Neville was irritated. He'd just got back to sleep after breaking up a fight in the garden beneath his window between the Evil White Foot and one of his spawn when the pounding had begun. He tried to ignore it, in much the same way that he'd ignored the fact that the Little had been fighting with his father over the "affections" of his own mother, but the knocking wouldn't stop.
Should've had 'em all altered when I had the chance. "Dippy? Dippy, where are you?" he called, throwing himself out of bed and heading towards the source of the noise. Oh, right—I sent her to Snape Village to fetch my workbook from the manor. Damn. "Who is it?" he demanded, reaching his back door.
"S'me, Nev. Op'up!" came the slurred reply.
And it just gets better. "Blaise, what—"
"That's Adv'cate Zabi—Zabi—Zabini to you," Blaise said, pushing his way into the house and promptly stumbling over his feet.
Ow, Neville thought, turning to see Blaise sprawled on the floor. "You're pissed, you pillock!"
"Can't be—don't get pissed anymore."
Drawing his wand, Neville cast a medical screening spell over Blaise, and a list of illegal magical substances wrote itself in the air. Neville waved his wand through it in disgust, and then walked over Blaise towards the cooker.
"Is for horses, you prat."
Neville ignored the question and began brewing a pot of strong tea.
"I said you a ques, I mean, I assed you—no, tha's not right."
"No, it isn't. Why are you intoxicated at four in the morning?"
Blaise dragged himself up into a chair and blinked stupidly at Neville. "Know a better time for it?"
"Explain, Zabini. I'm supposed to be up in two hours."
"'M up now. How 'bout it, Nev?"
Neville watched in horrified amusement as a leering Blaise attempted to rise from the chair, only to fall on his bum with a satisfying thwap!
"No, I don't fancy a shag—not with you, anyway—and I doubt you could perform in your current condition in any case. Get up, you imbecile, and drink this," Neville told Blaise, placing a cup of tea on the table and then casting charm against breakage on it as an afterthought before he sat down.
Blaise spilt his tea trying to raise the cup to his lips. "Oh, I . . . I don't—"
Summoning the rubbish bin, Neville positioned Blaise's head firmly over it and held it there.
"You're an idiot," he said calmly, while Blaise was violently ill. "You know you're not supposed to mess about with illegal potions anymore, especially the kind that can't be spelled out of your system. What happened?"
"She . . . she . . . she's marrying him!"
"Who is marrying whom?"
Blaise wiped his mouth and leant back into his chair. "Whom's marrying who, you mean."
"I'm not engaging in a debate on grammar with someone who isn't even coherent. What's all this about?" When Blaise didn't respond, Neville pulled him back over the bin by his hair and said, "Right, I'm going to fire-call Hermione."
"No? She's who I always called when you were in this state before."
"N—no, please . . . don't," Blaise said, in between his renewed retching. "Do—n't, don't."
"Fine, I won't. Why don't we get you cleaned up and into bed and talk about this later, then?"
"'M fine right here, thanks."
"Suit yourself. I'm going to the loo. Don't move."
Neville went immediately to his room and fire-called Harry. "Blaise is high on at least three illegal substances and sicking up in my kitchen."
"Oh, shite. That's—"
"Bad, I know," Neville replied, explaining more about the substances in question and Blaise's condition. "Who's getting married? He's sick about that, as well."
"Blaise said someone's getting married?"
"Yes. Why do you look green, now?"
"I'm on my way," Harry said, abruptly ending the fire-call.
Neville returned to his kitchen.
Four minutes later, Harry was standing in it, shouting, "Shite, Blaise! If Master Moody saw you like this he'd give you the boot!"
"Don't care," Blaise replied sullenly, from his position on the floor. "Merlin, my head. It's coming apart. I'm . . . I'm dying."
"No, you're just feeling the effects of the Firebright Elixir, the Huckles' Hallucinatory Happy Draught, and the Primbly's Prick Up. What possessed you to take all three? Why even take one? You know better than that!"
"Spare me the screaming, please."
"He's actually speaking quite quietly, Blaise."
"Shut it, Neville."
"Hey, you're the one who came to my house—"
"I'm sorry. Truly, truly, truly sorry—just please stop shouting."
"Nev, why don't you go back to bed. I'll deal with him."
"Yeah, I'm sure. Goodnight—and thanks for calling me."
"You're welcome, Harry." Better you than me.
Harry sat down next to Blaise on the floor as Neville took himself to bed. "Who's getting married?"
"Hermione. To Severus. They inti—inti—intimated as much yesterday morning."
"He came to see her, said visiting the other Eligibles was just a matter of ceremony."
Harry hadn't seen Blaise in such a bad way since the months immediately following Susan's murder, and he was worried. Blaise wouldn't be so upset without reason. "When was Severus there?" he asked, surreptitiously casting a sobering charm on Blaise.
"The morning after the gala—yesterday, right?"
"I heard her, Harry. She said there was nothing between us, and before . . . before he even asked her to escort him, she told me she was interested in someone, someone she could see more of at the parties because she was an escort."
"Shite," Harry muttered, remembering Severus telling him that Hermione was "a compelling young woman." But he couldn't have decided so soon. He said he was considering everyone! I guess by that, he meant Hermione. "Shite."
"Well, you've got to be mistaken."
"You sound very sure," Blaise replied, rolling himself up into a ball on the floor.
"Right. You need to be in a proper bed. That can't be comfortable."
"What care I for comfort?"
"If you start spouting poetry," Harry warned, remembering also that this had been one of Blaise's usual drunken activities, "I'll hex you."
"Forgive me for enjoying the masters in my times of woe."
Harry snorted, rose, wrote a brief note to Neville, and then hoisted a complaining Blaise into a standing position so that he could Disapparate him back to Grimmauld. After a bit of effort, he had Blaise nearly nude and in his bed and grimaced to note that, not so long ago, he would have been rather thrilled by the prospect.
"You're very lucky that I'm a gentleman," he murmured, returning to his desk.
Harry had been counting Severus' letters to him when Neville's fire-call had come, and he was now feeling confused about their number. After an intensive, one-year period as an Auror-in-Training, one took the first of four licensing exams, and then one moved up the ranks from Auror Third Class to Auror First Class in the three years following. Harry had taken his exams at the end of each of his four years of training and become a fully fledged Auror shortly after his twenty-second birthday. He'd begun writing to Severus during his first year of training, about seven years previously, and that correspondence had been prolific—far more so than he he'd realised before counting the letters.
Let's see, seven years times fifty two weeks is three hundred sixty-four weeks, and there are over four hundred letters here, he mused. Wow. Did I really write to him once a week? I guess I did. No wonder something's been missing, he thought, realising that he'd missed his weekly ritual of writing to Severus.
He stared at the letters, still not quite able to believe how many of them there were, or how their content had changed. Over the years, they'd become longer and more detailed, touching upon more substantive topics; the earliest letters had been little more than written lectures.
The newest letters are more like . . . discussions, Harry thought, admitting to himself that Severus' tone had grown increasingly friendly with each letter. We've been having discussions, and Severus has been interested in what I've been doing—outside of work. He doesn't hate me, does he? So what's all this rot about him marrying Hermione?
Glancing at Blaise's somnolent form on the bed, Harry picked up one of Severus' recent letters to him and read:
Dear Mr Potter,No. He definitely doesn't hate me, Harry thought, putting the letters away and glancing at Blaise. "Will you be all right if I leave you for a bit?"
I trust that you have received my Lethifold repellent and taken it to this Spellcraftre of yours. I had expected a letter before now indicating this, and also a relation of the witch's progress. Of course, you may be too tired to compose simple messages, and I would not wish to tax your reserves. See that you do rest, and refrain from your characteristic bouts of heroic idiocy in your haste to destroy the creatures. I have no desire to attend another funeral this year.
Remember, Mr Potter, that if the situation is too dire for one Auror to handle, there are others in the DMLE who might be called upon to assist you.
Harry fire-called Hermione from the kitchen. She looked frightful, and it was clear that she'd been crying from her dark, wet eyes.
"Nothing, Harry, and shouldn't I be asking you that?"
"What do you mean?"
"You're the one calling me just after dawn," Hermione replied pointedly, sniffling a bit.
"Has something happened between you and Severus? Something that might make Blaise believe he was actually courting you?"
A flash of anger lit Hermione's eyes. "Blaise is an abject arse!"
"He has his moments," Harry replied cautiously. "Tell me about this one."
Hermione quickly related what had happened in the Novitiate kitchen, and Harry whistled in surprise as she concluded her tale.
"Whoa, no wonder he—I mean—that's rough."
"'No wonder he', what?"
"Don't worry about it, I—"
"You're going to tell me, or I'm coming over," Hermione demanded.
Harry sighed, thinking, I don't know if I should be sharing this with her, but deciding that telling Hermione about Blaise was better than her seeing him in his current state. She's seen him this way too often as it is. He told her what Blaise had done and then said, "Look, I think we should clear the air about your feelings for Blaise and his for you—the two of you fancy each other, right?"
Hermione stared at him through the fire.
"Hermione Granger, don't be stubborn! Now's not the time."
"Yes, I fancy him. I don't know if—"
"Stuff! You do know, and he's that upset about—"
"I don't know! He's been dancing around me for over a year! If he . . . if he likes me, then why won't he—"
"Do something about it? Oh, I don't know. Has it escaped your notice that you're rather intimidating? You're beautiful, Hermione, and talented and powerful and intelligent—and fierce as the Four Great Hells! You know that about yourself. You know that some men find it difficult to handle you—I mean," Harry added quickly when Hermione opened her mouth to protest—"that many men feel inadequate to you, and that's hard. Blaise has never valued himself particularly highly, as you well know, and he's terrified of your rejection of him. That's why he's been 'dancing', as you put it, and that scene in the kitchen couldn't have been helpful."
Hermione appeared crestfallen at his words, which, though he didn't let on, relieved Harry after giving such a lecture.
"Oh, I know! I tried to explain, but he accused me of . . . of shagging Severus at the gala!"
Harry snorted, and then he laughed, and Hermione spluttered angrily at him before he could speak again. "Stop—stop! Right, that was bad of him, but you did provoke the man. You know you did."
"I suppose I did, but I don't know how to fix it. Did he . . . did Blaise really go on a bender because of me?"
"Yeah, he did. The potions'll work their way out of his system in a few days. I've already sent a letter to Shacklebolt on Blaise's behalf asking for time off due to his Advocate duties."
"You forged his handwriting?"
"No, I sent the letter as myself. I figured Shacklebolt wouldn't stand on ceremony, and I was right. I'm going to keep Blaise here for awhile, and I think you should avoid the place. In fact, you probably shouldn't speak to him until the next party, all right? He's naffed off but good."
"Fine—but he's all right?"
"No permanent damage, promise, and I'm going to take him up to see Poppy later today. She's always been discreet."
"I really am sorry, Harry."
"Save your apologies for Blaise, Hermione, and don't mention this conversation, please. You know how much he hates it when he loses control. Everything'll be fine, really."
As it happened, Madam Pomfrey was not as easy-going as Harry had expected. She flew into an uncharacteristic rage at Blaise when she discovered the substances he'd ingested.
"You blithering, irresponsible fool! You could have killed yourself! You could have damaged your reproductive system! You could have put yourself into a coma! You're the worst kind of self-indulgent prat! I don't know why I help you, young man, when you seem determined to ruin yourself. We've had this discussion—you must never take these . . . these pollutants! You cannot handle them!"
"An Auror!" Poppy shouted. "An Auror, Mr Zabini, but perhaps not for much longer."
"Poppy," Harry protested.
"Oh, don't 'Poppy', me, Mr Potter. If Mr Zabini does this one more time, I'll report his illegal and reckless behaviour to his superiors. Do I make myself clear?" she demanded, rounding on Blaise.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied meekly, clutching his head.
"Oh, you poor dear," Poppy said, instantly concerned and producing phials. "Take this purgative," she said, handing Blaise a small bottle, "and this cleansing draught," she continued, handing him another one, "and get some rest. You'll be all right physically in a few days, but I'm quite serious in my threat, Mr Zabini," she said, becoming stern again and taking from him the now-empty bottles, "if you do anything as stupid as this again, I will report you."
Having apparently satisfied herself that her promise was understood, Poppy strode off.
"That went well," Blaise muttered to Harry, lying down.
"Actually, I think it did. She's right, you know."
"And you owe several people an apology, I should think."
"Thank you. I'll bring you some parchment, and you can write to Neville."
"You said several. That's just two."
"Accusing Hermione of shagging Severus also rates an apology, I believe."
"Ah. You're right, of course, but . . . ."
"It's beyond fixing with her, I think. I suppose that's for the best."
"What?" Harry asked, alarmed.
"I'm . . . too weak. I need to . . . keep control, and I doubt I'll ever manage that with Hermione, so . . . so I'll apologise, but after I do, I'm done."
"Done, Harry. I can't keep hoping in her direction. I just . . . I just can't."
That's the potions talking. He'll change his mind once he's feeling better. "Well, why don't you just rest now. We can sort out the rest, later."
"There's nothing to 'sort out', mate. I'm an idiot, and she's . . . she's too good for me."
Harry gave Blaise a reassuring pat on the shoulder and sat down next to his cot. It has to be the potions talking. It is, I'm sure of it, he lied to himself.
He couldn't imagine Blaise and Hermione not ending up together. As far as he was concerned, they already were, even though they carried on like a pair of fighting alley cats at times.
He spent the rest of the afternoon watching over Blaise until he was ready to return to Grimmauld, but when Blaise refused to discuss Hermione once there, Harry, who'd been trying to remain calm, had to admit it: he was worried.