Author's note:

Alas, I need to put publication on hiatus for a while, starting after the next chapter (coming January 25, 2023). I'm going through some major life stuff right now (largely good), and it's pushed writing onto the back burner. But I am still committed to finishing Loose Cannon, not least because I also want to know how it's going to end! Admittedly, I know most of the big stuff, but Loose Cannon has always been more about the journey than the destination, and writing brings a steady stream of surprises.

When I resume posting, it'll be here and on AO3, same as before. Note that FFN email notifications are flaky at best, so you might want to subscribe on AO3 just to be safe—and maybe hit "Kudos" while you're at it :)

I sincerely apologize for the hiatus, but believe me, finishing this fic is very important to me.

With love,

Daphne frowned as she surveyed her wardrobe. There were more than enough robes to choose from, she knew, but nothing seemed right for the occasion. It was a reunion with her classmates, hosted by Harry, and everyone was talking about it.

"It's not really a reunion, if you think about it," Padma had said when they got their invitations. "The word 'reunion' implies we were once united, but we never actually have been. So it's more of a reintroduction."

Daphne rather liked that idea, since she never got to know many of her classmates the first time around. But this was a chance to start fresh, which she needed—she'd been unsure how to move forwards since her breakup with Phil. Her parents wanted her to rejoin pure-blood society and find an appropriate match, but she just couldn't. Dating Phil had expanded her world, and she refused to let it shrink again.

But her clothes belonged to a girl she no longer identified with. Even the Muggle outfits she'd bought for her outings with Phil seemed wrong, since they were the costume of someone who'd never experienced heartbreak. But she'd cried many hot tears since buying them, and even though her measurements hadn't changed, they no longer fit.

The only thing she knew for sure was that she wanted to tempt Harry—and reject him. Because his ego was out of control! Here she'd rejected his patently insincere apology, and instead of leaving her alone, he flirted even more! Clearly he considered himself irresistible, but Daphne planned to put him in his place, and make sure he stayed there.

To that end, she asked Pansy to take her shopping. "I want to reinvent myself," she said, not revealing her secondary goal. "You always said I was too uptight, and you were right."

"Thank Salazar—it's about time! But just how sexy are you willing to go? I assume it's Harry you're after."

"I am not!" she insisted. "I have no one in mind—I'm just ready for a change."

"Of course you are," said Pansy, with exaggerated sympathy. "You were dumped, after all."

Daphne sniffed and said, "Tactful as always, Pansy. And in answer to your question, I don't know how sexy I'm willing to go. What range are we talking about?"

With an authoritative air, Pansy said, "On a scale from one to ten, with one being Madam Pince and ten being those two C-squareds Harry was photographed with."

"What about that model he was with in America?"

Pansy laughed and said, "Don't even bother—no mere mortal could possibly compete."

"Fine," Daphne scowled. "I don't know, maybe a seven."

"Eight," countered Pansy. "Next question: which archetype?" Daphne gave her a blank look, and Pansy listed options on her fingers. "Let's see, there's Bad Girl, Daddy's Girl, Ice Queen, Fallen Angel–"

"Fallen Angel," said Daphne, not actually knowing what that entailed.

"Interesting! Are we planning to pull a Lydia Travers?"

"Hardly! I mean, yes, I might have sex before I marry, but I certainly won't announce it in the Prophet or turn up at Dunnings the next morning!"

"I must say, Lydia Travers really gets points for style, and execution," said Pansy, a little starry-eyed. "What's more, she completely got away with it. Really, it almost gives a girl ideas!"

"What, to follow in her footsteps?"

"I don't know, maybe? Times are changing, after all."

"That's a conversation for another day," said Daphne irritably. "Now tell me more about what a fallen angel looks like."

Several hours later, she had her answer: a fallen angel dressed almost like a proper pure-blood, but with a few key differences. Tousled hair, for example, and a black lace choker. Also a slit skirt with very tall boots, and long, dark red fingernails. Other than that, even the strictest dowager would approve of her outfit, and Daphne felt the power of both her place in society and the growing fire within her.

"You claim you're not after Harry," said Pansy, "but I can guarantee he'll love that outfit. Particularly when it's lying on his floor."

"How many times do I have to tell you I'm not interested! He's a lecherous git, and I just want to forget we were ever friends. He certainly did!"

"If you say so. But promise me you'll find another dishy half-blood. I can understand why you'd avoid another Muggle-born, but a magical mutt could be just what the Healer ordered."

Daphne didn't show her new outfit to her parents, but on Saturday her mother noticed her painted fingernails. "What's this?" asked Violetta Greengrass, raising a single eyebrow.

"Pansy and I got manicures this morning," said Daphne. "We have that party tonight, and she talked me into something a little more dramatic."

"And long!" exclaimed her mother. "Did they use a charm?"

Daphne looked down at her nails, which were extended nearly a centimetre past her fingertips. "Yes, and I know they're not very demure. But I wanted something different—the world is changing, after all."

Her mother pressed her lips together, and for a moment she was silent. "I trust your judgment," she finally said. "But I fear you're on a precipice. I too came of age during turbulent times, and I'd be lying if I said I was never tempted to ... let my hair down, as it were. And perhaps I would have done, if I hadn't met your father so soon."

Daphne frowned, and she wondered if her mother would mention sex, or merely dance around the topic.

"It's not your maturity I worry about," Violetta continued. "It's your tender heart. Less than a month ago, you told us you were in love, and you believed it was reciprocated. But you were mistaken—or misled, perhaps."

"Yes, I know," Daphne said, a trifle sharply. "What are you trying to say?"

Her mother's expression softened. "I'm saying I don't want to see you hurt again. You may think you're ready for ... the next step. And I'm sure there are wizards eager to lead you there. But I fear you'll mistake their ardour for something more."

"Mother, it's only nail polish!" she snapped. "I'm not planning to throw away my virtue tonight—I just want to dress a little differently."

Chastened, her mother dropped the subject, but Daphne's irritation remained. I'm not even planning to do anything tonight, she thought. The whole point is to frustrate him!

The thought of a frustrated Harry eventually calmed her, and she wondered how long she could toy with him. If I reject him too early, he'll just find someone else, she mused. I need to let him believe he has a chance.

She took a long walk that afternoon, which put even more colour into her cheeks, and when she returned her father greeted her. "It's my goldenhair girl," he said affectionately. "Look at you, all rosy from the cold."

Daphne smiled at the old nickname, which referred not to her own hair, which hadn't been blond in years, but to her unicorn-hair wand. "I lost track of time," she said. "But you know how I love a walk in the woods."

"We couldn't have picked a better name for you. And your wand proves it—you're a shining example."

Her smile faded as she sensed a hidden agenda. Both her name and her wand core represented purity, yet hers was at risk. "I hope I'll always be a shining example," she said, knowing she had more to offer the world than just her virginity.

"I'm certain you will be. And I hope your greater purpose will always guide you."

For Merlin's sake, it's only nail polish! she thought. "Yes, my greater purpose," she retorted. "Which only I can discover!" Her father frowned, and she immediately regretted her outburst. "Daddy, trust me—I'm always mindful of my place in the world."

"The heir to a noble house," he said soberly. "And I do trust you. But please, trust yourself—only you know what's best for you, and not someone else. No matter how persuasive they might be."

Returning to her bedroom, Daphne wondered if he meant Harry in particular, or some other foul seducer. But I'm the seductress tonight, she thought, and the smile returned to her face.

"Now that you've invited all our classmates, does this mean I don't have to talk to Malfoy after all?" said Ron hopefully.

"Oh, come off it," said Harry. "That was a good apology."

"It was," Ron admitted. "And I never thought he'd tell off his dad, or announce his Dark Mark was gone. Although you really didn't need more attention."

Harry groaned—he'd spent the previous twenty-four hours dealing with the fallout from Draco's revelation. First on Friday, when Rita Skeeter demanded an interview. Then on Saturday at Pratt's, where he received letters from two separate wizards asking him to remove their Marks as well. Which was alarming, since it meant they'd escaped justice.

Naturally, they didn't sign their names, but Harry left replies in the designated spots—one inside a library book, and the other beneath a sofa cushion. And the answer was the same: "I'm sorry, but I can't possibly repeat it. The circumstances were unique, and I could easily have killed him."

To Draco's credit, he also went to Pratt's, mostly to smooth things over with the Dark faction. Harry gave him a wide berth, but he saw him deep in conversation with various Averys, Traverses, Yaxleys, and Rowles—several of whom seemed to forget the Pratt's code of civility when Harry greeted them later.

Meanwhile, the heads of the Light faction gathered around Harry as if he'd just won the Quidditch cup. "Great Merlin, you converted a Malfoy," exclaimed Oscar Abbott. "I'd never have thought it possible."

"I didn't convert him. We still disagree on any number of things, and at best he'll be neutral."

"I'll take it," said Archer Longbottom. "Lucius and Abraxas were relentless adversaries, flinging gold in all directions to advance their agenda. None of us could compete."

"I can say with confidence that Draco plans to keep his gold right where it is," Harry said, and the older wizards laughed heartily.

Harry didn't want to linger at Pratt's, with the party approaching, but Zacharias Smith ambushed him on the way out. "You're just full of surprises, aren't you?"

"What do you want?" said Harry, not inclined to be patient.

"Manners, Potter!" he chided. "First, I'd like to thank you for inviting me to your party tonight. Your others were memorable, of course, but this will only be our classmates, correct?"

"Yes, except for Ron and Hermione's partners—my teammates, Janet Lindhurst and Ryan Bellamy."

"None of your relations, then?"

At first Harry thought he meant Dudley, but then he remembered the Blacks. "No. Why, is there a problem?"

A satisfied smile from Zacharias. "Quite the opposite, actually—I'm on the verge of courting one of them."

Not Lisa! thought Harry. "Which one?" he asked, hoping his alarm wasn't evident.

"Catherine White. And yes, I know her reputation isn't perfect, but I believe she was treated unfairly, both by Malfoy and the world at large."

"She was. Although the whole thing is rubbish from start to finish—there's no such thing as a ruined witch."

"Tell that to my parents," Zacharias grumbled. "They practically demanded an affidavit from the Baxters. That's how we met, actually—at a luncheon hosted by her grandfather, since they're desperate to marry her off. But with her looks and breeding, they really have nothing to worry about."

"Does this mean you have rivals?"

Zacharias scowled. "Yes. The aptly-named Sylvan Burke."

Harry chuckled, recalling the Ministry registrar who had twice tried to thwart him, thanks to a perceived rivalry over Lydia. "Has he declared his intentions yet?"

"Possibly. But he's only heir to a Ministry post, whereas I'll have a Wizengamot seat and a manor."

You're in luck, that's Catherine's type, Harry thought—a bit unfairly, he knew. "Well, I'm sorry for your sake she won't be at the party tonight."

"It's just as well," said Zacharias. "It would be awkward with Malfoy there, and I'd rather not make an enemy. Particularly now that his allegiances are changing." He sniffed and said, "I don't believe for a moment he's solidly in your camp, Dark Mark or no."

"I never claimed he was," said Harry. "Anyway, see you tonight," he added, hoping they wouldn't have to talk again.

Back at Grimmauld Place, the elves were busy with preparations. To Harry's surprise, Pinelle took an active role—normally she hung back while Kreacher and Lodie did all the work, and Harry half-expected her to sip wine and have a smoke. But this time she was front and centre, and she seemed excited to have so many guests.

Maybe she just missed entertaining, Harry thought. She was used to life at Beauxbatons, after all, and other than tending the plants in the conservatory, there wasn't much for her to do at Grimmauld Place. Yet Harry was uneasy—Pinelle seemed to enjoy needling him, within the constraints of the family bond, and she could do a lot of damage if she really wanted.

"Jamie, can you do me a favour?" he asked the portrait, who was playing with Padfoot.

"Gladly! I owe you one for letting me and Aurora attend the party tonight—you've definitely loosened up." Harry grimaced, and Jamie said, "So, what is it?"

"I feel like Pinelle has something up her sleeve," Harry began. "Well, not her sleeve," he said, since she wore only a tea towel. "But she seemed to be casting a lot of spells in the dining room, and nothing was changing, which makes me wonder if she's going to reveal something at the last minute."

Jamie was nodding. "That's distinctly possible. And I notice she dodged your questions … Do you want me to spy on her? Or attempt an interrogation of my own?"

"If you would. I don't mind a surprise, but I'd rather she didn't mortify me in front of our entire class."

"Understood. And I'm flattered you trust me with something like this, considering how things started between us."

"That's an understatement," said Harry dryly. "But I guess Lockhart's good for something," he added, referring to the exercises from Lockhart's book, which they'd done together. Jamie was still unpredictable, of course, but Harry trusted him not to let Pinelle ruin the party.

Jamie left Padfoot's frame, and a long while later he returned with his findings. "You'll like it," he said simply.

Harry blinked. "Is that it? No hint?"

"Nope. You're better off with deniability—this way no one can mock you for it."

"Er, that doesn't sound like something I'll like."

"No, you will, but it'll be much more fun if you're also surprised," said Jamie. "By the way, Pinelle likes me. She says I have élan."

"And I don't?" exclaimed Harry.

"No, you're too neurotic. 'Typically English,' she called you." Harry scowled, and Jamie said, "Actually, you're lucky she likes me, because I talked her out of a couple things you definitely wouldn't appreciate."

"Cheers," said Harry uneasily, then put it to the back of his mind.

Soon it was time to change for the party, and even Ron dressed for the occasion. "Janet's idea," he said, with a bashful glance at his elegant robes. "I told her about the Yule Ball."

Harry nodded, recalling the exceedingly naff second-hand robes Molly had bought him. "Well, that outfit is certainly a step up. How do you feel?"

"A little uncomfortable, to be honest. But Janet says it'll be therapeutic to 'revisit and rewrite a painful memory,'" he said, in a stuffy accent.

"I see. Will you row with Hermione again for fraternising with the enemy, like you did with her and Krum?"

"No, Janet says I'm supposed to rejoice for her and Ryan. Again, to rewrite the past. Which sounds like rubbish, but she promised she'll give me a very happy ending—also to rewrite the past—so I'm not complaining."

"I should probably ask Parvati to dance," Harry mused, "although there'll only be background music, and no dance floor."

"There's a dance floor wherever Neville is standing," joked Ron. "And since when have your parties gone completely to plan?"

Harry knew he couldn't predict the night's outcome, but he had high hopes regarding Daphne. They'd flirted like mad the last few times he'd seen her, and for added amusement, he'd decided to let her make the first move.

The guests soon arrived, pouring one by one from the reception hall Floo and spilling into the entrance hall. By request from the elves, Harry didn't admit them to the dining room right away, which Janet used as an opportunity to introduce herself.

"Excuse me, may I have your attention?" she said in a magically amplified voice. She raised an arm and said, "Tall drink of water, right here next to Harry's dogfather."

Everyone gathered in front of Padfoot, who was accompanied by the spaniel, lapdog, and Hippogriff, each of whom wore a house scarf. Padfoot was Gryffindor, of course, and Harry noted with amusement that the Hippogriff was Slytherin.

"I'm Janet Lindhurst, and on behalf of North Squiffing Secondary and all the other schools you'd never heard of until recently, I'd like to welcome you to what I'm sure will be a fantastic party!"

Loud applause, and she continued. "I'd also like to apologise for intruding on your little reunion, along with my teammate Bellamy over there." She pointed to Ryan, who gave a friendly wave. "Personally, I've learnt a lot about Hogwarts in the months since Ron and I started shagging, and I have to salute you for coming together like this. The war was bad enough from where I was standing, but you lot were right in the middle of it, which can't have been easy."

The crowd had gone quiet, and Harry felt the weight of collective grief. Padma put her arm around Parvati, who was sniffling, and Draco looked down at the floor.

"There's someone I want you to meet," Janet said. "In a sense he was with you every step of the way, and I'm sure he'll look familiar. But he's very much his own person, and I think you'll enjoy getting to know him."

Harry took a deep breath, since he knew what was coming. "Under normal circumstances, you might never have met him," she continued. "But this is Harry's life, so of course it's completely mental." Looking up at Padfoot's frame, she said, "And now, without further ado, I give you Jamie Potter-Black."

Stunned silence, followed by a burst of amused chatter. "Hi," shouted Jamie, over the noise. "Go easy on Harry, will you? He had me painted for the best of all possible reasons—hint, it's an orphan thing. But something went wrong and I won't just stay put like most portraits do."

"Are you also a sex maniac?" asked Dean, laughing.

"I have a healthy private life, yes," said Jamie. "But for now, Harry and I are very much distinct. Which reminds me, there's a lot planned for tonight that Harry doesn't know about, so please don't blame him when things go over the top."

"Over the top?" exclaimed Susan Bones. "Even more than his other parties?"

"Yes, but different," said Jamie. "You'll see. Anyway, I have all his memories, which means I'll know who you are, so please, come and say hi."

People swarmed the portrait but also thanked Harry for hosting the party. Seamus was in the middle of ribbing him about Jamie when Harry turned and saw Daphne—and his heart began to race. Her robes were perfectly appropriate, he knew, but the way she'd put it all together…

Why is a strip of lace around the neck so fucking sexy? he wondered. And oh my god, those boots! he thought, realising how high they went. And his mind had no words for her long, red fingernails—just a burning desire to feel them on his back.

She caught his eye, and the look they exchanged could have melted a cauldron. I'm definitely in, he thought—there was no question how the night would end. But he still planned to let her initiate things, not least to be sure of her consent. Furthermore, he loved the thrill of the chase, and she deserved a taste of it as well.

Next, Kreacher caught his eye—which had a very different effect—and the elf signalled that the dining room was ready. Through their telepathic bond, Harry asked him to open the doors, and everyone turned to look.

"It's the Great Hall!" exclaimed Hannah, and Harry too was stunned. It wasn't the same size—even house-elf magic had its limits—but it was a perfect reproduction of Hogwarts' Great Hall, including the charmed ceiling. The only differences were the lack of a High Table, and a few portraits on the walls.

Harry rushed to greet Banthora, who was dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. "Is it how you remember it?" he asked.

"Yes, to a stone. How perfectly splendid!"

"Are we supposed to sit at house tables?" asked Terry Boot. "Seems to defeat the purpose of a reunion."

Several others expressed the same worry, until Pansy noticed the four-legged stool at the front of the room, where the High Table should have been.

"The Sorting Hat!" she exclaimed. "Harry, how did you get it?"

"I didn't!" he said, and he turned to face Jamie. "It's not the real thing, is it?"

"I most certainly am the real thing!" cried the Hat, before Jamie could reply. "As if there could be an imposter." Everyone gathered in astonishment, and the Hat, unbelievably, began to sing:

"Of all the heads I've looked at,
And houses I've assigned,
I very seldom second-guess
My judgment of your mind.

But in my ample leisure,
I occasionally review
The ways I might have influenced
Young people such as you.

In times of war, as you endured,
House rivalries abound.
And I worry that my Sorting
Might have twisted things around.

I therefore ask permission
(If it wouldn't cause distress)
To look inside your head once more
To see where you fit best.

You're free to disregard it
Since your Hogwarts days are done,
But looking back you'll surely see
Your learning's just begun."

There was a burst of applause, and Harry was impressed by how quickly the Hat had composed a new song—assuming Kreacher had nicked it that afternoon. I should probably tell McGonagall where it's gone, he thought, and in the commotion he popped out to send her a quick letter.

When he returned, Lisa Turpin was arranging everyone in alphabetical order, and Harry soon found himself behind Parvati and Padma Patil, since the exceedingly shy Sally-Anne Perks hadn't come. People were speculating about who might be sorted into a new house, but Harry doubted he'd be reassigned—he was mostly curious what the Hat might tell him this time around.

Hannah Abbott went first, and before she even put on the Hat, Neville shouted, "Come on, Gryffindor!" But the moment it touched her head, the Hat declared, "HUFFLEPUFF!"

Susan Bones stayed in Hufflepuff as well, but the next sorting brought a change, when Terry Boot was assigned to Gryffindor. Not long after, Tracey Davis went to Hufflepuff, which she celebrated by kissing Susan Bones.

The next surprise was Justin Finch-Fletchley, whom the Hat reassigned to Slytherin. "But you're Muggle-born!" blurted Pansy, before clamping her mouth shut.

"So I'm told," said Justin dryly. "But I'm not surprised. The Hat offered me Slytherin the first time around, only I knew its reputation, so I asked for somewhere more friendly. Hence, Hufflepuff."

Makes sense, Harry thought, anticipating more surprises. And the next one came quickly, when Seamus Finnegan was sorted into Ravenclaw.

At first no one spoke, and Seamus looked embarrassed. "Mate, what the fuck?" said Dean Thomas.

"Er, I have a new hobby I never told you about," said Seamus, tugging at his collar. Addressing the entire group, he said, "Muggles have this thing called historical re-enactments, where they get together and pretend to fight a famous battle, only no one gets hurt."

A few people nodded, and Seamus said, "Well, I went to one last summer, with my Muggle cousin, and it was kind of cool. Like, depending on what battle they're doing, people wear army uniforms or even chain mail and stage a big fight. But it's mostly just for the craic, and then they hang around drinking and singing old songs, and they try to make it really accurate.

"I started going on my own, since I can travel and make costumes so easily, and I got really into it. Like, now I do research to get all the details right, and I've been reading first-hand accounts from actual soldiers." Seamus paused. "And I've met other veterans," he said, glancing down. "Obviously I can't tell them I'm one too—they'd never believe it. But it's nice being around people who understand."

After another silence, Anthony Goldstein said, "Welcome to Ravenclaw!" and more cheers followed. Dean gave Seamus a thumbs-up, and the sorting continued.

To no one's surprise at all, Hermione was sorted into Ravenclaw. "About fucking time!" said Ron, and when Hermione laughed, so did everyone else.

Daphne Greengrass was next, and Harry grinned as she slid the Hat over her tousled, light brown hair. The Hat took its time, and her expression was hard to read, which made it all the more surprising when the Hat shouted, "GRYFFINDOR!"

Harry burst out laughing—he couldn't help it—and he wasn't alone. But Daphne looked mortified, and he quickly schooled his expression. "This hat is defective!" she declared, flinging it onto the stool.

"No, you'll be a brilliant Gryffindor," said Neville, in his kindest voice, and a few minutes later he too was sorted into Gryffindor.

When Draco approached the stool, Harry expected the hat to shout "SLYTHERIN" the moment it touched his head, as it had done back in school. But the hat took its time, requiring more than a minute to sort Draco into Slytherin again. When Draco removed the hat, he looked almost shaken, and Harry wondered what the hat might have said.

Theo Nott went to Ravenclaw and Pansy went back to Slytherin. Padma and Parvati also stayed in their original houses, and the hat shouted "SLYTHERIN" before Harry finished pulling it on. Daphne shot him an angry glare, then turned red when Harry winked at her.

The next bit of outrage came from Zacharias Smith, who was also sorted into Slytherin. "But I'm descended from a Founder!" he snapped, chucking the hat to the floor.

"Yeah, but you're still a wanker," Seamus muttered, a little too loud.

The final surprise was Ron, whom the hat sent to Hufflepuff. "Huh," he said, removing it from his head. Harry was too far away to gauge his emotions, but he hoped Ron was pleased. They'd looked down on Hufflepuff back in school, which in hindsight didn't make sense. I'd be proud to be hard-working and loyal, Harry thought.

Blaise Zabini stayed in Slytherin, and the sorting was complete. Or so Harry thought. "What about Janet and Ryan?" asked Ron.

Ryan protested, claiming he'd already been sorted months earlier, while visiting Hogwarts, but Janet dragged him to the stool and made him put the hat on. "RAVENPUFF!" shouted the hat, to general amusement, and Hermione explained the story behind it.

Janet went last, and Harry was delighted when the hat shouted, "HUFFLEPUFF!" But not as delighted as Janet, who marched straight back to Ron and kissed him. "Clearly it's the best house," she said, smoothing her hair.

It was time for dinner, and Harry took a seat at the Slytherin table, a little disappointed Daphne wouldn't be there. But he enjoyed talking with the other Slytherins—save Zacharias, who was still complaining about the hat's decision.

Meanwhile, Draco dodged questions about why his sorting had taken so long. "I think the hat spent too long with Dumbledore," he said with disdain. "Always sticking its nose where it doesn't belong."

"Of course it does!" argued Justin. "It's entire purpose is to read your innermost thoughts."

"Yes, and that's a gross invasion of privacy," said Draco. "I'm surprised it's not considered a Dark artefact." He glanced at the stool and said, "Why is it even still here?"

"Oh, good point," said Harry, and in a silent exchange, he asked Kreacher to take it back to Hogwarts. The elf soon returned with a letter from Professor McGonagall, which Harry assumed was a response to his earlier note. It said:

Dear Harry,

Thanks for your concern, but Kreacher asked my permission before taking the hat. Admittedly, he tried stealing it first, but the castle wards stopped him, so he was forced to obtain it lawfully.

However, the headmaster portraits are easier to abduct. Or so I discovered when I returned to my office after dinner and found a blank spot where Severus used to hang. By any chance would you know about that? Kreacher was rather evasive.

Warm regards,

Harry kneaded his forehead, then ran a hand through his hair. Kreacher, he said silently, since the elf had already gone.

The familiar pop in Harry's mind. Yes, Master!

Is Professor Snape's portrait here? asked Harry, already knowing the answer.

No, Master!

Oh? thought Harry, surprised. Do you know why Professor McGonagall says it's gone missing?

A pause. Is Master referring to Headmistress McGonagall?

Harry let out a sigh as the pieces slid together. I am, he replied. And I'm guessing you know where Headmaster Snape's portrait is.

Yes, Master! It's in the conservatory.

Mystery solved, Harry thought. Thank you, Kreacher. You may go.

The elf vanished from his mind with another pop, and Harry realised the rest of the table was watching him. "Er, there's another surprise upstairs," he said.

"A troll, perhaps?" said Blaise, refilling his wine glass.

"No, that'd be in the dungeons," said Zacharias, and everyone reminisced about the inanity of being sent to their rooms with a troll on the loose.

But Harry needed to make sure Kreacher and Pinelle hadn't recreated Hogwarts in all respects, so he dashed to the painting where Jamie and Aurora had taken up residence.

"So, what do you think?" asked Jamie. "Pretty good surprise, eh?"

"Yes, but promise me there's not a troll running around downstairs."

"Right—remember how I said I talked Pinelle out of a couple things? The troll was one of them."

"And the other?" asked Harry nervously.

Jamie twisted his mouth. "Peeves."

"Oh, Merlin," said Harry, clutching his head again. "Should I expect any other ghosts?"

"No, none at all. And no Basilisk either."

"Right, just Snape," Harry groaned. "Have you talked to him yet?"

This time Jamie looked nervous. "Christ, it hadn't even crossed my mind. Do you think I should?"

"No—I'm sure one of us will be bad enough."

When Harry returned to his table, the other Slytherins were still speculating about the surprise. "It's the Weird Sisters, isn't it?" said Pansy excitedly. "Because you were so pathetic at the Yule Ball, and you want to fix it!"

"It's not the Weird Sisters, nor any other performer," said Harry. "And I'm realising I should probably tell you lot first, since, well ..." He paused, then said, "It's Snape's portrait. Not my idea."

Everyone froze, and Draco went even paler than usual. But Justin was the first to speak. "Yes, I saw him fairly often last year, in McGonagall's office. The first time, I thanked him, of course, and I apologised for any disrespect. But he wasn't exactly friendly—he was still the same old Snape—and we never talked again."

"Right, that's what I was afraid of," said Harry. "Draco, maybe you could go talk to him first? I think he actually liked you."

"Of course he did," said Draco, smoothing his lapels. "And yes, I'll go first. Shall I leave now, to beat the rush?"

Harry asked Lodie to show Draco to the conservatory—a task which delighted her, thanks to the family bond. Pansy and Blaise accompanied them, and Harry informed Theo, who was seated with the Ravenclaws. "But maybe check on him later," Harry said, "since I'm sure he'll need a break after the rest of us."

"Should you warn Daphne as well?" asked Theo, with a glance at the Gryffindor table.

"Good idea," said Harry, pleased for the excuse to flirt with her again.

And Daphne seemed similarly inclined. "Are you here to gloat?" she said archly. "Of course you are—your manners will always be abominable, no matter which house you belong to."

"Classic Gryffindor, jumping to conclusions! No, I'm here for a matter of some delicacy, believe it or not."

"Oh? This must be a side of you I've never seen. Colour me intrigued."

He led her away from the table and said, "I've just learnt there's another surprise upstairs. Snape's portrait."

In an instant she looked younger, and her hand found the lace choker at her neck. "Great Merlin," she murmured. "I can't talk to him like this."

"Like what?" said Harry gently.

"Like a tart!" She was smoothing her tousled hair and said, "At least he won't see my boots. Or will he? I never know what portraits can see."

"He'll see a beautiful young witch," said Harry, his voice low. Then he winked and said, "But don't worry—he only had eyes for my mum."

Daphne's jaw dropped. "You devil! Whenever I start to think you're at all decent ..."

"So that was your mistake!" he joked. "No, I'm a roué, remember? But please, let me show you to the conservatory. Draco and a few others are there already."

"You have a conservatory?" she said, and he explained as they walked upstairs—omitting the prophecy.

"I should have suspected the Blacks wouldn't live in such a run-down house," said Harry, "but magic is always surprising me."

"It's a terrible shame you weren't raised in the magical world," she said absently.

"It is," he agreed. "But that's not how it happened."

They reached the conservatory, but he couldn't see her reaction, since he waited in the corridor—he didn't want to intrude on their reunion. But his other classmates soon arrived, and Harry told them what awaited them.

"Snape!" blurted Ron. "In there? Right now?"

Neville went pale. "Will he be able to see everyone? Or is he facing a corner, or maybe some plants?"

"I honestly don't know," said Harry. "Would you like me to check? I can send Kreacher in."

"I'll go!" said Seamus. "Do you reckon I should blow up a cauldron? You know, for old times' sake?"

But Padma said, "You're not a Gryffindor anymore! Try to behave!"

Seamus scowled, muttering darkly about killjoy hats, and they poured into the conservatory. Everyone exclaimed over the stained-glass dome, and Neville found a dense clump of plants to examine.

The room was dotted with tables and chairs, where people sat down for dessert. Daphne finished talking with Snape, and Harry stifled a grin when Pansy tousled Daphne's hair again. I should have known Pansy was involved, he thought.

"Have you talked to Professor Snape yet?" asked Hermione, drawing his attention from Daphne.

"Er, no. And I should probably make sure he's all right—Kreacher basically abducted him."

"Do you want moral support?"

Harry shook his head. "No, I think this is one of those things I need to do alone. But thanks."

He waited for Roger Malone to finish what looked like a stilted exchange, then slowly approached the portrait himself. When was he even painted? Harry wondered. And couldn't the artist have made his hair less greasy?

"Potter," said Snape, the same old contempt in his voice. "Truly you were born to torment me."

"I'm sorry—it wasn't my idea to bring you here. I can have Kreacher take you home if you like."

"And miss the scene of your triumph? No, my penance lacked variety, and this fills a much-needed gap."

"Suit yourself," said Harry. "Sir," he added belatedly.

The portrait sniffed. "I'm not your professor anymore."

"No, but you saved my life. Multiple times, in fact."

"I didn't do it for you," he retorted.

"I know, but I'm still grateful." Harry sighed, then said, "Honestly, you probably remember my mum better than anyone I could talk to."

"I probably do. I daresay I knew her better than anyone at all." Harry couldn't hide his scepticism, and Snape said, "Yes, better even than your father. For years she barely gave him the time of day."

I'm guessing she made up for it, Harry thought. "What can you tell me, then?" he asked, hoping Snape would reveal something he'd never heard.

"I can tell you any number of things," he said loftily. "For example, before she got her wand—or even knew she was a witch—she was able to bring wilted flowers back to life."

"Right," said Harry, recalling the scene himself. "That was in one of the memories you gave me."

Snape blinked. "Ah. Indeed it was." He paused, then said, "During the Easter holidays second year, Lily brought home an enchanted globe full of tadpoles, to observe their gestation. But her odious sister had a tantrum, so she gave it to me for safekeeping until we returned to Hogwarts."

Harry smiled a little and said, "Aunt Petunia mentioned that once, when I found out I was a wizard—something about pockets full of frog-spawn, but I didn't know the details. So thanks for that." He wanted to hear more but was reluctant to be a bother, so he just waited, hoping Snape would continue.

For a moment the portrait was silent, and the lines on his forehead deepened. "She wished she could have grown up in a magical household. So did I, for that matter, and we used to imagine what our kids' lives would be like, surrounded by magic from day one."

"Your kids together?" asked Harry, hoping his horror wasn't visible.

"No," Snape said flatly. "Not for her, anyway. Regrettably, I imagined a different future than she did."

Harry didn't say he could relate, even though he'd lost futures with both Ginny and Fiona. It had hurt, certainly, but it wasn't the same as losing them to someone he loathed.

"I suppose neither of you got that wish," Harry said. "I certainly didn't grow up with magic. And I'm assuming you didn't sprog on the sly."

A frosty glare from the portrait. "I did not."

There was another long silence, which Harry finally broke. "I'm sorry my dad was such an arse. I honestly don't know what to make of him, or whether to even consider him a role model. I guess he must have improved, if my mum was willing to marry him. But still, it's hard to forget that memory of him by the lake."

Snape winced. "That memory is remarkably tenacious," he drawled. "But yes, your father improved."

It was the last thing Harry expected him to say, and he wanted to hear more. "How?" he said, his voice cracking.

At first, Snape's expression was unreadable. Is that compassion? Harry wondered.

"The war," Snape bit out. "His actions were both brave and honourable."

The ensuing silence told Harry not to ask further questions. "Thank you, sir," he said. "And I'm sorry for making things harder for you all those years."

A terse nod from the portrait, and Harry was dismissed. Tracey Davis took his place, and Harry found Hermione again.

"Are you all right?" she asked. "What did you talk about?"

"My parents," he said, a bit overwhelmed. "And I apologised to him."

"For bringing him here?"

"No, for making his life harder."

She scowled and said, "He could have made the same apology to you!"

Harry assured her it was fine, then took a seat with his most boisterous friends, since there would be no need for him to talk. While Seamus and Janet took turns belching out incantations—and chaotically casting charms—Harry pondered Snape's words.

"Yes, your father improved." It wasn't the first time he'd heard it, but never from Snape. And in the noisy class reunion unfolding around him, it was a surprising source of calm.

She was trying to hide it, but Daphne was still indignant about her new house. I'm not a Gryffindor! she kept telling herself. Gryffindors are noisy, brash, and borderline moronic!

She watched in disgust as Seamus Finnegan tried to hover a floral arrangement but somehow set fire to it. And yet he's a Ravenclaw now, while I'm in the house of barbarians!

Her argument with the hat kept replaying in her mind. "Oho, what's this?" the hat said. "Can it be an impetuous streak?"

"No, of course not," she thought in reply. "I'm merely less timid than I was as a girl. But I'm still very much a Slytherin."

"I'll be the judge of that. In fact—I am the judge of that!" said the hat gleefully. "And I have been for the last thousand years!"

"Then you'll know that for a thousand years, the Greengrasses have gone to Slytherin."

"Really? How very predictable! I should remedy that."

"Ravenclaw!" she thought desperately. "Or Hufflepuff! You just sent my friend Tracey there, and I'm terribly loyal!"

The hat chuckled. "You're forgetting I can read more than just your verbal thoughts," it said. "And I'm seeing both courage and fear—and the potential for greatness should your courage win out."

"Potential for greatness is Slytherin!" she insisted, over the pounding of her heart. "I'm very ambitious!"

"No, I'd describe you more as 'cautious.' In fact, that's why I sent you to Slytherin the first time around. But I believe it's time to throw caution to the wind, and there's no better house for that than GRYFFINDOR!"

Daphne's cheeks were burning when she pulled off the hat, and some of her classmates laughed at her, including Harry. And to add insult to injury, he was instantly sorted into Slytherin again, even though he was as brash and reckless as ever!

Maybe he tricked the hat with Occlumency, she thought sourly, watching him ignore the chaos around him. He was seated at the loudest table in the room but seemed to be elsewhere entirely, with a faraway expression. Is that Light magic? she wondered. No, he's probably just thinking about sex.

She decided to flirt with him again, with the goal of dashing his hopes. He was shocked when I slapped him, but thwarting him tonight will be even better. Obviously he'd still have options—if nothing else, he could go to Penumbra after the party. But he'd feel the sting of her rejection, and she relished being among the very few witches to turn him down.

Aroused by the sense of her own power, she approached him. "Aren't you worried they'll burn down the house?" she asked, indicating his raucous companions.

Harry blinked, as though he hadn't previously noticed them. "Not really. Although, come to think of it, they might hurt the plants, which the house-elves wouldn't appreciate."

But instead of ordering everyone to stop, he addressed only his teammate and said, "Hey, Janet—you're terrifying the elves. And trust me, you don't want to make an enemy of them."

"Fuck, you're right," said Janet, and Harry slipped away while she got the others under control.

"Mischief managed," he told Daphne. "If I'd demanded they stop, Janet would just retaliate with something even worse. But this way she'll think it's her own idea."

"If you're trying to impress me with your manipulation skills, you aren't succeeding," she said stiffly.

"And yet I've been called an expert at manipulation," he said, with a gleam in his eye.

"Your innuendo is gauche and unwelcome," said Daphne, trying hard not to think about his famously skilled hands.

"What innuendo?" said Harry innocently. "I meant the article in today's Prophet, which accused me of manipulating Draco. Or did you mean some other kind of manipulation?"

She straightened and said, "That sort of talk may work on other witches, but believe me, you're stirring the wrong cauldron."

He raised a single eyebrow, jet black beneath his iconic scar. "First manipulation, now cauldrons! I feel like you're steering the conversation down a specific path."

"In your dreams, Potter," she retorted. But before leaving, she shot him a smouldering look.

For the next hour, Daphne alternated between chatting with her classmates and saucy exchanges with Harry, which eventually drew comment from Granger, of all people.

"Are you actually interested in Harry, or are you just punishing him?" asked Hermione, getting straight to the point.

Gryffindor candour, Daphne thought. "Did he tell you what happened? Of course he did—he's incapable of discretion."

"That's not entirely true—he kept his relationship with Fiona secret for weeks. But yes, he told me what happened, and how truly sorry he was."

"And you believe him?"

Hermione looked affronted. "Of course I do! He's the most sincere person I've ever known. And yes, he's promiscuous, but he has the world's biggest heart."

"But how do those even go together?" asked Daphne, genuinely curious. "If he's so romantic, shouldn't he just find one witch and stay with her?"

"Don't you think he's tried?" said Hermione sharply. "First with Ginny, then Helena, then Fiona. But no, I think he's meant to have a manwhore phase."

"Meant to! Are you saying there's another prophecy?"

"Well, there's the Black family prophecy, which says his manhood will be of world renown, although that could just be his adverts. But consider the good he's done by overtly linking Light magic with sexuality. People look at Harry and think, 'I want that'—whether it's his wardrobe, his social status, or literally his body."

"Maybe," said Daphne, aware she was attracted to all three. "But what do those have to do with Light magic?"

"They prove that worldly success and virtue aren't incompatible," said Hermione, sounding rather like the know-it-all Daphne remembered.

"Virtue!" exclaimed Daphne, and several people turned. "He's hardly virtuous," she said more quietly. "He's with a new witch nearly every week!"

"Daphne, you're missing the point. I probably know him better than anyone, and he's absolutely swimming in love. Yes, there's also lust, but that's true for nearly every wizard our age—the only difference is Harry has more opportunities. In fact, our Light magic teacher actually praised his restraint."

"He wasn't very restrained with me," said Daphne indignantly. "There I was, crying my eyes out, and he tried to kiss me! If that was restraint, I shudder to think what else he might have tried!"

"He'd never do that!" snapped Hermione. "His behaviour with you was a first, and he was absolutely mortified afterwards." She paused, then said, "The details are private, but he took steps to ensure he'll never do something like that again."

Daphne was intrigued. "Really? What kind of steps?" she asked, imagining some kind of blood oath.

"The details are private," Hermione repeated, and they wrapped up their conversation. Daphne continued to circulate, and Tracey eventually dragged her to meet Harry's portrait.

"And his girlfriend," Tracey added. "She's like two hundred years old and I heard she's a murderess! But she's terribly glamorous—come, you'll see."

They approached the large frame, in which Harry and a haughty-looking witch were quarrelling. "No, I promised Harry I wouldn't," he told the witch.

"But I want to change into my scarlet robes with the ostrich-feather collar, to match the ruby nightshade over there," she said, pointing her fan towards a cluster of flowers. "But your waistcoat has a peacock-feather jacquard, which will clash horribly!"

Harry—No, Jamie, Daphne reminded herself—looked down at the waistcoat in question. "It's silver on black," he argued. "And no one will care if it's a different kind of feather."

"I'll care! And I'm sure Harry won't notice if you change."

"I gave him my word," Jamie said. "But maybe you can wear your long ruby earrings instead. They'd look smashing with a high neckline and your hair all piled up."

She struck a graceful pose as she considered his suggestion, and Daphne could tell she took her role as a portrait seriously. "All right," said the witch, and seconds later she returned wearing the earrings, dress, and an elaborate new hairstyle.

"Oh, hello!" said Jamie to Daphne. "Didn't see you there. Have you met Aurora?"

Slightly annoyed Harry's portrait hadn't noticed her, Daphne introduced herself to his companion. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Black. I'm Daphne Greengrass," she said with a curtsy, hoping her own outfit was sufficiently chic.

Aurora arched a single eyebrow. "Miss Greengrass," she drawled. "If memory serves, you're the one who slapped Harry. Well done—I'm sure he deserved it."

"Does that mean I'm the first?" said Daphne, piqued.

"First and only!" said Jamie. "Although I'm another story," he continued. "Portraits can't feel pain, only pleasure. Which means I've been slapped by any number of women." He gave Aurora a roguish look, and said, "Haven't I?"

At first Aurora didn't reply, and her breath quickened. "You certainly have," she said in a low voice, and Daphne felt her own heart speed up. "Such a naughty young wizard!"

Jamie took Aurora's hand and brushed his lips across her fingers. "You know, it was Daphne who taught me etiquette," he said. "Until she took me on, I was just a blundering Gryffindor."

"Brash, perhaps," said Aurora. "But never blundering."

Their fingers twined, and Daphne suddenly felt like an intruder—or a voyeur. She glanced at Tracey, who was also staring at the canvas.

"I think I'll go find Susan," Tracey whispered, and in an instant she was gone.

Meanwhile, Daphne needed a drink. She'd had wine with dinner—nothing she couldn't handle—but full sobriety could return at any moment, and she wanted to delay it.

A few sips of red wine soon relaxed her, and Harry found her again. "The wine matches your nails," he said. "But not your lips."

"Red lips are for harlots," she said, quoting her mother.

"And you're not a harlot," said Harry simply. "You're just a very desirable witch."

Desirable Number One, she thought, relishing his attention. "And you're a scoundrel. Really, it's very wrong for you to address me like that, when I never even accepted your apology."

He locked eyes with her, as his portrait had done with Aurora Black. "But you know I was sincere, right?"

"Hermione Granger claims you were. She said you took steps to ensure you'll never do anything like that again." Daphne hoped she looked stern, but she suspected she didn't, since she was drowning in his gaze.

"That's right. I won't," he said, then walked away.

For a moment Daphne just gaped—she'd expected him to take her hand, or even kiss it, as Jamie had done. But he started talking with Neville Longbottom, and it looked like they were forming a plan. More than one house-elf appeared, and Harry also called over his teammate, Ryan Bellamy.

After several more minutes, Harry made an announcement. "By popular demand—and by 'popular demand' I mean Neville—there'll be dancing in the music room, just down the corridor," he said, pointing towards the door. "And Ryan wants me to warn you it's not his ideal playlist, since all we have are my records. But he'll try to make the best of it, and I'm sure it'll be better than nothing."

Roughly half the guests followed Bellamy and Granger, but Harry remained, and Daphne wasn't sure what to do. At first she tried catching his eye, which usually launched a new round of flirtation, but he no longer seemed interested. Did I fail some kind of test? she wondered, and she reviewed their last exchange.

I said red lips are for harlots ... did that make me sound like a prude? She re-tousled her hair and adjusted her skirt to reveal more of her boots—and a hint of bare leg. But when Harry surveyed the room, he only looked through her.

Daphne glanced at his portrait, who was still in close conversation with Aurora Black. They weren't behaving inappropriately—it wasn't like Harry's photograph with those two C-squareds—but their intimacy was unmistakable. I want that! thought Daphne, imagining herself in Aurora's place.

Harry was still ignoring her, but Michael Corner started chatting her up, and she allowed it. She even flirted a little, to Michael's obvious surprise—according to Padma, he thought was pretty but way too uptight. It turned out, however, he had a girlfriend from another school. "Binglingham," he said, and Daphne smiled weakly. That's where Phil went, she thought.

She excused herself and went to the loo, idly wondering if she should redden her lips to match her nails. But they were still demurely pink when she emerged, and she nearly bumped into Harry. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "Are you on your way to the dance floor?"

"I haven't decided. There are some great conversations still happening, but I also love dancing." He chuckled and said, "I tried bringing everyone together, but I think it's turning into two separate parties."

Then I'm free to disappear, Daphne realised, since everyone would assume she was with the other group. "Get in here," she said abruptly, and before he could reply, she pulled him into the bathroom.

"Miss Greengrass!" he exclaimed. "Does this mean you accept my apology?"

"Shut up and kiss me," she said, pulling him close and locking the door.