A Summer Place
Here is the next chapter for you :)
For those interested, Chapter 30 is now available on my website.
As always, thank you all for the support on the story, the reviews etc are appreciated.
For the second time in only a week, Harry found himself seated opposite a rather bemused man, this one short and rotund where the prospective purveyor of all things producing colourful explosives had been tall and wiry.
Dr Filibuster, or Bryan Gould as was his given name, had believed his time was being wasted when he had been approached by a teen, but in less than an hour, he and Harry had parted ways, both happy with the deal they had struck.
Filibuster left with a pocket full of gold, and Harry with the knowledge that the man would turn him a solid profit, at least until Fred and George brought their own fireworks to the market, something Harry would once again invest in if the opportunity arose.
"You're Harry Evans?" the man asked suspiciously.
"And you are Mr Drooble?"
"My name is Ken Gladding," the man snorted. "It's always best to use your alias when dealing with purebloods. People like me might line their pockets, but most take exception to giving gold to us muggleborns."
"I'm not a pureblood," Harry pointed out.
"But you are the same Harry Evans that wrote of your interest in investing in my idea?"
"I am," Harry confirmed. "I think your product will prove to be popular."
The portly man nodded keenly.
"It will be, I mean, I think it will be, but, no offense, you're just a kid."
"And who would know better than a kid what would be popular?" Harry countered.
"True," Gladding conceded. "Do you really have the gold?"
"I do, and I can assure you that it is mine."
"I wasn't suggesting…"
"I know," Harry cut him off. "So, do you have a sample?"
He had purchased the gum himself on a few occasions and knew how well it worked, but he needed to appear to be thorough.
The man nervously handed over something wrapped in plain, brown paper, and when Harry undid it, it was to find the very same thing he'd had before.
Carefully, he popped the piece of gum in his mouth, the taste of strawberry strong, but not unpleasant.
"Blow a bubble," his associate urged excitedly. "That is the best part about it!"
Harry humoured the man, and as he did so, the bubble he blew grew to what should have been an impossible size before smaller bubbles formed off it and floated into the air around them.
"See, it's marvellous," Gladding declared.
"It is," Harry agreed, the flavour of the gum and resulting bubbles reminding him of when he and Ron had filled the dormitory with them.
Neville had been displeased when he'd entered and found Trevor floating eight feet above the floor.
He'd gotten over it, though the memory brought a smile to Harry's lips.
"You said you needed forty-five galleons?"
"I thought it best to ask for that size of sum because you never know what expenses might come up," he explained.
"And how much will you sell them for?" Harry asked.
"I could sell them singularly for three knuts a piece, or a pack of five for ten" Gladding explained. "You would own thirty-three percent of the company, so would receive a third of the profits. I know it seems risky, but I'm confident this will work."
He didn't seem so confident, but Harry was. 33% of Drooble's Best Blowing Gum was not something to turn his nose up at.
"Then you have a deal," he replied, offering the man his hand.
"Just like that?"
"Yes," Harry answered seriously. "I think you are on to something, and I'd like to invest."
Gladding practically tore his arm off with how enthusiastically he shook the proffered limb as he spouted his gratitude and how well he believed they would do.
Harry could only laugh, the man's excitement proving to be quite contagious.
"I'll visit a lawyer immediately and have a contract drawn-up," Gladding declared. "You won't regret this young man. I'll send it to you before the day is out."
Harry could only shake his head as his newest business partner all but skipped down the street. Where Mr Gladding was going, he didn't know, but Harry was returning back to Hogwarts.
It was a hot, July day, too hot to be in London for much longer, and though the sun was also beaming over the castle, it was much cooler inside.
He paid the waiter for his juice, and left, removing, and staring at his newly acquired apparation licence that he had been granted this very morning.
He was seventeen today, a fully fledged adult in the wizarding world, though he didn't feel it.
He had always envisioned spending this day with Ron and Hermione, perhaps playing a little Quidditch with the Weasleys, and maybe being allowed to visit Sirius.
He snorted at the thought.
'Being allowed to visit'
His former self probably would have sought permission from Dumbledore or even Mrs Weasley, but not now, not since he had arrived here, and he had changed.
He still questioned whether these changes were solely due to the ritual he had undergone at the hands of the Flamels, or if it was losing his godfather how he had that inspired some of them.
He knew not, but he wouldn't be seeking permission from anyone for anything.
He was a man now, and his decisions would be his own.
With a final glance around the alley, he vanished with a soft pop, arriving at outside the gates of Hogwarts a moment later.
During his apparation test, he had been instructed to travel from Cornwall to Perth in Scotland, and having done so successfully, he knew the trip from London to the castle would be no more difficult.
Still, he took a moment to allow the slight nausea to pass, something his instructor of the morning assured would stop happening the more he travelled.
Once his stomach had settled, he headed inside, pleased to be out of the sun when he found himself in the Entrance Hall.
"It's a warm one, isn't it?"
She was wearing a red dress and matching hat, her dark hair spilling over her shoulders in curls, and skin as pale as ever.
"You should probably get some sun," Harry quipped.
Minerva smirked and nodded towards the picnic basket she was carrying.
"As could you," she returned. "Come on, we can eat outside today."
"It's hot," Harry complained.
Undeterred, Minerva gave him a pointed look and stepped outside, followed only a moment later by a grumbling Harry.
"You are a wizard, are you not?" she asked as she walked towards a large tree on the left of the grounds. "Anyway, we can always sit in the shade if it is too much for you."
Harry laughed as he fell into step beside the determined girl. She was stubborn at the best of times, but when her mind was set on something, there was no talking her out of it.
He had known this already but spending as much time together as they had over the past weeks had given him time to really get to know Minerva McGonagall without any other around, or whilst he struggled to adjust to his surroundings.
Stubborn she may be, but she was a sweet girl, attentive, selfless, and above all else, trustworthy.
He had come to treasure her company, her brilliance, and even her candidness.
"Are you not going to ask me how I got on?"
"Do I need to?" Minerva replied. "If you failed your apparation exam, then I don't know what to tell you."
"So, you prepared a celebratory picnic anyway?"
"This is for your birthday," Minerva corrected. "You may want to ignore it, but tough luck. You're going to celebrate it with me as you made me with mine."
Charlus had written to him to tell him that her birthday was at the beginning of July and Harry had not let it pass unnoticed. He'd had a cake made for her and made sure she'd celebrated. He even made her wear a large badge that announced what day it was to the few people they'd encountered around the castle, much to her chagrin. However, she had taken it in good humour and appreciated his efforts.
Now, it was his turn to reap what he had sown.
"Did Charlus write to you?"
"He did," Minerva confirmed with an innocent smile, "but even if he hadn't, it wouldn't have taken Gamp to figure out it is today. I know you, Harry, and you wouldn't have waited any longer than necessary to take you apparation exam."
"Bloody Charlus," he grumbled, putting the blame on the Potter heir.
"He's a nosy sod," Minerva agreed, "but we can deal with him later. For now, it's your birthday and you're going to enjoy it."
Harry paused as they came before an enormous oak tree that he had never seen on the castle grounds, and it wasn't until he saw the edge of the forest where Hagrid's hut would one day sit that he realised why it was not familiar.
The Whomping Willow had been here in the place of this tree, and through the tunnel below it, the place he had first met Sirius.
"Are you okay?" Minerva asked worriedly.
"I'm fine," Harry replied.
His godfather would never believe the life Harry was living now and would probably find the entire situation hilarious.
Thoughts of the man still brought an ache to his chest, but this time, a smile with it.
He would never get over the loss, more so how Sirius had died, but he had made peace with it as best he could, and the man would be furious if he knew that Harry allowed himself to be burdened with it for the rest of his life.
"Honestly, I'm fine, it's just that this was a different tree where I came from."
"A different tree?"
"A Whomping Willow," Harry confirmed.
"Why on Earth would one of those be put here?"
"Now that is a very long story," Harry chuckled. "You'll understand one day."
Minerva hummed, but let the topic go as she reached into the bag and removed several wrapped plates of food, the last being the biggest treacle tart that Harry had ever seen.
"I'll never eat all of that," he snorted, surprised that she had remembered it was his favourite.
"Then it is a good job that you have me to help you," Minerva returned, jamming a spoon into the dessert, and removing a sizable piece.
"I didn't say I don't want any," Harry grumbled.
"Then you'd better get some before it is all gone," the girl teased, taking another generous mouthful.
"Oi!" Harry protested, checking the basket for another spoon, only to find there wasn't one. "There's only one spoon!"
Minerva shrugged, a smug grin tugging at her lips as she took aim once more, only to squeal as Harry tackled her away from the dessert.
"Give me the spoon!" he demanded.
"Get your own!" Minerva replied stubbornly, holding the utensil tight to her chest.
The scuffle continued until Harry emerged, holding the spoon triumphantly aloft only a moment later with Minerva scowling at him.
Taking pity on the girl, he conjured another and handed it to her, the look of disapproval vanishing almost immediately.
"Did you forget you could have done that in the first place?" he asked, content that he was getting his share of his birthday treat.
Minerva shook her head.
"No, it was just much more fun that way," she answered, her cheeks slightly reddened.
"Only because you got more than me," Harry muttered, nudging her away from the tart.
"Maybe," Minerva agreed, "or I just liked having to see you work for it."
"But it's my birthday," Harry groaned. "Aren't you supposed to be nice to me?"
Minerva shrugged, her eyes alight with amusement as her glance shifted to the final bite of the tart that remained.
"Don't do it," Harry warned.
Minerva released a dramatic sigh before scooping up the morsel of dessert with her spoon and offering it to him.
"Don't say I've never done anything for you."
Harry took the tart from her spoon and chuckled.
"Best birthday present ever," he declared.
Minerva shook her head, smiling, and Harry returned the gesture.
As far as birthdays went, he'd had many worse ones, and few better than this.
He missed his friends, and the others he had come to know over the years, but for the first time since arriving, he knew there'd be someone else he missed just as much if she wasn't here.
The Lord Black had opted to spend the summer months on the continent to 'reconnect with his lost children', or so the note he had left for Arcturus and Dorea had explained.
Arcturus knew better.
His father had been summoned so that he could be manipulated further by Grindelwald.
Not that the Black heir could find it within him to care. With his father absent, he would not have to endure the mad ramblings of the man, nor sporadic outbursts of anger.
That left him in charge of the family affairs, and what he discovered thus far was concerning.
According to the bank statements, the family wealth was as it had always been, the coffers full and continuing to grow steadily, but Orion Black had already begun funding his new-found ally.
Large sums were being withdrawn on a monthly basis, but Arcturus had expected that. Of course, Grindelwald would expect donations to fund whatever efforts he was making.
No, although this was concerning, it would not cripple them financially. What concerned Arcturus was the seemingly unanswered missives that had been received over the past months.
Evidently, word of his father's mental deterioration had gotten out, and there were those that would never dare make such requests doing so. Loans, investment proposals, and even marriage contracts could be found amongst the letters, for both him and Dorea.
"Bastards!" Arcturus seethed.
He could only be grateful that they had been left unopened, ignored by his father, but had there been others?
With a loud crack, the elf tasked with caring for Orion appeared and offered him a bow.
"Master Black called for Clayton?"
"Has my father answered any letters recently?" Arcturus demanded, holding the stack of parchment aloft.
The elf shook his head frantically.
"No, Master Black. Lord Black has not written to any in more than six months. I have been keeping the letters from him."
"So, he hasn't met with anyone?"
Once more, the elf shook his head.
"Not in England, Master Black. Lord Selwyn tried to visit, but I sent him away."
Arcturus nodded gratefully.
His father must have encountered someone on the continent and word had made it back to Britain.
"Thank you, Clayton," he said, dismissing the elf. "Fucking Selwyn!"
The Lord had all but commanded that Orion sign a contract for Dorea to marry his son.
"Over my dead body," he growled, his hand twitching towards his wand.
Dorea would not be marrying a Selwyn. She was much too good for any of their lot.
He would be having a word with the man at his earliest convenience, and many others too by the looks of things.
Jugson had asked for a loan of 1,000 Galleons, Lestrange a marriage between him and his eldest daughter who was almost fifteen-years Arcturus's senior and demanded 500 Galleons for the privilege. Parkinson had attempted to swindle the family of their holdings in several businesses for a measly sum.
Arcturus eagerly awaited a conversation with each of them.
"Or all at the same time," he muttered to himself, an idea forming.
He frowned as he heard the floo activate from the adjoining room, and crossed the length of his father's study, only to feel his temper flare once more.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded.
"That's not a nice way to greet your brother," Perseus chided with a grin.
"Brother?" Arcturus snorted. "The day you left me here to deal with all this shit was when you stopped being my brother!"
Perseus's jaw tightened, but his smile was back in place only a second later.
"Come on, Archie, you don't really blame me, do you? Wouldn't you have done the same in my position?"
"I would never have left you and Dorea here," Arcturus returned. "Now, what do you want?"
"I just want to see my little brother and sister," Perseus replied.
"Bollocks," Arcturus snorted. "You've had almost five years to come and visit us. You haven't even written, and neither has Cassie."
"We've been busy, Arcturus," Perseus sighed patronisingly. "What good would a letter have done? I couldn't explain what we were doing."
"You could have written to Dorea at least!" Arcturus snapped. "I couldn't give a fuck about you. You proved to me that you were a coward when you ran away without even a goodbye…"
"I did not run away!" Perseus cut in angrily.
"And there is the brother I remember," Arcturus chuckled. "The little boy who screamed and shouted when he didn't get his own way. Why don't you piss off back to your master? We don't want you here."
Perseus took a calming breath.
"You don't understand what is happening out there…"
"I understand well enough," Arcturus bit back. "Your master is attempting to do something that will lead so many to war all because he wants power."
"Gellert doesn't want power, Arcturus, he wants peace!"
"We have peace, Perseus!" Arcturus growled.
"But we don't have freedom," Perseus countered.
Arcturus snorted and shook his head.
"If you believe that we don't have freedom, then you are more of a fool than I thought. What can't we do that robs us of anything?"
"I didn't mean it like that."
"No, you meant it exactly how you said it. Your master wants power, just like every other idiot who ever decided to fight against the system. How many people have to die to give him what he wants?"
"Spoils of war, little brother," Perseus said dismissively.
Arcturus shook his head.
"So, you're fine with Dorea being one of those spoils? You're fine with seeing everything our ancestors worked for, taken from us to line the pockets of your master?"
"Dorea?" Perseus questioned.
"You really are a prat," Arcturus sighed. "What happens when your master turns his attention to Britain, and if, that's a big if, he wins? Do you think he will be content with just having it under his belt? No, he will want his spoils of war as you called them and that means obedience from any that would continue fighting against him. How do you think he will achieve that?"
"You're not making sense, Arcturus. Gellert doesn't have any need of a little girl."
"Of course he does, you idiot," Arcturus replied. "He would marry Dorea off to one of his lot against her will to ensure the family stays in line."
"We're already in line!"
Arcturus shook his head.
"No, we are not," he said firmly. "You and father might be happy to be a traitor to our country, but I am not. England has given us everything, it is our home, and the magical folk here have never been conquered. Even the muggles haven't been conquered in over nine hundred years. So long as I breathe, I will keep our sister safe from your lot, and I will do all I can to defend my country! As will so many others across the world that Grindelwald tries to bring to heel. He is one man, Perseus, and he cannot take on the world."
"Gellert won't need to," Perseus chuckled. "One by one, nations will see the world through his eyes and want to join him. He already has support."
"Through intimidation and extortion!"
"No, little brother, because he is what is best for the future, for the greater good," Perseus declared. "I've seen his power, Arcturus. There are none that can stand against him. He will win, and I would rather that you were stood by my side when he does."
"And I would rather you piss off and take your bullshit to someone you can manipulate. You didn't come here to see me or Dorea, but to try to worm your way back in. You might have managed to take advantage of father and his weakened mind, but my mine is strong and will not be swayed. I can see through the fake smile you wear and smell the shit spewing from your tongue. I won't be turned by the words of your master. Did he send you here, Perseus?"
"Gellert only wishes for us all to be on the same page," Perseus answered.
Arcturus closed the distance between himself and his older brother.
"Then you can tell him from me that he can fuck himself," he spat.
Any joviality that had remained in the former Black heir all but vanished at Arcturus's statement, and Perseus reached for his wand.
"NO!" Dorea screamed, pushing herself between her brothers having burst into the room. "Stop it, both of you!"
"Dorea," Perseus greeted the girl. "You're all grown up!"
"Something you would have seen if you had bothered to visit," she returned heatedly. "Just go, Perseus. You chose your life, and we weren't a part of it."
"But you can be!"
Dorea shook her head.
"No, we can't," she sighed. "You made your choices a long time ago, and you have to live with them. You didn't think of us at all these past five years, so don't pretend you care now. You were always a terrible liar."
Perseus narrowed his eyes before shaking his head.
"You'll regret this."
"The only thing I'll regret is letting you walk away, you bastard," Arcturus returned coldly. "If I see you again, Perseus, I will fucking kill you."
Perseus smirked as he back away towards the fire and through a handful of floo powder into the flames.
"You can try, Archie," he chuckled. "Goodbye, Dorea."
With that, he was gone, and Arcturus glared at the flames until the emerald faded.
"Arcturus?" Dorea asked worriedly.
He offered her a reassuring smile.
"He won't come back," he said simply. "He would be a fool to."
He would indeed.
Arcturus had many things to attend to, the first making some adjustments to the wards around the home and deciding what else could be done to keep Dorea safe.
He had meant what he'd said to his brother. If it came to choosing between keeping Dorea safe and the other members of his family, there was no doubt in his mind what action he would take.
"He'd better not," Dorea huffed. I'll curse the shit myself if he does."
She left the room and Arcturus could only watch her.
Dorea had become bolder recently, still quiet, but more willing to stick up for herself.
"Merlin help any she that decides to upset her now," he mumbled.
She was at peace.
When she had begun her journey a year ago, bringing herself to such a state was difficult, and felt impossible most of the time, but she had dedicated herself to this step in the process.
With daily practice, she got better at understanding how her mind and body worked, and finding her way here only got easier the more she did it. At first, it had taken hours, and she had now whittled it down to only minutes, but it would have to be one day be instantaneous.
To be a true animagus, she had to be able to switch from her human form to her animal counterpart without thought, as instinctively as it was to draw breath when needed.
Minerva was not there yet and wouldn't be for some time. There were many reasons why so few dedicated themselves to the undertaking, and this was one of them.
Becoming an animagus took time, and much more than most were willing to give.
For only a flicker of a second, she felt something stirring within her, something that was and wasn't her at the same time. As odd as it was to think of it that way, that was the only way she could describe it.
It was unbound, feral in a way, but also shy, and she was coming to know it well.
This was the animal within her, the creature that she was to become one with.
For weeks she had waited, allowed it to become as familiar with her as she needed to be with it, and though it seemed that little was happening, her presence alone was enough to begin forging the bond.
The creature may be shy, but it was still a part of her, and would come when the time was right.
She had not expected that today would be that day.
Again, the presence brushed across her conscience.
Minerva was poised and allowed the feeling to wash over her, her thoughts becoming muddled, a sense of panic mingling with her own calm, and then the presence was gone, though her mind remained in its conflicted state.
In her confusion, she pulled herself out of her state, only to find the world around her had changed. The vibrant red of the Gryffindor common room was a paler hue, the stone walls lighter also.
Worse still, her thoughts were a muddle of her own and something rawer, and less cognitive.
Looking down at her hands, she gasped, or she had intended to. The sound that escaped her lips could only be described as fearful meowing.
This was not good.
Her skin was covered in tabby fur, but much to her relief, her hands were still her own.
Trying her best to remain calm, she reached for her wand, her heart sinking when her magic was not forthcoming. Evidently, she had gone too far into the change to use her magic.
Now, she was panicking. Those foreign thoughts and instincts began to take over, and without thought, she began looking for a way to escape the confines of the room she found herself in.
She paced the circular room, meowing, willing for someone to set her free, only to come to a stop as she heard movement on the other side of the door.
Instinctively, she hid behind a chair just in time for the door to open and the familiar boy to stare at her, his eyes widening in surprise before he laughed.
"Bloody hell, I don't know whether to scream or scratch your belly," he commented. "Come here and I'll help you."
Minerva hissed as he approached and swiped at him, scared by the stick he carried. It was dangerous and she did not want it near her.
He took a step back and she peered at him from behind her cover. She was trapped in the room, and she needed to be careful.
He laughed once more as he shook his head and waved his stick around. When he was finished, he held a long piece of string with something tied to the end.
He threw it near her, and she flinched, but quickly became fixated on the wriggling thing he had created.
Cautiously, she pawed at it, and he dragged it out of reach. Against her better judgement, she pounced on it, only to feel something grip her firmly.
She squirmed, squealing a protest, hissing once more as she caught sight of the stick being pointed at her.
Her next protested died on her tongue as she began to feel parts of her body changing, and slowly but surely, her thoughts became clearer and more familiar.
When she was released from the hold, she fell to her knees and panted, taking some needed time to gather herself.
"That was unpleasant," she muttered. "Thank you, Harry."
She looked up to see the boy looking purposely away, the cheek she could see red.
"What's wrong?" Minerva asked.
"You're naked," he replied simply.
She was, and as she glanced around the room, she could see the scattered remains of the green dress and underwear she had been wearing.
She felt her own blush forming but couldn't find her wand. She must have dropped it in her moment of panic.
"Harry, conjure me a blanket," she requested.
He did so, and held it out to her, his gaze firmly on the wall as though it was the most interesting thing he'd ever seen.
Perhaps it was a remnant of the feline side, but it irked her, and she snatched the blanket from him.
"Am I that repulsive to look at?" she demanded. "It's not like you haven't seen it before
"Bloody hell, is this really the time to ask that question?" he groaned, "and not like this. You had most of your clothes on."
"Sorry, I don't know where that came from," Minerva sighed, wrapping the blanket around her. "It's a cat thing, I think."
Harry waved her off and chuckled, finally meeting her eyes.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"I lost control of it," she replied with a shrug, "and ruined my dress."
He grinned amusedly at her.
"Well, I will buy you a new one in the alley," he offered. "We have to meet Charlus in an hour."
"Thank you," she returned, wrapping her arms around him.
She didn't have many dresses nor the gold to buy more, and that one had been one of her favourites.
"You're naked again," Harry pointed out awkwardly.
The blanket had pooled to the ground as she'd embraced him and now her nude body was pressed up against him.
She huffed frustratedly.
This moment couldn't be any more embarrassing.
Still feeling bold, she stepped away from him and shook her head.
"What's the damned point?" she muttered, turning away from him and walking towards the staircase that led to the girl's dormitories. "I'll be back in a minute," she called over her shoulder, laughing as he did his best not to look her way.
"Bloody girl," she heard him grumble as she rounded the corner to find something else to wear.
Within only a few minutes, she was back in the common room where Harry had seemingly managed to compose himself.
"Better?" she asked amusedly.
He nodded and she linked her arm through his own.
"You know, it will probably happen again," she snorted.
"Next time, I'll send Dumbledore to help you," he replied.
"You will not! Whether you like it or not, you've volunteered to help me when I need it."
Harry simply shook his head and laughed.
"You've seen it all now. You don't expect me to be exposed to someone else, do you? That would be very unladylike, and not very noble on your part."
"If you remember correctly, I looked away," Harry reminded her.
"Then that's your loss," Minerva quipped, "You know, most teenage boys wouldn't complain, unless you do find me repulsive. Is it because my bust isn't as big as Poppy's?" she asked, pushing her chest outwards.
Harry's cheeks reddened once more, and Minerva smirked triumphantly.
"I don't understand what the problem is," she continued. "I trust you, Harry, and I'd rather not have Professor Dumbledore find me in that state."
Harry grimaced at the thought.
"Fine," he agreed, "but for my sanity, no more dropping whatever I cover you with."
Minerva nodded her understanding, though a grin tugged at her lips.
"So, did you like what you saw?"
Harry quickened his pace, all but dragging her from the castle as he muttered under his breath.
"Is that the cat talking again? Come on, I think you need some fresh air, I know I do," he added.
Perhaps it was the cat talking, however, she was a Gryffindor after all, something she had proven in the last thirty minutes if nothing else.
Harry remained silent as he led them through the grounds, the thoughtful frown marring his features something she chose not to comment on.
She had teased him enough for one day.
"Do you need me to take you?" he asked.
Pondering it, Minerva decided it would probably be safer for him to do so. Her magic was feeling a little off and she didn't want to splinch herself.
She nodded and the two of them vanished with a gentle pop.
He had gotten very good at apparating over the weeks they had been allowed to practice in the Great Hall.
"Where to first?" she asked.
"We are meeting Charlus and Poppy at Flourish and Blotts," Harry explained. "We can get our books first and then whatever else we need."
The alley was rather empty today. Most of the students would begin to arrive here next week to complete their shopping for the upcoming school year, but Minerva, Harry, Charlus, and Poppy had opted to complete theirs earlier to avoid the lastminute rush.
"And there they are," Charlus declared as they entered Flourish and Blotts, an impish smile aimed at them. "So, how has your summer been."
"Busy," Minerva answered honestly.
She had been working really hard on her transfiguration and the animagus process.
"I don't doubt that," Charlus chuckled, offering her a wink.
What did he mean by that?
Before she could ask, he had steered Harry towards a book display on the other side of the shop, leaving her with Poppy.
"How's it been at the hospital?" she asked.
Poppy shook her head.
She had been volunteering at St Mungo's over the summer to gain some much-needed experience.
"As much as I want to be a healer, working there is hard," she huffed. "It's much easier dealing with the idiots at school and their ailments."
"Then why don't you do that?" Minerva questioned. "You'd still have to get the same qualifications, but that doesn't mean you have to work at St Mungo's."
"That's true," Poppy conceded thoughtfully. "I'll have to think about it, I suppose. Anyway, how has your summer been?"
The question was asked in a conspiratorial whisper.
"It's been fine," Minerva answered somewhat uncertainly. "Wasn't it supposed to be?"
"I meant being with Harry all the time," Poppy clarified. "You know, just the two of you, alone in the tower."
Minerva frowned confusedly.
"Whatever do you mean?"
Poppy shook her head disappointedly.
"So, there hasn't been a summer romance? Not even a stolen kiss?"
"You've been reading too many of those muggle books," Minerva returned evenly. "Why would there be a stolen kiss? Am I missing something?"
"Forget I said anything," Poppy said dismissively.
"No, what do you mean?"
Poppy released a deep sigh.
"You really are clueless," she grumbled. "I just thought, you know, with you two spending so much time together. I thought that you would…"
"I don't know, I just thought something would happen. Charlus and Augusta did too."
"What was supposed to happen?" Minerva asked.
"That you two would get together or something."
Minerva could only shake her head.
"We're friends, Poppy, the same way you and I are."
Poppy looked at her incredulously.
"Okay, if you say so."
"What do you mean by that?" Minerva pressed.
"Come off it, Minnie, you and Harry aren't friends the same way we are. He brought you a broom for Christmas, you spend just as much time with him as you do me and Augusta, and you hold his hand as much as you can."
"We're close friends," Minerva defended.
"And there's nothing else between you?" Poppy asked.
Minerva shook her head.
"No, he doesn't see me that way."
"Have you asked him?"
"I don't need to," Minerva replied. "I wouldn't want to ruin the friendship we have by making things awkward, even if I might already have already done that," she added sheepishly.
"Why? What did you do?"
"It was just a joke that got out of hand," Minerva sighed. "He found me today after a bad transformation. I was stuck in my body, but covered in fur, and not in my right mind."
Poppy snorted and covered her mouth, urging Minerva to continue.
"He helped me change back, and I was naked."
"Oh dear," Poppy commented, fighting the urge to laugh.
"That's how I know he doesn't see me the way you think he does," Minerva explained. "He didn't even try to look, not even when I dropped the blanket he wrapped me in and let him see."
"You didn't!" Poppy yelped. "You are insane."
"It seemed pointless keeping myself covered when he might have already seen. I don't know, I just didn't feel uncomfortable about it."
"Have you not thought that he was just being a gentleman?" Poppy questioned. "Does Harry seem like the kind of boy to look at someone like that when they're vulnerable."
"No, he wouldn't," Minerva agreed, "but when I brought up that I'd like him to watch over me when I transform, he didn't exactly seem thrilled about the idea."
"You put a mostly shy, teenage boy on the spot about being around you whilst you could be naked, Minnie. How did you expect him to react?"
"I don't know, but I didn't mean it like you think I did. I trust him, Poppy."
"I know," the other girl comforted, "and I suppose it was left at that?"
"I might have teased him a little about it."
"Of course, you did," Poppy giggled, falling silent as Harry and Charlus approached.
"Have you finished?" the latter asked.
"I think so," Poppy answered, "we just need to pay for these," she explained, holding up the books she and Minerva had accumulated over the course of their conversation.
"Alright, then we can go and get you a new dress," Harry added to Minerva.
"A new dress?" Charlus asked.
"I owe it to her," Harry answered quickly. "One of hers was damaged."
"Oh, is that right?" Charlus accused, his voice full of mirth.
Minerva kept walking towards the till, her cheeks feeling suddenly warm as Harry sputtered out a rather poor excuse as to why he was buying her a new dress, though he did so only to keep her project a secret, and the warmth spread through her chest.
Only he and Poppy knew what she was working on, and the latter because Professor Dumbledore had advised her to bring her in on it, just in case a mishap like the one she had experienced today were to happen.
Still, listening to Harry make himself look an idiot for her benefit was sweet, and it only made her realise just how much she appreciated him and all he did for her all the more.
It was not often that Nicholas had seen young Albus so sombre. The only other time he could remember was the day his sister had been killed and the boys' path had been forever altered.
Now, as he watched the man nursing a hot cup of coffee, his demeanour couldn't be ignored.
"What's happened?" Nicholas asked gently.
Albus had arrived an hour ago, had said nothing, and merely collapsed in the seat he was in now.
"I attended the summer meeting of the ICW today in Athens," Albus sighed tiredly.
"Ah," Nicholas deadpanned. "And what you heard has left you feeling rather down?"
"Bulgaria has fallen to Gellert and the ICW will do nothing to help them. As far as they are concerned, it is a domestic issue. They are more preoccupied with the muggle affairs across the continent."
"And you fear that this is only the beginning?"
"It is what we planned," Albus explained. "We would take a foothold in a small country and expand our influence from there. If he maintains the schedule we drew up, we have around three years until war breaks out."
Nicholas placed a comforting hand on Albus's shoulder.
"I have heard some rather concerning rumours myself. The war, Albus, is inevitable. It will happen, and the best thing we can do is prepare for it."
"But this is my fault, in part at least."
Nicholas shook his head.
"No, Albus, you may have made some foolish plans when you were just a boy, but it is not you trying to implement them."
"Then why does it feel like it is my fault?"
"Because as always, you try to shoulder the burdens of the world in their entirety. What matters now is what happens next."
"War," Dumbledore replied sadly.
"Yes, but it will not be the end."
"You don't know him the way I do, Nicholas. Gellert is determined. He has the charisma and the power to see his vision through. I do not know any that can stop him."
"With you being the exception."
Albus nodded morosely.
"Except for me, but I cannot. Despite what he has become, he was once my friend. Gellert was the only one other than you who ever understood me. "He was…"
"The love of your life," Nicholas finished, squeezing his former apprentice's shoulder. "Do not be so surprised, Albus. You do not live for six centuries without becoming rather adept at seeing these things. You hid it well, and most would not have noticed, but I did. The moment you walked into my study together the day you introduced him, I could see it. He made you happy, and there's nothing wrong with that. You owe the world nothing, my boy."
"Others will not see it that way," Albus replied with a shrug. "They will see a threat and insist upon a confrontation between us. They will look to me to solve the problem merely because they believe I can."
"And like I said, you owe them nothing, Albus," Nicholas reiterated. "You are amongst the most gifted wizards I have met, but you are no soldier. You are a professor, an academic, but not a fighter. I have met many who are, but that is not you."
"But what if I need to be? I don't think I can, Nicholas."
"Then I hope that he is stopped before that becomes a necessity," Nicholas answered. "As much as you believe that you cannot face him, I know you well enough to know that you will push your own feelings aside to do so if you believe it is needed. The only advice that I can give you is to stay true to yourself, Albus. Do not become something you are not for people that will quickly forget your deeds when it suits them."
Albus nodded, though it was not convincing, and Nicholas suspected that the future of the man before him would be awash with difficult choices to be made.
He was too eager to do what he believed was right rather than what would be easier.