It should have been another miserable, hot summer for Harry Potter at Number Four Privet Drive. His aunt and uncle had come up with all sorts of hideous chores and things for him to do, since as Uncle Vernon put it, "we've given you enough charity boy. It's about time you started actually earning your keep instead of making more work for my Petunia."
In addition, Harry's cousin Dudley had managed to lose some weight due to his discovering girls and wanting to impress one in particular; a perfectly odious girl who matched his personality perfectly. Harry thought they deserved each other, and at least it would hopefully take his cousin's attention off of him. So, all in all, it was shaping up to be another typical summer at the Dursley's. That is, until Remus Lupin showed up on the Dursley's front doorstep.
"Pro... I mean, Remus? What are you doing here? I thought Tonks was checking in this week," Harry said after exchanging delighted greetings with his former professor.
"Slight change of plans Harry. " Remus replied solemnly. "Pack your things – you're coming with me. Professor Dumbledore has a job for you."
Bewildered, Harry did as he was told and quickly packed his trunk. Hedwig was gone, probably sleeping in a tree somewhere. Uncle Vernon had gone the opposite way of his usual rants, kicking Hedwig out of the house rather than locking her in her cage all summer. The situation turned out to be a relief for everyone involved, especially the snowy owl; Harry had no worries about her catching up with him somehow.
Downstairs, he could hear his aunt and uncle raising a fuss as Lupin informed them of the change of plans. Rolling his eyes, Harry lugged his stuff downstairs and followed Lupin out the door without bothering to say goodbye to his relatives. To his surprise, the older man led him to a Muggle car parked in front of the house.
"It's broad daylight Harry," Lupin laughed, correctly interpreting his thoughts. "And yes, I do know how to drive a car. Put your things in the trunk and get in."
Feeling slightly sheepish, Harry did so. Lupin waited until they were well on their way before speaking. "I'm surprised at you Harry. I thought you would've been pestering me with questions about what this is all about."
"I'm just grateful that you got me away from the Dursleys," Harry replied honestly. "But now that you mention it, whatever could Dumbledore need that one of the members of the Order couldn't do? Does it have to do with Voldemort?"
Lupin automatically grimaced slightly, but shook his head. "Yes, but indirectly. We've received reports from our agents that He is planning on making a move on those closest to you as a way to make you more vulnerable, starting with Ron and Hermione. Ron and his family are safe, so you don't have to worry – they'll see you at Hogwarts," he added before Harry could ask. "But we still need someone to keep an eye on Hermione."
"But why me?" Harry frowned, guessing what Lupin was alluding to.
The older man sighed. "Well, for one, Hermione lives in a mostly Muggle neighborhood. It's out in the country, but she's still surrounded by non magical people, so we need someone who can blend in. Most of our Muggle-born field agents are either too old to be hanging out with a sixteen year old girl, or are already out on assignment gathering important information. So, I suggested you. This way, we kill two birds with one stone. Your relatives are currently on their way to the United States, courtesy of a free trip – paid for by the Order. With them is two of our younger members. I can't give you their names for security purposes, but the young man has a bag full of your hair from that convenient haircut Molly gave you at the end of last year and a good supply of Polyjuice potion, and the girl, in one of her more strenuous roles, is playing the role of your dear cousin Dudley's new girlfriend. They will stay with your family and act as a decoy."
Harry nodded dubiously. He still wasn't convinced, but trusted the former Professor's judgment.
"How did Hermione take it when you told her she was going to be guarded all summer?" His eyes widened when Lupin winced again.
"That's the other problem. We can't tell her Harry. Someone in her household or neighborhood is leaking information to the dark side, but we haven't pinpointed who yet. Until we do, we can't risk the possibility that someone could reveal your true whereabouts."
"So then how exactly is this going to work?" Harry wanted to know. The doubt was clear in his voice.
"How comfortable are you in your Animagi forms?"
"Fair. I'm more comfortable as a cat now, thanks to Professor McGonagall..." Harry paused for a moment. "And you know the hawk form was no trouble."
In tradition with the rest of his "not so normal" life, Harry Potter had proved that he marched to the beat of a different drum once again when he had discovered that he could transform into not one, but two animal forms during his Transfiguration test at the end of sixth year. The first form, a black hawk, had come as no surprise to anyone; Harry flew like a bird of prey in any form. Professor McGonagall had smiled and nodded and motioned for him to change back, but instead of changing back to human, there had been a flash of light and suddenly a oversized black cat with Harry's eyes was staring back at her. Resigned to fate, the Professor had taken it fairly well in stride and coached Harry in both of his forms.
"Well, that's good to hear because by the time the summer is over you're going to be very comfortable in cat form," Remus informed him. "Hermione had been working at the local animal shelter. We're going to work it so that you are going to be adopted by her as a lost stray. Your cat form is larger than the norm, but not quite so that you're going to stand out."
"For once," Harry added dryly, rubbing his forehead.
"You'll have to insinuate yourself into the shelter as well; maybe convince them to make you a mascot or something so you have free reign. You're smart, so I'm sure you'll figure something out."
Harry nodded. "How do I get in touch with you or Dumbledore in
case something happens? I can't exactly hide my wand on me."
"We've got it all worked out. Right now, I'm hungry and we're at our destination. " Harry noticed for the first time that they had stopped at a motel. Lupin got out and picked up his bags. "Come on. Let's get settled and I'll tell you the rest over dinner."
"Morning!" Hermione greeted her boss cheerfully, poking her head in his office.
"You're here early Hermione," Maxwell replied with a smile. "What's up?"
"Oh, nothing." Hermione shrugged. "I just couldn't sleep anymore, so I thought I'd come in early. If there's a problem I can always..."
"No! No, no problem." Max ran a hand through thinning grey hair. "Actually, I'm glad you're here. We just had someone drop off a new cat I think you might be interested in. I know you were talking about replacing Crookshanks..."
"Max, you think I'm going to be interested in every new animal that comes in." Hermione laughed. "What happened with this one?" She followed him through the doors to the cat section.
In the back, Harry's ears pricked as his sensitive nose caught the familiar smell of Hermione – an intoxicating blend of lilies, mint, and cinnamon mixed with a clean breeze that was purely Hermione. He prowled to the front of his cage and sat, waiting for the two to approach.
The Hermione that appeared surprised him – gone were the long black robes and prime schoolgirl outfit in bright red and gold Gryffindor colors. In it's place were faded jeans that hugged her hips, a pale pink t-shirt that showcased sleekly tanned muscular arms, and comfortable, worn trainers. Her curly hair was pulled back in a French braid, but little tendrils wisped around her face, softening it. Her face was just as clean of makeup as it always was; the only concession to vanity being a layer of gloss that mad her lips soft and pink. Harry sniffed. Strawberry, from the smell of it. He loved it when girls wore flavored lip-gloss; it was a lingeringly sweet reminder every time he licked his lips after a nice snog session...He blinked. What was he doing? He wasn't supposed to be thinking about Hermione's lips! This was his best friend, for Merlin's sake, plus his current assignment!
"Oh!" Hermione breathed, catching sight of the newest arrival. He – she had marked it as a male the moment she saw it move, all sinewy predator and feline grace – was sitting a few feet away from the front of the cage, tail swishing slightly as if he were concentrating on something beyond his scope. She squatted down to eye level, and was immediately struck by the green of his eyes. Most cats had green or blue eyes, she knew, but they were usually mixed with gold or silver. The intense green stood out more vividly against the raven black of his coat. "He's beautiful Max. Why is he here?"
Max scratched the back of his neck. "'Seems he's a rare breed, that one is. The owners were complaining that he was more like a guard dog than a cat; Apparently he's very loyal to his family and has no problem telling someone if he doesn't like them. They had to move to the States, and couldn't afford to take him 'long."
"Fascinating." Harry could practically see her mind kick into gear as she studied him more closely. He was going to have to warn Dumbledore to implant some "Muggle" books on rare cat breeds to keep in with Max's story. Still, it was a good cover – at least now he would have a reason for potentially attacking someone he suspected as a danger to her. She stuck her fingers through the bars and wiggled them invitingly. "Come, handsome, I won't hurt you." Harry hesitated, then scooted closer to the bars. She ran her fingers gently behind his ears and over his face, and he automatically bumped her hand with his head. "Okay, okay, I can take a hint." She laughed, and scratched him behind the ears.
If Harry had been human he would've blushed, but he couldn't help it! Cat instinct warred with human one, and he had an itch, dangit! At least he wasn't purring, although he couldn't help the low rumble that sounded deep in his chest as she scratched a particularly itchy spot. He leaned into her fingers, and she scratched harder.
Oh yeah. Right there. Now a little to the left... Puuuurfect!
"Seems to me like someone just made the decision for you." Max chuckled quietly from behind her. Both Harry and Hermione had forgotten his presence. Hermione withdrew her fingers, and Harry nearly fell into the bars, he was leaning so hard.
"Hey!" He protested; although all that came out was a plaintive mewl.
"I guess he has, at that." Hermione sighed and shook her head at the cat. "Well, my lad, looks like it's your lucky day. I'll come fill out the paperwork and start cleaning, Max, and then take him home this evening. I have no idea what Mum and Dad are going to say though – I've never actually brought my work home with me before."
"Na, girl, no need for that now. Go on, enjoy your day. You need to get proper licensing and registration for him anyway; might as well do that now. And I know both of your parents work, so I'll make you a deal. You do what you can to brighten up that reception area, and we'll adopt your lad here as the office mascot, depending on how he gets along with the other animals. When you go back to school, you can either take him with you or we'll find a home for him, no problem."
"It's a deal." She smiled brightly at him and turned back to Harry. "Well luv, looks like you're coming home with me after only a couple of hours in the slammer." Her voice was low and soothing, not the impatient, tart, prissy tone she usually had at Hogwarts. "Let me just find a temporary collar or something – don't want you getting away after all this, now would we?"
Harry shot a wide-eyed look at Max. That was his cue.
"I've got something I think might work," Max said hastily. "Let me go get it and check up front, and you get acquainted with your new friend and think of a name for him, eh?" He escaped before she could reply, giving her no choice but to comply.
"A name," she repeated, opening the cage door and scooting inside before shutting it behind her. "Of course! You don't have a name, do you handsome?" She chucked him lightly under the chin when he sat down and stared back at her unblinkingly. "Don't give me that look! You look like Harry when he's thinking of another plan to get us into trouble." She paused, and Harry sneezed, which was the cat version of laughter. He hadn't realized he had a particular 'look' when he was thinking of a plan. "In fact…" She trailed off, and then shook her head. "No, it couldn't be. He's nowhere near here, and besides, his Animagus form is a hawk, not a cat." The hair on Harry's back went down slightly. She didn't know. It was going to be okay. Oh, she was going to kill him when she found out, but the plan was safe for the moment.
Meanwhile, she was still pondering a name.
"You're too dignified for a 'Blackie' or 'Midnight'," she mused, giggling as he laid his ears back. "And I'm not going to name you Harry because that would be a little strange, and besides, what would he say when I brought a cat to school named after him?" Harry sneeze-laughed again. That would be awkward. "Okay, how about…Leo? You're a cat, after all, and Leo is a very dignified name."
Harry cocked his head to the side, pretending to consider, then meowed his assent.
"Well, aren't you smart! Leo it is then!" She laughed, and bent to scoop him in her arms, staggering under the weight. "Ooof! You are larger than the average kitty, aren't you? I wonder how old you are?"
Max returned just then, proudly holding out a dark red leather collar studded with small jewels. "Here you are. Your friend there is slightly larger than the average cat, so I found this old dog collar in back. Did you think of a name for him?"
Hermione gave up on holding Leo in her arms and turned to her boss. "Yes. We" she smiled down at the cat, "decided on 'Leo'."
"Very nice," Max approved, bending down to fasten the collar around Harry's neck and winking at him when Hermione wasn't looking. "I also took the liberty of calling my friends at the registration office, and filled out the paperwork over the phone, so you two can just head home and relax. He's going to be the mascot, after all, so it was only right," he added when Hermione started to protest. "Go on! You kids get out of here. I have work to do. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Okay." Hermione gave in gracefully. "C'mon Leo."
Harry gracefully rose and padded after his friend, breathing a silent sigh of relief. Phase one was done. She had accepted the story. Now all he had to do was fool her parents...
Harry had met Hermione's parents, Daniel and Emma, a couple of times over the years. It was easy to see where Hermione got her quick mind and acid wit from. Harry knew that Hermione was very close to her parents, ad was fairly open about being a witch, although he would bet a hundred Gaellons that she didn't tell them everything about her time at Hogwarts. Still, he would have to watch himself and make sure he kept to cat-like mannerisms around them. Harry knew that Mr. Granger had spent some time with Arthur Weasley over the previous summer, so he had become more aware (or immune?) of strange, er, things.
"Now, Dad is a softie, but Mum's the one you have to convince," Hermione was saying. "I mean, full out turn on the charm. Crookshanks was different – he was magical and a present for me doing so well in school, but he also was still a regular cat. A great black panther prowling around underfoot is something else!"
They reached her house and she looked at him pleadingly. "Max says you're intelligent, so I can only hope you understand."
Leo stared back at her with those intensely green eyes, before turning away and tugging her gently toward the house. Hermione gaped at him. Did he just wink at her? Shrugging it off, she allowed herself to be led into the house.
"Mum! Dad! I'm back!" She called. "Be good," she whispered to her companion as she took off her jacket and hung it in the entryway closet.
Emma Granger was the first to hear her daughter's call, and came into the living room to greet her. "Hi sweetheart. What happened? Did Max not need you today? She stopped short at the sight of the large black cat sitting calmly at her daughter's side.
Her husband, Daniel, wandered in. "Emma, do you know where..." he stopped mid sentence and stared at his daughter. "Hermione, sweetheart, it seems like one of your four legged friends followed you home."
Obviously not much phased Mr. Granger, Harry thought in amusement and approval. Of course, having a daughter who was a witch may have inured him to many surprises.
"Er, yes. Mum, Dad, this is Leo. I... kind of adopted him for the summer. Just for the summer, " she repeated, seeing her parents frown. "He'll be with me at the shelter during the day, and he's very gentle, I swear. Max said he's a special breed, more like a guard dog than a cat, very intelligent."
She was rambling, Harry noted. He had never seen Hermione so flustered. It was kind of cute. He leaned against her leg, giving her silent support, and felt her take a deep breath. Her hand automatically came down to caress him behind the ears. "Max also said that he could be the shelter mascot and stay there permanently, if necessary."
"But Hermione, he's so big!" Emma exclaimed.
"I can do a spell to make him smaller when he's around other people." Hermione replied earnestly. "I got special permission from Professor Dumbledore to do small bits of magic, so the Ministry won't be on my case. Or I'll ask Max. He's a Squib, but maybe he'll be able to suggest a book or something. Leo is very obviously part magic, so it might be dangerous for him to go someplace else where they won't understand why he is the way he is." She shot a pleading look at her father, who held up his hands.
"I defer judgment to your mother on this one."
Emma's eyes were narrowed as she regarded Harry sternly. He shivered. It was clear where Hermione to her steely eyed stares from. He swallowed and returned her gaze as calmly as he could.
"And with the increase of 'activity' around the neighborhood, it would be nice to have a four-legged companion again." Hermione bit her lip as Harry's ears pricked. "Please?"
Her mother's lip twitched slightly, as if holding back a reluctant smile. She held out a hand and waited. Harry let his cat instincts take over slightly, walking over to where she stood and gravely sniffing her hand before bumping it gently with his head. Automatically her fingers moved, and he leaned harder into her fingers. Hermione held her breath. The ice melted, and a true smile broke out on Emma's face.
"Well, aren't you a charmer." She chuckled. "I suppose it's alright with me, especially since he'll be at the shelter during the day." She looked at her daughter, whom had a huge grin on her face. "But I want you to write to Professor Dumbledore and see if he can recommend some books or any info about your friend's – Leo, was it?" – last home. I would be interested in knowing why his last owners gave him up."
Daniel nodded in agreement.
"I will. Thank you Mum! Thanks Dad! C'mon Leo... I want to write to Harry and Ron and tell them about you."
Great. Hermione didn't know about the Dursleys going on "vacation". How was he supposed to write her back when he was there (and a cat)? This was getting complicated. He needed to talk to Professor Dumbledore, but couldn't until Hermione went to sleep. Luckily, she was an early riser, not a night owl, so he was fairly certain he could stay awake long enough to out stay her. He was a cat, after all; he was supposed to take naps in the middle of the day.
Hermione's room was very neat and organized, although he had expected no less. Two large bookshelves, both filled to the brim with Muggle books, lined one wall. Curious, he padded over for a closer look, interest to see if his friend every broke down and read purely for pleasure. Of course, many Muggle science fiction books were actually historical magical fiction written by witches and wizards whom made a killing in the Muggle world with their true accounts of magic history. Harry had even heard there was already a series chronicling his life, plus four movies to boot! He snickered when found them on the shelf, and turned to shoot his friend a look.
"It's a part of history!" She said, somehow feeling the need to defend herself. It was silly, but she had watched Leo look around her room and deliberately walk over to the bookshelf. She somehow knew what books he was referring to when he had shot her that exasperatedly amused look, so similar to Harry's. "Besides, how often do you find an accurate account of someone's life? It's kind of scary, really, how spot on the author is – and why am I arguing with a cat?" She threw her hands up in the air and turned away to rummage under her bed. "Honestly! I need to get out more – explaining things to a cat! Of course, he's supposedly a very smart cat, but still a cat, nonetheless. I would never hear the end of it from Ron or Harry – especially Ron! How I've survived nearly six years of being friends with them, I have no idea. And wipe that smug expression off your face!" She shook her finger at the surprised animal, who immediately looked sheepish. She huffed and returned to looking under the bed.
Harry had indeed been smirking to himself, but he had thought she hadn't seen it. Now he rubbed a paw over his face, pretending to wash but really struggling to hide his grin, which she apparently could see. He was beginning to see why Ron liked riling her up so much.
"Males!" She huffed again and took the pile of blankets she had unearthed to the foot of the bed, arranging them in a lush pile. "There. This will have to do for now – you're much too big for Crookshank's old bed."
"Hermione!" Emma called from downstairs. "You have company!"
"Just a minute!" she called, and rose. Leo rose with her and followed her to the door. "Leo, stay here. I'll be right back." She tried to slip out of the door, but he caught one big paw in the opening and pulled it back. She glared at him. He glared right back. It was clear that he had appointed himself as her new bodyguard and wasn't planning on letting her out of his sight. It was also a bit eerie, how much he reminded her of Harry in protective mode. She had a feeling that, like Harry, he would do as he pleased whether she liked it or not. So, like with Harry, she gave in, figuring it was better to have him with her where she could pull him out of any potential trouble if necessary. "Oh alright." Stifling a sigh, she pulled out her wand. Leo's ears laid back flat on his head. "Relax. It's just a Reductio charm. You're somewhat intimidating, and this is a mostly Muggle neighborhood, you know." She performed the charm, and Harry felt himself shrink slightly. Now the top of his head reached her knee, instead of mid-thigh. "C'mon, then."
She strode out the door with him prowling a pace behind. At the top of the stairs she automatically paused to see who her visitor was. Her eyes widened.
As Harry watched in amazement, she ran a hand over her ponytail and smoothed out her clothes before taking a deep breath and walking sedately down the stairs.
"Robert!" She exclaimed brightly. Harry stifled a wince at the shrillness of her voice. "What are you doing here? I thought Max said you were going to France for the summer!"
"There was a slight change of plans. Besides, I couldn't go without seeing my favorite girl, could I?" The tall, handsome young man held out his arms. "What, no hug?"
Hermione blushed and obediently walked into his arms, completely unaware of the cat glaring suspiciously at her companion. Harry glanced at Emma, sure she would say something, but she just smiled. "Why don't you two sit and talk for a bit. I have to make a couple of phone calls, and then I'll be right back." As she passed Harry, who hadn't yet been noticed by the stranger, she brushed a hand over his back and murmured, "Settle down and watch. I'll be back soon."
Bemused, he watched her disappear through the kitchen door before being distracted by Hermione and Robert settling on the couch. His tail twitching with anxiety, Harry studied their body language. She was sitting with her body turned toward him, her expression open and eager as she waited for an answer. Harry frowned. Robert, on the other hand, sat back lazily, with all the arrogance of a coiled snake ready to strike. Harry didn't like him. He stared hard at the other man's face, mentally scanning the list of profiles Remus had given him to study of suspects the Order believed could be posing as a double agent.
"So what happened?" Hermione inquired impatiently once they were seated. "This trip was all you talked about in your letters."
Ah-hah., Harry thought triumphantly, finally pinpointing who he was. Robert Crawford was a former Ravenclaw, graduated a year before Harry's arrival at Hogwarts, although Harry thought he would've done just as well in Slytherin. He was also Max's nephew, as well as the son of Michael Crawford, one of Lucius Malfoy's business cronies. Rumors flew about the Crawfords, although nothing had ever been confirmed as to which side they were on. Crawford Sr., while working with Malfoy Sr. on business matters, supposedly didn't support his point of view toward Muggle-borns, although he didn't shy away from dealing with some of the more shady creatures from Knockturn Alley, either. Crawford Jr., however...Harry eyed him darkly. Tall, dark, with broad shoulders and a too-white smile, Robert Crawford was very good looking – and knew it. He reminded Harry of Gilderoy Lockehart, although not nearly as flaky. And, like with Lockehart, Hermione was falling for the charming good guy act, at least as far as he could tell. Mentally rolling his eyes, Harry returned to the conversation.
"...so, since that was no longer an option, I decided to come out here," Crawford was saying. "It's quite convenient, really, especially since my cousins are staying at their country estate for the summer. Things are getting a bit thick 'round the Ministry, so Uncle Lucius decided he didn't need Draco and his friends underfoot this summer."
Hermione coughed . "Your cousins have a house...out here?" She repeated faintly.
"Mmhm. Couple of miles outside of town – not too far from the shelter, actually. It's Unplottable, so the Muggles can't see. You know the old haunted mansion up on Majestic Hill?"
"That's the Malfoy Mansion?" She gaped at him. Harry knew the reason for her dismay. She had apparently been living and working a mere couple of fields away from her worst enemy at school, and hadn't even known it!
"Amazing illusion spells, no?" Crawford grinned proudly and a touch arrogantly as he slung his arm casually around Hermione's shoulders. Harry bristled. "In fact, Cousin Draco invited his mates out for a house party, once they get settled in of course. Should be a big to-do. You'll come with me, as my date. " He made it a statement instead of a question.
"But – "
"I won't take no for an answer 'Mione. I'll pick you up Saturday at seven. Dress robes are required. " He stood up. She automatically rose with him. He leaned down to kiss her goodbye – just as Harry made his move. Stepping out the shadows, he deliberately shoved his way in between them, knocking them both off balance and away from each other.
"Leo!" Hermione exclaimed, even as she instinctively dung her fingers into his coat for stability. Crawford tried to grab on too, but Harry glared at him and showed a hint of teeth and he jerked his hands away. "Robert, I am so, so sorry, I forgot he was there – " She apologized, wrapping her fingers into Leo's collar. She pinched the skin at his nape warningly, and he subsided, although she could still feel the tension running through him.
To her and Harry's immense surprise, he laughed, catching himself on the couch arm. "It's alright Hermione. So this is the cat Uncle Max was talking about?" He didn't move, but shot Harry an assessing glance. "He's not very big, is he? From the way Uncle described him, I was expecting something more...bulkier." Only Harry saw his eyes glitter maliciously as the remark hit home. "Still," Crawford continued. "are you sure you'll be able to handle him 'Mione? I'm sure my cousin could take him off your hands until – "
Hermione staggered slightly as Leo pulled against her hold on his collar, practically vibrating with the force of his growl. She knew that he could easily pull out of her grasp if he really wanted to. "Leo, stop it! Robert is a friend – you don't have to protect me from him!" Blowing a strand of hair out of her face, she sighed. "You better go Robert. I'll see you at the shelter tomorrow."
Shaking his head, he made his way to the door, giving the large animal a wide berth as he left. As soon as he was gone, Hermione smacked her "protector" on the shoulder. Hard.
"What is the matter with you? How could you embarrass me like that?" She raged, not seeming to realize that she was scolding a large predator who could easily tear her to pieces without effort.
Her mother returned to the living room to discover her daughter faced off with her cat. She had her hands on her hips and was glaring at him. Leo's ears were flattened back against his head, and a distinctly defiantly abashed air hung about him as he returned her gaze.
"What is going on in here?" Emma demanded.
"Leo embarrassed me!" Hermione answered hotly. "Robert was just saying goodbye and he" she shook her finger at the cat "decided to take it upon himself to interfere!"
Emma stifled a smile. "Well, you did say he's more intelligent than the average cat. Maybe he smelled something on Robert that he didn't like." She raised her eyebrows when her daughter turned her scathing gaze on her. "Sweetheart, he's a cat. A part magical cat, yes, but still just a cat. Sometimes animals take an instinctive dislike toward people for no apparent reason."
"Of course, you could always take him back..."
"Oh no!" It was obvious that the thought had never even occurred to her. Leo pricked his ears slightly.
"Well then, you can't stay mad at Leo for doing what he thought was right. He's not like Ron – or Harry," she added blandly. "He thought he was protecting you. He didn't know any better."
Her daughter huffed again, then sighed heavily. "I know. And Ron wouldn't have been nearly as subtle. Harry, maybe, but – " She frowned and stopped.
But what? Harry wondered irritably, still smarting from the blistering lecture he had just received. He had watched Ron be on the receiving end numerous times, but he had usually escaped relatively unscathed. What, did she think that Ron was the only one who could be impulsive? He snorted to himself.
"Anyway, I'm sorry Leo." She snapped her fingers invitingly, but he wasn't so easily persuaded. She watched his ears lift slightly, but he didn't move. She crossed her arms. "Leo!"
"I think his feelings are hurt," Emma said gravely, although her eyes were twinkling.
Hermione stood up and walked over to him. Kneeling down so they were nearly eye to eye, she cupped his chin in her hand, forcing him to meet her gaze. Again, she didn't seem to realize what an unusual gesture that was. To her, he wasn't a large predator, he was just a male in a snit. She had plenty of experience of dealing with stubborn males, having been best friends with two of them for over five years now. She lifted her hand, intending to brush the hair off his forehead, but he jerked his head away from her. "Look, I said I was sorry! What more do you want from me? Robert was one of the first friends I made around here after my first year at Hogwarts. He liked me for me, even before he knew I was a witch or friends with Harry. You may not like him, but he's going to be around. A lot. So we're going to have to come an understanding, or you'll have to go in one of the cages at the shelter whenever Robert is around." Leo's ears flattened again. "You don't want that do you?" He shook his head vigorously. "Does that mean you'll be nice to Robert?"
The things I do for this girl, Harry grumbled. Too bad about this whole secrecy thing – he would've loved to tell her a thing or two about her precious Robert. Reluctantly, he nodded.
"Good." Hermione smiled and stood up. "If it makes you feel any better, I'll make sure to point out Draco Malfoy when we go to Robert's party. You can terrorize him all you want. Just no biting – I bet he doesn't taste very good anyway."
Emma cleared her throat. "Sweetie, why don't you go check on your father. He's out puttering around in the shed."
"Okay." The sixteen year old shrugged.
Harry went to follow, but Emma slipped her fingers into his collar. "I have a nice bowl of tuna fish for Leo in the kitchen. I bet he's hungry. He'll be out in a minute." Not giving cat or girl a change to react, she guided him into the kitchen. Hermione rolled her eyes and continued on her way to the back yard.
What is with the Granger females and grabbing me by the collar? Harry thought.
Emma leaned against the kitchen counter and crossed her arms. "That was quite a performance you put on Harry."
Harry froze in his tracks, hoping against hope that he had misunderstood. Emma chuckled at his panicked expression and reached down, gently brushing the fur off of his forehead and revealing the faint outline of a lightening shaped white mark in place of where his scar would usually be. She nodded, as if it confirmed what she had already known. "It's alright Harry. I talked to Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall. They explained why you were here." They had also told her a couple of other interesting things, but she wasn't about to mention that. " Don't worry – I won't tell Hermione." She watched him relax slightly. "Just a minute." Turning to the window over the sink, she opened it and called, "I'll be right back – just running down to the post office."
Daniel waved acknowledgement from the other side of the yard and turned back to his conversation with Hermione.
"There. Now, why don't we take a walk, hmm? You can change back once we're in the living room." She strode back through the house, clearly assuming Harry would follow – which he did, although his mind was buzzing with questions. What had given him away?
Emma kept him in suspense all the way to the sidewalk in front of the house. She had watched him transform in silence, only the widening of her eyes betraying her awe. When he stood before her as Harry-the human, she was speechless for a moment before smiling widely. "Hello Harry. You've grown up quite a bit since the last time I saw you." Her approving gaze took in his 6'3 form. Working for his relatives had enabled him to fill out with muscles that Quidditch couldn't help him obtain, and he carried himself with a new confidence and grace that she hadn't seen before. The messy hair and vivid green eyes were the only things that marked him as the young boy she had met four years ago in Diagon Alley.
He grinned sheepishly. "Hello Mrs. Granger."
"Emma, please. You're a part of the family now, so to speak, so I think we can dispense with the Mrs. Granger," she replied. "Come on – let's take a walk."
Now outside Harry waited for her to start the conversation as he paced gravely beside her.
"We don't have much time," she began finally. "So I'll brief you on what Professor Dumbledore told me. Basically, my daughter is a target for Lord Voldemort and you are here as a bodyguard of sorts, to keep an eye out for any magical happenings."
Harry nodded. "Yes – and no. I'm here to see if I can weasel out who has been leaking information to the Dark side. Also, as a Muggle-born, Hermione is one of the more obvious targets, so it's a given that there are going to be wards and guards around, but who would suspect that I would be in the middle of it? One thing about Lord Voldemort that we can count on is his arrogance. He believes I am with the Dursleys because I'm there every summer and he also still believes that my mother's protection still works. He weakened it, yes, but to all intents and purposes as long as I stay with my 'family' I'm safe. Dumbledore figured out that the spell relates to blood, not the physical home, which is why the Dursleys could go on vacation to America." He paused. "Unfortunately, what he did to me in fifth year worked better than he realized, which is why I'm here instead of with the Dursleys."
She nodded her understanding. He continued, "As to why all the secrecy, well, number one we can't afford for anyone to know where I am, other than a few significant members of the Order and Max, of course. Number two, we don't know who precisely is leaking information, although I find it interesting that Robert Crawford is a relative to Draco Malfoy, and Draco and his cronies just happen to be coming here for the summer. But until we know for sure, I can't afford to trust anyone other than you, your husband, Hermione, and Max." He managed a rueful grin. "Despite what I may have implied to Hermione."
"Mm. Yes. Well, I can't hold that against you. Hermione was telling the truth when she said that Robert was one of the first friends she had made before she came to Hogwarts. He had a sister who used to come over here as well, although she died from a car accident. After that, they became close. She trusts him, although I'm not so sure she will be so blind in the future now that she knows that he is related to Draco Malfoy. I know he has never mentioned that before."
Harry frowned. "If I could, I would convince her not to go to this party. No matter how much she trusts Crawford, I don't trust him, and I definitely do not trust Draco Malfoy." He sighed heavily.
"But you know that's not going to be possible," Emma replied knowingly. "My daughter will go, just to spite him and make the other girls jealous. Being on Robert's arm will just be an added bonus. Despite the reputation she has for being known for her brains instead of her beauty, Hermione is still a sixteen year old girl. She may act like she is more interested in books and school, but she still has the hopes and dreams of any young girl. Robert is a handsome young man, plus he's the first boy who has shown interest in her, all of her, not just her brains. Going to this party with him will give her a perfect opportunity to repair some of her feminine pride."
By this time they had reached the post office. Harry waited outside while she went in and retrieved the mail. They started walking slowly back home.
"Exactly." Harry shook his head. "And no offense, but having been your daughter's best friend for over five years, I know better than to try to fight the inevitable. I can't even write to Ron about it and warn him, 'cuz I'd have to explain how I knew about it in the first place." A thought occurred to him. "That reminds me. Hermione is planning on writing a letter to me and Ron, telling us about, well, me-er, Leo. All of my letters are spelled to go to Remus instead of Number Four Privet Drive, and then he's going to send an empty envelope with the address and postage on it for my reply to send to Ron, but I need a way to intercept the owls so Hermione doesn't see. Can you do that for me?"
"Certainly. Molly turned me on to wizard romance novels, so I'll just tell Hermione that I subscribed to a new author. That way she won't suspect the frequent packages." She winked at him. "Well, I think we've covered just about everything. Just be careful Harry. My daughter cares about you a lot, which makes you an important person in my book, regardless of scars or heritage. Watch your back, and trust your instincts."
"Thanks Mrs – Emma." Harry replied quietly.
They walked in silence the rest of the way home. Just before they went inside, she touched him gently on the arm. "When you get a chance, write down some of your favorite foods and I'll do my best to keep them stocked in the refrigerator for you to snack on at night. You're a growing boy; there's no reason for you to starve just because you're a cat."
He smiled. "I will." She turned up the walkway to the front door. "Um, one more thing: what exactly gave me away? You talked to Professor Dumbledore after you saw me, so you must have guessed after we met. What did I do?"
She smiled, eyes sparkling with mischief and a sudden secret. "Your eyes, for one. The color, yes, but also the fact that you squint slightly, even as a cat."
He blushed. "It's a habit. I'm still not used to not having my glasses."
"And also, I saw the scar earlier. You may want to make sure Dumbledore includes something about lightening marks in the 'books' he sends Hermione about you." She shot him an questioning glance. "Although, Hermione told me that since there were so many students tested that the girls were in one room and the boys in another, but the only form she knew about was your hawk form. How...why..."
He blushed harder. "I guess it's the curse of me being, well, me. We went individually into a separate room with Professor McGonagall, as a safety precaution since it's hard to distinguish between animal instincts and people instincts during that first discovery change. You don't choose the form; it chooses you. And, since I can't do anything normally, I was chosen to be both bird and cat. With everything else going on, it was decided that we would keep my hawk form as my official Animagi form, since that is what most people assumed I would become, and keep the panther for...other things."
"Ah. That explains a lot." She chuckled. "Very well. Here we are; you better change back to 'Leo'." She watched him shimmer and shrink back to the size Hermione had charmed him to; apparently the Reducio charm hadn't worn off yet. "Why don't you go check on the others, and I'll start something for lunch, hm?"
He meowed his assent, and trotted through the house out to the backyard.
He found Daniel puttering around with the barbeque, but no Hermione so he returned inside and headed upstairs to her room. He found her on her bed, writing busily into what looked to be a journal. Not wanting to intrude, he padded softly in and curled up on the rug beside her. Curiosity soon got the better of him however, and despite his best intentions he rose to his haunches to peer over the bed and see what she was writing.
Robert came over today. His trip to France was canceled, although he gave a rather vague reason as to why exactly. No matter-I'm more concerned with the news that he is related to Draco Malfoy! How could I not know that? How could he keep that from me? Of course, that would explain the nasty looks Pansy and her little pack of ankle-biters were shooting me at the train station at the end of last year. Apparently he's a distant cousin or something, just enough that both acknowledge a blood tie when it suits them. That alone should be enough for me to refuse to go to this party, and yet…If I didn't know the Malfoy Mansion was so close by, then neither does Draco and company. I would love to dress up and go, just to see the look on Pugsy's face when I stroll in on Robert's arm. Little mousy bookworm Hermione in the Malfoy home, as a guest no less! With the handsomest man there. Of course, it's not physically possible, considering who and what I am, but it would be nice. Just to be acknowledged as a female vying for a guy's affections, and not just the girl who earned her House another bunch of points for being a know-it-all.
She paused, nibbling absently on the end of her pen. Harry thought it was strange, to see her writing in a Muggle notebook with a regular ball point pen instead of parchment and quill, but it fit the mood and the moment. She was a Muggle-born witch, and a part of both worlds. It was only right that she be as proficient with pen and paper as she was with quill and parchment. He admired her neatly slanted handwriting, so different from his half-legible scribbling, for a moment before comprehending the words she was busily writing. His eyes widened.
Still, what if I went, but in disguise? Harry and Ron would kill me if they found out what I was planning, but I saw a letter from Professor Dumbledore to my parents saying that there has been increased Dark activity around here. The Malfoys relocating seems a little bit too convenient to me, so I bet they have something to do with it. Ron is out of the country, and Harry is stuck with his horrid relatives, so there's only me. It's not like I would do anything suspicious; I just would keep my eyes and ears open for anything interesting, and if I heard or saw something, I would contact Dumbledore immediately. And besides, Robert said that Lucius was staying at the Manor, and just Draco and his friends are coming. I can handle them. Besides, Leo will be with me-I don't dare leave him home. Not that I'd have much of a choice, anyway-that little contest of wills we had earlier confirmed that.
Harry snorted. Right. She's not going to do anything, just like we always not do anything. That'll last all of two seconds. At least she's not going to try to stop me from going with her.
Not that I don't appreciate my own personal bodyguard, but – Males! What is it with them being protective of me, but not possessive? I mean, if I look at a guy, even one of my Housemates, Ron and Harry conveniently find some excuse to drag me away. Heaven forbid that I have a conversation with someone that doesn't have to do with schoolwork! And yet, neither one of them have gotten the courage to ask me out themselves-well, strike that. Ron did ask me to a Hogsmeade weekend last year, but that was when Harry was sick with the flu and couldn't go with us anyway. Still, it was a sweet gesture. It just confirmed what we both already knew though-Ron and I are destined to be just friends, nothing more. And yet, despite that, I'm not allowed to date any other boys either! Merlin! Ginny has six brothers and she isn't nearly as overprotected as I am!
He noted that she didn't write anything about their relationship and couldn't help but feel a little hurt. Sure, they were best friends, but it was like she just took it for granted that because she and Ron were destined to be just friends that she and Harry were fated to the same without even giving him a choice in the matter. He had always done his best to respect the friendship boundaries in their relationship, assuming it would be awkward between the three of them if two decided to make a pair of it. He had believed that Hermione and Ron agreed with that sentiment, although it had never actually been brought up. Apparently he had thought wrong, but nothing, thank Merlin, had come of it. He returned his attention to the journal, hoping she would write more about her feelings about Ron, but she was back to writing about the party.
I feel so helpless sometimes, being a Muggle-born. Yes, I'm Harry's best friend, and I've helped him defeat Lord Voldemort before, but he's the one who's the hero. I want to do something on my own, prove that I'm more than just a brain. Then maybe he'll notice me as more than a friend
She quickly scribbled out the last sentence before Harry could see what she had written and closed the journal and tapped it twice with her wand, vanishing it. Harry grumbled a protest, and she glanced at him.
"You know, it's not polite to read a girl's journal," she said crisply.
Harry stared at her, eyes wide with innocence. "Fine. "It's not like you know what you're reading. I'm going to take a nap." Scooting over, she tapped the spot next to her invitingly.
Harry hesitated. This was Hermione, his best female friend. Besides, it was only a nap, right? It wasn't like they hadn't fallen asleep on each other's shoulders numerous times in the common room or library. He jumped up on the bed and curled up next to her, expelling a long sigh and closing his eyes. He needed a nap. This bodyguard stuff was hard work. It was still only his first day on assignment, and he'd had to deal with the shock of Hermione having a male friend that he and Ron didn't know about plus finding out that said friend was a distant relation to a Malfoy. And now, even knowing all that, she was still planning on willingly walking into the viper's den-on the arm of a cobra, no less! It was too much for him to take in all at once. Breathing deeply, he deliberately relaxed. Hermione was safe beside him. He knew where she was and what she was doing, and that was enough for the moment.
Emma was busy setting the table for dinner when her husband walked in. She glanced up and raised her eyebrows in question. He smiled. "They're both fast asleep on the bed. She's sprawled out and taking up three fourths of the space, yet he still managed to stretch out along the edge like a big furry black barrier protecting her from the rest of the world-or at least from falling off the bed."
Emma chuckled. "Did either of them wake up when you checked on them?"
Daniel shook his head, snagging a tomato out of the salad bowl. "They were both dead to the world."
"It's just as well-they've had an exciting day. We'll let them sleep." She paused, debating on telling him about the interesting conversation she had earlier, but decided against it. She loved her husband very much, but he didn't have the tolerance for the different and unknown like she did. He very much believed in what he could see and touch. He had accepted that his daughter was a witch, but by mutual consent they didn't speak of it except as needed. Until someone made him see otherwise, he would accept that Leo was just a overly large, extra intelligent feline. There was no need to shatter his illusions unless absolutely necessary.
Noticing that he was giving her a strange look, she pasted a bright smile on her face. "How are the burgers coming?"
He winced. "Oops. I better go check." She watched him dash out the door again and giggled to herself before following.
Harry woke slowly, aware of a heavy weight laying across his midsection. Disoriented, he kept his eyes closed, letting his senses adjust as Professor McGonagall had taught him. Smell first. The crisp, clear scent of rain blowing softly through the window, tainted only slightly by the lingering bitter tang of smoke from the grill. Mr. Granger or one of the neighbors must've cooked on the barbeque earlier. And next to him, the strongest scent. Cinnamon and apples and a hint of fresh soap mixed in a blend that was uniquely Hermione. He could pick her out of a crowd of thousands, just by her smell.
And if he couldn't smell her, well, he could always pick her out by her snoring. He snickered inwardly. She would deny it if he ever called her on it, but she did snore. Not loud, not consistently, but just a slight whistle every once in a while that reminded him of a bird. She was also a bed hog, he had discovered. If he had been human he would've had to grab onto the bed post to stay on the bed. Good thing he didn't need any covers, because she had managed to wrestle them out from under him in her tossing and turning.
Opening his eyes, he encountered darkness. By the lack of sound downstairs, he deduced that it was late, close to midnight. Time to make his report. He slowly slipped out from under Hermione's arm, immediately missing her warmth as he left the bed. The door was open, so it was easy enough to pad quietly down the stairs and out the back door. Whistling a small tune, he held out his arm and waited. Hedwig, his snowy owl, came winging in and landed on his arm. She cooed affectionately before shifting to his shoulder and nibbling on his ear in greeting.
"Hi Hedwig. I see you've been out hunting. I need you to take this to Remus for me, and then stay out of sight, okay? You're a bit conspicuous, and I don't need you getting hurt because of me. Remus or Tonks will have plenty of work for you to do once you're there." Unbuckling the collar from around his neck, he pried one of the jewels off and carefully wrapped it in a bit of material before tying the whole thing securely to her leg. "There. Take that to Professor Lupin, and be careful."
She nipped at his finger before allowing him to shift her back to his arm so he could launch her into the sky. He watched her disappear into the darkness before slowly reverting back to his Leo form and returning to the house. Well, at least that was one less thing to worry about. That little jewel was a magical version of a Muggle tape recorder. Everything Harry had heard or seen up until that point was recorded onto that chip. It could only be activated by Lupin, Tonks, or Professor Dumbledore himself, but once they had done so, the contents could be examined at luxury. Harry knew Robert Crawford would be of particular interest to the Order, as would the information that the Malfoys were making move.
Yawning, he trotted back upstairs and curled up once more next to Hermione, and soon slipped into slumber once again.
Hermione woke up precisely ten seconds before her alarm went off at eight thirty, as she did every morning. Without opening her eyes she reached up and lazily smacked the snooze button before sighing deeply and rolling over. Or, she tried to roll over. There was a large, furry black lump by the name of Leo snuggled securely against her side, completely blocking any visible way of exiting the bed.
"Leo. Wake up. It's time to get up." She ran her hand gently along his side, feeling the bumps where his ribs protruded slightly. She frowned. Leo was a large cat, standing easily at twenty four inches at the shoulder without the Reducio charm, but he still felt a little thin to her. She made a mental note to ask Max about his eating habits and activity, as well as any record he could obtain relating to his weight and diet.
At the moment, however, she was more concerned with getting the lazy bum outta bed so she could go shower and dress for work. Suppressing a grin, she ran her hand along his side again, gently tickling his ribs. "Leeeeooo," she coaxed. "C'mon sleepy head. I've got to get up and go to work, which means you have to get up first." He squirmed and his whiskers twitched, but his eyes remained firmly shut. Hermione bit her lip in laughter. "You big faker!" She accused. "Up!"
One slanted green eye opened to peer lazily at her before he yawned, revealing every one of his formidable pearly whites. Taking his time, he rolled to his belly and stretched luxuriously, his tail reaching out to thawp her softly in the face. Hermione sputtered. "Leo!" and unceremoniously shoved him off the bed. He landed on the floor with a muffled grunt, shooting her a disgruntled look. She glared right back. "Well, if you hadn't been such a lazy prat…!" Huffing loudly, she left the bed and gathered her things for a shower before stomping out in a snit.
Harry grinned to himself. That was fun. With the rest of the weekend uneventfully quiet, he hadn't had much to do except prowl around the house and yard and follow Hermione. Now it was Monday, and his first official day on the job, so to speak. Hermione was returning to work, which meant he could do some scouting around and see what he could find out about Robert Crawford. He still hadn't received a reply from the Order on his first report, although he wasn't worried. Someone would get the information to him when he needed it.
From what he had learned from Lupin before coming on this assignment, the animal shelter Hermione worked at doubled as a holding pen of sorts for the store in Diagon Alley where she had bought Crookshanks, which was why she didn't question having such an unusually large animal around. Since it was summer the staff was small, although there were about fifteen to twenty employees assigned to different parts of the fifty acre property. All of the staff were either Squibs or had at least some magical knowledge so as to be able to efficiently deal with the variety of species that came through.
The fullness of his bladder reminded Harry that he had just woken up, and, as was habit, needed to take care of certain things before heading downstairs for breakfast. Still half-asleep, despite the trick he had played on Hermione, he padded out of her room next door to the bathroom. The door was cracked, so he nudged it the rest of the way open, assuming that since he didn't hear the water running and the door was open that Hermione was downstairs already.
Well, you know what happens when you 'assume' things…
He took two steps inside before he froze at the sight in front of him. Hermione stared back, eyes wide with shock, clutching her towel around her. The towel, Harry noted dazedly, which barely reached her thighs and revealed acres of gorgeous, gleaming wet skin as well as outlined a very nice curvy figure.
Hermione wasn't sure how to what to do. Sure, Leo was just an animal, but the way he was looking at her with those green, green, Harry-like eyes was unnerving. Making sure the towel was covering all necessary bits and pieces, she cleared her throat. His gaze shot from her bosom to her face, and she would've sworn that if he could've, he would've been blushing. Without waiting for her to say anything, he quickly backed out the door and took off downstairs.
When Hermione arrived down stairs she found Leo with his nose buried in a bowl full of food that looked suspiciously like what was on her own plate. "Um, Mum, what is-"
"Sorry dear-don't have time! We'll be home late this evening, since it's our bridge night with the Andersons. When you get home, start the oven at 450 and stick the roast in for forty-five minutes, there's a dear. Love you! Bye!" She was gone before her daughter could reply.
Defeated, Hermione shrugged and turned her attention to her breakfast, watching her companion out of the corner of her eye. He was deliberately ignoring her, she realized suddenly. He hadn't even acknowledged her presence when she walked into the kitchen, and now seemed to be extremely interested in whatever was in his food bowl. Could he really be that embarrassed about what happened upstairs? But that was an awfully advanced and complex thought concept for him to put together and understand, wasn't it? Questions buzzed around in her head as she watched him, until she finally huffed in annoyance. Standing up, she strode over to the sink and rinsed her plate off before squatting beside him.
He glanced briefly at her and immediately looked away.
"Leo, I'm not mad at you. You didn't know I was still in the bathroom," she said quietly. "No one was hurt. It was a simple mistake. It's okay." She ran a hand coaxingly over his shoulder. "Now come on. We're going to be late for work."
Harry remained still for a moment before following. She was right. He couldn't afford to be distracted now-not with Robert Crawford sniffing around Hermione and Draco Malfoy arriving in town within the next couple of days. Shaking his shaggy head, he padded after his friend.
The Shelter at which Hermione worked at was not the simple Muggle facility Harry had originally assumed when Remus had informed him that Hermione was working there. As did many of the businesses on the outskirts of town, this particular place catered to both Muggle and magical customers. Set on fifty acres just a couple of fields away from the haunted mansion on Majestic Hill (aka the Malfoy Mansion), to the normal (muggle) eye it consisted of a set of simple buildings; one for the small animal vet clinic, one for the kennels where cats and dogs without a home were housed until they were adopted, and then toward the back, Max's on site cottage. Beyond that, however, were more buildings, though these were built specifically for magical animals ranging in size from the dancing rats Harry had seen in the store where Hermione had bought Crookshanks, to Leo's size. There was also a magical veterinary clinic where the animals were checked out thoroughly before continuing on to the pet store.
Max had a long standing arrangement with the owner of the store; It was through her that Hermione had met Max. After observing how competent she was, Max had offered her a job. Harry wasn't quite sure what exactly Hermione's responsibilities were, but she spent most of her time between the Muggle animal shelter and the magical shelter, so he assumed she worked with the animals, soothing them so that they would act favorably toward visitors and possible adoptees.
As a magical animal, 'Leo' was banned to the magical part of the shelter, so anytime Hermione disappeared he fretted, and refused to let her out of his sight upon her return. She finally got frustrated and performed the 'Reducio' charm on him once more so that he could follow her around without undue notice.
Around lunchtime Max appeared. "Lass, you have a visitor," he called.
"Okay!" Hermione called back, giving the Kneazle kitten a last scratch under the chin before gently urging it back into its cage. As always, Leo padded at her heels. She had gotten so used to her black shadow that she hardly noticed he was there – until she saw her visitor. "That's twice in two days. To what do I owe this pleasure, Robert?"
Harry noted with glee that her voice wasn't nearly as warm and open as it had been the other day. She clearly hadn't forgiven Crawford for not warning her about his relatives.
"Can't I come see my favorite girl?" he replied lightly. "I would come and greet you properly, but I see your bodyguard there behind you." His eyes flicked to Leo and immediately dismissed him.
She didn't move. "Was there something you needed, Robert? I really need to get back to work."
"Well," he began, his tone slightly miffed at her lack of response, "I dropped by to let you know that my cousin arrived last night. Apparently the house is a mess – Merlin, those house elves need to be disciplined properly! What a disgrace!" Hermione stiffened with anger, but let him continue. "But the house party is moved up to tomorrow evening. It's to be a masquerade ball, so you will need a costume and a mask."
"Very well." Hermione replied calmly. "I'll be ready. Now, if you'll excuse me?"
"Of course. I must be off anyway – have a meeting in Diagon Alley." Completely unaware that she was bristling with anger, he stepped close enough to peck her carelessly on the forehead. "Don't work too hard darling. I'll see you tomorrow." He strolled back out the door.
As soon as he was out of sight, Hermione's rampage began.
"That arrogant, loathsome two-faced rat! He's no better than his bloody cousin. I swear, I don't know what I was thinking – I actually liked the git! Disciplining house-elves indeed..." she remarked angrily as she stomped all the way back to the Muggle animal shelter, smoke streaming from her ears.
Leo couldn't have been more ecstatic. Now that that prat was no longer in Hermione's good graces, it wouldn't be so difficult for her to take the news that he might be involved with Death Eaters. Not to mention, this new turn of events would make the night of the ball much more interesting...
Robert knocked lightly on the door to his uncle's office before entering. "Uncle?"
Max quickly whirled around, his face twisted in an angry snarl, his robes flaring and blocking Robert's view of the fireplace. "I told you never to interrupt me when I'm speaking to – oh. Hello Robert. Back so soon?" His face smoothed into a fake smile.
"Er, yes. Just wanted to stop and see Hermione and let her know that the Malfoy party has been moved up to tomorrow night. Is everything alright with you? You seem a little...flushed."
"Yes, yes, I'm fine," Max answered hastily, not moving from in front of the fireplace. "So, if you were visiting with Hermione, then you must have met her four footed companion. What do you think of him?"
Robert shrugged carelessly. "I really don't see what you were so excited about Uncle. He's just an oversized, run-of-the-mill housecat. Yes, he seemed somewhat protective of Hermione, but that could just be some unknown instinct. If he has magical blood, it's practically diluted."
Fool! Max gritted his teeth. "Do not be deceived by appearances. That cat is much, much more than he seems. He must not be allowed in the Malfoy house tomorrow, or everything will be ruined."
Stifling a yawn, his nephew waved negligently. "It will be so, Uncle. Never fear. All will go on as planned." He sat up straight, eyes wide and staring at the wand an inch from his nose.
"There is too much at stake," Max hissed, "for you to mess it up now. Imperio!" He watched in satisfaction as Robert stiffened, a sudden blank look overtaking his features, before turning back to the fireplace and throwing a bit of powder into the flames.
Lucius Malfoy stepped out of the flames.
"Well?" He demanded impatiently.
"He is here, my lord – I have yet to give him his instructions," Max replied, practically groveling in the elegant Slytherin's presence.
"Very good." Malfoy waved a hand in front of Robert's eyes, his mouth curling into a cruel smirk when they focused on him. "Now, listen to me carefully, Crawford. Tomorrow night, you are to escort Miss Granger and her pet to the Malfoy Mansion. The girl is allowed entrance, but the animal is not. At precisely eleven fifty-eight, you are to lead her to the library, and tie and gag her securely. After that, you are to return to the ballroom and dance as if nothing was wrong. You are not to speak of this to anyone." He paused maliciously. "The next morning, you will find a large bottle of poison on your bedside table, and a suicide note. You will sign the note, and drink the poison – all of it. Do you understand?"
"No!" Max burst out.
"I understand," Robert replied tonelessly.
"Good." Lucius smiled cruelly. "Now get out."
After his nephew was gone, Max turned on Malfoy. "That wasn't part of the plan! He was just supposed to get the girl alone, and leave her in the library! You said nothing about him killing himself!"
"Yes, well..." Malfoy shrugged and tugged on his cuff links. "Can't have any loose ends running around, can we? Never fear, Max, you will get precisely what you deserve, as long as you continue to do our Master's bidding."
And with that unsettling promise, he stepped back into the fireplace, and was gone. Max collapsed into a chair and drew a shaking hand over his brow. The brief bit of power Lord Voldemort had given him to enable him to perform the Imperio spell had taken a lot of out him, but mostly he was quivering with the fear and realization that he had just made a terrible mistake.
Lucius Malfoy had approached him six months earlier with promises of things beyond his wildest dreams, if he would only join the Dark Side. Max had resisted, until Malfoy had found his weakness – his lack of power and hatred against the Order of the Phoenix. Although he was not a Squib, as so many people (including Albus Dumbledore and Hermione Granger) assumed, his grasp of magic was limited. He could have lived with that, had his wife and daughter not been caught in the crossfire of a Order of the Phoenix and Death Eater fight. Malfoy, with poisonously sweet words, had convinced him that his Lord would make everything right, and re-unite him with his family – if he would deliver the Granger girl to them. Stricken with grief and burning with a desire for vengeance, Max had agreed, but he had never thought it would mean sacrificing more of his family members...
"Hold still Leo!" Hermione scolded. He scrunched his nose up in distaste, and she waggled her finger at him. "If you want to come with me tonight, you need to cooperate. I'm almost done." She carefully stroked a line of gold over each eye, and stepped back to admire her handiwork. "Perfect."
Suspiciously, he padded over to her closet mirror to see her handiwork. Slanted green eyes stared back at him, emphasized by the bold strokes of gold over each brow and the matching strips down his forehead and over his nose. Two more lines slashed across each cheekbone. He shook himself, suppressing the need to scratch at the brightly jeweled gold collar around his neck, which was actually his old, comfortable leather one.
"The gold stripes don't mean anything," Hermione explained, noticing him looking at his reflection. She had long since gotten over her embarrassment of explaining things to her four-footed companion. "They just make you look very fierce and exotic, which goes along nicely with my costume."
She fixed a stray hair and turned to him. "There. No one would guess plain, bookworm, Hermione Granger would ever be under this getup, would they?"
Harry stared at her. Long black hair was pinned up into an elaborate cornet, hiding her severely braided bushy brown hair. A delicate gold net, inlaid with jewels, overlaid the style. Her gown and robes were deep purple, but studded with the same jewels as those that twinkled in her hair. Her face was pale, her makeup dramatic.
The outfit was elaborately sensual, richly snobbish...and completely not Hermione. Harry didn't like it, not one bit. Hermione saw his reaction and chuckled softly.
"Relax. This is all just for show. Draco Malfoy and his friends aren't impressed by anything else." Smoothing out her robes, she rose gracefully as the doorbell sounded downstairs. "That will be Robert. Come Leo – our public awaits."
Bemused, Leo waited until she had affixed the matching jeweled leash to his collar before following her sedately down the stairs. He waited a few feet away as she opened the door to reveal Robert, dashing in a black tux with matching robes and mask.
"Don't you look absolutely breathtaking," he greeted her, leaning down to kiss the air beside her cheek. "And you are supposed to be..."
"The sorceress Morgana – and her familiar, of course." She gestured at Leo, watching them with arrogant calm. "Shall we?"
Caught by surprise at her serene attitude, when he was expecting the blushing, eager to please young girl he usually encountered, Robert stuttered. "Uh, yes, of course." He fumbled with her cloak and his, before opening the door and gesturing. "After you, m'lady."
Smiling to herself, Hermione stepped out into the night with Leo in her wake. He resisted the urge to take a bite out of Robert's leg, instead settling for growling low in his chest and making the wizard step back a pace. Earlier that evening while Hermione was in the shower, Emma had received a letter for Harry from Remus Lupin, stating that no evidence was to be found proving that Robert was affiliated with the Dark Side. As such, without such proof Harry could do nothing, and was under explicit orders not to make a move against Crawford – no matter how personally tempting it might be. Harry was also under orders not to do his best not to do anything to attract notice at the Malfoy party, just observe and report back as soon as possible. When he had read that, Harry had snorted and rolled his eyes. He knew as well as Lupin that the order was fruitless, but Lupin had had to write it to cover his own ass. Gotta love politics.
Emma and Daniel were out for the evening, at Hermione's insistence, so it was a simple matter of taking hold of the invitation, which doubled as a Portkey, and being transported to the landing spot. Ignoring the exclamations of surprise and awe as they spotted Leo, hey joined the elegantly dressed crowd of witches and wizards making their way up the steps of the coldly impressive mansion. Robert handed the wizard at the door his invitation and stepped inside, but Hermione was stopped at the door. "I'm sorry Miss, but your -companion-can not come inside."
She turned a cool gaze on him, and arched one brow in such a blatant imitation of their host that Harry was hard put not to laugh. "Excuse me?"
The man quivered, but stood firm. "He does not have an invitation, miss, and we do not have the proper accommodations for him."
Hermione practically vibrated with anger, which only increased when Robert called, "I'll see you inside darling," and disappeared.
"I insist that he – "
"Is there a problem here?" The arrogant, drawling voice of Draco Malfoy interrupted whatever scathing retort she had been about to make.
Hermione froze at the sound of that dreaded drawl. Leo had no such restrictions. Moving protectively in front of Hermione, he growled warningly, the sound rumbling from deep within his chest.
"Leo!" She hissed, nerves making her voice breathy and high. Pasting a false smile on her face, she turned to the Slytherin. "Hello, Draco." She braced herself for his reaction, but the lights from inside threw her face into the shadows so that he couldn't recognize her.
"Hello sweetheart," he replied, not moving from his place on the steps above her. "What seems to be the problem?"
She drew herself up, remembering her role. "It seems my guest here isn't allowed entrance. I don't understand why – he's perfectly well mannered..." she shot a glare at the cat and stepped warningly on his toes when the rumbling continued. Leo ignored her, intent on the silver-haired young man regarding him warily.
Cool grey eyes met green; a predator recognizing another of its kind. There was no way that Draco would allow another arrogant, strong male like this into his domain.
"I'm sure he is," he soothed, all the while wondering who the hell this young woman was. "However, some of my guests are horribly allergic to cat hair. Show them a picture of a cat and they start sneezing. It's horrible. You wouldn't want me to put them through that, would you?" he smiled charmingly.
Caught in such a neat little trap, there was no polite way for Hermione to refuse. Forcing her face to remain emotionless, she unclipped the leash from Leo's collar. "It's alright, Leo. I'll be back out in a couple of hours. Go on, now."
"He'll be fine, roaming around here – there are plenty of rabbits and things in the woods for him to amuse himself with," Draco assured her, taking her by the arm. "Come – allow me to introduce you to everyone."
Harry watched helplessly as Malfoy drew Hermione away, before a sudden mischievous thought occurred to him. Smirking to himself, he set off back down the stairs and over the manicured back lawns of the Malfoy property, ducking into the woods nearby.
Had anyone been watching, they would have seen a brief flash before a young man with messy black hair and startling green eyes appeared where the forest lined the driveway. Harry waited, cat-quiet, for his prey – a lone man strolling up to the door, debonair in his formal robes, his invitation and mask tucked carelessly in one pocket. Just as he passed, Harry pounced, clapping one hand over his mouth and dragging him into the darkness.
A few minutes later, he reemerged, dressed in the hapless wizard's clothes. It was a dangerous thing, taking a risk of being discovered like this, but Harry prayed it would be worth it. The mask covered his forehead, obscuring his famous scar, so the only feature that was recognizable were his eyes. He was banking on the assumption that no Slytherin other than Voldemort had ever paid close enough attention to his eyes to recognize them without his trademark glasses.
Hermione would see right through him in a second, but he was anticipating that and had plans to counteract her response...
It was amazing, how easy it was to get in undetected. The wizard taking invitations glanced at his cursorily, before waving him through. Harry followed the crowd, doing his best to act as if he belonged there. He instantly spotted Hermione, standing at the far side of the room, and made his way over, pausing occasionally to exchange air kisses and greetings. It didn't matter that no one recognized him; breeding prevented them from admitting such a faux pas, so he was able to weave his way to her side without any trouble.
She was standing alone, watching the dancing couples with a slightly wistful expression on her face. Taking a deep breath, he touched her gently on the shoulder.
"There you are!"
Hermione turned in surprise to see..."Harry?" She gasped, and instinctively threw her arms around him. "What are you doing here?" She pulled back to glare at him. "How – why – Har... mmmph!"
Harry covered her mouth with his, effectively cutting off all lectures and questions. After a moment, he lifted his head to smile breathlessly into her eyes, which were still wide with shock – and something else. "Don't say anything yet," he whispered. "Just play along." In a louder tone, he proclaimed, "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I was a prat. Can you ever forgive me?"
"She meant nothing to me, you know that. I was just jealous of this Crawford fellow you were gushing over so much. You're the only one for me." He kissed the back of her hand.
"Morgana. Aren't you going to introduce me to your – friend?" Robert had reappeared as if by magic, no doubt to re-secure his claim on his 'date'.
Hermione stifled a groan. Here we go again. Harry had a LOT of explaining to do. "Um, Robert Crawford, this is – "
"Tom. Tom Cruise," Harry supplied helpfully.
"Tom," she continued through gritted teeth, "this is my friend, Robert Crawford."
"Good to meet you at last, Roger," Harry said cheerfully. "You'll have to excuse us – I just got in from America, and had to come see my fiancé here."
"Fiancé?" Crawford repeated.
Hermione stopped one of the footmen and took a glass of champagne, swallowing half the contents in a single gulp.
"Yes – didn't 'Mione tell you? I'm hurt, darling," Harry said. "Anyway, we had a little tiff, and I stormed off to the States before I realized what an idiot I am and came rushing back."
"Hermione?" Robert frowned, turning to her. "Is this true?"
She glanced at Harry, who was silently pleading for her to go along with the charade. In any other situation she might have blown his cover, just because she was so riled up she could hardly breathe, but since both of their lives were at stake and she wanted him to live long enough for her to get some answers before she killed him, she pasted a sorrowful expression on her face and replied, "I'm sorry Robert. I would have told you earlier, but I thought things were over between us. You understand, don't you?"
Taken aback, clearly wanting to rage at her but not wanting to cause a scene, he drew away stiffly. "I see. Very well. So be it, Hermione. Have a nice life!" He stormed off into the crowd.
As soon as he was gone, Hermione turned on Harry. "You have a LOT of explaining to do Potter. What the bloody hell are you doing here?"
Stifling a groan-he could clearly see the signs of Hurricane Hermione gathering for an impressive outburst-he grasped her firmly by the elbow and steered her out the first set of double doors he saw. Luckily, the doors led out onto an unoccupied balcony. They weren't completely private, but at least they were secluded enough that their conversation wouldn't be completely public, as it would've been in the ballroom. As soon as they were outside, she yanked her elbow from his hand and whirled around to face him. The sounds of the orchestra could still be heard faintly from inside.
"Well?" She demanded imperiously, her bearing as regal as any queen. He couldn't know that her anger was hiding a wealth of emotions, all tumbling one after another in her stomach; shock, fear, worry at what he was doing here, appearing out of no where after not hearing anything from him all summer, and at a Draco Malfoy's house party no less, were just a few of the many emotions doing acrobatics in her stomach. And underneath it all, pleasure. Little tingles still raced up and down her spine in reaction to that unexpected kiss and the feeling of his strong arm around her. The wide-eyed young boy she had met so many years ago on the train was gone, replaced by a confident, assured young man who knew very much what he was about. Hermione wasn't sure how she felt about that yet, although her body was reacting very favorably to the notion.
"Dance with me," her ordered abruptly, swinging her easily back into his arms before she could protest. Instinctively she followed his lead, moving with him as if this was their millionth dance together instead of their first.
"Relax," he murmured, his warm breath ghosting over her neck and sending more chills down her spine. "We're supposed to be engaged, remember? Pureblood society rules dictates that we should be left alone to smooth out our troubles in private, rather than cause a scene in the middle of the ballroom. It's considered insufferably rude to be anything than in absolute control of your emotions." She heard a thread of wry amusement in his tone before it hardened slightly. "We're also in the middle of a viper nest, so kindly stick to your role, Morgana, and I will to mine. I wish your friend Ryan out there had at least the presence of mind to think about what he was saying. Let's hope our generous host didn't overhear, otherwise we'll have some fast talking to do."
Hermione narrowed her eyes at his shoulder, which was all she could see since he topped her by a good six inches. A glint of gold caught her eye briefly from the handkerchief folded hastily in his pocket, but she was too incensed to wonder about it. "Very well then, Tom, what in Hades are you doing here?" She demanded in a low tone, ignoring the sally about Robert for the moment. "I haven't heard from you all summer, haven't even seen Hedwig, and now you appear, in Draco Malfoy's house no less, without so much as a by-your-leave? Does Dum – Albus know you're here? Why haven't you written all summer? What's going on with the Order? Why haven't I heard from Ron? Is he okay? How-"
Harry stifled a grin, grateful she couldn't see his face, and let her run out of steam (and questions). When she paused to take a breath, he interjected, "I could ask some of the same things of you. This is definitely NOT one of your better ideas, Morgana."
She sputtered. "Well you-I-we're not talking about me here! Seriously, Harry, what is going on? You're frightening me."
Damn. He should've known she wouldn't be so easily distracted.
"Let's just say I was in the neighborhood and decided to drop in," he replied blandly, knowing that was just going to irk her more and raise another torrent of questions. So, he swooped down again with the quickness of a hawk and kissed her once more, effectively cutting off any protests, questions, and train of thought she might have had for the moment. "I promise I'll answer any and all questions when we get out of here, but for now, can you please act like a besotted fiancé instead of a bewildered best friend? Our favorite Slytherin is coming this way," he murmured under his breath, pasting a bright smile on his face.
She buried her face in his shoulder for a moment, and he felt her sigh heavily in exasperation before her shoulders straightened. Lifting her chin resolutely, she turned so that she was shoulder to shoulder with him and looped her arm through his; as much for silent support as a precaution to hold him back in case Malfoy made any of his usual sneering comments.
They had both forgotten, however, that they were in disguise. Although Robert had called her by her given name during his confrontation with Harry, he had introduced her to Draco and everyone else as Morgana, and Harry had managed to convince the doorman that the name on the invitation was an associate of his who was unavoidably detained at the last minute, and called Harry-er, Tom, to go in his place. Therefore, both Hermione and Harry were shocked to see Draco Malfoy approach them with a charming smile on his lips and a glass of Cristal champagne in each hand.
"Morgana, there you are!" He said heartily, offering her one of the glasses. "And-you're not Michael Montgomery." His eyes narrowed. "I'm sorry, I don't believe we've been introduced."
"Draco, this is Tom, Tom Cruise," Hermione interjected smoothly before Harry could answer. Her voice was husky with a hint of arrogance, a complete opposite from the exasperated, annoyed, disdainfully impatient one she usually took with Malfoy. "He's-"
"Her fiancé," Harry finished smoothly, holding out his hand. "I apologize for not introducing myself earlier; I was somewhat…distracted." He glanced pointedly at Hermione, a rueful smile flitting about his lips.
Hermione wanted to wipe that male to male smirk off of both of their lips.
"Quite alright," Draco replied genially, holding out his hand for Harry to shake. "Welcome to my little get together. I can already see you're a man of impeccable taste by the lovely beauty of your bride-to-be." He inclined his head in Hermione's direction, and she forced a smile. Harry grasped his hand briefly, and let it drop, hiding his revulsion.
"She is, indeed, that and so much more. So tell me, Mr. Malfoy, do you host these types of parties often? After all, the Malfoy name is known for it's proprieties and prestige." Harry was laying it on so thick he was going to need some knee high muck boots and a shovel by the time this was over.
He was, apparently, doing a good job though. From the look on that smug, pit-viper's face, Malfoy was really eating it up. "Not too often, I'm afraid. Though the family funds are more than equipped to handle such things in frequency, we don't want to seem immodest." Narrowed silver eyes took in Harry's elegant tuxedo. Luckily for him, he and the man he had accosted were of similar size. "You understand, I'm sure."
"Mmm," Harry answered vaguely, gritting his teeth as Hermione's nails dug warningly into his arm.
Hermione was fuming. Not only did she have to stand there and look pretty while Harry and Draco Malfoy of all people exchanged small talk over her head, but she still hadn't gotten any answers! Every time she had tried, Harry had successfully managed to 'distract' her somehow; with a kiss, or a lingering caress on the small of her back. She was still trying to catch her breath from the last one long enough to think, let alone speak! And when did he become so touchy-feely? It wasn't like they were dating or anything – he had never even hinted that he was interested in her as more than a friend!
Before she could give her 'fiancée' a piece of her mind – Draco Malfoy or no – someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned to see Robert standing there.
"Cruise, since you seem to be otherwise occupied, do you mind if I steal your lady away for a bit?" he said, a bright, glassy expression on his face. Behind him, the clock chimed a quarter to midnight.
Hermione glanced over at Harry, who was still chatting away with Malfoy. She nudged him, hard. "Tom, sweetheart, Robert was asking you a question."
"Hm? Oh." The dislike was evident on Harry's face, although it couldn't be seen because of his mask. Hermione could tell, though, by the way he tensed under her hand and his green eyes noticeably cooled. "That is up to the lady, of course, but I have no problems with it," he lied easily, hoping against hope that Hermione wasn't so pissed still that she would willingly go off on the arm of this cobra.
No such luck. She immediately slipped out of his grasp to accept Crawford's offered hand. "You and Draco have fun, darling," she said brightly. "Perhaps when I return you and I can have another little talk."
Before he could reply, she swanned off with her nose in the air. Harry glared after her, barely resisting the urge to growl. A muffled cough from his companion had him turning the glare on him. Draco held up both hands in defense.
"She's very...independent, isn't she?" He commented, struggling to hide a grin.
"That's one way of putting it," Harry replied sourly. Stubborn, independent, bloody GRYFFINDOR female is another!
"So, have you two known each other long, then? Or was this an arranged marriage?"
With a sigh, Harry settled back to the conversation, keeping one eye on the couple now whirling around the dance floor. "We've known each other since we were eleven," he replied guardedly. "We usually get along quite well, when she's not trying to prove a point." He took a swig of his drink.
"Ah. Yes. Crawford." Draco took a sip as well, following Harry's gaze to the dance floor. Hermione threw her head back and laughed at something Robert said. "A bit of advice, if you'll take it."
Harry arched a curious brow. If Draco Malfoy was unbending enough to offer advice to a stranger about a fellow pureblood, then it was surely something to take into consideration.
"Crawford isn't one for being spurned in public. The fact that you took Morgana out from under his nose isn't going to sit well with him," the Slytherin said bluntly. "Watch your back. But, more importantly, watch hers."
Harry studied him for a long moment before nodding slowly. "I believe its time that I have that little talk with my fiancée." He smiled coldly and held out his glass. "If you'll excuse me?"
Malfoy's smile was predatory as he took the glass and saluted him. "Happy hunting."
Harry nodded acknowledgement and stalked off. He made it to the other side of the dance floor just in time to encounter Crawford strolling back out.
"Ho there, Crawford!" He called, causing the other man to halt. "I wonder if you might know where Morgana has gone? It's about time for us to be off."
The other man smiled, his eyes dark. "She's in the library," he replied, waving his hand down the hallway.
Harry rolled his eyes. "Should've known," he said wryly. "Thanks." He watched the other man walk away, noting the slight stiffness in his stride, before continuing. As soon as he was out of sight of the ballroom, he quickly changed back to Leo. He felt a flash of worry over the hastily scrubbed off gold makeup, but shrugged it off. He had more important things to worry about.
Sticking to the shadows, he padded slowly down the hall, senses alert for any danger. Heavy footsteps had him flattened against the wall. He wrinkled his nose as the foul odor of B.O. assaulted his nose. Fighting to keep from sneezing, he rolled his eyes as Crabbe and Goyle tromped by.
"So where is this Cruise guy Crawford wants us to pound?" Crabbe complained.
Harry was impressed that he had actually managed to string together an entire sentence.
"I dunno. Must've gone back out to the ball room. C'mon. The girl isn't going anywhere, and there's food in the kitchen." Goyle replied, and their footsteps faded down the hall.
Wow. Malfoy did wonders with them, Harry thought sardonically. I wonder if they can count to ten without using their toes now? Apparently being a goon had its perks; you were never out of work. He had heard that Draco had gotten tired of them for some reason or another over the summer. Obviously they had found a new crony in the form of Robert Crawford.
Inwardly shrugging, Harry continued down the hall. His sensitive ears caught the muffled sound of someone struggling in the room at the end. While still out of sight, he shifted back to Harry-form long enough to perform a fast "Alohomora" charm and check for any other guards or traps before cautiously opening the door..
He found Hermione with her hands tied securely behind her back, a gag over her mouth and a blindfold over her eyes and breathed a quick sigh of relief. He tapped her twice on her right shoulder, a sign he, Ron, and Hermione had devised long ago as an "all clear". She immediately froze.
"It's okay," he whispered, untying her gag and fighting with her bonds for a moment. "Dammit! They spelled the ropes!"
"Harry! What are you doing here? Are you nuts? She hissed. "Crabbe and Goyle are working for Robert, and he's working for Lucius Malfoy, who will be here any second!"
"Well I'm not exactly planning on sticking around!" he retorted. "Do you know what spell they used? And where's your wand?"
"No – they knocked me out," she replied grimly, and he noticed a large bruise on one cheek. He gritted his teeth and fought the rage down. "There's a slit in my dress on my right thigh – that's where my wand is. They're supposed to check your wands at the door, but the doorman, was, ahem, somewhat distracted – " her eyes widened. "That's it! Leo!"
Harry did his best to look confused. "Who's Leo?"
"Leo is a cat-a magical cat that I kind of adopted from work this summer," she answered distractedly. "I'll tell you about it later. Anyway, he considers me his property, or something; he's very intelligent, almost like an Animagus more than a animal."
Harry held his breath as she mulled that over. "Anyway, he wasn't allowed inside, so he's outside somewhere waiting for me. I know him; he wouldn't have wandered off!"
"Hermione, get to the point," he urged, still fiddling with the ropes.
"The point," she snapped. "Is that you're an Animagus, which means you can talk to animals like Leo. Remember how Crookshanks helped Sirius? All you have to do is find him and tell him to go home and fetch my Swiss Army knife! It's sitting on my dresser, next to my jewelry box. The ropes are magicked, but I bet they aren't spelled against a Muggle thing like a Swiss Army knife!"
"But Malfoy – "
"I can deal with Lucius Malfoy," she interrupted firmly. "He may be evil, but he's also an arrogant snake. He likes to talk and drag things out for his victims. I'll just work with that."
Harry heard the tremor in her voice and knew she was really scared to death. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he promised, and kissed her hard on the mouth before replacing the gag. "I loosened the ropes a little, so you have some leverage."
Missing her shocked expression, he slipped to the window, unlocked it, and was gone.
Despite his worry, Harry smirked to himself as he cut across the Malfoy property back toward Hermione's house. The week before coming to live with Hermione as 'Leo', he and Lupin had come up with some emergency diversion and 'distraction" tactics. The first thing Lupin did was made Harry confront his feelings toward Hermione and admit them out loud...
"I know how you feel, Harry. I imagine everyone knows, except perhaps you and Hermione. And I suspect you know as well – you just haven't admitted it out loud to yourself."
Harry grimaced. "I – I love her. She's my best friend, my partner. I'd trust her with my life – I have trusted her with my life, numerous times over. She knows me, better than anyone else except perhaps Ron." He sighed heavily. "Of course, that goes the other way as well. You do realize that she's going to kill me when she finds out? And then come after YOU for agreeing to such a foolhardy plan?"
Lupin nodded. "Which is why you and I are going to come up with a plan to make sure she can't kill you before you can explain everything." He grinned at Harry's shocked expression, eyes suddenly alight with mischief. "Just because your father and Sirius were notorious for their pranks and plans, doesn't mean I can't come up with something as well. I AM a Marauder, you know..."
Which was why Harry had appeared as he had, playing the besotted fiancée "Tom Cruise" and doing his best to keep Hermione distracted and off balance while still dealing with Malfoy and keeping an eye on Crawford. Forget worrying about Voldemort coming after him – his best friend was going to be the death of him before the Dark Lord would ever get another shot at him.
Back in the Malfoy library, Hermione had managed to wiggle her way to the window from which Harry had just escaped. She had intended to just keep an eye out as he changed, assuming that once he took flight he'd be too high for anyone to see in the darkness. To her surprise, a large familiar feline padded away from the window before melting into the darkness. Her jaw dropped. Harry was...LEO? Her eyes narrowed as all the missing pieces began to fall into place.
"The whole time, that was...I'll kill him," she muttered dangerously, fighting with her bonds in her rage. "So help me, if I get out of this, I'll kill him myself!"