CT: Chapter Seven: Family Outings

Whatever Arthur said to Ginny had really hit home with her. Over the next couple of weeks she returned to her usual self. She even kept her temper in check with Harry when he vented his spleen about Dudley’s behaviour and his regret about the decision to let his cousin stay on in the flat rather than moving to Grimmauld Place.

“Maybe he’s bored,” Ginny said.

“He wouldn’t be if he got a job or something,” Harry replied, supervising the washing of their supper dishes while Ginny put away the last of the leftovers.

“You’re right. But — now don’t get me wrong here, he’s been a lot better lately — but I don’t think he’s good at much.”

“I agree,” Harry said turning to face Ginny. He debated about voicing his next thought, but decided not to do so. Ginny had been very right about Dudley lately. Maybe she’d have some brilliant insight. “You know it troubles me that he’s been a lot more decent than usual. I can’t help thinking he’s up to something.”

“You’re too suspicious.” Ginny was smiling as she said this. “Maybe the two of you should do something together. You both seemed to enjoy the Quidditch match. And you got on well then.”

Harry didn’t like to tell her that he’d enjoyed himself because it was Quidditch, not because his cousin had been there. Dudley would have had to do something momentous to dampen his enjoyment of the sport. But Ginny was right about one thing: Dudley had enjoyed watching the game. He’d talked for days after about how he wished he could fly.

As though she had performed legilimency on him, Ginny said, “You haven’t been flying in ages. Why not take him out? I’m sure Ron and Hermione wouldn’t mind having the two of you over for the day next weekend when I’m in training.”

So it was that Harry and Dudley were to be found in Hogsmeade on a warm day in mid-March. Ron was on a day off from the joke shop and was going out with the cousins while Hermione remained inside, buried deep in work. They offered her to come with them but she, not surprisingly, refused.

Ron still had his old Cleansweep Seven, and Harry his Firebolt. Neither of them was enthusiastic about the idea of letting a new flyer ride their brooms so Dudley was given one of the old Comet-one-ninety’s that had been kicking around the Burrow since Arthur had graduated from Hogwarts.

Keen on not repeating the atrocity that had been Dudley’s lessons in magic, Harry was quick to tell his cousin that he was to follow all of the instructions he was given, and he was to follow them to the letter. Dudley nodded.

“I mean it. If you try anything without us telling you to this lesson is over.”

Dudley said nothing. He nodded enthusiastically and gave his battered broom a once over.

“Is it hard?” he asked as Harry and Ron stood either side of him, “learning to fly?”

“That depends on who you ask,” Harry replied, scraping a bit of mud off the handle of his broom. “I never had a problem with it. If you were to talk to Hermione though she might have a different story.”

Ron looked over his shoulder. The kitchen was still empty, Hermione having gone back to her latest report on the appalling treatment of werewolves. She was passionately working to repeal the ludicrous laws passed by Dolores Umbridge years before.

“She could use some fun,” Ron said, frowning. “She works to damn hard sometimes. She’s going to wear herself out.”

Harry and Dudley could do nothing but watch Ron and shuffle their feet. It was rare for him to be this concerned about Hermione’s hyperactive work ethic. It took a minute for him to turn his attention away from the front office where she was plugging away.

“You two didn’t come here to stand around in my house. Let’s go outside,” Ron said finally, coming back to reality.

Harry lamented the time they had spent indoors the minute they stepped outside. The air was live with the smell of spring. There were few clouds to speak of, and the breeze was nearly nonexistent. The worst that could be said was that they might be impaired by the brightness of the sun. He noticed that the ground was still wet with melting snow as they took their places in the back garden; careful to avoid some of the more dangerous plats yet to be uprooted.

Harry and Ron automatically readied to mount their brooms. Dudley tried to imitate them but was getting it quite wrong. If he so much as tried to hover he’d be sure to slide right onto his back. Although this might be amusing, Harry decided not to let it go on. He corrected Dudley on his grip.

“You’ve got to keep a firm grim or you’ll fall right off.”

“Got it.” Dudley nodded yet again. Like at the Quidditch game when he had been so attentive, it seemed to Harry like his cousin actually did understand him. He watched in amazement as Dudley did exactly what he was told — without question or argument. After so many years of having to put up with someone who would go out of their way to do the exact opposite of what they were asked, it was hardly surprising that Harry was momentarily speechless. He quickly collected himself and continued on to the next lesson. He showed Dudley how to kick off and land. This took a little time before Dudley was proficient enough to move on. Harry began to feel a little envious of Ron as he, growing bored after a while, shot off towards Hogwarts.

After a couple of hours though, Dudley was doing surprisingly well. He was flying well enough to keep up with Harry and Ron, although they weren’t flying particularly fast. They were holding back a lot so Dudley could keep up.

After being cooped up inside for going on two months with the task force. It felt extremely good to be outside in the fresh spring air. Harry sped up to catch Ron and easily surpassed him, owing to his superior broom. He looped around him and then stopped about twenty feet away, grinning smugly. This was an invitation to competition that Ron took up immediately.

“You’re on,” he called and sped past Harry this time. They played this sort of leapfrog for some time. Dudley was never quite able to catch them up. He’d get within ten feet of them and then they would take off again. They weren’t doing it on purpose – at least at first. After the third time this happened, Dudley called out, “will you two stay still for one minute?”

Harry and Ron exchanged mischievous glances and took off in opposite directions, meeting again three hundred yards away. They watched with amused smiles as Dudley, who had not yet mastered acceleration, petered over to them.

“Today, Dudley,” Harry called faking a sound of impatience.

Quite suddenly the slow moving broom sped up like a bullet, and Harry and Ron had to swerve to avoid being speared on its end. Dudley flew past them and kept on going. He was up over the high street, heading down the lane that led from the village to Hogwarts. He seemed to have lost control of his broom.

“You showed him how to brake, right?” Ron asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” Harry said slowly, recalling everything he and Dudley had gone over just a few hours ago. The lesson about braking was not among them. Employing an expletive or two, Harry sped off after his cousin. Even with his superior broom he didn’t reach Dudley until he was already inside the Hogwarts grounds.

Harry wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing that they had removed all the extra protection that had been around the school in the days of the war with Voldemort. If they hadn’t, Dudley would have crashed into them and toppled to the ground. He could have sustained grievous injury. Instead he just flew on. They were very near the forbidden forest when Harry finally caught him and issued the instruction on how to brake. Dudley’s face was a little ashen.

“Wish you’d told me that before,” he said as they landed twenty feet from the forest.

“Yeah, sorry about that.” Harry grinned, a little amused at Dudley’s panic. But he quickly turned to stare up at the castle.

Harry hadn’t been back to the school for more than three years. The last time had been just a year after Voldemort’s death, to talk with Dumbledore’s portrait. He had been hoping for answers about what had happened when he’d fallen the night he’d . . . The only person he knew who could give them was Dumbledore.

Thinking about that night Harry absent-mindedly touched his scar. It hadn’t so much as prickled since the night Voldemort died. He couldn’t say he was at all sad about that, nor was he sad about his inability to talk to snakes.

Dumbledore’s portrait had given him some very cryptic answers the night Harry had gone to see him for the last time. He had told Harry that the green-tinged blood that had poured from Harry’s scar had been his own blood mixed in with the dark lord’s powers, which, because he was truly gone from the world now, were also gone.

Harry had breathed a sigh of relief at Dumbledore’s words. Finally, he had thought, I can lead a normal and peaceful life. He had been about to leave the office when Dumbledore spoke again.

“Yes, Lord Voldemort is gone for good. No spell can bring back the dead . . . but magic always leaves traces . . . particularly dark magic.”

When Harry had asked Dumbledore why he was saying this, the portrait had snapped out of a seemingly wistful remembrance and spoke one last time.

“An old man’s prerogative . . . we who have lived to a grand old age spend a great deal of time reflecting. It becomes habit after a while, I am afraid. Pay no mind to my ramblings, Harry.”

But Harry had known Dumbledore far too long to simply let those words go. The man was a real and true genius. He did not speak at random without having some thought behind it. What was he worried about? He’d said himself that Voldemort was dead, and the dead were gone forever . . .

“Harry?”

A booming voice snapped him out of his reflective state and Harry turned to see Hagrid emerging from the forest. He was devoid of his crossbow, which meant his pact with the centaurs seemed to be holding.

“Wha’re yeh doin’ here, Harry?” Hagrid was smiling broadly, but it faltered somewhat as he spotted Dudley.

For his part Dudley, upon seeing Hagrid, situated himself behind Harry. Though he had lost a lot of his girth thanks to keeping up with his boxing, Harry was by no means an adequate shield.

“We’re here because I forgot to show Dudley how to brake,” Harry stated, stepping away from Dudley, who was trying to crouch behind him now. “Give it a rest.”

“You were in Hogsmeade?” Hagrid’s face fell.

Harry felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach. He hadn’t even thought of stopping in to see Hagrid when they had made plans to come to Hogsmeade. He should have known that this would upset the half-giant.

“Yeah. Listen, Hagrid.” Harry thought of telling a little fib to spare his friend’s feelings but looking up at the obvious disappointment on his face, the truth came spilling out. “Yeah. Ginny thought that it might be something he’d like and since I haven’t had much time for recreation . . . We should have worked in some time to come up and visit you.”

Hagrid still looked sad but he was able to put on a half-smile.

“Yeh getin’ anywhere with capturin’ them scum?”

“No.”

“Ah, well, tha’s no good. Mad-Eye can’t be pleased at all.”

Harry shook his head. No, Moody was not pleased. None of the people on the task force were. They’d been at it for getting dangerously near five years and were really no closer to apprehending Malfoy or Lestrange than they had been for years. Moody’s move of adding Harry to the task force had not produced the great results he had hoped for. Since he had joined the team the only new bit of investigation that was being pursued was of an unofficial nature. Briony and her idea about fear, and as far as Harry knew that hadn’t panned out either. At least she hadn’t mentioned anything further about it.

“Always did have a short fuse, Mad-Eye,” Hagrid said. “Pushed ‘im on. Helped him solve cases I s’pose. From what I hear tha’ worked for yeh too, with Yaxley. Anyway, now yer here, got time for a cuppa?”

Harry checked his watch. It was nearing five o’clock. He had to get home. He had some work he was planning to do that night.

“I’d love to, but we really ought to get going.” At the crestfallen look on Hagrid’s face, he hastily added,” But we’ll do it really soon, I promise. The next time Ginny’s got time off.”

“All Righ’.” Hagrid sighed, heaving his massive shoulders. “See yeh, Harry. Dudley.” He turned and walked to his hut. Harry watched him at it for a bit, feeling that big ball of guilt settle like a boulder in his stomach. It really had been a while since he’d seen Hagrid. The stupid task force was taking up so much of his time that he’d been neglecting almost everything else in his life. He’d have to change that . . . somehow.

“You think you’re going to remember how to take off, brake, and land?” he asked, a minute later, preparing to mount his Firebolt.

Dudley’s answer was to shoot up into the air like a cannon and sped off in the direction of the village.

“I take that as a yes.”

Harry hastened to follow. Dudley was actually getting pretty good at flying. He swerved this way and that as they were once again flying over Hogsmeade. Harry had caught up quickly, but Dudley, obviously wanting to show off his newfound ability, tried to out do him. He sped up, swooped down to about ten feet off the ground, rocketed up a hundred feet, looped Harry and then stopped about ten feet away, a triumphant grin on his face.

“Not bad . . . for a beginner,” Harry conceded, “but try this.” He shot right at Dudley, swerving at the last second, went into a spectacular dive, which he pulled out of mere feet from the ground before rocketing up into a couple of quick loops. He sped past Dudley, so near he could have hit him in the back of the head if he’d so desired. Then he did a large loop over the High street, enjoying the breeze. There really was nothing better than flying. Well, there was one thing . . . but as Ginny wasn’t here now . . .

Ron reappeared in the air, right in front of Harry who was not really paying attention and nearly crashed into him.

“I wondered where the two of you had gone off to,” he said, floating beside Harry in mid-air. “I thought you’d come straight back after you got him away from the school.”

“We would have done, but we ran into Hagrid,” Harry said and explained about his meeting. When he was done, Ron was looking rather guilty, too.

Yeah, we haven’t been up there either,” he said, examining his broom handle. “He’s been in the shop a few times, and I’ve said me and Hermione would go up . . . but with work, and having Dawlish tail us everywhere now . . . “

They lapsed into silence and watched Dudley in the distance doing some more loops. The sky to the east was turning the first shades of velvety-blue and it was becoming hard to see the solitary air born figure. They would have quite a time finding him if he happened to fall.

“I guess we should get in,” Ron said. “Its my turn to make dinner. Are you two staying?”

“You’re cooking?” Harry asked in alarm. He didn’t think his taste buds could take it. Hell, even Dudley, who was about as fussy with food as Ron, would probably have a hard time keeping down Ron’s cooking. Seeing Harry’s less than enthusiastic reaction to his invitation, Ron frowned.

“Yes, I’m cooking. I’ve been doing a lot of it lately, seeing as how Hermione’s been working so much. I’ve got loads better. Mum’s been here showing me some stuff.”

Harry was watching Ron with a bemused smile. Since when had Ron shown any enthusiasm for cooking? Eating, yes, but this was a whole new side of him. It was almost worth risking potential damage to his taste buds to see if Ron had picked up any of his mother’s flare. Feeling that he’d be later regretting it, Harry told his best mate that, yes, they’d stay.

They both flew over to Dudley and told him it was time to land. Then, making sure he was following, Harry and Ron returned to the house.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said, looking up at the tiny two-storey building with the domed roof. “But this place looks like a mushroom. I mean look, your soffit is a darker colour than the roof or the house.”

“You know me,” Ron replied, grinning, “always thinking of food. It’s quite fitting then.”

“Yeah.” Harry returned the grin and then looked up. Dudley was flying right overhead and didn’t seem at all intent on landing. “Dudley, get down here,” he called, putting his hands around his mouth to amplify his voice. Dudley did, but not in the way Harry meant. He turned round in mid-air and dive-bombed them, forcing Harry and Ron to split up, before taking off again, leaving his maniacal cackle on the air.

“I think he means for you to follow,” Ron said, gazing at Dudley in shock.

“I don’t think I’m going to this time.”

Harry pulled out his wand, pointed it at Dudley and said, “Accio broom.” At once his cousin and the broom came flying through the air towards him. Dudley’s face had gone white again and he was holding onto the broom for dear life. As they got nearer, Harry jumped out of the way as both broom and Dudley hit the wet ground with an almighty squelching noise.

The ground was soft, and the landing relatively slow so Dudley wasn’t hurt. He was, however, covered head to toe in slimy mud. When he got to his feet and turned to face them, Harry and Ron burst out laughing.

“This isn’t funny, you know,” Dudley said, wiping mud from around his eyes. Once he could see where he was going, he began to advance on Harry, fists in the accepted boxing position.

“It is a little funny,” Harry replied, watching Dudley approach without real concern. If Dudley tried anything he had his wand. But he noticed Dudley’s piggy little eyes were not bulging as they would be if he was furious. They were crinkled into a mischievous expression, made all the funnier by the fact that they were still surrounded by mud. Harry decided to play along. He put his hands in his pockets and waited casually.

Dudley got within striking distance at last and punched Harry in the shoulder. Having been punched by his cousin many times before, Harry knew that Dudley hadn’t used anywhere near all of his strength.

“I think you’re losing your touch,” he said. “Ginny punches harder than you.” He ducked the next punch thrown at him, and the next. The fourth time he wasn’t so lucky and was hit rather harder than he would have liked by Dudley’s right hook. He stumbled back a few paces. When he regained his footing he was laughing. Ron looked at them both quizzically.

“Mental,” he said, shaking his head. “When the two of you are done beating the snot out of each other, I’ll be inside.”

Harry stupidly turned to say something to his friend and was caught by another of Dudley’s restrained punches. Never much of a fist fighter himself, he had a pretty good idea that he wouldn’t be able to match his cousin in hand-to-hand combat. There was one area that he had the advantage in though.

Slowly backing away, Harry reached into his pocket and extracted his wand. When Dudley was next in striking distance and made his move an invisible wall blocked his fist from reaching Harry’s face. Dudley looked shocked. He pulled his hand back and examined it as though it was the culprit. Finding nothing wrong with it, he tried again with the same effect. It was only as he examined his bruised knuckles that Dudley clued into what Harry had done.

“That’s not fair,” he said, dropping his hand to his side.

“Sure it is. You pressed your advantage and I pressed mine.” Harry raised his wand and removed the shield charm. “Are you ready to go in now?”

When Dudley said that he was Harry used another summoning charm to collect both brooms. He also cleaned the mud off of both of them and then they returned to the house.

Immediately upon entering they were greeted with the delightful smell of Shepherd’s Pie and rolls. Harry leaned the brooms against the wall by the back door, and turned into the kitchen, sure he would see Hermione standing there, but it was in fact Ron who was supervising the food preparation. There wasn’t even a hint of smoke in the air.

“So it is true,” he said, coming to stand by the counter, watching as knives worked on chopping vegetables for the salad. “You’ve gone domestic.”

Ron snorted at the comment, but kept his focus on the knives. “You could make yourself useful by setting the table, you know,” he said.

“Yeah, all right.”

The table was set, the food ready, but still Hermione hadn’t made an appearance.

“You sure she’s OK in there?” Harry asked feeling concerned. Perhaps Ron was right to worry. The delicious smell of food had surely permeated the entire house. That should have coaxed her out of her office.

Suddenly recalling the warning about Hermione being in danger, Harry got a bad feeling. Maybe something had happened while they were out.

“I’m going to go check on her.”

Harry was out of his seat and into the small sitting room before either Ron or Dudley could comment. He kept his fingers curled around his wand, but resisted the urge to pull it out as he approached her open office door. Nothing here seemed to be out of order, which was a good sign.

Harry’s fears were allayed when he stepped into the small office. Hermione was slumped back in her chair, snoring lightly, a large book lying open on her chest. He smiled at the sight. It was so very like Hermione to work herself to the point of falling asleep in desk chairs. He was less impressed with the other person asleep in the room.

In a squashy armchair in the corner of the office Dawlish sat with his head drooping onto his chest. Several of the papers he had been reading had fallen to the floor.

It was to his fellow Auror and task force member that Harry spoke first. He was both sympathetic towards and annoyed at Dawlish. They had been keeping very long hours at work, and he then had Hermione to watch over. It was hardly surprising he’d nodded off. But on the other hand, Hermione wasn’t very safe if she was being guarded by someone who fell asleep on the job.

“Dawlish.” Harry shook him awake. It took a moment for the older man to open his eyes and regain his bearings. This, naturally, did nothing to bolster Harry’s confidence.

“What? Did I fall asleep?” he aside, rubbing his neck to loosen the muscles.

“Yeah, you did.”

“Damn.” Dawlish looked over at Hermione, who hadn’t so much as stirred. Harry thought he saw a look of envy on the man’s face. This caused his anger to decrease.

“Listen, I know its been rough for you, taking over for Tonks. Tell you what. I’m here for at least another couple of hours. Why don’t you go home and catch some sleep?”

“You’re sure?” Dawlish rubbed his chin, clearly wanting to jump on the offer, but unsure of what could result from effectively abandoning his charge.

“Absolutely. You’re in no state to be here right now anyway,” Harry said. “I’ll Floo you before I leave here and you can come back.”

It didn’t take much more convincing.

“Well . . . thanks Potter,” he said before gathering his work up and leaving.

Harry walked over to Hermione and repeated the same action he’d just used to wake Dawlish, although a lot less harshly.

“Ten more minutes,” she said sleepily, curling her arm around her book like it was a pillow.

“OK . . . if you want to miss dinner.”

Hermione’s eyes snapped open.

“Dinner?” she asked, looking up at Harry with sleep thick in the corners of her eyes. “How long did I sleep? What time is it? Harry?”

“Which question d’you want answered first?” he asked as she rubbed her eyes. “I don’t know how long you’ve been asleep. Its nearly six, and yes, its me.”

Hermione got up, put her book on the desk, stretched, and then looked around.

“Where’s Dawlish?” she asked.

“I told him to go home for a while.”

“You did?” Hermione came around the desk and gave Harry a hug. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

She blushed a little as she pulled away. Harry laughed.

“Things going that well, are they?”

“Worse. I wish Tonks hadn’t been assigned to desk duty. At least when she was here I had a laugh. I think Dawlish’s face would crack if he ever tried to so much as smile.”

This was too true to argue, so Harry just agreed. He followed Hermione out of the office.

“Listen. I have something even more important to ask you,” he said as they passed through the sitting room. Hermione turned back with a worried look on her face, making Harry feel bad for his little joke, but he ploughed on anyway. “Ron cooked. D’you think its safe to eat?”

Breathing out, Hermione nodded. “He’s actually got quite good,” she said. “The first couple of weeks here Molly stopped by everyday. I think she wanted to teach me how to cook, but I was so busy with work that I didn’t have time. Ron made my excuses for me. I think he felt bad for his mum. It’s got to be hard for her to occupy her time now that all of the kids are gone.” Hermione looked at the kitchen where they could hear Ron and Dudley talking. “So he let her show him a few things. I think he likes it though, cooking I mean. He’ll say he doesn’t if you ask, but last week when we were over the Burrow for dinner, I saw him thumbing through one of those cookbooks Molly’s had for ages.”

At this information Harry felt a wide grin spread across his face. This was just too funny. If someone had told him three or four years ago — scratch that — three or four moths ago that Ron would turn into the wizard equivalent of Martha Stewart he would have them checked for ingestion of essence of insanity.

“I know you’re thinking about taking the mickey out of him, Harry, but don’t you dare.” Hermione shot him a stern look. “It’s the twenty-first century now. We’re supposed to be over this gender stereotyping rubbish. For heaven’s sake, you have a girlfriend who’s an international sports star. I thought you —“

“OK, OK, I get it,” Harry held up his hand to stop Hermione’s tirade. “I was just trying to have a little fun with him, that’s all.

Hermione folded her arms in disapproval and turned away, walking out of the sitting room and into the kitchen.

“Blimey,” Harry muttered under his breath before following her. First Ginny, now Hermione? Was he walking around with some sort of curse when it came to women or what?

Even having Dudley there did not dampen the enjoyment of their meal. Harry was glad to find he wasn’t in any danger from Ron’s cooking after all. Everything turned out to be quite good. In fact he thought that this particular meal had only be made better by Molly Weasley. He’d never tell Ron that though. Despite it being ‘the twenty-first century’ a bloke just didn’t walk up to his best mate and say, “great meal. You really are a good cook.” That sort of thing just wasn’t done! He did have second helpings though, which he was sure would achieve the same ends.

During the meal talk turned to the Malfoy/Lestrange case.

“I do hope you catch them soon,” Hermione said, a note of desperation in her voice. “I don’t think I can stand Dawlish much longer.”

“Sorry, but you’re probably stuck with him for the foreseeable future,” Harry said, feeling his sense of frustration starting to overtake the contentedness that a good meal and pleasant conversation had bestowed on him. “We haven’t got any real information since I joined the task force.”

“Did you ever find out if Percy was actually bluffing or not?” Ron asked, taking a sip of mead from his goblet.

“No.” Harry twirled his own glass between his fingers. “Leaks like that aren’t uncommon though. Or so I’m told. Mafalda Hopkirk is ‘a reliable source who we are not going to bother based on the word of an employee with a questionable reputation.’” Even after a couple of weeks the words made him feel angry.

“Percy, you mean?” Ron asked quietly.

“Yeah,” Harry replied.

Ron nodded and stared down at his plate, looking a little contemplative.

“What’s that all about?” Dudley asked, looking from Harry to Hermione and to Ron after a moment in which no one spoke. None of them were really willing to answer, but Hermione finally spoke up.

“Percy’s Ron’s brother, just a few years older than the twins. You never met him because during that summer we were all saying at number twelve, Grimmauld Place Percy wasn’t talking to his family. You see, he was really ambitious and got mixed up with Fudge and Umbridge – ” she stopped and looked at Dudley’s confused face. She sighed in an exhausted way before picking up her story. “ — who you don’t know. I don’t really feel like talking about them all night so here’s the abridged version. Fudge, the Minister for Magic until we were sixteen, didn’t believe Harry when he said Voldemort first came back so he sent this truly horrible woman, Umbridge, to Hogwarts where she spend a year making everyone, especially Harry, miserable. They thought that all of the horrible murders, disappearances and the mass breakout from Azkaban was all perpetrated by Sirius, Harry’s godfather.”

Another heavy silence fell at the table. Harry took a sip of his mead for something to do. It had really been years since he’d thought about all of that. It still made him want to break something, particularly when he clenched his hand and saw the white outline of those horrible five words he’d been forced to cut into his own skin: I must not tell lies.

“So . . . “ Hermione said slowly as though testing to see if she should go on. “Those are the people Percy got mixed up with. He adopted a lot of their views, and there are still a few he has to shake. The idea that Harry’s unbalanced because he killed Voldemort, for one.” Hermione spoke softly and looked at Harry with regret in her eyes.

“Yeah, my idiot of a brother . . . After that night he stands up in the Ministry the day that Scrimgeour announced that Voldemort really was dead, and starts asking questions about how Harry did it. When he found out it was an AK . . . well, he started saying that maybe Harry should be arrested . . . or committed.”

None of this was new to Harry, yet, like when thinking about Fudge and Umbridge, he could feel his tempter start to rise. He tightened his grip on his goblet so much that it shattered and he cut himself on one of the jagged pieces.

“Harry, are you, OK?” Hermione asked, immediately getting up and looking at his hand.

“Fine,” he muttered, staring at his bleeding palm as though it belonged to someone else. It had been thanks to the likes of Percy that the Ministry had hassled him so much in those first few weeks after Voldemort’s death. They had actually toyed with the idea of charging him, but when word gout out there was a huge uprising and they were forced to back down. That didn’t mean they left him alone though. They first made him recount every painstaking detail of every encounter, physically or otherwise, he’d had with Voldemort over the entirety of his life. It had been an exhausting and almost unendurable four weeks in which every possible method to obtain memories were used: pensieves, legilimency (thankfully by someone he trusted a lot more than Snape), and others that he could not now recall. Harry knew that only two things got him through that ordeal. The first was his friends, and especially Ginny. The second was the thought that at least now the horrors were over. Thinking that now, he felt a little squeamish. Danger was once again on their doorstep.

“What have I told you about discussing that?” Hermione hissed as she poured a measure of blue liquid on Harry’s hand. It smoked just a little and then she poked the cut with her wand and it healed over.

“Sorry,” Ron said, sounding it. “But I just can’t get over how stupid Percy was. Nearly got himself hexed to death with his comments.”

Hermione ignored him. She had placed a hand on Harry’s shoulder and was watching him very closely.

“Are you sure you’re all right, Harry?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” He gave himself a little shake, saw properly the concern in his friend’s eyes and gave her a weak smile. “Spending too much time ruminating isn’t a good thing, I guess.”

Both his friends kept shooting concerned glances at him the rest of the time Harry and Dudley were there. It got to be a bit wearying after a while and was glad when Dawlish returned, allowing him to leave.

Apparition was once again their mode of transportation; therefore the two cousins were standing in the flat quite soon after leaving Ron and Hermione’s. Dudley, too, was behaving a bit out of the ordinary. He was watching Harry walk around the flat. Harry caught him at it a few times. When he did Dudley would quickly look away, scratching his head or chewing his bottom lip.

Dudley had disappeared for a time, to go get ready for the only thing he did with any regularity — pub-going. When he emerged he made a noise as if to get Harry’s attention, but waved it away a second later. He paced for a few minutes, stopped, and opened his mouth with a finger raised, like he was going to make a point. He must have decided it was no good because he put his finger down, closed his mouth and put his hands in his pockets instead. He started jingling his keys, distracting Harry from his work yet again.

“What?” he demanded, throwing down his quill. Dudley looked up, trying to affect an innocent air, something he failed at completely. “And don’t tell me its nothing because you’ve been trying to say something for the last hour. Just spit it out.”

Harry expected Dudley to hesitate, to say that nothing was wrong. He expected to hear denials about the strange behaviour, but instead Dudley started speaking immediately. He seemed relieved that he hadn’t had to start the conversation.

“I was just thinking . . . you seemed wound a little tight back there . . . at Ron and Hermione’s. Not that I blame you. That Percy bloke seems like a real horse’s ass.”

“He can be all right, Percy. He’s just got his priorities all wrong.” Harry picked up his quill and turned away. He really didn’t feel like talking about Percy right now.

“Whatever. That wasn’t really what I was trying to say anyway. I was just thinking —“ he looked like he was steeling himself to say something momentous. “All you ever do lately is work. Its got you wound so tight you’re going to snap.”

“I haven’t got time for fun.” Harry motioned to the papers littering his desk.

“Oh you can take a night off. You said yourself . . . earlier that there aren’t any big leads on your case. Take a night off, have some fun for a change.”

“What are you suggesting?” Harry looked around the flat. Maybe there was something good on television he could watch. Or he could . . . he didn’t know what. It had been too long since he’d really had a night off to himself. Ginny was, of course, away with the team for a few days.

The shock that he was actually considering listening to Dudley hit Harry suddenly. What was he thinking? Dudley didn’t know the first thing about work. The idea of time off was tempting though . . .

“Good. Go get ready,” Dudley said, seeing Harry had decided to take his advice.

“Get ready for what?” Harry felt suspicious at once. What was Dudley planning? Knowing his track record it was likely to be something that he wasn’t going to want a part of.

“I thought you agreed you were going to come out with me.”

Harry continued to eye Dudley in shock for a few minutes and then he laughed. So this was the game. Dudley was having his own little laugh. “Yeah, right. That was funny I have to admit. You really had me for a second there.”

Dudley didn’t laugh. He shifted from foot to foot again. When he finally spoke it was in a soft voice. “I wasn’t joking. But that’s OK if you don’t want to.”

Harry sat there, wondering why he felt bad. This was Dudley after all. Sixteen years of absolutely loathing of the Dursleys and now he was feeling guilty? He really had no reason to feel guilty, did he?

As though she were standing right beside him, Harry could hear Ginny’s exasperated sigh. It had been she who had said that putting in some effort with Dudley might pay off in the end. Could this be what she meant? Did Dudley maybe feel sympathy for what Harry had been through? Ginny would tell Harry he should take the opening that Dudley was offering. Unfortunately she’d been right so far and she’d have a few nasty words if she found out that he’d skived off going out with Dudley.

“All right, I’ll go,” he said.

“Don’t do me any favours,” Dudley replied coldly.

“I’m not. I think this might be . . . er . . . interesting.”

Having changed into what he assumed was suitable Muggle attire, Harry quickly stopped at the mirror. He adjusted his glasses and made a casual sweep through his hair with a comb. It made no difference at all. He stood there for a minute, thinking. He’d seen and done some strange things in his life, but this seemed to be the icing on the cake — going out to a Muggle pub with Dudley Dursley.

Given that it had been Dudley who was going out, they went to the location that he wanted, a nightclub in the heart of Muggle London. As they walked the two blocks between their Apparition point and the building, Harry felt he was glad of this. He didn’t feel much like dealing with people staring avidly at him, or the inevitable paparazzi that would surely arrive shortly after their appearance in any wizarding establishment. It would be a nice change to be out among the Muggles who knew him no more than they knew Dudley. He felt an overwhelming sense of freedom not to have to worry that his every move would be scrutinized.

Dudley was apparently well known at this club. The doorman greeted him like an old friend. At first Harry wondered why — but his answer was given right away when Dudley surreptitiously handed him a twenty-pound note. He was quite the big tipper, it was no wonder he never had any money.

Walking through the crowds of people in the club, many of them waved to Dudley, making Harry turn back and stare at them as they passed. They greeted Dudley as though he were their best friend. The most surprising thing about this whole scenario was that Dudley seemed to take all the attention in his stride, casually waving it away.

“Exactly how often do you come here?” Harry asked, having to shout over the loud pounding of the music.

“What?” Dudley called back from across the table, making Harry repeat his question. “I dunno,” he said, shrugging. “Pretty often I guess.”

That had to be the biggest understatement of the millennium, Harry thought as person after person came by, clapping Dudley on the back, or giving him a quick smile and friendly kiss on the cheek. Harry knew he was staring open-mouthed, but he couldn’t help it. The only other person he had seen treat Dudley in a similar way had been Aunt Petunia. What he remembered from their school days was that most people were frightened of, not friendly with, Dudley.

The music was so loud that it was near impossible to talk so Harry had a great deal of time to look around. Not that he’d spent so much time cavorting in his life, but he rather thought that, aside from the obvious lack of magic, there was really nothing distinguishably different from a few of the wizarding clubs he’d been at in the last few years.

The walls of this club were of an iridescent blue, but it was really hard to tell because almost every inch of them were being lit up with the overabundance of lights. The dance floor, a long, smooth, rectangular surface, was jam packed with people who were trying not to bump into each other as they attempted to dance. Now there’s some people who probably feel like sardines, Harry thought.

“I’ll get us some drinks,” he said, standing up.

“Sit down,” Dudley said, motioning for Harry to take his seat again. He was looking around at something.

Wondering what had caught Dudley’s attention so thoroughly, Harry did look round. Two girls were making their way towards their table. They were pretty, that was clear. One had shortly cropped blonde hair and the other had hair almost as long as Ginny’s, but it was a dark brown rather than her vivid red. They were both smiling widely. Turning back to face Dudley, Harry saw the same sort of smile mimicked on his cousin’s face. Rolling his eyes he sat back down.

“Do you ever stop?” he asked, but not loud enough for Dudley to hear.

“Where were you last night?” the blonde girl asked in a pouty voice. She had slid into the seat next to Dudley and flung her arms around him. She planted a kiss on his cheek. At this Harry immediately looked away. This was really too much. “You said you’d be here for sure. We waited all night.” Her voice was just as whiny as Dudley’s had been in his youth, unfortunately allowing it to be heard over the music.

“I had something else come up,” Dudley said loud enough for Harry to hear. The tone he said this in made Harry look up. Dudley was shooting a warning glance at him. It was a look asking that he not be contradicted.

There was really nothing that Harry could say. All he knew was that Dudley spent most evenings out of the flat. He could not have said with any degree of certainty where his cousin spent most of his time. The sulky behaviour of the girl now sitting beside Dudley, made Harry wonder if she was the reason for the plea for his silence. He would certainly have wanted to get as far away from her as possible. Perhaps Dudley’s overzealousness for female company had led him to this girl and now he was regretting it.

“I hope it was not to be with another girl.” When Dudley didn’t confirm or deny her statement she gave a disgusted huff, turned away from him in her seat, folded her arms and started to pout again. Finally looking away from Dudley her eyes landed on Harry for the first time. They narrowed suspiciously. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is my cousin, Harry. Harry Potter,” Dudley replied, seizing on her words. There was no flash of recognition in her eyes making Harry realize again how strange this was. There was no frustratingly familiar flick up to his scar, no widening eyes. “Harry, this is Brenna.” Dudley pointed at the blonde sitting beside him “ — and Keelie.”

Keelie was still standing at the table and she, too, had her arms crossed. She was looking down her nose at them all as though she was not going to lower herself to join them. When Brenna fixed her with an impatient look, Keelie sighed disgustedly, rolled her eyes, and then perched herself in the chair beside Harry. She spared him one quick glance and then turned her head away to watch the people passing by their table. Rather than feeling perturbed by her reaction, Harry felt amused. Maybe this was going to be a fun night after all.

Brenna seemed more than willing to forgive Dudley. Soon she had stopped pouting and was batting her eyes suggestively. Harry was both intrigued and repulsed by this behaviour. He couldn’t help but watch them interact for a few minutes. He noticed that Dudley didn’t seem as interested in her as she did him. Was he right about the reason they had got involved in the first place? Ginny would be impressed.

“I’m getting drinks,” Harry said when he’d had enough of watching Brenna’s behaviour. “What d’you three want?”

“Just an ale for me,” Dudley said carelessly, not looking at Harry. He had his arm around Brenna’s shoulders now. She was saying something that Harry couldn’t hear but it was making Dudley smile. This was surely something that would be better kept between them. Still focusing on his companion, Dudley spoke again. “She says a vodka martini.”

Keelie, still looking like she would take nothing from such a commoner, refused anything but water.

Harry dearly wished he could use magic as he made his way through the throngs of people back to their table several minutes later. Carrying four drinks and negotiating through a large group of people without being backed into was a lot more challenging than he thought it would be. He supposed he was becoming too reliant on magic. Maybe he should take advantage of his decision to live in Muggle London.

Even though it took a long time to get back to the table safely, once he was there Harry wished it had taken more time. He found Dudley and his girlfriend pawing each other rather more than was appropriate. What they were doing made Ginny’s kiss in the atrium several months before look like a chaste kiss on the cheek.

“Get a room,” Harry said, setting down their drinks in front of each person. The very last thing he wanted to do was sit here and watch his cousin make out with this girl. He was starting to wonder if that’s the real reason Dudley had brought him in the first place. He had half a mind to clear out now.

Dudley pulled back from Brenna wearing a sheepish expression.

“Sorry,” he said, taking the drink in front of him and downing a quarter of it.

The four of them sat without saying anything for a few minutes before Brenna, putting down her own glass, spoke to Harry.

“So Howie, what do you do? Are you a trust funder too?” She looked at Keelie and then back at Harry. She was looking him over. What she saw apparently didn’t meet with her approval because she was now wearing an expression like her friend.

Harry felt his amusement start to fade and it had nothing to do with Brenna’s reaction to him. He could care less if she thought he was nothing better than a slug. But if that’s the reason that she was acting the way she was with Dudley . . . He really felt like saying something but Dudley gave him another warning look. It was infuriating to say nothing, but it wasn’t his life that was really affected by these two girls. Harry decided he’d talk to Dudley about this later.

“Its Harry, actually,” he corrected. “And no, I’m not living off a trust fund. I’m . . . in law enforcement.“ He hadn’t thought he’d be answering questions about what he did with his life so he didn’t have a ready answer.

Even if the Statute of Secrecy hadn’t prevented him from telling what he really was, Harry wouldn’t have mentioned he was a wizard. Somehow these two girls didn’t seem like they would be able to keep that sort of news secret. They’d be sure to shout it out. Brenna had already demonstrated that she had a voice that carried over the music. The attention this would bring to them would dissolve his anonymity. That wasn’t even taking into account the paperwork he’d have to do to have them Obliviated.

“You’re a policeman?” Brenna asked, looking him over again. She didn’t seem to believe him. “What force do you work for?”

“Er . . .” He really should have been more prepared for these questions. He could have just picked one at random but wasn’t that how people always got themselves into trouble? He’d probably pick one where she knew someone. If there was one thing about Brenna, she seemed like she’d be the type who knew a lot of people. “It’s a small force. You wouldn’t have heard of it.”

The two girls exchanged disbelieving glances.

“So what — are you a spy or something?” she asked, a note of derision in her voice.

“No, no, nothing like that. We just . . . don’t go after everyday criminals. We’re not at liberty to divulge —“

Harry didn’t know how to get out of this conversation. He had hoped that this last statement would have caused them to lose interest. They didn’t seem the sort that had a long attention span. He’d foolishly gone on to add the last part though. Both girls let out disbelieving laughs.

“Not at liberty to divulge? Please! If you ask me, I think he’s just trying to build himself up,” Keelie said. She was still eyeing him with disdain. Dudley was starting to look sulky, obviously not liking that he was not the centre of attention anymore. Harry decided to put a stop to this stupid conversation before it got out of hand.

“You can choose to believe me, or not. I don’t really care. Let’s just talk about something else.”

Brenna and Keelie both looked at him in shock. They exchanged a look, eyebrows raised. They were obviously coming to their own conclusions.

“Whatever you say, Harry,” Keelie replied, smiling at him in a way that was the polar opposite of how she had just been treating him. Harry rolled his eyes and took a sip of his drink. He’d liked her icy reception better.

“So Mr. Man of Mystery, why haven’t we seen you here with Dudley before?” Brenna asked.

“Because I have to work.” Harry shot Dudley a significant look. His annoyance was starting to peak. If Dudley would do the same they wouldn’t be here involved in this stupid conversation.

“Yes, of course. It does tend to take rather a lot out of someone to do all that mysterious work, wouldn’t you say, Bren?” Keelie asked. She winked at her friend and took a sip of her drink before continuing. “I’d say all he is is some sort of a shop boy. He really wants to be a spy — which I really can’t blame you for, Harry — and he thought he’d have a laugh with us . . . maybe get some action in the mix. Have I got it spot on?”

Keelie was watching Harry expectantly. She wore a triumphant smile on her face. Her certainty calmed Harry down and brought back some of his amusement. She’d never be able to guess correctly in a million years, of course. It was quite the game though, knowing he could at anytime send her entire world into a tailspin.

“You are quite right about one thing. As of late my job has not been giving me the excitement I thought it would do. But no, I don’t work in a shop. I do work for a law enforcement agency that helps track down a special kind of criminal.”

Dudley nodded when Brenna and Keelie looked at him for confirmation. This seemed to be all they needed to believe Harry’s story. When they glanced at each other this time, their skepticism was completely gone. Keelie lapsed into an embarrassed silence, and focused on her drink. Brenna tried again.

“So . . . Mr. Spy Guy —“

“I’m not a spy,” Harry interrupted. He didn’t know what it was about Brenna. There was something about her that tried his patience. He didn’t understand how Dudley could even stand her. Parts of his job might be similar to that which was portrayed in the movies, but he could say with absolute certainty that he was no James Bond.

“Semantics, Harry?” Brenna asked, a playful smile on her face. She leaned across the table and spoke in a volume so only the four of them would hear. “So have you caught any law breakers?”

“One.”

“Really?” It was Keelie who spoke. She was apparently over her embarrassment. “How’d you do it?”

An answer to this question would take some fast thinking. Harry could not tell them exactly how he had captured Yaxley. That might be considered a rather large breach of the Statute of Secrecy. He thought about saying he couldn’t jeopardize an ongoing investigation but if truth be told he was still damn proud of his capture of that Death Eater. Therefore he launched into the tale, having to be careful to change some of the wizarding events into their Muggle equivalents. Yaxley had a gun, not a wand. It was a car chase rather than a broom chase, and the like. He found he couldn’t help giving a little more detail than he initially meant to.

“So he’s in jail now?” Keelie asked sounding slightly disappointed.

“Yes. And he’s going to rot there. After murdering all the people he’s done . . .” Harry trailed off furiously. He needed to get his temper under control before he spouted out something he didn’t want to.

“Have you ever killed anyone?” The excitement she had just displayed was back. There was a light in Keelie’s eyes as she posed this question. It was the same as the one Brenna had when she first asked Harry about the trust fund.

Quite suddenly the last traces of amusement were gone. He clutched his glass hard and it was in as much danger as the glass had been at Ron and Hermione’s. He didn’t trust himself to speak at all. The nonchalant way she asked the question would have been disturbing enough, but it was made all the worse by the conversation he’d been a part of earlier that evening at Ron and Hermione’s.

“What?”

Harry could see the other three exchanging looks. The two girls looked from him to Dudley quizzically. He, too, was watching Harry with an unreadable look on his face. Was it anxiety?

Sighing heaving, Harry nodded.

“You have?” Keelie spoke again, sounding awed. “Was it on the job?”

Harry shook his head mutely. His throat felt dry so he took another great gulp of his drink.

Why had he not just told her to drop it in the first place? He should have denied it, but he didn’t want to have Dudley contradict him. Here was yet another topic that he wanted to get away from just as soon as he could.

“So how’d it —“ Keelie started again, leaning closer to Harry.

“Just drop it,” Dudley told her sharply. “He doesn’t want to talk about it.”

The shock of having his cousin defend him made Harry look up from his glass. He saw Keelie sit back in her chair, disappointment showing on her face. He couldn’t say he was surprised at this. No, his shock was all due to Dudley’s reaction. Not so long ago he would have been joining in with the girls rather than siding with Harry.

“Its not something to brag about . . . taking a life. I only did it because I had to . . . I’d — I’d never want to do it again, ever.” Harry found it hard to make his voice heard over the pounding music. The only way he could speak was to avoid looking at any of them. When he finished speaking he took another swallow of his drink, finishing it. He was quite ready to go home now. He would have been much better served staying home and working.

A fidgety silence followed his words. The other three were clearly trying to figure out what they wanted to say.

“I’m sorry. Please don’t think we’re taking your experiences lightly,” Keelie said in a voice that was verging on sympathy. She touched his arm lightly, making Harry look at it and then at her. He felt an unreality about this whole situation. “We’ve just never met anyone with an . . . interesting . . . past.”

“Yes,” Brenna agreed. She was now devoting her full again to Harry as well. He couldn’t say he found this flattering, particularly when she addressed Dudley. “You didn’t tell us you had such an interesting cousin, Dud.”

There was a particular inflection in that last world that was not lost on Harry or Dudley. In light of what they had just been discussing, Harry was less impressed than he would have otherwise been.

“You poor thing,” Keelie trilled, massaging his arm. He jerked away, revolted. He’d known her all of thirty minutes and she was doing that? Suddenly it was easy to understand why Dudley spent time with them now.

“I’m fine, thanks,” he said, shifting his chair a little farther away and looking directly at Keelie. “Least I am thanks to my girlfriend.”

Keelie let her hand fall back onto the table, and she started flicking the corner of a paper napkin.

Harry and Dudley looked at each other angrily. He knew why he was angry. He had agreed to come out for a few drinks and maybe some laughs, not to be gawked at like he was some new specimen to be studied. He got enough of that on a daily basis. But why was Dudley mad? He surely couldn’t be sore at Harry for the fact they were sitting with two of the stupidest girls around. He hardly considered it an honour to have gained so much of their attention.

Clearly wanting to get away from Harry, Dudley dragged a somewhat reluctant Brenna off to the dance floor. Harry, who had no intention of dancing, was just contemplating the idea of a second drink when Keelie started the conversation again.

“I really am sorry for earlier. Bren and I really didn’t mean to upset you. Sometimes we lose our sense.”

“Really?” Harry asked sarcastically. He turned to see how many people were waiting at the bar. As he did so he saw Keelie’s stunned expression.

“You have every right to be upset. I can’t even imagine what it would be like —“

“Whatever, its fine,” he replied. “Just drop it already.”

Keelie smiled again. “You’re really upset. Is there something I can do to make it up to you?”

“Yeah, stop talking —“

His words had the exact opposite reaction. Keelie leaned in close to him and placed her hand on his thigh. “I could do that. Or maybe there’s something else that would make you feel better.” She was staring at him intently.

Still feeling a little like this was all a dream, Harry looked down at her hand blankly. It took a full five seconds before his mind comprehended what she was saying. He looked back at her and the sparkle playing in her cold blue eyes snapped sense into him. He calmly removed her hand from his leg.

“Where were you just two seconds ago when I told you I’ve already got a girlfriend?” he asked.

“I don’t see her anywhere here, do you? This could be our little secret.” Keelie’s smile had not faltered in the slightest.

Harry laughed. It sounded hollow, even to his ears. The ludicrousness of this night was reaching alarming levels.

“Are you touched in the head, or what?” he asked, standing up. Keelie followed suit, a hopeful look in her eyes. “Tell my cousin I’m leaving.”

Harry turned and walked from the table shaking his head.

* * *

Even though he’d flitted in and out of sleep that night, Harry couldn’t have said what time Dudley got home. He didn’t really blame his cousin for what went on at that club, but knew he’d think twice before accepting another invitation from Dudley.

Sitting up and staring at the pale pink sky, Harry thought he was glad that Ginny hadn’t been there. If those girls had tried anything . . . they might not have got away unscathed. Matters would have been even worse if she saw some stupid story in the Prophet about last night. Thinking of all the spells Ginny had learned from the twins made Harry most grateful they’d gone to a Muggle club.

As it was Sunday, Harry was in no rush to do anything He stood up and stretched as he yawned. He grabbed his glasses and headed for the door, thinking he’d see what food they had left.

He was halfway between his bedroom and the kitchen when the flat was lit up with a bright green flash shortly followed by a small pop.

“Harry, where are you?” Ron’s voice called loudly. Harry turned to see Ron quickly scanning the small room. He found his query rapidly. “Oh, there you are.”

“Ron? Bit early for a floo call,” Harry said. Ron usually slept late on Sundays. Anything that would precipitate a call this early wasn’t likely to be good news. Ignoring Harry’s statement, Ron held out a rolled up newspaper.

Feeling like his confusion was soon going to overwhelm him, Harry grabbed the paper.

“Page four,” Ron said.

Harry unrolled the paper and found the page. It had barely fallen open when he groaned.

Page four contained a half-page picture of himself in that nightclub with Keelie. He couldn’t see her face, but knew it was taken at the most incriminating time: just before he walked out.

“Care to explain what the hell you were doing?” Ron had remained silent while Harry looked over the paper. He did not look like he was going to remain calm for much longer, so Harry hastened to explain.

As he talked, Harry saw Ron’s expression turn from anger to bewilderment.

“You went out with Dudley to a Muggle — wow. Never thought I’d see the day.”

“You and me both,” Harry replied. “I’ll tell you what though, I won’t be doing that again. That girl was completely mental.” He debated for half a second about telling Ron about her offer but decided against it. The strict boundaries they had established when Harry and Ginny first started dating usually prevented such talk.

“She was hanging around your cousin,” Ron said fairly. His head turned in the fire. “Harry,” he said. Then there was silence. “Hermione says hi.” He rolled his eyes. “Said she’d do it herself but she hates the Floo — yeah, yeah, I’ll be there in a mo’” Ron rolled his eyes again.

“Wedding stuff,” he answered Harry’s unasked question. “Between you and me . . . she’s driving me mental.” Hermione must have heard that because next second Ron said, “nothing, nothing. Just telling Harry how much I’m looking forward to it. Got to go.”

Ron started to pull his head from the fire, but before the connection was broken he leaned back in, that trademark evil Weasley grin plastered across his face.

“I guess Rita Skeeter’s going to have to recant her story now. That waitress at the Leaky Cauldron and now this girl? Say bye to those nasty rumors. Ginny’s going to do her nut though. Better get ready for the howler now.”

Still wearing his evil grin, Ron broke the Floo connection. Harry watched the flames flicker and die feeling that if it were a choice between rumors about his sexuality and Ginny’s wrath he’d take the rumors.

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