"It's just up here," Harry said, and Leah pulled over by the curb outside the unassuming Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place. By the light of the setting sun, the house, like its conjoined neighbors, was a cheerless and washed-out brown. Harry winced at the sight of the peeling black paint on the front door. He'd grown accustomed to Grimmauld Place's . . . aesthetic, but looking through a stranger's eyes, he could see ample cause for warning flags. Why hadn't he at least repainted the bloody door?

"There's magic here?" Leah said as she killed the engine, eyeing the building's ancient, weathered facade with a mix of excitement and anxiety.

Harry nodded, equally nervous for different reasons; mainly, that he was in the process of introducing his muggle girlfriend to the place he lived. And, yes, to magic. The second thing was a big deal, of course, but Leah had an open mind; Harry was certain she would warm up to the world of magic, if things went that far. But Grimmauld Place? It didn't exactly cultivate a comforting atmosphere, unless Leah was the type to enjoy gloom and creepy elves and mad, shrieking paintings. Harry didn't think she was. He hoped not.

What was he thinking? This place would scare her off for certain, and he had absolutely no backup plan. He was a bloody wizard; he could've built an entirely new house if he'd really wanted to. Hell, he could've bought a house, literally any house other than the foreboding brick relationship-killer he'd put before Leah. But here he was, and damned if he wouldn't try to salvage the situation.

"Erm, yeah," Harry said at length. "There's loads of magic on the place, but it's nothing to worry about. Just spells to keep it hidden, protection charms, stuff like that. In fact, you wouldn't even see it if I hadn't told you the address." The many layers of protection were one of the main reasons he hadn't bothered moving. Laziness was another.

"Really?" Leah said as they exited her car. She sounded far too skeptical for someone who had just hours ago watched Harry turn her television into a broken television with a flick of his wand.

He'd have to remember to ask Hermione about magic and muggle technology at some point.

Harry took Leah's hand and flashed a reassuring smile, and she returned it as they walked the path to the front door. She scrutinized the building, squinting adorably, as if she could catch magic in the act of hiding from her.

"Spells to keep it hidden, you said. Why do you need to hide? You're not a fugitive, are you?" She said it with a cheeky grin.

Harry chuckled. "'Course not. It's just to keep my legions of admirers from battering down the door." He was only halfway joking, but there was no need to pile on more revelations tonight. "Now," Harry said as they reached the entrance, "we'll need to be dead quiet until we get further in, past the hallway, alright?"

Leah nodded. "You have roommates?"

"Not really," Harry said. "Well, one. Sort of. He's more of a weird little live-in butler, actually, but don't worry about him. I've asked him not to pop in for now."

Leah's smile was playful. "You've told me not to worry at least a dozen times on the drive over here. I'm starting to get worried."

Harry grinned back. "Well, don't."

Abruptly, Leah's expression sobered, and she placed a hand on his shoulder. "Listen . . . I've accepted that magic exists, and I know nothing at all about it. You can tell me anything, and I'll believe you. I'm here, I trust you, obviously, or I would never follow a self-proclaimed magician into his haunted house . . ." Leah paused and took a breath while Harry looked at her, a bit wide-eyed. "What I'm saying is, don't make a fool of me. Please."

Harry reeled; he hadn't considered things like that before. The thought of abusing her faith in him for amusement hadn't crossed his mind. Did she think so little of him? Granted, Harry did enjoy joking and messing with her, and she gave it right back; their playful dynamic was one of his favorite parts of their relationship. But they weren't on level ground anymore. This night, he realized, was an enormous expression of faith on Leah's part, as well as his. Warmth bloomed in his chest at her vulnerable, trustful expression. Inwardly, he redoubled his conviction to see the evening go as smoothly as possible.

Outwardly, Harry realized Leah was waiting for some sort of reassuring response. He cleared his throat and said, "I'm a wizard, actually, not a magici—ow!"

Leah's hand had left his shoulder and made a swift return in the form of a punch. "I'm being serious, you dope! Tell me again there's nothing to worry about!"

"I dunno about that," Harry said, rubbing his shoulder with exaggerated care. "Your lust for violence troubles me."

"Just let me in your stupid house before I hit you again."

"Right," Harry said. "Give me a moment to remember the special knock for 'entering under duress'."

Leah laughed as Harry took her hand and led the way inside. The entrance hallway was gloomy as ever, with its dark wallpaper and dimly lit wall lamps. At least Kreacher had cleaned up the cobwebs. Harry turned and placed a finger to his lips as they padded across the carpet past the covered portrait of Walburga Black. Leah looked back at it curiously as they reached the end of the hall and entered the common area, occupied by a long, battered table and accompanying rickety dining chairs, the spacious fireplace on the other end of the room surrounded by more inviting seats in a wide semicircle.

"Well," Harry said, quiet and hesitant, though still feeling a nervous smile on his face. "This is where the magic happens."

Leah gave an exasperated sigh. "Oh my God, Harry," she said, running a hand across her face.

Once Leah had recovered from the full force of Harry's stunning wit, she began a slow tour of the room, scanning everything with laser-focus, as if she could divine the magical from the mundane if she looked hard enough. She trailed a hand down the length of the dining table, pausing a moment at a large round burn mark in the grain. Harry stood back uncomfortably as she scanned the bare walls, examining a potted, twitching sparkfern curiously before moving on to the sitting area by the roaring fire.

"Courtesy of your butler?" Leah asked, pointing to the flames.

"Yeah," Harry said, joining her side. "A house elf, actually. Kreacher." Harry had explained a little about the nature of house elves earlier in the evening, though not to Leah's satisfaction, he knew. Many of the questions she'd asked even the most knowledgeable wizards had no answers to.

Leah frowned. "That's rather mean. I'm sure he's not that bad."

"No, that's his real name," Harry explained hurriedly. He spelled out the letters for her. "House elves have funny names," he added unnecessarily, rubbing his neck.

"Could we go visit him? I'd love to meet him, maybe ask him some questions, if that's alright?"

"Er . . ." Harry said. While he wasn't opposed to Leah meeting Kreacher, a trip to the elf's dwelling was simply not an option. Years ago, Harry had insisted the elf's beheaded forbears be taken down from the wall and tossed away with the rubbish, and Kreacher had insisted right back that they belonged in the house. Try as he might, Harry couldn't convince Kreacher to throw out his ancestors. The compromise was that they now blighted the walls of the elf's room instead of the stairwell.

Leah was open-minded, but Harry was unwilling to test the limits of her tolerance by admitting to having several severed heads in the basement.

"Best not to bother Kreacher for now," Harry said. "He's a very private elf. I'll call him up later and introduce you."

"Master called Kreacher?"

The loud, croaky voice sounded from just behind them, and they jumped about a mile; Leah made a noise like a throttled bird. She and Harry whirled around to face the wrinkled old elf, and Harry was sure he'd just had a minor heart attack. His ire rose when the elf simply stood there with the worst innocent expression he'd ever seen, including the time he'd caught Ron burying his drunken face in Harry's leftover birthday cake, lip plastered with a neon green frosting mustache.

"He's—?" Leah started, wide-eyed.

"Not supposed to be in here," Harry finished, not bothering to hide his annoyance. "I asked you to stay in your room for a bit, Kreacher, and then you go and startle us like that? I thought you were cool," Harry lied.

"Master told Kreacher not to pop in," the elf said reproachfully, though with a glimmer of evil in his eyes. "Kreacher was careful not to make a sound."

"You're hilarious," Harry deadpanned, crossing his arms. "In fact, I order you to strike out on your own and try your hardest to become the first house elf comedian. If you're not headlining at the Artemis Theatre within three months, you're fired."

Leah glanced between them incredulously. "He doesn't really have to do that, does he?"

"No," Kreacher said. "Master Harry says Kreacher is 'free to ignore ridiculous orders made in the heat of the moment'. Kreacher exercises this right almost every week." The elf lowered his wizened head and began muttering to himself, though still clearly audible. "Perhaps Kreacher should make some of his special treacle tart Master Harry so loves. Yes, that would stop his pouting. It always does."

"I'm not pouting," Harry said, uncrossing his arms. "Treacle tart wouldn't go amiss, though," he added grudgingly. Leah giggled.

"Master Harry is reading Kreacher's mind again," the elf mumbled, wringing his knobby hands. "Kreacher must leave before his plans are uncovered."

"Good idea," Harry said, rolling his eyes. "Back to the basement with you. And remember the golden rule," he added sternly.

"Of course, of course," Kreacher said, breaking into the oft-rehearsed dialogue with a heavy sigh, as if he found the golden rule wholly unnecessary. "Kreacher is never, ever—under any circumstances—to enter Master Harry's bedroom while he sleeps, even to save Master's life, because Master 'would rather die than wake up to Kreacher's face looming over him in the darkness again'."

"Brilliant," Harry said with a nod. "Bye now, Kreacher."

"It was nice to meet you!" Leah added.

"Oh, right, sorry," Harry said. "Kreacher, Leah. Leah, Kreacher." Harry knelt down to eye level with the elf, fixing him with his hundred-and-ten-percent-serious expression. "Listen closely, mate. I realize that scaring the piss out of me and Ron is the highlight of your day, for whatever unfathomable reason, and I tolerate it because it's funny sometimes." A memory nearly cracked his serious countenance: Ron yelling his head off as he burst out the bathroom door and into the second floor landing, tumbling down the stairs clad in nothing but soap suds.

Harry stared into the elf's bulbous eyes, open wide to reflect the gravity of Harry's words. "But if you try anything like that with Leah, I will fire you in accordance with Black tradition. Understand?"

Kreacher gulped and nodded, caressing his throat subconsciously. "Kreacher understands." He disappeared into nothing with a sharp crack, eliciting a startled 'Oh!' from Leah.

Harry stood and rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, and for a moment the only sounds were the merrily crackling flames and the crashing wreck of his hopes for a simple, subdued introduction to his personal life. He turned to face Leah, who wore an inexplicable grin.

"What?" Harry asked.

"I dunno," Leah said. "I guess I'm . . . relieved? When you told me you had an indentured servant, I wasn't sure what to think, but you seem to have a good relationship, if unusual."

Harry wondered if Leah would say that if she knew he'd just promised to decapitate Kreacher and mount his stuffed head on the wall. He didn't wonder long; the answer was probably no.

"I s'pose," was all Harry said.

Leah stepped closer to the fire, peering at the collection of framed pictures adorning the marble mantelpiece. She gasped softly, expression one of wonderment as she realized the occupants were moving, hugging, laughing arm in arm, playfully jostling each other. Few of them featured Harry: a Weasley family Christmas photo, with Harry and Hermione on either side of a weakly smiling George, their arms thrown over his tall frame with some difficulty; a D.A. reunion at the Leaky Cauldron, where Ron and Neville carried out a friendly duel in the center of a cleared out space, Harry snickering on the sidelines as he jinxed Ron's shoelaces together; Harry sitting next to an exhausted Andromeda in her home, hugging her with one arm, the other curled around Teddy as the toddler bounced on his leg.

The rest of the photos, the majority, were less memories and more memorials. Over two dozen pictures in all, some suspended in the air when he'd run out of space on the mantel. Most were copies of pictures from Harry's prized album, and his beaming parents waved at him from several different frames. Another frame held the Marauders by the Black Lake, Wormtail's face burned away; his chubby body stood there rather haplessly. There was the old group shot of the first Order, next to which was another of the last of the Order, days after Voldemort's final death. That haggard gathering was far too sparse.

Harry's eyes lingered on an intimate scene, a picture given to him by Andromeda. It was Remus and Tonks, lounging in the same spot Harry had occupied with Andromeda and Teddy. Remus sat on one end, slumped over the arm of the couch, cradling Tonks' sleeping head in his lap. Baby Teddy dozed against her chest.

Leah's voice snapped Harry out of his reverie. "These are all . . . friends and family?" Her eyes drifted slowly from picture to picture as she took them in. Her tone was slightly awed, but also soft, almost reverent; though Harry hadn't revealed much of his past yet, it seemed she could sense the importance of these mementos.

"For the most part. One or two of them are noxious bellends who did me a favor just before they bit it," Harry said thoughtlessly.

Leah covered her mouth with a hand. "That's—"

She broke off into a short, ear-stabbing yelp as the fire in front of them flashed a brilliant green and spat out his best friend, her familiar harried expression shifting to delighted surprise as she spotted Leah. Harry guided his stunned girlfriend back to allow Hermione space to step inside.

"Leah, how good to see you! I suppose this means Harry's finally told you—why didn't you let me know it was today?" Hermione rounded on Harry, tucking a stray lock of bushy hair back into her bun.

Hermione was the only person Harry had allowed Leah to meet, as she was alone among his friends in being fully capable of pretending to be a muggle. Ron had attempted to object by crashing dinner in a leather trenchcoat and obscenely tight bicycle shorts, but they'd turned him away like the unbalanced stranger he'd appeared to be, although his loud pronouncements relating to Harry as he was dragged away by security definitely made Leah suspicious.

Harry had enlisted Kreacher in his revenge by having him sport an acromantula costume and pop in on Ron in the bath, and a three-way jump-scare war was ignited, with a disgruntled Hermione occasionally caught in the crossfire.

"I didn't want to overload her with information. What's got you all worked up?" Harry asked, hoping to lead Hermione off track.

"Ronald, of course, I can't find him anywhere, but never mind that," she said, waving away concern for her missing boyfriend like a bothersome fly. "What do you mean 'overload her with information', what nonsense! If it were me, I'd want to know everything straightaway!"

"Yes, I'm familiar with how you operate," Harry said, rubbing his eyes under his glasses.

Leah stepped forward with a wide smile and received Hermione's hug warmly. "So you're a wizard too? Of course, I dunno why I'm surprised. What was that with the fire? Gave me a scare!"

"A witch, yes. I'm thrilled Harry finally decided to let you in—how exciting this must be for you! And the fire, well, it's part of a transportation system called the Floo network . . ."

Hermione launched into a comprehensive explanation of the Floo network, beaming as she readily answered Leah's queries in between deposits of information that even the smartest of wizards would have trouble understanding, let alone retaining. They seemed to be getting on well enough, though, and Harry's thoughts drifted to Ron's whereabouts. It was too late for him to be at the joke shop, and he wasn't at home, obviously. Hermione would have thought to check his usual seat at the Leaky Cauldron, as well.

She'd seemed to think he was likely to be here, but they hadn't seen—Oh, hell.

It all happened in slow motion as Harry realized he didn't recognize the too-tall chair Leah was about to sit in. He reached out and opened his mouth to shout a warning, too late—Leah sat down, looking a little overwhelmed as Hermione joined her in a seat opposite, and the chair shifted into a rangy, redheaded dolt, who crashed to the floor on his arse with his arms wrapped tightly around Leah, her eyes nearly popping out as she was pulled down with him.

"FUCKING GOT YOU!" Ron hollered as they sprawled to the floor.

Leah shrieked like a panicked banshee, delivering a sharp elbow into Ron's nose before leaping out of his arms and tearing across the room. She burst through the door to the kitchen, still screaming as she sped further into the house. Ron and Hermione stared at each other, horrified. Harry was stunned, rooted to the spot; this was exactly the sort of thing he'd feared.

Harry finally recovered himself when he heard the door to Kreacher's basement crash open in the distance. "No—no, Leah! LEAH!" he yelled, bolting for the kitchen. "DON'T GO INTO THE BASEMENT!"

Harry heard Leah's livid voice carry up from the basement as he reached the top of the stairs. "Where is the bloody exit, I need some air, for Christ's sake . . . OH MY FUCKING GOD!"

Harry's head spun at how disastrously wrong things were going; he barely registered a wild-eyed Leah flying up the stairs in time to lurch out of the way as she barreled past him.

"HEADS!" she shouted as she sprinted down the hall to the front door. "HEADS! YOU HAVE SEVERED HEADS MOUNTED IN YOUR FUCKING BASEMENT, WHAT THE FUCK?"

The front door shut with a resounding slam as Harry returned to the sitting room, reeling with disbelief. The only sound was a series of fiery explosions emitting from the previously crashed wreck of his hopes. He walked unsteadily over to Ron and Hermione, the former going to great lengths not to see the searing glare from the latter.

Ron winced as Harry dejectedly flopped into a chair next to him. "How long?"

"Four months," Harry said with a sigh.

Ron nodded awkwardly. "S'a good run, I s'pose . . ."

Hermione tore her burning gaze from Ron to give Harry an incredulous look. "What—that's it? Aren't you going to go after her?"

"Are you joking? She thinks I'm a madman—I'm not going to chase her down, make her fear for her bloody life!"

"Done that already, mate," Ron said, smiling weakly. "Why the hell are there heads in your basement?"

"I expect Harry moved those awful stuffed house elf heads," Hermione said, and Harry nodded morosely.

"Should've binned them," Ron said with a half shrug.

Irritation sparked in Harry. "She never would've seen them if you hadn't grabbed her and screamed in her ear, you towering lummox—what the hell was that about?"

"I didn't know it was her, did I?" Ron said defensively. "Not my fault!"

"Not your—?" Harry shook his head in disbelief. "We were standing two feet from you, talking, for twenty bloody minutes! Anyone with common sense would know it was not the time—"

"I didn't know what was going on!" Ron said, rather red-faced and agitated. "I can't hear anything when I'm a chair—chairs don't have ears, Harry!"

"Thanks for that bit of wisdom," Harry said. "Care to explain why you were a chair?"

"Part of your stupid game, obviously," Hermione said. "I knew he had to be doing something like this."

Ron ran a hand through his hair uncomfortably, sitting back on the floor, as if to escape the heat radiating from his friends. "I was in the middle of the planning stage," Ron admitted. "I heard the door open, so I had to think fast."

"And since you couldn't, your backup plan was to become a seat," Harry said flatly. "Brilliant."

"Would've worked if not for her," Ron said irritably. "Y'know, if you'd just brought her to your room like a normal bloke—"

"I wasn't trying to get her into bed," Harry said, exasperated. "I was trying to introduce her to my life, my house, to magic—but all she learned was that one of my armchairs is an arsehole in disguise!"

"Stop calling me names, you specky git—!"

"Like hell I will, bloody mittenhead—!"

"Boys!" Hermione said. "Stop shouting like children and talk it out. I'm going to make sure Leah's all right." With that, she left the house, leaving Harry and Ron to sit in sullen silence that stretched for an uncomfortable two minutes.

"What's a mittenhead?" Ron muttered at last.

"Dunno," Harry admitted. "Sounds like it means something, though, doesn't it?"

Ron snorted. "Sure."

"Eh, whatever." Harry stood from the chair and stretched, barely holding back a yawn. The stress and adrenaline of the evening had fled him, and now that he had no girlfriend expecting a visit tomorrow, he was free to catch up on some much-needed oversleeping. Ron's voice stopped him as he reached the stairs.

"Hang on!" Ron pushed to his feet and crossed the room to Harry, his swollen nose trailing twin drips of drying blood. Leah had a hell of an elbow.

"What is it?" Harry asked tiredly. "If you're thinking you'll borrow my air skates again, I've been informed by Hermione that my answer is a firm 'no'. Apparently your knee is more resilient than her forehead."

"Bugger," Ron said. "But no, that's not it. It's just, y'know—I'm sorry, mate." He shifted uncomfortably. "For what it's worth, I think she'd hear you out if you went to explain things to her. I'll even come along," he offered. "If you think it would help, that is."

"I definitely don't think that," Harry said. "You might be right, though. I'll see what I can do about it tomorrow, if Hermione doesn't catch her."

Ron nodded, looking relieved. "So we're alright, then?"

"No, Ron," Harry said solemnly, "we're not. Not at all. In fact, I don't think our friendship'll ever be the same again."

Ron's eyes went comically wide, and he mouthed soundlessly for a second. "But—you just said—"

"It's not about Leah. It's about the cake."

"The cake?" Ron repeated, as if he'd never heard of such a thing.

"Yeah, the cake," Harry said. "My birthday cake. That was the best cake I'd ever had, and you ate it."

Ron looked around the room as if searching for someone who might tell him what to make of this development, and Harry had to fight to keep his serious expression. "Okay," Ron said slowly. "I'll ask Mum to make you another, then, shall I?"

Harry affected a defeated expression and heaved a sigh. "No, just forget it. It wouldn't be the same. That cake . . . it was something special."

"You're something special," Ron said, bewildered. His eyes went wide the way they had for the taste of Harry's birthday cake. "You—I know what this is about! It's not the cake at all!" he said, wagging a finger in Harry's face.

Harry slapped his hand away. "What are you on about?"

"The cake is a metaphor!" Ron said as if he'd just cracked a nigh-unsolvable case wide open. "It's a symbol of the trust between us, and when I went behind your back and ate it all, I destroyed it—I destroyed your trust in me, in our friendship, trust steadily built from—"

"Ron, what—?"

"—foundations laid in our first year of Hogwarts, through so many death-defying trials and tribulations all the way up to now, an entire decade later. I mean, sure, we've had some stumbles along the way, but isn't that really what true friendship is all about? Making mistakes, fighting, then forgiving each other in the end because we know, deep down, that it's not—"

"—What the fuck are you talking about—?"

"—that matters, but that we keep going, despite whatever this mental world might throw at us. As long as we've got each other, Harry, I really think there's no obstacle we can't overcome," Ron said, "and this weird thing about your birthday cake is one of them."

The fire snapped softly over the silence. They stared at each other for what felt like an eternity with mirrored expressions of grave seriousness, and Harry cracked first, his face splitting into a grin. Ron laughed and Harry followed suit, and their mirth resounded off the walls and throughout the house.

Harry took off his glasses to dab away tears as he recovered. "You had me going, there. You knew I was kidding about the cake?"

Ron snorted incredulously. "I'm no mittenhead, mate, I know when you're messing me around. It was either that, or I'd seriously misjudged the mechanics of the way you enjoy baked goods."

Harry chuckled. "I dunno, that cake was quite a looker. It had all the right . . . layers."

"I . . . I really wish I never heard that."

The front door crashed open, and Harry cringed instinctively, waiting for the inevitable storm of obscenities from Sirius's mother, but nothing was forthcoming. He and Ron looked round curiously as Hermione barreled into the room, red-faced and gasping for breath; they sprang forward on seeing her panicked expression.

"Hermione, what—?" Ron began.

"Leah!" she gasped. "Come quick—she's hurt!"

Harry's stomach vanished. Adrenaline flooded his limbs as he bolted past Hermione down the hall and slammed through the front door; he sprinted up the path to the sidewalk and kept running along the road, wind streaming in his ears while terrible scenarios played out in his mind, one after another. He made it about a hundred feet before he realized he didn't know where he was going.

He skidded to a stop and spun around. A distance behind, Hermione jogged up the sidewalk alongside Ron, panting, clutching a stitch in her side.

"Which way?" Harry called urgently, body shuddering with feverish energy.

"Five more streets . . . on the left . . . bushes!" Hermione yelled back.

Harry turned and flew up the walk until he felt himself pass through Grimmauld Place's enchantments, and he turned on the spot, reappearing beside the distant shrubbery. He dashed around them, and his heart stopped at the sight waiting there—Leah was lying in a pool of blood welling from a wound in her stomach. She was still, her eyes blank as they stared up at nothing.

Harry fell to his knees beside her, numb with disbelief. Her chest wasn't moving. She was dead.

There was a sharp crack, and Ron appeared with Hermione in tow. "Shit," he breathed.

"I . . . I don't . . ." Harry lost his voice for a moment as Ron knelt beside him with a devastated look. Harry was sinking into a frozen pit, darkness flickering at the edges of his vision as he cradled Leah with unfeeling hands. "Hermione . . . what happened?"

Leah's body shot upright and gasped, and Harry and Ron leapt out of their skins and onto their feet, their individual exclamations of shock and outrage drowned out by peals of laughter from Leah and Hermione. Harry's heart ran a mile a minute.

"You wankers, what the fuck was that?" Ron bellowed, clutching his chest.

"Have the two of you lost your bloody minds?" Harry said. "Stop laughing, what the hell is the matter with you?"

Hermione and Leah were hanging off each other as they laughed themselves out like the psychopaths they had revealed themselves to be. Leah stepped forward with a poor attempt at a conciliatory smile, lifting up her shirt to expose her stomach. "It's alright, see, look—she used her wand to make this brilliant fake wound—"

"No!" Harry said, still buzzing with shock. "No, it's not alright or brilliant. It's miles away from both those things. What possessed you to do this?" he asked Hermione.

"Calm down, Harry," Hermione said with a huff. "Are you really so annoyed we turned the game on you?"

"This isn't the game! Not even close!" Ron said emphatically, gesturing at Leah's blood-soaked stomach.

"Oh, that's rubbish, of course it is! We scared the pants off you two!"

Harry and Ron turned to look at each other in disbelief, and Harry massaged at his temples. Ron shook his head at the girls like an appalled parent.

"The game is jump scares," Ron said slowly. "You know—a howler under the pillow, a curtain charmed to look like a lethifold, a gnome leaping out of a pie—"

"Your point?" Hermione said impatiently.

"The point," Ron said, "is to startle the other person, not scare the daylights out of them. You could've just as easily transfigured her face or something, had her leap out at us, I dunno, but you . . ." Ron ran a hand through his hair, eyeing Hermione with a mix of wariness and disbelief. "You went straight for the bloody jugular, didn't you? Faking a murder, after all we've been through? How insensitive can you get?"

The first stirrings of guilt crossed Hermione's expression. Leah eyed Harry apologetically next to her, shifting uncomfortably on her feet, drawing her jacket closed to hide the fake wound. The look of shame and embarrassment on her face made Harry's insides twinge.

"I'm sorry, Harry," Leah said. "And Ron," she added. "I guess that was really wrong of us. It was all in fun—we didn't want to upset you like this." Hermione said nothing, but nodded with a penitent frown.

"It's—" Harry began before Ron clapped him hard on the shoulder.

"We're going to need some time," Ron said seriously. "This didn't exactly bring up pleasant memories. We'll see you two sometime later, yeah?" Without waiting for an answer Ron guided a slightly confused Harry back to the sidewalk, and they went along the road, ambling in companionable silence under the stars growing steadily brighter as dusk closed in overhead.

"So . . ." Harry said at length. "That was some trick."

"It was bloody brilliant," Ron said with a cheerful nod. "They got us good and proper with that one."

Harry chuckled. "What was the show for, then, if you thought it was that great?"

Ron grinned with a face full of mischief. "They're the guilty ones now," he said. "Didn't you see their faces? They're so ashamed they'll forgive us our cock-ups like they never happened. The bit with the chair? Forgiven. The flying knee to Hermione's head? Forgiven. Dead elves on the wall? Forgiven. The unsanctioned partaking of your forbidden cake . . . ?" Ron shot Harry an exaggerated hopeful glance.

"Forgiven," Harry said with an awed laugh. "You're something of a mad genius."

Ron scoffed. "Tell me something I haven't known since forever."

"The Cannons are incapable of winning a childrens' spelling bee, much less the quidditch championship."

"Oi! You take that back!" Ron said. "I'm almost positive they could win a spelling bee . . . y'know, as a unit."

They shared a laugh as they crossed the threshold back into Number Twelve.