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11
They Must Know

The Chosen One Strikes Back
It was the most awe inspiring scene in the Ministry of Magic in quite some time early yesterday as none other than The Chosen One, Harry Potter, made an entrance none who witnessed it will soon forget. Witnesses report that Mr. Potter apparated into the lobby of the ministry holding onto an unconscious death eater. Mr. Potter turned the unidentified death eater over to aurors who claimed the prisoner within seconds of Mr. Potter’s arrival.

Mr. Potter was escorted upstairs where it is suspected that he met with Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour. By the time Mr. Potter returned to the lobby, it had become jammed with those wanting to get a first hand look at the person some believe to be the chosen savior of the wizarding world. Escorts attempted to create a path for Mr. Potter to walk through, but to everyone’s surprise the normally elusive young man stopped to answer a few questions posed by others and myself.

When asked if he had been the one who captured the death eater, Mr. Potter said, “Yes. I captured this death eater after he tried to attack one of my friends who was helping to put up the shields on all of the Hogwarts students homes.”

Mr. Potter refused to elaborate on the identities of those helping him disperse the shield to the students’ houses, but said that the attack would not stop the effort to protect the students. He went on to confirm that it was an effort not undertaken with the assistance of the Ministry of Magic.

There have been rumors circulating since the death of Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore that Mr. Potter would join many who are not planning to return to Hogwarts this year fearing that it may be too dangerous. It was a question to which Mr. Potter responded by saying, “I had thought about not returning, though not out of fear. I have since changed my mind and do plan on returning to Hogwarts for my final year. I hope that most of the other students will decide to return as well in the end.”

Seeing that the aurors were becoming anxious to lead Mr. Potter from the chaotic scene, I took the chance personally to ask the question that everyone has been dying to know the answer to. I asked if any of the reports about his trip to the ministry when You Know Who was seen there were true. The look on his face made me think that he was considering the question very carefully before he said, “I guess that would depend on what reports you’re referring to. I did come to the ministry on that night along with a handful of brave friends. I won't tell you all of the details that led me to follow such a rash course of action, but it was soon made clear to me that You Know Who (Mr. Potter actually used the real name, but The Prophet will not print it) himself lured me here to remove a prophecy concerning the two of us that was made many years ago. The prophecy was smashed during a battle with death eaters who were attempting to retrieve it for You Know Who (again not what was said).”

When asked if the prophecy had revealed him to be “The Chosen One”, Mr. Potter considered his words carefully again before he said, “I intend to keep hunting death eaters and turning them over to the Ministry until I return to Hogwarts. Some day I will fight You Know Who again. That much has been foretold. I intend to turn his body over to the Ministry after I kill him. If I don’t do it, then no one will. If that makes me the chosen one, then so be it.”

As one might imagine, pandemonium erupted in the lobby as everyone excitedly launched question after question at Mr. Potter. The aurors struggled to keep the crowd from pressing too close as Mr. Potter gave a slight grin and apparated away.

It was several minutes before anyone thought to question how it was that Mr. Potter had managed to apparate into and out of the Ministry of Magic when there are spells recently put into place guarding against just such a thing. Then again, perhaps there is very little “The Chosen One” is not capable of. We can only watch and wait as the days and months stretch out before us.

Perhaps now we will begin to see a ray of hope shining through the darkness that prevails in the land. Perhaps now You Know Who, the master of fear, will finally have some of that fear turned back on him.

Voldemort tossed the copy of The Daily Prophet that he had been reading down to the floor in a rage before making it crumple into a ball and burst into flame. He took a moment to let his emotion melt away as he watched the flames consume the paper. Once he had regained his calm, he called for Bellatrix.

“I am here my Lord and Master,” Bellatrix said as she entered the room and bowed deeply. “How may I be of service to you?”

“I assume you have read the article in the Prophet this morning,” Voldemort said.

“I have, My Lord,” Bellatrix confirmed.

“Which of my death eaters has allowed themselves to be captured this time?” Voldemort asked letting her know that he was not pleased.

“I believe it was Moreland, My Lord,” Bellatrix answered. “He is the only one who did not report in yesterday. He was stationed in Harrogate to watch for those putting up shields.”

“I see,” Voldemort said dangerously. “It would appear that he found some of them. I assume you followed my orders and delivered my instructions to all of the death eaters.”

“I did, My Lord,” Bellatrix responded with her head bowed, keenly aware of how close Voldemort was standing.

“Then why,” Voldemort began as he placed his face close to Bellatrix’s, “were my orders not followed? Why was I not personally informed of their location right away? Why would one of my death eaters, those who have sworn to obey my every command, ignore my wishes?”

“He is young, My Lord,” Bellatrix said.

“You were young once as well,” Voldemort hissed. “I never had that trouble with you. I have never had that trouble before with any of my young death eaters in the past.”

“Some of the younger ones are…” Bellatrix stuttered. “It’s hard to explain, my Lord. They believe as we do, and yet…”

“They do not believe in me as you do,” Voldemort said finishing her thought for her. “It is not the same as it was in the old days. Perhaps I have become too focused of late. I spend all of my time administrating the attacks and little time taking part in them. Even when such attacks achieved my goals, others carried them out. Even my plan to kill Dumbledore was tainted because I was not the one who killed the old man myself. Not to mention the disgrace of having Severus disappear with young Malfoy after the attack. The young death eaters see all of these things as weakness.”

“Snape is a coward not to come to you,” Bellatrix seethed as her hatred of him rose to the surface.

“Or perhaps he believes young Malfoy will be harmed if he does so,” Voldemort said. “He would be right of course. I would make an example of him for not carrying through with his orders. Still, the unbreakable vow Severus made with your sister to protect Draco would not allow him to willingly turn him over to me.”

“But…” Bellatrix began in surprise as she looked up.

“Don’t look so surprised, Bella,” Voldemort said. “I have known about that vow since the night it was taken. Though you have always taken Severus for a traitor, he informed me of the vow on the very night it was made. Still, I will find him eventually and punish him appropriately as he fully expects. For now, I must concentrate on the problem of the young death eaters and their mistaken perceptions of my power. They must know what it means to defy The Dark Lord. Perhaps a little demonstration is in order.”


12
Wrath Unleashed

“Oh no,” Hermione said as she tossed The Daily Prophet down on the table in front of her.

“Is something the matter with your food, dear?” Mrs. Weasley asked.

“I wish that was all it was,” Hermione said pushing the paper to Ron. “I knew Harry would do something stupid. We never should have left him alone.”

“You don’t really think he would…” Ron began as he skimmed through the article on the front page.

“Do you really think he won’t if we don’t do something to stop him?” Hermione asked.

“I thought the prophecy was smashed and no one heard what it said,” Mrs. Weasley said as she read over Ron’s shoulder.

“Dumbledore knew what it said,” Ron informed her. “He told Harry right after he got back from the Ministry that night.”

“Oh, poor Harry,” Mrs. Weasley said as a look of grief came over her face as if one of her own children was in danger. “He should have said something. He shouldn’t have to carry that knowledge around by himself.”

“Harry only gave The Prophet the barest of details about what it said though,” Hermione said.

“Do you mean to say that Harry told you lot about it?” Mrs. Weasley asked.

“Of course he did,” Ron said. “He didn’t tell us right away though. He waited until last summer to do it.”

“I can’t believe you would keep something like that from me,” Mrs. Weasley said as tears formed in her eyes. “You know how I feel about Harry. If he’s in some kind of danger then your father and I should know about it.”

“When is Harry not in danger?” Ron asked.

“Don’t get cheeky with me Ronald Weasley,” Mrs. Weasley said. “You know what I mean. I’m going over to his house to get him. I’ll drag him back here by force if I have to.”

“I’m going with you,” a tear stained Ginny said from the base of the stairs. “I have to know he’s all right. I’ve been up most of the night worried sick about him.”

“I think it would be better if you stayed here, Ginny,” Mrs. Weasley said knowing the kind of response she would get.

Before Ginny could respond though, there was a knock at the door that startled all of them. Ginny bolted for the door in hopes Harry would be standing on the other side. Mrs. Weasley moved to stop Ginny though to remind her that they would have to identify who it was before they opened the door. Ginny didn’t like it, but submitted to her mother’s wishes anyway.

“Who is it?” Mrs. Weasley asked as she held tightly to her wand.

“It’s Minerva McGonagal, Molly,” McGonagal said from the front step.

“What is your favorite candy?” Mrs. Weasley asked.

“I don’t have time for something as foolish as candy?” McGonagal answered.

Mrs. Weasley opened the door and lowered her wand as she stepped aside to allow McGonagal to enter and said, “It’s good to see you again Minerva.”

“Likewise, Molly,” McGonagal said as she surveyed those present in the room. “I’m sorry to bother you so early, but I was wondering if Mr. Potter is staying with you. I’ve just come from his house, and he wasn’t there.”

“No,” Mrs. Weasley said. “He isn’t here. We were just about to go to his house to find him.”

“Don’t waste your time,” McGonagal said. “As I said before, he isn’t there. I performed a spell to see if he had been there recently, but he apparently didn’t spend the night there. I’ve dispatched the Order to search for him. I was hoping he would have come here.”

“I guess you read the article in The Prophet then,” Mrs. Weasley said.

“It was a foolish thing for Harry to do,” McGonagal said making her disapproval known. “He’ll have every death eater in the country looking for him.”

“What scares us is that he’s likely out there looking for them as well,” Hermione said.

“I believe he feels pressures on him that would seem to require just that,” McGonagal said. “As unnecessary as it is, he seems to be taking that responsibility on his own shoulders.”

“I don’t think Harry sees it as unnecessary,” Ginny said feeling a need spring up in her to defend Harry no matter what.

McGonagal studied the look in Ginny’s eyes momentarily before she said, “Forgive me. Perhaps unnecessary was not the appropriate word to use. I simply meant that no one person can be expected to accomplish such a task single handed.”

“He won’t have to do it alone if I have anything to say about it,” Ginny said as the feeling in her brought the tears back to her eyes.

“I’m sure we will all do our best to lighten that burden on him,” McGonagal said sensing that she was about to witness an emotional outburst. “We will just have to find him first.”

At the Ministry of Magic, spirits were as high as they had been in some time. Everyone was feeling upbeat as they began their day. In the recent days, their successes fighting the forces of The Dark Lord were encouraging. Of course, they all knew that it was at least partially due to the assistance of The Chosen One. There was a sense of peace that had fallen over the place just from the knowledge that Harry was on the job.

It was midmorning and the fireplaces in the lobby of the Ministry of Magic worked as usual to spew forth newcomers and sweep those departing off to other destinations. Little did anyone suspect that the security set up to check all arrivals through would be woefully inadequate on such a fine day.

It was at half past ten that a figure emerged from the floo network dressed in black robes with a hood pulled up to hide the face that the cheerful attitude changed almost instantly. One of the security men noticed the man and called out to him to stop. When he didn’t, four other security men joined the first in drawing their wands. They warned him once again to stop, and he did as requested. They asked him to remove his hood so they could see his face, but instead he turned to face them. When he made no move to remove his hood, they began to ask it again. They never completed their latest request as the man raised his open hand toward them quickly and they were all instantly hit with a force that slammed into their chests. They listened to their own ribs break even before the pain of the crushing blow reached their brains. The four of them dropped instantly gasping for air and writhing in pain as the man turned and continued his walk for the elevator.

The security man behind the desk began to rise as he drew his wand, but a jet of green light hit him in the chest before he could utter a word. Screams rang out from the civilians in the lobby as they caught on to what was happening. It was the mad scramble of the crowd to reach safety that prevented the remaining security men from getting a clear shot at the man. By the time their way was clear, the elevator doors had closed and the elevator was making its way down its shaft.

The elevator had not reached its chosen destination before alarms rang out throughout the Ministry of Magic. The way ahead would get more difficult from then on. Most of the element of surprise the man had counted on in the lobby would be lost on the lower floors. He knew what he faced though, and he was prepared to deal with it.

The elevator clanged to a stop as it hit its destination. Even as it did, he could hear the sound of another elevator descending toward him. It would add another layer to his difficulty soon, but first things first. The elevator doors opened and the hooded man stepped out into the corridor beyond to face seven aurors with their wands pointed at him.

“Stop where you are,” Dawlish ordered as the man complied instantly. “Remove your hood and identify yourself.”

“If you wish,” the man hissed as he raised his hands to his hood and slowly peeled it back.

Even the steel nerved aurors let out an involuntary gasp of shock as their minds rushed to recognize the one man they had wanted to find, and the one man they had feared to find.

“I am Lord Voldemort,” Voldemort announced with authority. “Stand aside and allow me to pass and I will spare your lives.”

“I…I… can’t do that,” Dawlish said as he fought to resist the urge to obey that Voldemort was attempting to place in his mind.

“I didn’t think so,” Voldemort said with a twisted grin as he quickly tossed a vile of potion to the floor in front of the aurors.

The effects were nearly instantaneous as the broken vile emitted a thick cloud of blue smoke that filled the lungs of the aurors and made them slip from consciousness before their bodies ever hit the floor. Voldemort, having taken the antidote prior to his arrival, strolled onwards through the smoke toward his destination.

At the place in the hallway where it junctioned with another, Voldemort shot a flame from his wand that spread around the corner into the other hallway and filled the space from floor to ceiling. The screams of pain were nearly instantaneous as the aurors stationed to be the next line of defense flailed in vain to escape the burning flames that consumed them. Seconds later, the screaming stopped and Voldemort lowered his wand as the flames disappeared. He stepped around the corner to find the charred remains of four aurors lying in the corridor before him as a faint clanging sound reached his ears.

The second elevator had finally reached its destination, and Voldemort knew that aurors would be spilling out of it very soon. In the event that they figured out a way to get past the cloud of poison that still hung in the air there, Voldemort turned and waved his hand, knowing that an invisible barrier had been erected to keep unwanted company out.

As he progressed onwards, Voldemort passed three more junctions and performed the same flame spell as before, but did not encounter any more aurors at those junctions. He had expected to encounter more resistance, but he thought that he must have taken out all of his opposition since none came to challenge him. He rounded one final corner, but did not bother to use the flame spell to clear the passage beyond first. He stopped immediately as he looked to the end of the hallway before him to see one last auror standing in front of the door that was his destination.

“You know you can not stand against me, Nymphadora,” Voldemort said as he prepared for the attack he knew would eventually come. “There will be no one to assist you. Their path has been blocked. Join with me now or stand aside to let me pass.”

“I will stand against you,” Tonks said with determination as she gripped her wand. “I’ll stand against you for as long as I have breath in my body.”

Voldemort chuckled evilly as he said, “Then you are a fool. I will not kill you. Your aunt has already asked me for that honor. Still, I will not let you stand in my way."

“And I won’t let you pass if I can help it,” Tonks said praying that she would be able to hit him with a binding spell before he was able to get his wand up.

Voldemort grinned again as Tonks suddenly raised her wand and quickly cast her binding spell. She wasn’t fast enough though as Voldemort brought his own wand up and conjured a pillow in mid air that received the binding spell and dropped harmlessly to the floor. Tonks was setting up for a powerful cutting spell when her wand was suddenly ripped from her grasp and clattered to the floor in front of her. She bent over to pick it up and took a powerful blow under her chin that bent her head back dangerously as her entire body was thrown back against the door only to slam into it hard before sinking to the floor.

Voldemort walked forward halving the distance between them as Tonks attempted to shake off her pain and recover. Before she could though, a power wrapped around her and pulled her quickly along the floor until she stopped at Voldemort’s feet. The force lifted her up to a semi-kneeling position as Voldemort bent down to look her in the eye.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to surrender?” Voldemort asked. “I enjoy this sort of thing you know. I really don’t have time to play with you much longer.”

Tonks summoned every bit of strength she had remaining as she swung her hand up and attempted to shove the fingers right into Voldemort’s eyes. He saw it coming though and moved back out of the way so that her effort missed its intended mark.

“A bad choice,” Voldemort said as he raised his wand and sent Tonks flying backwards into the door.

Tonks knew immediately that bones had broken as her body impacted the door hard enough to overcome the magical protection holding it shut and tear it from its hinges to fly into the room. Tonks vision was blurred as she opened one eye and watched as Voldemort walked into the cell room. Try as she might, Tonks couldn’t make her body respond to any calls for movement. If she could have seen the unnatural way her body was twisted as it lay broken and bleeding on the floor, she never would have attempted to move.

“My Lord,” Moreland said as he fought against his chains to kneel as Voldemort entered the room. “I told them nothing. I knew that you would come for me.”

“Did you?” Voldemort asked smoothly.

“I didn’t know that you would come personally,” Moreland said. “I thought you would send the death eaters for me. I am honored to be in your presence.”

“This is something I would never allow my death eaters to do for me,” Voldemort said. “I hand down all punishments to my death eaters.”

“Punishment?” Moreland asked confused.

“You will stand as an example to the other young death eaters who seem to doubt my power and resolve,” Voldemort said. “When I give an order it is to be taken seriously. To prove that, I have personally battled my way through the pitiful Ministry defenses to reach you. Your punishment will make sure that no other death eater ever fails me again.”

“But, Master…” Moreland began.

Even in her clouded immobile state, Tonks understood what was happening as Voldemort performed a spell that literally blasted Moreland apart as blood and bone exploded against the wall behind him. If Tonks had enough consciousness left, she would have been sick, but she just stared numbly as Voldemort walked over to her.

Voldemort bent down close to Tonks’ bloodied face and hissed in a whisper as he said, “Let that be a lesson to all of those who defy Lord Voldemort. No one will escape my wrath if they do not follow me. If you do survive your injuries long enough, be sure to repeat what you have seen and heard to “The Chosen One”. No man, woman, or Potter will ever be able to overcome the power of Lord Voldemort.”

It was at that moment that Tonks’ consciousness finally gave way and everything went black, with her last thought of ‘We’ll see about that’ etched firmly into what was left of her mind.

Voldemort walked quickly back to the place where he had erected the magical barrier to keep unwanted intruders out. He had erected it in such a way that made it possible for him to walk around the corner to look for opposition without being in danger of one of their spells breaching his defensive shield. He had nothing to fear though as he soon discovered the hallway beyond the barrier to be clear.

The cloud of poison was still hanging in the air and obscuring the elevators from view. Voldemort walked closer to the cloud wondering if the aurors had been foolish enough to attempt to walk through it. It didn’t take long before he could hear the mutterings on the other side of the cloud to tell him that some of them had wisely chosen to stay clear. Had they only known that he was standing not twenty feet from them, they would have been able to make an attempt at stopping him. As it was though, they never had a chance.

Voldemort raised his hands together out in front of himself as he concentrated on the area beyond the cloud. When he spread his hands quickly out to either side there were several loud crashes and groans as the aurors were thrown against the walls and pinned there. Voldemort strolled forward into the cloud and emerged on the other side to find the aurors struggling in vain against he spell that held them against the walls and unable to raise their wands to utter a spell.

“You may all consider yourselves lucky,” Voldemort said as he walked to the elevator. “You easily could have suffered a similar fate to your other auror friends who stood against me. I am leaving you alive so you can tell your precious Minister of Magic to stand aside and name me as Minister of Magic or I will continue to rein destruction down on those who stand against me. Today was just a small sample of the pain I will cause to achieve my goals. I will expect to see the abdication in the Prophet within the week.”

The elevator began its climb back toward the lobby level, and Voldemort had to smile to himself. He took pleasure in knowing that even Rufus Scrimgeour would harbor a thought deep within his mind of stepping aside. He knew that it would be buried deep though. Voldemort had resigned himself long ago to the knowledge that he would only rise to power through conquest.

The second the elevator doors opened, a variety of spells designed to subdue flashed out to impact only on the back wall of the elevator. Six security men and three aurors stared astonished as they hesitated to take a breath. They thought for sure that the elevator would contain the man who had broken into the lower levels. It was several seconds later before any of them could lower their wands and walk forward to investigate.

It was during those precious seconds that Voldemort slipped out of the elevator unseen by any of his would be attackers. He waited until he had gotten behind all of them and they were all close enough to the elevator entrance before he raised his wand and performed a spell that picked all of them up and tossed them into the elevator on top of one another. Another wave of Voldemort’s wand closed the doors as he pulled off the invisibility cloak with his other hand. Knowing that it wouldn’t take the men in the elevator long to recover, Voldemort whipped his wand forward and set loose a powerful cutting spell that sliced cleanly through the metal cage that surrounded the top of the elevator. The spell cut through the protective cage and made its way on to the cables suspending the elevator at its current floor.

Seconds later the elevator began to plummet downwards in free fall. Voldemort smiled once again as he heard the distant sound of metal twisting and churning from the impact far down the elevator shaft. Voldemort smiled as he turned and began making his way back toward the floo system to make his visit complete. He was confident that no one would dare oppose him after he had personally carried out the most devastating attack ever to take place in the Ministry.

Voldemort reached the fireplaces and prepared to step into one when he heard a sound behind him and turned to make sure more aurors weren’t trying to stop him. What he saw both surprised him and made rage flare within him. Fifty meters away from him, four of his death eaters lay unconscious on the floor where they had not been moments before. It was the fifth member of the party that interested him the most though.

Harry apparated with his nights quarry into the lobby of the Ministry as he had previously. It only took a split second for Harry to realize that something was seriously wrong. The Ministry, normally bustling with activity at that time of day, was deserted as if it was after hours. A look off to his right told him why.

“Voldemort,” Harry said feeling his anger of the previous day return as he stood to face Voldemort, who had begun to step in Harry’s direction.

“Harry Potter,” Voldemort said in a hiss. “We meet again.”

“I’ve been waiting,” Harry said seriously as he prepared to reach for his wand at any moment.

“Have you?” Voldemort asked. “You won’t have Dumbledore here to defend you this time, Harry.”

“I won’t need him to,” Harry said watching Voldemort closely.

“Ah, yes,” Voldemort grinned. “The Chosen One has some new found confidence. I should have known you’d gone mad when I read that you had actually started to believe what they write about you in The Prophet.”

“Or perhaps I just know what that prophecy you tried to steal said,” Harry pointed out knowing it would get Voldemort’s attention.

“You lie,” Voldemort said.

“I guess you would know all about that,” Harry began, “since you haven’t told the truth in years. Are you still trying to convince yourself that you aren’t a half-blood.”

“Watch what you say, Harry” Voldemort hissed warningly.

“Or what?” Harry asked. “Are you going to kill me? Haven’t you tried to do that enough yet? Obsessions like that aren’t healthy you know.”

“Your luck has finally run out today, Harry,” Voldemort said well aware of the distance his hand would have to travel to reach his wand. “I will kill you once and for all. Then I’ll take my death eaters back with me.”

“If you want them,” Harry said getting ready, “then come and get them.”

An instant later, Voldemort’s wand was in his hand and at the ready as he said, “Avada Kedavra.”

“Sectumsempre,” Harry said as he brought his own wand up in a blur of movement.

As had happened before, a thin golden thread connected the tips of both of their wands. Both of them stared intently into the eyes of the other determined not to be the one to give in.

“I see your reflexes have improved,” Voldemort said as he strained with is vibrating wand.

“Have they?” Harry asked. “Maybe you’re just getting slower.”

“I thought this might happen if we dueled again,” Voldemort said.

“So did I,” Harry said trying to keep the grin off of his face.

It was Harry’s turn to try a surprise attack as he raised his empty hand toward Voldemort and performed a wordless and wandless spell with his left hand while maintaining his grip on his wand with his right. It was a spell that Voldemort was not fully prepared to deal with, so he did not get a shield charm up in time to intercept it. The spell hit him in the abdomen and began to bore it’s way inside. Voldemort’s robes were already straining to absorb the blood before he was able to pass his hand over the wound to stop the spell from digging any further. The damage was done though. Voldemort knew he would have to get back to his potions soon if he hoped to reverse the process.

Voldemort raised his free hand and performed a spell that knocked Harry backwards several meters and caused Harry to break the connection between their wands. Harry hit the ground hard, but forced his body to ignore the pain as he rolled to a crouch as he got ready to defend against another attack. Voldemort was not attacking though as he realized the urgency of his situation, and, somewhat hunched over, he made his way back to the fireplaces.

Harry scrambled to his feet and took aim at Voldemort’s back, but had to duck back down to avoid a barrage of killing curses Voldemort was shooting over his shoulder in Harry’s direction. It was at that moment that Harry heard the arrival of another elevator. He looked behind him to see Rufus Scrimgeour and Kingsley Shaklebolt exit the elevator with six other aurors. He looked back around just in time to see Voldemort step into one of the fireplaces and disappear.

“Good lord, Harry,” Scrimgeour said in surprise as he and the others ran to him. “What are you doing here?”

“I was just making another delivery,” Harry said pointing to the four death eaters still lying on the floor nearby. “I got here just before Voldemort was going to floo out of here.”

“Did you actually duel with You Know Who, Harry?” Kingsley asked.

“I really wish you would all start calling him by his name,” Harry said with a twinge, as he became aware of the broken rib he had suffered in his fall. “He’s as mortal as the rest of us. I did duel with him though. I think I got in a good shot on him. He’ll have to work pretty quickly to repair his injury or he may be out of action for quite some time.”

“He’s sure made a mess of things for us here today,” Scrimgeour said. “He broke through all of our defenses and went down to the detention level. Did he leave with anyone?”

“No,” Harry answered caressing the sore spot in his left side. “I think he was alone. Of course someone may have left just before I got here.”

“I suppose he came to break out that death eater you brought in yesterday,” Scrimgeour said. “We had better get down to the detention level and see what happened. We haven’t had any contact with them since the first elevator full of aurors went down to try to stop him.”

“I’d like to come with you,” Harry said. “I’d like to see for myself if he managed to break out that death eater.”

“Are you sure you’re all right, Harry?” Kingsley asked taking notice of Harry favoring his left side. “You look like you haven’t slept in days.”

“It’s nothing that would stop me from going with you,” Harry responded.

“You might as well,” Scrimgeour said as he looked at the newest prisoners Harry had brought in. “If people are hurt down there it would mean a lot to them to have you there.”

“It would mean more to me if they were all able to stay out of harm’s way,” Harry said as they stepped into the elevator. “The fact that Voldemort made it down there and back leads me to believe otherwise though.”

“It may not be a pretty sight, Harry,” Kingsley said. “You may know some of the aurors that were down there. Are you sure you’re up to it?”

“I think I’ll be fine,” Harry said wondering if he really was ready for the horrors that may wait below.

No one else said a word as the elevator crept downward to one of the lower levels and came to a stop. The doors opened and the aurors immediately sprang out to attempt to help their colleagues who were still pinned to the wall by a spell. Harry stayed behind in the elevator opening as the spells were broken one at a time to get the aurors down. Harry could see though that there were bodies lying in the corridor under the gas cloud that was suspended in the air above them.

“No, minister,” one of the aurors said. “He came out alone. He said to tell you to step aside and name him as the new Minister.”

“Not likely,” Scrimgeour said as he studied the cloud in font of him. “Maybe the aurors further in were able to repel his attack somehow.”

“I would think they would have chased him out to this point if they were still in a condition to do so,” Kingsley said. “We aren’t going to know that until we get past this cloud though. I don’t know if we can afford to wait for it to dissipate on its own. It could last for days.”

“We could apparate past it,” Harry said as he stepped from the elevator for the first time.

A quiet fell over the aurors as they looked at Harry and Scrimgeour said, “You can’t apparate on the detention levels, Harry. Otherwise all of the prisoners would escape.”

“Unless of course, Harry wants to tell us how it is that he manages to apparate into the Ministry lobby even though blocks have been put on that as well,” Kingsley pointed out.

“I won’t put Mr. Potter in that kind of danger even if it were possible,” Scrimgeour said.

“It is possible,” Harry said looking at the bodies under the cloud once again.

“I can’t allow it,” Scrimgeour insisted.

“Harry,” Kingsley began, “Tonks was one of the aurors on duty in there. If anything has happened…”

“I’m going in,” Harry said immediately as he stepped forward.

“I said, no,” Scrimgeour said with as much authority as he could muster.

“With all due respect, Minister,” Harry said as he looked at Scrimgeour, “you’ll have a hard time stopping me.”

“Are you sure, Harry?” Kingsley asked. “What you find might be…”

“I would never forgive myself if I didn’t try to help when it was in my power to,” Harry said. “I would like you to go with me though.”

“Of course,” Kingsley said as he stepped to Harry’s side.

“I’d like you to come as well, Minister,” Harry said.

Scrimgeour studied Harry for a moment before stepping to his other side and saying to the other aurors, “I want half of you to wait here for us to come back. The other half get back upstairs and find someone who might be able to get rid of this cloud and evacuate the dead."

“Just hold tight to my arms,” Harry said as Kingsley and Scrimgeour complied.

In an instant the scene before them shifted to an open expanse of hallway. Kingsley and Scrimgeour were momentarily bewildered about what had just happened. They had expected to feel their bodies compress as it did during a side by side apparation. Instead they had felt only the briefest feeling of weightlessness. A look behind them at the cloud confirmed that they had indeed moved further down the corridor.

“Wow, Harry!” Kingsley exclaimed. “That was amazing. You’ll have to teach me to do that sometime.”

“I can’t do that,” Harry said. “You would have to arrest yourself.”

“What?” Scrimgeour asked wondering what law Harry might have just broken.

“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies, Minister,” Harry said seriously. “Shall we move on?”

Kingsley took the lead, but was suddenly thrown back as he ran into Voldemort’s barrier. Harry helped him up, and the three of them apparated once again past the barrier. The sight that met their eyes crushed some of their hopes that Voldemort may have been repelled. They walked past the charred bodies in silence until they had reached a junction and turned the corner.

“Harry,” Kingsley began, “I think you should stay here.”

“Why?” Harry asked.

“Because there is only one auror not accounted for so far,” Kingsley said as gently as he could.

“If Tonks is injured you’ll need me to get her out of here past the barriers,” Harry explained.

“I think he’s referring to the state the bodies we just passed were in,” Scrimgeour put in. “You may not be ready to be exposed to what he might have done to her.”

“I’ve seen dead people and injured people before, Minister,” Harry said trying to shut out the images that tried to pop to the surface in his mind. “I’ll be fine.”

There was a long silence as the Minister considered Harry’s insistence before Kingsley said, “Well we had better keep moving anyway. Time may not be on our side.”

The three of them threw caution to the wind and set off at a run through the remaining hallways with Kingsley in the lead. Harry ran right into Kingsley’s back as he rounded the last corner. Kingsley had stopped at the sight of what lay before him, and made every attempt to shield Harry from it. He couldn’t do so for long though as Harry fought to glance around the big auror.

Harry’s eyes went wide with horror at his immediate reaction. His first look squared in on the blood splattered on the back wall of the room. A scream of pain came into Harry’s throat, but he was too emotionally stunned to utter a single sound as his mind rushed to make sense of the rest of the scene. The door lay inside the room hanging tenuously from its lower hinge having been smashed in.

It was no more than a few seconds before Harry spotted her, though it seemed an eternity to Harry. Choking down his sorrow that filled him, Harry stepped around Kingsley and ran forward and stepped into the room. It wasn’t until he got inside the room that he noticed the slumped body of the death eater he had captured the day before still in his chains, but with a sizable hole in the center of his chest.

Harry tore his eyes away from the death eater to look at Tonks’ twisted form lying on the floor ahead of him. Harry couldn’t stop the tears as he knelt down at her side. He reached out his hand toward her and brushed a few hairs out of her face. Harry’s heart nearly jumped as his hand glided across her temple and felt something he had not expected.

“She’s alive!” Harry exclaimed to Kingsley and Scrimgeour as they watched from the doorway.

“What?” Scrimgeour and Kingsley asked in surprise.

“She has a pulse,” Harry said not taking his eyes from her as he stroked her cheek. “Come over here. I have to get her to St. Mungo’s. Either you go with me or you have to wait for me to come back for you.”

Scrimgeour and Kingsley both walked over and took hold of Harry’s shoulders as he took hold of Tonks’ hand. In a mater of seconds, all was quiet once again on the detention level. Harry was determined not to lose the last decent part of the Black family line. He was determined not to lose a friend. He was more determined than he had ever been not to lose.

13
Believe Me When I Tell You


Everyone in the kitchen at the Burrow reached for their wands instinctively as the carelessly unlocked door flew open. They all froze as they watched a frantic looking Arthur Weasley burst in panting as if he had run there from work. He immediately took notice of everyone present and considered how what he was about to say might affect them.

“Arthur,” Mrs. Weasley gasped as she began to fear the worst. “What is it? What’s happened?”

“There was an attack at the Ministry,” Mr. Weasley responded as he panted. “You Know Who did it himself. Several of the aurors were killed. The Ministry is in Chaos.”

“Oh my lord!” Mrs. Weasley shrieked. “Percy!”

“He’s fine, Molly,” Mr. Weasley said as he walked over to comfort her knowing his real news would hit her just as hard. “He’s the one who told me.”

“Told you what, Arthur?” McGonagal asked.

“The Minister of Magic sent him a message from St. Mungo’s,” Mr. Weasley said. “Tonks was apparently injured pretty badly in the attack. The healers are working on her now.”

“Oh my,” Mrs. Weasley said as tears came into her eyes quickly.

“There’s more,” Mr. Weasley said as he glanced at his daughter and prepared himself for her reaction.

Ginny saw the look in her father’s eyes as he looked at her, and her heart sank as she asked, “Harry?”

Everyone turned to look at Arthur once again as he hesitated before he said, “Apparently Harry got into a duel with You Know Who just as he was trying to leave the Ministry. Percy didn’t have any details, but he said that Harry was at St. Mungo’s as well. I don’t know how seriously injured he is, but he was injured.”

Tears of pain had already begun to run down Ginny’s cheeks. Hermione rose from her seat as she prepared to comfort Ginny. She never got the chance though as Ginny closed her eyes and disappeared with a small pop.

“Ginny!” Mrs. Weasley screamed.

“She isn’t old enough to apparate yet,” Mr. Weasley said in shock.

“I didn’t even know she could,” Ron said proudly.

“It may have just been a fantastic bit of accidental magic,” McGonagal said as she rose from her chair. “If it was, and she was thinking of Mr. Potter, then there is a high probability that she is now at St. Mungo’s. I believe it would be a good idea for all of us to join her.”

Ginny reappeared with a pop loud enough to attract the attention of the two aurors who rushed into the room with their wands drawn.

“It’s okay,” Harry said quickly from his bed. “I know her. She’s my girlfriend.”

“Harry,” Ginny said as she ignored the aurors and ran to Harry and embraced him tightly. “I was so scared. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Harry responded hugging her back. “It was just a broken rib. The healers have already mended it. They just want me to stay here overnight.”

“Good,” Ginny said as she thought about her first vision of Harry in his bed. “You look terrible.”

“I haven’t gotten much sleep lately,” Harry said with a smile. “It isn’t anything a good night of sleep won’t cure.”

“What about Tonks?” Ginny asked as she sat up on the side of the bed. “Is she going to be okay?”

“I don’t know, Ginny,” Harry answered as he fought to control his memory of what Tonks had looked like when he had found her. “They haven’t been willing to tell me anything about her condition yet.”

“I’ll see if I can find out something for you in a while,” Ginny said.

“Are you planning to apparate into her room as well?” Harry asked with a grin. “When did you learn to apparate anyway? And just how is it that you managed to find me? You weren’t just popping into random rooms hoping to find me I hope.”

“It came as a bit of a shock to me too,” Ginny said. “I was standing in the kitchen at the Burrow as my dad told us about what happened at the Ministry. He said you had been injured. I closed my eyes and thought of you. The next thing I knew I was here.”

“Dumbledore always said love was a strong magic,” Harry said as he enjoyed the slightly queasy feeling he still got when her hand was in contact with his. “I guess we were meant to be.”

“We will be if I have anything to say about it, Mr. Potter,” Ginny said with a blushing grin. “Mark my words.”

“Oh, I intend to, Miss Weasley,” Harry said with a smile. “You can count on that.”

“Kingsley,” Mr. Weasley said as he and the others spotted Kingsley in the waiting area of St. Mungo’s. “Have you seen Ginny here by any chance?”

“Ginny?” Kingsley asked surprised. “I don’t think so. Her red hair would have stood out enough for me to notice if she had been through here. Why?”

“We thought she might have accidentally apparated here after she found out Harry had been injured,” McGonagal explained.

“Not unless she managed to apparate closer to his room,” Kingsley said. “There are two aurors guarding Harry’s door that have orders to hex first and ask questions later. If that had happened I would have heard about it by now.”

A student healer walked out into the waiting room and spotted Kingsley as he walked over and said, “I have a message for you, Mr. Shacklebolt.”

Kingsley took the folded message from the student and grinned as he read it.

“Well?” Mrs. Weasley asked as she clutched onto her husband’s arm.

“Everything is fine,” Kingsley said as he looked up at them. “Apparently your daughter managed to apparate directly into Harry’s room. Harry managed to stop them before they got a chance to hex her. She’s fine. Unless of course you consider the fact that Minister Scrimgeour ordered that no one be allowed to speak with him until he had been questioned. I had better go straighten all of this out.”

“We’ll be going with you,” Hermione put in. “We have a few questions we want answered as well.”

Upon entering Harry’s room, Mrs. Weasley rushed to her daughter and pulled her into a tight hug. Everyone else greeted Harry as Kingsley stood by the door with McGonagal waiting for an opportune time to interrupt.

“You realize that you’ve had all of us worried sick, of course,” Hermione said. “You never should have tried to do that alone.”

“I didn’t want to take the chance that anyone else would get hurt,” Harry responded. “Besides, I have a few new tricks up my sleeve that kept me mostly out of harms way.”

“Well now I know you’ve lost your mind,” Hermione said with a snort. “Dueling with Voldemort isn’t what I would call staying out of harms way.”

“That was an accidental meeting,” Harry pointed out. “I wasn’t looking for a fight at all. It was just bad timing that brought us together this time.”

“Actually, Harry,” Kingsley said as he stepped forward, “the minister would like me to ask you a few questions about that.”

“About what?” Harry asked. “I didn’t have any more to do with Voldemort showing up there than you did.”

“We’re aware of that,” Kingsley responded. “We were more interested in learning exactly how it is that you managed to get there in the first place. If you can break though our security measures then someone else might be able to.”

“I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you,” Harry said. “I doubt any other wizard would manage to learn what I have.”

“If you can learn it then someone else can,” Kingsley said. “I take it that the methods you used to learn it were illegal though. When we were on the detention level you told me I would have to arrest myself if I ever learned how to do it. Not every wizard will have that problem.”

“You’ll just have to take my word for it,” Harry said.

“I don’t know that the Minister will accept your word that easily,” Kingsley said, wondering how Harry would respond.

“I don’t know that he has much choice,” Harry replied.

“He has methods at his disposal that would make you tell him,” Kingsley warned.

“It would be political suicide for him to use any of them on me though,” Harry said as his mischievous grin returned. “He wouldn’t last a week if the Daily Prophet ran a story on the front page explaining how the Minister was forcibly extracting information from “The Chosen One”.”

“Even that may only carry you so far, Harry,” Kingsley cautioned. “I don’t think you realize the full potential of what you’ve done. If you can breach the security measures at the Ministry, then there would be little else to stop you from doing so at other high security locations; Azkaban, for instance. Believe me when I tell you that, he may feel he has no other choice but to detain you.”

“Believe me when I tell you that he’ll find that more difficult than he might think,” Harry said in all seriousness.

Voldemort stood over the table in his private chambers where his cauldron boiled and steamed with each new ingredient that was thrown in. He had to fight against his vision, which occasionally slipped out of focus, while he tried to ignore the intense wrenching pain in his abdomen. Sweat dripped from his brow, and only served to add to his frustration as it stung his eyes. It was just as he added the last of the needed ingredients that his equilibrium failed him at last, and he slipped to the floor as he swiped the table with his hand in an attempt to grab onto something that would stop his fall.

Bellatrix was walking in the corridor just outside Voldemort’s chambers when a thunderous sound of breaking glass reached her ears. Knowing better than to barge in on The Dark Lord, she knocked on the heavy wooden door.

“My Lord?” Bellatrix asked through the door when her knock got no reply. “Is everything all right?”

When she still received no response, Bellatrix opened the door slowly as she carefully stuck her head inside. She noticed first the shards of glass strewn about one side of the room. The next thing she saw made her draw her wand instinctively. Her master lay unmoving on the floor behind the table, and she could see that the front of his robes were drenched with blood.

Bellatrix threw the door open and quickly scanned the room for threats as she made her way over to Voldemort and said, “My Lord! What has happened? My Lord, can you hear me?”

Voldemort opened one eye and tried to focus on Bellatrix without success as he struggled to whisper, “Potion… seven ounces… per hour.”

Bellatrix looked to the potion still steaming on the table as Voldemort slipped from consciousness. She wasted no time in what she knew she had to do. She immediately recovered the scales from among all of the broken glass on the floor and placed it back on the table. Trusting that the potion was finished, she carefully measured out precisely seven ounces.

It was nearly four thirty in the morning when Voldemort awoke and opened his eyes as everything around him came into sharp focus. He was laying in his own bedchamber, and in the candlelight he could see Bellatrix sitting in a chair across the room reading a large dusty book.

“You have done well, Bellatrix,” Voldemort said, causing Bellatrix’s head to snap up in surprise.

“My master,” Bellatrix said with a rare smile as she closed the book and walked over to Voldemort and knelt down beside his bed. “I have done no more than I have sworn to do. I deserve no further praise.”

“Yet I would have trusted no other to watch over my recovery,” Voldemort said.

“Is your recovery complete now, my Lord?” Bellatrix asked.

“No,” Voldemort responded. “The potion you have been giving to me must continue to be taken every hour for the next two days. In addition there are other potions that will need to be brewed to further repair the damage. It will fall to you to brew those potions for me.”

“I am at your service, my Lord,” Bellatrix said proudly. “If only I could have been there to prevent this injury in the first place. You should have let me go with you to the Ministry. I would have placed myself between you and the aurors to prevent your injury.”

“The aurors were no match for me,” Voldemort spat in disgust. “I sliced through their defenses as if they were made of smoke. I broke into their most secure area and killed Moreland as I intended. I strode out again with just as much ease.”

Bellatrix could see the fury burning in her master’s eyes, so she hesitated before she said, “But your injury…

“Potter,” Voldemort hissed. “I was nearly into the floo system when I looked behind me and saw that Potter had arrived.”

“But surely he could not have…” Bellatrix began.

“We have all greatly underestimated Harry,” Voldemort said. “Perhaps I more than any other have underestimated him. It was my belief that he had always survived against me out of trickery and timely intervention from others. It was that image of him that I had in my mind when I dueled him at the Ministry. Little did I know that the Harry Potter I was dueling was not the same Harry Potter I had faced before. I have no doubt that I could beat him in a duel the next time we meet, but I displayed a serious lack of judgment in our latest duel. I had in mind to toy with him for a moment before I killed him. I would have been better served if I had adopted his frame of mind though. He stepped into that duel as I would have in my younger days. His only thought was to kill me.”

“I don’t understand how he could have grown so powerful,” Bellatrix said as she tried to process what she was hearing.

“Perhaps Dumbledore’s death galvanized his thinking more than we had anticipated,” Voldemort said. “I have never seen him so focused before. I’m sure it must have been that same focus that led him to learn to use the ancient spell he injured me with. It would have surely killed me then and there if I had not studied the same spell and it’s countercurse when I was a student myself. It just shocked me for a moment that Harry would have been learning spells like it. They can only be found in the restricted section of the library at Hogwarts in the section on the dark arts.”

“Perhaps Potter isn’t the vision of good that everyone believes him to be,” Bellatrix said with a twisted grin.

“I dare say that it was Dumbledore who taught him such a spell,” Voldemort said. “We know from our spies that Harry was meeting with Dumbledore during the last school year for private lessons of some sort. It wouldn’t surprise me if Harry didn’t even know it was dark magic he was learning.”

“Then I doubt he can perform much of it properly, since with most dark spells you have to want to cause harm to someone,” Bellatrix said. “He tried to use an unforgivable curse on me when we fought at the Ministry. He failed miserably.”

“Don’t assume that is still true,” Voldemort warned. “The spell he used against me had as much will behind it as I would have used. It may not just be me it works against either. When he appeared in the lobby before our duel, there were four more death eaters lying unconscious around him.”

“But how?” Bellatrix asked in shock. “How is it possible that he was not only able to find them, but was able to overpower them all as well?”

“I have to assume that Harry has come into possession of some device that enables him to locate death eaters,” Voldemort said as if thinking out loud. “I would also assume that he is only targeting death eaters who are alone. It might be possible for him to surprise a lone death eater long enough to render them unable to respond in time. At least, it seems to be easiest with our more recent additions to our ranks.”

“I am attempting to train them, my Lord,” Bellatrix said as she hung her head in shame.

“I do not question your methods or your determination in such a task, Bellatrix,” Voldemort said as another stabbing pain shot through his abdomen. “I know that I have waited long enough to lighten your burden. Most of my inner circle of death eaters sit even now in Azkaban awaiting the day when they will be free to do my bidding once again. The time of their liberation is near. Once I have fully recovered, we will begin the planning for an attack on Azkaban. Believe me when I tell you, we will not fail.

14
The Visitor


Harry had been back at home for just over twenty-four hours, and he was feeling more and more like a caged animal. Hermione and the entire Weasley clan had accompanied him home from St. Mungo’s after his one night stay there. They were all so worried that he would try to go after more death eaters that Hermione slipped him a sleeping potion at dinner that knocked him out until well into the following day.

Harry had awoken to find Ginny above the covers next to him with her arm draped over his chest. He was so overcome with happiness at that moment that he forgot about his anger with Hermione. He watched her sleep for several minutes before she opened her eyes and noticed he was looking at her.

Harry had bowed willingly to Ginny’s request that he stay in the house with her for the rest of the day. Spending the day with Ginny was as pleasant as it had ever been, but it began to bother him more and more that she would tense up if he so much as looked out a window. If anything, it only made him more determined to stick to his word.

“Have you given much thought to what you want to do after you graduate, Harry?” Ginny asked as she snuggled closer into Harry’s arms as they watched a magical fire dance in the fireplace.

Harry hesitated long enough as he considered her question to make her look up at him before he said, “I used to think about it often enough. I can’t really say that I’ve thought about it recently though. I haven’t really thought about my own future since just before…”

Ginny could see pain suddenly come into Harry’s eyes as she softly said, “Since before Professor Dumbledore died. Oh Harry. I didn’t mean to make you feel like this tonight.”

“It’s all right, Ginny,” Harry said. “I need to feel this way every now and then. If I didn’t I would be no better than Voldemort. He doesn’t feel anything for anyone. I, on the other hand, have very strong feelings for several people.”

“Well I certainly hope I’m included in that list,” Ginny teased.

“You’re at the very top, and you know it,” Harry said giving Ginny a playful jab in the ribs.

“A girl likes to hear it every so often,” Ginny said with a giggle.

“You deserve to hear it every day,” Harry said as he brushed her cheek lightly with the backs of his fingers. “I’ll try to remember to tell you just how much I love you every day.”

“Oh you have no idea how long I waited to hear you say words like that,” Ginny said as Harry kissed the top of her head. “I still can’t believe it sometimes. It’s like a dream come true to be sitting here like this with you.”

“You really do know how to make me think about the future don’t you?” Harry said as he imagined something in his head and Ginny looked up at him questioningly. “Someday I want this to be our house.”

“Are you sure?” Ginny asked. “I can be pretty hard to live with. Just ask one of my brothers.”

“I don’t need to,” Harry said with a grin. “I think I know you pretty well myself. Aside from the occasional bat-bogie hex, you’re wonderful. I’ll suffer through those if I have to.”

“Harry, I…” Ginny began before she was interrupted by a whistling sound from the mirror in the entry indicating that someone was coming up the front walk. “I’ll see who it is.”

“That isn’t what you were going to say,” Harry said as he followed her to the entry. “Come on, out with it.”

“Later,” Ginny said with a smile as she looked at the mirror. “Professor McGonagal is coming.”

“It isn’t like her to call so late unless she has some important news,” Harry said as he was surprised to find that the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. “Ginny, stand back out of the way. Let me get the door.”

“Harry, what’s wrong?” Ginny asked as she noticed Harry reaching for his wand.

“I don’t know,” Harry responded as there was a knock at the door. “Something just doesn’t feel right. Please, stand clear of the door.”

Ginny moved back into the sitting room as Harry had asked as he opened the door while holding his wand in his left hand behind his back.

“Good evening, Professor,” Harry said as pleasantly as he could.

“I need to speak with you, Harry,” McGonagal said causing Ginny to realize that something was indeed very wrong. “May I come in?”

“Of course,” Harry said as he stood aside.

Professor McGonagal placed a single foot inside the doorway before the floorboards in the entry seemed to come to life and sprang forward to wrap around her tightly as Ginny screamed in surprise. An instant later, she was pulled fully into the entry and thrown hard onto the floor where more boards wrapped around her like tight ribbons and pinned her down. Struggle as she might, the boards would not give an inch as they suddenly became as hard as they had ever been.

“Now, Professor,” Harry began as he walked closer with his wand in full view and already halfway through a spell, “who are you?”

A deep pink light flew from Harry’s wand and hit Professor McGonagal square in the face before spreading to envelope her entire body. The sturdy floorboards rattled under the strain the spell caused, but the trembling came to an end as the light from the spell dissipated. The captured person’s disguise had been melted away leaving the true assailant still trapped beneath the tight wood bands.

Harry knelt down beside the exposed head of his captive as he said, “You should know for future reference, Mrs. Malfoy, that Professor McGonagal almost never addresses me as Harry.”

“I was not trying to deceive you, Harry,” Narcissa said as she struggled vainly against her binding. “It was the only way for me to come to see you without being recognized by those who watch your home for the Dark Lord.”

“Why would you need to see me about anything?” Harry asked. “If memory serves me correctly, you and your entire family work for Voldemort.”

Narcissa winced at the mention of his name as she said, “Please do not speak his name in front of me.”

“Sorry,” Harry said. “My house, my rules. You don’t have to say it, but you can’t stop anyone else from saying it. I’ll ask again. Why do you need to see me?”

“Is it true that you have some means of locating the death eaters?” Narcissa asked.

“What makes you think that?” Harry asked as he tried to keep surprise out of his face.

“The Dark Lord believes that you do,” Narcissa said with urgency. “Bellatrix told me that he believes that is how you have been locating the death eaters you captured.”

“So, he managed to survive our latest duel,” Harry said as he shook his head. “Pity. I was hoping he would do us all the favor of dying. Again, why did you want to see me?”

“I need you to help me find my son before the Dark Lord does,” Narcissa said as tears began to run down her cheeks. “He’ll kill him if he finds him. I can’t let that happen. Draco is all I have left.”

“He should have thought of that before he tried to kill Professor Dumbledore,” Harry said as he tried to suppress the rage that threatened to cloud his thinking. “If I find him first, he’ll wish Voldemort had found him.”

“But he didn’t kill Dumbledore,” Narcissa pleaded. “It was Snape.”

“Draco was the one who got all of the death eaters into the school in the first place,” Harry pointed out.

“You have to understand,” Narcissa begged. “Draco was just trying to prove himself. His father had been captured. My husband had been leading that mission to recover the prophecy. His failure to do so brought shame down on the house of Malfoy. Draco saw this as the only way to get back the prestige he believed his family deserved.”

“So you come to me to help him?” Harry asked. “Maybe you think he stands a better chance against me than he does against Voldemort. Or maybe you think Snape will be there to save him from me. Then again, maybe Voldemort hasn’t been able to find them and sent you here to convince me to do his dirty work for him.”

“I have risked everything in coming here,” Narcissa said as tears streamed down her cheeks. “I’ve been trying to find them all summer. The Dark Lord would kill me if he ever knew that I had spoken to you. That is why I disguised myself to come and see you. He may know of it even now though since you stripped away my disguise.”

“Explain,” Harry said. “How would he know?”

“The dark mark on my arm links me to the Dark Lord at his whim,” Narcissa responded. “He can use it to send messages to his death eaters as well as keep track of their locations.”

“If that were true,” Harry said leaning a bit closer, “then why hasn’t he been able to use that to locate Snape?”

“It can be suppressed if the person is located in a place that is unplotable,” Narcissa explained. “I believe Snape may have taken Draco to a place like that to hide him.”

“Yet you believe I know how to find him,” Harry said shaking his head. “You poor desperate woman. It must have killed you to come to me about this.”

“I know perfectly well that I may have been wasting my time,” Narcissa said closing her eyes in resignation. “You were right. I am desperate. I have come to the end of my patience about finding Draco. How much is a mother expected to stand? I just can’t take it any more. I know that you’ll turn me over to the ministry and send me off to Azkaban, but I beg you to find my son for me. I’ll give you anything you want. I just need my peace of mind knowing he’s safe from the Dark Lord’s wrath.”

“Why is Snape protecting Draco?” Harry asked after considering what she had told him. "It isn't a logical thing for him to do. He isn’t the kind of person who does favors for people out of the goodness of his heart. I would have expected Snape to leave Draco on his own by now.”

“He can’t do that,” Narcissa said as she looked at Harry questioning what would make him ask such a question. “He swore to protect him.”

“But that wouldn’t be enough for someone like Snape,” Harry said. “I’m willing to bet he gave his word to Dumbledore on a few things as well. It didn’t stop Snape from killing him when he needed Snape’s help the most.”

“It must have been an unbreakable vow, Harry,” Ginny said as she walked closer for the first time. “Even Snape wouldn’t be able to break an unbreakable vow if he took one.”

“He took one with me,” Narcissa confessed. “I thought Draco would fail or be caught trying to do what the Dark Lord asked him to do. I was just trying to protect my son.”

“So you knew what they were planning to do,” Harry said in disgust. “You knew the whole point was to kill Professor Dumbledore.”

“I won’t pretend I didn’t,” Narcissa said. “It was never a secret that the Dark Lord wanted Dumbledore out of the way. There were attempts made previously, but none had ever succeeded. I didn’t honestly think it would work when it did. I thought the attempt would fail and Draco would be sent to Azkaban. I just meant for Snape to do what he could to stop that from happening.”

“I haven’t heard anything that would convince me to tell you where Draco was even if I knew,” Harry said as he passed his open hand over the place where Narcissa was pinned to the floor, and the floorboards unwrapped themselves only to return to their proper positions.

“Harry, what are you doing?” Ginny asked in surprise as she backed away a couple of steps.

Harry then reached out his hand to Narcissa as she looked at him questioningly and said, “I don’t understand.”

“It’s a simple thing,” Harry said as he continued to hold out his hand. “I’m offering to help you up.”

Narcissa hesitated, but eventually reached out and took Harry’s hand. Harry helped her stand, and she took a moment to smooth out her robes while never taking her eye off of Harry.

“I wouldn’t worry about Voldemort being able to find you right now even with your dark mark,” Harry said as he turned and walked into the sitting room as Narcissa followed him. “As you found out, my house is set up with a few defenses. They should shield you from his prying eyes. Have a seat.”

“I don’t understand,” Narcissa said. “I thought you would be calling for the aurors by now.”

“It wouldn’t do me much good if I did,” Harry pointed out. “You’ve managed to keep your name off of their wanted known death eaters list. Haven’t they already searched your house looking for Draco and Snape? The Prophet said you were there during the search and cooperated with the aurors fully. If they had an interest in sending you to Azkaban they would have done it by now.”

“But why are you asking me to sit down?” Narcissa asked. “Why aren’t you throwing me out the door?”

“Because I had a mother, who loved me as much as you love Draco,” Harry said as he gestured toward a seat across from where he sat. Narcissa sat slowly as Ginny came to stand behind Harry’s chair. “Have you had any contact with Snape or Draco since the attack at Hogwarts?”

“There was just a single note sent by owl the day after it happened,” Narcissa confessed as her hopes began to rise slightly. “It was from Draco. He told me that he was all right and was being protected. He told me that they would have to disappear for a while and stay out of contact. Then he told me not to worry before instructing me to destroy the letter.”

Harry studied the way Narcissa’s eyes dropped during her last statement before he said, “You didn’t destroy it though.”

Narcissa looked back at Harry with surprise as she hesitated to say, “No.”

“How did you manage to keep it from Voldemort?” Harry asked. “Surely he questioned you personally about where Draco could have been. You couldn’t have kept knowledge like that from him. He would have stolen it straight out of your mind.”

“He was too quick to question me,” Narcissa said. “He called me in to question me before I had gotten the letter. At the time, I truly didn’t know anything about what had happened to Draco. I got the owl jut after I returned home. Apparently it was just before the death eaters started intercepting all of my incoming and out going mail.”

“So you’ve kept it with you since then?” Harry asked as he played a hunch.

“Yes,” Narcissa said with another surprised look. “Are you reading my mind the way the Dark Lord does?”

“No,” Harry said with a smile. “I was betting that keeping it with you was the only way to keep the aurors from finding it when they searched your house. I’m also willing to bet that you realize who else might search your house every time you leave it. It would be equally dangerous for you if either the aurors or the death eaters found it.”

“But how did you know I didn’t destroy it?” Narcissa asked.

“Because I could never bring myself to destroy anything of my mother’s,” Harry said softly. “I’ll never see her again. It’s all I have left of her. If Voldemort finds Draco, that letter will be the last thing you’ll have to remember him by. How could you destroy that?”

Narcissa smiled as tears once again ran down her cheek, and she said, “I never would have believed you and I would have so much in common.”

Harry smiled as he said, “Maybe there isn’t as much of a difference between us as I first thought. I’ll do what I can for you to find Draco. It may be best for him if we don’t find him though. If we know where he is, Voldemort could pull that information from us. Still, I will find Snape. I’ll leave Draco out of the fight if I can, but I’m willing to bet he won’t do the same. I will defend myself if I have to.”

Narcissa couldn’t contain her happiness as she said, “Oh, thank you, Harry. I know I can never repay you for what you’re doing for me, but…”

“Actually,” Harry began, “there is something I would like you to help me with.”

“Name it,” Narcissa said. “I’ll do anything.”

“I need some information,” Harry responded as he leaned closer. “What can you tell me about Mr. Fortescue and Mr. Ollivander?”


15
Enigma


Mrs. Weasley hummed joyfully as she checked the large pot of soup she was brewing for lunch. It had been some time since she had had so many hungry mouths to feed. It wasn’t every day that Harry Potter came over for a practice game of quidditch though.

“Molly,” Arthur said as he walked in through the kitchen door, “you forgot to lock the door again.”

“I didn’t expect to see you until around dinner time,” Molly responded as she greeted Arthur with a kiss on the cheek as he looked over her shoulder to see what she was cooking.

“I decided to come home for lunch so you wouldn’t have to eat alone today,” Arthur said as he stared at the enormous pot of soup. “It would appear that you were expecting company to stop in though. Who are you making the soup for?”

“Harry came over with Ginny this morning after they went to visit Tonks,” Molly said. “He brought his broom with him, so Ron and Hermione rounded up a few people for a quidditch practice. Even Fred and George came. They closed up their shop for the day so they could come and play.”

“Really?” Arthur asked suspiciously. “They never close that shop. Something is going on, Molly.”

“Oh, Arthur,” Molly chided, “you’re just being paranoid.”

“Am I?” Arthur asked as he placed his hands on his hips. “Then explain to me why it is that all of those people came over to play quidditch, and I didn’t see even a single broom in the air as I walked up to the house.”

“Well…” Molly began before the reality of the situation set in. “Not even one?”

“No,” Arthur confirmed.

“I’m sure there must be a reason for it,” Molly said.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Arthur said as the worry washed over his face. “Minerva told us we would have to keep an eye open for suspicious activities Harry might try to get his friends into.”

“And I think it’s as ridiculous when you say it as it was when she did,” Molly charged. “Honestly. This is Harry we’re talking about. I love him as if he were one of my own.”

“So do I,” Arthur said. “However, considering all of his recent activities, I think we should be as vigilant as we were with Fred and George. Something tells me, he can be just as mischievous as they can if he puts his mind to it.”

Molly was about to respond when she was distracted by the familiar sound of owl wings flapping against the window. Looking to the window, she noticed four owls sitting on the windowsill waiting to deliver their messages. Molly opened the window, and the owls flew in one at a time to drop their bundles of letters on the kitchen table.

Arthur looked at the letters and said, “It looks like the Hogwarts letters came a day early this year. I was expecting them to come early tomorrow.”

“I suspect others knew that as well,” Molly said. “Minerva must have changed it to ensure all of the letters would get through.”

“I think I’ll just deliver these to the kids out back right away,” Arthur said as he picked up all of the letters. “Maybe I’ll be able to find out what it is they’re up to.”

Arthur walked out the door that would take him to the paddock where the quidditch practice was supposed to be happening. Again, he could see no sign that anyone was doing any flying, and it made him even more curious about what was really going on.

Upon rounding the hedge that gave him a clear view of the paddock beyond, Arthur could plainly see that his suspicions were correct. None of the thirty or so kids were even pretending to play. In fact, he noticed very few of them with a broom at all. Instead, they were all gathered under the shade of a large tree listening intently as Harry explained something to them while he pointed at a large piece of parchment rolled out on the ground.

Seamus Finnigan alerted the group to Arthur’s approach, and they silently turned and moved closer together, hiding Harry from view. A few seconds later, the crowd parted and Harry walked into the open, though Arthur could see that the parchment they had been looking at had been removed from sight.

“Hello, Harry,” Arthur said as he neared the group. “It’s good to see you again.”

“I hope you don’t mind us using your paddock, Mr. Weasley,” Harry said knowing that he had always been as welcome there as if it were his own home.

“I don’t mind at all, Harry,” Arthur said. “You’ve certainly made Molly a happy woman, giving her so many mouths to feed. The only thing I’m confused about is why she thought you were all here for a quidditch practice.”

“I thought it would be easier on her that way,” Harry said with a grin. “You know better than anyone how she worries.”

“That’s true,” Arthur confirmed. “Then again, maybe she has a cause to be concerned. Seeing what I’ve just seen might lead her to think you lot were up to something.”

“What would make you think that?” Fred asked as he stepped forward.

“It could be perfectly innocent, you know,” George said as he joined his brother.

“The fact that you two are here is all the proof I need,” Arthur said as he raised an eyebrow. “Don’t give me that look. I am your father you know. You don’t get as much by me as you might think.”

“It isn’t anything new, Mr. Weasley,” Hermione said. “We were just talking about how many more Hogwarts students need to have the shield put on their houses.”

“I don’t know if it’s a good idea for all of you to think about doing the rest of it,” Arthur said. “The death eaters are surely watching for anyone putting that shield up. It could be dangerous.”

“It was dangerous when we were doing it before,” Ron protested. “They were looking for us then and you didn’t have a problem with it.”

“I wouldn’t bet on that if I were you, Ronald,” Arthur warned seriously. “If I remember correctly, you were the one who told me how close Hermione came to being either killed or captured the last time. It was a stroke of dumb luck that Harry showed up to prevent that from happening. How can you even think of taking that kind of chance again?”

“We won’t be taking chances like that again,” Harry said calmly. “We’ve learned from our mistakes, Mr. Weasley. We were more concerned about speed than safety before. We were going in with small groups, and spreading them out to cover a larger area more quickly. Hermione was in danger because she was alone. She didn’t have anyone to warn her about the death eater sneaking up on her. This time we’ll be sending everyone in groups of no less than ten to any one area. That group of ten will divide into two groups of five. Those two groups can work separately, but can never move out of visual range of the other group. One member of each group of five will be responsible for performing the shield spell. The remaining four keep an eye out for trouble.”

“I’d love to know who you’ve been talking to about tactics, Harry,” Arthur said with surprise. “Those are tactics the Order has been using for years.”

“I found some writings about it in my parents cellar,” Harry responded with a smile.

“Still,” Arthur continued, “I don’t think you should be doing it.”

“This isn’t something we’re doing because we want to,” Ginny said as she stepped forward for the first time. “This is something that needs to be done. The Order doesn’t have the time or the manpower to devote to it. We still don’t know who in the Ministry can and can’t be trusted with the shield spell. We’re the only ones left who can do it. Every one of us here, other than Harry, has the shield spell protecting our homes from the death eaters. How can we be expected to sit by and do nothing when we know that other kids will go to sleep tonight without that protection?”

“It won’t be long before most of those kids are back at Hogwarts for another term,” Arthur pointed out. “No death eaters will be able to get to them there.”

“But their parents will still be at home, Mr. Weasley,” Cho said as she stepped next to Ginny. “For that matter, so will I. So will several of us who have already graduated and can’t look forward to the protection Hogwarts offers. We live in that world, and we have a right to protect it.”

“And we plan to keep doing it even after Harry and the others have gone back to school,” Alicia Spinnet said from Hermione’s side.

Arthur thought in silence as he looked at the resolute expressions on the young faces of the crowd before he said, “Then you should all know that, should you be in need of help, you will always be welcome in this house.”

“I don’t think any of us have ever felt otherwise, Mr. Weasley,” Harry said as he noticed what Arthur was holding. “Are those our Hogwarts letters, Mr. Weasley?”

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Mr. Weasley said as he held out the bundles of letters. “These were all delivered a few minutes ago.”

Later that evening, Harry stood at his dining room table looking down at his map as twenty other people stood around and waited for him to hand out the next location assignment for their groups. Harry surveyed the map as it displayed the names of the students who had yet to receive the shield.

“It looks like there are three students in Whitehaven,” Harry said almost to himself. “Add additional subjects to show any death eaters in Whitehaven.”

A collective gasp went around the room, as two new dots appeared over the area marked as Whitehaven.

“I suppose it had to happen sooner or later,” Hermione said. “We had to expect to find a few the more times we did this.”

“Maybe we should skip that place for now,” Seamus said looking around for agreement. “We can always come back to it tomorrow.”

“No,” Harry said calmly. “We’re only going to delay for a few minutes. Zoom to Whitehaven city view.”

“Are you sure, Harry?” Hermione asked as the map redrew itself.

“I’m sure,” Harry said as he studied the map. “Those death eaters won’t be there when we get there. Ginny and I have already planned for this.”

“I’m ready, Harry,” Ginny said as she moved closer.

“It looks like they’re standing outside on the street,” Harry said as he continued to look at the map. “They’re near the intersection of Tangier Street and Hick’s Lane.”

“Got it,” Ginny said as she turned to go. “I’ll be back in a flash,”

Ron watched as Ginny walked into the next room and disappeared into the floo system before he turned to Harry in a panic and said, “You better not have sent her into danger, Harry.”

“Relax, Ron,” Harry said. “She’s gone to the Ministry. We’ll let the aurors clear Whitehaven of death eaters before we go in.”

Minutes later, after Ginny had returned, they all watched as a dozen aurors appeared and took down their prey in seconds. It was less than a minute later that the label of the aurors and the death eaters disappeared from the map altogether.

“Whitehaven is clear now,” Harry said shaking everyone from their amazement after watching the capture. “Cho, take your group in and put up the shields. Have you memorized the addresses of the three students?”

“I’ve got them,” Cho said as her group gathered together and joined hands. “We’ll be back before you know it.”

“I’m counting on it,” Harry said with a grin. “We’ve got plenty more to do before the night is over.”

Cho’s group disapparated from Harry’s dining room, and immediately appeared as dots on the map on the table.

“Now let’s find one for your group, Hermione,” Harry said. “Zoom out to country view.”

Hermione looked over the dots on the newly redrawn map trying to guess where Harry would choose to send her. To her surprise, her attention was immediately drawn not to a label that appeared on the map, but to one that suddenly disappeared from it. She realized with a gasp what had just happened.

“What is it, Hermione?” Ginny asked as she noticed Hermione’s expression.

“Did you all just see that?” Hermione asked with a look at those around her.

“What?” Ron replied as he looked intently at the map.

“I swear that there was a student’s label right there in Penshurst,” Hermione said as she pointed to the spot on the map. “It was there, and then it just disappeared.”

“The label is still there, Hermione,” Ron said wondering what she was talking about.

“I know there is still one,” Hermione said becoming exasperated. “I’m saying that there were two of them and one just disappeared.”

“Well, that can’t be,” Ginny said as she became aware of her growing sense of dread. “Neither of the groups currently out putting the shield up are anywhere near there right now. Zoom to Penshurst city view. Show any death eaters in Penshurst.”

Everyone waited anxiously as they realized what had carved the worry onto Ginny’s face. The seconds passed, but the map did not add any new labels to the Penshurst map. Ginny repeated her request, but still the map remained unchanged.

“It looks like there aren’t any death eaters in Penshurst,” Harry said calmly. “Maybe the student living there apparated out of the town or something.”

Everyone else was just about to agree with Harry, when the second student label suddenly disappeared just as the first had.

“It would be quite a coincidence if that one decided to apparate out of town as well,” Seamus pointed out.

“Too much of one,” Hermione agreed. “Show all Hogwarts students in Penshurst who are currently being protected with a shield.”

Instantly the two labels that had originally been on the map returned.

“Somebody is putting the shield up there,” Ron stated. “It can’t be anyone in the D.A. All of the D.A. members who know how to do it are helping us tonight. It must be someone from the Order. They would all know how to do it by now. Show all Order of the Phoenix members in Penshurst.”

Again they all waited, but the map did not change.

Hermione considered the problem for several seconds before she said, “Show anyone from Penshurst whom graduated from Hogwarts or left Hogwarts in the last five years. Hmmm, no one. That narrows things down a bit. I had thought it possible that Fred or George would have gone off to do this as a prank, knowing that we would be looking at the map. Show all current Hogwarts students located in Penshurst.”

To everyone’s amazement, a new dot appeared very near where the last shield was put up. What surprised them even more was the fact that a label did not accompany the dot.

“Well I’ve never heard of a Hogwarts student that didn’t have a name,” Ron said with a nervous chuckle.

“Don’t be silly, Ron,” Hermione admonished. “Everyone has a name. Show the name of the unlabeled dot in Penshurst.”

Everyone in the room took a collective breath as, instead of the label, large words appeared across the map that said ‘Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies’.

“Ruddy map,” Ron said as his frustration level began to rise. “Show her what she asked for.”

They all watched the dot disappear from Penshurst just as another message formed across the map saying, ‘Mind your own business’.

“I think Fred and George put a bit too much personality into this map,” Ron said as his ears turned red from anger.

“I’ll have a talk with them about it later,” Harry said. “For now we should get back to work so we can get as many done tonight as possible.”

“Do you really think we should, Harry?” Hermione asked. “What about our mystery dot? Maybe we should try to find out who it is.”

“We could spend all night tying to track that person down,” Harry explained. “For now I don’t need to know who it is. As long as they’re out there putting the shield charm on students houses, we’ll finish that much sooner. There will be time to find out who it is later. Besides, maybe you’ll run into them while you’re out putting the shield up.”

A short time later, Harry had given a new destination to Hermione for her group, and they disapparated just as Fred and George’s group returned. Time after time the groups returned and departed. Over the next three hours they were able to perform the shield charm on most of the student’s houses. The thing that only Harry and Ginny were able to watch in progress was the mystery dot appearing in small towns all over the country placing shields on the houses as it went.

By the time Cho returned with her exhausted group, the other two groups, being done for the night, stood around the map and watched as the unknown helper placed the shield on the last student house on the map. None of them were more surprised than Fred and George. They were at a loss to explain why the map would refuse to identify the dot even for them. They knew that it would do so under certain conditions, but those conditions were not in play at the time to explain it.

“I know everyone is tired,” Harry said as he rolled up the map, “but I was just going to pop over to Wick in northern Scotland to say hello to our mystery helper before he has a chance to apparate away. Does anyone feel like joining me?”

Seconds later, everyone who had been standing in Harry’s house appeared in a soggy field in Wick with a small house barely visible through the steady cold rain that was falling. Harry was just about to tell everyone to spread out in their groups of five to search for their enigmatic dot in human form when he spotted movement in a grove of trees just ahead of him. Leaving caution to the wind, Harry headed for the grove at a run as everyone else chased after him.

It wasn’t until the group was within ten meters of the grove, through the curtain of rain, that they looked up and saw a figure silhouetted as he stood beside a tree and watched their approach. They had closed to within seven meters when they watched the figure wrap its cloak around itself tightly and disapparate.

“Lumos,” Hermione yelled over the rain as light sprang from her wand just an instant after the figure disappeared.

“Did anyone get a look at him?” Ron asked as they closed in on the spot where their mystery friend had once stood.

“Why didn’t I think to use a light sooner?” Hermione asked herself in frustration. “Just a few seconds earlier and we could have found out who it was.”

“Why wouldn’t he have stuck around to meet us?” Seamus asked. “We were all working for the same thing.”

“Think about it,” Cho responded. “What would you have done if you looked up and spotted thirty or so wizards and witches running toward you. Looking back on it, I can’t say that I blame him.”

Harry looked down at the footprints left behind in the spot where the stranger had stood watching them. He bent down to study them more closely and was overcome with a feeling of déjà vu that he couldn’t make any sense of. He shook it off as a remembrance of a dream fragment, though he had no clear memory of what the dream might have been.

“Harry, look at this,” Ginny said as she walked over to him with a waterlogged piece of parchment illuminated by her wand. “He must have dropped this. Most of the ink has run into an inky mess, but you can still make out part of the first thing written. It looks like ‘Pens’. That must be Penshurst. That’s where the dot showed up first. I’ll bet this was a list of the towns he was going to visit.”

An hour later, with the majority of the D. A. gone home, Harry sat in his sitting room listening as Hermione continued to study the tattered remains of the found piece of parchment, and argue the possibilities of it with Ron.

“As I’ve already told you, Ron,” Hermione said sharply, “that is impossible. There was no way for anyone to know which towns we hadn’t already gone into to put the shield up. Harry stood around the table here tonight and chose the towns at random to send us to.”

“But he knew which towns this guy had already been to,” Ron pointed out. “He didn’t have any need to send us to those.”

“I think what Hermione is trying to get across to you, dear brother,” Ginny said as she rubbed her temples to relieve the headache the arguing pair were causing, “is that it is highly unlikely that this person went out with a previously written list of towns to visit without going to one that we would have sent people to tonight.”

“Who cares?” Ron asked as he threw his hands up in defeat. “All that really matters is that this guy is working on the same side we are.”

“Don’t you get it, Ron?” Hermione asked. “This means that someone out there has figured out how to put this spell on. They’re working alone. If the death eaters find them and capture them, it won’t take Voldemort long to drag the spell out of them. If he knows how it was created, he may be able to find a way to counter it. For another thing, I find it a bit disturbing that our mystery helper has also found a way to remain unidentified by Harry’s map. Even Fred and George were stumped as to how he could have done it.”

“Maybe he had an invisibility cloak,” Ron suggested. “Maybe the map can’t identify someone under an invisibility cloak.”

“We all saw him plainly enough in Wick,” Hermione said as she rubbed her eyes. “If he was so keen on concealment then he would have disappeared below the cloak the moment he spotted us. For that matter, you’re making the assumption that he was under the cloak for the entire night and that is why the map couldn’t detect him. If that was the case then why would he have taken it off?”

“Let’s not bring up any new hypothetical situations tonight,” Harry said with a yawn as he stretched out his arms. “It’s late. I’m going to bed. Of course, you’re all welcome to stay if you would like.”

“Thanks for the offer, Harry,” Hermione responded, “but I have to go home tonight. I’ve barely spent any time with my parents all summer. I promised them I would spend the day with them tomorrow since we’ll be going to Diagon Alley the day after for school supplies.”

“I’m afraid Ron and I are going to have to go as well, Harry,” Ginny said. “We’ve both let about a summers worth of chores build up, and mum says we have to finish them before she’ll take us to Diagon Alley. I’ll come back in the morning and make your breakfast if you’d like.”

Harry smiled at Ginny and put his arm around her as he said, “It won’t be the same without you, but I think I can manage to make at least one breakfast for myself. I’m just planing on hanging out here tomorrow. I may spend some more time going through some of my parent’s things in the cellar. If I don’t see you tomorrow, I’ll meet you in Diagon Alley at Fred and George’s shop in two days.”

“Are you sure, Harry?” Hermione asked as she eyed him suspiciously. “Maybe it would be a better idea if you went to the Burrow with Ginny and Ron.”

“I have my own house now, Hermione,” Harry responded with a grin. “I have my own chores to get done. I don’t need to share any of theirs.”

“I just thought…” Hermione began in protest.

“I know what you thought, Hermione,” Harry interrupted. “You don’t need to worry. I’ll be fine.”

Minutes later, Harry walked into his bedroom and closed the door. He immediately walked over to the wardrobe where he usually stored the map and placed it in its customary position. Before he closed the wardrobe, Harry pulled out a heavy cloak and wrapped it around his shoulders. He knew that Hermione would never forgive him if she knew what he was about to do, but he also understood that he would never be able to sleep until he had a question answered. The answer to that question, he knew, could only be found in Wick.


16
Into the Lair


A knock at the door signaled the arrival of the first of Harry’s planned visitors. He walked into the entryway only to find the overly large grins of the Weasley twins staring back at him from the mirror. Of course, being the ones who installed the early warning system, they were well aware that they were being watched.

“Evening, Harry,” George said as he walked in the opened door.

“Sorry we’re late, Harry,” Fred said as he walked in behind his brother.

“Actually,” Harry said with a grin, “you’re a bit early, Fred.”

“Oh, he is good,” George said with a grin of his own. “It takes most people much longer to decide which of us is which.”

“Goodness, Harry,” Fred said as he took stock of Harry’s appearance. “You look exhausted.”

“What in the world have you been doing today, Harry?” George asked. “You look like you could collapse at any minute.”

“I’ll be fine,” Harry said. “I just didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“I suppose that mysterious dot kept you awake,” George said as he walked further into the sitting room.

“You might say that,” Harry confirmed.

“I suppose that’s why you called us here tonight,” Fred said as he followed Harry into the sitting room. “We’ve been trying all day to work out what could have gone wrong with the map.”

“I’m afraid it has us stumped though,” George said.

“Don’t worry,” Harry said. “That isn’t why I asked you to come at all.”

Both of the brothers caught the glint in Harry’s eyes, and knew that what he had planned would prove to be far more exciting than researching the dynamics of the map.

“All right, Harry,” Fred conceded. “You’ve got our attention.”

“Why did you really ask us to come over?” George asked.

The warning sound from the mirror in the entry prevented the brothers from having their questions answered as it alerted them to another new arrival. Harry gave the mirror a glance as he walked to the front door and opened it.

“That was a damn fool thing to do, Potter,” Moody said as his magical eye swiveled to look behind him. “I would think by now you would know to at least make an attempt to verify the identity of people knocking on your door. People have impersonated me before, Potter.”

“It’s nice to see you again too,” Harry said with a grin. “Take a step inside and I’ll know if you are who you pretend to be.”

“Constant vigilance, Potter,” Moody said as he stepped inside briskly. “However, if you insist on treating security matters so lightly, you might as well leave the door open. There are two more people coming up the walk.”

“I know,” Harry said. “I asked them to come.”

“Reckless kids,” Moody grumbled as he turned to walk into the sitting room with Fred and George, though he never took his eye off of the new arrivals approaching.

“I wouldn’t make a habit of summoning the Minister of Magic to a meeting, Mr. Potter,” Scrimgeour said as he walked through the open door. “I think you will find that it is customary to allow me to summon you.”

“If I thought this meeting could take place within the Ministry and on the time schedule I need it to, then I would have gladly made a formal request,” Harry said firmly as Kingsley walked in behind the Minister. “Anyway, I’m glad you decided to come in spite of my lack of attention to protocol.”

“Of course you will understand my decision to bring an auror with me,” Scrimgeour said indicating Kingsley. “I rarely walk openly in the streets without protection. You would be surprised how many attempts have been made on my life."

“I don’t mind it at all,” Harry said as he looked at the auror who was a secret Order member. “I was hoping that you would bring someone. We’ll need a sixth team member for my plan to work.”

“What plan?” Scrimgeour asked surprised.

“I think that is something all of us would like to know,” Moody said as he stepped to the doorway of the sitting room.

“Moody,” Scrimgeour said sourly as he turned to look at the former auror.

“I wasn’t so excited to see you here either, Rufus,” Moody said keeping his magical eye firmly focused on the Minister. “I don’t work for you any more, so don’t get any of your old ideas about sending me away just because you don’t want me around.”

“Settle down, you two,” Harry said as he walked back toward the sitting room. “We don’t have time for old grudges to be worked out. It’s already after seven. We’ll need all the time we can get to prepare. Step inside and I’ll tell you why I called all of you here.”

Harry’s little group of six appeared in the darkness of a heavily forested area with their wands drawn, ready for any trouble that might be waiting for them. There was nothing else around within viewing range that would indicate impending doom.

“Not that I mean to question your aim, Harry,” Fred said softly, “but are you sure we’re in the right place.”

“I was expecting to see a death eater or two at least,” George said sounding disappointed.

“I’ve already mentioned that,” Harry said as he shoved his wand back into his pocket. “This place is one that doesn’t see very many people anyway. Considering that it’s half past one in the morning, there shouldn’t be anyone else here other than the one in the place we’re looking for. I apparated us a bit away from our destination just in case.”

“If our destination exists at all, that is,” Scrimgeour said with a look of misgiving. “How do we know we can trust this anonymous source of yours?”

“Don’t worry,” Harry said, anxious to get on with the search, “it exists. I came here to find it last night. I saw it myself. As for my source, I can’t explain any reason why you should trust them. I believe the information to be accurate, but if you want you can go back now. I would like your help, but I’ll do it without you if I have to.”

“You won’t have to, Harry,” Moody said with a snort. “He won’t pass up this chance to get more good press for the Ministry.”

“I never said I wanted all of the credit,” Scrimgeour said as his face flushed with anger that could be seen even in the darkness. “It was, Mr. Potter who suggested that the Ministry claim credit for this operation if it ends up being successful.”

“Enough,” Harry said finally having his fill of the bickering. “I’m going. Anyone who wants to come with me can follow behind me as long as they remain silent.”

Ten minutes later, Harry stopped at the edge of a small clearing and looked ahead of him as the other five members of his party walked up behind him.

“Well, well,” Moody said as he stepped to Harry’s side and looked ahead of him. “It looks as if your source was right about this much of it.”

“What are you talking about?” Scrimgeour said as he tried to figure out what Harry and Moody were looking at.

“This is the place we’ve been looking for,” Moody said with a grin. “Of course, you can’t see it because it has a masking spell on it that makes you see more forest. I can see it with my magic eye. The question I have is exactly how it is that Harry can see it.”

“Fred and George modified my glasses for me,” Harry said. “I’ll have to thank Professor Lupin the next time I see him. It was his idea.”

“Assuming that there actually is something there,” Scrimgeour said as he squinted into the darkness, “I doubt that anyone would go to the trouble of hiding it if they didn’t set up other safeguards just in case someone accidentally wondered into the area and through the masking spell.”

“The entire structure is shielded,” Harry said. “Once we get beyond that, there should only be the one death eater to worry about.”

“I would have expected You Know Who to guard this place better than that,” Kingsley said.

“Then you don’t know Voldemort as well as you think,” Harry stated. “He saves his complex defenses for the things he treasures most. The fact that he hasn’t put any more defense into this place indicates that he doesn’t believe any additional defense measures were needed. As much as I hate to admit it, he would be right if I wasn’t here. None of you would be able to bypass his shield.”

“That depends on how long we had to work on it,” George said.

“It wouldn’t be long,” Harry said. “The death eater inside would know as soon as someone attempted to breech the shield. It would only be a matter of minutes before this place would be swarming with death eaters.”

“You realize of course that Hermione is going to go mental when she finds out what we’re doing,” Fred said as he shook his head.

“That will pale in comparison to what Ginny will do when she finds out that Harry was putting himself in this kind of danger,” George commented.

“That’s why they aren’t ever going to find out,” Harry said with a warning look at the two brothers. “This should be simple. We should be in and out in no time.”

“Then lets get on with it then,” Moody said seriously. “I have a bad feeling about this. Best to get it over with sooner rather than later.”

“Maybe you should be the one to stay out here,” Harry said. “I don’t need anyone with a death omen in there with me.”

“Relax, Potter,” Moody said. “I always get this feeling before a mission. It keeps me sharp.”

“Good,” Harry said. “Then lets go. Fred, George, you two wait here. After we’ve gone in, spread the powder over the area like we discussed. At the first sign of any trouble, go and tell your dad. He’ll know who to contact for help.”

“Got it,” Fred and George said in unison. “Good luck.”

Kingsley, Moody and Scrimgeour put a hand on Harry’s shoulder and an instant later they were gone. Fred and George waited the few prescribed seconds to see if they returned, but when they didn’t, they set about their job of saturating the area with Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder. At the end of it, they stood back at the spot where Harry had stopped to look at the invisible structure, and before them was something so black that they could almost believe a black hole had opened in the middle of the forest. As they had been told to do, they took cover in some near by bushes to watch for any sign of new arrivals.

Harry’s party reappeared in a small entry hallway that was as dark as the forest they had left outside. Everyone scanned the area with their wands drawn once again, though Harry and Moody were the only ones who would have been able to see an attacker lurking in the plentiful shadows.

“Keep a lookout for trouble Mr. Moody,” Harry whispered. “The rest of us will go ahead as planned.”

“Right,” Moody responded as his magical eye swiveled continually to survey the local area.

“Remember what we have to do,” Harry whispered to Kingsley and Scrimgeour. “There will be no talking past this point.”

“We’re ready,” Scrimgeour said as he continued to strain his eyes to see through the darkness, and he tightened his grasp of his wand.

Harry turned and led the Minister and Kingsley to the end of the short entry hall, where he flattened himself against the wall and took a quick peek around the corner. Finding the passage beyond clear, Harry continued on his path. They negotiated two more turns into longer hallways, and at the end of the last one, Harry stopped and looked down the stairs that were located there. The place they were seeking, was one level down.

Harry placed his foot on the top step having faith that his source would have told him about traps the stairs may contain. Down and down he went until he came to the base of the stairs and entered another hallway that went off to Harry’s left and right. Not wishing to waste any time, Harry turned to his left and made his way as quietly as possible down the hallway. The hallway contained several doors to other rooms, but Harry walked past them, showing caution only at the ones that were slightly open. Finding no danger, he progressed onward.

Less than a minute later, Harry turned a corner and saw his destination at the end of the hall in front of him. A light from the room spilled out of the half open door, and they all knew that a death eater could be found within the room.
Harry turned to Scrimgeour, who was looking most displeased with the next phase of the plan, and motioned for him to hand over his wand. With only a slight hesitation, Scrimgeour stepped forward and placed his wand into Harry’s hands. Harry then performed a spell with his own wand that bound the Minister’s hands together in front of him. Harry placed a reassuring hand on Scrimgeour’s shoulder before nudging him to lead on down the hallway.

Harry and Scrimgeour made their way down the hallway slowly as Kingsley followed at a distance. Kingsley was to hang back and only enter the room if there was some sign of the plan going horribly wrong.

When they had reached the door, Harry paused momentarily to give the Minister a chance to take on the character he was to play. Once he had done so, Harry shoved him roughly through the doorway causing him to stumble and fall to the floor as Harry walked proudly through the fully open door.

“Bellatrix!” Amycus exclaimed as he looked up midway through drawing his wand.

“I didn’t surprise you did I Amycus?” Harry asked as he pointed his wand at where the Minister lay sprawled out on the floor.

“I didn’t know…” Amycus began. “I never heard…”

“Suffice it to say that you were surprised,” Harry said with a twisted grin.

“Bellatrix, what are you doing here?” Amycus asked still trying to make sense of the situation as he surveyed the person on the floor.

“I have another prisoner for you to watch over,” Harry said. “The Dark Lord wants very special care taken of this one. He could prove to be most valuable to us.”

“The Minister of Magic?” Amycus asked as recognition finally dawned on him. “How did we get him?”

“We, didn’t,” Harry said arrogantly. “I got him myself. His auror bodyguard was no match for me, and the Minister proved even easier to defeat. That is why the Dark Lord allowed me to bring the prisoner here personally.”

“I have never underestimated your power, Bellatrix,” Amycus said as he put his wand away. “I always knew there was a reason the Dark Lord kept you at his side.”

“I am anxious to return to his side,” Harry said. “Just put the Minister in the cell with the others.”

“I’ll have to get another cot to put in there,” Amycus said. “The other two are already full.”

“You don’t need to take that good of care of him,” Harry said. “Let him sleep on the floor with the other rats.”

“I love the way your mind works, Bellatrix,” Amycus said as he retrieved the keys to the dark cell on the other side of the room.

“How are the other prisoners?” Harry asked. “Have they given you any trouble?”

“Not really,” Amycus said. “His production did seem to be slowing down a bit, so I just reminded him of what would happen to his friend if he didn’t do what he was told.”

“Are they still in good health?” Harry asked as Amycus walked toward the cell door.
“Better than they deserve,” Amycus said as he unlocked the cell door.

“Good,” Harry said as he aimed his wand at the back of the death eater. “That is exactly what I wanted to hear.”

Amycus turned to look at Bellatrix, and noticed her wand pointing at him. He reached for his wand, but a blue light erupted from the tip of her wand and hit him square in the chest before he could draw it fully. His eyes closed as he sank to the ground and his body became rigid as Harry’s spell worked its way through Amycus’ body.

“You can get up now, Minister,” Harry said as he offered his hand to Scrimgeour and helped him to stand.

“I know you told me that only he would be able to see you as Bellatrix, Harry,” Scrimgeour said as Harry released his hands from the bonds around them, “but that was still a bit unnerving. I thought he was going to see through your spell at any second.”

“I wasn’t too worried,” Harry said as he walked back to the door and waved Kingsley inside. “I’ve used it before. Besides, I’m fairly sure I could have hit him with a spell before he had time to draw his wand on me. I’ve been practicing my dueling quite a bit lately.”

“Are the two of you all right?” Kingsley said as he walked into the room with his wand drawn and immediately spotted the death eater on the floor.

“We’re fine,” Harry said as he looked to the death eater as well. “He won’t be giving us any trouble for a while. I’ll bundle him up to take with us while the two of you check on the prisoners we came to rescue.”

“There won’t be any need to do so,” Mr. Ollivander said as he stepped through the unlocked cell door looking thin, but in good health. “Mr. Fortescue and I are ready to leave as soon as possible. I just need to stop off at the workshop before we go.”

The workshop, as it turned out, was a room just down the hall that had gone unexamined before. Mr. Ollivander, having taken the keys from the death eater, opened the door and walked straight to a cabinet on the far side of the room where he took out several long boxes and placed them into a large pile on a table.

“We have to destroy these wands before we go,” Ollivander said. “This is why they brought me here. They forced me to make these abominations with the intention of distributing them to the death eaters. These wands must never be used.”

“What is it that is so bad about these wands?” Kingsley asked.

“All wands have at their core some part of a magical creature,” Ollivander explained. “These wands were made with the rotting flesh of the dementors. There would only be one reason to use such a vile creature. Aside from all of the dark spells they would be able to perform easier with these wands, there would be a new killing spell that could only be performed with this wand. It would be a killing spell that would perform the equivalent of a dementors kiss.”

“Maybe we should take these wands back to the Ministry of Magic,” Scrimgeour suggested. “They should be studied in the Department of Mysteries just in case they find someone else to make wands like this for them.”

Harry whipped his wand forward and a jet of flame flashed out of the tip and enveloped the stack of wands.

“What do you think you’re doing, Potter?” Scrimgeour asked in shock.

“Voldemort wants to use these wands to collect souls,” Harry said not wanting to think about why he might want them. “I don’t know exactly why, but I think we should do all we can to prevent him from having that ability. I also don’t think even the Department of Mysteries is secure enough to keep these from him if he really wanted to get them. Anyway, it’s done. In a few minutes, there won’t be anything left of them.”

“Those are not your decisions to make, Potter,” Scrimgeour said as he attempted to assert his authority. “You’ve been allowed far too much, and now you assume liberties far beyond any right that you may have.”

“Perhaps you’re right, Minister” Harry agreed as he watched the wands burn. “Maybe I do take liberties where they’re not freely sanctioned. Something you should realize though is that technically you have no authority to make those decisions here either. This place I brought you all to is located in Ireland. As the Irish Minister of Magic is not here to place a vote on the matter, I have as much right to make the decisions as anyone else in this room.”

“I think you forget…” Scrimgeour began hotly.

“No, minister,” Harry said as he turned to face the minister for the first time with a cool determination in his eyes, “it is you who forgot who planned this entire mission. I promised you two things in exchange for your help. I gave you the credit for the rescue of Mr. Ollivander and Mr. Fortescue, and I gave you the lone death eater found here. I’ve given you everything I agreed to. Your part and your say in this endeavor is over. Once we get back outside you can apparate back to the Ministry and make as many decrees as you want. Until then, I’ll continue to do what I think is right.”

“Take it easy, Harry,” Kingsley said as he stepped between Harry and a furious Scrimgeour. “There isn’t anything we can do to recover the wands now. What’s been done is done. We need to get back outside. We have what we came for.”

“I think you will find that Mr. Fortescue and I are fairly anxious to get out of here as well," Mr. Ollivander said with a nod of agreement from Mr. Fortescue.

“Very well,” Harry said not taking his eyes off of Scrimgeour. “I think it would be best not to speak at all on the way back. There may yet be surprises waiting for us on the way.”

“Then lead on, Potter,” Scrimgeour said in a calm tone while still looking as if he wanted to hit Harry.

Harry led the group in silence back up to the ground level, and was negotiating his was back down the hallways that would lead them back to where Moody would be waiting when he heard the distinct sound of a muffled voice somewhere near him. He stopped immediately and looked behind him to see if one of his own party was making the sounds, but he quickly realized that the sound was not coming from any of them.

Harry drew his wand immediately, and began to survey the dark hallway ahead of them. Seeing Harry’s actions, the others drew their own wands.

“What is it, Harry?” Kingsley asked in a whisper as he drew up next to Harry.

“Do you hear that sound?” Harry asked just as quietly.

“I don’t hear anything,” Kingsley said as he strained to hear anything other than their own breathing.

Harry listened for a few seconds more before he distinctly made out the word “kill” from behind the group. At that same instant, a familiar pain erupted in Harry’s scar. Harry realized right away why the others weren’t able to hear anything.
“Run!” Harry yelled as he motioned for the group to go ahead of him as quickly as possible.

Harry got everyone else ahead of him as they headed for the last turn before they would make it back to Moody. The source of the sounds he had heard was closing in on them rapidly from behind. It was just as Harry reached the last corner that he turned around to confirm his suspicions.

Harry wasn’t surprised to find that he had been correct, but he was surprised at how close Nagini had managed to get. Harry began to bring up his wand at the same time that Nagini launched forward with fangs ready to kill. Realizing he wouldn’t be able to get off a spell in time, Harry placed his arm instead in the path of the great snake’s fangs.

The others stopped running when they heard a terrible cry of pain behind them. Turning, they could see Harry lying on his back with an enormous snake’s fangs sticking cleanly through his forearm. They were all ready to shoot spells at the snake, but were afraid of hitting Harry instead.

Harry gave another scream of pain before he hissed something at Nagini and slapped his free hand flat against the snake’s body. Almost instantly, Nagini began to slither violently from side to side in an attempt to shake Harry’s hand loose.

They all watched as a rapidly expanding gray mark emerged from under Harry’s hand to envelop Nagini’s entire body. Seconds later, the thrashing of the snake stopped and deep cracks formed all across its gray body before it disintegrated into a pile of ash around where Harry lay. A mere second later, a green mist erupted from the ashes and hung in the air briefly before dissipating.

They all ran back to Harry to find that the two top fangs that had pierced Harry’s arm were the only things that remained of Nagini, and they were still lodged in Harry’s arm.

“What in the world just happened?” Moody asked as he joined the group as quickly as he could.

“Harry, can you hear me?” Kingsley asked as he knelt next to Harry.

Harry turned his head weakly toward Kingsley and said, “Hold on. Must get out… before too weak.”

“Everyone hold on to Harry quickly,” Kingsley said as the others moved in close. “He’s going to try to get us out of here.”

They all held tight to a part of Harry’s body, and after a considerable amount of effort they all found themselves back outside in the forest. Harry opened one eye to confirm that he had managed their escape before he closed his one eye again and promptly slipped into blackness.

17
Diagon Alley


Bellatrix ran down the short hallway that would lead to Voldemort’s bedchamber knowing that the news she was going to deliver could elicit a violent response. She reached the door, and she paused with her hand on the knob to take a breath. She knocked and immediately received the command to enter. Pushing the door open, she ran to her master’s bedside and bowed low beside him.

“My master,” Bellatrix said quickly, “I have grave news.”

“What is it, Bellatrix?” Voldemort asked knowing that she knew better than to disturb him with trivial matters.

“I just spoke with Alecto,” Bellatrix said. “She went to relieve her brother this morning to guard the wand maker, and they were all gone.”

“What?” Voldemort asked as his temper began to rise.

“I went there to check it myself,” Bellatrix said. “Amycus and the two prisoners were nowhere to be found. There was no sign of any trouble, but all of the wands that Ollivander had made had been destroyed.”

“How is that possible?” Voldemort screamed as he swung his legs over the side of the bed to stand. “Even if the prisoners were able to somehow overpower Amycus, there is no way that they could have gotten out past the shield.”

“When I got back, Alecto showed me an article in this morning’s Daily Prophet,” Bellatrix supplied as she continued to prostrate herself before her master. “The Minister of Magic claimed responsibility for rescuing Ollivander and Fortescue. He, apparently, personally led a small group of aurors to infiltrate the building. They claim to have captured Amycus in the process.”

“You know as well as I do that there is no way they could have breached our defenses unless a death eater was the one to free the prisoners,” Voldemort seethed dangerously. “Is it possible that Amycus could have betrayed us?”

“Not unless someone used the imperious curse on him,” Bellatrix said. “I’ve kept Amycus and Alecto separated from the other death eaters though. I was the only other person they had contact with recently.”

“Then how could Scrimgeour have gotten in as he claims to have done?” Voldemort asked as he paced the floor beside the bed and another thought occurred to him. “What of Nagini? Nagini should have stopped them before they were able to escape.”

“I looked all over the building,” Bellatrix said. “I called out for Nagini, but I couldn’t find her anywhere.”

“They couldn’t have captured Nagini without my knowledge,” Voldemort said through gritted teeth as his frustration grew. “She must have been there. There must have been something you missed.”

“The only thing that I found unusual was a large pile of ash near the front door,” Bellatrix confessed.

“Ash?” Voldemort asked as a memory suddenly flooded back into his mind, and he closed his eyes and tried to establish a mental connection with Nagini as he had in the past.

“It was laid out in a four meter long strip in the center of the hallway near the front entrance,” Bellatrix said as she watched her master’s face.

Voldemort opened his eyes quickly as his hands clenched into fists and he spat, “Potter.”

Harry knew even before he opened his eyes that the sounds around him were very different than they were when he closed them last. He could hear a distinct mechanical whirring sound coming from his right side whose purpose he couldn’t readily identify. On his left, he could make out the sound of someone moving very near him while others conversed in whispered tones further away.

Harry opened his eyes slightly to find the room around him dimly lit and completely out of focus. He looked to his left and made out a blurred form standing beside him running a wand above the length of Harry’s body.

“How do you feel, Mr. Potter?” the blur asked.

“Better than I expected to,” Harry replied as he realized how dry and scratchy his throat was.

“I would imagine so,” the blur said as he put his wand away. “You’re bound to be a bit dehydrated. It’s a side effect of the potion we had to give to you. I’ll see if I can get something brought in for you to drink.”

“Where exactly am I?” Harry asked.

“St. Mungo’s, of course,” the healer said as he handed Harry his glasses. “I’m Healer Snagprat. The Minister of Magic himself brought you here early this morning. You had a rather serious snake bite on your arm.”

“I know,” Harry said as he put his glasses on and spotted Fred, George and Kingsley watching him from the far side of the room. “I remember that much. I’m surprised you were able to cure me so fast.”

“You were lucky,” Snagprat said. “We’ve been working on a more effective antidote to the poison from that particular Snake. We had a patient here a couple of years ago that was bitten by the same snake. It took us much longer to cure him.”

“All right there, Harry?” Fred asked as he walked closer with George and Kingsley.

“I think so,” Harry said, “thanks to you all.”

“Don’t thank us, Harry,” George said. “Kingsley and the Minister brought you here. We just did what you told us to in case of trouble.”

Harry noticed George gesture to the other side of the bed, so he turned his head to see Mr. Weasley lying in a bed next to him with a tube extruding from his forearm. Harry followed the run of the tube and discovered that it ran into the side of a machine that looked like two large bellows attached end to end while metal disks turned slowly to open and close each bellows alternately. Another tube, Harry noticed, ran from the opposite side of the machine into his own arm.

“Morning, Harry,” Arthur said as if nothing unusual was happening.

“Morning,” Harry replied with a quizzical look on his face. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Fred and George came and pulled me out of bed,” Arthur said. “They wouldn’t tell me what was wrong until we were out of the room with Molly still sleeping soundly. They told me you were in trouble, so I came right away.”

“It’s a good thing that he did,” Snagprat pointed out. “Being the only other person we know of who was bitten by that snake and survived, he has developed antibodies in his blood that attack the poison and destroy it. Your recovery wouldn’t have been nearly as rapid without his assistance.”

“I guess I owe you for this one,” Harry said with a grin. “Thanks.”

“I have selfish reasons for doing it, Harry,” Arthur said with a grin of his own. “Neither of us will ever hear the end of it if Molly finds out you’ve been injured during one of your crazy stunts. Not to mention what Ginny’s reaction would be. I need you to recover as soon as possible.”

“I’m supposed to meet Ginny and the others in the joke shop in Diagon Alley this morning,” Harry said with a touch of panic in his voice.

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Snagprat said. “We’ll continue the transfusion for another few minutes. Then we’ll see about getting you hydrated. After that, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be able to leave.”

“The Minister of Magic would like for you to stop by his office before you go anywhere else, Harry,” Kingsley said. “He just wants you to understand that no one is to know you had anything to do with any of this, and St. Mungo’s isn’t to keep any record of your stay here.”

“Why does he need to talk to me about it?” Harry asked. “I’m the one who told him that was the way I wanted it in the first place.”

“I think he just wants to make sure you don’t change your mind,” Kingsley said. “You should know that the Daily Prophet has already printed the story of what happened in this mornings addition. Any contradiction to what that article says would be, shall we say, embarrassing.”

“Fine,” Harry said in resignation. “I’ll go see the Minister first.”

Less than an hour later, Harry walked out of his hospital room. Mr. Weasley had already left for the burrow, where Molly and the kids would soon be waking if they hadn’t done so already. Fred and George left to ready their shop for what promised to be a very busy day. Harry knew the way to the lobby by heart, but turned away from that destination in favor of a slight detour in his plans.

Harry rounded the corner and came into view of the two aurors who stiffened slightly before realizing who he was and relaxed once again. Harry pushed at the door between the aurors and was pleased to see Tonks sitting up on the side of her bed. A glance at the other side of the room revealed that Lupin was packing up all of the cards and gifts that Tonks had received during her stay.

“I didn’t expect to see you here today, Harry,” Tonks said, her hair the same bubble gum pink it had been for most of the time Harry had known her.

“I was just in the neighborhood and thought I would stop by to see you,” Harry said. “It looks as though I was just in time. Are they letting you go home?”

“Well, I can’t stay away from work forever,” Tonks said with a knowing smile. “I imagine I’ll find myself behind a desk for a while.”

“How have you been, Harry?” Lupin asked. “I haven’t had a chance to see you since we met at your house.”

“I’ve been keeping busy,” Harry said. “Any news on your end?”

“None yet,” Lupin said knowing exactly what Harry was referring to, “but there may be some soon.”

“I can go with you to the Ministry, Tonks,” Harry said bringing Tonks back into the conversation before she started asking questions. “The Minister wants to see me this morning.”

“Thanks, Harry,” Tonks replied with a smile, “but I’m not going to work today. I’m going to spend a day at home, and then I’ll report to work tomorrow.”

“I’ll see that she gets home, Harry,” Lupin said as he walked over with her packed gifts.

Harry walked to the front lobby with Tonks, still a bit unsteady while walking, leaning on his arm for extra balance. After saying their goodbye, Harry watched as Tonks disapparated along with Lupin and their two auror bodyguards. Harry took a deep breath and imagined himself in the lobby of the Ministry, and a moment later he looked around at the early arrivals settling into their daily routines at the Ministry.

Percy came to the lobby to escort Harry up to the Minister’s office. After the initial formal greeting, Percy made the entire trip up on the elevator in silence as he avoided meeting Harry’s eye. Harry got the distinct feeling that Percy had been instructed not to say anything if he couldn’t say anything nice. Then again, maybe he was still smarting from the wand tip to the chest he had received on Harry’s first trip to see the Minister.

“I’ll take him in, Mr. Weasley,” Kingsley said as they stepped off the elevator. “The minister is expecting Harry. You can retrieve our other guest.”

Harry could tell that Percy was indignant about being ordered about by Kingsley, but he could also see that Percy had the good sense not to make an issue of it.

“I told the Minister that you were coming this morning, Harry,” Kingsley said after Percy had gone. “He’s cleared his schedule until after he meets with you. I would consider that a substantial sign of respect if I were you. There are very few that any Minister would do such a thing for. Remember that just in case you decide to lose your temper in there. He may not tell you outright, but I think he’s begun to believe in you like the rest of us already do.”

“Thanks, Kingsley,” Harry said with a slight blush. “That means a lot coming from you. You’re one of the best aurors I’ve ever met, and I’m glad to have you on our side.”

Kingsley gave a slight blush of his own before saying, “We shouldn’t keep the Minister waiting much longer. As you can imagine, after last night, everyone wants to speak to him to find out exactly how we managed to get Ollivander and Fortescue out so easily.”

“I’m kind of in a hurry myself this morning,” Harry said as they walked to the door of the Minister’s office. “I have several people waiting to meet with me that must never know exactly what happened last night.”

“Good morning, Harry,” Scrimgeour said as he rose from his desk and came around to greet Harry. “How are you feeling? You gave all of us quite a scare.”

“I feel as good as new,” Harry commented as he shook hands with Scrimgeour.

“Great,” Scrimgeour said with the widest grin Harry had ever seen him with. Harry suspected that he was glad “The Chosen One” hadn’t been killed on his watch.

“If you’ve called me here to remind me about our agreement,” Harry said as Scrimgeour motioned for him to sit, “I assure you that I have no desire to have my name attached to any more news stories than necessary.”

“Actually, Harry,” Scrimgeour said, “I brought you here to give you a gift. It occurs to me that you have been helping the Ministry all summer long, though some of us have admittedly been slow to realize it. Our little mission last night brought that issue into clear focus. You’ve been helping us capture death eaters, and in turn we have never given you anything in return. I’ve brought you here this morning to remedy that situation.”

There was a knock on the door and Percy stuck his head inside and asked, “Shall I bring him in now, Minister?”

“Please do, Mr. Weasley,” Scrimgeour responded as he rose from his chair once again, and Harry stood to see who the new arrival could be.

Percy walked through the door followed by a gangly pimple covered young man who looked at Harry in surprise and said, “Well hiya, Harry. I didn’t think I’d see you here.”

“It’s good to see you again, Stan,” Harry said as he walked over and shook his hand. “How have you been holding up?”

“Azkaban ain’t nearly as bad as I figured,” Stan said with obvious relief. “Course the dementors not be’in there makes it loads better. I could do without those death eaters though. They make an awful racket sometimes.”

Scrimgeour stepped forward to address Stan and said, “Mr. Shunpike, on behalf of the Ministry of Magic, I would like to extend my most sincere apology for your imprisonment. We have now determined that your arrest was an error of circumstantial evidence. In short, you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Ministry will of course pay restitution for the time you have been imprisoned and unable to work.”

“You mean I’m free?” Stan asked as happiness washed over his smiling face.

“Indeed,” Scrimgeour confirmed. “You should know that Mr. Potter has been one of your strongest supporters since your arrest. He has taken the opportunity on several occasions to petition your release. Therefore, I believe it to be only fitting that he be the one to escort you to your freedom.”

“I knew you was a good egg, Harry,” Stan said as he shook Harry’s hand. “Knew it the first time I met ya. I’d be proud to walk out with ya.”

As it turned out, neither Harry nor Stan was anxious for any attention from the press that was camped out in the lobby of the Ministry waiting to speak with Scrimgeour. With that in mind, Harry and Stan got in the elevator with Scrimgeour, but were absent by the time the elevator doors opened onto the lobby.

“Wow, Harry,” Stan said as he and Harry appeared in an alley several blocks from the Ministry. “If everyone learns to apparate that easily, it’ll put the Knight Bus out of service within a year.”

“I doubt that,” Harry chuckled. “After all, what would people do without that special Knight Bus ambiance?”

“I guess you’re right,” Stan said with a smile. “It is unique.”

“So, what do you plan on doing now?” Harry asked. “I’m heading to Diagon Alley to meet a few friends. Did you want to come along?”

“That’s a right nice offer that is,” Stan said. “I’ll have to pass on that though. I got some friends of my own I’m anxious to see again.”

“Would you like me to take you somewhere?” Harry asked as they walked out of the alley and emerged onto a nearly deserted street.

“I’ll be just fine,” Stan said as he stuck out his thumb. “The trip won’t be as smooth, but after all that time sitting around in Azkaban, I’m lookin’ forward to a little movement.”

Just then, the Knight Bus screeched to a halt in front of them, and the door opened to admit Stan as he said, “Thanks for stickin’ with me, Harry. Any time you need me you know where to find me.”

Harry watched as the Knight Bus sped away even before the door had a chance to close all the way. Stan was back where he wanted to be. A look at his watch told Harry that there was somewhere he needed to be as well.

Harry appeared on the front doorstep of Fred and George’s shop only to have to immediately step aside and allow two girls Harry faintly recognized to pass out the door. Harry took a moment to look down Diagon Alley, and he smiled to himself as he saw that it was as busy as it had ever been. He was pleased to see that a fair amount of the traffic seemed to be centered around the ice cream shop. Mr. Fortescue certainly hadn’t wasted any time reopening for business.

“Well, are you going to stand there all day,” Fred asked as he held the door open for Harry, “or are you going to come inside?”

“Go on into the back room and wait for us,” George said as Harry walked inside.

“We’ll be there as soon as we can,” Fred said seriously.

Harry didn’t know what Fred and George were making such a fuss over, but he knew them well enough to know when to trust them and when not to. He walked straight to the back storage room and waited as he examined the odd assortment of new gadgets the twins had stocked there.

“You are in big trouble, Harry,” George said as he ducked into the room followed by his brother.

“You have to think of a cover story,” Fred said, “and it had better be a good one.”

“Hey, slow down,” Harry protested. “What are the two of you talking about?”

“Ginny,” Fred said with wide eyes.

“And Hermione,” George added.

“They were both in here this morning looking for you and mad enough to spit fire,” Fred explained.

“Hermione read that article in the Prophet this morning,” George said. “Ginny went to your house to find you and they put two and two together when you weren’t there.”

“Well I have to say that I’m surprised at you two,” Harry said with a slight grin. “I would have thought that you could have come up with a cover story better than anyone else. You must be losing your touch.”

“I wouldn’t think that if I were you, Harry,” Fred said standing a bit taller. “We didn’t supply a cover story for you because it would implicate us as well.”

“Besides, things would have really gotten sticky if we had told them something only to have them find you before we could tell you what we had said,” George pointed out.

“Relax,” Harry said as he put a hand on each of their shoulders. “I don’t need you to cover for me. I’ll just tell them the truth.”

“Did that snake bite go to your brain?” George asked, as they both looked at Harry as if he had finally gone nutters.

“I went to the hospital this morning to visit Tonks,” Harry said as he held up a hand to stop the coming protest. “She was released this morning. I walked to the lobby with her and Professor Lupin. They can verify that easily enough. Then I went to the Ministry to meet with Scrimgeour. He released Stan Shunpike. If they need to verify that all they have to do is stick out their thumb. The only thing they might find suspicious is catching the three of us plotting here in the back room.”

The brothers stood in stunned silence for a moment before Fred looked at his brother and said, “I told you there was nothing to worry about.”

“Well, I was only worried because you were making such a fuss over the whole thing,” George said defensively.

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Harry said as he stepped between the two. “I don’t suppose you could tell me exactly where Ginny might be right now.”

“I would guess that she’s the same place most people are,” Fred said with a grin. “Old Fortescue is so happy to be back that he’s giving ice cream away for free today.”

Harry left the joke shop and walked slowly down the street toward the ice cream parlor, and he could see that there was indeed a large crowd gathered outside waiting on their free treat. Harry closed on the outer margins of the crowd that was waiting, trying to decide whether to join the crowd or just wait on Ginny to come out.

Harry took the chance while he decided on his course of action to look around at the other shops in Diagon Alley he had become so familiar with over the summer. He was pleased to see that the shops all looked as busy as they had ever been. He was also pleased to see a tall red headed boy walk by the window in Flourish and Blotts. He should have realized that Hermione wouldn’t have the patience to stand in line at the ice cream parlor for so long while the bookstore was within her field of vision. Of course, Ron would have been obligated to go with her, so Ginny was probably there with them as well.

“Morning, Ron,” Harry said as he stepped through the door of the book shop and Ron turned to see him. “Sorry, I’m late.”

“Harry,” Ron said as he motioned Harry toward a corner of the shop, “where have you been? Tell me you didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“With what?” Harry asked trying to seem confused by the question. “I just had a few things I had to do this morning and they took longer than I expected.”

“There you are!” Ginny seethed as she and Hermione made their way toward Harry with anger plainly evident on their faces.

“Hi, Gin,” Harry said.

“Don’t you ‘hi, Gin’ me, Harry James Potter,” Ginny said taking on a presence very much like that of her mother.

“Where have you been, Harry?” Hermione asked sternly.

“I was just telling Ron that I had a few things to do this morning,” Harry said. “It took longer than expected.”

“I’ll bet it did,” Ginny accused.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Harry asked.

“You tell me,” Ginny said. “Go on. Tell me where you were. I went over to your house to look for you this morning. You weren’t there.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry said. “I didn’t know you were coming by. I was probably at St. Mungo’s at the time.”

“And why exactly were you there?” Hermione asked.

“Because they released Tonks this morning,” Harry explained. “I helped Professor Lupin walk her out to the lobby. I would have been here on time, but Scrimgeour had sent me an owl asking me to come by the ministry this morning for a meeting.”

“Oh really?” Hermione asked.

“Is there some reason why I’m being interrogated this morning about where I’ve been?” Harry asked.

“Do you notice anything different about Diagon Alley this morning, Harry?” Ginny asked watching Harry’s reaction closely.

“Well it would have been hard to miss the crowd around the Ice Cream Parlor,” Harry said. “Did someone buy the place and reopen it?”

“Fortescue is back, Harry,” Ron said. “Ollivander is over at his shop too.”

“Well that’s great,” Harry said with a wide smile.

“Why did Scrimgeour want to see you, Harry?” Hermione asked as she eyed him suspiciously.

“He released Stan Shunpike this morning,” Harry said. “I’ve been after him all summer to do it, so he thought I should be there when it happened.”

“The Prophet says that he personally led a small team to rescue Fortescue and Ollivander,” Ginny said. “He didn’t mention anything about that to you while you were there?”

“No,” Harry responded.

“I was there when you got the information about where they were being held, Harry,” Ginny accused. “Do you expect me to believe that you didn’t have anything to do with getting them back?”

“Well, I did pass that information on to Scrimgeour,” Harry said. “If he used that information in the rescue then I guess that you could say I played a small part in it.”

“You see,” Ron said as he put a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “I told you two you were making a big fuss over nothing. This is one of the last days we have of freedom before we go back to Hogwarts. I hope you two aren’t going to ruin the day for Harry and me with your overly suspicious imaginations.”

“I guess I can’t really blame them though, Ron,” Harry said. “It was hard enough when I was just ‘the famous Harry Potter’. If I have to carry the ‘Chosen One’ title I have to expect that everyone will think I’m up to something all the time.”

“I’m sorry, Harry,” Hermione said as she softened out of guilt. “We just thought…”

“We were just worried about you, Harry,” Ginny said as she stepped closer to Harry and touched his arm. “It’s just part of my nature to worry about the people I care about.”

“I can understand that,” Harry responded as he looked deeply into Ginny’s eyes. “I feel the same way myself.”

“Well now that you’ve established that,” Ron began as he sensed he was about to witness a very mushy moment, “can we get out of here and make our way over to Madam Malkin’s. I have to get new robes this year. I’ve grown out of all of the others.”

“Good idea, Ron,” Harry agreed. “I’ve grown out of mine as well.”

Harry and Ginny walked through the door of Madam Malkin’s followed by Ron and Hermione. The thing that struck them right away was that there was no one in the front to greet them. They only waited for a few seconds before Madam Malkin herself walked out from the back.

“Oh, I’m sorry I kept you waiting,” Malkin said seeming a bit rushed. “There are several customers already ahead of you.”

“That’s fine,” Harry said. “Considering how things were here at the beginning of the summer, I don’t mind having to wait for a while because you’re busy.”

“Thanks to all of you, that is,” Malkin said as she looked at the four of them. “I’ll see to it that you all leave here today with a fine set of robes for school.”

“Oh, only Harry and Ron are getting robes today,” Hermione pointed out.

“On the contrary, Miss Grainger,” Malkin said. “I plan for all of you to get new robes with my compliments. It is, after all, the least I can do for what you’ve done to keep my shop open. I have space enough in the back for two of you right now.”

“Ron, go ahead with Hermione,” Harry said. “Ginny and I will wait out here for our turn.”

Ron and Hermione began to walk into the fitting area as Malkin pointed them into it and then she said, “I should be able to get you in very soon Mr. Potter. There are a couple of others whose fittings are nearly complete.”

“Take your time,” Harry said. “We aren’t in a hurry.”

Ron stepped up onto an empty fitting platform next to Hermione’s, and the magical fitting tape flew into a blur of motion as it began measuring him from every conceivable angle. A moment later, Ron looked up and surveyed the room around him. Five other people were being fitted at various places around the room, but Ron’s attention instantly fixed on a familiar face connected to a tall weedy body.

“Ron,” Hermione admonished in a whisper. “It isn’t polite to stare.”

“How did he get in here?” Ron whispered back while not breaking his stare.

“Through the door I would assume,” Hermione said. “Now, stop staring. He’s going to notice.”

“His kind doesn’t belong here,” Ron said as the boy made eye contact briefly before looking away.

“He has as much right here as the rest of us,” Hermione said wishing she could reach out and shake some sense into Ron. “It looks as though he’s going back to Hogwarts. If he needs new robes then he might as well get them here.”

“I would think he’d be ashamed to show his face around here,” Ron whispered. “He is a Slytherin, and the son of a death eater.”

“And I’m a mud-blood,” Hermione said.

“Hermione, what…” Ron asked as he looked at her in surprise and looked away from the boy at last.

“You get so upset every time someone who doesn’t know me calls me that,” Hermione said accusingly. “Then you turn around and act the same way and make the same assumptions about someone else. Honestly Ron, I thought you were better than that. I guess you still have a bit of growing to do.”

Ron just gaped at her in stunned silence for several seconds before he heard Madam Malkin say, “All done dear. You can come back in about an hour and your new robes will be done.”

Ron looked back around to see the boy step down from the platform and begin walking toward the exit. It was a path that would take him very close to where Ron and Hermione were being fitted. Ron tensed as he prepared for the trouble he just knew would come.

The boy walked with his head tilted slightly down, but stopped in front of Hermione as he looked up and said, “Thanks, Grainger.”

“You are quite welcome, Theodore,” Hermione replied. “See you back at Hogwarts.”

Theodore gave a nod as he walked out of the fitting room. When he walked out into the front of the shop, he stopped again when he caught sight of who else was in the shop.

“Hi,” Harry finally said as he noticed Nott staring in his direction. “Heading back to Hogwarts this year?”

“Is there some reason why I shouldn’t, Potter?” Nott asked as he narrowed his eyes, prepared for Harry to have the same attitude as Ron had.

“Not at all,” Harry replied. “I just wasn’t sure how many of your Slytherin house mates would be doing the same. Things being the way they are, I’m not really sure how many people from the other houses will be back.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Nott said flatly. “I haven’t spoken with any other students all summer.”

“Did you go away on holiday?” Ginny asked.

“I was visiting my dad in Azkaban,” Nott replied. “I wouldn’t consider that a holiday.”

“I’m sorry,” Ginny said. “I didn’t mean any disrespect.”

“Then you’re a better person than your brother in there,” Nott said with a nod toward the fitting room.

“I don’t doubt it,” Ginny said with a grin. “Still, he isn’t so bad once you get used to him.”

“I don’t plan on getting used to him, so I’ll just keep thinking of him as the git he is,” Nott said without any hint of humor.

“Well I can’t disagree with you on that one,” Ginny said as her grin widened.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Nott said as he started for the door, not wishing to get pulled into a lengthy conversation, “I have shopping to get done.”

“For what it’s worth,” Harry said as Nott opened the door to leave, “I’m sorry about your dad.”

“Why should you be, Potter?” Nott asked as anger threatened to seep out before he was able to contain it.

“I never even knew my dad,” Harry said. “That was hard enough on me. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be separated from a parent you’ve known all your life.”

Nott studied Harry for several seconds. Just when he had been expecting a snide remark about his father, Harry had actually made an attempt to relate to what he was going through. He considered his response carefully for some time, but eventually decided upon an honest one.

“And for what it’s worth, Potter,” Nott said, “I’m sorry you never knew your parents.”

“Thanks,” Harry replied.

Nott then turned and walked out of the door without another word as Ginny turned to Harry and said, “Wow! Who would have thought we could have had a conversation like that with Theodore Nott? He doesn’t have conversations that long with anyone.”

“I’ve always been curious about him,” Harry said with a grin. “He stays to himself most of the time. He doesn’t even really associate with the other Slytherin very much. I’ve always suspected he was just laying low, and trying to go as unnoticed as possible.”

“Well there won’t be much chance of that happening if he keeps having occasional chats with ‘The Chosen One’”, Ginny said.

“Oh, please,” Harry said as he held up a hand, “no more ‘Chosen One’ talk today. Let me have one day without thinking about that.”

Half an hour later, Harry and his friends left the shop to do the rest of their shopping. By the time they picked up their new robes after lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, they were all already heavily laden with new school supplies. With only their new supplies for potions yet to be purchased, they decided to drop off what they had already acquired at the joke shop to let Fred and George store it while they joined the excitement of everyone else in Diagon Alley for the ice cream.

“Diagon Alley just wasn’t the same without this,” Ron said as he prepared for another lick of his triple scoop cinnamon pecan ice cream cone.

“I can’t believe you’re having a second one of those,” Hermione said. “We did just finish lunch a short time ago.”

“You said yourself recently that I had a bit of growing to do,” Ron replied with a wink at Harry and Ginny.

“Somehow, I doubt that was what she was referring to,” Ginny said with a grin.

“Maybe not, but I am looking forward to the opening feast at Hogwarts,” Ron said as he licked the ice cream. “I wonder if it will change any since McGonagal is the one calling it to the table.”

“I doubt it is the headmaster who chooses the menu for the feast, Ron,” Hermione said. “You know as well as I do that something like that is left to the house elves in the kitchens to tend to.”

“You aren’t getting back on that cause again are you?” Ron asked. “This was really turning out to be a great day. Don’t ruin it by lecturing all of us about elf
rights again.”

“Don’t worry,” Hermione said stiffly, “I resigned myself long ago to the fact that the majority of them don’t want to be free.”

“If you two don’t stop quibbling,” Harry said with a grin, “I’m going to make you kiss and make up.”

“As if that would be a punishment,” Ron chuckled. “I’ll take that anytime.”

“Not today lover boy,” Hermione said as she continued to fume inwardly.

“Hey, Potter,” came a voice from behind them.

Harry, Ginny, Hermione and Ron all turned around to see something that they knew could potentially ruin their day. Walking toward them was a group of seven Slytherin they recognized from Hogwarts. Even without their school robes, they were easily identifiable by their manner.

“Pritchard, isn’t it?” Harry asked as he addressed the boy in the lead of the group.

“That’s right, Potter,” Pritchard replied with anger evident in his voice.

“What can I do for you?” Harry asked wondering if he would have to make a grab for his wand in the near future.

“Well you haven’t done anything for us yet,” Pritchard said.

“Do you have a point to make,” Ron began, “or are you just bothering Harry for fun?”

“Stay out of this, Weasley,’ Pritchard replied. “I didn’t ask for your input.”

“You did ask for mine though,” Harry said as he took a step forward to place himself between Pritchard and Ron.

“I just wanted to ask you why it is that none of us have gotten that shield charm of yours on our houses yet,” Pritchard said with an accusatory tone. “We don’t have it, and none of the other Slytherin students we’ve talked to have it either.”

“That’s because I didn’t put it on any Slytherin houses,” Harry said calmly. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t really know if any of you would want it.”

“We all know what everyone says about us,” Pritchard said. “Most of the witches and wizards who ever went bad came from Slytherin. What you’ve neglected to realize is that not every Slytherin does go bad. We all probably have more to fear from You Know Who than the rest of you. Who do you think the death eaters visit looking for new recruits? They certainly aren’t going straight to the Hufflepuff students, but I’m willing to bet that all of their houses are protected.”

“I guess I never looked at it that way,” Harry admitted.

“I guess not,” Pritchard said.

“Of course I did consider putting it on all of your houses whether you wanted it or not,” Harry said. “I decided it was too much of a risk to take. The death eaters were already watching for anyone out putting the shield up. As you said yourself, it was the Slytherin houses being visited by death eaters. There was too much of a chance that we would run into one of them accidentally.”

“So you were just going to leave us unprotected?” a Slytherin girl asked. “I thought bravery was supposed to be a Gryffindor attribute.”

“It is,” Harry confirmed. “But bravery will get you into trouble every time without a bit of caution. I had planned to wait until we got back to Hogwarts before I offered the shield to any Slytherin students. I guess I won't be able to wait that long.”

“What do you mean?” Pritchard asked.

“Just write down your names for me and the names of any other Slytherin that you know of who want the shield on their house,” Harry instructed. “I’ll see to it personally that all of you have it before tomorrow morning.”

“Really?” Pritchard asked in disbelief.

“Of course,” Harry responded.

“Its just that we all came over here thinking that we would have to hex you for not putting it on our houses because you hate Slytherin,” Pritchard admitted.

“I can understand why you might think that,” Harry said. “I thought I hated all of you for years. All of that is going to have to change though. I need all of the friends I can get these days.”

18
Hogwarts


The next morning, Harry walked down the stairs of his house as he attempted to shake away the feeling of not having gotten enough sleep. He had just reached the bottom of the stairs when the mirror in the entry began to whistle.

"My goodness, Harry dear," Molly said as Harry opened the door and she took a look at him. "Didn’t you think to get plenty of rest last night? You have to catch the train back to Hogwarts this morning."

"I remember," Harry said as he closed the door behind them. "It was just a late night last night. There was some D.A. business that needed tending to."

"I might have guessed," Molly said with a lightly accusing tone. "I suppose Ron, Ginny and Hermione are still here. They said they likely wouldn’t make it back to the burrow last night."

"They’re still asleep upstairs," Harry said.

"Well, I had better go and wake them then," Molly said as she made for the stairs. "We brought all of their things with us, so we can leave straight from here for the station."

"You wake the kids, Molly," Arthur said as he stood with Harry. "I need to have a little talk with Harry."

Harry motioned Mr. Weasley into his sitting room as he asked, "What is it you need to talk to me about, Mr. Weasley?"

"Fred and George didn’t tell me exactly what had happened when they summoned me to St. Mungo’s, Harry," Arthur said as Harry braced himself for the usual adult reaction to his activities. "It didn’t take long for me to piece two and two together after I read that article in The Daily Prophet. I understand that you feel like you have to take unusual risks that could get you killed. For all I know, maybe all of the things you do are necessary. That isn’t something I have any right to judge for you."

"Then you’ve taken a different path from the other adults I know," Harry commented. "None of the rest of them seem to have a problem judging."

"We’re all just worried about you, Harry," Arthur confessed. "It is a natural instinct for adults to want to protect children. That’s why I wanted to speak with you. I don’t know if you have any dangerous activities planned after you return to Hogwarts, but I do have the right to council you against them if you plan to continue dating my daughter. My only daughter, Harry. I don’t know if you can understand exactly what that means to a father. I have to know that you will protect her from anything dangerous you may do."

"There was a reason why I didn’t involve Ginny in the mission that night, Mr. Weasley," Harry said gently. "I may not know what your worries are as a father, but rest assured that my feelings for Ginny would never allow me to put her in harms way. I’ve already tried shutting her out of my life once, and I won’t ever try to do that again. Every day I’m with her I become more certain that I would like to marry her one day."

"I think I can tell you that nothing would make her or her parents happier," Arthur said with a smile.

"The only thing that I worry about is that I won’t live long enough to ask her," Harry said, causing the smile to fade from Arthur’s face. "I’m not under any illusions, Mr. Weasley. I know that my battle with Voldemort is nearing. I can’t avoid it forever. In fact, my recent activities have probably made Voldemort more determined to kill me. When that time comes, he may kill me, and I may kill him. I won’t know until it happens. Until then, I’m going to live my life as happily as I can, and I don’t know any way to do that without including Ginny. I will protect her, Mr. Weasley. I’ll protect her in every way that I can for as long as I’m able."

"Thank you, Harry," Arthur said with a new respect for the man Harry was becoming.

When Harry and the others arrived at the train station, it was plainly obvious to them all that the ministry wasn’t taking any chances with security. Harry had to smile to himself about the way that most wizards tried so hard to blend into muggle society and completely failed to do so. Such was the case with the aurors Harry spotted standing in strategic locations from the entrance all the way to Platform 9 ¾. Harry had to admit that it would be a prime target for the death eaters to try to hit. They could attack students and their families and cause panic in the muggles that filled the station. The deterrent was apparently enough though, as the Hogwarts express pulled out of the station without incident.

"There are more people on the train than I thought there would be," Neville said. "I was afraid we would be the only ones going back to school."

"I’m willing to bet it would be a different story if we hadn’t put that shield on their houses," Ron said as he started to open another chocolate frog.

"Of course, if we hadn’t, then they would be safer at Hogwarts anyway," Hermione pointed out.

"The train station was safer than it has ever been today," Neville said. "I’ve never seen so many aurors in one place before."

"Dad said the Ministry wasn’t taking any chances," Ron said as he tossed the card from the chocolate frog pack into a small pile of trash that had accumulated between he and Hermione. "He said they even pulled some of the aurors away from guarding Azkaban to guard the station today."

"Well, I hope they’ve gotten back to Azkaban by now," Neville said. "I would hate to find out that the death eaters tried to break into the prison while the aurors were guarding the train station."

"Oh, they haven’t finished with their guard duty yet," Luna said as she turned away from the window in her usual dreamy state. "They’ve been flying on brooms high in the sky watching the train since we left the station."

Ron leaned across Luna to look out the window, but he couldn’t see anything but the clouds in the sky as he said, "I don’t see any aurors on brooms."

"Of course not," Luna said smoothly. "They stay hidden in the clouds so no one will detect them."

"Right," Ron said with a wink at Neville as he passed it of as yet another of Luna’s flights of fancy. "What about you, Harry? Have you seen any aurors in the sky since we left the station?"

They all looked at Harry sitting by the window, but not paying any attention to them at all, or giving any indication that he had even heard Ron. Instead, Harry sat holding Ginny’s hand, noticing how delicately soft her skin was as he caressed the back of her hand with his thumb. His eyes were held captive by the way the light coming through the window was playing across Ginny’s hair. His senses were enchanted by the light sweet smell of Ginny’s perfume.

"Harry, did you…" Ron began to ask.

"I don’t think this is a good time to bother Harry, Ron," Hermione said as she touched his arm gently. "He’s given so much of himself over the summer to help other people. Let him have this time to himself. Even you must be able to see that he and Ginny are mentally a thousand kilometers away right now."

What Hermione theorized was proven true as Harry and Ginny sat next to each other and spoke only to one another in hushed voices for the next half-hour, taking not the slightest notice of anything else around them. It was Hermione who had to brave breaking in on their affections.

"Ginny," Hermione said as she reached across and took a gentle grasp of Ginny’s arm, drawing her attention away from Harry. "It’s time to put your robes on. We’ll be there soon."

"What, already?" Ginny said in surprise as Harry shared her reaction.

"Well, they do say that time flies when you’re having fun," Ron said with a grin.

Sure enough, not long after they finished donning their robes, the train arrived at Hogsmeade station. A quick look around as they stepped off of the train was enough to tell them that their guards from the station in London were indeed still on the job. Each of them stood on the periphery of the station with eyes scanning high and low for trouble as they held onto their brooms in one hand and their wands in the other.

It wasn’t until all of the students had entered the Hogwarts gates that Harry turned around to see a hundred brooms rise into the air carrying the aurors back toward London. It was when he turned around to walk into the castle that Harry’s scar began to prickle with a dull pain Harry had not felt in some time. It wasn’t the kind of pain that would indicate Voldemort being near, but he sensed it was a result of Voldemort feeling very happy about something. So happy, in fact, that he had apparently let his occlumency he had been practicing against Harry slip momentarily. Harry didn’t know what it might be that would cause such happiness for Voldemort, but he knew well enough to know that it likely wasn’t good news for the rest of the wizarding world.

"What is it, Harry?" Ron asked with sudden concern as he noticed Harry rub his scar. "Is something wrong?"

"Voldemort is happy about something," Harry said shocking most of those walking around him.

"I thought Voldemort was practicing occlumency against you to keep you from feeling things like that," Hermione said with concern.

"I only got a few seconds of it," Harry said. "I think his control slipped during that time."

"Or he could have let you feel it on purpose," Ginny said as she stopped Harry and turned him to face her. "You need to tell someone about this right away."

"After the sorting ceremony I’ll tell Dumble…" Harry stopped with a renewed sadness as he realized his mistake.

"You can talk to Professor McGonagal, Harry," Hermione said. "Dumbledore trusted her. You can too."

"Dumbledore trusted Snape," Harry pointed out. "I’ll talk to her though. I owe her that much anyway."

Once all of the upperclassmen were assembled in the Great Hall, it was plainly obvious that the threat of the death eaters had taken a toll on the number of returning students even though their homes were protected. Still, it filled Harry with sorrow and pity at the number of Slytherin that chose to return. The Gryffindor table was nearly at its regular presorting capacity, while both the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables had lost just short of a quarter of their numbers. Even that though made the Slytherin table look sparse at best, with just over one quarter of their usual number spread in small groups leaving sizable gaps between them.

"I wouldn’t hold out much of a chance for Slytherin to field a quidditch team this year," Ron said sounding disappointed. "I knew some wouldn’t come back, but I thought there would be more than that."

"Maybe I should have put shields on all of their houses anyway," Harry said feeling guilty. "Maybe it would have made a difference."

"You said yourself it would have been too dangerous," Ginny said trying to console him. "That hasn’t really changed."

"I could have used the map to do it," Harry said. "We used it when we put the shield on all of the other houses. I could have made sure there weren’t any death eaters nearby."

"But you had no way of knowing how many people would have been inside those houses that might have turned informant for the death eaters," Hermione pointed out. "Besides, you didn’t do it alone. We were all there with you. If you have to feel guilty, then we have to share in that guilt. None of us questioned your decision not to protect their houses."

"At least we were able to put the shield on twelve of their houses before we came back here," Ron said. "Besides, maybe they’ll pick up a few new students after the sorting."

"Speaking of the sorting," Neville said as he looked at the teachers’ table, "who is going to lead the First Years in for the sorting? McGonagal usually does it, but she’s sitting in the headmaster’s chair."

"There is only one empty chair at the table," Hermione said. "It must be a new teacher. I see all of the usual ones already in place."

It was then that the doors to the Great Hall were opened, and Harry and his friends stared in surprise at the person leading the first years up the center isle. A young witch with only a slight limp strolled up the isle in flowing deep plum colored robes that looked as if Professor Lockhart might have left them behind. Her hat, in a matching color, could not fully disguise the bubble gum pink hair poking out from underneath it. As she passed Harry, Tonks turned to look at him with a smile and a wink.

"Did you know she was going to be here, Harry?" Ginny asked in a whisper.

"No," Harry replied. "I guess this is what she meant when she said she was going to be sitting behind a desk for a while. That’s what she told me the day she was released from the hospital. She knew she would be here, and she never told me."

"I wonder what she’ll be teaching," Neville asked.

"Transfiguration I would think," Hermione commented softly.

"Really?" Ron asked. "I never thought McGonagal would give up teaching just because she was the Headmistress."

"I wish her luck if she is teaching Transfiguration," Neville said. "If I had to start teaching that class with Professor McGonagal still here to look over my shoulder, I’d be a nervous wreck inside of a week."

"I wonder if it has anything to do with having extra protection here within the castle," Ron said as the wheels in his head were turning. "I mean, the ministry went to great lengths to protect us on the train ride here. Maybe they stationed her here to add an auror presence here at Hogwarts. They wouldn’t have realized that Tonks was an Order member as well. McGonagal could have accepted her so that she would have Tonks and Lupin here just in case something happened."

"That may be part of it," Hermione said, "but Professor McGonagal never would have accepted anyone to teach Transfiguration if she wasn’t sure they were qualified."

"Well, I wouldn’t doubt if she was," Harry commented. "She made it into the auror training program, and you don’t do that unless you have top marks in several different areas. She said herself once that she would have been a prefect when she was a student here if she wasn’t so mischievous. I’m willing to bet she aced her newt in Transfiguration."

"That may be," Neville said with a grin, "but I still don’t envy her this year."

The sorting, now led by Tonks, proceeded normally for everyone except the Slytherin. While the other houses got their fair share of the reduced number of first years, Slytherin only gained three new students to add to their ranks. If it wasn’t before, disappointment was plainly etched on all of their faces after the sorting had ended. Harry had to wonder if any of them would change their minds about staying the entire year with so few housemates to stand with them.

Professor McGonagal stood after the sorting ceremony had ended to say, "Please allow me to welcome you all, returning students, and new, to a new year here at Hogwarts. Rest assured that steps have been taken to prevent terrible situations like the one that happened last year with the death of our Headmaster. You will be safe here on the castle grounds, but I can not stress enough that none of you may venture into the forbidden forest without risking serious injury at best. Likewise, trips to Hogsmeade will be more strictly supervised than in the past. On a happier note, I am proud to introduce all of you to the new professor for Defense Against the Dark Arts. Professor Lupin has returned to us. Also, please welcome Professor Tonks, who will be filling the vacancy of the Professor for Transfiguration."

Applause rose up from all of the house tables for the new professors. A glance at the Slytherin table showed that they were clapping, but it was clear that their hearts weren’t in it.

McGonagal waited until the applause had died down before she announced, "It is also my great sorrow to inform the Gryffindors that, since accepting the position of Headmistress here at Hogwarts, it has been necessary to excuse myself from the position as head of your house. My only consolation in leaving my treasured position is that it will be filled by someone whom I have every confidence will uphold its great long proud traditions. Gryffindors, your new head of house will be, Professor Remus Lupin."

Harry clapped and cheered as much as anyone else at the Gryffindor table, but a heavy thought entered the back of his mind. Lupin being the new head of the house meant that he was planning to stay at Hogwarts for more than one year. Harry knew that for him to do so, the curse that had been placed on the position after it was refused to Voldemort would have to be broken. Yet another weight landed in Harry’s subconscious as his timetable for the battle with Voldemort was set firmly in place.

"…the feast begin," Harry suddenly heard McGonagal say just before the opening feast appeared on the house tables.

Harry sat thinking for a few seconds while the other students began to fill their plates with their favorite foods. Coming to the decision that it was a thing he needed to take care of as soon as possible, Harry stood up from the table.

"Where are you going, Harry?" Ron asked as he paused with a turkey leg just at the opening of his mouth.

"I’m going to tell McGonagal about my scar hurting," Harry said.

"Well that is certainly different," Hermione said after Harry had begun walking toward the teachers’ table. "He’s never been anxious to tell a teacher about his scar hurting before."

"I don’t think he’s ever been carrying as much guilt around inside himself before either," Ginny said as she watched Harry walk up to the head of the Great Hall. "You know how he still blames himself for every thing that happened to Sirius and Dumbledore. I think his guilt forces him to do things he might not do otherwise."

"It was hard enough to keep him out of trouble when he was just doing the things he would naturally do," Hermione commented. "I don’t know if we’ll be able to keep up with any new reasons he might have."

Professor McGonagal was alerted to Harry’s approach by Lupin, and she looked toward Harry and asked, "Is something wrong, Mr. Potter?"

"I don’t know," Harry confessed. "It may be nothing. Just before we entered the castle tonight my scar hurt again for a short time."

"Is it still hurting?" McGonagal asked with renewed concern as she sat up even straighter in her chair.

"No," Harry responded. "It went away almost as quickly as it came. Voldemort usually shuts his emotions off from me, but I think something made him slip. I think he was extremely happy about something."

"Anything he would be happy about is surely bad news for us," Tonks said from McGonagal’s side.

"I would tend to agree," McGonagal said as she tried to suppress the ideas of what might make him that happy that sprang into her mind.

"I just thought you should know," Harry said.

"Thank you, Mr. Potter," McGonagal said. "You can rest assured that we will look into this matter as soon as possible."

"Thanks," Harry said with a small smile as he turned to walk back to his seat.

Harry walked back toward the Gryffindor table, feeling good about being taken more seriously by the adults than earlier in his school career. A glance at the Slytherin table melted that feeling within him. Again, guilt set in about not doing all he could to assure their safety along with all of the other students. Perhaps if he had… On his way back to his seat, an idea formed, but he would need the help of everyone in Gryffindor to carry it out.

"How did it go?" Ginny asked as Harry sat back down.

"Fine," Harry responded still a bit distracted by his thoughts. "They’ll look into it as soon as possible."

Hermione studied Harry’s face and could tell that he had something on his mind he wasn’t sharing as she asked, "What is it, Harry? You have that look on your face like you are developing another idea about something."

"Is it really always that obvious?" Harry asked.

"I hate to admit it, Harry, but she’s right," Ron responded. "You do get a certain look when you formulate new plans."

"Well, I just had a crazy idea," Harry said.

"I can tell this one is going to be good," Ginny said with a grin. "What did you have in mind, Harry?"

"Well, for it to work we would have to have every last Gryffindor agree to it," Harry said as he surveyed the faces of all of the people around them who had begun listening to them. "Gryffindor is supposed to be a house known for its bravery. I want us to make a gesture that will confirm that."

"Go on, Harry," Seamus said as he leaned a bit closer. "We’re listening."

Fifteen minutes later, a silence fell over the Gryffindor table as they watched for Harry to give them the signal. Harry stood up, followed immediately by the other Gryffindors, and an interested hush fell over the room as everyone took notice of what the Gryffindors were doing. Everyone who was standing picked up their plate and left the Gryffindor table empty of people. The first, second and third years dispersed themselves to fill all of the empty spaces at the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables. The remaining fourth through seventh year students made their way toward the Slytherin table.

"Would you mind if my friends and I sat down with you?" Harry asked as he surveyed the curious faces of the Slytherin students.

"Do we have a choice, Potter?" Pritchard asked.

"Of course," Harry responded. "If you say no, then we’ll just go back to our own table. I was hoping to talk to some of you to find out if there are any more Slytherin who need the shield charm placed on their houses."

Pritchard considered his options carefully before he said, "Then I guess you had better sit down. I have a few new names for you."

The teachers had watched in amazement as the Gryffindors abandoned the relative safety of their own house table to venture into the more uncharted territories of the other tables, and Lupin said, "If this kind of behavior keeps up, this may be one of Hogwarts finest years, Minerva."

"I hope so, Remus," McGonagal said with a proud smile that she just couldn’t contain. "I truly hope so."


19
Night of the Dark Lord

Tobias Winter had always been a talented wizard. It had been apparent from his early days as a Ravenclaw student at Hogwarts that he was destined to accomplish great things. By the time graduation came around, he was well prepared for the auror training that followed. He had won high praise and distinction from his fellow aurors for his inventiveness and bravery during battles with death eaters early in the first rise of He Who Must Not Be Named. Once the dementors had abandoned their guardianship of Azkaban prison, his had been among the first names mentioned for those well suited for the dangerous task of taking over that responsibility.

His entire life swam quickly through Tobias’ thoughts of its own accord as he blinked trough the blood that trickled from the deep cut just above his eye that obscured his vision. He tried to bring his wand up, but it was wrenched from his hand by a disarming spell just before his head was snapped backwards by a kick under the chin from Bellatrix.

Bellatrix pointed her wand at the auror on the ground before her and said, "Avada…"

"No," Voldemort said as he touched Bellatrix’s arm. "He is the last of the auror guards left alive. I want to leave a witness to tell others of what has happened here tonight. Bind him. Torture him if it amuses you, but make sure that he lives to spread fear of my power."

Tobias spotted his wand lying near by, and forced his protesting body into motion as he lunged for it. Bellatrix was too quick to carry out her masters orders though as ropes wrapped around him and pinned his arms at his sides.

"Why do you still fight?" Voldemort asked as he stood over the fallen and bloodied auror. "If your entire compliment of auror guards and defensive spells could not stop me from taking this prison, then what hope do you possibly think you have alone?"

"I am an auror," Tobias said as he rolled over to look into the eyes of his worst fear. "I fight because I must."

Voldemort studied the eyes of the auror closely for several seconds before he smiled and said, "I can feel the fear in you. Make sure you tell your Minister of Magic what I have done here. Make sure he understands the fear your auror friends felt before they died. Soon, all will bow down to me in fear."

"Not all," Tobias said as he gave a small grin of his own.

"What do you mean?" Voldemort asked warningly.

"There is one who will never bow down to you," Tobias said. "Someday, it will be you who bows down at the feet of Harry Potter."

Immense rage erupted in Voldemort as he raised his wand and picked the auror off of the ground. He held him there motionless for several seconds before twisting Tobias suddenly as a sickening crack filled the inner courtyard and the limp broken body of the auror fell to the ground.

"I suppose this means we won’t be leaving any witnesses," Bellatrix said before she could stop herself.

Voldemort, with his rage still coursing through him, turned to face Bellatrix and said, "Do not make the mistake of questioning my actions, Bellatrix. We are only here to free my death eaters. There are other prisoners left here who will remain to spread word of what we have done here."

"Of course, My Lord," Bellatrix said with a low bow. "I meant no disrespect. Forgive my ignorance."

"Go with the others to free my loyal subjects," Voldemort said as he turned away from her once again. "When you return, bring me one of the other prisoners so that I may show him the extent of our success here tonight."

"Right away, My Lord," Bellatrix said before she turned and walked across the small courtyard to the doorway leading to the prison cells.

Voldemort waited until he heard Bellatrix’s footsteps fade into the distance and silence had fallen over the courtyard before he looked around in the dim light to assure that he was indeed alone. Seeing no one, he walked over to the small pool in the center of the courtyard and looked down into the black water it contained. Holding his hand over the water, he closed his fist until one of his fingernails punctured the skin of his palm slightly.

Voldemort watched as a drop of his blood dripped from his hand into the water. Almost instantly, the water stiffened as if it had been suddenly transformed into a large dark mirror. Voldemort smiled as he passed his hand over the pool and the mirror turned to water once again. It had cost him the sacrifice of a loyal death eater many years earlier, but Voldemort was pleased to see that death eater’s mission had been completed just as the dementors had assured him it had. The magical concealment charms were still intact, and so then was his immortality.

The sound of approaching footsteps drew Voldemort’s attention away from the black pool to see Lucius Malfoy step into the open air of the courtyard of Azkaban. As soon as Lucius spotted Voldemort sitting by the pool he immediately ran forward and kneeled low at his master’s feet.

"I never lost faith that you would come for us, My Lord," Lucius said as other fellow prisoners copied his actions as they walked into the courtyard.

"I would never abandon those who have shown me such loyalty, Lucius," Voldemort said. "I would have come for you sooner if I thought you would have to suffer as you would have if the dementors were still in charge of guarding this prison. As things were I would say you had things fairly easy."

"Not being free to serve you was torture enough, Master," Lucius said.

"I meant that the punishment you endured here was nothing compared to the punishment I would have brought down on you for your failure in your original mission to recover the prophecy," Voldemort explained as he tried to remain calm.

"Even that I would have endured gladly, My Lord," Lucius said.

"Enough," Voldemort said holding his hand up to stop any further comments. "I did not come here to free you so we could dwell in past events. From now on we will only look to what the future holds for us. Rise Lucius, and you Rookwood, Nott, Crabbe, Antonin, all of you. Stand now and prepare to return to the life you once knew. I have but one piece of business to attend to before we leave."

Bellatrix walked forward pushing a feeble looking old man to the ground at Voldemort’s feet. The man took a moment to recover before looking up slowly into Voldemort’s face. The man shrank back instantly.

"Of course, you realize who I am," Voldemort said relishing the fear in the old man’s eyes as the man shook his head to confirm that he did indeed recognize him. "You have been selected for an important task. You will be my messenger. Hopefully you will do a better job than the last candidate."

Voldemort gestured toward the body of Tobias Winter lying motionless nearby, and the old man shuddered with the fear that he may be joining the auror soon.

"You will not move from this courtyard," Voldemort instructed. "In time a group of ministry officials will come here to investigate what has happened. You will relate to them what you have seen. You will report to them that on this night Lord Voldemort stood calmly in this courtyard as the master of Azkaban, and took back with ease what was stolen from him. The auror guards are all dead. Soon I will instruct my death eaters to seek out and destroy those aurors who were not here this evening to lay their lives at my feet. Remember well what you have been told. Make sure they understand what it means to stand against Lord Voldemort."

Without another word, Voldemort turned and wrapped his cloak tighter as he walked toward the front gates of Azkaban leading his following death eaters. It wasn’t until they were through the gates, having been joined by the death eaters who had carried out the attack on Azkaban and staring at the rough North Sea in front of them that Voldemort picked up part of a whispered conversation from his death eaters behind him.

"… knew they were feeding us rubbish just trying to break our spirits," MacNair was whispering to Rookwood.

"Liar," Rookwood responded. "You were half believing it when Jugson and the others started showing up."

Voldemort turned and leveled a curious gaze at the two death eaters as everyone else stopped as well, and he asked, "What exactly was it that they were telling you to try to break your spirit?"

MacNair turned as white as a sheet as he tried to find his voice and finally said, "They were just trying to make us believe that things were not going well for the death eaters. They wanted us to believe that you yourself were on your way toward defeat."

Voldemort laughed amusedly as he asked, "And this worried you? How could they ever possibly defeat me?"

"Well…" MacNair said a bit shaken. "They kept saying that Harry Potter…"

"Aargh," Voldemort groaned loudly as he stepped quickly to MacNair and grabbed him up by the lapel of his shirt. "After all that I have done… after all the great demonstrations of my power… I killed an auror only minutes ago that dared to speak the name of Harry Potter against me. Must I now also hear that name spilled forth out of the mouths of my own servants? The very sound of the name is like a dagger in my ears I hear it so often lately!"

"I… I’m sorry, My Master," MacNair said with fear etched firmly onto his face.

"Allow me to kill him for you now that I am free, My Lord," Lucius said as he stepped forward. "Allow me to free you of him."

"No, Lucius," Voldemort said as he tossed MacNair backwards and the other death eaters parted to let him fall. "He will be mine to deal with when the time comes. Until then, I do not want to hear the name of Harry Potter spoken by any death eater. In fact, don’t even think it. I’ll know if you do."

"Master," Bellatrix said as she stepped forward slightly, "it is time for us to be going. More aurors could be arriving any time."

"You’re right, Bellatrix," Voldemort said as he looked at the faces of the death eaters around him. "Take the death eaters we freed back to the house. Get them bathed and clothed. I will join you all later with further assignments."

"I thought we were all to go back together, Master," Bellatrix said with concern.

"That was the plan," Voldemort said with a withering look at MacNair still not daring to pick himself up. "In light of recent events, I will be taking all of the death eaters who participated in the attack here tonight and leaving a message that even "The Chosen One" won’t be able to ignore."

Minutes later, Bellatrix appeared in a large chamber in the house used as their base of operations followed immediately by a series of loud pops as the freed death eaters appeared as well. She had Jugson lead them all further into the house where they could bathe and clothe themselves more appropriately.

Bellatrix stayed behind by herself to nervously pace the floor as she worried into what danger her master may place himself to deliver a message the-boy-who-must-not-be-named. A shiver went up her spine as she thought those words instead of the boy’s actual name. By forbidding any of them to ever mention his name again, her master had inadvertently bestowed upon him the same revered status that he had always reserved for his own name.

"Bellatrix?" Lucius said as he walked back in clean and reclothed in dark robes.

"Yes, Lucius," Bellatrix answered. "Did you find everything you needed?"

"Mostly," Lucius said as he walked closer. "I didn’t see Narcissa among the death eaters that took Azkaban. Is she performing other duties for our master?"

"No, Lucius," Bellatrix said with regret. "I didn’t want to be the one to have to tell you, but her mental state is not exactly stable of late. She just sits at home and cries more and more every day. She can’t stop thinking about Draco."

"I guess that would explain why her letters stopped arriving," Lucius said with concern. "I had no idea. I thought the aurors were keeping them from me to torture me."

"The Dark Lord no longer trusts her to perform her duties," Bellatrix admitted. "He feels that her feelings may get in the way of his orders. Truthfully, he would have already had her killed if I hadn’t lobbied him to have mercy on her."

"How could things have gotten this bad?" Lucius asked as he shook his head in disbelief. "My son is missing, and my wife suddenly loses the trust of our master."

"I blame Snape for it all," Bellatrix said with a frown. "If he had brought Draco back here none of this would have happened. I could have convinced the Dark Lord to punish Draco for not following through with his orders instead of killing him. Our master has come to value my council. His belief in Snape seems so irrational. Even after all of the things he has done I have not been given permission to kill him."

"If I find Snape I’ll kill him myself to bring Draco back here," Lucius said. "Our master would not deny me that satisfaction."

"Don’t be too sure," Bellatrix scoffed. "He has not been predictable in his actions lately, even for me. I have no idea exactly what this message he plans to sends tonight is."

"There were a few moments tonight when I noticed a change in him," Lucius admitted. "He nearly went mad when MacNair said You-Know-Who’s name tonight, and then to forbid any of us to speak it."

"That part of it disturbs me too," Bellatrix said lowering her voice out of habit. "I could have killed him a thousand times this summer. He rebuilt his parents’ house in Godric’s Hollow. We’ve had it under surveillance since just after he moved in. He didn’t even attempt to hide the house with any charms. McGonagal and all of her Order friends have been over there several times. I’m sure they must have told him they could hide his house for him even if he didn’t know how to do it. Still, the Dark Lord has forbid any death eaters to get near the house fearing that there may be other unseen traps. If it was any other wizard I would say he was afraid of the boy."

"Perhaps…" Lucius began.

"Don’t ever think that Lucius," Bellatrix said cutting off his thought before it was uttered. "If you value your life, never even think it. The Dark Lord is all-knowing as well as all powerful."

"Of course," Lucius said quickly.

Harry sat with Ron in the Gryffindor common room preparing himself for the sound whipping he was likely to receive, in their first game of wizard’s chess, of the new school term. Ginny sat nearby watching, while Hermione sat in an armchair nearby re-reading the introduction chapter of their new Transfiguration book. Taking the scene in, Harry could almost believe that nothing had changed at all since the last time they sat in the common room together.

Seamus had just stood up to move closer to the fire where Neville was telling a group of people a story about his Uncle Algee, when he spotted a green glow in his peripheral vision. Looking in that direction he could see that it was something outside and moved closer to the window to investigate. Upon seeing what had caused the green glow, Seamus tuned to alert Harry when he noticed Harry clutching his forehead in pain.

"Harry!" Ginny exclaimed in panic and Hermione jumped up and dropped her book on the floor.

"Is it hurting again, Harry?" Hermione asked not really needing an answer.

"He’s close," Harry said with some effort. "He’s very close."

"I just looked out the window, Harry," Seamus said as he walked closer. "Someone cast the dark mark over Hogsmeade."

"We have to let McGonagal know," Harry said as he brought his hand down from his forehead and seemed to return to normal.

"I’ll go," Seamus said as he darted for the portrait hole.

"Is the pain gone, Harry?" Ron asked with concern. "Is he gone."

"The pain is gone, but he’s still there," Harry responded as he stood up to walk to the window and fight through all of the other students that were gathered there trying to get a look. "He just took me by surprise. I’m working to fight him off now."

"Harry," Ron said as he looked over most of the other students to look out the window, "maybe you should sit down."

"He’s right, Harry," Hermione said as she took hold of Harry’s arm. Come and sit down. Let McGonagal and the teachers worry about why the dark mark is over Hogsmeade."

"I know why it’s there," Harry said seriously. "He’s waiting for me to join him."

"You can’t, Harry," Ginny said as she wrapped her arms around him in an effort to keep him there.

"There is nothing you could do in Hogsmeade that isn’t already being done," Hermione pointed out. "Seamus will tell McGonagal and she’ll alert the Ministry so the aurors can get back to deal with it. He can’t get onto the school grounds now that Malfoy isn’t here to help him."

Just then, multiple spells erupted in the distant darkness of Hogsmeade. Seconds later there was a thunderous explosion powerful enough to rattle even the high windows of Gryffindor tower. All of those at the window gasped sharply as they jumped back slightly. It was several seconds later before they were able to process what had just happened.

"It was the Hogwarts Express!" Colin said in dismay. "They’ve destroyed the Hogwarts Express."

"Why would they do a thing like that?" Ron asked. "There wasn’t anyone on it."

Before anyone could answer, letters of bright flame began to form in the sky just under the dark mark until everyone in the castle could read the message ‘Your Chosen One could not stop me now, and he never will. Prepare yourself for the terror that will be coming. Prepare yourself for death.’

"Come away from the window, Harry," Ginny said as she pulled him physically in the direction of a nearby couch. "The aurors will respond in a little while. There isn’t anything we can do now anyway. I’m sure McGonagal has already sent out the order for students to be confined to their houses."

"I could get out," Harry said in a daze of jumbled thought.

"Then stay here for me, Harry," Ginny said as wetness sprang to her eyes. "Stay here just because I don’t want you to leave me right now."

Harry looked over at Ginny and his mind cleared almost instantly. He became acutely aware of the tears forming in her eyes and the tightness with which she was clinging to his arm. She was worried. She was scared, and Harry knew that he was at least partly to blame.

"I’ll stay here with you for as long as you want, Ginny," Harry said softly as he pulled he in closer to him.

"It wasn’t your fault, Harry," Hermione said consolingly as she stepped closer to them. "Voldemort is just trying to scare us."

"It looks as though he succeeded," Harry responded as he gestured toward the window and the students still nervously looking at the dark mark and words hovering over Hogsmeade.

"It won’t take them long to come around," Ron said as he moved closer to Hermione. "It doesn’t take much courage to attack a train that was left undefended while it wasn’t in use. He can’t get into any of the buildings in Hogsmeade thanks to the shield. He can’t get into Hogwarts because of the spells. He can’t get to you physically, so he’s trying to get to you mentally."

"I’m sorry to say that it’s working," Harry said.

Not knowing what to say to Harry, everyone fell into an uneasy silence for the next several minutes. They were only roused when the portrait hole opened and Seamus walked back in followed by Professor Lupin.

"Obviously you all know that there has been an attack in Hogsmeade," Lupin said as he looked to the students still staring out the window. "Rest assured that no death eaters have even attempted to enter the school grounds. Aurors are walking the streets of Hogsmeade as we speak, but all of the death eaters departed as soon at the aurors arrived. As you might have guessed, the Headmistress has ordered that all students be confined to their houses until tomorrow morning."

Lupin glanced at Harry to see if he had a reaction, and Ginny said, "Don’t worry, Professor, I’ll make sure he doesn’t go anywhere."

"Actually, he is going to have to," Lupin responded, surprising them all. "Professor McGonagal would like you to accompany me to her office, Harry."

"Of course," Harry said as he prepared to stand.

"You don’t seem too surprised, Harry," Lupin noticed.

"Believe me," Harry said, "after all of my years here, I’ve come to expect it in these situations.


20
Hallow Headmasters

Harry followed Lupin out of the Gryffindor common room and stayed a few steps behind him all the way to the Griffin statue that guarded the spiral staircase that would take them to the Headmaster’s office. Lupin made no attempt to speak with Harry, and Harry was too preoccupied, with his own forming plans for the evening, to interrupt the silence.

“Undeviating,” Lupin finally said as he stopped in just short of the Griffin.

Harry was momentarily pulled from his own thoughts as he took notice of the stark difference in approaches taken when selecting passwords between Dumbledore and McGonagal. He had to admit that each of their styles fit each of their personalities perfectly. He fully expected to find that McGonagal was indeed undeviating in her need to protect him, from sticking his nose where she felt it didn’t belong. He already knew that her first opportunity to test her ability to do so would come late on the same night.
Lupin opened the door to McGonagal’s office and proceeded inside followed by Harry. It only took a moment for Harry to look around and see that the new Headmistress was not present in the room.

“Professor McGonagal is in Hogsmeade, Harry,” Lupin said sensing his question. “She went to help the aurors sort out the mess You-Know-Who…”

It was then that Harry heard a loud protesting snore from one of the portraits on the wall and turned just in time to see Dumbledore close the one eye he had been watching them with as he and the other former Headmasters feigned sleep.

“Oh, all right,” Lupin said as if he had been finally pestered into something. …”the mess that Voldemort left behind.”

“It’s nice to see you’re finally coming to your senses about Voldemort, Professor,” Harry said with a slight grin.

“Don’t expect to hear me say it outside this office, Harry,” Lupin responded with a look at Dumbledore’s portrait. “I’ve been lectured about it all summer long inside this office.”

“With good reason I’m sure,” Harry said. “You’re the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Surely you know that in the wizarding world some names carry a certain power with them just as some words have power when used with a spell or charm. Voldemort created a powerful name for himself on purpose. It increased his power. The collective fear everyone has of actually speaking it only serves to make him more powerful.”

“I know, Harry,” Lupin said holding up a hand to stop Harry. “If I didn’t know better, I would say you rehearsed that with Dumbledore. I don’t need to hear the lecture again.”

Harry looked at the portraits again and noticed that most of them were no longer pretending to sleep as they smiled and muttered things Harry couldn’t hear to their neighbors.

“I’m going to go tell Professor McGonagal you’re waiting for her, Harry,” Lupin said as he back toward the door. “Stay here in the office until we come back.”

“Are you sure you want to leave me unsupervised?” Harry asked. “Ginny won’t be happy if she finds out about it. There isn’t any telling what trouble I may get myself into.”

“Take a look around you, Harry,” Lupin said with a smile as he gestured to the paintings on the walls. “Do you really think you’ll be unsupervised?”

“When you put it that way,” Harry said, “I guess not.”

“I shouldn’t be long,” Lupin said just before he closed the door behind him.

Harry sat down in the one stiff wooden chair in front of McGonagal’s desk and said, “Well the chairs certainly aren’t as soft as the ones you had Professor Dumbledore.”

“Did you really expect something different?” Dumbledore asked as he looked over his glasses at Harry.

“Not really,” Harry responded. “Still, yours were much more comfortable.”

“Yet that same hard chair could feel very welcoming to someone who found themselves in serious need of a place to sit,” Dumbledore remarked in a way that told Harry he was teaching yet another of his round about lessons.

Harry considered carefully before he realized what Dumbledore was really referring to and he said, “Don’t worry. I don’t think of Professor McGonagal as a hard chair. You just have to get through the stiff exterior she puts up. Underneath is a heart as soft as any chair ever to grace this office.”

“Hmmm,” Dumbledore said as he considered Harry closely. “I’m not sure it would be wise to mention that to her. She doesn’t want you to know just how much she loves you.”

“I think I have some idea,” Harry said with a smile. “Just don’t let her know that I feel the same way. She’s like the grandmother I never had.”

There was a sudden fervor of mutterings through the portraits that sounded as if a great debate had just been opened. Harry could only catch fragments of what was being said, and it was impossible for him to piece together what they were so stirred up about.

Above all of the muttering, a voice rang out clearly saying, “This is not the time.”

Instantly, all of the muttering stopped, and Harry followed the gaze of the Headmasters in the portraits as they looked up at a painting hanging up so high above where the light managed to reach that Harry couldn’t bring details of the person in the painting into clear focus. Harry had to wonder at the identity of the person who could stop the muttering as quickly as it had begun.

“Who is in that painting, Professor?” Harry asked.

“The paintings high on the wall represent some of the earliest Hogwarts Headmasters,” Dumbledore replied. “We should all feel honored that they would chose to speak with us. They usually don’t take much interest in what goes on here from day to day.”

“What was everyone arguing about?” Harry asked.

“I’m afraid he was right, Harry,” Dumbledore said. “This isn’t the time to discuss it. I apologize for our rudeness.”

Harry looked down at the floor as he shook his head and remarked, “It’s all right. I’ve grown accustomed to being left out of things over the years.”

“As I recall,” Phineas Nigellus said from behind Harry, “you have never been so ready to accept that fact before.”

“Everyone has their secrets,” Harry said with a smile as he looked back at the former Headmaster. “I can’t very well ask you to reveal all of yours if I wouldn’t be willing to reveal mine in kind.”

“It would serve you better if you did reveal what you know,” Nigellus said with a sniff. “There are those better equipped to deal with the things you keep secrets about.”

“And they call me arrogant,” Harry observed.

“Are you trying to insinuate…” Nigellus began.

“He’s right after all,” Dumbledore interrupted. “It is presumptive of us to imagine that we may know better than Harry how to deal with things we do not even know the subject of.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Nigellus said as he stood up. “We’re all quite aware of what it is that occupies the life and mind of Mr. Potter. We sit here day after day and listen to the updates of his activities. He is as easy to read as any book.”

“Be careful of what you try to read,” Harry warned with a grin. “I’ve known some books to bite back.”

“We’ll in all of my days…” Nigellus began hotly.

“Oh, shut up, Phineas,” Headmaster Dippet said from his painting. “You’ve had your fun. Get hold of yourself and let Albus get on with what he needs to do.”

“Fine,” Nigellus said before he turned and walked out of his picture and out of sight.”

“Thank you, Professor Dippet,” Harry said. “I think I could have taken him on my own, but I appreciate the help.”

“You are quite welcome, Mr. Potter,” Dippet responded.

“So, what did you want to see me about, Professor Dumbledore?” Harry asked as he turned back to face him.

“I want you to give up any thought you might have of looking for Professor Snape,” Dumbledore said driving straight to the point.

Harry studied Dumbledore’s face for several seconds before he said, “Do you have any information about where he might currently be?”

“No,” Dumbledore answered. “Not that it would do you any good if I did. Even if I wanted to I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you.”

“Allowed?” Harry asked just before the meaning occurred to him. “McGonagal told you not to tell me anything. As a former headmaster, your duty is to serve the current headmaster. I should have known that. It doesn’t matter though. I’m going to keep looking unless someone finds Snape before I do.”

“Professor Snape, Harry,” Dumbledore corrected.

“Not any more, Professor,” Harry said quickly. “He isn’t a teacher here any more. I don’t have to show him the slightest respect. That all ended the night he killed you. What I don’t understand is why you of all people would still extend that respect to him.”
“Because I still believe that Severus Snape is a friend in desperate need of our love,” Dumbledore said.

“Love?” Harry asked as he stood up and overturned the chair as he began to pace the floor aware that he was letting his emotions gain control of him, but not caring. “Is that what you think a murderer deserves? Love? I saw the look on his face when he performed the unforgivable curse that killed you. There was no love in that face.”

“The Severus Snape I knew would never have used that curse against me,” Dumbledore stated.

“But he did,” Harry yelled in frustration. “Why can’t you understand that. He did.”

“Perhaps he could not control himself,” Dumbledore offered.

“Of course not,” Harry said as he continued to pace. “That’s what he’ll say if I ever find him. He’ll say that it was the unbreakable vow he took with Narcissa Malfoy that made him do it.”

“It was not the unbreakable vow, Harry,” Dumbledore said. “Severus told me about it before the school year ever began. I was able to break that vow spell long before that nights events.”

“What do you mean?” Harry asked. “How could you break an unbreakable vow?”

“I should think you would be able to understand that,” Dumbledore said. “Just because a spell is labeled at one time as being unbreakable or unstoppable, does not guarantee that it will always remain so. You yourself proved that the killing curse could be blocked. Is it so unthinkable that I would learn to break the unbreakable?”

“But that makes it even worse,” Harry said as his anger caused tears to form in his eyes. “That means that he killed you of his own free will.”

“You have no proof of that, Harry,” Dumbledore said softly.

“Proof?” Harry yelled as he stopped and turned to face Dumbledore. “How much proof do you need? Do I have to drag him back here and make him confess it in front of you before you’ll believe it?”

“Let go of your anger, Harry,” Dumbledore said. “I am already dead. Nothing you do will ever change that fact. Besides, I suspect that once you have had more time to think about it, you will find that a good portion of the anger you direct toward Severus is actually anger meant for me for stopping you from interfering.”

“No,” Harry said softly as the tears began to run freely from his eyes. “It isn’t anger at you. It’s the anger I have for myself for not being able to stop him.”

“Harry,” Dumbledore said gently as he leaned forward, “how could you have done anything? I immobilized you purposefully in order to keep you from interfering.”

“I should have been able to overcome that,” Harry said. “I should have been able to throw off that spell.”

“How could you have been expected…” Dumbledore began.

“Could Hermione have done it?” Harry asked before he could finish his sentence.

Dumbledore sat back in his chair knowing he was being forced into defeat as he said, “Yes, Harry. It is very likely that Hermione would have known how to counter the spell even without using her wand.”

“But I couldn’t,” Harry pointed out. “I didn’t read enough. I didn’t practice enough. When it really mattered, I wasn’t enough. I won’t let that happen again.”

“I think the point Albus was trying to make, Mr. Potter,” began a plump wizard Harry did not know the name of, “was that you need to rid your mind of thoughts of revenge against Severus Snape. It should be as plain to you as it is to all of us that the only person you need concern yourself with is the one who left that message burning in the sky over Hogsmeade tonight.”

“Sir, I don’t mean any disrespect,” Harry said as he picked his chair off the floor and sat down once again, “but Voldemort has rarely been off of my mind since I turned eleven years old. One thing I’m fairly sure of is that I’ll never be able to defeat Voldemort if I can’t even win a duel with Snape.”

“You are mistaken, Harry,” Dumbledore said. “I believe that the power you need to defeat Voldemort resides within you even now. Your hatred of Severus will only serve to suppress it longer. If you managed to kill Severus in a duel it would destroy that power forever.”

“Of course you haven’t even thought about the fact that Snape would be a powerful ally for you, Potter,” Nigellus said as he walked back into the frame of his portrait.

“We can end this discussion right there,” Harry said as he shot an angry look at Nigellus. “I’ve heard enough. I have a great deal of respect for all of your opinions, but this subject is beginning to saturate me with feelings I would rather not have on my first night back at Hogwarts.”

“It’s just as well,” Nigellus said. “The Headmistress and the werewolf are on their way. It wouldn’t do for her to walk in and discover that we have mutinied against one of her instructions.”

“Please keep this discussion in confidence, Mr. Potter,” Dippet said. “Remember our words. It was a great sacrifice for us to speak them to you.”

“I will,” Harry said as he gained a new respect for the old Headmasters.

McGonagal walked through the door followed by Lupin, and she walked straight over to Harry and asked, “Are you all right, Mr. Potter?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Harry asked. “I’ve just been sitting here listening to the portraits snore.”

“I thought you might be upset,” McGonagal said as she straightened and walked behind her desk. “I’m sure you are aware of the events that took place in Hogsmeade tonight.”

“I’m aware,” Harry said. “I’ve had some time to get over the shock of it though.”

“I guess I am more upset than you are because I know about other things that happened tonight,” McGonagal said before she realized that she shouldn’t have.

“What do you mean?” Harry asked as he set forward in his seat.

McGonagal hesitated, so Lupin said, “You might as well tell him. It will be all over the front page of the Prophet tomorrow.”

Relenting, McGonagal said softly, “There was another attack before Voldemort got to Hogsmeade tonight. The report just came in while I was speaking with the aurors. Voldemort and the death eaters attacked Azkaban tonight, Harry. They took advantage of the lightened security there tonight to attack and break out all of the death eaters that had been captured.”

Harry’s head sank to rest in his hands as he said, “It was all for nothing. All of the work we did over the summer undone in just one night.”

“Not all, Harry,” Lupin said. “The death eaters didn’t get into one shop in Hogsmeade tonight thanks to you. The train was the only thing destroyed, and it can be replaced.”

“It didn’t do anything to help the aurors guarding Azkaban tonight,” Harry said sadly.

“No,” McGonagal said as she breathed deeply trying to think of any argument that would keep Harry from piling the responsibility for Azkaban on his shoulders along with everything else. “The aurors of Azkaban were left with inadequate numbers to repel such a massive assault on the prison. It was the Ministry who made the decision to pull so many away to guard the train. There is little doubt that a spy within the Ministry leaked information about the guard transfer to Voldemort. Even he would have thought twice before attacking Azkaban when its defenses were fully manned.”

“They couldn’t very well take the chance to leave the train unprotected,” Harry said as he looked up. “Not with ‘The Chosen One’ aboard.”

“That isn’t a fair assumption, Harry,” Lupin said as he stepped closer. “The train would have been guarded even if you had not been on it.”

“So heavily guarded?” Harry asked.

McGonagal and Lupin looked at each other knowing the answer, but not wanting to give it, so McGonagal said, “It is pointless to predict what actions the Ministry would have taken. They chose an action and there is nothing we can do to change any of it now. The only thing we can do is talk about where we go from here.”

“I would think that would be obvious,” Harry said surprising them. “We have to track down those death eaters that escaped and put them back where they belong before Voldemort uses them to carry out what he wrote in the sky tonight.”

“I hope by we you mean the Ministry and the Order,” McGonagal said stiffening to cover her worry.

“Of course,” Harry said unconvincingly. “How could I possibly do anything to track them down? I will be stuck here in the school.”

“I plan to keep all of the students out of danger here,” McGonagal said as she forced her voice into calm tones.

“I know,” Harry said before he stood up to leave. “I hope you know that I’ll be ready to give you whatever assistance I’m able to.”

“I appreciate that,” McGonagal responded silently vowing never to ask.

Harry turned and began walking toward the door as Lupin said, “I’ll walk you back, Harry.”

“I think I can find the common room,” Harry said with a slight grin, “but I guess that wasn’t really the point of the offer. You can come if you like.”

“Thank you,” Lupin said as he opened the office door for Harry to leave.

Harry paused at the open door momentarily before he turned to look back at McGonagal standing behind her desk and said, “I don’t know if you knew already, but Snape and Malfoy aren’t being hidden by the death eaters. Voldemort is looking for them as well.”

“Actually, we didn’t know that, Harry,” McGonagal said addressing Harry informally with a proud smile. “We debated the possibility of it, but didn’t know for sure. Thank you.”

After Harry had gone and the door had been closed behind him, Dumbledore asked, “Do you still believe there is no possibility of getting him to open up to you, Minerva?”

“Well, the door is not open by any means of the word,” McGonagal responded with a rare smile, “but it may have cracked open a bit.”

“And do you believe you may now be able to consider opening up to him and telling him what he has the right to know?” Dumbledore asked causing the tumultuous argument among the portraits to re-ignite.

McGonagal thought to herself for some time before looking upwards to where the light did not reach the older portraits as she strained to focus on one in particular and whispered, “Not yet.”

Lupin allowed Harry to walk along in silence most of the way back to the Gryffindor common room. He could tell from glancing at his face periodically that Harry was deep in thought. It concerned him greatly that he had no need to ask exactly what Harry was thinking about. Harry was much like his father in that way. There were some times when he was a sealed mystery, and others when his thoughts were as plain as words on a page.

“What is the order working on now?” Harry asked, surprising Lupin. “Well, we’ve been spreading more of the shield charms as quickly as we can. Most of the muggle government buildings are protected now, as well as the homes of most of those muggles who work in them. We’ve also been sweeping through the wizarding communities as quickly as we’re able.”

“Good,” Harry said. “They’ll all need that more than ever now. The Ministry won’t be quick to recover after what happened. Voldemort may try another attack on them while he has them off balance.”

“I suspect you might be right,” Lupin said. “They’ll have a fighting chance though. Kingsley has been put in charge of stiffening the Ministry defenses in the case of just such an event.”

“Then the Order had better pick up the offensive slack,” Harry charged calmly. “The D.A. and the Ministry are going to be sequestered behind their protective walls for a while. It will be up to the Order to hunt down the death eaters.”

“We’ll do what we can,” Lupin said trying not to let his doubt show through. “The death eaters aren’t likely to be easy to find though. They won’t just go back to their homes now. The Ministry will be watching all of those.”

“True,” Harry admitted. “You never know though. Something may lead you to find a few of the death eaters. Every one that you find is worth ten new recruits that will think twice before they become death eaters.”

“I never really thought about it that way,” Lupin said as they came to the portrait of the fat lady. “I’ll tell Professor McGonagal about it as soon as I get back to her office. Try not to stay up too late, Harry. Classes start tomorrow.”

“Oh I remember,” Harry said with a grin. “By this time tomorrow I’ll be up to my ears in homework and wondering why I ever agreed to come back for more torture.”

“Because you’re James’ son,” Lupin said as he turned to walk away. “You can never start anything without seeing it to its end.”

Harry watched Lupin until he disappeared around a corner, and Harry said, “You’re right, Professor. I will see things through to the end.”

Later that evening, Lupin was sitting at his desk in his office reviewing the lessons he had planned for the opening day of the new school year. Papers and books were strewn about his desk in a haphazard fashion as he searched through the material quickly looking for the book of concealment spells. Not finding it and sitting back in his chair, Lupin looked up and spotted the book he had been looking for still nestled among others on the bookshelf across the office.

Lupin stood and walked over to the shelf and removed the book he was looking for. Upon turning back toward his desk, he was struck by a strange sight. Lying on top of the considerable pile of papers spread over his desk was a large rolled piece of parchment he knew for a fact had not been there only seconds before.

Lupin picked up the parchment and read the card attached to it that said, ‘I solemnly swear that I am still up to no good. Use it well.’

He knew immediately what the parchment was. The clues of its existence had been there all summer, but he had not chosen to see them. Lupin knew that he was likely holding the ‘something’ that would lead him to the location of several death eaters. He immediately started for the door. McGonagal would have to change her mind after he made her aware of the map. He would have time later to wonder how the map had come to be in his possession.

George Weasley walked out of his bedroom still trying to emerge from the sleep he had been enjoying until the persistent knocking at his front door had awoken him. It was only seconds later that Fred emerged from his room in a similar state. Fred waited while George went to check the mirror that would show who their late night visitor was.

“I don’t believe it,” George said after he had glanced into the mirror and begun to head for the door. “I should have known, but I still don’t believe it.”

“Oh, it couldn’t be,” Fred said as he guessed who his brother must be talking about.

George opened the door with a yawn and said, “You’re getting an awfully early start this morning, Harry.”

“Actually, I haven’t been to bed yet,” Harry said as George motioned for him to come inside. “I had to wait until everyone else went to sleep before I could slip out. They were keeping an especially close eye on me tonight after what happened.”

“It had better be good if we have to wake up at two in the morning because of it,” Fred said as he offered Harry a seat.

“Voldemort attacked Azkaban and broke out all of the death eaters there,” Harry reported.

“What?” Fred and George exclaimed together.

“The Ministry is scrambling to shore up their defenses in case of another attack,” Harry continued. “The Order seems more interested in spreading the shield charm as widely as possible, but they’ll never be able to protect every place the death eaters may strike. I had to give the map to Lupin in hopes it may convince him that the Order should also try to catch a few death eaters. I need a new map, but I want it to do even more than the last one.”

“Oh boy,” George said knowing that he was not going to be getting back to bed any time soon. “Keep talking, Harry. I’ll just go and get us some coffee. This could take a while.”

21

A Talent Revealed


Hermione and Ginny knocked just before they walked into Harry and Ron’s dorm room, but it did little to mitigate Ron’s surprise as he grabbed quickly for a shirt to cover his naked chest from his female visitors.

"You could at least give a person a few seconds to dress before you walk in," Ron charged. "Imagine if I had been more undressed already."

"I’d prefer to skip that image if you don’t mind," Ginny responded. "Besides, you run all over home with your shirt off in the mornings."

"But not when Hermione’s there," Ron pointed out as his face reddened even more than it already was.

"Relax, Ron," Hermione said seeming anything but calm herself. "This is the first day of classes. There are bigger things to keep my mind occupied today."

"Where is Harry?" Ginny asked as she noticed he wasn’t taking part in the morning conversation. "Has he gone down to the Great Hall already?"

"No," Ron said. "He’s still asleep. I was just about to wake him up when you two barged in."

"How can the two of you sleep so late on the first day of class?" Hermione asked as she checked to make sure she had remembered to put a bookmark in her new Defense Against the Dark Arts book where she had left off.

"Well I might have been up sooner if you two hadn’t made me promise to stay awake until I was sure Harry was asleep last night," Ron accused.

"Never mind," Ginny said moving to Harry’s bedside and preparing to open the drapes. "You finish getting dressed and I’ll wake Harry."

Ron retreated to his own bed and pulled the hangings closed for privacy as Ginny opened Harry’s and stood staring in enough wonder to make Hermione notice and walk over to her.

"What is it?" Hermione asked. "He’s still there isn’t he."

"He sure is," Ginny said nodding. "It’s just been a while since I’ve seen him without his shirt on. He’s really toned up over the summer."

"That’s true," Hermione said as she peered over Ginny’s shoulder for a look. "Still, maybe it would be rude for us to stand here looking at him while he sleeps and doesn’t know. Hurry and wake him up so we can get downstairs. I can’t go to my first class without having eaten a good breakfast."

"Harry," Ginny said as she shook Harry gently by the shoulder. "Harry, it’s time to wake up. Harry, wake up."

"Wha…" Harry mumbled as he rolled unto his side without opening his eyes.

"I said you have to wake up," Ginny said a bit louder. "You’ll be late for breakfast."

Harry opened one eye and swiveled it to look at a blurry figure sitting beside him as he asked, "What did you say Ginny?"

"It’s time to wake up, love," Ginny said sweetly.

"That can’t be," Harry said as he closed his eye once more. "I just went to sleep a few minutes ago."

"I know it may seem that way," Ginny said. "I can understand that you may have had trouble resting after what happened last night. Did you have bad dreams?"

"I don’t think I had a chance to have a dream," Harry said as he rolled onto his back once again and opened his eyes experimentally.

"Looking at the bags under your eyes I could almost believe that you didn’t get any sleep last night," Ginny said suspiciously.

"I’ll be all right," Harry said as he carefully propped himself up on tired arms. "I just need to take a shower. I’ll feel better after a nice hot shower."

"I’ll wait here while you go and do that," Ginny said. "Then we can go down to breakfast together."

"What?" Hermione asked fearing she had heard Ginny correctly. "If we don’t… I mean, we’ll…"

"Don’t worry, Hermione," Ron said as he emerged from behind the curtains of his bed fully clothed. "I’ll escort you two down to the Great Hall so Harry can have a bit of privacy this morning."

"But Ron…" Ginny began to protest.

"No arguments from you, Miss Weasley," Ron said in his best imitation of his mother. "Leaving you here while Harry gets dressed could mean that neither of you would make it to the Great Hall. I know how the mind of a teenage boy works."

"Oh really, Ron," Ginny said with a smirk.

"Not that I have any thoughts like that in my head right now," Harry said with a yawn, "but Ron is right. Don’t miss breakfast on my account. You three go ahead and I’ll be down in a few minutes."

"Are you sure?" Ginny asked.

"Regretfully, yes," Harry responded with a smile.

Ginny smiled and leaned forward and kissed Harry lightly before she said, "I’ll miss you."

"I’ll miss you too," Harry said with another yawn.

"Oh, come on," Ron said as he started motioning the two girls toward the door. "That’s enough mush this early in the morning. Lets go get something to eat. I’m starving."

"I’ll see you soon, Harry," Ginny said. "If I don’t, then I’ll come back for you and dress you myself if I have to."

"A tempting offer," Harry commented with a grin.

"Maybe I should be the one to come back for him if he doesn’t come downstairs," Ron said as he pushed Ginny and Hermione out the door and prepared to close it behind him. "I’ll see you downstairs, Harry. I’ll save you some bacon if you’re too late."

"Thanks, mate," Harry said as Ron shut the door.

Harry collapsed back on his bed and rubbed his eyes. He knew that a simple shower was not going to suffice in alleviating his need for rest.

"But I really think…" Ginny began as Ron and Hermione stopped her from turning back to go and get Harry a third time as they walked down the stairs to get to the Great Hall.

"We know what you thought," Hermione said. "The same thing you were thinking the last two times you wanted to go back. Harry is a big boy. He’ll take a shower just like he said. He wouldn’t go back to sleep and be late for class on the first day."

"I don’t know," Ginny said. "He looked just about as tired as I’ve ever seen him. If I didn’t know better, I would say he had been up all night."

"I can assure you he wasn’t," Ron assured them. "I waited just like I was told to. I could tell when Harry fell asleep last night. I’ve been sleeping in the bed next to his since our first year, and I know what his breathing sounds like when he’s sleeping. I waited for quite a while afterwards just to make sure before I laid down to sleep myself. He was up until around one in the morning tossing and turning. He was still there when Neville woke me up this morning. If he tossed like that all night long I don’t wonder that he looks tired."

"I knew that attack in Hogsmeade bothered him more than he let on," Ginny said. "I should have stayed with him. I should have made him talk to me about it."

"I don’t know if it would have done any good," Hermione observed as they reached the bottom step and made their way toward the doors of the Great Hall. "He was pretty tight lipped about what went on in his meeting with McGonagal. He excused himself shortly after he got back from meeting her saying he was tired and going to bed early. There wasn’t much any of us would have been able to do to stop him."

Hermione, Ginny and Ron were within five meters of the entrance to the Great Hall when they stopped in shock to see the person who walked out of the Hall in front of them.

"Harry?" Ginny asked as if not believing her own eyes. "But how…"

"I told you I would miss you," Harry said with a smile as he closed on her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "I apparated down here thinking you would already have made it down."

"Less than ten minutes ago you looked like you were going to drop from exhaustion, Harry," Ron pointed out as he noticed how refreshed Harry looked. "That must have been some shower."

"There isn’t anything like a splash of cold water to wake you up in the morning, Ron," Harry answered. "Apparently, there’s a finite amount of hot water in the castle this year. Everyone else used it up before I got there."

Hermione, sensing that something was amiss, leaned in closer to Harry and breathed deeply.

"Is something wrong, Hermione?" Harry asked with a grin.

"I was just checking for myself," Hermione responded with a slight blush. "I was suspecting you of having some potion or another that would wake you up and refresh you like that."

"Well?" Harry asked. "Do I pass inspection?"

"You smell just like a freshly trimmed quidditch pitch, Harry," Hermione said with a smile of her own. "I thought that bath set would come in handy for you, when I gave it to you for your birthday."

"You know me all too well," Harry remarked with a smirk and a look in his eye that instantly made Hermione question if that was true.

"Well, now that that’s settled," Ron said, "let’s eat."

Harry entered the Great Hall and sat down with Ginny, Ron and Hermione next to Neville and Seamus. As usual, several pairs of eyes followed Harry as if waiting for a reaction to the previous nights attack. Harry though, was long used to any such attention, and barely even noticed.

Minutes later, everyone stopped eating and looked up as owls swooped in with the first mail of the school year. Harry received nothing, but a letter was dropped in front of Ron, and Hermione got her copies of The Quibbler and The Daily Prophet.

"I think mum is beginning to lose it," Ron said as he read his letter. "It just says ‘Look after your sister’. She told me that at the train station just like she does every year."

"I think she really meant it this time," Hermione said with wide eyes as she looked once more at the Prophet headline and then at Harry. "Did McGonagal tell you about this last night, Harry?"

"Yes," Harry answered.

"What?" Ron asked, until Hermione held up the paper so that they could all read the headline.

"Oh my goodness," Ginny said as she put down her fork. "All of those aurors. How could that have happened?"

"McGonagal says that someone in the Ministry must have tipped Voldemort off about the guard reassignment," Harry said. "It looks like Scrimgeour still hasn’t caught the informant yet."

"You should have told us as soon as you got back, Harry," Hermione said as her ever-present concern for Harry grew.

"Why?" Harry asked. "So you could have as much trouble sleeping as I did?"

"It might help you to talk about it," Ginny suggested.

"It doesn’t," Harry said. "As long as I’m stuck behind these castle walls unable to do anything about it, it doesn’t help at all."

Everyone sat in stunned silence until Neville asked, "What about when we get out from behind these walls? Is there anything we can do now?"

"I don’t mean to be so blunt with all of you," Harry offered. "I would welcome any ideas anyone has about what we can do."

"Well," Seamus began, "we could continue training with the D.A. just in case we have to deal with something unexpected."

"I think that would be a good idea," Harry said. "I think we should wait until the first week of classes are over before we make any meeting plans for the D.A. though. I’m sure the teachers will make this a very busy year for the seventh years."

"I would be happy to look at everyone’s class schedule and make out a study schedule," Hermione offered not thinking anyone would be excited to hear her say it.

"That would be a big help, Hermione," Harry said as everyone looked at him in surprise. "It’s the most efficient way to maximize our training time outside of class."

Just as everyone was staring at Harry and realizing just how much he had changed over the summer, a group of Slytherin walked up behind Harry. Hermione noticed them first, but everyone else was not far behind.

"I need to speak with you, Potter," Pritchard said as Harry turned around.

"Sure," Harry said. "What can I do for you?"

"No," Pritchard said as he looked at the Gryffindors listening in. "Not here. In private. Let’s walk outside the Great Hall where there aren’t so many ears to listen."

Ginny grabbed Harry’s arm as he began to stand up and said, "Harry, don’t."

"She’s right, Harry," Ron said. "After what’s happened can you afford to be so trusting? That entire group could jump on you as soon as you’re out of the Great Hall."

"After what’s happened, can I afford not to be so trusting?" Harry countered. "I let my mistrust of Slytherin cloud my judgment over the summer. I won’t let that happen again. Relax. I’ll be back in a minute."

Pritchard studied Harry carefully during the exchange, and came to a decision as he nodded to the Slytherin accompanying him, and sent them back to their table.

"After you," Harry said as he gestured and Pritchard turned and led the way out of the Hall. Harry turned and winked at his friends just before he fell into stride with the Slytherin boy.

Pritchard walked several meters away from the entrance to the Great hall before he turned to look at Harry following close behind him. Still Pritchard took a careful look around him to make sure no one could possibly overhear them.

"This must be serious," Harry said as he noticed how careful Pritchard was being.

"I think it might be," Pritchard said in a hushed tone concentrating on Harry at last. "After what happened last night, every other member of Slytherin House wants the shield on their houses except for one."

"Really?" Harry asked intrigued. "Which one didn’t want it?"

"Nott," Pritchard responded even quieter than before as he took another visual scan of the area.

Harry thought about that for a moment before he said, "I guess that isn’t too surprising now that I think about it. I suppose you’ve already read about what happened at Azkaban last night."

"I have," Pritchard confirmed.

"His father is out of prison for now," Harry said. "If we put the shield up on his house, his dad would never be able to come home again."

"Exactly," Pritchard said as if Harry had just stated the obvious. "It occurs to me that the only reason why he would want that would be if he was working with the death eaters in some way. I don’t trust him. He could have come back to school just to spy on everyone and report everything back to You-Know-Who. It could be very dangerous for the rest of the Slytherin if he tells the Dark Lord that we’ve been working with you."

"Or you may be reading too much into this," Harry pointed out. "Nott may not be working with them at all."

"Then he should pay more attention to acting less suspicious," Pritchard said warningly. "If there’s one thing the Slytherin can’t stand it’s betrayal by one of our own."

"Well, wait before you take any action against him," Harry suggested. "Let me look into it and see if I can uncover anything first. Maybe I’ll have a little talk with him."

"Good luck," Pritchard said with a chuckle. "He’s never even said more than five straight words to me before."

"I’ll get him to talk," Harry said. "You just work on getting me the names and addresses of the people who want the shield. I’ll see to it that they get put on like the others did last night."

"You’ve put them on already?" Pritchard asked as he tried to suppress his surprise. "I didn’t think you would have had a chance to get word to anyone to do it yet."

"I didn’t," Harry confirmed. "I did it myself."

"But that would mean that you left…" Pritchard realized.

"That’s right," Harry said as he leaned a bit closer. "I would appreciate it if you didn’t mention that to anyone. Some people would react rather badly if they learned what I was up to in the evenings."

"Of course," Pritchard said, surprised to realize that he really meant it.

"Maybe I should go back in first," Harry suggested. "You should wait another minute before you walk in. I wouldn’t want anyone to know we were conspiring together about anything."

Harry walked into the Great Hall and back to the Gryffindor table as his friends looked at him expectantly and Ron asked, "Well? What was that all about?"

"He has a few more names to add to the list who want the shield," Harry said. "He’s just paranoid that Voldemort might have a spy here watching who associates with me. He doesn’t think it would be good for us to be seen speaking in public."

"He very well could be right," Hermione pointed out. "As trusting as you might want to be, you still have to take a few precautions."

"I will," Harry said with less enthusiasm than his friends would have liked. "For now we need to worry about eating. We have Defense Against the Dark Arts first this morning. Something tells me we might need all of our energy for it."

Less than half an hour later, Harry and the rest of the Gryffindors sat in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom with the small number of seventh year Slytherin who had chosen to return. Lupin was standing at the front of the room arranging objects on his desk. Once everyone had taken their seat, Lupin looked up at them and walked to the front of his desk.

"Welcome seventh year Slytherin and Gryffindors to your final year of instruction in Defense Against the Dark Arts," Lupin said mildly. "All of you realize that the dark powers being used to terrorize the country right now are not easily defended. I can not impress upon you more the importance of what you will learn in class this year. We will be dealing with defenses so complicated and difficult to master that many of you will fail to master more than a handful of them after an entire year of study. It could be that handful that will save your life once you have entered the world beyond these castle walls though.

"We will cover counter-curses, healing spells, advanced evasion techniques, dark magic detection, dueling strategies, talismans, and defense against dark creatures. You will learn to make yourself impervious to extreme heat and cold. You will learn to close your mind to those who might try to invade it. You will learn where help may be found if you are in dire need of it, and how best to summon it to you.

"This is only a partial list of what will be asked of you this year. The time you spend in class will likely not be sufficient for all of you to progress as far as will be needed before your graduation. Therefore, I would encourage all of you to practice as often as possible and as safely as possible in your free time outside of class. That being said, lets get started on our lesson for today."

Seamus leaned over close to Harry as Lupin turned to prepare the day’s lesson and whispered, "So, when were you planning to start up the D.A. again, Harry? It sounds like Lupin just assigned it to you."

"What makes you think I’ll be any more able to do those things than anyone else?" Harry asked as he prayed he would just be able to keep up with the rest of them. He was wondering if anything he had learned over the summer would be useful for him during the coming lessons.

Lupin turned around holding a small silver orb about the size of a snitch as he said, "Today’s lesson will be one of the most difficult to do well. Today we will attempt to use a concealment spell on this small object. It seems simple enough. However, I must admit to you that I was up late last night practicing this spell just to make sure I could still do it. Fortunately, an object this small is well within my current ability. A true mastery of this spell would enable a person to make oneself invisible without the use of an invisibility cloak. I have encountered only two wizards in my life that had reached that level of mastery. Albus Dumbledore was one. Voldemort is the other."

"You mean he can sneak up on you and attack you without ever seeing him?" Neville asked looking suddenly concerned.

"That would depend which way you were facing at the time," Lupin answered. "The concealment spell requires a certain amount of concentration to hold for very long. He wouldn’t be able to attack you without first dropping his concealment."

"Great," Ron said sitting back in his chair stiffly. "So you may get a second or two of seeing him before he kills you."

"If your reactions are quick enough," Lupin responded, "that may be all the warning you need to escape."

"I still don’t think much of the odds," Ron said.

"Give me a chance and you may feel differently by the time this school year is over," Lupin said glancing around at the class.

Lupin took the next few minutes to explain the procedure for the spell in every detail. He demonstrated the wand movement for them numerous times, impressing upon them how crucial the precise movement was. He instructed them to empty their minds of everything except the object they were trying to conceal.

Lupin had the students stand up in a line down the center of the classroom so each of them would be able to take a turn with the concealment spell. As the line progressed forward, Lupin, though he had known that it would be a nearly impossible task for any of them to accomplish on their first try, began to wish he could somehow will at least a few of them to show some sign of the ability. Over and over the students tried, but the little orb remained quite visible in spite of all of their attempts.

"Occulto," Seamus said, as he drew his wand back toward him slowly while concentrating with all his might on the silver sphere.

"Don’t feel too badly, Seamus," Lupin said as Seamus lowered his wand with an exhale of frustration. "You find yourself in good company today."

"I guess you’re right," Seamus responded. "At least it didn’t explode."

"I have no doubt you’ll do better next time," Lupin said, trying to sound convincing, looking to the last four students in line. "Neville, are you ready to give it a try?"

"As ready as I could ever be I guess," Neville responded with an uncertain tone as he stepped forward and raised his wand.

Neville took several seconds and multiple deep breaths as he attempted to rid his mind of everything except the image of the silver object on the desk. Just at the point when some were beginning to give up hope that he would even attempt the spell, Neville quickly whipped his wand from the overhand grip he had started with and bent his hand backwards in a loop that switched to an underhand grip as the wand was shoved forward toward the orb. Once the wand was as far forward as it needed to go, Neville spoke the spell word while reversing the wand motion and drawing it slowly back toward him.

Everyone in the room caught their breath as they watched the orb, solid up to then; it seemed to waver slightly as if it were dropped into a container of water. Neville was so shocked by the sight that his concentration was broken after only a few seconds, and the little ball became as solid as it had been before.

"Excellent work, Neville," Lupin exclaimed happily. "You almost had it for a moment. You could be able to make it disappear altogether within a month if we can improve on your focus a bit. Well done."

"Thanks, Professor," Neville said with a rare grin of pride as he turned to receive congratulations from all of those who had tried before him.

Hermione was the next in line to try, and everyone expected that she would perform the spell perfectly on her fist try as she usually did with everything else. Much to their surprise, she completed the spell and left the sphere as unchanged as everyone else other than Neville.

"I couldn’t hold my concentration through the wand movement, Professor," Hermione said as she lowered her wand. "I knew it was an awkward and uncomfortable wrist movement, but I didn’t realize it would be that distracting."

"Very true, Hermione," Lupin aid as he patted her shoulder. "That’s one of the things that makes this spell so difficult. You’ll have to either get used to the movement, or learn to block out your discomfort."

"If only that were as simple as it sounds," Hermione commented as she joined the rest of the class to watch the next attempt.

"Well, Harry," Lupin began as Harry stepped up to try the spell, "are you feeling up to it?"

"I’ll give it a try, Professor," Harry said as he began to empty his mind as his occulmency training had taught him. "I don’t think I would be willing to put money on it if that’s what you’re asking?"

"No money needed," Lupin responded with a smile. "Just give it your best."

Harry raised his wand and began the prescribed motion as others had before him. He spoke the spell as he drew his wand back and the ball shimmered before him more rapidly than Neville’s had. He made a point to hold his concentration as he tried to make the orb disappear completely, but after several seconds of no further success, he lowered his wand and the object returned to its normal state.

"Magnificent work, Harry," Lupin said. "You’re nearly there. Your concentration was impressive."

"I tried to deepen it to make the ball disappear," Harry said sounding slightly disappointed at having come so close, "but it didn’t seem to work."

"Still," Lupin said, "don’t stop trying. You’re showing some real promise to be that far along so early."

"Thanks, Professor," Harry responded.

Ron stepped up into place as the last person in the class to take a turn. He worked hard to shut out the thought that everyone in the class was looking at him. He had never liked being under such close examination. He didn’t know how he was ever supposed to believe that he would be able to accomplish a magical feat that even Hermione failed to achieve.

As Ron gave up trying to shut out all other thoughts, and deciding that he would just get it over with; he began the spell. He performed the first part of the spell and was surprised to find that the wrist movement others had complained about was perfectly fine for him. He reasoned therefore, that he had done the entire movement wrong and was doomed to failure. This being the case, he felt his face flush as his concentration drifted from the silver object on the desk to his intense desire for everyone to stop looking at him.

Ron stood looking at the unchanged ball on the desk, but Lupin and the rest of the class gasped and took a step back as they looked at Ron. The actions of the class were too much to block out, so Ron lowered his wand and looked over at a wide-eyed, Professor Lupin.

"Sorry, Professor," Ron said as he reddened even further. "I did my best."

"Ron, it was miraculous," Lupin said. "How in the world did you do it?"

"Do what?" Ron asked as he noticed that the other students were as wide-eyed as Lupin.

"Don’t you know?" Lupin asked. "Instead of performing the spell on the orb, you somehow turned the spell on yourself. You completely disappeared for several seconds."

"What?" Ron asked, not believing what he was hearing.

"It’s true, Ron," Harry said as he came forward and placed his hand on Ron’s shoulder. "That was the most wicked thing I’ve ever seen in a class before."

"Is this some kind of joke?" Ron asked.

"Ron, it was brilliant," Hermione said. "You have to tell me how you did it."

"Indeed," Lupin said. "I think we would all be interested to hear about it."

Ron grinned in spite of himself. It had been a complete accident, but he may have just found the one thing that none of his family or friends were better at than he was. He couldn’t wait for his next chance to try it.


22
Harry's Busy Evening

Ginny walked through the portrait hole and scanned the Gryffindor common room before she quickly spotted Harry sitting in a chair near the fireplace, and bent over a book on the table in front of him. If she hadn’t seen it all week she never would have believed it. Harry Potter sticking closely to the study schedule Hermione had made out for him was something none of them ever would have expected to see. Yet, there he was, as he was every day, engrossed in a book with his quill ready to jot down anything useful he happened to run across.


"Sorry I’m late, Harry," Ginny said as she walked over to Harry’s chair. "I stayed after class to ask Professor Flitwick a couple of questions."


"That’s all right, Ginny," Harry said with a smile as he closed the book and pulled her into his lap for a hug. "I was just reading ahead in my Transfiguration book to see what we’ll be covering next week."


"Who would have ever thought that Tonks would be even more demanding than McGonagal was," Hermione said from a nearby couch with what seemed to be a contented smile.


"Don’t remind me," Ginny said with a tone of dread in her voice. "I still have to do about a kilometer worth of writing for her over the weekend."


"Then you and Harry can both spend your weekend writing," Hermione said. "Harry and Ron still have to write about memory potions for Slughorn."


"Actually," Harry said, "I’ve already finished that. I’d be happy to sit with you while you write though, Ginny."


"When would you have finished that?" Hermione asked not believing she had heard Harry correctly.


"Last night," Harry answered. "I had trouble going to sleep so I came back down here and started writing."


"I really think you should go and see Madam Pomfrey, Harry," Ginny said with concern. "You’ve had trouble sleeping nearly every night this week. You look perfectly exhausted in the mornings. I’m sure she could give you something that would help."


"I just have a lot on my mind right now," Harry said. "I don’t need a potion to get rid of those things. I’m sure things will be better next week."


"They had better be," Hermione warned. "If not, then we’ll be forced to get help for you whether you want it or not. I have enough to worry about just trying to keep Ron on track with his work."


"Speaking of Ron," Ginny began, "where is he?"


"I’ll give you three guesses," Hermione said with an exasperated tone.


Ginny grinned with understanding as she said, "Really, Ron. I thought you would have gotten tired of that by now. It’s been a full week. It isn’t nearly as impressive as it was a few days ago."


"You only say that because you can’t do it," Ron said with a wide grin as he popped back into the visible realm sitting next to Hermione. "Besides, Lupin wanted me to test how long I could hold it."


"Well I would say that twenty-five minutes is long enough for now," Hermione said. "If I could only get you to spend that much time on your memory potions writing, you might be done with it by morning."


"Well I don’t plan to stay up all night working on it like Harry," Ron said. "I don’t have any trouble sleeping at all."


"Then maybe you should practice your concealment charms at night before you go to bed," Hermione said as she glared at his stack of undisturbed books on the table in front of them. "You can use the time now to get as much work done as you can before dinner."


"But, Hermione…" Ron pleaded.


"I don’t want to hear it, Ron," Hermione said holding up a hand to cut him off. "You still haven’t started work on your Herbology assignment yet either. If you had been working on it like Harry, instead of playing around, you could afford to take a break."


Ron started to argue, but gave in instead, and picked up his Herbology book from the table. He knew better than to cross Hermione over something as simple as a bit of Herbology reading. Especially since he was counting on her help later on to complete his Potions assignment.


"Well, I’m going to use my free time to send out a couple of owls," Harry said. "Would you care to join me on a trip to the owlery, Miss Weasley?"


"I would be most pleased to accompany you, Mr. Potter," Ginny responded with a grin as she stood to let Harry up.


"Enough," Ron groaned as he placed his hands over his ears in a joking fashion. "I don’t know if I can take an entire year of this. You two have only been back at school for a week and you act more like silly lovebirds every day."


"Whatever does he mean, my sweet?" Harry asked as sickeningly charming as he could manage and still keep a straight face.


"I’m not sure, my love," Ginny responded as she put her arm through Harry’s. "Perhaps he is suffering from an acute case of keeping his own feelings for someone bottled up inside."


"You know," Harry said as they began to walk toward the portrait hole, "I think you might just be right."


Hermione watched Harry and Ginny walk out of the common room arm in arm before she turned to see a very red-faced Ron snap his attention to his Herbology book. Hermione had to smile. She was stubbornly content to wait Ron out about confessing his feelings for her, but she got the feeling that Harry and Ginny might not be so patient.


Harry and Ginny stood in the owlery and watched Hedwig fly out the window with Harry’s message to Cho. If she had a little less faith in Harry, Ginny might have been jealous. Of course it helped that he had let her read the message he was sending before he tied it to Hedwig’s leg. Far from romantic, the letter had been one inquiring about the security precautions he had suggested in a previous message for Cho and all of the other graduated D.A. members.


Harry walked back out onto the steps of the owlery and surveyed the school grounds leading down to the lake. Shortly his eyes fixed on the white tomb where Dumbledore had been laid to rest. A strange feeling gripped Harry. He felt the intense need to visit the tomb, even though he had already had a conversation with Dumbledore since his death in McGonagal’s office.


"What is it, Harry?" Ginny asked as she noticed the look on Harry’s face.


"Would you mind if we took a little detour before dinner?" Harry asked already knowing her answer.


"I wouldn’t mind at all," Ginny responded as she clung tighter to Harry. "I thought you might want to visit the tomb. I was just waiting until you were ready."


Harry and Ginny walked most of the way to the tomb in silence. Ginny could tell that Harry was wrestling with his thoughts and emotions, and thought it best to give him time to sort them out a bit.


"I don’t know why I’m bothering to go and see it," Harry said as he finally uttered what he had been thinking. "It isn’t like he’s really there. He’s sitting in a portrait in the Headmaster’s office. I had a lengthy conversation with him just a few nights ago. He isn’t in that tomb. I mean… Well, I guess his physical body is, but his spirit didn’t die with him."


"Still," Ginny said softly, "people are drawn to the graves of friends and family out of respect for the people they were, both physically and spiritually."


"I never really thought about visiting this tomb again after the funeral," Harry explained as they stopped close to the tomb. "I don’t know why, but when I saw it from the owlery I felt like I just had to come."


"You may just be more human than people give you credit for," Ginny said as she gripped tighter to Harry’s hand. "You don’t have to be the ‘Chosen One’ all the time. This is a time when you can just be Harry. There’s no rush. We can take all the time we need."


Harry looked at the tomb for several seconds before he reached out with his free hand and placed it on Dumbledore’s tomb. Nearly instantly, emotion erupted unchecked within Harry as tears sprang to his eyes. Sadness he had never acknowledged washed over him as he felt the cold hard stone, and thought about Dumbledore lying within it. His Headmaster, his mentor, his friend had been taken from him. His spirit was eternally locked inside a painting that Harry could speak to, but the physical presence Harry had come to rely on so heavily was gone forever.


Harry pulled his hand from the tomb and turned to pull Ginny into a tight embrace as he continued to sob uncontrollably. She held on to Harry and did her best to comfort him over the minutes that followed. Harry had calmed considerably by the time they both heard the sound of a nose being blown nearby. They turned to see Hagrid with an enormous handkerchief attempting to wipe away his own tears.


"Still can’t believe he’s gone," Hagrid said with a sniffle. "Hogwarts just ain’t the same without ‘im."


"Have you had a chance to speak to his portrait yet, Hagrid?" Ginny asked.


"No," Hagrid said as he walked a few steps closer. "McGonagal offered, but I jus’ don’t think I could take it. He was the only one ever believed in me."


"That isn’t true, Hagrid," Harry said as he wiped away the last of his own tears. "I wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t come to get me for my first year. You were the first wizard I really met. I’ve never stopped believing in you."


"Thanks, Harry," Hagrid said with a smile. "That means a lot com’n from some’n who has so many believin’ in ‘im."


Ginny was just about to respond when noticed something move just inside the shadows of the forbidden forest.


"What is it, Ginny?" Harry asked as he noticed the look on her face.


"I thought I saw something move inside the forest," Ginny responded still looking off in the distance. "It looked like the tail of a centaur."


"Wouldn’t be surprised," Hagrid said not sounding too concerned. "Been stalkin’ round jus’ inside the forest since you all returned."


"What are they doing?" Harry asked.


"No idea," Hagrid answered. "Asked ‘em myself, but they don’t seem to want to say. Only thing they asked was if you’d come back, Harry."


"Why would the centaurs be interested in whether I returned or not?" Harry asked.


"Have you told anyone else about this, Hagrid?" Ginny asked concerned.


"Told McGonagal," Hagrid replied. "Thought she would’ve told ya by now."


"Did she, Harry?" Ginny asked suspecting Harry might have left out more information about his meeting with her.


"No," Harry responded. "This is the first I’ve heard of it."


"Well, I don’t think it’s something she should have kept from you," Ginny said. "Centaurs don’t take much interest in human affairs normally. The fact that they asked about you specifically doesn’t bode well. They’re up to something."


"I’ll be fine as long as they stay in the forest," Harry said as he continued to peer into the shadows of the forest. "It looks like just one of them anyway. Maybe they just want to leave a guard at the edge of the forest to make sure I don’t come into the forest again."


"How do you know there is only one?" Ginny asked. "I can’t see any of them at all, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there."

"Fred and George modified my glasses for me," Harry explained. "I can see him even if he stands in the shadows. He’s just standing there watching me. I have half a mind to just walk over and ask him what he wants."


"You’ll do nothin’ of the sort," Hagrid said as he stepped in front of Harry. "I’ll not see ya take a chance like that. Centaurs are not creatures to be taken lightly. Ginny, take Harry back to the castle. I’ll deal with the Centaur."


"But Hagrid…" Harry began.


"I’ll not let you past me, Harry," Hagrid interrupted. "Couldn’t take it if somethin’ happened to ya. Wouldn’t be able to live with myself."


"Hagrid is right, Harry," Ginny said as she pulled Harry gently. "We need to get back to the castle to tell Hermione and Ron."


"Fine," Harry relented as he looked back to Hagrid. "Watch yourself, Hagrid. The Centaurs haven’t exactly been friendly with you over the past couple of years.


Hagrid waited until Harry and Ginny were close to the castle before he turned and walked back toward the spot Harry had been looking at in the forest.


"That is close enough, Hagrid," Magorian said as Hagrid reached the tree line of the forest.

"How've ya been, Magorian?" Hagrid asked as he came to a stop.
"That 's not the question you came here to ask," Magorian said with a hint of irritation. "You want to know why we are patrolling the border of the forest."


"Actually, I was wonerin’ what you want with Harry," Hagrid corrected.


"You only assume it is Harry Potter we are interested in," Magorian said. "We watch all who get near the forest."


"That’s not what Orlef asked about the firs’ nigh’ Harry came back," Hagrid charged.


"Orlef is one of the few among us who has a fascination with Harry Potter," Magorian explained.


"Centaurs are terrible liars, Magorian," Hagrid said. "Even without bein’ able to see yur face it’s as plain as can be."


"Centaurs are not well suited to being insulted either, Hagrid," Magorian said angrily as he turned to walk away. "Remember that the next time you wish to enter the forest."


"Well of course I’m going to be concerned, Harry," Hermione said as she forgot all about the book in her lap. "You know as well as I do how dangerous the Centaurs could be to a person if they chose to be."


"Well I’ll be sure to stay a fair distance from the forest then," Harry said. "I doubt they would risk coming onto the school grounds to try anything. The Ministry would send people into the forest to hunt them down if they attacked a student. Whatever they are, the Centaurs are not stupid."


"Just the opposite actually," Hermione said. "They have enough skill and cunning to rival any wizard, especially when they act as a group."


"Of course all of this may be nothing," Ron observed. "They may not be up to anything at all."


"Well you’re no help," Ginny said as she burned a hole in Ron with her stare.


"I don’t need help," Harry said with a grin. "I need dinner. Isn’t anyone else hungry yet?"


"I’m starving, mate," Ron confirmed as he stood up.


"Why do boys always say they’re hungry when they want to change the subject?" Hermione asked.


"Because they usually are," Harry said. "It comes in handy on occasion."


"Fine," Ginny said. "We’ll go get something to eat. Then you’re going to talk to McGonagal about the Centaurs. I’m willing to bet she knows something more about what they might be after. If you don’t then I will."


"I’ll be seeing her in the morning anyway," Harry pointed out. "I’ll bet she’s already forgotten about agreeing to let me into Snape’s office."


"I wish you would forget about it as well, Harry," Hermione said as they made their way to the portrait hole. "Stop torturing yourself. What are you going to find that McGonagal and the Ministry couldn’t?"


"I don’t know," Harry answered. "I just have to know for myself."


Once in the Great Hall, it didn’t take long for Harry to notice that things were different. Usually, the food was already waiting for them on the tables by the time dinner was supposed to start. As it was, Harry was about five minutes late, and everyone in the Great Hall sat at tables devoid of anything to eat.


Harry and the others took a seat as McGonagal walked to her place at the teachers’ table and said, "As you all have noticed, dinner is being delayed a bit tonight. I have news to share with all of you before dinner begins. Though it has never been the custom at Hogwarts to accept students after school has begun, a decision has been made to relax that rule in light of current events outside the school. I have been in communication with the governors of the school as well as parents who have changed their minds about sending their children to Hogwarts since the beginning of the week. At this time please welcome back all of the ones who have been students here before."


Everyone in the Hall turned to see many students walk in the door and begin making their way to their respective house tables. The students received warm enthusiastic welcomes from their houses. Harry was pleased to see that the Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff tables were nearly back to their full strength. Turning to look behind him, he saw that the Slytherin table had swelled to about half of its usual number.


It didn’t take long for Harry’s gaze to center on Theodore Nott sitting on the far side of the Slytherin table in a seat that had previously placed him far away from his own house mates. The new arrivals apparently didn’t take his desire for separation into account when picking their seats, and Harry could see that Nott was becoming increasingly uncomfortable as his safety zone eroded around him.


McGonagal next called for the seven new first years to come forward for their sorting. Just as she had in the ceremony at the beginning of the year, Tonks escorted the wide-eyed students up the isle. Minutes later, Ravenclaw had welcomed one new house member, Hufflepuff accepted two new students into its ranks, and Slytherin astonished everyone by claiming the remaining four students. Gryffindor was the only house that failed to add any new students to its numbers. Of course, it had led by far in the acquisition of new students at the first sorting.


The feast appeared on the tables shortly after the last student took her seat. Harry began to load his plate until Hermione motioned for him to look behind him. Harry turned in time to see Theodore Nott stand and begin walking for the exit looking shaken.


"What do you think he’s up to?" Ron asked.


"I think things just got too claustrophobic for him at the Slytherin table," Harry answered quietly as he quickly finished filling his plate before reaching for another one to fill.


"What are you doing, Harry?" Ginny asked. "Don’t you want to finish the first one before you make another?"








"The second one isn’t for me," Harry said as he reached for the mashed potatoes. "I told Pritchard I would have a talk with Nott. This seems like as good a time as any to do it."








"You have to be joking," Hermione said. "He left here because he didn’t want to be near his own house mates. What make you think he’ll be willing to be near you?"








"Well I am taking a peace offering," Harry said with a grin as he stood with the two plates.








"I’ll go with you," Ginny offered.








"No," Harry said. "It’ll be hard enough getting him to talk with just me there. You stay here, but come looking for me if I don’t come back within twenty minutes."








"But you don’t even know where he’s gone off to," Hermione said. "He could be anywhere."








"Did you see the look on his face?" Harry asked. "He looked like he was having trouble breathing. I’m betting he went to get some air."








"But, Harry," Ginny protested, "the centaurs…"








"I’ll stay away from the Forbidden Forest," Harry said as he began to walk away. "Don’t worry."








"Why does he always say that?" Ginny asked as she watched Harry walk away. "He has to know that it only makes me worry more."








"I don’t think you have to worry," Hermione said indicating the seemingly empty space next to her where Ron had been sitting. "He’ll have someone watching after him whether he likes it or not."








"Keep a very close eye on him for me, Ron," Ginny said.








"I will," Ron’s disembodied voice said from above and behind Hermione.








Harry walked out the front doors of the castle and scanned the grounds for Nott. He spotted him walking down to the shore of the lake, and set after him trying to think of exactly what he was going to say.








Nott stood on the shore of the lake watching the moonlight reflect off of the waves, but as he tried to regain the composure he had lost inside the Great Hall, he heard the sound of someone approaching, and he turned and asked, "What are you doing here, Potter?"








"I saw you leave the Great Hall before you had a chance to eat anything," Harry said as he held out a plate of food to Nott. "I just brought some out to you."








"Why?" Nott asked not taking the offered plate. "I never said I wanted any food or any company."








"Well you have both now," Harry said. "You can refuse the food if you want, but I need to have a talk with you, so you’re stuck with me."








"I don’t have to stay here," Nott said. "I could go back inside."








"You could," Harry admitted as he sat down with the two plates on the grass. "It will be better if you stay here and talk with me though. There are others wanting to talk to you who may not be as nice about it as I am."

"What are you talking about?" Nott asked. "No one is after me."








"Then you should open your eyes," Harry stated. "They already talked to me about it, and I convinced them to hold off until I spoke to you."








"You don’t scare me, Potter," Nott said. "I haven’t done anything to make anyone take notice of me."








"Haven’t you?" Harry asked. "Are you aware that every other member of your house that started the year here has a shield up around their houses now to keep the death eaters out?"








"So what?" Nott demanded. "I have reasons for not wanting your shield on my house."








"I know," Harry said as he took a bite of buttered bread. "I told them as much, but they still aren’t convinced."








"Then it won’t do any good to talk to you about it," Nott said.








"Did you know that they think you came back to school as a spy for the death eaters?" Harry said as Nott turned to leave.








"I am not a spy," Nott spat emphatically as he turned back toward Harry with rage burning in his eyes.








"Then I suggest you sit down and have a bite to eat while we try to find a way to convince your fellow Slytherin of that," Harry said.








"Maybe it’s just you who thinks I’m a spy," Nott said as he took a step closer.








"I don’t sit down to eat with people I think are spies," Harry said gesturing to the other plate of food he had set on the grass. "I’m asking you to convince me that I’m right about you so that I can go back and convince your house mates."








"Why bother?" Nott asked. "If they want to know they can ask me themselves."








"Forgive me," Harry said, "but you aren’t exactly known as being the most conversational person in Slytherin. They’re suspicious enough already to skip the questions and move straight to dealing with someone they view as a threat to their safety."








"Do you expect me to believe that the other Slytherin have appointed you of all people as their negotiator?" Nott asked.








"I volunteered," Harry responded. "I may not be friends with them, but we’ve come to an understanding lately due to the shields I’ve put on their houses to protect their families."








"The fact that I don’t want one should be plainly obvious to them," Nott said. "They all know that my dad is a death eater."








"You know," Harry said as he finished chewing a piece of chicken, "I had my parents house rebuilt over the summer. I researched and found the original designs, and I had it rebuilt exactly the way it was before Voldemort destroyed it."








"I read about it in the Prophet," Nott said. "Why are you telling me all of this?"








"The first night I was there I caught myself looking at the front door periodically," Harry explained. "As silly as it was, I waited, and I hoped, that my parents would somehow walk back through the door now that they had a home to come back to. You have no idea what I would have given to see them walk through that door one more time. I would never expect any less of you. Your dad may be a death eater, but he’s still your dad."








Nott stood looking at Harry for several seconds as he thought about his words. As much as he knew he should distance himself from Harry as much as possible, he found himself being drawn in by a common bond he realized they shared. Harry understood the way he felt about his father more deeply than he ever would have imagined.








"He wasn’t always a death eater," Nott heard himself say. "Deep down, he’s still the good man he was before Voldemort forced him into his service."








"So he didn’t join willingly?" Harry asked softly.








"No," Nott answered as he found himself sitting down in front of the plate Harry had brought to him. "He was happy when everyone thought you had gotten rid of Voldemort. He was free to live his life the way he really wanted to live it. Even the Ministry didn’t put him in Azkaban after he explained to them how he had been forced to join the death eaters."








"I’m sorry I didn’t really get rid of Voldemort the first time," Harry said.








"You couldn’t have known," Nott said. "You were as young as I was at the time."








"I guess you’re right," Harry conceded.








After a long silence, Nott asked, "Can you do it this time? Can you defeat him for good this time?"








"I don’t know," Harry answered as he looked out at the water and thought about how many horcruxes he still had to find. "I’ll give him the best I have. By that time, I hope it’s enough."








"Harry," Nott said with a slight pause, "if you should come up against my dad…"








"I can’t promise anything," Harry said. "I don’t have any way of knowing what the situation might be at the time."








"Thanks," Nott said, believing that Harry really would try not to seriously harm his dad if he could avoid it.








"I’ll let the others know to leave you alone," Harry said as he stood up with his plate. "Thanks for taking the time to talk to me."








"Thanks for the food," Nott said as Harry turned to walk away, "cousin."








Harry stopped and turned to look at Nott before he asked, "Cousin? Why do you say that?"








"I guess you don’t really know," Nott said with a friendly grin. "My mum was a Jewkes. My grandmother was a Crawley, and her mum before her was a Potter. I don’t know how far removed we are exactly, but in some form we’re cousins."








Harry smiled at the unexpected news as he said, "Well it’s always nice to meet another member of the family, even if I don’t know very many others."








"It isn’t something I’ve ever wanted to acknowledge before," Nott confessed. "You had better hurry back to the castle before you drag something else out of me."








"Have a good night, cousin," Harry said smiling as he turned around and walked back toward the castle. "See, Ron. I told you all I would be fine."








"How did you know?" Ron asked as he became visible again and caught up with Harry.








"The grass is wet," Harry said. "You can clearly see three sets of tracks coming from the castle."








"I’ll have to work on that," Ron admitted. "I wouldn’t be too impressed with that whole cousin business if I were you. There are very few wizarding families that aren’t related to every other wizarding family at some point in their history."








"I know," Harry acknowledged. "It just struck me while he was talking to me, that I don’t really know that much about my own family beyond my mum and dad. I’m going to have to look into that when I get some free time."


23
Lies, Question, Monster

"He’ll be fine," Ron said as he and Ginny emerged from the steps to the boys’ dormitories into the Gryffindor common room. "I would have thought you would be used to that by now. He’s been hard to wake up nearly every morning since we got back to school."


"Well he told me to make sure he was up this morning," Ginny said. "Not that I would mind letting him sleep, but he would never forgive me if I did. He’s so determined to get a look at Snape’s office."


"How did he look this time?" Hermione asked as she walked over and joined the conversation.


"The same as always," Ginny confirmed. "He looked as though he hadn’t gotten any sleep all night."


"I really think we need to take him to Madam Pomfrey whether he wants to go or not," Hermione said.


"You two are overreacting," Ron charged. "He always looks better and more refreshed after he’s had a shower."


"There was nothing in that bath set I gave him that should have that effect though," Hermione countered. "I’ve been looking into potions all week that could make a person feel rested so quickly, and nothing I’ve found so far would come close to matching the nearly instant results Harry is getting. Besides, most of them have some rather severe side effects that would have been easily noticeable."


"What does it matter?" Ron asked. "He’s apparently getting enough sleep. He hasn’t had any trouble making it through the day during the last week."


"Is that Harry you’re talking about?" Dean asked after overhearing from the sofa.


"Yes," Ginny confirmed. "Have you noticed it as well?"


"Not really," Dean said. "I haven’t been paying that much attention to it in the mornings. At least I didn’t until today. I didn’t get a close look at him as he ran through here this morning, but he looked more exhausted than usual."


"What are you talking about?" Ginny asked. "How could he have run through here this morning? He’s still in bed. I just woke him up."


"That may be," Dean commented, "but I think I know Harry when I see him. He came through the portrait hole and ran straight up the stairs. It couldn’t have been more than an hour ago."


"So that’s why he always seems so groggy in the morning when he first wakes up," Hermione observed. "He’s been sneaking out during the night to do who knows what."


"I should have known," Ginny said as her temper began to flare. "I can’t believe I was feeling sorry for him all this time."


"You shouldn’t jump to conclusions, Ginny," Ron warned. "We may have the wrong idea about why he was out this morning."


"Oh, come off it, Ron," Ginny seethed. "What other possibility is there when Harry is involved?"


"We still don’t know how it is that he’s managing to recover so quickly," Hermione pointed out.


"Keep looking," Ginny said as she turned for the stairs. "You’ll find a potion for it sooner or later."


"Where are you going?" Hermione asked as Ginny reached the bottom step.


"Where do you think?" Ginny asked with fire burning in her eyes. "I’m going to ask Harry what he’s up to."


"Ginny…" Ron began.


"Don’t you dare get in my way, Ron," Ginny warned strongly enough to render Ron speechless. "I’m going to get to the bottom of this, and I don’t want anyone to interfere. This may get ugly."


Ginny bolted up the steps and never slowed down as she flung the door open as she walked into his dormitory. Harry jumped in surprise as he resisted the urge to dive for his wand on the bedside table after he recognized who it was. Ginny looked at a wide eyed Harry as he stood there still glistening with water covered only from the waist down with a crimson towel. He was still holding the bath set Hermione had given him in his right hand.


"Ginny…" Harry uttered half in confusion and half in alarm. "What’s happened?"


"You tell me," Ginny shot back angrily.


"Uh… Okay," Harry said trying to figure out what Ginny was so upset about.


"Did you have a nice shower?" Ginny asked. "I suppose you smell like a quidditch pitch again."


"If you don’t like the smell then just say so," Harry said. "I’ll use something else."


"There are some things that stink so bad that you can’t cover them up for long," Ginny spat.


"What?" Harry asked more confused than ever.


"Oh come off it, Harry," Ginny charged. "I know you’ve been sneaking out at night. That’s the reason you always seem so exhausted."


"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Harry said.


"Don’t stand there and tell me you haven’t been, Harry," Ginny said as tears came to her eyes. "Dean saw you come back into the common room this morning."


Harry looked back into Ginny’s tearing eyes and nearly choked as he fought to uphold the promise he had made to her father, before he said, "That’s impossible. It couldn’t have been me."


"You’re the best known person in the school, Harry," Ginny screamed. "Don’t try to convince me that this is a case of mistaken identity."


"I don’t know what to tell you, Ginny," Harry lied. "I don’t remember leaving my bed until you came to wake me up this morning."


"Are you trying to convince me you were sleep walking?" Ginny asked as her blood boiled even more.


"I’m not trying to convince you of anything," Harry said as his heart twisted even more. "I’m just trying to figure out why it is that I’m standing here in a towel talking about doing things I don’t remember doing."


"Right," Ginny said, obviously not believing him. "So what kind of potion are you using to wake yourself up in the mornings? Don’t tell me it’s the soap in that bath set. Hermione already told me there was nothing in it to have that kind of effect on you."


"I’m not taking a potion," Harry said thankful that he could finally make at least one true statement.


"You’re just full of denials today, Harry," Ginny said. "You’ll excuse me if I don’t believe you. You must have more of it hidden here somewhere."


Ginny began to rummage through Harry’s things in his open trunk, tossing nearly its entire contents onto the floor without finding what she was looking for. She stood and brushed past Harry on her way to his bedside table. She pulled the drawer out and dumped its contents onto the bed. Ginny looked under the bed, and found nothing. She reached her hand under his mattress and swept it but did not find anything.


A lump formed in Harry’s throat as he watched Ginny stand and begin surveying the surface of the bed. He knew she was close to finding something that he did not want found, and he could see that she wouldn’t stop until she looked in the place it was hidden. He applied all of his concentration to the object under his pillow and prayed that his recent late night training would prove as effective in the real world as it had in the room of requirement.


Ginny lifted Harry’s pillow and tossed it aside, before she gave a frustrated sigh. She looked up to see the look of stunned disbelief on Harry’s face as he stared at his possessions strewn about the bed. Seeing the look on his face made something in her extinguish part of the fire that had been driving her actions. Something about the ridiculous image of Harry standing nearly naked in front of her while she unceremoniously tossed his every belonging into disarray suddenly seemed funny. She was unable to stop the slight giggle before it escaped her.


"Oh, I don’t believe it," Harry said as he grinned at Ginny. "All of this was a joke?"


"No, Harry," Ginny said calmer than she had been before. "You look ridiculous standing there watching me, but it isn’t a joke. Dean really did see you walk through the common room about an hour ago."


Harry thought for several seconds before he asked, "Did I have my broom with me when he saw me?"


Ginny shot Harry a questioning look as she said, "I don’t know. Dean didn’t mention it."


"Hmm," Harry said as he continued to think.


"Why did you want to know?" Ginny asked.


"Because the only dream I remember was of going out to fly my broom," Harry said. "So far, the sleepwalking theory is the best one I have to work with. I’ve never been prone to sleepwalking before though. Maybe you and Hermione are right. Maybe I should go to see Madam Pomfrey."


"Really?" Ginny asked hopefully. "Would you do that?"


"If it will make you feel better," Harry said. "I’m sorry. I know how upset you must have been to cause this much damage."


"I told you that you’d have to put up with me and my red-haired temper," Ginny said. "Are you sure you still want to?"


"Without a doubt," Harry said with a smile. "Besides, the occasional outburst should keep things interesting if they’re anything like this one."


"Well, I wouldn’t want you to get bored," Ginny said as Harry grabbed his pillow at the end of the bed and tossed it back to its original position. "I’ll help you clean all of this up."


"Don’t worry about it," Harry said as he took a step closer to Ginny. "I think this would be a good time for you to go back down and find Ron and Hermione."


"Why is that?" Ginny asked as she suddenly noticed the twinkle in Harry’s eyes.


"Because you catch me at what you might call a disadvantage," Harry said with a smile as he looked down at his towel. "I am a teenage boy you know. That temper of yours seems to have produced a bit of… extra adrenaline in me this morning."


"Oh!" Ginny exclaimed with sudden understanding. "Is that such a bad thing?"


"Considering the circumstances, I would say so," Harry reasoned. "Remember where we are. It isn’t going to take long for Ron and Hermione to come looking for us."


"I guess you’re right," Ginny sighed. "Even if we sealed the door, Hermione would know a way to unseal it."


"Besides," Harry said, "I don’t think I could look your mum in the eye if I didn’t wait until we were married."


"I had no idea you were so traditional about those things, Harry," Ginny said with a blush. "I’m actually glad to hear that you feel that way. Not that waiting will be easy mind you."


"Oh, I know," Harry said as he willed himself to take a step back to make room for her to go past him.


Ginny walked slowly toward the open door, and turned in the doorway to look back at Harry as she said, "I’ll wait downstairs. I’m really sorry about the mess. I was just so…"


"Beautiful," Harry interrupted as he gazed longingly at her.


Ginny smiled as she realized how wrong she had been about Harry and said, "I’ll wait downstairs."


"You’ve already said that," Harry pointed out.


"I guess I have," Ginny said as she started to close the door. "Don’t be long."


As soon as the door had closed, Harry let out a sigh of relief. If he hadn’t perfected his wordless wandless concealment charm just the night before, his training advantage would have been discovered under his pillow. Even if Ginny hadn’t known what it was, Hermione would certainly have been able to identify it. Harry knew he was going to have to find a more secure hiding place.


Harry turned suddenly as someone cleared his throat and Neville asked, "Is it safe to come out now?"


"Of course, Neville," Harry said, as a pajama clad Neville appeared from behind the hangings of his bed.


"I wasn’t trying to listen," Neville said apologetically. "I couldn’t help but overhear. I didn’t think it would be polite to interrupt."


"It’s fine, Neville," Harry assured. "She wasn’t in any mood to check to see if anyone else was still here. To tell the truth I don’t know if it would have stopped her anyway."


Ginny walked back into the common room in a dreamy state as she remembered how badly she had wanted to run to Harry and wrap her arms around his bare waist. She could imagine smelling the fresh aroma his bath soap had left behind as she laid her head on his exposed well-developed chest. She continued to fantasize as she plopped herself down in an armchair to wait.


"Well that certainly isn’t the look I expected to see on your face when you got back," Ron said from the sofa opposite her. "What exactly happened between you two."


"I may have overreacted just a bit," Ginny confessed as she drifted almost unwillingly into the present.


"Well he certainly did something to you to make you act like this," Ron observed. "You went up those stairs ready to kill him."


"The thought did cross my mind briefly when I first got there," Ginny explained. "I confronted him with what Dean told us right away, and he denied knowing anything about it. Of course that only made me more angry. I even accused him of using a potion to wake himself up in the mornings. Of course, he denied that too. I made a real wreck of his things when I searched through his trunk and bedside drawer. He’s probably up there cleaning it all up right now. I was so mad that I checked everywhere he might be hiding anything. Then I turned around, and I just lost it. I saw him standing there in his towel looking so confused about what I was doing."


"In his towel?" Hermione asked suspecting what might have made Ginny’s attitude change so suddenly.


"He had just come back from the shower," Ginny said with a grin. "He was still holding his bath set. Oh, he was gorgeous standing there still glistening with water. How could I stay mad at him?"


"Stop!" Ron exclaimed. "I didn’t need to know that!"


"I think he was telling the truth," Ginny said ignoring Ron. "I really don’t think he remembers going out last night. He may have been sleepwalking or something. I think he’s finally realized that he has a problem. He even suggested that he should go and see Madam Pomfrey."


"Really?" Hermione asked intrigued. "You didn’t force him into it?"


"No," Ginny responded. "He suggested it all on his own."


"Well he must be as worried as you say then," Hermione said. "Wanting to go to the hospital wing isn’t like him at all."


"I’m really sorry if anything I said caused problems between you and Harry, Ginny," Dean said as he walked closer to her chair.


"No harm done, Dean," Ginny responded. "By the way, did Harry have his broom with him when he came through here by any chance?"


"No," Dean said. "I didn’t notice that he had anything with him."


"Why in the world would you ask that?" Ron asked.


"Never mind," Ginny said with a smile. "I just had to check."


Later that morning, after breakfast and a lengthy visit in the hospital wing, Ginny walked arm in arm with Harry as she escorted him to Professor Lupin’s office. She was pleased that Harry’s medical exam had been so thorough, though she almost wished Madam Pomfrey had been able to find something wrong with him. While pronouncing him as fit as she had ever seen him, she seemed greatly concerned with his apparent sleepwalking episode. To deal with it, she gave him a potion to take just before bed that smelled faintly of vanilla.


"Are you sure you still want to do this, Harry?" Ginny asked.


"Of course I am," Harry answered with a grin. "I have to do it sooner or later."


"I just thought you might want to wait a while," Ginny said. "You could do it next week. You have had a pretty stressful first week after all."


"If this is going to cause me any more stress, then I should get it over with as soon as possible," Harry explained, knowing that Ginny wouldn’t agree with his reasoning.


Ginny knew that arguing the point with Harry was a lost cause, so she bit her tongue and kept quiet as they turned the last corner before coming to Lupin’s door. Harry was just about to knock when the door opened and Lupin nearly ran into him on his way out.


"Harry!" Lupin exclaimed as he stopped. "Are you all right?"


Harry noticed Tonks just inside Lupin’s office behind him as he said, "Of course. Madam Pomfrey said I was in fantastic shape."


"Oh," Lupin said. "Professor Tonks told me that you had been taken to the hospital wing."


"News travels fast around here," Harry observed. "Anyway, I wasn’t taken to the hospital wing. I went there on my own. I’ve apparently been having trouble sleeping."


"Well that’s good," Lupin said. "I mean it’s good that is all it was."


"Are you free now for a while?" Harry asked.


"Well, I can be if you need me for something," Lupin responded.


"It’s Saturday," Harry said hoping Lupin would remember. "Professor McGonagal agreed to let me into Snape’s old office on Saturdays as long as you were there to supervise."


"Surely you don’t still want to do that," Lupin said as he stepped further into the hallway and Tonks came out behind him.


"I can assure you that I do," Harry said. "It was one of the conditions of my returning to Hogwarts."


"After all that’s happened, I don’t know if Professor McGonagal will be inclined to honor that agreement right now," Tonks said.


"Then I’ll start packing my things today," Harry warned as he felt Ginny tense next to him. "There are other ways for me to find the answers I’m looking for."


"Easy there, Harry," Lupin said. "Let’s not be making plans for your departure just yet. We understand perfectly well what it means to us to have you here. You can rest assured that you’ll get into Snape’s office, though I can’t imagine why you would want to, or what you expect to find."


A half hour later, with Ginny gone back to the common room, and after a brief argument with the Headmistress, Harry stood near the door to Snape’s office as McGonagal waved her wand and uttered incantations under her breath so that Harry could not hear them. When she was through, she gave a stern look to both Harry and Lupin before she turned and walked away without saying a word.


"Well that went better than expected," Harry observed once she was out of sight.


"Don’t be so sure," Lupin warned with a wary look. "I think she’s still smarting from that verbal whipping you gave her in her office. It won’t take her long to recover from it though. Whatever it is you’re looking for in Snape’s office had better be worth it. She’ll be as immovable as the castle walls by the next time you ask her for something else like this."


"Then we had better get to looking around before she changes her mind about letting me in this time," Harry said as he pushed the door open.


A stale stench hit them both as they stepped into the open doorway. Whatever perishable ingredients Snape had left out had become rancid sealed in the room over the summer.


"Maybe Professor McGonagal shouldn’t have sealed this room quite so well," Harry said as his eyes began to tear from the thick stinging smell. "A little ventilation could have gone a long way."


"How did I get volunteered for this duty?" Lupin asked as he fought the urge to retch. "I hope you plan on making this quick, Harry."


Harry began searching the office visually looking for anything that seemed out of place while Lupin watched from a position close to the door. That Harry could tell, everything was in its place. The items floating in the jars continued to float. An extra cloak remained hung on a hook near the door. Books were filed neatly on the shelves, and a stack of half graded papers were pushed to one side of Snape’s desk.


"Are you satisfied yet?" Lupin asked after sticking his head out the door for a breath of fresh air.


"The smell isn’t bothering me nearly as much now," Harry insisted. "I think the worst of it has vented into the hallway by now."


"If you say so," Lupin said not sounding convinced. "Harry, if there were anything to find in here, it would have been found already. The Ministry went over everything in the office looking for some kind of evidence, and even they couldn’t find anything."


"Something just doesn’t seem right," Harry said as he continued to scan the room. "I feel it now even more than I did before I came in here."


"It’s your imagination, Harry," Lupin ventured. "You want to find something in here so badly that your mind is creating feelings that don’t really exist."


"That’s a theory with no proof one way or the other," Harry pointed out. "We could stand here all day arguing the point, but, real or otherwise, I have a feeling."


"Fine," Lupin conceded as he fell into silence.


Having nothing else to go on, Harry began to think about the last night Snape was in the office. Professor Flitwick had come into the office to inform Snape of the death eater invasion. Snape had knocked Flitwick out, and then Snape left the office for the last time. He left the office for the last time without taking anything with him, yet leaving nothing behind for anyone to find.


Harry walked behind Snape’s desk and surveyed the neat stack of papers on one side, and he looked at the books in their place on the shelf, and a question formed in his mind.


"Where exactly did Professor Flitwick say Snape was in the office when he walked in?" Harry asked.


"If memory serves me correctly," Lupin said checking his memory momentarily, "Snape was sitting down at his desk."


"Why?" Harry asked.


"What?" Lupin asked not understanding what Harry was asking.


"Why was he sitting at his desk?" Harry elaborated. "Dumbledore had told the other Order members in the castle to patrol the hallways that night. Why would Snape have been sitting in here at his desk while everyone else was watching for trouble?"


"Well, I don’t know," Lupin admitted. "Perhaps he was finishing up some grading before going out to the hallways."


"I don’t think so," Harry said. "Look at the papers on his desk. They’re all in one pile, but only half of them have been graded. When you grade papers, do you keep the graded ones in the same stack as the ones you haven’t graded?"


"Well, no but…" Lupin began.


"The only reason he would have put them together is if he had been grading them previously, and set them aside to finish later," Harry pointed out. "I seriously doubt he would have put that much thought into it if Professor Flitwick had just run in to say that death eaters were attacking."


"I’ll give you that," Lupin conceded, "but that only proves that he wasn’t grading papers."


"So that brings us back to what he was doing," Harry said as his mind raced with thoughts.


"Maybe he was reading," Lupin suggested.


"We’re back to the same problem," Harry said. "If he was, then the book should still be on the desk or the floor near the desk. He had just stunned Professor Flitwick. I don’t think he would have taken the time to re-shelve a book just before he ran into battle."


"Maybe he was already putting it away when Professor Flitwick came in," Lupin said.


"But he wasn’t," Harry said shaking his head as he pulled the desk chair back and sat down behind the desk. "We already know from Professor Flitwick that Snape was sitting at his desk. He wasn’t grading papers, and he wasn’t reading a book. He was just sitting behind his desk."


"But why?" Lupin asked.


"Exactly," Harry said with a grin. "If we can figure that out, we may be closer to finding out just how much Snape knew about what was going to happen that night."


"We theorized before that he didn’t know death eaters were in the castle until Professor Flitwick informed him," Lupin reminded Harry.


"I would tend to agree," Harry said. "If he had known, then there would only be one reason why he would be sitting in his office. He would have been expecting to stay in here and stay away from the fight in order to maintain an appearance of loyalty to Dumbledore. The problem with that is that, whatever else Snape may be, he isn’t stupid. He would have realized that someone would come to get him once death eaters were discovered. He would have known it was a fight he wouldn’t be able to stay out of."


"So," Lupin began, "he didn’t know death eaters were going to attack that night, and he sat here in his office doing who knows what."


"I’m beginning to see a recurring cycle in this discussion," Harry said with a grin. "So Snape sat in his office, not knowing that death eaters would attack, but he made a decision as soon as Professor Flitwick told him about the situation to change sides and join the death eaters. It just doesn’t make sense. I already said that Snape wasn’t stupid. He wouldn’t change sides so quickly if he didn’t have any way of knowing that the death eaters would win the fight. It could just as easily have gone the other way. The Order could have captured all of the death eaters and Snape would have shown his true colors too soon to explain his way out of it again. Even Dumbledore wouldn’t have believed him again after that."


"Speaking of that," Lupin observed, "I wonder if there is still something Dumbledore hasn’t revealed about that night to Professor McGonagal. It wouldn’t prove to be the first time Dumbledore’s portrait left out bits of information unless directly questioned by her about it."


"I would say she’s beginning to learn how I’ve felt for years," Harry said with another grin.


Lupin gave a grin of his own as he realized how vindicated Harry must have been feeling, and he said, "I should probably make Professor McGonagal aware of these new questions you’ve raised, Harry. That is, if there isn’t anything else you wanted to look at in here right now."


"I guess not," Harry said. "I can always come back next week if I need to look for anything else. I’ll go with you to talk to Professor McGonagal."


"You’ll do nothing of the sort," Lupin said holding up his hand. "Have you forgotten that look on her face after she unsealed the door? I wouldn’t advise you getting anywhere near her for a while. At least, not until I’ve had a chance to explain all of this to her and make her see that it may have been a good idea to let you in here after all."


"Good idea," Harry realized. "That will give me time to go back and tell Hermione, Ginny and Ron about this. Maybe they’ll be able to come up with explanations we haven’t thought of yet."


"You go ahead and find your friends," Lupin suggested. "I’ll wait here for McGonagal to come back."


"I thought you were in a hurry to get away from this smell," Harry observed. "How is she going to know we’re done?"


"Just head back to your common room," Lupin said. "You’ll see."


"If you insist," Harry said on his way to the door. "Thanks for giving up some of your time for me today, Professor."


"It was my pleasure," Lupin said. "It only altered my plans today slightly."


It was only after Harry had left the room that he suddenly became curious as to what plans Lupin might have had. He was still thinking about it when he rounded a corner only to find Tonks leaning against the wall ahead of him.


"Did you find anything interesting, Harry?" Tonks asked in a friendly tone of curiosity.


"Nothing physical anyway," Harry remarked with a grin. "The Ministry was very thorough in its search for physical evidence."


"What other kind of evidence was there?" Tonks asked with renewed interest she couldn’t keep off her face as she stepped away from the wall. "Did you really find something?"


"Only more questions than I went in with," Harry said.


"Well that won’t make McGonagal happy," Tonks said with a sigh. "She was hoping you would lose interest in Snape after going in there. I told her there wasn’t much chance of that though."


"I would say not," Harry said with determination. "Even if I hadn’t found anything I wouldn’t forget what Snape did. I was there when he did it. The memory of it plays in my head over and over every single day. I won’t lose interest in him until he gets what he has coming to him."


"And who decides what he has coming to him?" Tonks asked. "You?"


"If the Ministry or the Order want to decide it," Harry said, "then they had better find him first."


"Well, I won’t try to change your mind," Tonks said quietly hoping that they did find Snape first. "I know how little chance of that there is. You’re at least as stubborn as I ever was. Just remember who your friends are if you need help."


"I’ll remember," Harry assured her.


"Well I had better tell McGonagal you’re done," Tonks said. "I imagine Remus will be anxious to get started."


"Started with what?" Harry asked hoping he could catch her off guard.


"Never you mind," Tonks said with narrowing eyes, suspecting Harry would take a great interest in what they had planned if he were to find out about it.


Later that evening, a light rain fell in Wiltshire and trickled down the windows of Malfoy Manor. Narcissa Malfoy sat rocking in her chair as she gazed out the window of her bedroom, hoping against hope to see Draco walking up the path to the house. At one time, her mind had told her that it would mean death for Draco to do such a thing. In her current state of mind though, having not slept or eaten in three days, her mind was not considering the practicality of such an action. All she was aware of was an intense desire for, and belief that Draco would be coming home soon.


Hearing a soft pop behind her, Narcissa’s mind instantly recognized that her wish must have come true. Draco must surely have returned. She leapt up from her chair and turned with excitement only to find that it was not Draco who had come home.


"No!" Narcissa screamed with terror as she shrank back behind her chair. "I won’t let you take him away from me again! Draco will be home soon, and I won’t let anyone take him away!"


"Cissa," Lucius said as he stepped forward, taking note of how worn and un-kept she looked. "It’s me Cissa. It’s Lucius."


"You lie!" Narcissa said as she groped for her wand. "You can’t be! Lucius is in Azkaban! So many years now… He must be dead by now."


"I’m not dead, Cissa," Lucius said, realizing that Bellatrix had not overstated Narcissa’s mental state. "I’m here."


"Why do you torture me so?" Narcissa cried. "My husband dead, and my only son missing and hunted by those who want him dead isn’t enough for you?"


"I’m not going to hurt you, Cissa," Lucius said softly. "I’m here to help you."


"I won’t tell you anything," Narcissa said. "I don’t know where he is."


"I just want to help you, Cissa," Lucius said as he knelt down beside the chair Narcissa was peeking over in terror.


"Do what you want with me," Narcissa said as tears streamed down her already tear stained face. "You’ll never get to Draco. Harry Potter will find him first. He promised me he would."


"What?" Lucius yelled as he stood filling with rage to his full height and looked down at her cowering form. "Tell me that you didn’t conspire with the sworn enemy of our master!"


"He promised," Narcissa repeated as she trembled in fear.


"Traitor!" Lucius screamed as he swung the back of his hand at Narcissa.


In her weakened state, Narcissa’s reflexes were not fast enough to get out of the way of Lucius’ hand. She took the full force of the blow to her right cheek and she went tumbling onto the floor. She was still attempting to recover when she became aware of a sharp pain in her side as Lucius’ boot connected and the air left her body.


Clarity of familiarity gripped Narcissa almost instantly as the pain in her face and her side throbbed. She had felt it many times over the years of her adult life. She rolled onto her back and looked up into the seething face that hovered over her, and she knew it could only be one man.


"Lucius," Narcissa wheezed.


"Recognition isn’t going to save you, traitor," Lucius spat as he grabbed Narcissa and picked her up as if she weighed nothing before throwing her across the room and into the side of a table. "I’ll not have a traitor for a wife."


Lucius stalked over to her quickly and picked her up again as he punched her in the face and yelled, "I’ll make you pay for what you’ve done! Then I’ll kill you myself!"


Lucius tossed Narcissa in the direction of the fireplace, and Narcissa’s head smacked hard into the stone hearth as she fell. Narcissa’s vision began to blur as she opened one eye and spotted Lucius walking toward her again. Picking up a fire poker, Lucius swung quickly with it at Narcissa’s right arm. The swing connected solidly, and Narcissa cried out in pain as the bone snapped under the force.


Lucius dragged her up by the back of her robes as he asked, "Where is your great hero now, traitor? Did you forget to make him promise to save you too?"


Lucius pushed Narcissa on shaky legs away from him before bringing his foot up and kicking her hard in the small of her back. Narcissa cried out again as she fell next to the bed. She could feel her consciousness slipping away as the pain in her body reached heights she knew she couldn’t tolerate much more of.


Narcissa had landed on her front with her head turned to the left side so that she was looking under the bed. Even as her sight began to dim, she spotted something she had all but forgotten about under the bed.


Lucius had been right. She had never actually asked Harry to do anything except find Draco, but Harry had also been very interested in her safety. She had protested that she would never need it, but he had made her accept the object anyway. Upon returning home, she had placed it under the bed and forgotten about it.


With what strength she had remaining, Narcissa reached out and took a firm hold on the coin Harry had given her. Almost instantly, she felt a hard pull behind her navel that nearly made her wretch as the pain in her body was magnified from the force of the portkey.


By the time her body had come into contact with a solid surface once again, Narcissa Malfoy had slipped fully from consciousness with the little coin grasped firmly in her fist. If she were lucky, someone would find her soon and treat her wounds. If not…


24

Honesty Among Friends

Ron awoke after a bit of gentle prodding, and turned his head to find Hermione sitting next to him. He had the brief thought that he was still dreaming, so he reached out and took Hermione’s hand in his own and stroked it gently with his thumb. The look of surprise and then the following grin on her face was all Ron needed to tell him that it was indeed exactly like his dreams of late.

"How did you sleep?" Hermione said, surprising Ron that her voice sounded so real instead of dreamlike as it had in his previous dreams.

"I must have tossed and turned all night," Ron said, surprising himself that his voice sounded just as real as Hermione’s. "I’m sure I did nothing but dream of you."

Hermione’s grin widened as she asked, "Were you really dreaming of me?"

"Of course I was," Ron said, amazed at how clear his current dream was. "You should know that I don’t seem to be able to dream about much else lately. I tell you that in every dream."

"Why do you think you’re dreaming about me so often?" Hermione asked intrigued.

"I guess I just find it easier to say in my dreams what I can’t seem to say to you while I’m awake," Ron replied.

"I don’t know what is holding you back," Hermione said. "I’ve been waiting ages for you to just tell me what I already know."

"Maybe someday I’ll be able to tell you how much I love you," Ron said.

Hermione hesitated, unable to control her smile, before she bent forward quickly and pressed her lips to Ron’s. Ron was so surprised that it took him a moment to realize that he could actually feel the pressure of Hermione’s lips on his. The feeling didn’t immediately fade as it always did in his dreams. The pressure was constant. Finally, the reality of the situation permeated Ron’s conscious mind.

Ron’s eyes sprang open wide as he jerked back and scrambled out the opposite side of the bed. He slipped and fell to the floor, but quickly recovered and raised up to see Hermione smiling back at him.

"What are you doing here?" Ron asked, unable to face what he had just admitted.

"I came to wake you up for breakfast," Hermione informed him lightly. "I had no idea it would be such an eventful trip."

"I thought I was dreaming," Ron attempted.

"Apparently so," Hermione agreed.

"I wasn’t dreaming was I?" Ron asked dreading the answer he knew would come.

"No," Hermione replied, "but if it’s any consolation, I feel like I’m the one dreaming now."

"The things I…" Ron stuttered. "I mean… The things I said…"

"Do you really dream about me, Ron?" Hermione interrupted.

"Well…" Ron began, again unable to get the words out. "I may have… uh…"

"I was really flattered," Hermione admitted.

"But," Ron began as recent events came back to him, "you kissed me."

"You had just told me that you love me," Hermione said with a smile. "What else was I supposed to do?"

"Well, when you put it that way…" Ron said with a big swallow.

"Did you mean it?" Hermione asked. "If it was just part of a dream then I’m going to feel like a real fool."

"You didn’t mind that I said it?" Ron asked, not believing that he talking to her about it at last.

"I’ve only been waiting for you to say it all summer," Hermione admitted. "No, Ron. I didn’t mind at all."

"Really?" Ron asked as he noticed a warm feeling forming in his chest. "I mean… I actually told you. Of course I didn’t realize I was actually saying it to you. I’ve wanted to for a long time, but… Wow! You kissed me!"

"Yes, Ron," Hermione confirmed. "I kissed you. I hope you’ll let me do it again sometime."

"You kissed me," Ron said, amazed to hear the truth of the words he spoke. "Harry, she… Oh no! Harry’s gone!"

"Relax, Ron," Hermione said as she came around the bed toward him. "He isn’t missing. It’s that potion Madam Pomfrey gave to him. It has worked so well that after a whole week of waking up every morning feeling rested, he actually got up early today. He met Ginny and I in the common room when we came down this morning."

Hermione pressed in close to Ron as she reached out for his hand. She tilted her head up and closed her eyes. She waited patiently as the seconds passed before Ron finally caught on and bent down to kiss her tentatively.

"Wow!" Ron exclaimed once again as they parted.

"I’ll wait for you in the common room and give you a chance to get dressed," Hermione said as she backed away toward the door. "Don’t take too long. We have a few things we’re going to need to discuss now."

Hermione shut the door and Ron stared at it for several seconds before he smiled and said, "Wow!"

"I really have to start getting up sooner on the weekends," Neville said as he emerged from his bed with a deep blush. "This is the second time in two weeks I’ve been stuck in my bed because romance is playing out in our dorm room."

Later that morning, Harry and Ginny walked into the hospital wing looking for Madam Pomfrey. The first thing they noticed as they walked in was the curtained barricade set around the back corner of the room. In all of his visits to the hospital wing, Harry had never seen as large a part of it closed off in such a way.

Not seeing Madam Pomfrey, Harry and Ginny walked further into the room. Their progress was stopped suddenly as they both ran into some kind of invisible barrier blocking the far end of the hospital wing.

"What is this?" Ginny asked as she rubbed where her nose had hit the barrier.

"It’s a first for me," Harry replied rubbing his own nose.

Madam Pomfrey heard their voices and popped her head out from behind the barricade and asked, "Is there something you need?"

"Well it isn’t an emergency," Harry said wondering what could be behind the barricade that would also warrant a shield to keep intruders out. "I’m out of the potion you gave me to help me sleep. I just came to get more."

"Of course," Pomfrey said looking suddenly relieved. "This isn’t a good time. Come back tonight before dinner and I’ll have another bottle for you."

"Great," Harry said as his mind searched for an answer to the riddle of what was being hidden in the hospital wing. "Why do you have the shield up? Do you have something dangerous behind that screen?"

Harry could see the wheels turning in Pomfrey’s head before she answered, "Possible contagion. The shield is just a precaution."

" Sorry to have bothered you," Harry said as he turned to go. "I’ll let you get back to work."

"I wonder what that was all about," Ginny wondered out loud as she and Harry left the hospital wing.

"Something they don’t want us to know about apparently," Harry said. "That’s fine with me though. I have enough to keep me busy without trying to find out what they might be hiding in the hospital wing."

Ginny glanced out of the corner of her eye at Harry and noticed the way he was determinedly looking straight in front of him in an effort not to look at her. It was all she needed to tell her that Harry was indeed very interested in what might lay behind the screen.

After lunch, Harry, Ginny and Ron decided to drag out their brooms for a bit of flying practice. They had been quite disappointed earlier in the week to learn that McGonagal had decided not to have any quidditch teams or games during the current school year citing that it was just too dangerous. Hermione, who had never taken to flying, had tried to make them see that McGonagal might be right given the circumstances. After their resulting reaction, she was more than happy to let them go out flying while she headed toward the library to look up a bit of information for her Transfiguration class.

Hermione was on her way to the library when a strange sound reached her ears. It sounded like Dobby, and he sounded upset about something. Hermione rounded a corner and found Dobby muttering to himself just before he began to beat his head against the wall repeatedly.

"Dobby!" Hermione screamed in concern as she ran to the house elf. "Stop doing that. You’ll hurt yourself. What’s wrong?"

Dobby stopped and looked at Hermione as he whimpered and said, "Dobby must not say anything. Dobby was ordered not to tell."

"You don’t have to tell me then, Dobby," Hermione said hoping it would keep him from punishing himself again.

"It is not Hermione Granger that Dobby must not tell," Dobby whined. "Oh, how can Dobby not tell when Dobby has promised to tell all?"

"Dobby, you aren’t making any sense," Hermione said. "Who ordered you not to say anything?"

"The Headmistress ordered Dobby not to tell," Dobby admitted before he realized what he had done and started to slam his head into the wall again.

Hermione guessed what Dobby was about to do and placed her hand between his head and the wall to stop him as she said, "Wait a minute. You don’t have to do that. You haven’t told anyone anything yet."

"Dobby wants to though," Dobby said as his lip trembled. "Dobby promised he would tell."

"Who did you promise you would tell?" Hermione asked.

"Harry Potter," Dobby said as he suddenly ran for the other wall and rammed his head into the stone before falling to the floor in a daze.

"Please, Dobby," Hermione pleaded as she ran over to him, "you have to stop doing that. You’re causing me a great deal of distress."

"Dobby is sorry," Dobby said wiping the tears from his eyes. "Dobby does not know what to do."

Hermione thought about the situation for a moment before an idea came to her and she asked, "Did Professor McGonagal only tell you not to tell Harry?"

"Harry Potter was the only one the Headmistress said not to tell," Dobby confirmed. "Dobby must though. Dobby promised. Harry Potter is Dobby’s friend."

"What did you promise Harry, Dobby?" Hermione asked.

"Dobby promised he would check Harry Potter’s house every day" Dobby said. "Dobby promised he would tell Harry Potter if someone came to Harry Potter’s house."

Hermione sat back with wide eyes as wild thoughts ran through her head and she asked, "Did someone come to Harry’s house?" Hermione asked. "Someone that Professor McGonagal doesn’t want you to tell Harry about?"

Dobby clamped his hand over his mouth tightly indicating that he wasn’t going to say anything more.

"Did you promise Harry you wouldn’t tell me about that?" Hermione asked.

Dobby shook his head slowly.

"So Professor McGonagal didn’t tell you not to tell me what she doesn’t want Harry to know," Hermione pointed out, "and Harry didn’t tell you not to tell me about your promise to him. It was a lucky thing I found you, Dobby. I can help you. You don’t have to tell Harry about what McGonagal doesn’t want him to know. You can tell me about it. Then I’ll tell Harry, and you will have kept your promise to him."

"Dobby does not believe that is what Harry Potter or the Headmistress intended," Dobby said as he sat up.

"Perhaps not," Hermione said, "but I’m Harry’s friend as well. If he can’t depend on his friends to take care of him, then who can he depend on."

Dobby thought for several seconds about what Hermione had said before he stood up and said, "Hermione Granger is indeed a good friend to Harry Potter. Hermione Granger is also a good friend to Dobby. Dobby will tell Hermione Granger what Dobby should not tell anyone else."

Hermione, having heard what Dobby had to relate to Harry, discarded all thought of proceeding to the library. Instead she walked with determination toward the hospital wing, though she had no clear plan of what to do once she got there.

Hermione entered the hospital wing to find Professor McGonagal at the far end speaking with Madam Pomfrey. She continued to walk toward them until they noticed her and motioned for her to stop.

"Is it true?" Hermione asked. "Is Narcissa Malfoy here in the hospital wing?"

"Where would you get an idea like that, Miss Granger?" McGonagal said with surprise and worry in her eyes.

"I already know she was brought here," Hermione said. "There is no use denying that much. Is she still in the castle though?"

"It is of no concern to you one way or the other, Miss Granger," McGonagal said as she waved her hand in front of her as if executing a spell before walking closer to Hermione.

"On the contrary," Hermione corrected. "I have a great deal of concern in the matter. I’ve just found out about it from a house elf who was ready to beat himself to death because of the order you gave him and a promise he made to Harry. I would have thought you would have understood how attached Dobby is to Harry. The order you gave him nearly tore him apart. It’s hard to believe he lived with it for an entire week."

"I was hoping Dobby would see that telling Harry about Mrs. Malfoy’s arrival here could be potentially dangerous for him," McGonagal explained.

"I don’t know how he could," Hermione said. "I don’t see why it would be dangerous."

"Really?" McGonagal asked surprised. "Exactly how much did Dobby tell you about her arrival here?"

"He just said that he had gone to Harry’s house to check if anyone was there," Hermione explained as she wondered what Dobby had left out. "He found Narcissa Malfoy there, and he brought her back here because she had been injured."

"That was a great understatement of the situation," McGonagal said. "You’ll just have to trust me that her condition and how she came to be in it would anger Harry a great deal."

"And you have to understand that I can’t keep this information from Harry without knowing for myself that there is good reason for hiding something from him," Hermione stated firmly. "If you don’t tell me something to convince me then Harry will be up here within the hour demanding his own answers."

A tense silence descended upon the room until a female voice from behind the screen said, "Let her come. I’ll tell her what she wants to know."

Half an hour later, a somber Hermione left the hospital wing with a tear stained face, and a clear understanding of exactly why Harry could very well react as badly as Professor McGonagal had indicated. She found herself in as much of a dilemma as Dobby had been in. She had promised Dobby that she would tell Harry, but what she had just learned gave her serious misgivings about doing so.

Hermione mulled over what decision she would make for most of the day. Harry himself had noticed several times during the day that something was on her mind, and he had asked her about it on each occasion. She had tried to tell him that she was just thinking about a problem she was solving in History of Magic. It had stopped Harry from asking for further details, but she could tell that he became more suspicious after every time he asked her. So much so that Ginny pulled her aside in the common room to ask her what was really going on.

Bursting to be relieved of the burden, Hermione took Ginny into her confidence and told her the entire disturbing story.

"You haven’t told anyone else about this?" Ginny asked as Hermione responded by shaking her head. "You didn’t tell Ron about it did you?"

"Of course not," Hermione said. "My feelings for him aside, he’s far too loyal to Harry. He would run straight to him and tell him everything before he thought about what Harry’s reaction would be."

"I’m not so sure we shouldn’t myself," Ginny stated. "I know his reaction won’t be a pretty thing to witness, but think about it, Hermione. How easy is it to keep a secret in this castle? Word is bound to leak out at some point and make it back to Harry. He’ll still be upset when he finds out then, and think about how much worse it will be when he finds out the rest of us knew about it and kept it from him."

"I know," Hermione said. "That’s been my worst fear. It’s just that he blames himself every time something goes wrong. I don’t want him to pile what happened to her on his shoulders as well."

"I’m afraid he has too much of a hero complex to avoid that," Ginny said dreading what she was going to have to do. "Consider your burden lifted, Hermione. It would be best if I told him."

"Are you sure?" Hermione asked. "Maybe I should be the one. You’re so close to Harry."

"You know very well that is the reason why I should do it," Ginny said. "If I’m lucky I’ll be able to calm him down before he charges up to the hospital wing and causes trouble there."

"When are you going to tell him?" Hermione asked.

"The sooner the better I think," Ginny responded as she looked at the stairs to the boys dormitory. "I’ll go up and send Ron down to you. Take him down to dinner and get him out of the way. If Harry does bolt out of here for the hospital wing Ron would follow him if he were here to see it."

"Good point," Hermione recognized.

Fifteen minutes later, Madam Pomfrey looked up to see Professor McGonagal walk into the hospital wing.

"Headmistress," Pomfrey greeted.

McGonagal bowed her head in response as she asked, "How is Mrs. Malfoy?"

"The same as the last time you checked on her," Pomfrey said. "She’s progressed nicely. She should be free to walk around in another day or so."

"Of course," McGonagal said. "I just have quite a lot on my mind right now."

"I understand, Headmistress," Pomfrey said.

"I would like to speak with her if she’s awake," McGonagal said as she walked to where the shield started. "Please deactivate the shield so I can get to her."

"You already know how to do that on your own," Pomfrey said suspiciously as she took a step back from her. "You never needed me to do it for you before."

"Humor me," McGonagal said with a smile.

"Not this time Harry," McGonagal said from the doorway as Pomfrey looked around to see McGonagal enter with Lupin at her side.

Confused, Pomfrey turned back to where the McGonagal she had been talking to stood only to see Harry standing there instead.

"You can’t stop me from seeing her," Harry said.

"You are in no position to make any demands of me tonight, Mr. Potter," McGonagal said as she closed on his position. "I can stop you, and I will."

"You have no right to keep me from her," Harry said as fire began to burn inside him. "She was taken from my house. You had no right to keep her presence here from me. I should have been told as soon as she was found."

"You assume too much, Mr. Potter," McGonagal said attempting to keep her calm. "She may have been found in your house, but she was brought here for treatment. Once she entered this castle she became my responsibility."

"There was nothing you could have done for her when she first arrived anyway, Harry," Lupin added.

"Be that as it may," Harry said letting a bit of anger show through, "you should have told me what happened. At the very least you shouldn’t have prevented others from telling me."

"What was done is done," McGonagal said. "It does nothing to change the current situation. I will not allow you to see Mrs. Malfoy."

"I already know what happened to her," Harry seethed. "If I don’t see her then I will have no choice but to leave tonight to look for the man who did that to her."

"I will do everything in my power to stop you," McGonagal said, bracing herself for Harry’s reaction.

"You’ll try," Harry said. "You wouldn’t succeed though, any more than you’ll stop me from seeing Mrs. Malfoy."

McGonagal was ready to respond until she saw Harry disappear briefly and reappear on the other side of the shield. Harry began walking toward where Narcissa lay as he pulled his wand and waved it behind him. McGonagal pulled her own wand and deactivated the shield as she and Lupin ran forward only to stop suddenly when they ran into the shield Harry had erected behind him.

Harry rounded the corner of the screened area around Narcissa as she looked back as him and said, "I really didn’t mean to cause any trouble for you at school."

"You haven’t done anything," Harry said as he sat down next to her bed. "How are you feeling?"

"Much better," Narcissa said with a small smile. "They’ve taken very good care of me."

"I’m sorry I couldn’t come to see you sooner," Harry said.

"I’m glad you didn’t," Narcissa remarked. "I’m sure I looked a mess when they first brought me in. By the time I woke up they had healed most of my injuries. Since then they’ve been working on my mental health I guess you could say."

"I can’t imagine the horror he must have put you through," Harry admitted.

"It wasn’t so much that," Narcissa said. "I got used to the beatings years ago. I guess he had been storing it up while he was in Azkaban."

"I just don’t understand how a man could do such a thing to a woman," Harry said shaking his head.

"That’s because you are a good and decent person, Harry," Narcissa stated. "This most recent event finally convinced me that Lucius is neither good nor decent. I’ve been living in denial of it for so many years I can barely remember what life was like before Lucius."

"I hope you’re not considering going back," Harry expressed.

"No," Narcissa responded. "That part of my life is over. I’m ready for something better. I have to be a better person so I can be a better mother to Draco if he ever returns. Heaven knows I have years of hate and bitterness to weed out of Draco. He always thought that Lucius would love him more if he became just like him."

"He isn’t," Harry said. "He proved that on the top of the tower the night Dumbledore was killed. He may want to be, but he is not Lucius."

"Thank you, Harry," Narcissa said as she reached out and took hold of his hand. "For everything."

Harry smiled back at Narcissa as he heard footsteps behind him, and he asked, "What are you planning to do after you leave here?"

"I haven’t really given it much thought," Narcissa said. "I know I can never go back to Malfoy Mansion. I don’t even know if I’ll be allowed to leave here."

Harry turned to look at McGonagal as she said, "We have no plans of holding you prisoner. It may take some time to find a place to hide you though."

"Actually," Harry said as he pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, "I have a place you can stay if you would like."

"I hope you are not thinking of hiding her in your house, Mr. Potter," McGonagal said as Harry handed the paper to Narcissa.

"In a manner of speaking," Harry responded with a grin.

"The Black family estate?" Narcissa asked as she read the paper. "I remember playing there as a child. I remember it being a bit spooky to me in my youth."

"Well it hasn’t changed much then," Harry grinned. "Sirius left it to me, but there are too many memories in that house for me to live there. You can stay there if you don’t mind what is sure to be a hefty layer of dust on everything."

Harry and Narcissa looked up at McGonagal as she sighed and said, "Well, there are worse places you could go. At least it is reasonably safe. You can floo there as soon as you feel up to it."

"Great," Harry said as he stood up. "It’s all set then. Now that I know you’ll be all right, I’ll leave and let you get some rest. I’ll come back to talk with you again tomorrow if you would like."

"I would," Narcissa said with a smile.

Harry walked out past McGonagal, Lupin and Pomfrey as they fell into step behind him and he said, "Ginny must be faster than I thought. I was sure I would be able to get in to see her before you ever got here."

"We have a few tricks up our sleeve as well," Lupin commented.

"You reacted much better to her being here than I expected, Mr. Potter," McGonagal stated. "Still, that does not excuse the method you used to see her. Ten points will be taken from Gryffindor. In addition, you will serve a week of detention with Professor Slughorn beginning Monday."

"Good," Harry said making all of them take notice. "I’ve been having a devil of a time with some of the potions we’ve been brewing lately. Detention should give me time to ask a few questions. Is there anything else you need of me or can I go?"

"I have your sleeping potion for you," Pomfrey said holding out a bottle to him.

"Go and eat your dinner, Mr. Potter," McGonagal said after he had taken the potion from Pomfrey.

After Harry had walked away, Lupin said, "Curious. It’s funny that Harry would say he’s been having trouble with potions. I had a discussion with Horace just yesterday about how Harry was doing. He says Harry is doing wonderfully. He didn’t mention Harry having any problem with potions."

"We all need to keep a close eye on him during the next week," McGonagal warned. "He’s up to something. We can’t let him learn what you’ve been working on Remus. Make sure Horace doesn’t tell him anything."




25

Professors Parley


Harry spent the rest of the week every night scrubbing out cauldrons, organizing potion ingredients, and filing paperwork for Professor Slughorn. The thing Professor Slughorn found a bit unnerving was the fact that Harry went about his tasks in near silence. He had been warned by Lupin that Harry might have agreed to the detention so readily in an attempt to question him about Order activities that McGonagal had forbid them to mention to Harry. So far though, Slughorn hadn’t detected the slightest interest in such matters from Harry.

For Harry’s part, it was his observation that Slughorn was being unusually quiet during the detentions. It had always been his experience that Slughorn never wasted an opportunity to recruit him into the Slug Club. Something was causing him to be more standoffish, and Harry was fairly sure he could guess what it was. He had seen the look in McGonagal’s eyes when he had agreed to the detention. He knew that Horace Slughorn possessed information that could be useful to him. His only problem was how to get it out of him while he was being so guarded and careful.

"You know," Harry said near the end time of his detention, "I wasn’t sure over the summer if you would be coming back to Hogwarts this year with Professor Dumbledore gone."

"I had the same doubt about you," Slughorn replied thinking there was no harm in that little bit of information.

"I can’t blame you," Harry said with a grin. "I had strong doubts about my own return. Sometimes, I still think it was a mistake."

"Are you thinking of leaving then?" Slughorn asked with only a hint of panic.

"Oh, no," Harry said as he continued to file papers. "I’ve gotten too close to Ginny for that. I could never leave her behind. Has that ever happen to you Professor? Have you ever been in love?"

"I’ve loved a great many people in my day," Slughorn replied as he resisted the urge to go into an extended story. "None more so than myself though. I have encountered no one that I could not leave behind if the circumstance warranted it."

"I find myself in just the opposite situation," Harry said. "There are so many people I could never abandon even if the circumstances warranted it. Ginny calls it my hero complex."

"From what I can see that complex provides a great deal of comfort for the masses who look to you to be ‘The Chosen One’," Slughorn observed. "It is an attribute that could take you to the heights of power in the Ministry if…"

"If I manage to survive another duel with Voldemort," Harry said as he stopped filing and looked at Slughorn for the first time.

"Exactly," Slughorn confirmed as his excitement began to build. "If you do that then you will practically be able to name the position you want. A record like that could land you in the Minister’s seat one day. All you would need would be a bit of guidance in that direction."

"I’ll have to remember that," Harry said with a smile. "There are worse things I could do with my life. Of course there is still the little matter of actually defeating Voldemort to get there. I’ll never be able to do that if I can’t find his remaining horcruxes though."

"Don’t worry about that," Slughorn said still thinking about the exciting prospect of having a contact like Harry in the Ministry. "The Order will find the horcruxes and clear out some of the death eaters for you. You just worry about preparing yourself for the biggest duel of your life."

"I feel better about it knowing that someone is taking care of the horcruxes for me," Harry said looking into Slughorn’s eyes. "I’ll devote myself to my dueling studies from now on. If I have any questions about dueling strategies, would it be all right if I come to you for help?"

Slughorn’s face split into a smile as wide as Harry had ever seen as he said, "It would be my distinct pleasure, Harry. Anything you need, you just come and see me."

"Thanks, Professor," Harry said with a smile. "I appreciate that."

Several minutes later, after Slughorn had dismissed Harry from his last detention and sent him to dinner; he sat back in his office chair and thought how upset McGonagal would be if she found out that he had told Harry the Order was looking for the horcruxes and capturing death eaters. He immediately resigned himself not to mention it to her. After all, he reasoned, Harry had said he was giving up looking for the horcruxes himself. That was something McGonagal had been hoping for. There was no reason for her to know why he had suddenly lost interest. Besides, it was a small price to pay for the beginnings of a mentor relationship between himself and the-boy-who-lived.

Harry walked toward the Great Hall to meet his friends for dinner, but he stopped when he heard the sound of hooves striking stone behind him. He turned to see Firenze walking toward him from an adjacent corridor.

"Good evening, Professor," Harry said as he turned to greet the centaur.

"Good evening, Harry Potter," Firenze said as he came to a stop near Harry. "I believe you are a bit late for dinner. It has already started."

"I know," Harry said. "I just got out of a detention."

"I see," Firenze replied. "I trust you have been well."

"Very well, thank you," Harry said. "How have you been?"

"I manage," Firenze admitted. "The confines of the castle are difficult to get used to for someone who was meant to live under the stars."

"I think we all feel that way sometimes," Harry observed. "Do you ever get to walk outside?"

"Occasionally," Firenze answered. "I sometimes wonder out late at night to look at the stars. The Headmistress has forbidden me to walk far from the castle though. She fears that dangers still await me from the forest."

"That sounds familiar," Harry said with a grin of recognition. "She’s almost afraid to let me walk around inside the castle on my own much less out on the grounds."

"Yes," Firenze said. "It was related to me that centaurs watch from just inside the forest who have shown an interest in you."

"Do you have any idea why they might be interested in me?" Harry asked.

"Perhaps," Firenze replied. "You should not be fooled by the declarations that have been made that centaurs take no interest in the activities of humans. While on the whole that statement is quite true, occasionally there is a wizard who catches the attention of even the centaurs."

"But why have I caught their attention?" Harry asked. "Does it have something to do with the prophecy?"

"It has to do with something the centaurs have seen in the stars for many generations," Firenze said. "The prophecy you speak of was not new to the knowledge of the centaur. Your destiny has been written in the heavens since long before you were born. The others would have you believe that we are all knowing when it comes to future matters. I will confess to you that such a thing is not true. We did not know who you would be, or how you would come to the final battle. All we knew was that the battle would happen. We knew that the outcome of that battle could have long lasting effects on the world of wizards and centaurs alike. We know that to win the battle you must find the power that resides in you even now, though no other human has ever discovered it."

"But how do I find it?" Harry asked.

"That we do not know," Firenze admitted. "Nor do we know that you ever will find it. If you do not find it then you will die and darkness will descend upon the world."

"Great," Harry said sarcastically. "I’m glad there isn’t any pressure involved."

"Do you have any idea why it is that centaurs dislike humans so?" Firenze asked.

"Not really," Harry answered.

"The centaur does not see the world in the same way humans see it," Firenze said. "It may be difficult for you to understand since you obviously see as a human sees. When you are in the forbidden forest you see trees, rocks, plants and creatures. The centaurs see those things and how they relate to one another. We see the physical lines that connect one thing to another. We understand their relationship immediately. Centaurs dislike humans because we can see no such lines of connection radiating from you to anything else in the world around you. If the lines do exist, as a select few centaurs have believed, then we are unable to perceive them. It is the larger view that the lines do not exist at all. The centaurs dislike humans because they believe there to be no connection between humans and anything else that exists in nature."

"Interesting," Harry said. "So you see an actual physical line connecting a tree to the shrubs that grow under it?"

"Yes," Firenze confirmed. "More importantly, we can see and feel the relationship of each of these things to ourselves. We gain a great deal of strength and power from this connection."

"What kind of power?" Harry asked, becoming more interested.

"It is difficult to describe," Firenze stated. "Relating it in terms you can understand, think about the fear that the Dark Lord commands in the wizarding world. Fear and anger are what he thrives on. I believe that he is made more powerful by the physical connection of that fear to himself. I can see no such connection, but I believe it must be there."

"So I have to somehow break through that fear in order to weaken him?" Harry asked.

"Such a task may be impossible," Firenze warned. "I believe you must find from where your own power flows. If you found a way to detect that connection you may be able to increase your own power sufficiently for battle."

"Do you have any suggestions as to where I might start?" Harry asked, hopeful he could be given a clue about how to go about such a thing.

"I do not," Firenze replied. "I am sorry, Harry. Centaurs are born into the world seeing the connections. There is no special training that takes place to develop it."

"I was afraid you were going to say that," Harry said.

"I have said more than I would have been allowed already," Firenze admitted. "Know that I have made you aware of these things as a favor to Albus Dumbledore. You must never admit to the Headmistress that we ever spoke on this matter."

"I understand," Harry said with a grin. "As far as anyone else will ever know, this conversation never happened. I want you to know though that if there are lines of connection coming from me that you can’t see, the one connecting me to you just got much stronger."
"You honor me more than you know," Firenze said. "I will carry that knowledge with me proudly. Hurry on to dinner now before you miss it altogether. I think I will take a walk outside."

Harry entered the Great Hall and took a seat next to Ginny for dinner. He apologized to all of them for being late, but made no mention of his conversations with Slughorn and Firenze.

"So you made it through an entire week of detention with Slughorn, Harry," Ron said with a grin. "Are you an official member of the Slug Club now?"

"Actually Slughorn was very quiet for most of the time," Harry replied as he loaded his plate.

"I find that hard to believe," Ron said. "That doesn’t sound like him."

"He isn’t the only professor acting strangely, Harry" Ginny informed him. "Lupin left dinner early, and he was limping when he walked out. He didn’t have a limp when I had him for class this afternoon."

"Maybe he just turned an ankle or something," Harry suggested.

"Don’t you think the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor would be able to heal something as simple as a turned ankle?" Hermione asked. "The spell for it is covered in some detail in chapter twelve of our book."

"Good point," Harry admitted.

"He’s been coming to dinner looking tired all week long," Ginny said. "If I didn’t know better I would say he was up to something."

Harry grinned and pointed out, "That’s what people usually say about me. He may be doing some kind of assignment for the Order. It won’t do any good for us to sit here and theorize about what it is. They won’t ever tell us about it anyway. Besides, I have to get ready for the D.A. meeting tomorrow evening."

"What are we going to study tomorrow?" Ron asked.

"Wordless magic," Harry answered. "I think we were all hurt by Snape trying to teach it to us last year. I worked on it quite a bit over the summer. I think we all have room for improvement."

"Some of us more than others," Ron said as he hung his head.

"Don’t sell yourself short, Ron," Harry said. "After all, you’re still the only person in class who can do the full body concealment charm. Think how much more effective that would be if you could do it without speaking to give away your location."

"I guess it would be useful at that," Ron said grinning again.

"You have a busy day planned tomorrow, Harry," Hermione observed. "You were planning on reading the books you wanted from the restricted section early tomorrow."

"I still do," Harry said. "Are you sure you don’t mind taking the list up to McGonagal for me tonight, Hermione?"

"Of course not," Hermione replied. "After the encounters you’ve had with her lately I think it would be a good idea for the two of you to minimize your contact for a while."

"Great," Harry said. "I have the list up in my room. I just have one more subject I would like to add to it."

Just over half an hour later, Hermione stood outside McGonagal’s door and knocked lightly. She could hear footsteps approaching the door, and she realized that someone else was in the office other than Professor McGonagal.

Tonks pulled the door open, and hesitated in surprise a moment before she said, "Hermione. Did you need to see the Headmistress?"

"Yes," Hermione confirmed. "I didn’t mean to interrupt. I can come back later."

"Don’t be silly," McGonagal said from behind her desk. "There is no use in your climbing those stairs again if we can see to your needs now. Come in, Miss Granger."

"Thank you, Professor," Hermione said as she looked around and noticed that Lupin was present in the office as well as a woman Hermione had never seen before, but looked very familiar anyway.

"What can I do for you?" McGonagal asked as Hermione neared her desk.

"I just came to drop off Harry’s list of the books he would like to see from the restricted section," Hermione explained as she pulled out the parchment and placed it on McGonagal’s desk.

"I was hoping he would forget that I agreed to that," McGonagal sighed.

"I think that was why he had me bring it up to you," Hermione said. "He was hoping to avoid the creation of any more tension between the two of you."

"I see," McGonagal said as she picked up the list and began to read down it. "The Art of Blood, Curses From a Darker Age, The Memoirs of Artilus Gromp, Griselda the Mad, and Lineage of the Famous Wizarding Families. A rather forbidding list to be sure. I suppose Mr. Potter would argue his need for every single book on this list."

"I think he’s already planned those arguments actually," Hermione said. "Just in case."

"It looks as though the last book requested was written in a different hand," McGonagal said looking down her glasses at Hermione. "It looks like your writing, Miss Granger."

"I didn’t think Harry would mind if I asked about it," Hermione said. "Harry knows so little about his family, and I thought I would research it for him as a gift for Christmas. I couldn’t understand why that book was in the restricted section instead of the main section."

"It is admirable that you would want to give such a thing as a gift," McGonagal began as she prepared to deliver the bad news, "but that book is strictly off limits to everyone. I will not approve it to be viewed. I suggest that you drop this line of research, and come up with a new gift you can give to him."

Hermione stood in stunned silence for several seconds before she said, "I really wish you had just refused me the book because Harry didn’t write it on the list. Now I know that there is obviously something in that book about Harry that you’re trying to keep from him. Now I’m put into the position yet again of trying to decide if I should keep my mouth shut about it or tell Harry right away."

"I can only tell you that what he learned from it could possibly make him rush into battle that much more quickly," McGonagal explained.

"I can’t believe that," Hermione said. "That’s exactly the same kind of reaction you were expecting when he found out about Narcissa Malfoy being in the castle. It didn’t happen. He hasn’t gone out looking for Lucius Malfoy to get revenge. He isn’t the same sort of person he was during his early years here. He isn’t nearly as impulsive as he used to be. He’s more likely to listen to reason when it’s explained to him. He’s applying himself to his schoolwork like I never imagined he would. He isn’t a child anymore. I think you should start treating him like the man he is."

"If you know him so well," McGonagal said leaning forward slightly, "then tell me when Mr. Potter learned Mermish."

"He doesn’t know Mermish at all," Hermione said. "That I know of, the only time he’s ever encountered Merpeople was during the Tri-Wizard Tournament."

"I’ve gotten reports two times this week from Hagrid that say otherwise," McGonagal stated. "On two separate occasions Hagrid has observed Mr. Potter kneeling down by the lake speaking with three Merpeople in the middle of the night."

"In the middle of the night?" Hermione asked. "That’s impossible. It couldn’t have been Harry."

"I believe Hagrid is capable of distinguishing Mr. Potter from a crowd," McGonagal said. "When standing alone by the lake his recognition would be assured."

"You don’t understand," Hermione said. "Harry couldn’t have been out there in the middle of the night. He’s been taking the potion Madam Pomfrey gave him every night before he goes to bed. It knocks him out cold. He takes it every night in front of Ginny just so she can be sure he's taking it."

"Yet I am not prepared to discount Hagrid’s claim of recognition," McGonagal said. "By his own admission, Hagrid was a fair distance away each time he saw Mr. Potter. I will question him once again in an attempt to uncover the truth. You may take this information back to Mr. Potter if you like. I have no doubt that he will profess his innocence in the matter. In time we will discover the real culprit. Until that time, we will be watching Mr. Potter’s activities very closely."

"I still say you’re wasting your time," Hermione said. "Hagrid was obviously wrong in his identification. Can’t you simply speak with the Merpeople and ask them who it was?"

"Professor Dumbledore was the only one here capable of speaking to them," McGonagal said. "They are a proud race. They will not choose to communicate in our language, and they are very selective of those they will meet with."

"I didn’t think you would be able to spare anyone to keep an eye on Harry with the Order going on missions," Hermione observed to see what reaction she might get.

"What do you know about that?" McGonagal asked sitting up straighter.

"Well I didn’t know anything for sure until now," Hermione said with a grin. "We noticed Professor Lupin limping during dinner tonight. He’s been looking tired all week in the evenings. Couple that with the fact that Harry has been in detention all week, and unable to shove his nose where it doesn’t belong, and it is only logical to think that you would use that opportunity to run some kind of operation or another."

"We do not plan Order activities around Mr. Potter’s schedule," McGonagal assured her.

"Well you don’t need to at any rate," Hermione said. "Harry knows you’re doing something, but he’s resigned himself to the fact that he will never be made aware of what it is."

"I find that hard to believe," Lupin said, speaking for the first time. "He may say it, but he’s too much like James to give up on it entirely."

"I know," Hermione stated. "That’s why his friends spend so much time watching after him and trying to keep him away from trouble. Don’t worry about keeping an eye on him. We’ll do that well enough ourselves."

"But will you report it back to us if you find anything?" McGonagal asked suspecting the answer.

"We won’t have to," Hermione replied. "All we have to do is tell Ginny about it. She’ll straighten him out faster than any of us could."

"Then maybe it would serve us better to keep an eye on Ginny," Tonks suggested.

"Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you," Hermione warned. "You’d never hear the end of it if Harry found out about it. He’s very protective of her. Besides, he already knows he’s being watched. He won’t care if you watch a bit closer."

"Then it’s all settled," McGonagal said indicating she was ready for the conversation to be over. "Professors Lupin and Tonks will escort you back to your common room. They were just on their way there with a guest to see Mr. Potter."

Hermione turned to look at the woman she didn’t know as Tonks stepped forward and said, "Hermione, this is my mother, Andromeda."

"Really?" Hermione asked as she smiled and reached out to shake the woman’s hand. "I wondered why you looked so familiar to me when I first saw you. It’s a pleasure to meet you."

"The pleasure is mine," Andromeda said with a smile. "I’ve heard a great deal about you from my daughter in her letters. She says that you are a brilliant student."

"Well, everyone has their talents," Hermione said blushing. "So you came here to see Harry?"

"Yes," Andromeda said. "I wanted to thank him for what he’s done for my sister. I was hoping he would allow me to visit her. I heard he was letting her stay at the Black estate."

"She just left here two days ago," Hermione said. "I’m sure Harry would be happy to give you the address. I think she would appreciate the company as well."

"I hope so," Andromeda said. "I haven’t spoken to her at all since her son was born."

After everyone had left her office, McGonagal sat back in her chair and waited for the criticism that she knew would come.

"It seems to me that they know far more than we suspected," Professor Dippet said from his portrait. "Perhaps it would be better to include them in a more meaningful way in the operations being undertaken by the Order."

"They know more than we suspected," Phineas began from his portrait, "but they know far too little for it to matter. It is not fitting for a student to be involved in such things anyway."

"Mr. Potter obviously knows the map is being used," Dippet said. "It is a small jump of logic to reason what it is being used for. We know with some assurance that Mr. Potter is the one who provided the map in the first place."

"Which we should see as a blessing," Professor Derwent said from her portrait. "From what we know of the boy, it is in better hands with us than if he still had it."

"I take exception to that," Dippet stated strongly. "It was well documented in the Prophet what he was able to do with it before he came back to Hogwarts. He accomplished all of those things without the assistance of the Order of the Phoenix."

"And at the same time proved himself to be foolish in the risks he took," Phineas pointed out with a grin. "It would only have been a matter of time before he was captured or killed in his attempts to subdue the death eaters."

"Some of us believe he displayed tremendous courage," Everard said from his portrait. "Wouldn’t you agree Fortescue?"

"Indeed," Professor Fortescue confirmed. "Perhaps if more people displayed courage like Mr. Potter does the problem with the death eaters would have been contained earlier."

"You only say that because Kingsley told us about Mr. Potter planning the rescue of your relative who runs the ice cream parlor," Derwent charged.

"Planned and led the rescue I believe you meant," Fortescue corrected. "He led that mission and made a point to include Order members, the Minister of Magic and his own D.A. members. He led them to a successful conclusion on a mission that none of the three could have carried out alone. That shows courage and a keen intellect I would say."

"May I also remind you that he was nearly killed during that mission as well?" Phineas asked.

"There is no need to remind us of your constant opinion of Mr. Potter, Phineas," Dippet said. "I would like to hear what Dumbledore has to say about all of this. He knows Mr. Potter better than any of us."

"As for things in the past," Dumbledore said, "they are the property of the past. Nothing we say here will change them. What I have to say is what I have been saying. It is wrong for us to stop Harry from finding out where he comes from. I had intended to tell him myself when he turned of age. I still think it should be done."

"I know, Albus," McGonagal said looking over at him with tired eyes. "I don’t wish to discuss that matter any more. The decision has been made."

"Then Hermione was right," Dumbledore said. "You shouldn’t have made such a point of forbidding her to see that book. She won’t stop looking until she finds the information she is looking for now."

"She’ll never get close to it as long as it remains in the restricted section," McGonagal said.

"If you say so," Dumbledore said with a grin.

"What I need from all of you is a theory as to how Mr. Potter can be asleep in bed and still be spotted down by the lake," McGonagal said. "I would also like to know how he can be found at the same time in the room of requirement, on the astronomy tower, and in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom."

Dumbledore leaned forward with a smile and said, "Well I would think that would be obvious."


26

Rage, Blood and Reconciliation


November arrived, and with it came a chill that signaled winter’s approach. There was another chill that had been developing in the castle over the preceding months. Shortly after Hermione’s delivery of Harry’s first request of books from the restricted section, notices began turning up on the house message boards that random searches would begin for banned items that the students may have hidden away. Of course there was grumbling from the students. Some had things they needed to find new hiding places for, and others saw the searches as nothing more than a nuisance.

It did not take very long for the students to recognize a certain order to the so-called randomness. Though there was a sprinkling of others, it was plain that members of the D.A. were searched far more often than any other identifiable group. In fact, Harry himself had yet to be left out of one of the searches in Gryffindor House.

For the most part, Harry had stood by calmly as he watched Professor Lupin search his belongings time and time again. Each time though, Harry grew more resentful that Lupin was the one doing the search. They wanted something from him. That much was plainly obvious. The fact that Lupin never had the courtesy to look him in the eye and ask for it upset him more and more each time. Lupin had been one of his father’s greatest friends, and Harry had come to regard him as a friend as well. The searches though, caused Harry to harden his feelings more each time they happened.

Harry, having withdrawn from contact with most of the professors, poured his every waking moment into his studies, and D.A. training meetings. In fact, Hermione found the rate he was progressing with his magic ability to be nothing short of astounding. The things he talked about and trained the D.A. to do were things they could only have dreamed of. Hermione knew that reading about magic could only get you so far. The fact that Harry was walking into the meetings with a level of mastery in each new spell that enabled him to teach it in detail was enough to tell her that there was more going on than sitting in the library reading books.

As much as Hermione hated to admit that McGonagal might be right about Harry, she had to admit that there was something going on that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. It was McGonagal’s claim that Harry had been seen down by the lake in the middle of the night that made Hermione start paying more attention to clues around her. On one occasion, she was sure she had just caught a glimpse of Harry darting off around a corner ahead of her, but she shook it off when Harry and Ron walked up behind her. It wasn’t until several weeks later that she realized Harry was turning up suddenly on a regular basis. Finally, though she smiled at her own stupidity for not realizing it sooner, the clues slipped into place in her mind and explained things that had been happening since the summer. Through a lack of judgment, or a desire not to alienate Harry in a time when he was feeling so betrayed by the teachers, she decided to keep her discovery to herself.

Two weeks after her discovery, Hermione sat next to Ginny on her bed and she let Ginny cry on her shoulder as she said softly, "Everything will be all right, Ginny. You know they’ve been searching Harry’s things looking for something. It was only a matter of time before they got to you again. They searched my things ages ago."

"Did they read your diary?" Ginny asked as she sat back and looked at Hermione with red tearing eyes. "Do you have any idea how long it took for me to get over my fear of writing in a diary again? I just feel so violated. The things in that diary were me, Hermione. Everything that I am, everything I feel I put into that diary. It was my love of Harry that made me start writing in it after so many years of not writing. The things in that diary were for me. Can you possibly understand that?"

"I can try," Hermione said as she held onto Ginny’s hand. "Are you going to tell Harry about it?"

"I don’t know," Ginny said wiping away her tears. "He already has so much pressure on him. I don’t want him to fight this battle for me. You know what he’s like. His relationship with Lupin has already deteriorated so much. Something like this could end their relationship for good."

"I still say people need to start giving Harry a little credit," Hermione said. "He can handle as much pressure as anyone. Still, his feelings for you don’t really fall in the normal realm. He could very well explode if anyone ever hurt you."

"Then I’ll endure what I have to in order keep that from happening," Ginny said.

"I think we’ll all have to as long as they still think Harry has something he’s hiding," Hermione said.

"I think he has it hidden well enough," Ginny said before she could stop herself.

Hermione studied Ginny for some time before asking, "You know what it is too?"

"Of course I know," Ginny admitted in a hushed tone. "Remember when I destroyed his room looking for it? He had it hidden and lied to me about it. He felt so bad about it he pulled me aside two days later and explained the whole thing to me. He had to break a promise he had made to my dad to tell me about it. That, Hermione, is love. Of course he’s still working out a way to tell my dad about what he did. He could never live with that guilt for too long. Anyway, he offered to turn it in to McGonagal right away, but I told him not to. I don’t have any right to make that decision for him."

"I can’t believe you knew and never told me," Hermione said with a grin.

"I wanted to," Ginny said. "I really did. I had to promise Harry I wouldn’t tell a soul. How long have you known bout it?"

"A couple of weeks," Hermione admitted. "I can’t believe I didn’t figure it out sooner."

"I can’t believe you didn’t make him turn it in when you realized it," Ginny said.

"I thought about it," Hermione admitted. "If they hadn’t been targeting Harry with these searches I might have actually done it. Listen, it’s almost time for dinner. We can go down and find Harry and Ron. Maybe you’ll feel better if you can get your mind off of the search for a while."

"I don’t think I’m in the mood for any company right now," Ginny said as she wiped the last of her tears away. "I can’t let Harry see me like this. He doesn’t need anything else to get upset about right now. Just tell him I’m not feeling well and may come to dinner if I feel better after a rest."

"It isn’t easy lying to him you know," Hermione pointed out. "He almost always knows, and I’m not very good at it anyway."

"Just buy me a little time," Ginny said giving in. "I just have to have a chance to pull myself together. I’ll come down in a while."

"Good," Hermione said as she stood up. "I know things seem pretty dark to you right now, but the sun will shine for you again tomorrow. Don’t let what happened tonight make you forget that."

"Thanks, Hermione," Ginny said standing and giving her a hug. "I won’t forget."

"Good," Hermione said as she turned for the door. "I’ll delay Harry for as long as I can."

Hermione walked down the stairs only to emerge into the common room to find Harry pacing anxiously. She knew him well enough to know that he was very upset about something. Just before Harry turned back around to see her, Ron, sitting in a nearby chair, nodded to her with a look to let her know that Harry was indeed quite agitated.

"Hermione," Harry said as he spotted her and walked over, "where is Ginny?"

"She isn’t feeling well," Hermione attempted. "She’s going to lie down and rest for a while. She said she would come down to dinner later."

"Really?" Harry asked, giving her all the proof she needed to see that he saw through her story. "From what Lavender told me she’s sitting up in her room crying because of the inspection Lupin did tonight."

"I see," Hermione said.

"What happened?" Harry asked.

"She doesn’t want me to tell you," Hermione said. "She doesn’t want you to get upset."

"What kind of logic is that?" Harry asked hotly. "You can either tell me what really happened or I can use my own imagination. I can guarantee you that I’ll explode if you leave it to my imagination. They’ve searched through her things before. Why is she so upset by it this time?"

"Not all of us are as comfortable with them searching though our things as you are, Harry," Hermione said as her own frustration began to come out.

"I never said I was comfortable," Harry said.

"You must be though," Hermione accused. "Otherwise you would end all of this. I know what they’re looking for, and they certainly know as well. You know the searches will continue as long as you have it. I haven’t said anything about it because I’m willing to endure the searches to preserve your secret."

"It belongs to me," Harry spat angrily. "They have no right to take it from me."

"You don’t seem surprised that I know about it," Hermione said.

"I knew you would figure it out sooner or later," Harry said.

"I don’t know where you got it," Hermione said trying with little success to lower her voice, "and I don’t really care. You just need to accept that the longer you have it the more desperate McGonagal will be to find it. A few tears are going to be shed, Harry. The question is how many tears you can stand to let fall."

"So are you going to tell me what happened to make Ginny cry," Harry yelled, "or do I have to walk up there myself and ask her?"

"You can’t get up the stairs," Hermione reminded him.

"Lupin does," Harry seethed.

"He’s a teacher," Hermione pointed out. "No student has ever made it up the stairs."

"Watch me," Harry spat.

"There’s no need, Harry," Ginny said from the stairs as she walked into the room. "I could hear you yelling all the way upstairs."

"Are you all right, Ginny?" Harry asked concerned.

"No, Harry," Ginny said. "I’m not. I need some time to get over what happened tonight."

"Is there anything I can do?" Harry asked as he stepped very close to her.

"Don’t make me answer that question, Harry," Ginny said. "Nothing will change what happened tonight. I just don’t know if I could take it again. I don’t want to influence your decision, but maybe you should know what happened. Then you can decide for yourself what to do about it."

Ginny led Harry over to the sofa and sat down next to him. Hermione stood next to the chair where Ron sat trying to make sense of what everyone was talking about. As gently as she could, Ginny related to Harry exactly what had happened when Lupin read her diary. As they all expected, Harry did not remain seated for long.

Harry bolted up and began to pace angrily as he said, "They’ve gone too far this time. If there was ever a line, they’ve just crossed it. You’re right. I’ve let this go on for too long. I think it’s time I did something about it."

Harry turned to walk toward the portrait hole as Ginny jumped to her feet and fearfully asked, "Where are you going?"

"To deliver a message," Harry said with fury in his eyes.

"I’ll come…" Ginny began.

"No," Harry said. "Go to dinner. This is something I have to take care of alone."

"Actually, Harry," Hermione said as she made him stop to listen to her, "if you’re about to have it out with McGonagal, then while you’re at it there is something else you should know that she’s been hiding from you."

Lupin walked briskly into McGonagal’s office as she looked up from her desk and asked, "Did your search turn up something? I expected you back here some time ago."

"I had to stop at my office to write this," Lupin said dryly as he placed the parchment he was carrying on her desk.

"What is it?" McGonagal asked as she turned it right side up.

"It’s my resignation," Lupin said.

McGonagal looked up from the paper in surprise as she said, "Remus…"

"You know I’ve had a problem with these searches from the beginning, Minerva," Lupin explained. "What you asked me to do tonight went far beyond any discomfort I had experienced doing the searches before. It made me sick to think what I was doing to Ginny. I flipped the pages of her diary without really seeing a word of it. All I could see was the look of surprise and embarrassment that crossed her face when I opened the diary. I will carry the shame of her tears with me until the day I die. I can’t do it any more. I won’t do it."

"I’m so sorry, Remus," McGonagal said with a softer than usual tone. "I realize now that I shouldn’t have pushed such a shameful task onto you. I should have done it myself. I’ll explain to Ginny that I made you do something you didn’t want to. You don’t need to take any of the responsibility for this onto yourself."

"How can I stand in front of her class to teach her and not see the tears that were in her eyes?" Lupin asked.

"Just give me a little time, Remus," McGonagal requested. "I’ll take care of this. You don’t need to resign. I need you here. The students need you. Give me some time to let you see that again."

Before Lupin could respond, the door flew open with force as they both looked to see a seething Harry walk straight into the office and toward McGonagal’s desk. Once he got near it, he unceremoniously tossed the time turner by its gold chain onto the center of her desk.

"If you want this so badly," Harry spat, "then take it. I hope it was worth the price you’ve had to pay for it. It was my dad’s. Maybe he nicked it and maybe he didn’t. I don’t really care. You can choke on it for all I care. You’ve got what you wanted, so stay away from Ginny."

"How is she?" Lupin asked looking at the floor.

"She’ll be fine," Harry said with the bite still in his voice. "I’ll see to that."

"Please don’t hold any ill feelings for Professor Lupin, Mr. Potter," McGonagal said causing Harry to shoot a piercing stare at her. "He was only doing what I asked him to do."

"I realize that," Harry said acidly.

"I was just dealing with the ramifications of what I asked him to do when you came in," McGonagal said. "He’s given me his resignation."

Harry looked down at the parchment on the desk and considered it for a few seconds before snapping his fingers. The parchment immediately burst into flame and disappeared.

"You’re not going to resign, Professor," Harry said. "You have lessons to learn first. First you have to learn how to regain Ginny’s trust. Then you have to learn to regain my respect. If my father’s friendship meant anything to you then you’ll stay to learn those things instead of running away. I think that is what he would have done."

"You’re right," Lupin said. "He would have reacted the same way to what I did tonight."

"Now that we’ve settled that," Harry said as he cast another piercing gaze on McGonagal, "I think you have something to reveal to me that you’ve kept hidden. What don’t you want me to know about my ancestry?"

McGonagal stared in surprise at Harry as a sleeping Dumbledore gave a loud snort. Harry waited as the seconds ticked by, and he became increasingly frustrated. Not wanting to wait any longer for an explanation, Harry drew his wand. Holding his wand at his side, Harry waved his empty hand in front of him smoothly.

McGonagal and Lupin gasped as Harry began to rise from the floor and levitate in the direction of the high portraits on the wall. The former headmasters, too interested to feign sleep any longer, leaned forward in their portraits to watch Harry float toward his destination.

"Lumos," Harry said, just before his wand tip erupted with light that made the high portraits shield their eyes.

Harry lowered his wand to his side in a less offensive manner, while still leaving enough light to see by as he stopped in front of a portrait that said, "Good evening, Harry."

"Evening, Professor," Harry responded as he studied the face he had come to know so well over the years.

"I’ve been in this portrait too long for you to call me Professor, Harry," the man said with a smile. "You can call me Godric."

"I guess we should be on a first name basis," Harry said. "After all, we are family."

"True," Godric admitted. "How long have you known?"

"About thirty minutes," Harry said. "My friend Hermione told me. She apparently read it in a book from the restricted section."

"Some of us thought she might find a way to get to that book," Godric said with a grin.

"Well she is the brightest witch of her age," Harry said. "The only thing she couldn’t figure out is why you would all want to keep it from me."

"Not all of us did," Godric corrected. "I myself was cautious about the timing of such a revelation."

"Well it isn’t every day a person finds out they’re the heir of Gryffindor," Harry said. "Would there ever have been one day that was better than another? You had to have known for quite a while now. I understand that none of you up high take much interest in the happenings lower down, but I’m willing to bet more recent headmasters knew."

"True," Godric confirmed. "Dumbledore knew it. He was going to tell you about it when you turned of age the way he did your father."

"My father?" Harry asked.

"Yes," Godric replied. "Of course he already knew. He had found it in that same book Hermione found it in. He was smart enough not to tell anyone else about it though."

"Why would it matter?" Harry asked. "I would think he would have been proud to be your heir."

"Oh, he was," Godric said. "Dumbledore explained to him what it meant though."

"Would you please explain it to me?" Harry asked.

"Yes," Godric replied. "There is no good to be served in keeping it from you now. You know of course of my rivalry with Salazaar Slytherin. He and I eventually progressed to more than just heated arguments. He got to the point where he wanted nothing more than to see me dead. That only intensified when he had left Hogwarts and I became the next headmaster after Helga Hufflepuff. To make a long story short, we found ourselves in a duel one evening after he hurled an insult at my wife. In the duel he utilized a blood curse, and to counter it I had to use a blood curse of my own. In those curses we swore that our blood would never rest until the blood of our enemy was no more. So, in the foolishness of my youth I engaged in a constant battle that did not die with Salazaar and myself."

"You passed that curse on through your families?" Harry asked.

"Yes," Godric confirmed. "The prophecy that haunts you now was written by my actions many generations before your time. It was no accident that Tom Riddle was drawn to your father just as it is no accident that he is drawn to you. It is written into your very blood that you will meet to decide the outcome of my ancient fight. Until you were born, it was your father who was drawn to fight with Riddle. When he died, it left you as the sole heir of Gryffindor, and Riddle as the sole heir of Slytherin. Unless one of you produces a child, the battle will finally be decided for good one way or the other."

Harry thought about what he had been told for several seconds before he said, "Age is no guarantee of wisdom. Professor Dumbledore told me that once. Little did I know how true it could really be. If you all somehow thought that learning this information would cause me to do something rash, then you don’t really understand what my battle with Voldemort is all about. I’ve known before I ever heard anything about the prophecy that I would have to fight Voldemort. He had already tried to kill me on several occasions. I wasn’t under any illusions that he was just going to suddenly stop and leave me alone. At least this blood curse of yours explains why, deep down, I never wanted him to stop coming after me. I’ve always felt the desire to be the one who kills him. It’s more than the curse that draws us together though. For me it’s this scar on my forehead and the two people he had to kill to give it to me. For him it’s a matter of ego. I was his one failure. He had managed to kill everyone who stood in his way, but he failed to kill me. The way he sees it, he could kill thousands more from now on, but he would never be truly all powerful until he proved to everyone that he could kill me. Whatever your fight with Slytherin might have been, it has little bearing on the fight I’m preparing for with Voldemort."

"The blood curse could handicap you in your battle with him though," Godric said. "The curse will draw you deeper into the fight faster than you might want otherwise. Even if it urges you on seconds before you would have taken action, those are crucial seconds that could be used to refine or rethink a strategy. The curse could blind you to dangers you would otherwise have taken into consideration."

"Well everyone has always said I’ve been a bit reckless in my previous battles with Voldemort," Harry said. "Maybe the curse was the cause for it. Then again, maybe it was just because I was an underage, and under trained, wizard. Either way, you're forgetting one thing. I’m not the only one affected by the curse. Voldemort will be experiencing the same handicap. His only real advantage over me has always been his magical knowledge."

"It has been his advantage over wizards far older and better trained than you, Harry," Godric pointed out. "Still, I do not tell you these things to point out your shortcomings. In fact, I am quite proud of the progress you have been making lately according to all of the reports. I just wanted you to be aware of the curse so that you could perhaps learn to recognize the times when it tries to lead you. You should also be aware that it is unlikely that Tom Riddle knows of the curse at all. He knows that he is the heir of Slytherin, but he would not have found any information about the curse in any book. There are very few who knew of the curse initially, and I do not believe it would have been passed to Riddle by his ancestors. If I was not still present in this portrait, the knowledge would surely have been lost."

"Do you think this is the power mentioned in the prophecy that I have that Voldemort doesn’t know about?" Harry asked.

"Unlikely," Godric said. "After all, it isn’t really a power. It is simply knowledge."

"The muggles say that knowledge is power," Harry said with a grin.

"It may constitute that for a muggle," Godric commented. "After all, muggles are not aware of real magic."

"I am though," Harry said. "I may have gotten a late start on my magical education by living with muggles for so many years, but I know that even in the magical world knowledge can be a very powerful ally."

"Looking at it that way," Godric admitted, "I guess you are quite right. Perhaps age is not a sign of wisdom as you said before. It would appear that even one as old as I can make mistakes. You will have to forgive me. It was at my urging that Professor McGonagal kept this information from you. I felt that you were not ready to deal with the information responsibly."

"I admit that may have been true in years past," Harry said, "but I’m hoping that I’ve grown in maturity over the last year."

"I would say so," Godric said with a grin. "I hate to admit it, but I was a bit immature in my own youth. If you believe some of the things they say about my life since that point, it would appear that I grew considerably as well."

"Perhaps a family trait," Harry suggested with his own grin.

"Perhaps," Godric agreed.

"Would it be okay if I came back to speak with you again some time?" Harry asked.

"I would feel disappointed if you did not," Godric answered.

"Great," Harry said with a genuine smile. "I had better be going now. My friends will be worried sick about me by now."

"It was a distinct pleasure to finally meet you, Harry," Godric said with a slight bow.

"The pleasure was truly mine," Harry said with a bow of his own as he began to descend to the floor.

"You see, Godric," Roweena Ravenclaw said from the portrait next to Godric’s. "I told you he was more of a man than you gave him credit for."

"You were right," Godric said as he looked over at her. "You always were, my love."

Harry descended to the floor in front of McGonagal’s desk much calmer than he had been only minutes before.

"I was only trying to protect you, Harry," McGonagal said using Harry’s first name on a rare occasion.

"I know that," Harry said calmly. "Deep down I know that you’re doing these things because you want to shield me from danger. What you have to understand is that I am not the same eleven-year-old boy who first walked into this school. When I leave here after this year I’m going to have to face every danger that comes my way. I won’t have you there to protect me any more. If you stand in my way now of gaining the knowledge I need to face those dangers, then your protection will have been for nothing."

"What would you have me do?" McGonagal asked.

"Nothing complicated," Harry said. "I want you to stick to the agreement you made with me before I came back to Hogwarts. I want you to keep approving the books on my lists I send up to you. I would prefer to have access to the books all week long instead of only for the weekend, but I’ll take the weekends if that is the best I can get. The only other thing I want from you is to be direct with me. If you want something from me, just ask me for it. Don’t turn the school upside down in a poor attempt to hide the fact that you want something from me. That was the thing that disappointed me the most over these last few months. I knew you were looking for the time turner. I knew you knew that I had to have one. Didn’t it ever occur to any of you to just ask me for it?"

"Would you have given it up if we had?" McGonagal asked.

"Of course," Harry replied. "I may hide things from you that I don’t want you to find, but I won’t ever lie to you. I count you among my friends that I can turn to when I need help. I want you to think of me the same way. I don’t ask you what you’re doing with the map I gave to Professor Lupin, because I don’t want to put you in a position where you might feel the need to lie to me about it. It isn’t easy, but I’m making an attempt to mind my own business."

McGonagal considered Harry for several seconds before she said, "Perhaps you and I need to start over. The things I have done since you returned to school have troubled me a great deal. I always justified them as necessary to protect you. After tonight’s incident though, it has become quite clear that I have lost sight of my original purpose. You’re right of course, Harry. I should have asked you about the time turner as soon as I became aware of it. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t have the faith in you that you have asked for. I felt sure that you would lie about it if asked directly. I did the things I did because I didn’t think I could stand the disappointment I would have felt if you had lied. Little did I know that my actions would cause me to feel that disappointment for myself."

"We all have guilt we have to live with, Professor," Harry said. "Tomorrow is a new day though. Start that day out by calling Ginny up here. You’d be surprised how far an apology can go. Just be honest with her. Explain why it was done, and how you feel about it. Once that situation is rectified, then we can all start over."

"I would like that very much, Harry," McGonagal said with a small grin. "Perhaps tomorrow evening you could come back here and speak with me again."

"I doubt I’ll be able to, Professor," Harry said. "I’ll likely be in detention by then. Filch is probably on his way up here right now."

"Harry," Lupin asked, "what have you done?"

"Well, I was pretty angry on my way up here," Harry admitted. "I may have blasted a couple of holes in the walls along the way to release some tension."

McGonagal sighed heavily, but grinned in spite of herself before she said, "I will do what I can to calm his anger at you, Harry. It would likely be best if you were not here when he arrives though. Go on to dinner, and please tell Miss Weasley how truly sorry I am for what happened."

"I’d like it if Professor Lupin walked down with me," Harry said glancing at a surprised Lupin.

"Really?" Lupin asked.

"Of course," Harry replied. "I need to update you on what was in the other two memories in Regulus Black’s pensive."

Lupin looked to McGonagal as she nodded her agreement. Harry and Lupin began walking for the door. Just before they got there, Harry stopped and turned back to McGonagal.

"If tonight is the first step in repairing my relationship with you, Professor," Harry said, "then I’m not sorry I came back to Hogwarts."

"Thank you, Harry," McGonagal replied as she felt a swelling in her chest. "It means a great deal to me as well."

"Good night, Professor," Harry said with a smile as he turned to go.

"Good night, Harry," McGonagal said smiling herself.

McGonagal sat at her desk and watched as Lupin closed the door behind them. The seconds ticked by, and she was surprised not to hear an earful from the past headmasters.

"Well?" McGonagal asked as she looked at the portraits on the walls. "All of you are certainly quiet. That isn’t like you at all. Surely you have something to say, Phineas."

"I respectfully decline to answer," Phineas said as he turned away from them.

"He surprised you, didn’t he?" Dippet asked with a grin. "You were all ready for him to walk out of here as angry as he was when he walked in. You didn’t believe he would have it in him to compose himself so maturely, did you?"

"He wasn’t his usual self," Phineas finally said. "I’ll give him that."

McGonagal watched as Phineas walked out of his portrait, and she looked up to Dumbledore to see him smiling down at her.

"He has it inside of him," Dumbledore said. "I always knew it was there."

"If you’re right about his hidden power," McGonagal said, "will it be enough?"

"I am right," Dumbledore said. "He just has to discover its existence on his own."

Næst er Kafli 27.
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