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"You want to watch yourself, Harry," said Hermione quietly, just before she left for the Christmas holidays. Much later, he would remember her words that day with chagrin. "I'm telling you, Romilda Vane isn't the only one who'd consider using a love potion."
"Who else would?"
"Never you mind. But keep your wits about you. We should all be very careful about accepting food and drink from other people. It could have more than just a Canary Cream in it."
"Constant vigilance!" said Harry, grinning.
Hermione sighed. "Be it on your own head, Harry. I gave you fair warning."
When Harry sank down on the benches at the Gryffindor table for the first breakfast of his sixth year, his attention wasn't really focused on the food and drink. He did however quickly grab the nearest plate of bacon before Ron could eat it all.
"Pumpkin juice, Harry?"
"Thanks," he said absently. He looked up to see Ginny smiling at him as she handed him a goblet.
As he left half an hour later for his first class, he couldn't shake off the slightly disturbing thought that she really had grown into a very attractive girl.
"Another triumph, Harry, I see!" cried Professor Slughorn jovially, inspecting Harry's cauldronful of perfectly brewed Ingenuity Infusion. "I noticed you lower the temperature slightly before adding the cinnabar to allow it to melt in gradually -- I don't know how you think of these things!"
A few feet along the bench, Hermione sniffed. Harry smiled politely and made sure that his copy of Advanced Potion Making was covered by his bag.
"You know, your mother was much the same," said Slughorn, reminiscently. "That little friend of yours who's so quick with the Bat-Bogey Hex reminds me of her in some ways. I keep telling her you'd make a lovely couple, just like your parents!" he added with a roguish grin.
Both Harry and Ron had sudden violent choking fits.
"How come you know all about love potions anyway, Hermione?" asked Ron one evening as he and Harry finished their essays on the subject for Slughorn. He eyed her roll of parchment, which was longer than both of theirs put together.
"Don't be daft, she knows everything," said Harry, grinning at her affectionately. He couldn't resist teasing her a little, however. "You never know though, maybe Rita really did know something we didn't. You were supposed to be using them on me and Viktor, weren't you? And are you sure you and Ginny didn't get any of those love potions from Fred and George?"
Hermione flushed. "Don't be silly, Harry. I wouldn't do anything like that."
Harry pulled the curtains around his four-poster tightly shut and lay there, breathing hard. He really couldn't understand what had come over him in the corridor. He was quite sure he'd never noticed Ginny in ... that way before.
He heard Dean Thomas enter the sixth-year dormitory, and felt the monster in his chest rise up and demand instant action -- preferably Dean's immediate death in some messy and excruciatingly painful manner.
He rolled over, covered his ears with the pillow, and tried to remind himself that she was Ron's sister, and that if Ron -- let alone Fred and George! -- ever found out it would be Harry suffering the messy death. He couldn't understand this. He couldn't remember having this strong a reaction when he found out about Cedric and Cho!
"Er, Hermione, you know we were talking about love potions before Christmas ..."
Hermione put her book down in exasperation. "No, I haven't been brewing them -- for you, or Viktor, or Won-Won, or anyone else for that matter, and especially not for Cormac McLaggen! No, I couldn't care less if Lavender has, either. And no, I can't do anything about Fred and George selling them to anybody who asks, you try, you're their financial angel!"
Harry was taken aback for a moment. "Yeah. That's a thought. Look, Hermione, I noticed you two spent quite a while there looking at them when we were in the shop, and you seemed to know all about how they smuggled them in and everything, so what exactly do you ..."
Hermione raised her hand in warning and cut him off. "Harry, if you're thinking what I think you're thinking, then no. Honestly, would someone who knows what it's like to have Voldemort in their mind really want to use something like that on someone else?"
"No," said Harry uncomfortably. "No ... no, you're right, I suppose not."
"Exactly," said Hermione, nodding. "It would be a really bad idea."
Harry woke up with a start from yet another dream in which he was lost in a maze of dark corridors, trying to open the door leading to his goal.
Admittedly, the presence of Ginny in these dreams made them a lot more enjoyable than the constantly recurring nightmares he'd had in fifth year. But this strange new obsession had its problems too. There was still the little matter of Ron -- he winced as the big brother in question gave a particularly loud snore from the next bed -- and what he'd do if he ever worked out what Harry had in mind. It didn't really bear thinking about.
Harry sighed, and reached for his wand. "Evanesco."
Hedwig fluttered down onto the Gryffindor table in front of Harry the following morning. The letter she was carrying in her beak was sealed with an elaborate crest bearing the letter 'W' repeated three times. Ron and Ginny raised their eyebrows in surprise.
"Just a report on the state of my investments," joked Harry, not quite meeting their eyes.
Later, safely ensconced in a small, little-known and even less-used room behind a tapestry on the fourth floor, and with the Marauder's Map next to him to watch for possible interruptions, Harry read through the letter from Fred and George with a grim smile. It contained a very detailed description of their range of love potions, the expected effects, and the appropriate antidotes.
Don't go letting our little sister see this, Harry, one of the twins added in a postscript. We don't!
"No chance, lads," he muttered to himself as he examined the list. "Absolutely no chance."
"Yes, Harry, m'boy?"
"That ... er, love potion Ron took by mistake. Would it have been easy to make?"
"Oh, a breeze for a potioneer of your skill, Harry!" he said cheerfully. "Of course, I can't encourage you to try it! Not that you need it, though, from what I hear!"
Harry gritted his teeth. "Er, no, right ... but what about someone who is, you know, not bad at potions, good OWL standard maybe? Would they be able to make it?"
Slughorn gave him a shrewd look. "Oho, have a suspect in mind, eh? I hear you're quite good at investigations too, young man!"
"I'd say any of my better OWL students could do it, with a bit of time and practice. It wasn't Amortentia, you know, much milder -- unless you let it ferment like your friend Raymond did!"
"Yes ... I saw you recognised the symptoms, sir. Is there an easy way to spot it? The antidote seemed quite simple to make?"
"Oh, yes. It was Liebelicor, quite common when I was at school. I could have made a fair bit of money back then if I'd put my mind to it! Still, market's overcrowded these days, I hear. The antidote's quite simple too if you have the right ingredients. But surely you remember all this from the essay I set you, Harry?"
"Er ..." Harry tried to look as if he was merely asking for confirmation.
"Ah, always keener on the practical side of things, aren't you, m'boy? Just like your mother. Instinct, you know. Well, there are various types of love potion, aren't there? Some act quickly and obviously, like the one your friend took. Some act slowly and subtly, strengthen what's there already until it suddenly hits you when you're not expecting it. Those are the more dangerous ones in some ways. As I say, obsessive love can be a very powerful and scary thing, Harry."
"I think you're right, Professor. I really think you're right. Thank you."
Comfortably settled in his fourth floor hideout, Harry flicked through his copy of Advanced Potion Making to find the chapter on love potions.
To his relief, the Half-Blood Prince had evidently taken an interest in the subject, and had covered the printed text with many scribbled notes. It seemed that he had formed his own suspicions about which of his contemporaries might be using them and on whom, although unfortunately he hadn't named names. Harry found himself very curious to know who the Prince might have had in mind.
He painstakingly deciphered the handwritten amendments. The subject appeared to be a lot more complex than Slughorn had made it seem. Presumably these subtleties had been why Hermione's essay on the subject had been so long. And while the antidote for Liebelicor was indeed quite straightforward, many of the other recipes in the chapter looked a lot more complex. One in particular looked very promising, but required a fortnight to brew, and according to the Prince then required quite a tricky little sequence of stirring, distilling and decanting if it were to be really effective.
Harry sighed and set himself to the task of trying to memorise the Prince's instructions.
Heart pounding, head racing, feeling terrible and knowing it was only going to get worse when he got back to the common room, Harry stood and mentally threw every swear word he knew, and some he'd invented for the occasion, at Snape. The man had never, ever done him a good turn, and this topped the lot.
What on earth was he going to do without the Prince to advise him? Would he ever be able to brew a potion correctly again?
Harry looked gloomily at the crates of Butterbeer stacked along the walls of the Gryffindor common room. "Are these for the celebrations if we beat Ravenclaw on Saturday?"
"Yeah -- or for drowning our sorrows if we lose," said Ron.
"Pity. I don't suppose I'll be able to come and enjoy it either way."
"We'll save you a bottle or two, Harry," said Ginny brightly. "In fact, let's have one now just in case Snape keeps you all day!" She extracted a couple of bottles from the pile and handed them to a surprised Harry, who looked at them nervously, unsure what it would be best to do.
"Um, thanks ... I'll just get some, er, glasses, shall I?" he said. He moved over to the table, fumbling in his pocket as he did so. Hermione noticed what he was doing and rolled her eyes at him in exasperation.
While his aching hands were copying out yet another tedious index card, Harry suddenly felt a pressure in his head. He mentally shied away from it, and was suddenly struck with the horrible idea that Snape might be trying to perform Legilimency on him.
He closed his mind firmly, surprising himself. He had no intention of letting Snape know what he was thinking about Ginny Weasley. It seemed that embarrassment about such things actually helped. It had been the same with his feelings for Cho.
Ha! he thought. No, it wasn't the same at all. What he felt for Cho had been a mere childish infatuation compared with his feelings for Ginny. They were almost an obsession.
As Harry walked through the Hogwarts grounds hand-in-hand with Ginny, his mind was a whirl.
That kiss -- it had felt at once so unexpected and so like something he had always known would happen. So much the culmination of what he'd wanted, but at the same time, somewhere underneath it all, so horribly, naggingly wrong.
Ginny turned and gave him an adoring smile like a sunrise, and for a while all of his doubts fled away.
Hermione caught up with Harry by the side of the lake as he walked away.
"You didn't have to break up with her, Harry," she said quietly.
Harry smiled sadly. "Yes I did, Hermione. I've had time to think about it. It wouldn't be right ... for me to put her in danger just because I want her with me. I don't deserve her."
"I think she might disagree, Harry. She won't let you go that easily now, you know. And I can't believe it'll be easy for you, either. You don't really want to lose her, do you?"
He winced at her words. "It'll be easier than she thinks, Hermione. I've made sure of that. And I'll handle it. It's been great, but it's not ... it wouldn't be right. I realised that last night. Maybe some day. When ... when we can look back and laugh at all this."
Hermione sighed. "Be it on your own head, Harry. I gave you fair warning."
Harry continued his walk around the edge of the lake, gazing moodily into the depths of the water. It was calm, unruffled, and quiet; even the giant squid appeared to be otherwise occupied.
Because it was true what he'd told Hermione, wasn't it? It wouldn't be right to keep his relationship with Ginny going, knowing that whatever feelings were truly there underneath, they had been artificially enhanced to the point where even he couldn't tell what was natural and what wasn't.
No, it wouldn't be right. Even Merope Gaunt had realised that in the end.
Harry sighed, reached into his pocket, pulled out the half-full bottle of slow-acting love potion that he'd brewed with such care from the Prince's instructions, and after a moment's hesitation flung it as far into the lake as he could throw.
Hermione had, as usual, been right. It had been a really bad idea.
Author's Note: No, of course I don't really think that this was going on offstage in HBP. But I couldn't resist the plotbunny for sending up the "Ginny was using love potions on Harry"
delusion theory by twisting it round the other way. :)