Harry was uneasy. Not about meeting with Professor Dumbledore, who had owled to ask that he come to Hogwarts, but because the date of the Ministry's Recognition of Excellence Gala, an annual affair at which awards for service were presented, was rapidly approaching.
And I still haven't heard anything more from Snape.
Harry had a decent idea of what was expected of him now; Hermione had lent him a book on the history of the Courtship Ritual, but he still couldn't fathom why Snape had approved of his becoming an Eligible.
"Welcome home, my boy!" Albus said jovially, entering his office. "Do forgive me for being detained. Osric was being difficult."
"Osric?" Harry asked, taking a seat as the Headmaster did.
"Osric Kent, our Defence Against the Dark Arts professor. He doesn't seem to feel it necessary to give examinations to his students. We were just discussing alterations to his curriculum."
"Ah. That'd make how many problematic Defence professors now?"
"Not everyone comes with your experience, as I've mentioned before."
Not this again. "I suppose not."
Dumbledore cocked an eyebrow. "You're not to be persuaded, are you?"
"No, I'm not. I don't think I'd be happy teaching."
"But chasing after Lethifolds . . . ."
"Is just part of the job, sir."
"I see. Well, in light of the fact that you, Severus, and this Mary Millblossom managed to kill them, Minister Marchbanks has decided that an award is in order."
"Indeed. The three of you will receive them at the gala."
"I don't think Mary will travel, Professor Dumbledore. She's quite happy where she is—in spite of the 'recent unpleasantness', as she calls it."
"As to that, Severus invited her to attend, himself, and she accepted. I don't know when I've seen him more excited about meeting another researcher."
That figures, Harry thought, remembering how fresh and pretty the older witch was. She's not too old for him, either. "Is fifty-two too old for a witch to bear children, sir?"
Dumbledore chuckled. "No, it isn't, but Ms Millblossom isn't an Eligible, is she? Nothing to worry about, there."
"I'm not worried," Harry replied quickly.
"I'm pleased to see you feeling so confident."
Harry fidgeted in his chair. "That's not what I meant, sir. I—"
"Albus!" thundered a voice from the antechamber. "I will not have that imbecile going through my supply—"
Harry turned to see Snape, and when Snape saw him, he stopped ranting.
"Mr Potter. I had no idea—"
"Do come in, Severus. What has Osric done, now?"
Harry straightened up as Snape gave him a long look, brushed down the front of his robes, and sat, himself.
"He's been at my supplies again. When the damned fool couldn't figure out how to bypass the lock, he destroyed the cabinet!"
"That's some Defence professor you have there," Harry said, amusement thick in his voice.
"It's not funny, Potter."
"Perhaps," said Dumbledore, "if you would simply give the man what he required . . . ."
"He has no business working with Potions when there is a master in residence. I'm quite capable of providing Kent with whatever he needs—should he ask."
"Where's Kent, now?" Harry asked innocently. I doubt you left him unscathed after destroying your cabinet.
Two spots of colour appeared on Snape's cheeks, Harry noticed, and he also saw how soft his hair looked. Nice, he thought, inexplicably feeling the pads of his fingers itch. I wonder how it feels?
"Kent is . . . making an effort to repair the damage he caused."
"Compulsion charm?" asked Harry, grinning.
"Severus," Dumbledore said sternly.
"What? Was I to allow him to vandalise my cabinet without taking action?"
"Be good enough to lift the charm and send Osric to me."
"Very well," Snape grudgingly replied, turning to Harry. "I trust you understand that the gala will call for formal robes?" he asked, before stalking out of the office without waiting for a reply.
You're welcome, you ungrateful bas—
"You were saying, Harry?"
"About? Oh, the Courtship Ritual. I don't expect to make it past the Presentation, to tell you the truth. Snape doesn't even like me."
"Nonsense. In any case, you'll do what you can for Severus, won't you? As you're well aware, charm doesn't come naturally to him," Dumbledore said, his eyes twinkling.
"I know," Harry replied, running a hand through his hair. Hello, Potter. How are you, Potter? "I've promised Blaise already. I'm not sure what I can do besides preventing him from hexing the other Eligibles—or me, to be honest—but I'll do my best."
"Dear boy, you are nervous, aren't you? Would it help to know that I believe you make Severus nervous, as well?"
"I make him nervous?"
"You do. He could barely summon the vitriol to complain about Kent, so surprised he was to find you here."
"Why should I make him nervous? It's not like I'm a stranger to him."
"No, you're not."
Harry raised his eyebrows at the enigmatic expression on Dumbledore's face. "I think you've got the wrong idea about why I'm on the Scroll, sir."
"Anything is possible, I suppose—including your reconsidering accepting the Defence position."
Harry smirked. "No, sir. I can't see myself wanting to teach anytime soon."
"Ah, that is progress. You're considering it for the future. Excellent. We'll discuss it again, I've no doubt. Now then, have you anything formal to wear?"
"Um, no. I'd best go shopping."
"Good day to you, then, Harry."
Madam Malkin's was closing for lunch when Harry arrived, but the plump little witch threw open the door when she saw him through the window.
"Harry Potter! Do you need something? Come in, dear."
"I don't mean to—"
"You're no trouble at all, young man," she insisted, closing and locking the door behind him. "What do you need?"
"I've outgrown my formal robes, ma'am, and—"
Madam Malkin was measuring his inside leg before he could finish his explanation.
"My, you have grown, haven't you?" she asked, ignoring Harry's blushes and completing her measurements. "Right. I think a deep forest green to match your eyes, in velvet?"
"Isn't velvet awfully hot?"
"Oh, you can have the optional cooling charm, if you like."
"That sounds good."
"Wonderful! Do you want a fitted set, or something looser? Not too loose, mind you—what would be the point in that?" she asked, winking. "I've several samples to show you. Wait here."
Harry waited patiently for her to return, wandering about the shop and examining various robes. The maternity robes caught his attention for some reason he could not define.
Bearing, he thought. You'd have to be completely mad to agree to something like that.
"Ah, here you go," Madam Malkin said, returning with several robes thrown over one arm. "I've rethought the green," she told him, holding up a set of robes. "What about crimson?"
"Very handsome," he said, running his hands over the soft fabric. "But perhaps it's too much?"
"Afraid of making a statement, are you? Well then, perhaps royal blue? No, not blue—crimson or green."
"Green," Harry said decisively.
Madam Malkin's eyes sparkled. "Right then. When do you need them?"
"Oh, er, by Friday?"
"Friday? Friday. Hmm," she said, pausing as if to consider her schedule. "Yes, with some shuffling, I could have them for you by Friday morning, dear."
"Thank you. Should I pay now, or—"
"Oh, just pay me Fri—"
A knock interrupted Madam Malkin, and Harry turned with her to look out the front window.
"Oh! It's that darling Miss Delacour. Do excuse me, Mr Potter."
Harry panicked. "Wait!"
"What is it, dear?"
"Um, is there, could I—"
Madam Malkin clapped her hands over her mouth and then removed them just as abruptly. "Oh, my! Where's my head? I swear, if I didn't wear a hat, it would—get a hold of yourself, woman! Of course, you'll want to avoid him, won't you? I'm not one to listen to gossip, but I did hear that—"
The knock sounded again, and Harry stiffened, keeping his back to the window.
"Walk straight through to the back. There's a door to the alley there."
"Thanks," Harry said, quickly sprinting to the back room and out the door.
The alley was empty, and he walked rapidly towards the end of it in the opposite direction of the front of the shop. He was almost to the street when he heard Bill call to him.
Crap! he thought, stopping. Disapparate, you idiot!
"Harry! Harry, wait!" Bill called again, running towards him.
"What is it, Weasley?" Harry demanded, turning to face Bill.
"Right, of course," Bill said. "Of course, you're angry. I don't blame you."
"How understanding," Harry replied flatly, attempting to calm his features into a display of disinterest.
"You never could hide what you were thinking," Bill told him, grinning.
"I don't care to discuss old times. What is it?"
Bill's face fell. "I . . . I know, I have no rights—I just wanted to see how you were. I care about you, Harry, you know that."
"You've a funny way of showing it."
"There wasn't anything between me and Fleur before—"
"Don't lie to me. Say what you want and go."
"Look, I was that scared for you when you wrote about the . . . and I've been thinking for awhile that I wanted to settle down, but I didn't think—"
"No, I'd say you didn't."
"No. I didn't. I'm sorry, Harry. I should never have made any demands. I shouldn't have just expected you to give up your life when I wasn't . . . ."
"Willing to do the same?"
"And your engagement?"
"A spur of the moment decision. You know me."
I thought I did, Harry thought, though not sadly. "Look, Bill, congratulations. I hope the two of you will be very happy."
He almost meant his good wishes, too.
"That's . . . big of you," Bill said, suddenly smiling as if he hadn't a care.
Harry smirked. Typical Bill. "Well, Madam Malkin did tell me I'd grown."
Bill laughed, and Harry couldn't help but do the same. Bill was charming, despite being Bill.
"I'll miss your sense of humour. Fleur's quite proper. Oh, shite! I shouldn't have said that."
"No, it's fine. Really. You'd best get back to her."
Bill hesitated. "How 'bout a goodbye kiss?"
"Shove off, you wanker."
"Take care, Harry."
You, too, you prat. "Give my best to your intended," he said, half-wistfully watching Bill's arse as he walked away. Well, that went better than I thought it would.
Harry decided, as he had finished his shopping, to stop by the Novitiate. He was pleased by the reception he received. Ordinarily, any special attention bothered him, but the trainees who enthusiastically greeted him at the door were so genuinely happy to see him that he couldn't bring himself to mind it.
"We're waiting to hear about our licensing exams. Auror Granger's bringing them from the Ministry this afternoon," Banks explained.
"But shouldn't you have heard about them already? Exams are in August, same as always, right?" Harry asked.
Banks turned beet red and muttered, "Scrofungulus outbreak," before continuing, "but I'm sure I've passed. I think I've passed. Damn! I have no idea if I've passed!"
"Why wouldn't you have passed?" Harry asked, wisely ignoring the revelation about the scrofungulus but thinking that this group of Second Classers must be altogether too chummy.
"Shielding charms. We're both pants at shielding charms," Grimley answered.
"Well, I'm not," Harry told him, proceeding to demonstrate shielding charms for the next hour or so and forgetting about having seen Bill in the process.
"Harry, that was well done!" Hermione called to him, as his impromptu class was breaking up.
She was immediately besieged by the trainees demanding to know if they were Aurors.
Hermione's expression became pensive, and there were groans all around. Harry wanted to laugh but didn't; he knew at once that she was teasing.
"Well, it's like this," Hermione said, pausing.
"Tell us!" someone demanded.
"You all passed!"
A cheer erupted, and there was a round of congratulations before the newly licensed Aurors First Class took themselves off to the Three Broomsticks to celebrate, having wrung a promise from Hermione and Harry that the two of them would join them later.
"You're mean," Harry told her.
"I am not," she replied, smirking.
"Teasing them, teasing Blaise—mean, I tell you. I stand by my assessment. Oh, and what's all this about a scrofungulus outbreak?"
"I've no 'official' knowledge of any such thing," said Hermione crisply, one eyebrow raising in apparent annoyance. "I can tell you that it was a 'training accident' that kept some of the Aurors Second Class from taking their final licensing exams at the appropriate time."
Harry snorted. "I can just imagine Master Moody's lecture about that 'accident'."
"I try not to think about it, really. What are you doing here, anyway?"
"Refining on Blaise's inadequate teaching technique, apparently."
"Now who's mean? Besides, they all passed. I'd say he's a fair to good instructor."
"Honestly? Yeah, he is. I wonder why Dumbledore hasn't asked him to be the Defence professor?"
"He has, actually. Auror Zabini turned him down."
"Really? That's . . ." because of you, I'd be willing to bet.
"Bizarre," Hermione supplied. "I know. I'm not sure what he's thinking, really."
Harry looked at her in surprise. Perhaps she doesn't realise he fancies her. "Hermione—"
"I saw Bill in town," she interrupted.
"Oh. So did I."
"Are you all right?"
"Yeah. It went okay."
"He and Fleur were shopping for wedding clothes, you know," she said gently. "That doesn't bother you?"
"Well, I admit that I panicked there for a second, but I'm really not bothered. Bill and I never . . . we . . . ."
"Were just shagging?"
"Yeah. I'm not saying that I wouldn't have considered anything more, but I never did lose my head over him. I worry about myself, Hermione. How closed off does that make me, shagging the same bloke for four years without falling in love with him?"
"Did you love his arse?" Hermione asked, grinning.
"You're not closed off, just careful, private. I think it makes sense, given what your life's been like. I wouldn't worry about it, either. When you meet the right person, you'll know."
"You're very sensible, Auror Granger," he teased.
"So I am," she said, ignoring his reference to Blaise. "Shall we go join the others, then?"
Shall we go see if Blaise is there, yet? "Sure. Let's get pissed and behave badly before we can't anymore."
"Oh, I didn't think of that. Perhaps we—"
"Hermione, it's not as though either one of use is going to marry the man. I don't think we'll hurt our reputations—or Snape's—by having a little fun."
"I suppose not. In any case, I should be there just in case things get out of hand."
"Blaise is going, too. Grimley said as much."
"That's exactly what I mean."
Harry laughed. Oh, no. It wouldn't do if Blaise picked up a bird and took her to the Hog's Head, especially given the unofficial scrofungulus problem these days.
Happily, Harry had no worries in that direction about Blaise because he knew that his friend had put all reckless behaviour behind him, and shaking his head and following Hermione, he hoped that the new Aurors had learnt their own lesson in that regard.