Disclaimer: All characters and and related items belong to J.K. Rowling.
At Dumbledore's words, many of the people around Harry leapt up from their seats in a frenzy of shouts and questions.
"Dumbledore, it can't be - "
"It can't be true, Arabella can't see-"
Dumbledore held up a hand and the group fell silent, watching him anxiously.
"Please, there will be time for further explanation later, " said Dumbledore calmly, yet Harry could hear a steely note in his voice, "at this time, I would like any member of the Order who has tonight free to follow me. There is work to be done."
At this, Harry thought he saw the faintest of glances between Dumbledore and Lupin, but the next moment, the two were gazing at completely opposite sides of the room.
Moody walked to Dumbledore's side, his leg clunking against the floor, then he turned and watched the group menacingly. Tonks raised an eager hand. "I'll help, Dumbledore!"
"As will I, " Kingsley Shacklebolt said in his deep voice after her, striding to meet Dumbledore in the doorway. Those that were left looked around.
"I would help, Dumbledore, but you know I've got that meeting with Charlie... I could owl him, tell him to wait until next time?" asked Bill.
Dumbledore nodded. "The more we can get, the better... Mundungus?"
"Damn," came a muffled voice behind Harry.
Harry turned to see Mundungus sidle into view. He looked very much as though he'd been trying to hide behind Harry; his face was apologetic and slightly furtive.
"Well, you see Dumbledore ..." he said quickly, his eyes pleading. Harry could smell whiskey on his breath. "Tonigh' just isn't a good night. Yeah... I 'ave... a very good business opportunity, see - "
"MUNDUNGUS FLETCHER!" Molly screeched, swooping down on him. "If I hear one more word about you and and that wretched habit you've got - I honestly don't know where you learned right and wrong, but it must have occurred to you that Dementors are certainly more impor - "
"Molly! It's fine..." said Mr. Weasley, taking a gentle hold on his wife, "he will help, wont he?" he added, glancing at Mundungus.
"Excellent," Dumbledore said swiftly, motioning to the small group of volunteers, "I will explain everything on the way. Follow me."
And with that he strode out of the room, the rest staying for a moment to wish Harry a happy birthday.
"We wish we could stay, really," Tonks said hurriedly, patting Harry on the shoulder. "But you understand..."
Harry nodded. "Of course I do."
"We'll most likely be back tomorrow, Arthur, " Moody said seriously to Mr. Weasley. His magical eye was twisting in its socket to watch the hallway outside. "If we die before then - "
"What a nice way to wish Harry a happy birthday, Mad-Eye," Tonks said, pulling a purple cloak around her shoulders.
Moody scowled at her and turned to pull on his trench coat. After a few more hurried goodbyes, the group left, leaving Harry alone with the others. Suddenly, his scar seared across his forehead.
"Ouch," he muttered, pressing his fingers to his forehead. His stomach was writhing and twisting, as though something hot and uncomfortable was boiling there.
"Harry?" said Ginny behind him. She seemed to be the only one who noticed his brief pain; the others were busy cleaning up and whispering to each other. "Is it your scar?" she asked softly.
Harry nodded, trying not to appear worried, "It's fine, happens all the time."
Just as quickly as the pain had come, it was gone, but the sick feeling in his stomach still lingered. Ginny watched him for a moment, then turned to help take down the balloons.
"It really is late," Molly said, waving her wand at a pile of dishes and they vanished instantly. "You all should be in bed. I'll send someone to get your things, Harry..."
Harry nodded. He was very grateful that Mrs. Weasley had suggested they go to bed; he didn't feel like being with company any more. As he was leaving the drawing room, he heard two loud cracks that signified Fred and George's departure to their room. Feeling suddenly exhausted, Harry followed Ron, Hermione, and Ginny down the hallway.
He was watching his feet, thinking desperately of being in his bed, alone and away from everyone's prying eyes... his mind felt run-down and yet, at the same time, alert for any sign of news of what was happening in Privet Drive. Surprisingly, Harry found himself quite worried for the Dursley's well-being.
"Do you reckon there really are Dementors in Privet Drive?" whispered Ron as they passed numerous sleeping portraits on the walls.
"I imagine so, " Hermione whispered back, "though I'm not sure how Mrs. Figg knew Dementors were there, I always thought Squibs couldn't see them. Has she ever mentioned it to you, Harry?"
But Harry was barely listening, still concentrating on his effort to make it to bed. His eyes had already started to droop and his legs were beginning to feel heavy and uncoordinated.
"Harry?" Hermione asked, peering into his face. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he murmured, "just tired."
Hermione looked very much as though she wanted to say something to him, but Ron nudged her in the ribs and she closed her mouth. Harry barely noticed this behavior and when they reached Ron's room he fell immediately onto his own bed and turned on his side to listen to Ron bid Hermione and Ginny goodnight.
"Are you sure he's all right?" Harry heard Hermione whisper.
"Yeah. I'm sure he's just tired, like he said. Don't pester him, Hermione," Ron replied in an undertone.
"Come on, let's go to bed," Ginny whispered, interrupting them before an argument started. "Goodnight."
Harry listened to the girls walking away down the hall and felt anger mounting up inside him. He was sick of everyone treating him as though he was weak, a glass vase ready to topple. All throughout the party, he had to avoid people's stares and whispers, pretending not to notice that everyone was walking on eggshells around him.
"Er ... mate? You asleep?"
Harry shut his eyes. "What?"
"Well, I was just going to say you could borrow some of my night clothes - that is until mum gets yours," said Ron. Harry could hear him moving things about in his trunk. "And are you just leaving you're presents downstairs?"
Harry groaned and ran his hands through his hair. "I forgot. I'll get them in the morning..."
Sighing deeply, Harry rolled himself off the bed. Ron tossed him a pair of bright orange Chudley Cannons pajamas. Harry blinked at them for a moment, wondering absently whether or not the color happened to glow in the dark, when Ron said,"They're too small for me, but I'm sure they'd fit you..."
Harry changed into them quickly, wanting only to lie back down and not think anymore. Ron took a long time dressing, partly because he kept getting distracted by Crookshanks, who was sticking his paws into the box containing Ron's chess pieces. Harry could hear the pieces squealing and shuffling around inside the box. Then, as if to add to Harry's irritation, Pig decided to join in the din by twittering loudly and knocking against the brass bars of his cage.
"Shut him up, will you?" Harry snapped.
Ron went to Pig and pushed a few Owl Treats through the bars. "He's just over-excited."
Harry ignored him and sank into his bed, curling under the covers. A moment later, the light went out and Ron muttered, "'Night."
"'Night," Harry answered back, pulling the covers up to his neck. He lay there in silence for a moment, then turned over in his bed, feeling horribly awake. How was it that he could go from being so tired moments before, then switch so abruptly to not feeling sleepy at all? Harry stared into the blackness, not really thinking of anything.
Then suddenly, an image all too familiar flashed in front of Harry's eyes.
Sirius, sinking into the tattered black folds of the veil, his eyes wide with fear.
Harry shut his eyes tightly, desperately trying not to think of it, to see it, but he knew it was inescapable. An uncomfortable pressure was building in his throat and he blinked, determined to think of anything else.
Ron snorted in the bed next to him, causing Harry to jump. He lay there for a second, his heart beating furiously, then he pushed the covers off his legs and slid out of bed. Pulling on his dressing gown, he tiptoed to the door, careful not to wake Ron.
The hallway outside was dark and gloomy. A faint, musty smell of mildew wafted up Harry's nose and he strode faster to the end of the hall. As he passed the portrait of Mrs. Black, a burning hatred rose within Harry and he had to restrain himself from ripping the painting off the wall himself. He thundered furiously down the stairs, pounding each step in his frustration, then finally reaching the kitchen door, he shoved it open.
It was not as empty as he would have liked.
Lupin was hanging over a steaming cup of tea at the end of the dining room table. Beside him was a half-empty bottle of what looked like firewhiskey.
"S-sorry," Harry stuttered. He'd not been planning on people being up this late. Feeling suddenly embarrassed for not having thought of this, he started to back out of the room.
"No, wait," Lupin said. Harry was surprised to hear his voice was hoarse and guttural. Lupin pushed his teacup away from himself and motioned to a chair beside him.
Harry crossed the room and took the seat.
There was a moment's silence, in which Lupin tightened the cap of the fire-whiskey bottle, then said, "Can't sleep?"
Harry nodded, not meeting Lupin's eyes.
"Me neither... though I don't suppose this is helping any." He held up the bottle. A few droplets of clear liquid slid down the glass sides. Suddenly, Harry noticed just how tired Lupin looked. He was pale; the color contrasted so greatly with his eyes that he appeared almost white in the flickering firelight.
"No, I don't suppose it is..." Harry answered slowly. He couldn't decide whether he wanted to be alone or not, but he knew he certainly couldn't leave Lupin by himself in this state. An odd feeling was rising within him, something he couldn't quite place.
"No..." Lupin murmured, setting the bottle down. He watched Harry quietly for a moment, then asked, "Would like a cup of tea?"
Harry nodded, preferring not to argue. Lupin stood up and went to the cabinet to get another cup. Harry watched him, his anger melting away, only to be replaced by a much different feeling; contentment. The fire was glowing, filling the room with a pleasant warmth, and as Lupin passed him a steaming cup of tea, Harry took a sip, letting the liquid wash soothingly down his throat.
"Thanks," Harry said.
Lupin nodded. He was gazing idly at Harry's birthday presents, his eyes coming to focus on a small wooden box. The Dream Arrest.
"May I?" he asked, his hand reaching for the box. Harry nodded mutely, gripping his tea cup tighter.
Lupin pulled the box toward himself and opened the lid. The light inside seemed brighter than it had that evening and Harry blinked rapidly, adjusting his eyes to the light. Lupin studied the tiny bowl inside, his fingers tracing the runes lightly.
"This is a very good gift," Lupin said after a long moment. He put the Dream Arrest back into it's box and closed the lid. "Use it wisely."
"I will," Harry answered softly, taking another sip of tea. Lupin pushed the box back toward the other gifts and then poured himself more tea.
There was a prolonged quiet. Harry sipped from his cup slowly, wanting to savor every drop. Lupin reached for the forgotten fire-whiskey bottle and tipped the rest into his tea cup.
"Perhaps it will help," said Lupin slyly, his eyes twinkling.
"It might," Harry replied, smiling. Lupin's grin had reminded him of Sirius ... but instead of feeling a heart-wrenching pang, he felt oddly comforted. He poured himself another cup of tea.
They sat there for a long time, neither looking the other in the eye, but both comfortable in a shared silence. Eventually, Lupin stood up to leave for bed. And instead of saying goodnight, his hand squeezed Harry's shoulder briefly, before he turned and trod up the staircase.
Harry remained there a long time, finishing the tea in the light of a fire's dying embers.
A/N: This chapter is dedicated to my absolutely wonderful beta-reader, Promethean Alchemist, who has helped me become a better writer with every bit of his advice, despite the fact that he doesn't think he's doing any good. ;) And thank you to everyone who reviewed, it's really fantastic when you do. It just makes me want to write more. Though, the next chapter shouldn't be out for a week or two. Trust me, though, it will get done! Half of it is written already!