"Come along, it's right this way." Draco said impatiently from the doorway at the end of the hall.
"What's 'right this way'?" Harry asked suspiciously.
"A midday repast worthy of a nobleman." Draco said haughtily.
Harry and Cherub shared an amused look at Draco's uncharacteristic enthusiasm.
"Come along then." Draco said urgently, then took off running down the path.
* * * * *
"We're going to Hagrid's?" Harry asked cautiously as they approached the cottage.
"No, we're going past Hagrid's." Draco said as he left the path and started walking toward a stand of trees.
"We're not supposed to go into the woods." Cherub said as a tremble of fear worked its way up his spine.
"We're forbidden to enter the woods on the other side of the school. Widget told me about this place and said it's alright." Draco said, then stopped.
"What are we supposed to be seeing?" Harry asked as he looked around.
"See the path? I want you to go in first. It'll be better if you see it without me standing in front of you." Draco said impatiently.
"Um, I'm really not good with places like this." Cherub said nervously.
"What's wrong?" Draco asked with concern, momentarily forgetting his excitement.
"I just... I don't like being in woods or forests... I don't like it at all." Cherub said, and the anxiety could clearly be seen in his eyes.
"It's okay Cherub. We're just going right there. We're not going in very far at all. You'll be able to see out of the forest the whole time." Draco said quietly.
"Cherub." Harry said seriously, to draw his attention.
"I'll go in first and check it out for you so you don't have to worry about it." Harry said confidently, then gave Draco a quick smile before walking down the path.
Cherub watched Harry go, then glanced at Draco and said, "Maybe I can do it if you two are with me."
"It's going to be fine, I promise." Draco said gently.
"Come on Cherub. You're not going to believe this." Harry said with boyish excitement.
Draco could see that Cherub seemed to be stuck, so he gently put an arm around him to encourage him to walk.
After a few steps, Cherub stopped and said, "I can't."
"Okay." Draco said quietly.
Cherub looked at Draco with question.
"If I knew you were afraid of the forest, I wouldn't have planned this. I just wanted to do something special for just the three of us." Draco said gently.
Cherub could see the sincerity in Draco's eyes and quietly said, "Let's try again."
Draco looked at Cherub appraisingly for a moment, then nodded.
Cherub forced himself to take a step, then another.
"Isn't this fantastic?" Harry asked cheerfully.
Cherub had been so focused on making himself walk that he had lost track of his surroundings.
"It's beautiful." Harry said as he moved in to give Draco a joyful hug.
Cherub looked at the small clearing.
Sunlight was dappling in through the leafy covering, making everything seem beautiful and magical.
There was a picnic lunch laid out on a blanket in the small open space.
"It is beautiful." Cherub reluctantly admitted.
Draco smiled, then gestured downward to a blanket and a collection of covered dishes.
"So, what's for lunch?" Harry asked happily.
"There's only one way to find out. Tuck in." Draco said with a smile, then looked at Cherub with concern.
Cherub's attention was focused on the thin veil of branches that were obscuring his view of the 'outside world'.
"Are you going to be okay?" Draco asked in a whisper.
After a moment to consider, Cherub turned to face Draco and said, "Yeah. But if we went any deeper into the trees, I couldn't do it..."
"Sit down and try to enjoy the food." Draco said gently.
"Yeah. Maybe eating will take your mind off of it." Harry said as he distributed empty plates for all of them.
Cherub thought about the words for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision.
"Yeah. As long as I'm here with you guys, I know it won't be a problem."
* * * * *
"I was beginning to think I'd have to go and hunt for you two." Catty said in an amused voice.
"We took a walk in the woods and it took longer than expected." James said hesitantly.
"Is everything alright?" Catty asked with concern at James' worried expression.
"I made a new friend." Chuffery said happily as he indicated the huge slimy slug on his shoulder.
James cringed at the sight, once again fighting down the urge to swat the hideous thing away to protect his young charge.
"Oh, she's lovely!" Catty enthused.
James turned and looked at his fiancée with surprise.
"What's her name?" Catty asked as she squatted down to be closer to Chuffery's eye level.
"Her name is DeeDah." Chuffery said happily.
"Well, I made a nice big salad to go with your lunch. I bet she'd love to have some with you." Catty said as she carefully reached out to gently pet DeeDah on the back with her index finger.
Chuffery listened carefully for a moment, then said, "DeeDah says thank you, and that she'd like to have some of your salad."
Catty withdrew her hand and said, "Then why don't you three come in and get washed up?"
"Come on James." Chuffery said as he took off running toward the house.
"How can you bear to touch that disgusting thing?" James asked Catty as they walked toward the house at a slower pace.
"Because when I was a little girl, nearly Chuffery's age, I used to love playing with all manner of creepy crawly things. They fascinate me." Catty said with a grin.
James looked at his fiancée, with surprise, then began to wonder what other things he didn't know about the woman he intended to marry.
* * * * *
"What is that?" Harry asked hesitantly.
"Jellied tongue." Draco said with a smile.
Harry stared at the wobbly concoction on the platter before him, then shrugged and said, "If you say it's okay, I'll try it. I'll try anything once."
Draco snickered and said, "Oh Potter, I'm going to remember that you said that."
Harry realized what Draco meant and blushed slightly before turning his attention back to the gelatinous dish.
With knife in hand, he approached the dish, then stopped.
Harry made a face and stuck his tongue out at the jelly, then cut himself a respectable portion.
Draco chuckled with delight at the action, then noticed Cherub's distant gaze focused on the 'outside world' beyond the thin veil of trees and undergrowth.
* * * * *
"So how are things looking today? Any better?" Hermione asked between bites of food.
Ron considered for a moment, then quietly answered, "I think so. But I just have this feeling..."
At Hermione's inquisitive stare, Ron finally continued, "...It's like, something's wrong. I look around and see what's happening and I have this feeling that... this isn't how things are supposed to be."
Hermione considered the words, but couldn't think of anything to say that would put Ron at ease about what he was feeling.
"My counselor says that it's just a manifestation of an 'early life trauma', but... I don't know, it seems so real, you know, like I can almost see it." Ron said distantly.
"So is this feeling that things are all wrong what's causing your problems?" Hermione asked cautiously, hoping that her asking wouldn't upset him.
After a moment of distant thought, Ron looked at Hermione as if just realizing that she was there.
"Oh, um... yeah. I think so." Ron mumbled, then forced a smile onto his face as he continued, "It must be a Gryffindor thing. I see something wrong and I feel like I have to make it right."
"Let me know if there's anything I can do to help you set things back to right. Maybe together we can make it so things are okay for you." Hermione said with a gentle smile.
After a moment of searching Hermione's eyes, Ron gave an honest smile and quietly said, "Thank you. If I can figure out how to make things right, I'll let you know."
* * * * *
"Why are you so afraid of the forest?" Harry reluctantly asked as casually as if he were discussing the weather.
Cherub stared out of the clearing for a moment, appearing not to have heard the question.
When Harry was about to ask again, Cherub quietly said, "I don't know."
At Harry's inquisitive stare, Cherub reluctantly whispered, "I've always been terrified of the forest... for as long as I can remember."
"Don't worry about it, Wings. I think everyone has something that they're afraid of. The important thing is that you didn't back away from it." Draco said casually.
Cherub nervously glanced at Draco with question, then his gaze returned to the wide-open world outside their clearing.
"There's nothing wrong with being afraid. In fact, it keeps you from making stupid mistakes. But letting your fears rule you and prevent you from doing the things you need to do is a path to mediocrity." Draco said frankly.
Cherub thought about the words and finally gave a small nod of agreement.
"How did you arrange all of this Draco? It couldn't have been easy." Harry asked, obviously trying to change the subject from Cherub's discomfort.
Draco chuckled to himself, then said, "Believe it or not, Prang was the one who suggested it."
"Prang? Karen Prang?" Cherub asked, momentarily diverted from his fears.
"Yeah. She was there when I was telling Widget that I wanted to do something special to break up the routine and she came up with the picnic idea." Draco said with a smile.
"Do you think that means that maybe she has a special someone that she has picnics with?" Harry asked speculatively.
"Maybe." Draco said thoughtfully, then continued, "Although I can't imagine who..."
"It should be easy enough to find out." Harry said with a distinctly 'Malfoy' smirk.
At Draco's questioning gaze, Harry continued, "We just have to be on the lookout for someone with frostbite."
Draco blinked at the statement, then broke into laughter.
"You'd better watch out Harry. Your reputation as a 'goody goody Gryffindor' could suffer if the wrong person heard you say something like that." Draco chuckled.
"That's why I'll only say it when it's just the three of us." Harry said with a sly grin.
"As much as I don't want to rush your incredibly thoughtful gesture, we need to finish up. It will be time for flying class soon." Cherub said as he kept a watchful eye on the open space beyond their clearing.
"Au contraire mon frère!" Draco said with triumph as he took a small jeweled box out of the pack he had been carrying.
"What's that you've got there, Malfoy?" Harry asked with a grin, knowing from recent experience that whatever it was had to be what Draco had been waiting to reveal.
"A way that we can enjoy our lunch at a leisurely pace and enjoy each other's company for a while without having to worry about hurrying back to class." Draco said happily.
"You got us excused from flying class?" Cherub asked absently as he strained to look through the trees and bushes surrounding them.
"I'd expect that muggle thinking from Potter, not you." Draco said honestly.
"I'm right here, you know." Harry reminded him.
"I know." Draco said with a grin, then explained, "I only meant that you grew up in the muggle world with muggle problems and muggle solutions. It wouldn't surprise me if you'd automatically assume that I had somehow arranged for us to be excused from classes."
"Well, now I assume that you've made some other sort of arrangement... something magical, perhaps?" Harry asked in a coaxing tone.
"This, what I have in my hands, is an elder wizard's time rune." Draco said proudly.
"Which elder wizard does it belong to?" Cherub asked as he reluctantly turned his attention back toward his companions.
"None, that I know of. That's just the name of the thing. It creates a time bubble. I found it a year or so ago at Diagon Alley and never really had an excuse to use it before. I tend to strive to get most things over with, not draw them out." Draco said as he opened the bejeweled box and revealed its contents to his companions.
"So, how does it work?" Harry asked curiously.
"It's easy. We just set it where we want time to be stretched and put it back when we're ready to let time flow normally again." Draco said as he took a small bean-shaped stone out of the box.
"That sounds pretty easy." Harry said hesitantly.
"Yeah. Let me set it, then we can get back to enjoying our meal." Draco said as he closed the box, then placed the bean-shaped stone in an indentation on the lid.
Cherub slightly nodded his agreement to the plan as he couldn't help but look deeply into the forest surrounding them.
* * * * *
"I made a special salad just for DeeDah. It has all types of green leafy vegetables and I shredded a little Velvet Shank in there too... you know, for flavor." Catty said as she placed the plates of food on the family dining room table.
"Velvet Shank?" James asked cautiously, not entirely sure that he wanted to know what it was.
"It's a type of tree fungus." Catty said seriously, then added, "You can have some too if you like Master Chuffery. It's completely harmless."
"Can I?" Chuffery asked with excitement.
"Of course. I'll be right back." Catty said gently.
"DeeDah says to thank you. And that she really likes Velvet Shank." Chuffery said with a smile.
"I'm glad. Go ahead and start and I'll be back in just a minute." Catty said before leaving.
James watched Chuffery devoting his full attention to DeeDah and had the feeling that even though it was good for Chuffery to have a pet, that nothing good would come of this day's events.
* * * * *
"Stop that!" A woman's voice abruptly called, seemingly from nowhere.
As the trio looked around, they were surprised to find one of the teachers from the school making her way through the trees, toward their picnic.
"What are you doing here, Mrs. Trelawney?" Cherub asked cautiously.
"Abomination! Why don't you go back where you belong and leave us alone?" Mrs. Trelawney demanded to know as she stopped at the edge of their clearing.
"Hey! What'd I ever do to you?" Cherub asked in a wounded tone.
"You've messed up the entire dynamic between these two. They're supposed to be commanding rival factions, preparing for a grand confrontation. Instead you've got them cuddling together like lovers." Mrs. Trelawney said angrily.
"I did that? Wow. I wonder how much more I can upset you by waging peace and promoting love." Cherub finished with a smirk.
"Their feelings don't matter, of course. But their actions do! If they don't fight each other, they won't be prepared to face off against the evil that continues to threaten us to this very day." Mrs. Trelawney said urgently.
"So I made you lovers instead of fighters... apparently." Cherub told his companions.
"Thanks, Wings. I don't think that being disgusted and sneering all the time would be a good look for me." Draco said, finishing with a 'Malfoy' grin.
"I think you could pull it off, but I'd much rather see you looking at me with love smoldering in your eyes rather than hatred." Harry interjected.
"Your insignificant pathetic feelings don't matter! The two of you are destined to cause the final destruction and death of the one who can't be named." Mrs. Trelawney said venomously.
"What am I destined for?" Cherub asked curiously.
"Nothing! You're supposed to be dead!" Mrs. Trelawney spat.
"So, because I'm alive, I've somehow changed Potter and Malfoy's destiny?" Cherub asked speculatively.
"It's not too late. If you can stop this stupid romantic nonsense and each raise up an army and motivate them to fight, then we can still be prepared when the 'dark one' rises again." Mrs. Trelawney said passionately.
"I'm sorry. We've already promised not to take part in any plots or plans that involve us breaking up. That is not an option." Harry said firmly.
Draco and Cherub wore matching smiles of pride as they nodded with agreement.
"Using divination, I have access to every secret thought, every moment that you thought was private, every situation that could even be perceived as improper..."
"Excuse me, guys." Cherub said as he reached across them to remove the stone from the timerune. As he did, Mrs. Trelawney vanished from in front of them.
"What did you just do?" Harry cautiously asked.
"I think you need to give that timerune back to the elder wizard. I'm not sure what that was, but I don't think it was a timeslip. That was something else." Cherub said uncertainly.
"So that, what Mrs. Trelawney was going on about, it wasn't real, was it?" Harry cautiously asked.
"I suppose that would depend on how you define 'real'. I'm not sure if what we just saw had anything to do with our timeline or dimension or whatever it is." Draco said speculatively.
"But in some timeline or dimension, there's a place where we hate each other and Cherub is dead." Harry said with a hollow sounding voice and a devastated look at Cherub.
"And there's probably another such place where we never even met. It serves no purpose for us to fixate on a reality other than our own." Draco said firmly.
"If the timeslip didn't work, then we're probably late for flying." Cherub said in sudden realization.
"If we're late, then we're late. We'll apologize and move on." Draco said without concern.
"Let's gather this up and go."
* * * * *
"So, Master Chuffery, what do you think of the Velvet Shank?" Catty asked curiously.
"I don't know. I mean, it's kind of bitter and... I don't know the words... like dirt, but not like dirty... I don't know if that makes any sense." Chuffery said with difficulty.
"I think the word you're searching for may be 'earthy'." Catty cautiously suggested.
"I'm not sure if that's what I mean or not, but it sounds like what I mean." Chuffery said carefully.
"You didn't say, do you like it?" Catty asked curiously.
"When I eat the little thin bits with a bunch of salad with it, then it's good. I just wouldn't want to eat a mouthful of it." Chuffery said frankly.
"Then that's just as it should be. The Velvet Shank is an ingredient in the salad mix, it's not meant to be the dominant flavor, or even a noticeable one. If I made the salad right, then you should be able to detect a curious earthy undertone that rounds out the overall flavor profile." Catty patiently explained.
"Yeah. I just tasted a little bit by itself to see what it tasted like. When I eat it with the whole salad, it's another one of the flavors." Chuffery said happily.
DeeDah looked up from her small bowl of salad at Chuffery, and then Catty, before turning her attention back to her own Velvet Shank.
* * * * *
"That thing Trelawney was saying..." Harry slowly said as they started walking.
"It has nothing to do with us." Draco said shortly.
"Actually, if you think about it, it may." Harry insisted.
"How do you mean?" Cherub asked with interest, feeling much better since they were out of the forest.
"She said that Draco and I raised up armies to stand against 'you know who'." Harry said slowly.
"Actually, I think from the way that she said it, you raised up armies against each other, then turned them against 'him'." Cherub said frankly.
"It doesn't matter." Harry said dismissively, then asserted, "If we're to stand a chance against 'him', then we will probably need to make preparations."
"What happens if we don't fight?" Cherub cautiously asked.
"We die... probably. At least, that's how these sorts of things tend to go." Draco said frankly.
"He'll probably defeat me and use my body to try and take over the world or destroy it or whatever evil endgame he's been planning all along." Harry said seriously.
"Oh yeah. You're 'The Boy who Lived', aren't you? So there's that whole mythology that comes into it." Cherub said speculatively.
"If we let it." Harry added seriously.
After a long silent moment of walking, Draco finally asked, "Do you have a plan that might make things turn out differently?"
"I don't know if this is going to be of any help, but I think that if we take this seriously, starting right now, that we can prepare ourselves for battle before the enemy forces can gather against us."
"What do you think we should do?" Cherub asked cautiously.
"I think that initially, each of us should play to our strengths. Cherub, you have a better idea than most on how to find historical accounts and official documents. I wouldn't be surprised if you could find out about some of the ancient magics being used.
"Draco could do what he does best and see what he can find out about the things that people don't 'officially' know about how to resolve this situation. While Cherub is looking for what we're supposed to know, Draco will be looking for what we aren't.
"And if 'The Boy Who Lived' started asking questions from the higher-ups in the administration, he might be able to shake loose some useful information... perhaps even a vaguely worded prophecy or obscure pictoglyph." Harry said carefully.
Cherub laughed, then said, "That sounds about right."
"Gentlemen, I assume you have a good reason for being late to class." Madame Hooch said firmly as they walked onto the flying field.
"No Ma'am. Not a good one." Harry said honestly.
"We had a magical backfire that threw us late. I'm sorry Madame Hooch, we won't let it happen again." Cherub added repentantly.
After a moment to consider, Madame Hooch finally said, "I doubt that you will suffer any ill effects from missing a few minutes of practice. Take to the air, we're doing laps."
"Yes Ma'am." The three boys said in unison.
Harry and Draco walked toward the stand of brooms as Cherub unfurled his wings and flew just above them.
As Harry and Draco were about to take off, the three boys heard Madame Hooch call out, "Mr. Longbottom! What are you doing there…?"
* * * * *
As James was finishing his lunch, Chuffery quietly said, "DeeDah wants me to tell you that there are things worse than death."
"What's that supposed to mean?" James asked with surprise at the dire statement.
"She wants to be sure you know, because she's one of them." Chuffery said frankly.
James hesitantly looked at the slimy slug oozing over the edge of a plate of salad to find her looking back at him.
"Be sure to let me know if there's anything at all that DeeDah needs to be comfortable here." James said cautiously.
Chuffery listened for a moment, then said, "She said that she'll let you know if she needs something."
"Of that I have no doubt." James said wearily.
"After lunch, can I show DeeDah my room and all my things?" Chuffery asked hopefully.
"Yes. Of course. In fact, while you're doing that, I'll see to arranging tutors for you, both academic and magical." James said, sounding a bit more relaxed.
"I thought you were going to teach me magic." Chuffery said honestly.
"I'll teach you what I can, but with any luck we'll also be able to find someone to teach you more advanced spells, like your brother's." James said cheerfully.
"DeeDah says that after I've learned some more magic, that there's some spells that she can teach me." Chuffery said happily.
The smile fell off James' face as he looked at the monstrous slug with concern.
* * * * *
"For some reason I always thought that being late for class would be a lot bigger deal than that." Harry said honestly as he joined Cherub and Draco in the air.
"This is one of the benefits of behaving responsibly and treating people with respect. They're more willing to trust that we were acting properly and might have encountered an unforeseen obstacle."
"I just don't want anyone to get the feeling that we're abusing their trust." Cherub said frankly.
"First of all, you don't get to control how anyone else feels, so don't use other people's feelings to give you an excuse not to take action when necessary." Draco said seriously.
Harry nodded, then thought to ask, "And second?"
"We weren't abusing anyone's trust. When we were asked, we told the truth." Draco said simply.
"Only a Malfoy would do something as devious and underhanded as resort to the truth to gain special privileges." Cherub said with a grin.
"Our rivals can't fathom how we can maintain such an elaborate ruse." Draco timidly admitted.
"...as the truth?" Harry asked with a laugh.
"It's something that would never occur to them to try." Draco said simply.
* * * * *
"Is everything alright? You guys are never late for anything." Ron asked with concern as he fought to divide his attention enough to stay airborne.
Harry waited long enough for Hermione to be able to participate before answering, "In the midst of our lunchtime romantic getaway, we were interrupted by someone telling us that we're supposed to hate each other."
"You two are supposed to be hating each other, I'm supposed to be dead." Cherub said frankly.
"Who would say such a horrible thing to you?" Hermione asked with concern.
"It doesn't matter. I'm not sure if the person we saw actually exists." Cherub said honestly.
"At least not in this timeline." Harry helpfully added.
"Were you three opening dimensional doorways during your lunch break?" Hermione asked anxiously.
"Not intentionally. We used a little magical device that was supposed to anchor time in one place for a bit so we wouldn't have to hurry back." Harry explained.
"Seeing as you were late, I'm guessing that didn't work." Hermione said in a leading tone.
"No. We had someone who appears to have been from another version of reality telling us how horrible we are for not hating each other." Harry said frankly.
"And for being alive." Cherub quietly added.
"That really bothered you, didn't it?" Draco asked with concern.
"I guess it did." Cherub reluctantly admitted, then explained, "My birth has never really been looked upon as a joyous occasion. Now to have someone come out and say that I'm a mistake that should never have been born... it just stirs up some old feelings."
"Your boyfriends are the heir to the Malfoy dynasty and 'The Boy Who Lived'. Regardless of your beginning, you've done well for yourself. You don't need to bother with some old biddy who's bent out of shape because you didn't cause her preferred future to be realized." Draco said seriously.
"You know, that's a good point. Who is she to say which future is right and wrong?" Harry asked challengingly.
"She's the Divinations teacher. Out of everyone, she might actually have the most legitimate reason for being upset with the way the timeline is unfolding." Cherub said speculatively.
"Either way, I say that we treat her as the harbinger of a force preparing to rise up against us and take her warning seriously." Draco said firmly.
"Excuse me? What are you talking about?" Hermione asked anxiously.
"A storm is coming. One way of dealing with it would have been if Draco and I each had raised armies who were prepared to fight each other at our command. That way, if we were confronted by a force greater than both of us, we could choose to combine our forces against them." Harry carefully explained.
"But if they're not fighting each other, then we won't have our people organized to defend against an attack which, at least in some timelines, is coming soon." Cherub added.
"And if you think about it, whether we get attacked or not, it won't hurt for us to recruit as many people as we can to help defend us against whatever might want to attack us." Draco said reasonably as he led the group into a slow banking turn at the edge of the flying field.
"As long as 'whatever' includes 'you know who', then I think that everyone will be able to commit to helping us." Cherub said seriously.
"We're going to need to be clear from the beginning about who's in charge. I mean, I'm sure that all of us will take up leadership roles, but we need to have one person who is seen as our 'leader'."
"Like a figurehead?" Hermione reluctantly asked.
"I'm talking about Potter. He's 'The Boy Who Lived', for this to work at all, he has to be the one in charge." Draco said frankly.
"I'm going to need all of your help if we're going to make this work." Harry said anxiously.
"That being the case, we should find a way to divide our people so that we can attack from different directions with different tactics." Cherub said seriously.
"If Granger can get the Gryffindores to go along with it, I should be able to manage the Slytherin." Draco said with a challenging glance in Hermione's direction.
"I have some contacts in the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw houses, so if we need their help with anything, I have someone I can ask." Cherub announced as the group eased into another slow turn.
"Let them know that we'd really like for them to commit 'fighters' to the cause before anything else. If we just end up with their moral support, we'll take what we can get." Harry said in a calculating tone.
"If you give them a way to signal their support without having to actually do anything, they're going to do it. Start with the 'big ask' then let them talk you down from there. Anything you're able to get will be better than 'moral support'." Draco said frankly.
"It makes sense." Hermione reluctantly admitted.
Even Ron nodded his agreement.
"And 'that', my friends, is what Slytherins do." Cherub declared with boundless pride for his Draco.
To Be Continued...
Wow! That was a great chapter.
MM, It has been ages since we have seen anything connected to the HP universe from you.
I think I will need to have a look back and refresh my memory of your story;
I must say I am very pleased to see that you have thought of a way to continue the story.
I know you said you had run into a writer's block and had to work your way through it.
I am very glad you found a way.
I can hardly wait for more.
Thanks for coming through it.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher