Most infamous,’ Harry quipped.

‘Charmed.’ Slughorn dipped his head and his neck disappeared into his chins. ‘You’re a lucky wizard, Harry.’

‘Oh, we’re just friends.’ Katie glanced at where her arm looped through Harry’s. ‘Someone has to keep Harry company, or any blonde, ice-cream loving girl might come and steal him away out of nowhere.’

‘Well, you’re welcome in any case!’ Slughorn clapped his hands together ‘Have something to eat, or a drink, there’s some lovely elven wine around her somewhere that I picked up in Italy. That’s a country that knows wine, even the elven stuff seems to be better there.’

‘I’ll be sure not to miss out,’ Harry said.

Slughorn patted his belly. ‘Just make sure you wait a few more years before you end up looking like me, Harry!’ He drifted away through the crowd toward Cormac McLaggen.

Katie tugged Harry to the opposite side of the room and poured herself a brimming glass of wine.

‘That is not how you’re meant to fill up a wine glass,’ Harry commented as she took a gulp. ‘Or drink wine.’

‘Keep your wine snobbery for Frenchie.’ Katie offered him the glass. ‘It’s really nice, actually. The food looks good, too.’

He borrowed it and took a sip. ‘I don’t think your wine habits are going to be Fleur’s least favourite thing about this.’

Katie squirmed. ‘She won’t mind. It’s just a party. It’s not like I’m dragging you into a broom closet and seeing if you’ve learnt French kissing.’ She giggled. ‘Although, another couple of glasses of this and you might be able to tempt me, Harry.’

‘You’re not the one who has to explain this to Fleur.’ Harry grimaced. ‘Maybe I should’ve taken Romilda, at least Fleur knows I’d’ve hated going with her.’

If I were her, I’d hate to hear about me doing this. A knot of guilt tangled beneath his ribs, hot and tipped with sharp, cold thorns. Sorry, Fleur. I didn’t think this through. I’ll make it up to you.

Katie pouted at him. ‘I’m going to find us some food. Try not to start another fight over ice cream with the Greengrass sisters.’

Harry sighed and threw a look at where the Greengrass sisters were sitting in the corner, chatting with each other and ignoring the rest of the world. I don’t think there even is any ice cream.

‘Harry! You’ve lost your date!’ Slughorn’s belly floated through the tables beneath a tapestry-patterned waistcoat and straining brass buttons. ‘How about I find you some company?’ He took Harry’s arm and led him across the room. ‘Daphne and Astoria only received my invitation at the last minute, it seems, and didn’t have time to find a date, so perhaps you’d be so kind as to stand in for a little while!’

Harry met two cool, blue stares and caught the same glimpse of resignation in them as he felt. ‘Sure. Why not. But—’ he wagged his finger at Astoria ‘—you have to share the ice cream this time. Just not the pistachio one.’

Astoria grinned. ‘That’s fine. You can share with Daph.’

‘No he can’t,’ Daphne replied. ‘There’s no ice cream here at all.’

‘How unfortunate.’

Slughorn clapped Harry on the shoulder. ‘Already as thick as thieves. I can tell you’re going to be great friends.’ He trundled away into the thick of the party.

Harry inspected his nails. ‘So, did you actually get the invitation late?’

‘I’ve no interest in taking a boy here,’ Astoria said. ‘Daph’s just really antisocial and doesn’t like any of the boys here enough to put up with them.’

He chuckled. ‘Unlucky for them.’

‘A shame.’ Astoria’s grin broadened. ‘Because from the rumours I’ve heard, she’s exactly your type.’

Daphne rolled her eyes. ‘So are you, Astoria.’

‘Maybe in about five years,’ Harry said. ‘No offence, Astoria.’

‘None taken.’ She poked her sister in the boob. ‘I don’t really have these, yet. Whereas Daph…’

‘Right.’ A touch of heat crept onto his face. ‘And on that note, I think I’ve lingered long enough to satisfy Slughorn, so I’m going to abandon you both to whisper to each other again and go find Katie.’

‘Bye!’ Astoria gave him a little wave, then nudged her sister. ‘Don’t be rude, Daph.’

‘Bye, Harry,’ Daphne murmured. ‘Enjoy the party.’

Where has Katie vanished to? He drifted through the tables. I hope she’s not drinking at the same rate she started at.

‘Harry.’ Hermione stepped in front of him. ‘Where’s Katie?’

‘I was just wondering the same thing,’ he said. ‘Where’s Ron?’

Hermione pointed an arm at the table behind her. ‘He found the food.’

‘Right.’ Harry chuckled. ‘Stupid question.’

‘And Katie…’

‘She also went to find food, but I got kidnapped by Slughorn and forced to talk to other people.’

‘The Greengrass sisters.’ Hermione’s lips thinned. ‘I saw.’

‘You could have come and talked to us,’ Harry said. ‘I mean, they’re not all that chatty, but you could have tried.’

‘Astoria seems friendly.’

Harry narrowed his eyes and let a little ice creep into his tone. ‘I’m not sure I like the implication there, Hermione.’

She flinched. ‘I didn’t mean that. It’s just not very fair to Katie, is it?’

‘It isn’t?’

             ‘No. Hermione put her hands on her hips. ‘It’s very un—’

‘Professor Slughorn!’ Filch stomped through the door, clutching a writhing Malfoy by the scruff of his neck. ‘I found this one lurking nearby.’

Harry slipped away from Hermione when she glanced at Malfoy. I’d much rather find Katie than squabble with you about whatever it is you think I’m doing wrong now.

‘I was coming here.’ Malfoy sighed. ‘And since I have been… assisted here, you can let go of me now.’

‘A gate-crasher!’ Slughorn chuckled. ‘There’s always one! Come in, there’s drinks and food aplenty. Though I’m afraid, Mr Malfoy, that next time you won’t get off so lightly. You only get one free pass!’

He came to gate-crash without a date? Harry studied Malfoy’s creased Slytherin school robes and uncombed hair. And dressed like that? He was definitely sneaking.

Hermione worried her lip on the far side of the room, watching Malfoy just as he was.

Malfoy sneered. ‘Something the matter, Potter?’

‘Unpleasant company.’ Harry studied his thumbnail. ‘I’ll endure.’

‘Sometimes it just can’t be helped.’ Malfoy glanced across the room at Hermione. ‘But times are changing, soon we won’t have to put up with muggleborns, blood traitors, or you. My father will have his repayment.’

‘Never liked Lucius.’ Harry shot Malfoy his best imitation of Fleur’s smirk. ‘Bit two-faced for my taste.’

Malfoy’s hand flicked towards his waist, then dropped to his side. ‘You’ll get yours, Potter,’ he hissed. ‘The Dark Lord will strip everything you hold dear from you.’

‘Not if I strip everything away from him first.’ Harry let his smirk turn cold. ‘And I will.’

Malfoy took a step back. ‘Theo will be avenged.’

‘Not by you,’ Harry said. ‘You’re a small fish, Draco. Even mummy and daddy can’t hold a candle to me anymore. They know it, you know it, I know it, and Voldemort does too.’

‘My father is worth a hundred of you,’ Malfoy snapped.

‘He’s worth nothing.’ Harry stepped close to him and lowered his voice. ‘Soon, he’ll be nothing.’

‘We’ll see about that, Potter.’ Malfoy turned on his heel, brushing past Hermione and stalking out.

Katie reappeared, balancing two dishes of focaccia on her arm and beaming from ear to ear, with a bright gleam in her mahogany eyes, wine-reddened lips, and flushed cheeks. ‘Why the sour face?’

‘I had a brief chat with Malfoy,’ Harry said.

‘How boring. Every other word he says is father or mudblood. He’s not good conversation at all.’

‘Sadly I seem to have no better alternatives.’ Harry stole a piece of focaccia. ‘Just this degenerate quidditch-fiend who keeps telling me how bad she is at remembering to wear underwear.’

Katie laughed and finished her glass of wine. ‘If you didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t keep telling you.’

How many of those has she had? Harry tried to guess the amount of alcohol in a glass. And she definitely had at least one shot of fire whiskey before leaving, too.

‘Don’t feel like you have to stick with me,’ he said. ‘You can rove.’

‘There aren’t many people to talk to,’ she said. ‘I don’t really know anyone else here except you.’

‘Shall I get Professor Slughorn to introduce you?’ Harry laughed. ‘He won’t mind.’

‘No.’ Katie shook her head. ‘I’m happy here.’ She looped her arm through his and leant against his side, letting the warmth of her body soak into him through the thin silk of her dress. The strap of her bra dug into his ribs.

‘Liar. You are wearing underwear, I can feel it.’

She snorted. ‘Sure you don’t want to sneak off somewhere and check?’

Yeah, you’ve had enough of these. Harry removed her wine glass from harm’s way and set it down out of her reach on the table.

‘Such a gentleman.’ She giggled. ‘Making sure I don’t do anything silly.’

‘A lost battle.’

‘I do a lot of silly things,’ she murmured. ‘But not tonight!’

‘That’s… good?’ Harry smothered a faint stab of anxiety.

‘You’re okay, aren’t you?’ Katie asked. ‘You’re happy?’

Harry shrugged. ‘Well, it isn’t the greatest party, but I’ll live.’

‘I meant in general.’ She waved a fistful of focaccia at him. ‘You always seem pretty happy when we’re together, but what about all the rest of the time? How do I know you’re okay?’

‘I’m fine,’ he said. ‘You, however, Katie dearest, are drunk, already.’

‘Already?’ Katie protested.

Harry pointed at the clock. ‘Perhaps we should head back, I don’t mind leaving early and Slughorn just seemed pleased I made an appearance.’

‘I might need assistance,’ she admitted. ‘There’s a slim chance that the heels I chose to go with this dress were bought without the thought of drinking very much in mind.’

‘Here.’ Harry slipped an arm around her waist. ‘You can lean on me if you wobble.’

Katie tugged his arm tight around her and rested her head on his shoulder, waving goodbye to everyone as they departed. Harry tilted his head toward her when he caught sight of Slughorn’s crestfallen expression and gave the man a small shrug.

‘Pace yourself, Miss Bell!’ Slughorn let out a booming laugh. ‘It pays not to go too fast! Have a lovely evening, you two.’

Katie clung to Harry’s side as they drifted back toward Gryffindor Tower. ‘You never answered my question,’ she said as the Fat Lady swung aside.

‘I did,’ Harry said. ‘I said I was fine.’

‘That doesn’t mean anything,’ Katie growled. ‘You’d say that if you weren’t fine. You’ve got a Dark Lord after you, Dumbledore’s up to something, you said as much, and the only people on your side are me and Frenchie.’ She waved a hand at the window. ‘And Frenchie is miles away.’

Harry stifled a little knot of unease. ‘And Nev.’ He pointed at where Nev snored, still stuck in the chair by the fire.

‘You can always rely on me.’ Katie stumbled over the rug by the fire and fell to her knees. ‘Oops.’

‘I know I can.’ He helped her onto the sofa. ‘You feeling okay?’

‘Not really.’ Katie slumped into him and kicked her shoes off. ‘It’s all happy, then all sad, then all happy, then all sad. It just goes ’round and ’round. I want it to stop, but I don’t.

‘That makes absolutely no sense, drunk Katie.’

‘Well, you can try and ask sober Katie tomorrow, but she’s not going to tell you anything.’ She yawned and settled her head onto his shoulder. ‘I’m sleepy now,’ she murmured, tugging his arm ’round her. ‘Don’t move.’

Merde. Harry waited until her breathing evened out and she fell asleep, then swept her off the sofa into his arms, scooped up her shoes and slipped his wand from his sleeve.

Her fingers curled into his clothes and she nestled her head into his chest.

‘Fleur’s right, isn’t she,’ Harry murmured below his breath. He choked down a fist of feeling and released a long sigh. ‘Katie…

             He freed Nev with a flick of his wand and strode toward the staircase. I need to talk to Fleur before I talk to Katie about this. I need to know what she wants me to do.

‘Confundo,’ he muttered as the stairs attempted to become a slide, carrying Katie up to her bed.

Harry laid her down on her side, brushed her hair off her face, and pried her fingers loose from his robes. ‘Sleep well, Katie.’ He smothered a flash of memories from Hogsmeade and the recollection of her tears soaking into his shoulder and the sharp twist of feeling in his gut, then transfigured her bra and dress into one of the quidditch shirts she usually slept in, covering it in multi-coloured seashells. ‘There, perfect.’

He drifted back down and sat before the fire, staring into the flames and twirling his wand ’round. What am I meant to do? Harry ignored Hermione and Ron stumbling back in and watched the embers fade in the grate. Katie’s my best friend. She promised. And she kept her promise. I can’t push her away after that. A fist of panic clamped around his heart. But Fleur won’t like it. She’s not going to like it at all. Fuck. Why did Fleur have to be right?

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