Harry woke confused. He was in a large, unfamiliar bed in a room with no others. Most significantly, he wasn't alone. Tonks slept with her back to him, a sheet draped up to her waist with her bare profile clearly silhouetted in the realistic if false moonlight. Harry's eyes followed the alluring outline, hardly daring to believe how well he now knew her each and every curve.
Every detail was permanently etched in his mind from the moment her clothing dropped to the floor. Her delighted little laughs, the way their eyes locked, how her lips parted as she threw back her head, what she really meant when she lost control of her morphing. She had been patient with his eager, nervous fumbling, allowing him to explore her at his leisure using soft words, and later more inarticulate sounds, of encouragement.
Afterward, she didn't have to ask him to stay; Harry never wanted to move. She whispered to him how scared she'd been that she would lose him, how much she regretted breaking up with him, how she adored all sorts of things about him. He just told her he loved her.
A tattoo of a badger curled up on her left shoulder blade, sleeping just like its owner. Harry reached out to lightly trace the black and yellow emblem. Tonks stirred, and he snatched his hand back too late.
She rolled over, flinging one arm over his chest. The skin-on-skin contact made him shiver. "Go back to sleep, love," she mumbled into her pillow.
He knew he needed to get back to Gryffindor Tower soon. Five more minutes, he told himself. Her breathing had already deepened, and soon she would be asleep enough that he wouldn't disturb her. Just five more minutes.
When Harry woke again, fuzzy light filtered in. Dawn was coming soon. He reached out, feeling only a bare stretch of warm bed. He sat up, blinking groggily and looking around.
A blurry figure approached, sharpening into Tonks after he found his glasses. She wore only quaffle-patterned knickers, a camisole, and a smile.
"Good morning, handsome," she said, plopping down beside him. "I was just about to wake you. I've a very early meeting at the Ministry."
He quirked an eyebrow. "This early?"
"Not quite." Dropping her smile, she chewed on her lip before saying, with a confessional air, "I have my preliminary meeting for a new partner."
"That's … great?" he said, quickly modulating his tone at her expression. "No?"
"I don't want another partner," she muttered.
"But you have to, right? Don't you still want to be an Auror?"
"Of course. It's only … I've never had another partner. I don't know how to be an Auror without Cooper."
"Yes, you do." Harry reached over to take her hand. "Don't start dwelling on it again."
"I don't dwell. What? Okay, maybe a little."
"Or the past month and a half …" Her eyebrows shot up. "Sorry, sorry."
"If you're going to start throwing it in my face," she began mildly.
"If you're going to pretend it never happened," he said in the same manner.
Tonks rolled on one side, propping her head up with an elbow and studying him. A line of amusement ran across her face. Finally she held out her free hand. "Fine. Truce?"
Harry grasped her hand, pulling hard so that, with a surprised squeak of laughter, she landed in his lap. He kissed her freely, hungrily, ready to practice all he'd learned the previous night. Never let it be said Harry Potter wasn't diligent when he wanted to be. Unfortunately Tonks proved capable of resisting his best efforts, removing herself with a groan that did nothing to calm his ardor.
"Oh, you're terrible. I have to get ready and find some coffee."
Harry released her after a kiss of protest, sinking back into her bed. It was quite comfortable, large and soft with a thick duvet, gold in color and embroidered with an oversized H. "Have it your way, then. Have you any idea who the new bloke will be?"
"Who? No. Today I meet with Beaky and Robards to get the final sign-off on returning to duty, and then Alex and I will discuss what's going to happen next. Most likely I won't be paired up until term is over, as my assignment here won't end until then anyway."
"Good luck." He had a rather important day ahead of him, so Harry prepared to leave, but at the same moment an annoying thought sprung up in his head. "You're going to miss my match again, aren't you?"
Tonks looked up from the mirror in which she'd been testing various hairstyles, halfway through morphing leaving her with a multicolored one that would have been the height of fashion a decade earlier. Harry's mouth twitched. "No, I'll be there. Wouldn't miss it for the world."
"You said that the last two times," he pointed out.
"I know, and I'm sorry. But this is the final; I'll be there. I promise." She held his eyes. "Trust me."
He let that hang. "I do."
"Good." Her mouth sprang into a grin. "I even wore my lucky knickers, just for you."
Heading back into the loo, she wiggled her quaffle-covered bum, making Harry laugh. If he decided to think about that during the match, they might prove rather unlucky for him.
Harry hastened his return to Gryffindor Tower, remembering with more than a little guilt that Ron and Hermione were waiting for his return to hear about the horcrux expedition. They would have gone along in heartbeat if Dumbledore allowed, but it was out of the question.
He found them in the common room, both having succumbed to sleep at some point, a snoring Ron sprawled in a chair while Hermione curled up like a cat on the sofa. Harry wavered, wanting to let them sleep, but he knew he'd never hear the end of it from Hermione if he scarpered off to his four-poster. It only took a few nudges for Ron to wake after one shockingly loud snort.
"But I don't want the – what? Er, Harry? Harry!" He sat up straight. "About bloody time, mate! Where have you been? Did you get it?"
"Hold on, I'll tell you." He took a step toward Hermione.
"No, don't wake her!" Ron gave him an abashed grin. "It took her forever to fall asleep. Every time I dozed off, she'd wake me with some other theory about where you were. Blimey, she ought to become an author – she killed you off about a dozen times. Just give me a minute to wake up before she gets all shrill. So you're alright, then?"
"Yeah," Harry said with a sigh, resigned to telling the story twice. "But we didn't get it."
"It wasn't there?"
"No – well, it was at some point, but someone else got to it before us. I don't know – listen, it's complicated. I'll tell you the entire story tomorrow, but the point is, it ended up being useless."
"Rotten luck," Ron said sympathetically. "A long trip for a dead end."
Harry flushed, mussing his hair. "Well, er, you see, we've been back for hours. I've, er, been with Tonks."
"Oh. Oh!" The fireplace gave off more than enough light for Harry to see Ron's dawning understanding. He grinned broadly, cuffing Harry on the arm. "Well done, mate! Wicked, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it's brill– wait, what?" The same firelight allowed Harry to see Ron's half-proud, half-embarrassed expression. "You never said anything!"
"I'm not Seamus, I'm not going to make an announcement every time a bird looks at me twice," Ron retorted good-naturedly. "What's between Lav and I is between us." Suddenly his face fell. "Or at least it was."
Harry frowned. "What do you mean?"
Ron fell back into his chair heavily. "She got more than a bit shirty when she saw Hermione and I staying up late together. I reckon she thinks I still fancy her. But I don't, Harry. It's Lavender I fancy. Hell, more than fancy!"
"So tell her that," Harry suggested, startled by the declaration. "Blame it on me, if you like. Tell her I had a detention and asked you to wait up."
"You think that will work?" asked Ron anxiously.
"I think you have to try."
Ron nodded. "Yeah, you're right. Hey, Harry? Even though I said some things, I'm glad it's working out with you and Tonks."
"Thanks, Ron. I hope Lavender comes around."
They stood there for a few moments, Harry and his first true friend, nodding and grinning, until Ron jerked his head toward their dormitory. "Think I'll call it a night, then."
"Yeah, I'll be up soon."
Ron was halfway up the staircase when he stopped and called down to Harry. "Oi, mate! I don't fancy being you right now, having to tell Hermione you made her stay up late worrying for hours because you were too busy shagging your girlfriend."
No, Harry decided while gently shaking Hermione's shoulder, Ron was wrong. While it wasn't the most enviable of things to do, the fact that he'd just spent the night with Tonks more than made up for it. And in the end, Hermione was surprisingly agreeable.
If only they'd been able to find the horcrux or knew who R.A.B. was, it would have been a very successful night.
By that afternoon Harry knew he should have felt the fatigue of a night with little sleep, but he was too keyed up on adrenaline to care. His team, judging by the fidgeting and antics, felt the same. While his beaters wrestled, Demelza did star jumps, and Ginny and Katie chatted excitedly with the energy of a thousand cups of coffee. Even the reserves, Dean and Gavin, weren't immune to the energetic atmosphere, unable to keep still. Only Cormac resisted the urges, standing impassively in the doorway, his impressive bulk blocking the sunlight.
"Oi! OI!" Harry had to bellow several times before his voice reached the ears of his team. Ritchie paused with Jimmy in a headlock. "Right, that's enough. It's nearly time. I don't need to tell you what to do. Ravenclaw beat Slytherin and steamrollered over Hufflepuff, so we're even with points. All we have to do is win, and the Cup is ours. I have it on good authority that Professor McGonagall has grown extremely fond of having it in her office for the last two years, and I don't expect she'll be keen to give it up. I've seen her in a temper, and that's not a scene I care to repeat, so let's win, shall we?"
They cheered with deafening enthusiasm, storming out the locker room and onto the pitch to an appreciative crowd, or half of it, anyway. The roars of the scarlet-and-gold clad Gryffindors more than drowned out the boos of Slytherin, who despite not participating in the match had chosen a side in much more biased manner than impartial Hufflepuff.
"I suppose Potter's put together a pretty decent team this year," came a bored voice from the staff stands. Hufflepuff Zacharias Smith, no more a fan of Harry than Harry was of him, was commentating again, along with Luna. Luna could be entertaining, but Harry missed Lee Jordan. "Chang has as well, though, tougher by my guess. Hopefully."
As the Gryffindor team completed its first synchronized lap around the pitch, the blue and bronze of Ravenclaw came out to wild cheers from their supporters. It was a good team, Harry had to concede reluctantly before reassuring himself that merely good wasn't good enough. He glanced at the staff stands again on his second lap, chuckling at the enormous stuffed eagle perched on Luna's head. The woman next to her, a Gyffindor necktie hanging over her maroon robes, kept having to duck out of the way whenever Luna turned her head.
Harry slowed, grinning stupidly as he recognized her. Tonks beamed and waved, wearing an equally goofy grin. On her other side she was dwarfed by Hagrid, who waved a meaty hand at Harry as well, sending Luna's eagle flying.
"Harry!" Ginny called.
He jerked around to see her pointing at everyone else, who were taking their positions. With one last wave he sped toward the middle of the pitch to meet Cho and Madam Hooch.
"Captains, shake hands," ordered Hooch.
They did so. "Good luck, Harry," Cho said with a warm smile.
"You, too, Cho."
The whistle blew, and they were off. Red and blue blurs shot across the field. From the start it was one of the fastest matches Harry had ever seen at Hogwarts. Smith, disinterested to begin with, only half-heartedly attempted to keep up with the rapid changes of possession.
"Weasley takes possession of the quaffle, now to Bell, back to Weasley – no, Chambers has it. He passes to Bradley, who – stolen by Weasley. She – ouch, nice bludger from Cornfoot, so Bradley takes it again, passes to – taken by Robins – no, Chambers – er, Quirke – oh hell, I don't know. Anyway, Ravenclaw has the quaffle, and they go for a – no. Gryffindor now – no, back to – Gryffindor again – Bell – oh, I give up."
Harry crisscrossed the sky at a high speed, keeping one ear on the game as he scanned for the snitch. With only a win needed, he wanted to catch the snitch and end the game as soon as possible. No reason to give Ravenclaw more opportunities than they must. He occasionally passed Cho doing the same thing, but now that the match had begun, pleasantries were over. She ignored him as thoroughly as he did her.
Gryffindor scored, then Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw … back and forth as the score mounted. Harry glanced down every so often, when the crowd roared or a bludger shot his way, but mostly he stayed out of it, trusting his team to get the job done. He was just as concerned that Cho not catch the snitch.
"… and that makes 150 to 100, Ravenclaw, as MacLaggen continues to do his best impression of a freezing charm." Smith's bored voice floated up to Harry's ears.
What? There was no reason Gryffindor should be down that much, or at all. Casting one eye at Cho, who circled the stands with no real destination, Harry flew lower.
"Absent-mindedness can be a symptom of Loser's Lurgy," Luna commented.
Katie passed the quaffle to Demelza, who had to swerve quickly to avoid a bludger, the quaffle slipping from her grasp. Ravenclaw chaser Chambers swooped underneath and caught it, streaking down the pitch with a teammate on either side for protection. Katie and Demelza were too far behind, and though Ginny flew fast and the beaters did their best, it was up to Cormac.
The keeper in question waited stolidly in front of the middle goal. Harry frowned; Cormac was a pain in the arse, but he was normally a good player. He ought to have been covering all three. Chambers came closer, feinting toward the left. Cormac didn't fall for it, not budging an inch. Chambers threw to the right, and Cormac didn't budge. The quaffle soared through, and still Cormac didn't budge.
"160 to 100, Ravenclaw, with another spectacular assist from the Gryffindor keeper."
Perturbed, Harry signaled for a timeout. The team gathered at the goalposts. All sent vile looks at their keeper.
"What the hell, MacLaggen?" Harry demanded. "Are you confunded?"
"He hasn't moved an inch the entire game," Ginny spat bitterly. "Except for the time the quaffle landed right in his arms and he threw it over my head to a bloody Ravenclaw!"
Harry stared. "Are you trying to throw the match?" His only response was a smirk. "You're trying to throw the match," Harry realized. All that silence he'd taken for acquiescence had in reality just been Cormac biding his time, waiting for the best moment to get back for losing to Ron at tryouts or Harry's assertion of authority as captain or Ginny's hex or whatever slights he felt had been done to him.
"Get off the pitch, get off my team, and get out of my sight," Harry ordered furiously.
"Ritchie, no!" Demelza said, grabbing the beater when he started after Cormac with an ugly look.
Madam Hooch flew over when she saw Cormac leave. "What's going on, Potter?" she inquired brusquely.
"He can't play anymore. He's, er, ill."
"He would have to have actually been playing for that to be true," she muttered under her breath. "Fine. Make your substitution, and let's get on with it."
Harry signaled for Dean to come out. "You're going to have to play keeper," he told his classmate.
"What? But I'm not a keeper."
"You'll have to be. You'll be fine. Now let's get back up. We can still win."
Back in the air, Harry clenched his broom, his blood boiling. The nerve of MacLaggen! Well, he'd have to deal with him later. Right now the best method of revenge was to win without him, making it more important than ever that Harry catch the snitch soon.
"Alright, Harry?" Cho called. Did she sound smug?
He grunted an affirmative, grinding his teeth, and the match began anew. Right away he could tell Ravenclaw smelled blood, showing no mercy. The Gryffindor chasers devoted as much effort in blocking for Dean as they did in trying to score their own goals, and the lopsided score reflected it.
The snitch was nowhere in sight, and the shadows began to lengthen, making it harder to see. Harry wished he knew a charm to spell his glasses to reflect the sun, much like Hermione had once charmed them to repel rain. One to keep his shirt from sticking to his back, like it currently was, drenched with sweat, would have been welcome as well. Why didn't they wear shorts and tee-shirts like football or rugby players?
He glimpsed the snitch at one point and flattened himself on his Firebolt as he tore after it, but when it flew into the sun, he and Cho nearly had a head-on collision, and the little golden ball escaped. Brushing his hair back, Harry looked down to catch a Ravenclaw get called on a cobbing foul. Ginny took the penalty, put it away nicely, and Gryffindor inched closer, 200-130.
A few minutes later Jimmy vented his feelings by sending a bludger through the tail of the broom of a Ravenclaw beater. He landed hard enough to make Harry wince but woozily demanded another broom and was soon back in the air. It went downhill from there. Blagging, blatching, blurting, cobbing, stooging … Madam Hooch's whistle worked overtime as Ravenclaw showed no mercy in their hunt for the Cup. The game grew dirtier and dirtier, and to Harry's mixed dismay and pride, Gryffindor rose to the challenge. Or was it lowered?
"Thomas misses by a mile, and so that's 250-170, Ravenclaw," Zacharias announced. "Seems like Gryffindor isn't even – blimey! That's –"
The rest of his commentary was drowned out by a large angry roar from the Gryffindor crowd. Harry stopped so suddenly that Cho, who'd been marking him, nearly fell off her broom trying to avoid him. Down below, his teammates were streaking to the ground where Ginny and Madam Hooch gathered. Harry followed.
Ginny's Cleansweep Eleven lay on the ground. She clutched her left arm awkwardly, her face pale under her freckles, and Harry had a sinking feeling that he was about to make another substitution.
"Out of the way, please," Professor McGonagall said sharply, brushing past Jimmy and Ritchie. "How bad is it, Rolanda?"
"Broken, I'm afraid, not that a bone would be anything else after getting hit with a bludger at such close range. Thankfully, Madam Pomfrey can fix it in a trice."
"I'm sorry, Harry," Ginny murmured as Professor McGonagall helped her away to the Hospital Wing.
"Just get better. We'll come visit you with the Cup!" he called after her.
Katie and Demelza demanded a penalty, but Madam Hooch refused, saying bludgers were part of the game. After warning both Harry and Cho that their teams needed to clean it up, she gave Harry a one-minute timeout to get Gavin settled.
"Listen up: no more blocking for Dean," he ordered his chasers. "Sorry, mate, but you're on your own. Katie, Demelza, Gavin, I want you to go with every formation in the book – Hawkshead, Porskoff, Woollongong – whatever you can think of. Katie calls them. Make their chasers work. And no more bloody fouls, okay?"
Six weary faces cheered with some semblance of enthusiasm, but they took to the air much slower than they had previously. No one had expected a match like this, and Harry worried he'd made them perhaps too confident initially. He resumed his search for the snitch with more than a little urgency, long ready for the match to be over.
They settled into a sluggish stalemate as the chasers kept each other busy, giving Dean a much-wanted break. Eventually it ended, of course, when Bradley broke away and streaked down the pitch as fast as his Twigger allowed. He hurled the quaffle through the middle pitch after feinting to the right, and Dean dove, catching it by the tips of his fingers. Harry cheered and gave Dean a thumbs up. Perhaps this would be the moment everything turned around.
The crowd chanted something. Harry's curiosity piqued, he flew closer, hoping it wasn't "Gryffindor are losers."
"He didn't let the quaffle in, Thomas is our King!"
Ron, who was standing up in front of the Gryffindor section, waved with a slightly embarrassed grin on his face, and Harry returned it, astonished. They didn't stop there, either. When Katie scored, it was:
"No one can stop our chasers now, Katie is our Queen!"
"He hits bludgers like no other, Jimmy is our King!"
was what they chanted when Jimmy nearly unseated Chambers. And so on and so forth for every scarlet-clad player, with Ron leading every time. Whether it was the song, each other, or a combination, Harry's team noticeably picked up their game. Admitting he wouldn't mind hearing a verse of "Potter is our King", Harry did the same.
Gryffindor had pulled to a tie by the time Harry spotted the snitch again, circling Ravenclaw's goalposts. He took off, eliciting a gasp from the spectators, who knew a snitch chase when they saw one, and a curious comment by Luna wondering if he was pursued by a blibbering humdinger.
Cho saw Harry hurtling down the pitch and spotted the snitch herself a moment later. She was closer, but he was confident he could catch her first. No broom in the world could match a Firebolt, least of all a Comet 260. When he drew alongside her just before the goalposts, he remembered some old advice from Oliver Wood.
'HARRY, THIS IS NO TIME TO BE A GENTLEMAN! KNOCK HER OFF HER BROOM IF YOU HAVE TO!'
He grinned. That wouldn't be necessary here. With a burst of speed, he surged past her. The snitch shot away as Harry whipped around the goalposts, the rightmost one so close he could have reached out and grabbed it. Down the pitch he barreled with Cho on his tail, bursting between a startled Demelza and Gavin, causing the latter to drop the quaffle. Down toward the grass and then up again, so quickly he was afraid Cho wouldn't be able to pull out in time. Circling around stands with a group of excited young Hufflepuffs, then headed unerringly for the Gryffindor group on the opposite side. A bludger appeared, and Harry rolled over in mid-air to avoid it. The snitch was aiming straight for Ron.
Harry shifted forward to a precarious position, reaching out. Lavender squealed, Seamus dove out of the way, Ron's eyes widened with startled panic, and Harry's fist closed around the rapidly fluttering wings of the Golden Snitch, arresting his broom at the last possible second.
"I suppose that means Gryffindor wins, doesn't it?" Luna said vaguely.
From the roar that nearly burst Harry's eardrums, it did. Hermione and Parvati kissed Harry on his cheeks, Ron thumped him on the back so soundly Harry nearly fell off his broom, and Neville reached out to shake his hand and almost dropped from the stands. Harry continued to clench the snitch tightly, almost not daring to believe they'd won the match. They'd won the Cup!
When Harry's jubilant team bore him away, Katie and Demelza were crying. Dean could be heard shouting, "I've got to tell Ginny! I've got to tell Ginny!" Ritchie and Jimmy threw their bats in the air, one narrowly missing Gavin on the way down.
"Very well done, indeed, Gryffindor," said Professor Dumbledore with a beaming smile as he presented Harry with the Quidditch Cup, his twinkling blue eyes showing no sign on the previous night's malaise.
"Great game, Potter!" Tonks called out in a voice hoarse from cheering, giving him a wink and a wave, stooping under the weight of Hagrid's arm on her shoulders while the half-giant bellowed his own congratulations. Harry thought his mouth would split in a grin.
After shaking hands with a red-faced Cho, who seemed on the verge of one of her crying jags that Harry was too familiar with, he led his team on a victory lap around the pitch, their ears filled with the voices of their housemates, Ron's the loudest.
"He never lets the snitch escape, Potter is our King!"
The final term of the year raced to a finish, and life returned to Harry's version of normal. With impending exams, Hermione went into panic mode as usual, drawing up color-coded study schedules for the entire study group, and spent increasing amounts of time with Eric, helping him cram for his N.E.W.T.s. When Pansy Parkinson made a point of noticing, Daphne surprised all by tearing her classmate down in a barrage of withering remarks.
A dazed Cormac reported to the Hospital Wing a week after the final match with a variety of symptoms ranging from a spectacular set of antlers to a particularly stubborn jelly-legs jinx. Professor McGonagall's rather cursory investigation turned up no leads. His name was not added to the plaque memorializing their victory.
Harry continued to meet with Dumbledore every weekend, although the potion in the cave had exacted a clear toll on his health. They pursued the identity of R.A.B. with no success, but Dumbledore insisted Harry continue with his study of advanced magic, limiting the time spent on discovering their mysterious ally.
Harry even discreetly questioned Burke during their sessions, as Burke's father had been the one to purchase it from Merope Gaunt, but Burke had no idea what he was seeking. Burke pushed him harder and harder, allowing Harry to graduate to actual wands. Harry's attention was forced to focus, but he made a mental note to check on the middle name of one Reginald Borgin.
Sixth and seventh year students already of age received notices to report to the Ministry of Magic no more than a month after term ended for their wand and identification registration. Those like Harry who would come of age during the summer break were required to get it done before returning to Hogwarts in the fall. Harry seethed, but there was nothing he could do about it.
Tonks' twenty-third birthday came and went, and Harry spent the night with her again. She received an unexpected present from her parents in the form of an announcement that Andromeda was expecting another child at Christmas.
"You don't seem as excited as I would expect," Harry said when she told him. "I think it's brilliant."
"It is, and I am," she agreed, fidgeting with a party blower. Harry had surprised her by hiring Dobby to decorate her quarters, complete with crepe garlands, hats, and rainbow-colored confetti, in the midst of which they currently sat. "It's just so … Merlin, so unexpected. I gave up on the idea of a sibling by the time I started Hogwarts. I suppose I figured if anyone in the family would be popping out sprog, it would be me. Not that I plan on it anytime soon," she added hastily at the expression on Harry's face. "Or at all, I reckon. It's just … I think I need time to get used to the idea."
"Could someone possibly be jealous?" he teased, ducking the leftover fairy cake she threw at him.
"Not at all, actually. The only thing I would be jealous of is that the little tyke gets to have me as a sister. I'm going to be aces at the big sister role."
"What makes you so sure? I seem to remember you declaring yourself a 'spoiled only child.'"
"My general awesomeness at everything, babe. Awesome Auror, fantastic chaser, ridiculously good-looking woman, superb Hufflepuff. Admittedly not so great girlfriend, but I'm working on that." Tonks offered him a self-deprecating grin before winking and sliding one leg over his lap, turning to straddle him. She whispered in his ear in a sultry voice, one finger tracing down his chest. "And an outstanding lover, of course."
Harry couldn't argue with that.
In fact, Harry's only complaint, beyond the fake locket, was that Tonks spent many hours at the Ministry, limiting their already minute time together. This was part of the reason he joined in enthusiastic applause when Professor McGonagall announced a Hogsmeade day the week before exams, the first since Katie was attacked.
"Yes, yes, settle down," she told the students gathered for dinner in the Great Hall. "We have put increased security in place to go along with our normal arrangements. I expect each of you to behave and obey any Ministry official. You should thank Auror Tonks for her tireless efforts in creating the necessary security plans."
Tonks gave a little wave from the staff table. Both Harry and McGonagall frowned at the catcalls and whistles that littered the applause.
The day arrived overcast and chilly for June, but it proved no match for youthful spirits, cooped up for far too long in a stone castle. The envious eyes of first and second years followed Harry and his friends as they joked and chatted their way to the Entrance Hall doors, joining the queue of students waiting to be dismissed by Filch's querulous gaze.
"We ought to be revising," Hermione complained.
"Lighten up, Hermione," Harry said. "You already know you're going to get top marks. A break will do you good."
Parvati chimed in, "Besides, you've studied so much you mumble rune translations in your sleep."
Hermione turned bright red. "I do not!"
Harry leaned into Parvati, speaking low under the cover of Ron's sniggers. "Does she?"
"No, but she reads behind her curtains by wandlight," Parvati confessed.
Harry laughed, hastily schooling his features under Hermione's glare.
They, along with Lavender and Ginny, were finally cleared to go by Filch, who seemed certain at least one of them was attempting to sneak something past him.
"Hold up there," he ordered when Ron made to go. "All students must be escorted by a teacher or Auror to Hogsmeade and back. Damn nuisance if you ask me …"
"Luckily, no one did," said a cheerful voice. Tonks strolled up the path, her bright smile contrasting with Filch's scowl. "I'll take this lot, Filchie. Oi, you two, come along!"
The last was directed to Eric and Daphne, who had just been cleared as well. They joined the Gryffindors.
Tonks sidled between Harry and Parvati as they began their trek down the forested path. She beamed at him. "Hi!"
He returned the expression and greeting, forcing himself to tear his gaze away before he lingered too long and started to think about her wearing nothing but that smile. Parvati and Lavender exchanged knowing smirks.
A pair of surly Aurors guarded the gates, hands clasped in front of their maroon robes. One dropped his grim countenance when they walked past. "Alright, Tonks? Care to catch a pint at the Hog's Head when we're off babysitting duty?"
"The Hog's Head? You'll catch more than a pint if you drink there," retorted Tonks with good humor. "Yeah, alright."
"Babysitting duty?" Ron repeated with indignation when the Aurors were out of earshot. "We aren't kids! Whose bright idea was this anyway, all these rules and escorts?"
"Mine, actually," Tonks replied with a wink, laughing at Ron's abashed expression. "Not my idea to go to Hogsmeade in the first place, but I'm responsible for security at Hogwarts and I put the plan together that enables you to be here today. Ministry and Board of Governors insistence, y'know. No one ever thanks the one behind the scenes, working tirelessly for the benefit of others. You're welcome," she finished, stressing the last two words with such an air of saintly aggrievement that even Ron had to chuckle.
She continued, with Hogsmeade now before them, as inviting as always. "No, you aren't kids, but some of the students are. We're simply trying to prepare for any contingencies and prevent anything like what happened to that girl last time. No Shrieking Shack, no Hog's Head. You're restricted to High Street. Oh, don't give me those looks. Nearly everything good is right here anyway."
"So that means no Madam Puddifoot's?" Ron asked with obvious delight.
Tonks grinned wickedly. "No, we know how much you lot enjoy it. Go on, then."
"Oh. Good," Ron intoned in a joyless voice as Lavender dragged him away, looking at Harry with helpless consternation. Harry stifled a chortle, knowing exactly what lay in store for him.
"I wouldn't be caught dead in that place, no matter how much snogging was promised," remarked Eric, catching Ginny's eye. "I'm going to Zonko's. Daph, you in?"
"Yeah." Then with a clear effort at nonchalance, "Granger? You lot want to come?"
"Well, I was going to go to Scrivener's, but –"
Parvati cut her off with an elbow to the ribs. "Yes, let's. Come on, Ginny."
Ginny was the only one who looked back at Harry as they departed, wearing a reluctant expression and confused as to why he didn't join them. The rest apparently forgot about him, which was to Tonks a good thing.
"I couldn't have worked this out better myself."
"What do you mean?" asked Harry, in no way complaining.
"You, me, and only the wind for company." She jerked her head in the opposite direction. "Let's go."
"You said no sneaking off."
"Babe." She gave him a look. "What good is it to be the one who makes the rules if you can't break them?"
"There's the girl who could never have been a prefect. You know, Dora, I admire the way you get so close to being a responsible Auror without crossing the line."
"It's a natural talent, carefully cultivated over the years."
Laughing, they casually headed away from High Street and ducked down a dark side alley, emerging on a side street populated by quaint houses with sloping, thatched roofs and small, well-kept gardens. He didn't dare take her hand yet, but the secretive grins they exchanged were enough.
Shortly, however, his light mood began to sink. The act of slipping away together was naggingly familiar, and finally Harry stopped.
"We shouldn't do this."
Tonks halted as well, wrinkling her forehead when she frowned. "What, this –" She waved her hand around their surroundings. "Or this?" The same hand closed to a fist over her heart.
"The first," he assured her. "It's only, every time we do this, something bad happens. New Year's at the café, then Easter –"
"I know what happened at Easter," she interrupted harshly. "I know that every day."
"Well, this is starting to look just like that. Nothing feels right. I think we should go back. In fact, I think maybe we should go back to Hogwarts."
"You – you're serious," she stated, staring at him with something like surprised respect in her eyes. "Okay, let's go back."
Their steps were slower and heavier on the return, lacking the buoyancy of romance and mischief. Tonks was pensive, and Harry wondered if he'd offended her. After all, she was the one who'd worked overtime setting up this day.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
Tonks blinked. "No. Why would there be? You have great instincts, babe. Always listen to them, even if I assure you no one would betray us."
"Someone already has," he interjected more forcefully than intended. "You know it, Dora, you have to. You aren't stupid. Whether you want to admit it or not, someone in the Ministry has been leaking secrets since Borgin was arrested. If it weren't for the fact that he's dead, I would even say –"
Tonks rounded on him. "How dare you say that? He would never have – I can't believe you would – he would never …" She trailed off, cheeks burning and eyes flashing, but she seemed to have no more strong words. "Let's just go," she finally muttered. "But nothing's going to –"
The voice came from the shadows of the alley they were approaching. A tall, thin woman stepped out, and Harry immediately noted the desperation in her icy blue eyes. He reached for his wand.
Tonks stepped forward, subtly moving in front of Harry. "What do you want, Narcissa?" she asked, drawing her wand as well but letting it hang at her side.
"Your help. Please."
Tonks let out a bark of derisive laughter that painfully reminded Harry of Sirius. "My help? Why in the world would I help you?"
"I know what I said to you after Draco's trial, and I'm – I'm sorry," she said, wringing her hands. "I was too emotional. Please, I beg of you. He's going to kill my son. He's going to take Azkaban, and he's going to kill Draco. I have nowhere else to go."
"Why should I?" Tonks challenged. "I owe you nothing."
"Draco's where he belongs," added Harry. Hadn't they just been talking about the possibility of an attack? The appearance at that moment of someone who was practically a Death Eater herself was unsettling to say the least.
Narcissa's beseeching gaze didn't waver from her niece. Upon further study, her appearance had greatly diminished from the regal women Harry had seen last summer. Like her son, her pale skin was waxy, and her long blonde hair fell limply down her back. The overcast sky above only added to her washed out pallor.
"Your mother never gave up on me," she told Tonks. "I received a birth announcement when you were born. You were tiny, with a bit of pink, downy hair, wearing a beautiful white dress, and you were sound asleep."
"I've seen that picture," Tonks mumbled with a look akin to one who'd been slapped. She shook her purple tresses. "That doesn't matter."
"She sent me a picture of you every year for five years, until I – I wrote and told her to stop. Please, for her sake, help me. I'll do whatever you want, I'll tell you everything I know. If he learns I'm here, he'll kill me anyway."
"You said he's going to kill your son," said Harry. "What about your husband? He's in Azkaban, too." He couldn't resist adding a last dig. "The Malfoy name isn't as good as it once was, is it?"
Her mouth twitched as if stifling a deep-set urge to sneer, but her voice was carefully controlled when she answered, "Lucius is a grown man. I love him, but he chose this life. I have to protect my son. I can only hope Lucius chooses to do the same."
"Isn't it a bit late for protecting your son?" Harry demanded. "Shouldn't you have thought of that before, I don't know, he took the Dark Mark?"
Narcissa shook her head in agitation, her words beginning to speed up. "I thought I had. If you knew what it's like, you would see – but we've had this conversation. Nymphadora, please, please help me. I will do anything. My life is yours."
Tonks stared her down, lifting her chin in a haughty manner reflective of the same one Harry had seen on all three Black sisters. "From what it sounds like, your life is rather worthless," she said so coldly even Harry, who had no love for the Malfoy family, was shocked. "And don't call me Nymphadora. Let's go, Harry." She grabbed his wrist tightly and propelled him past Narcissa down the dark, narrow alley.
"Wait!" Narcissa's frantic voice chased them, her pitch rising. "He knows about you!"
The couple stopped at the same moment, glancing at each other before slowly turning back to Narcissa.
Sensing an opening, she continued quickly. "The Dark Lord knows you two are involved. He has for months. He knows when you're together, he knows your every movement." The latter was directed at Tonks, but now she spoke to Harry. "He will stop at nothing to kill you, Potter. I daresay it's his greatest desire. The Dark Lord does not tolerate failure, least of all his own." She worried one pink lip for a moment before glancing back and forth between Tonks and Harry. "Someone is spying for him, someone close to you. I swear I would tell you who if I knew, but I'm not privy to everything."
Harry and Tonks shared another glance, this one of trepidation. If she was being truthful, she confirmed what they already suspected. If. Harry took a long look around, from the cozy houses in front of them to the bustling shops behind, wondering not for the first time if this was some scheme for an ambush. His grip on his wand tightened.
"Okay." Tonks was nodding her head in a way Harry knew to mean she was thinking rapidly. "Okay. You say you will do anything? Prove it. Prove to me you're actually willing to switch sides, and then I'll see what I can do for you."
Narcissa sighed in palpable relief. "What do you want me to do?"
Tonks looked her over, a slight smile rising to her lips. "Narcissa, there are a lot of words to describe you, not many of which are flattering, but you aren't stupid. Figure it out."
She nodded, clenching her hands together. Tonks departed and Harry followed, leaving Narcissa alone with some metal rubbish bins, a few scraggly weeds, and her fear and despair in the dark alley.
They hurried along a side street, slipping past the more leisurely shoppers, some of whom gave Harry odd looks. He tried to keep his head down. His mind whirled with the implications of all Narcissa had said, trying to figure where to go from here. If she was right, they could be in danger. Hogsmeade – and all Harry's friends – could be in danger, all because of him, just like the attack on the Tonkses.
Tonks strode with purposeful strides, her lips pressed together in thin lines. "Er, Dora? Where are you going?" Harry asked.
"I'm going to take you back to the gates, inform the rest of the Aurors to secure the town immediately, and then I'm going to visit a certain someone," she said grimly as they passed the Hog's Head.
"What? Who? Do you believe her?"
"I have to, even if it didn't fit as neatly as it does. And boy, does it. I can't believe I didn't see it before. I've been so stupid and blind and – No. Fucking. Way."
She stopped so suddenly Harry crashed into her, knocking both to the cobblestoned street. She popped up immediately, never taking her gaze from the window of the Hog's Head, before seizing Harry's arm and dragging him to the side of the pub. Closing her eyes briefly in concentration, she waved her wand, sending three patronuses into the air.
"What's going –"
"Harry, listen to me. Go to High Street and get everyone back to Hogwarts. I just sent messages to Dumbledore, Remus, and Alex. Don't argue, just go."
And leave her? Was she mad? "But what are –"
"I know who's behind this, and he's here. I'm going to put an end to this. I can't believe I didn't bloody see this before. Now go; you're wasting time." Tonks took one step before turning and grabbing his collar, kissing him fiercely. Her eyes blazed as brightly as they had after the Horcrux cave. "Be safe. I – well, you know."
She took off. Harry stared after her in disbelief. He hadn't any idea who she was going after, but if this person was behind everything, Harry wasn't going to let her go alone. He hesitated only long enough to send a patronus each to Ron and Hermione before throwing his invisibility cloak over his head and running as quickly as he dared.
He slipped inside the Hog's Head when a departing patron conveniently let the door swing wide open. He spotted Tonks right away, leaning over the bar to speak to the barkeep, a gruff, scruffy-looking man with untamed gray hair. He appeared less than pleased with Tonks, and judging by the finger she pointed at him and her new Ministry ID she held in front of his nose, she returned the sentiment. Finally he pointed upstairs, and Tonks headed that way.
Harry began to follow, trying not to make any noise, but he quickly halted. Tonks turned around and hurried back to the barkeep, whispering something in his ear. He stiffened and nodded, disappearing into the back room.
Tonks bounded up the stairs, and Harry followed as quickly as he could. The pub wasn't crowded, but more than a few of the patrons were making hasty departures after Tonks flashed her Auror badge at the barkeep. Remembering the Hog's Head's unsavory reputation, Harry wasn't surprised.
He made it upstairs in time to see Tonks disappear into a room. Frowning, he pressed his ear to the door, wishing he had an extendable ear with him.
"You don't understand," a unfamiliar man said.
"The hell I don't," Tonks hissed. "You are a son of a bitch, and I'm going to make you pay like I should have done three years ago. How dare you come back?"
Bells went off in Harry's mind.
"Nym, you're wrong. I can explain everything."
"You couldn't explain anything then, and you can't explain it now. You know, once I thought I had so many things to say to you. But now? Merlin's balls, you're aren't worth my voice. Bugger off, Nick."
Realization swept over Harry, and with it the certainty he wasn't going to leave her alone with him. Sweeping the cloak from his head, he burst through the door into a small, dingy room.
"Harry?" Tonks gaped at him, managing to look furious and thrilled at the same time.
"Harry Potter?" her ex-fiancé echoed. Dark-haired and around Harry's height, he stood across the room, wandless.
Harry turned to Tonks, but the jet of green light that shot between them disrupted any conversation. Nick slumped against the side of the bed, dulled eyes gazing at the ceiling. For one infinite heartbeat, Harry couldn't move, staring at the dead man. With the next he threw himself to one side.
He never felt the spell strike his back, landing heavily on his stomach, frozen in place. The coppery taste of blood began to fill his mouth. Unable to move his gaze, he watched a large shadow on the wall approach.
"Oh, you bastard," he heard Tonks say before everything went black.
Author's Note: First of all, I am so sorry to have left this story as long as I did. Without getting into details, my life threw me a major curveball, and I honestly don't know when I'll be able to write again. This is the last of the pre-written chapters I have. I debated for a while about posting this, knowing it leaves you hanging, but I'm hoping it spurs some progress for me. I can say the next chapter is partially complete. To that end, I've created twitter and tumblr accounts specifically for this story and any other writing I do. If you are so inclined, please follow and engage with me. I'll get into discussions, answer questions, post previews and updates, that sort of thing. The links are on my profile. So, once again, I apologize both for this long wait and for whatever wait there is to come. I make no promises as to when I'll post again, only that I will try my best and will not abandon this story. We're so close to the end. Thanks for reading.