Smoke and Mirrors
Over the next two weeks, events at Hogwarts seemed to improve the moods of many students. After Harry’s meeting with McGonagal, the notices about the searches were taken off of the house message boards. Ginny, as Harry had hoped, seemed satisfied with McGonagal’s apology, and she had made efforts to let Professor Lupin know that she forgave him as well. All in all, the mood within the castle seemed to lighten considerably.
That is, everywhere except the room of requirement, where Harry had taken to holding D.A. training sessions every night. Attendance was by no means mandatory. Harry though, would take the time to teach new spells and defenses to anyone who came by no matter how often. Much of the time, Harry studied and trained alone, though under the close supervision of Ginny.
Ginny found it much the same as his training sessions in his own room of requirement at his house. Again and again he would watch as his old battles played out in front of him. Time and again she stood on the top of the tower as Harry watched Dumbledore’s death over and over again. He still insisted that there was some clue waiting to be found in the scene, though a clue to what he could not say.
"Are you ready to call it a draw yet, Harry?" Ginny asked as she stood and stretched in the corner.
"What?" Harry asked having his attention to the frozen form of Snape broken.
"You’ve been staring at him for the last ten minutes," Ginny said. "It’s almost time for dinner."
"I guess you’re right," Harry said walking toward her. "He’ll still be here the next time I need him."
"I don’t know why you would need to look at him again," Ginny observed. "You’ve looked at him from every angle a hundred times since the summer. You might have to face the fact that there isn’t anything to find."
"There has to be, Ginny," Harry explained. "Nothing Snape did that night makes any sense. Every action he took just raises another question about what he was thinking at the time. Everything he did was so unlike him."
"Maybe it was more like him than we knew," Ginny said making Harry stop to consider the possibility briefly.
"Anyway," Harry said not wanting to concede his position, "let’s go down to dinner. After we eat I need to send an owl to Fred and George."
"Well, that is enough to worry anyone," Ginny said with a grin. "You have to worry any time those two are involved."
"It’s nothing really," Harry said. "I just asked them to make another map for me. I just need to check on the progress."
"Oh that makes me feel much better," Ginny said sarcastically.
"Well, you asked," Harry pointed out.
"I know," Ginny said holding up her hands. "I know."
Harry and Ginny walked into the Great Hall and quickly found a seat across from where Ron and Hermione were apparently having a debate.
"Is it true, Harry?" Ron asked before Harry could sit down completely.
"I would have to decline to answer since I don’t know what the question is," Harry said with an amused grin.
"The mystery dot…" Ron began, "On the map… That was you?"
"Of course," Harry confirmed.
"Well why am I always the last one to know?" Ron asked. "How could it have been you? We were there with you at the time. You said you didn’t know who it was."
"At the time, I didn’t," Harry said. "I was just as confused about it as anyone. That I knew of, I was the only one the map would refuse to identify. I had asked Fred and George to build in that feature. It didn’t begin to click as a possibility that it could be me until after we went to Wick. I looked at the footprints the mystery person left behind and something felt familiar. I went back there that night and put my own shoes on top of those footprints. They fit perfectly. That was all the proof I needed to tell me that I was the one who did it. I had already found my dad’s time turner, but I hadn’t used it yet."
"We’ve known about the time turner for a while now, Ron," Ginny said. "I thought you would have pieced this all together by now."
"Well excuse me for not being the suspicious type like some other people I know," Ron accused. "The least you all could have done would have been to tell me about it when you realized it."
"I honesty didn’t think about it, Ron," Hermione said. "I just naturally put that together as soon as I realized Harry had a time turner. I just thought everyone else would as well."
"Well not all of us can have the brains to figure things out like that," Ron sulked. "The less intelligent among us need a little help now and then."
"Ron, I didn’t mean anything like that and you know it," Hermione said apologetically.
"I guess," Ron said after a brief pause. "Just once it would be nice to be the one to learn something before any of the rest of you though."
Tonks walked up behind Ron and Hermione and said, "Evening everyone."
"Evening, Professor," the four of them responded.
"Would it be possible for me to borrow you for a while, Ron?" Tonks asked.
"Me?" Ron asked startled.
"That’s what I said," Tonks confirmed.
"Look if you’re doing this because of what I just said," Ron began, "it really isn’t necessary."
"Considering that I have no idea what you lot were talking about," Tonks said, "the chances of that are slim at best."
"You mean you really need to see me?" Ron asked as his spirits lifted.
"Actually Professor McGonagal sent me to find you," Tonks said.
"Oh great," Ron said as his spirits deflated once again. "Well if I’ve done something I shouldn’t have can I take Hermione up with me?"
"I’m afraid not," Tonks said. "This is Order business. Hermione wasn’t invited."
"Order business?" Ron asked as he perked up again. "You don’t want me then. You want Harry."
"I can assure you that I was quite clear on who I was sent for," Tonks said as her patience began to wear thin. "Now, are you coming or do I have to stun you?"
"I’m coming," Ron said excitedly as he stood and hit his knee on the bottom of the table.
"It isn’t going to be dangerous is it?" Hermione asked fearful.
"I can’t really answer that," Tonks said.
"Ron," Hermione said taking hold of his hand. "Promise me you’ll be careful."
"I will," Ron replied with a dazed smile on his face. "I promise."
"Don’t worry," Tonks said as she pointed Ron in the right direction. "I’ll keep an eye on him for you."
Harry, Ginny and Hermione watched in silence as Tonks led Ron out of the Great Hall.
"You don’t suppose they would take Ron out on a hunt for death eaters do you?" Hermione asked as she bit her bottom lip.
"Surely not," Harry said sensing the worry growing in Ginny as well. "McGonagal would never agree to letting a student do that. Just look at how protective she’s been of me all year. If she won’t let me in on it then she has something else planned for Ron altogether. Maybe they just need to ask him a few questions."
"I hope you’re right, Harry," Hermione said as her eyes became watery. "I don’t know what I would…"
"Don’t worry, Hermione," Ginny said as she reached out and took Hermione’s hand. "I’m sure Harry is right. They may just be trying to get information about the D.A. or something."
"I wish them luck," Harry said. "If Ron is nothing else, he’s loyal. It’s one of his strongest qualities. They would have an easier time getting information out of me."
"Still," Hermione said with worry evident in her voice, "there has to be something we can do."
"Ron might be a bit resentful if we stick our noses into this one," Ginny observed. "He did just have a fit over not knowing about Harry as the mystery dot."
"I don’t care," Hermione said not feeling any calmer. "He’s been gone less than two minutes and I’m a nervous wreck already. Please, Harry. There has to be something you can do. I’m not thinking clearly enough right now to do it on my own."
Harry took a breath as he considered what he was about to agree to before he sighed and said, "All right, Hermione. If it would make you feel better I’ll keep an eye on him. I’ll have to go up to my room to get my invisibility cloak."
"Be careful, Harry," Ginny warned. "As much as Ron won’t like being spied on, the Order will like it even less."
"Very likely," Harry said as he stood to go. "I’ll try to keep under cover."
Before Ginny or Hermione could say anything else, Harry disapparated, and Ginny said, "I may never get used to him being able to do that even here at Hogwarts."
Ron had tried to question Tonks about what he was needed for on the trip to the Headmaster’s office, but she would only tell him that everything would be explained to him when the time was right. After several attempts, he finally gave up and contented himself with concentrating on the tightening feeling developing in his throat.
Once Tonks had opened the door to the Headmaster’s office, Ron stepped inside cautiously to find McGonagal, Lupin, Kingsley and his dad waiting for him. It was his dad’s presence that startled him the most.
"All right there, Ron?" Arthur asked as he walked closer. "You’re looking a bit green at the moment."
"What are you doing here, dad?" Ron asked. "Has something happened?"
"No," Arthur said giving his son a proud hug. "They thought my being here would make you feel better about what we’re about to do."
Ron swallowed hard and asked, "And just what are we here to do?"
"We need your help," Kingsley stated. "We’ve been working on a project, but haven’t been able to get past a barrier that stands in our way. Professor Lupin tells us that you might have a talent that will be useful to us. Interested?"
"How am I supposed to answer a question like that?" Ron asked. "You haven’t told me what the project is yet."
"That’s the way it has to work I’m afraid," Kingsley said. "If you don’t sign on with us then you can go back to dinner with your friends and forget this conversation ever happened. Agree to join us on this mission and we’ll portkey to another location. Once there, you will be told exactly what we need from you."
"I wish we could tell you more now, Mr. Weasley," McGonagal said. "Just know that the potential danger to you is being minimized as much as is possible. The Order members in this room other than myself will accompany you to your destination where still more members await your arrival."
"You aren’t expecting me to hunt death eaters are you?" Ron asked fearful of the answer he would get.
"Certainly not," McGonagal said, as she stood up straighter. "Do you really believe I would allow a student to engage in that type of activity?"
"Oh good," Ron said relieved. "For a minute there I was thinking this was something better suited for Harry."
"I would like to keep Mr. Potter as far from this project as possible," McGonagal said. "I’m sure he would feel differently though."
"I’m not so sure I don’t feel differently," Ron admitted.
"Now, Ron," Arthur said as he put his arm around Ron’s shoulder, "surely you don’t think I would let them put you in serious danger."
Ron was about to answer when he looked around and asked, "Where’s mum?"
"Well," Arthur began as he cleared his throat, "you know how she is. Probably best that you not mention this to her."
"I thought so," Ron said as he took a breath and surveyed the Order member’s faces. "Okay. I’m in. When do we leave?"
"Right away," Kingsley said indicating a rusty old cauldron sitting on a table nearby. "Gather around everyone. I’ve set it to activate five seconds after the first person touches it."
Silently, they all moved into position. Kingsley nodded to the group and they, along with a very nervous looking Ron, reached out and took hold of the rim of the cauldron. Seconds later they were spinning so fast that Ron nearly lost his grip.
After what seemed like ages, they finally stopped and came into contact with solid ground again. Ron’s feet hit something hard and sent him flying away from the cauldron only to land on his back in the darkness. He sat up and looked ahead of him in the darkness just as lightning streaked across the sky and illuminated the dark fortress wall, and caused his mouth to drop open in fear.
McGonagal walked to her desk after the group had portkeyed away, and she looked at the activated map on her desk to assure herself that the party had arrived at their destination. After seeing that their dots and labels were in the right location, she began to pace her office nervously.
"I never would have agreed to this if Arthur hadn’t volunteered Ron for the assignment," McGonagal said. "At least he is being well protected."
"Perhaps better than you know," Dumbledore ventured, making McGonagal turn to look at him. "In the future it would not be a good idea to leave a map such as that activated on your desk."
McGonagal walked to her desk quickly and surveyed the map again. As she feared, another dot appeared on the map with the original group.
"Easy there, Ron," Arthur said as he helped Ron stand up once again. "It isn’t as bad as all that."
"But… But… But…" Ron stammered with wide eyes. "Azkaban? Is that where we are?"
"Yes, Ron," Arthur confirmed. "Don’t worry though. When this is over we get to leave."
"What are we doing here?" Ron asked as he was led up a rocky path toward the gates of Azkaban.
"We brought you here to help us find something that was hidden here many years ago," Lupin said as the group walked though the gate to find Moody standing among aurors and Order members alike. "It was Harry who gave us a tip about its location. We’ve just hit a bit of a problem trying to recover it."
"Well if all of you can’t recover it then what do you expect me to be able to do?" Ron asked still not believing he was really walking through Azkaban. "What is it anyway?"
"It’s a horcrux, Ron," Lupin said as he watched Ron’s eyes open even wider.
"A horcrux?" Ron nearly squealed. "I don’t know how to find them."
"We’ve already found it," Moody said. "We just need you to get to it."
"A horcrux," Ron said shaking his head. "I knew you should have brought Harry."
"He doesn’t have your talent with Concealment charms," Kingsley said.
"I don’t see where that is going to do you any good unless you want me to hide from the horcrux," Ron pointed out. "Which I’m willing to do, mind you."
"It’s unlikely that you would have to, Ron," Tonks said. "This is just one stage we’re asking for you to help us through. There are likely more stages to penetrate beyond that one. You won’t have to recover the horcrux personally."
"Still," Ron said as he swallowed again, "I would feel better if Harry were here with me."
"Then you can relax," Moody said as his magic eye looked off to Ron’s left. "Potter is here."
"What?" Ron asked at the same time as Lupin and Kingsley as they looked around.
"It’s no use hiding now, Potter," Moody said as he turned his head to look where his magic eye had been focused. "I can see you plainly through that cloak."
Seconds later, Harry pulled the cloak off and revealed himself to everyone in the courtyard.
"Harry, what are you doing here?" Ron asked as he walked closer to Harry.
"I think we would all like to know that," Lupin said with a serious look as he converged on Harry as well.
"I’m sorry, Ron," Harry said fearing that Ron would be upset with him. "I wasn’t here to interfere."
"Then why are you here?" Moody asked.
"And how did you get here?" Tonks asked.
"I’m here because I promised Hermione that I would keep an eye on Ron," Harry explained. "I was just supposed to watch him and make sure he wasn’t in any danger."
"Really?" Ron asked with a grin. "Was she really that worried?"
"She was nearly mental, mate," Harry said. "Promising to watch your back was the only way to calm her down."
"Wicked," Ron said as his smile widened. "She loves me."
"As touching as that is," Kingsley began, "this may not be the best time or place to discuss it. We now have to deal with the problem of Mr. Potter being here."
"I’ll look after him," Arthur said as he stepped to Harry’s side. "He already knows why we’re here. It wouldn’t serve any purpose to send him away now."
"Not if you want my help anyway," Ron stated. "I say he stays."
Kingsley considered the options briefly before saying, "Very well, but if you interfere in any way I’ll have you locked in a cell here, Mr. Potter."
"I understand," Harry said.
"Wow, Harry," Ron said as they followed the order members toward the center of the courtyard. "You picked a great time to drop in. These Order guys were beginning to creep me out. It’s nice to know I’m not the only sane one here."
"From what I could see you were doing fine," Harry said. "You could have done this alone."
"Maybe," Ron acknowledged. "It makes me feel better knowing I have someone who I can trust watching out or me."
"Well, I like that," Arthur said slightly insulted. "What am I here for?"
"No offense dad," Ron explained. "The Order has it’s own agenda. I’m D.A. through and through. It felt weird being the only one here."
"If anyone had told me that I would be walking through Azkaban tonight I would have thought they were crazy," Harry said in a hushed voice.
"I know what you mean," Ron said. "Weird isn’t it?"
In he center of the courtyard, Harry and Ron saw everyone gathered around a small pool of dark water. As they drew close they could see the water rippling slightly in the night breeze that was blowing.
"This is where we think it’s hidden," Kingsley stated as he pointed toward the pool. "We detected strong magical spells operating in this area while we were sweeping the prison for a possible hiding place for the horcrux. It took months of effort just to discover the secret to activate the protection. The pool appears to be about a meter deep normally. We tried to empty it, but more water appeared to replace the amount we took out. We believe that it is an original feature built into the pool when it was constructed. Repeated attempts to drag the bottom of the pool for the horcrux proved unsuccessful. Attempts to make the horcrux reveal itself through the use of spells proved equally as fruitless."
"Did you ever consider that maybe the magic you detected was the spell that keeps the water level full?" Ron asked.
"That was becoming a popular theory," Kingsley admitted, "but then Remus related to us the details of Professor Dumbledore’s last mission to find a horcrux."
"Of course I could have told you about that at any time if anyone had asked," Harry pointed out. "But of course I’m not really here, so don’t mind me."
Kingsley gave Harry a warning look before he said, "As I was saying, it was when we found out about the blood key used to gain entrance to the cave where Dumbledore found the last horcrux that we decided to give it a try here. Even a single drop of blood dropped into the water will turn the surface into a solid mirrored glass. The problem comes whenever someone looks over the edge and sees their reflection in the mirror. Any body part reflected in the mirror will make it turn back into its liquid state."
"What about an invisibility cloak?" Ron asked.
"We tried that," Kingsley replied. "Somehow, it detects the person under the cloak the same way Alastor’s magic eye does. The only thing we haven’t been able to try so far is having someone look over the edge while using a concealment charm. That we know of, there is only one living person other than the Dark Lord who can perform a full body concealment charm successfully."
"I see," Ron said as more of the color drained from his face. "At least now I see why you wanted me along. You wouldn’t happen to have any idea what’s going to happen when I look over the edge would you? I mean, I’m not suddenly going to be pulled into the water am I?"
"There is no way for us to know," Kingsley admitted. "Actually, it may not work at all. This is only a guess on our part."
Ron took hold of Harry and pulled him to an area away from the aurors and Order members before he asked quietly, "What do you think, Harry?"
"I don’t know, Ron," Harry replied. "This may be very different than the hunt for the locket. The blood is most likely a common element given Voldemort’s fascination with it. Beyond that there are a lot of unknowns. The lake was full of inferi, but Voldemort spent a lot of time planning and implementing that series of obstacles. With this one he sent one of his death eaters to do it for him. I don’t think he would have had time to fill the pool with inferi or any other creatures in great numbers. I don’t think the dementors would have given him that much time. Whatever tasks lay beyond the mirror are likely to be skill and logic puzzles."
"Great," Ron said sarcastically. "So if I get pulled into the pool to solve any of those I would really need Hermione to help get me past them."
"Ron," Harry began as he dropped his voice even lower, "I wasn’t going to bring it up, but you need to know that you have another option if you don’t want to do this. I’ve been practicing the concealment charm ever since that day in class. I can’t hold it for as long as you can, but I can do the full body concealment now. I could take your place if you wanted."
"You would do that?" Ron asked.
"Someone needs to try," Harry said. "I’ll volunteer to take your place if you really don’t want to do it."
Ron thought about it seriously for a moment before he said, "I can’t let you do that, Harry. We all know what you have ahead of you. I can’t let you risk getting hurt doing this for me. Besides, you heard what Kingsley said. If you interfere he’s going to lock you in a cell. He knows as well as I do how McGonagal would freak out if she even knew you were here, much less risking your life."
"Are you sure?" Harry asked.
Ron nodded and said, "I’m sure."
"I’ll hold on to you while you look over he edge then," Harry offered. "If anything starts to happen I’ll be able to pull you back."
"Thanks, Harry," Ron said. "I’m really glad you’re here watching my back, mate."
"Well somebody has to," Harry said. "I don’t want to be the one to go back and tell Hermione if something goes wrong."
"I’m ready," Ron said as he walked back to where Kingsley and the others waited. "Harry is going to hang on to me just in case."
"I said before that Mr. Potter was not to have anything to do with this mission," Kingsley said sternly.
"I think we can all see that Mr. Potter is already involved whether we like it or not," Moody said. "Lets get on with this either way. The sooner we get through the glass barrier the sooner we can get them back to Hogwarts and let McGonagal deal with them."
"I doubt it will be that simple," Lupin observed. "None of us will hear the end of it if anything happens to either one of them."
"Very well then," Kingsley said as he pulled a dagger and pushed the tip into he palm of his hand before letting the blood drip into the pool. "You can begin when you’re ready."
"Ready, Harry?" Ron asked.
Harry reached out and took hold of the back of Ron’s robes as he said, "Be careful, Ron."
Seconds later, Ron vanished from view. Harry, having a tight grip on Ron’s robes, followed behind Ron as he moved closer to the pool. Ron stopped just short of it, and considered for a moment before leaning over the edge and looking into the mirror.
"It looks like clear glass," Ron said. "I think I can see the bottom. There’s some kind of light I think. No. Wait. It’s coming closer. It looks like something reflective. It’s a…"
At that moment, Ron felt a powerful tug forward toward the pool that lifted him off his feet and pulled Harry in with him. Lupin reached out frantically and grabbed onto Harry’s ankle as he was pulled into the pool after Ron, but he to was pulled inside along with his two students.
Ron’s scream was cut off, as he slammed hard into a solid dry surface. If he had any air left in his body, it would have been knocked out when Harry immediately landed on top of him. Lupin landed just behind Harry, and finally let go of his ankle when he hit the ground.
"Harry," Ron asked with a shaky voice, "what happened?"
"I’m not sure," Harry said as he rolled off of Ron. "I thought we were being pulled into the pool, but it’s dry here."
"Nice of you to tag along, Professor," Ron said as he turned his head and noticed Professor Lupin trying to right himself.
"Well I couldn’t very well let you two have all the fun," Lupin said with a grimace as he sat up and started to look around.
"Look at that," Harry said in amazement as he pointed above them.
They all looked up to see a square opening overhead with rippling water above it. They could all see the shimmering faces of Kingsley and the others as they looked over the edge and scanned the water.
"So, any theories about this one, Professor?" Harry asked. "This is a new one on me."
"Well judging from the relative size of the opening above to the size of the people looking into the pool, I would guess that we’ve been pulled into a magically expanded artificial environment," Lupin said as he stood and dusted himself off.
Harry and Ron looked at him in astonishment before Harry said, "That sounds better than anything I had in mind. What exactly does it mean?"
"I think he means it’s like the tent we used at the Quidditch World Cup," Ron said. "It can be almost any size on the outside, but be magically expanded on the inside to provide a larger amount of room."
"Exactly," Lupin agreed.
"Somehow I liked walking into the tent better than dropping in here," Harry said.
"It stands to reason," Lupin said. "Voldemort would have been able to install the protections he wanted in this room before he sent his death eater to bury it in the bottom of the pool. All the death eater would have to do would be to set the spells in place that we’ve encountered up to now."
"That doesn’t sound very promising," Ron said as he drew his wand. "I don’t suppose Voldemort would make the horcrux easy to get to. Lumos."
The area beyond Ron’s wand burst into illumination, and Ron began to sweep around the area as Harry said, "Well he didn’t spend much time on the decoration."
"There," Lupin said as Ron’s wand light reached the edge of a stone alter at one end of the room.
Harry and Lupin both shot light from their own wands at the alter and the surrounding area that had not been searched as Harry said, "This looks like the only thing in the room. There are no doors to other areas. The horcrux must be on the altar."
"Hmm," Lupin said. "Surely it couldn’t be that easy."
"I wouldn’t call what we’ve been through so far easy," Ron commented.
"Actually, compared to the search for the locket I went on with Professor Dumbledore, this one has been fairly easy so far," Harry said. "I suspect it will get much worse from here on."
"So what do we do now?" Ron asked.
"You two don’t do anything," Lupin said seriously. "You weren’t even supposed to make it this far in the search. We all thought you would look at the mirror and see some way of opening the way for the rest of us to take over from there. The recovery of the horcrux is solely up to me now."
"You won’t get any argument from me," Ron replied.
"Harry?" Lupin asked.
"I can’t interfere or Kingsley will lock me in a cell," Harry said with a slight grin. "Remember?"
"Just make sure you remember it," Lupin said seriously.
"So what are you going to do?" Ron asked correcting his earlier question.
"Start with the obvious," Lupin said as he held his hand out toward the altar. "Accio horcrux."
They all waited, but nothing resulted from the spell.
"Maybe a little less obvious is in order," Harry suggested.
"So it would seem," Lupin replied as ropes flew from the end of his wand toward the altar only to pass through the altar and strike the wall beyond.
"Oh you have to be kidding me," Ron said. "It isn’t even real."
"Don’t be too sure," Harry said. "The water in the pool was a liquid until a drop of blood was added to it. This altar may operate the same way."
"Great,’ Ron said. "So, all we have to do is walk over to it and drop in some blood."
"You’ll stay right where you are," Lupin corrected. "I’ll walk closer to it."
"Of course," Ron conceded.
Lupin walked forward cautiously, aware that unseen traps may yet be waiting to spring. He had made the trip half way to the altar before he heard faint sound to either side of him. He turned his wand to one of the side walls just in time to see wetly glistening arrow points protruding from the walls. Instinct took over as Lupin ducked and rolled closer to the altar just as the arrows flew through the spot he had just been occupying. Harry and Ron directed light at where the arrows had struck the walls and heard the hissing sound as the acidic poison on the arrow tips began eating into the stone walls.
"Professor," Harry yelled. "Are you all right?"
"I’m fine," Lupin answered, though a look at his face clearly showed how shaken he really was. "I’m just going to take a minute to survey the walls for any sign of more surprises."
"If you need me to, I can…" Harry began.
"I already told you not to do anything," Lupin interrupted. "The last thing I need is for one of you to walk into a trap like that one. I’ll be fine. Just give me a chance to collect myself again."
Lupin looked at the walls very carefully before turning his attention to the ceiling. Neither place showed any signs that another trap was waiting to spring. Lupin stood and carefully took a single step before surveying the area once again and taking another step. All of his steps played the same way until he reached the base stone of the altar. He placed a foot on the stone gently as he stepped up to look at the altar top. As far as he could see, it was a blank transparent stone. He ran his hand through the stone as easily as the rope had penetrated it previously. Taking a deep breath, he aimed his wand at his hand and whispered a mild cutting spell. Moments later, one, then another drop of blood dripped from his hand and passed through the altar and onto the stone below.
"It didn’t work this time," Lupin yelled back to Harry and Ron. "The blood didn’t make the altar solid. I don’t see any sign of an object that could be a horcrux yet. I’ll have to try something else."
Over the next few minutes, Lupin used every summoning spell he could think of to draw the horcrux out of hiding, but to no avail. He tried to charm the altar to make it solid. He tried to transfigure it. He tried applying heat and cold, but that too met with less than desirable results. He tried several spells and incantations on it, but nothing he did made the slightest difference in its form or solidity.
Lupin decided to step back from the altar and see if there was anything he was missing. As soon as his feet had left the stone base, there was a rushing sound from overhead, and a long metal spear shot down out of the ceiling and buried itself into the center of the altar’s solid stone base. Almost immediately, a dark green smoke began to spew from the punctured rock. Lupin knew immediately that whatever the gas was in the smoke, it was almost surely of a deadly nature.
Lupin turned to walk back the way he had come, but almost immediately found that a shield had gone up in his path and blocked his way. The smoke from the stone had already filled the far end of the chamber, and it was quickly moving in his direction. He tried to disapparate, but it proved as impossible as it was in Azkaban above.
Ron watched in horror as the gas closed in on where Lupin stood as she shakily said, "Harry, what do we do?"
"Stay calm," Harry said as he concentrated on Lupin’s exact location.
Just before the gas reached him, Lupin suddenly noticed a hand closing tightly around his upper right arm. A moment of weightlessness followed as Lupin blinked and found himself standing next to Ron with Harry holding tightly to him.
"What…" Lupin began.
"Are you all right, Professor?" Harry asked as he released Lupin’s arm.
"Did you…" Lupin began again.
"Sorry, Professor," Harry said. "I know you told me to stay out of it, but I wasn’t about to let you go that easily."
"Harry, that was amazing," Ron said with a wide smile.
"Ron isn’t the only one who’s glad you’re here, Harry," Lupin said as he looked back at the gas contained by the shield that had trapped him just moments before. "Thanks."
"Glad I could help," Harry said. "Just don’t tell Kingsley about it."
"Speaking of Kingsley," Ron said, "should we look for a way out now?"
"Well there is still one side of the room that we haven’t tried yet," Harry said.
"We didn’t see anything over on that side before though," Ron said. "Besides, what if there are more traps on that side? That would be really bad if the rest of the room was full of deadly gas."
"I don’t think so," Harry commented as he used the light from his wand to illuminate the wall on the opposite end of the room. "We chose what we took to be the easy path before just because we could see the altar against the far wall. Being the most obvious choice, we investigated. It turned out that the altar might never have existed at all. Finding that out nearly got one of us killed."
"So you think it was put there as a decoy to lead an intruder to his death?" Lupin asked.
"I think so," Harry said. "After all, think about how this whole thing started. There was a simple pool of water that turned to glass when blood was dropped in it. Ron was the only one who could look into the glass. Maybe the same is true down here. Maybe we should let Ron conceal himself to see what isn’t so visible to the rest of us."
"That could be a risky proposition," Lupin pointed out. "Doing that may set off another trap for all we know. Besides, would Voldemort really use the same trick he used for the mirror in the pool. If someone did manage to get past the pool, he surely would have figured they would try it again down here."
"I would agree with that if we hadn’t just experienced the thing he placed in here to distract someone from thinking of that option," Harry observed. "We know that the horcrux is here. We can also be fairly sure it isn’t on the side of the room we already tried. Unless someone else has another idea, I don’t think we have much choice but to try a concealment charm."
"I’m willing to try it," Ron said. "If we stay right here and I take a look, maybe I’ll see something on the other side. After we know where it is, then we can figure out how to go about getting to it."
"All right then," Lupin relented. "Harry and I are going to hold onto you though, just in case."
Harry and Lupin each took a firm hold on Ron’s arms as Ron readied himself and then disappeared.
"I see it!" Ron exclaimed. "There’s another altar on the far wall. It looks more solid than the other one did. There’s a gold cup of some kind…"
Ron never got the chance to finish his sentence as he once again was pulled along with Harry and Lupin right up to the altar by an unseen force. A split second later, they all heard the unmistakable sound of arrows rushing through the air and striking at the stone walls behind them.
"I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t try to walk over here," Harry said as he looked back at the deadly area they would have just walked through.
"I can see it, Harry," Ron said. "The cup is just sitting there on the top waiting for someone to take it. It has the Hufflepuff symbol etched into the side of it."
"That would be the cup that belonged to Helga Hufflepuff," Harry said. "Dumbledore suspected Tom Riddle stole it when he was working at Borgin and Burks."
"Well he picked a strange place to hide it," Ron said.
"Can you think of a more secure location?" Lupin asked. "If the dementors were still guarding the prison, no wizard would want to get near it if they didn’t have to."
"I guess you’re right," Ron said. "So what should I do now? Should I try to grab the cup?"
"Take a careful look at the altar first," Lupin said. "Look for anything that might trigger a booby trap. I wouldn’t put it past Voldemort to put one in even at this stage."
"I can almost guarantee it," Harry said.
Ron was silent for several seconds as he looked over the altar carefully for any sign that something was amiss before he said, "I can’t see anything. The stone is completely smooth."
"Does the cup have anything in it?" Harry asked.
"No," Ron replied. "It’s empty."
"All right then," Lupin said. "Reach out very slowly and touch it gently to make sure it’s real."
Ron reached out his hand and brushed it lightly against the metal of the cup before he said, "It’s real enough. I don’t seem to have activated any unseen traps by touching it. What next?"
"I suppose it is possible that Voldemort expected the arrows to deal with anyone who tried to take it," Harry said not sounding truly convinced.
"Harry," Lupin said, "if he picks up the cup and poison gas starts spewing out of the top of the altar, would you be able to apparate us all back to the center of the room the way you did with me the last time?"
"I think so," Harry replied. "It won’t make much difference if there isn’t a shield on this end to trap the gas from going beyond it."
"Voldemort must have had some plan for getting out of here once he had gotten the horcrux," Ron said. "Maybe the horcrux is a portkey as well."
"You might be right," Lupin admitted. "The brief touch you gave it would not be enough to activate it if it is."
"We may have to consider the possibility that we might not like where it takes us if it is a portkey," Harry pointed out.
"This is all well and good," Ron said, "but what if he built some kind of time limit into this? We could activate it just by standing here and debating all of the possibilities."
"Let’s do it then," Lupin said. "We’ll hold on to you while you grab onto the cup. "Be ready to apparate us, Harry, just in case."
Ron reached out and placed his hands firmly around the cup and held them there for several seconds as he waited for it to activate a portkey. The seconds passed, but nothing happened.
"Are you touching it?" Harry asked.
"Yes," Ron replied. "I think we can strike the portkey theory off the list."
"Lift it off of the altar carefully," Lupin instructed.
Ron lifted the cup off of the altar and he, the cup and the altar sprang into the visible realm suddenly.
"Oh, this can’t be a good sign," Harry said just before a metal spear shot from the altar and clanged against the roof of the room.
Lupin gathered Harry and Ron close as he performed a shield spell to protect them from the falling stone the spear had dislodged. The effect of the spear impact continued though, as they all heard the sound of glass beginning to crack. They looked back to the tiny clear window through which they had apparently entered the room to see cracks spreading over its surface. Seconds later the window gave way and water began rushing down into the room from the pool above.
"Somehow I don’t think we’ll be able to swim out of this place," Ron said nervously as water splashed up against the base of the altar.
"Hold on to me," Harry said as the water rose quickly. "I think I can get us out."
Ron and Lupin took a tight hold on Harry’s shoulders as Harry concentrated on moving though the window opening and into the courtyard above. As the water reached their knees, they disapparated and felt the cool night air on their skin as they reappeared in the spot they had been occupying before they had been sucked into the pool.
"Ron!" Arthur exclaimed as he quickly stepped over and took Ron in his arms. "Are you all right?"
"I’m fine dad," Ron said as his dad showed no signs of letting him go. "We found the horcrux."
"We were afraid we lost all of you," Kingsley said as he walked over to Lupin.
"You very nearly did," Lupin said as Ron handed the horcrux to Kingsley. "Arthur, you should be proud of Ron. We never would have been able to locate the horcrux down there without him. Kingsley, before you toss Harry into a cell as you said you would, you should know that neither Ron or I would have made it out without Harry’s assistance."
"Well I’ll let him go this time," Kingsley said with a grin, "but you can be the one to explain their involvement to Professor McGonagal. Take the horcrux back to Hogwarts with you. Arthur and Tonks can help you escort Harry and Ron back. I’m sure they’ve been missed by now. I have some things I need to discuss with Moody before I follow behind you."
Kingsley handed Lupin the horcrux and Lupin motioned for his departing party to follow him. They walked out of the gates of Azkaban as a proud Arthur kept his hand rested on Ron’s shoulder. A short spinning ride on the portkey later, they came to rest once again in McGonagal’s office.
McGonagal turned to see Harry and Ron before she ran to them and wrapped her arms around them in a very un-McGonagal type way as she said, "Oh, my goodness. I’m so glad you returned unharmed. I was so worried."
"I was just trying to keep an eye on Ron," Harry said. "I’ll accept whatever punishment you think is fitting."
"I don’t intend to punish you at all, Harry," McGonagal said with a smile as she let the two of them go. "The only thing I want from the two of you is your promise that you won’t tell anyone where you went tonight."
"That won’t be easy," Harry said. "Hermione and Ginny sent me to look after Ron. I have to be able to tell them something."
"We certainly can’t tell them the truth," Ron observed. "Hermione would flip if she found out I went to Azkaban."
"I’ll help you come up with a plausible cover story on the way back down to the Great Hall," Tonks said. "You two don’t need to keep those ladies waiting any longer than they already have."
"Are you sure you aren’t going to punish me?" Harry asked as he looked back to McGonagal. "I’ve really laid a prime opportunity at your feet this time."
"I’m sure," McGonagal said. "Now go on to dinner. You leave with the gratitude of the Order of the Phoenix."
Harry and Ron turned and followed Tonks out of the office.
Once the door was shut, Lupin placed the horcrux on McGonagal’s desk as he said, "I guess you were happy to see them. You didn’t even wait to find out that we recovered the horcrux."
"So soon?" McGonagal asked as she examined the cup. "Why didn’t you send Harry and Ron back sooner? Was the horcrux that easy to find?"
"There was nothing easy about it," Lupin said. "You had better sit down before I give you the full report."
"Why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like the danger level they were placed in?" McGonagal asked as she sat down behind her desk.
"You won’t," Lupin assured her. "Just let me go on record now for saying that if we ever decide to use one of them in an Order operation in the future, we should use both of them. They make a great team."
"I always knew Ron had it in him," Arthur said proudly as he sat to listen to the report as well. "I just wish I could tell his mum."
"What news do you bring me, Bellatrix?" Voldemort asked as he braced himself for the news.
"My master," Bellatrix said with a bow, "no more death eaters disappeared during the night. They are all accounted for."
"How do you account for that, Bellatrix?" Voldemort asked. "At least one had vanished on every previous night up to the last one."
"I have no explanation, my Lord," Bellatrix replied. "I have a guess, but it goes against the infinite wisdom of your belief."
"Then guess," Voldemort said trying to keep his calm, "and let me judge it’s worth."
"I have had a report that a select group of aurors set out on a secret mission last night, my Lord" Bellatrix said. "No documentation was made of the mission as is required by Ministry regulation."
"Is it your belief then, that aurors from the Ministry went out on a secret mission last night to avoid capturing death eaters?" Voldemort asked.
"I believe it possible that the aurors could have been occupied with another task, my Lord," Bellatrix said knowing she was treading into dangerous waters.
"That would suggest you believe the aurors to be responsible for the nightly disappearances of the death eaters," Voldemort observed with warning in his voice. "I have already explained why the aurors are not responsible for the disappearances."
"I know, my Lord," Bellatrix said bowing low. "Forgive my ignorance."
"If the Ministry had captured so many, I would know it," Voldemort said as his voice grew louder. "I have spies in the Ministry who would not dare keep such information from me. Besides, any captured death eaters by the Ministry would have been featured in the Prophet. No, Bellatrix, the Ministry did not capture any death eaters. It is equally preposterous that they decided to desert en mass. There is only one possibility, as I have said before. He was responsible for capturing death eaters before he went back to school, and he is responsible now."
"But the-boy-who-must-not-be-named has been seen at Hogwarts on every night that a death eater was taken," Bellatrix said just before her body became wracked with pain.
"Do not question me again, Bellatrix," Voldemort yelled. "I know he is involved. I can feel it."
"Forgive me, master," Bellatrix said through gritted teeth as she tried to ignore the intense pain flooding through her. "I have sworn to obey. Please, master."
"Very well," Voldemort said as he released his spell from her and she collapsed on the floor. "Now, tell me, when is the next time the students will be allowed to visit Hogsmeade?"
"The first Saturday in December, my Lord," Bellatrix responded as she tried to right herself.
"Good," Voldemort said as he crossed to his desk and picked up a small corked bottle. "Make sure there is no death eater activity anywhere near Hogsmeade between now and then. I want the students to feel safe when they walk out of the gates that day."
"I’ll see to it personally, my Lord," Bellatrix said.
"Take this," Voldemort said as he handed the bottle to Bellatrix. "This potion is to be an early Christmas present for Harry, or should I say, for his girlfriend. Even a single drop of the potion on her skin will have the desired effect. Then he can watch her suffer terribly. Take care not to get any on your own skin, for there is no antidote. Coordinate the attack with Lucius, but do not share details of it with any of the others. There is only one target. I believe a small number of death eaters would be appropriate for this attack. Stealth will be your ally this time."
The weeks passed slowly at Hogwarts leading up to the Hogsmeade weekend they all hoped would be allowed. Harry filled his time outside of class taking walks outside with Ginny in between his abundant training and study sessions. Ron was happy to see that Harry’s walks began to take more of his time, as he found himself increasingly unable to tear himself away from Ginny to return to the Room of Requirement.
On the morning of the Hogsmeade weekend, Harry was walking down the stairs with Ginny, Hermione and Ron. Harry was paying a bit too much attention to Ginny, and not enough to his own footing, as his foot came down on the edge of a step and he fell forward. Ron, seeing what was happening, jumped down four stairs to bring himself even with Harry as he reached out and stopped his fall.
Harry felt Ron’s Hand close on his upper arm, and Harry was surprised by a sudden flash of white light just ahead of him. As soon as it appeared, it disappeared once again.
"Thanks, Ron," Harry said as Ron pulled him back to an erect position.
"You had better be more careful, mate," Ron warned.
"Did you all see that flash of light?" Harry asked as he looked around for its source.
"What flash of light?" Ginny asked as she looked to Hermione and Ron to see similar questions on their faces.
"Really?" Harry asked. "You didn’t see it? Just as Ron caught me there was a flash of white light."
"Maybe it was just a reflection," Hermione reasoned.
"Or maybe it was that proverbial life flashing before your eyes sensation," Ginny said with a grin.
"I’m more likely to accept Hermione’s suggestion," Harry said with his own grin. "Lets hurry down to breakfast before McGonagal changes her mind about letting us go."
"Probably best not to mention that you’re seeing flashes of light," Ron pointed out. "She’ll lock down the school over it if you do."
The students walked out of the castle to find a group of aurors waiting to escort them to Hogsmeade. The aurors held them all there until all of the students had formed between their ranks. Only when the castle doors were closed behind them did the aurors allow the group to move forward. It was plain for the students to see that their trip to Hogsmeade would be restricted much more than any in the past.
Once inside Hogsmeade, the students saw more aurors stationed at regular intervals along the street. Death eaters would have a hard time penetrating the Ministry defenses if they decided to attack. The aurors were under direct orders from the Minister of Magic to clear the streets of all students before joining in the fight against any attacks.
After lunch at The Three Brooksticks, Harry emerged onto the street with Ginny Hermione and Ron, and Harry said, "Well, Ginny, Ron and I are going to… I mean we need to…"
"Are you trying to say you have a bit of shopping to do that you don’t want us around for?" Hermione asked.
"Well, in a word, yes," Harry said as Ron nodded in agreement.
"That’s fine, Harry," Ginny said with a grin. "Hermione and I have some things we need to look at as well. Let’s meet back here in an hour."
"Sounds great," Harry said hugging Ginny. "Stay out of trouble you two."
"It seems odd that you two would be saying that to us," Hermione separated from Ron’s hug. "I think it more likely that we should be saying it to you."
"I’ll be on my best behavior," Ron said.
"That’s what we’re worried about," Ginny said with a chuckle as she and Hermione started to walk away.
"So where did you want to start?" Harry asked as he tore his eyes away from Ginny’s retreating form.
"I was thinking Hermione might want a new quill or some stationary," Ron commented.
"Either way we can find both at Scrivenshaft’s," Harry said as they began making their way up the street.
"Have you decided what you want to get for Ginny yet?" Ron asked.
"Nothing specific," Harry replied. "I just know that I want to get her something as sweet and beautiful as she is."
"Keep in mind who you’re talking to, mate," Ron said in mock disgust. "She is my sister you know."
"I need you to be serious now, Ron," Harry said with a grin. "I only have an hour to find something, and I need your help picking it out. Otherwise I’ll have to wait until we leave for Christmas and find something in London for her. I don’t want it to be something last minute this year. I want this to be special."
"So exactly what are your intentions with my sister, mate?" Ron asked in all seriousness.
"What makes you ask that?" Harry asked.
"I saw what it did to her when you broke up with her over at the end of last school year," Ron explained. "I just don’t want to see her hurt again. As much of a pain as she can be, I love her, Harry."
"So do I, Ron," Harry replied. "So much so that one day you and I will be brothers."
A smile spread over Ron’s face as he said, "I was hoping you would say that, Harry. I just had to make sure."
"Right," Harry said with a mischievous grin. "So, what exactly are your intentions with Hermione?"
Ron flushed immediately as his hands went into his pockets and his pace quickened and he said, "You know perfectly well what my intentions are. I can’t believe you didn’t wake me up as soon as you realized I was talking in my sleep."
"Well I tried to put a silencing charm on you, but Hermione blocked it," Harry commented.
"We really have to start waking up earlier," Ron commented as he came to the steps of Scrivenshaft’s.
Forty-five minutes later, Hermione and Ginny emerged from Honeyduke’s as Ginny explained, "Remember who my brother is, Hermione. Of course he’ll like it. If there is one thing he loves it has to be food."
"I guess you’re right," Hermione admitted as she and Ginny walked slowly back down toward The Three Broomsticks. "I guess I just feel bad that it didn’t take nearly as long to pick something out for Ron as it did for Harry."
"Well, Ron isn’t a very complicated person," Ginny said. "Everything he is he makes known. Harry is a different situation all together."
"I guess you’re right," Hermione conceded, not noticing the two hooded figures that walked out from the alley beside the post office.
Just as planned, the two death eaters blended into the busy street full of people wrapping up to protect from the chill of the season. Keeping a watchful eye on the aurors whom watched for a larger attack, they quickened their pace slightly so they could easily catch up with their target before they could enter another building. Not until they were right behind Hermione and Ginny did they spring their attack.
"Out of the way, mudblood," Lucius spat as he shoved Hermione hard from behind and made her fall to the ground.
Ginny turned in surprise to see Lucius and Bellatrix as Bellatrix laughed and said, "Happy holidays from the Dark Lord."
Bellatrix uncorked the bottle and thrust it at Ginny. Ginny tried to bring her arm up to block the potion that spilled out toward her, but a few drops landed on her cheek.
Hermione rolled over with her wand ready, and she used a disarming spell to wrench the potion bottle out of Bellatrix’s hand. A moment later, she went limp as a stunning spell from Lucius put her out of the fight.
Ginny could feel the effects of the potion as soon as it contacted her skin. The spots where it landed burned as the potion absorbed into her cheek and began to spread throughout her body. The pain reached a fever level quickly and she felt herself begin to topple as she lost consciousness. Somewhere near her, someone screamed as people began to scramble away from the scene.
"Wow, mate," Ron said as Harry held up the dress he wanted to buy Ginny from Gladrags. "Even I can see how beautiful that is. She’ll love it."
Just then, Harry stopped as a small flash of light erupted in his field of vision as it had before. This time though, the light didn’t go away, and it was accompanied by a feeling that twisted Harry’s insides in knots.
Harry dropped the dress on the floor as he turned toward the front of the store with wide eyes and screamed, "NO! GINNY!"
Before Ron could ask what was wrong, Harry disapparated. When he reappeared on the street near The Three Broomsticks, his wand was already being drawn. His heart sank as he saw Ginny and Hermione lying on the ground with two death eaters standing over them. Harry aimed carefully as a spell shot from his wand and caught Lucius in the chest and sent him careening back trying to maintain consciousness. Bellatrix laughed again as she grabbed onto Lucius’ arm and they both disapparated before Harry could get another shot off.
Harry sank down next to Ginny as tears burst from him and he cradled Ginny’s trembling body in his arms. An auror ran over and revived Hermione seconds later. Even as a crowd gathered around them, they could all hear Ron’s screams of distress as he called out to his sister for an answer.
"No, Ginny," Harry sobbed as he held her to him. "It was supposed to be me. Why? Why couldn’t I protect you?"
"There was nothing you could have done, Harry," Hermione said as her head cleared. "They came out of nowhere. They threw some kind of potion onto her."
"Why didn’t you stop them?" Harry yelled at the nearest auror through his sobs. "How many of you does it take?"
"Let me through," Ron said as he pushed his way through the crowd followed by Lupin and Tonks. "Oh, God! Ginny!"
"Harry we have to get her to St. Mungo’s right away," Lupin said.
"I’ll take her," Harry said as he held her tighter. "This is my responsibility."
Before anyone could argue, Harry and Ginny disapparated. Hermione, Ron, Neville and Luna followed shortly thereafter.
"Good lord!" Lupin exclaimed as the students apparated away without asking permission. "Tonks, take that bottle of potion to St. Mungo’s. They’ll need to analyze the potion to develop the antidote. Keep an eye on those kids until I get there."
"Well don’t take long," Tonks said as she picked up the bottle with a set of tongs. "I’ll need your help before long. Harry will be a mess after this. You know what he’s going to want to do."
Tonks disapparated knowing there was no need to elaborate. Lupin and the aurors gathered the remainder of the students together and escorted them back to the castle as quickly as possible.
Tonks apparated into the lobby of St. Mungo’s to a flurry of activity around the reception desk as healers tried to make Harry release Ginny so they could take her away. Orderlies grabbed Harry and physically pulled his hands from Ginny as she lay on the gurney. The guttural scream of pain that erupted from Harry as he struggled with the orderlies nearly made Tonks’ heart break.
"GINNY!" Harry screamed as he continued to struggle. "I’M SORRY, GINNY!"
Before Harry could say anything else, one of the orderlies aimed his wand at Harry and filled his body with a powerful sedative. Almost instantly, Harry went limp in the arms of the orderlies.
"Get away from him," Hermione demanded as she, Ron, Neville and Luna pushed the orderlies away and took over supporting Harry. "What did you do to him?"
"It was only a sedative," an orderly assured her.
"Take this potion to the healers," Tonks said as she walked over and handed the bottle to an orderly. "Tell them it reacts on contact."
The orderly left on his task right away as Hermione said, "We need somewhere to put Harry. It won’t take long for the Profit to hear about what happened. We can’t let them find him like this."
"There’s a private waiting room down the hall," a short orderly said as he rubbed the eye Harry had elbowed during the struggle. "Follow me and I’ll show you where it is."
Ron and Neville picked Harry up together and carried him down the hall and into the small waiting room the orderly indicated. They laid Harry down on a sofa along the far wall, and Ron sought out Hermione’s shoulder to release his own emotions on.
Fifteen minutes later, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley arrived with Professor McGonagal. In the next half-hour, Fred, George, Moody, and Kingsley joined them.
Percy sprinted from the reception desk for the waiting room the receptionist had indicated. The aurors posted at the door allowed him to pass between them as he burst into the waiting room.
"Percy!" Mrs. Weasley exclaimed as he caught sight of her and walked over quickly.
"Mum," Percy said with concern etched all over his face, "dad, I just heard what happened."
Mrs. Weasley wrapped Percy in her arms as she said, "Oh, Percy, Ginny is…"
Mrs. Weasley burst into tears once again, and Arthur said, "We’re still waiting to hear from the healers, son. I know Ginny would appreciate you being here."
"I’m not so sure," Percy admitted. "I know I haven’t exactly been…"
"You’re here now," Arthur said. "That is all that matters."
"Thanks, dad," Percy said as he reached out for Arthur to join the hug with Mrs. Weasley.
Three hours later, Healer Snagprat walked into the room looking too grim to be the bearer of good news. Mrs. Weasley had the impulse to stand up, but seeing the look on his face made her clasp onto her husband’s hand instead.
"Healer," Arthur said, "how is my daughter?"
"We have her sedated," Snagprat said. "In addition, we’ve had to put her on a heavy pain killer."
"What’s wrong with her?" Fred asked as he walked closer with George, Ron and Percy.
"There is no easy way to tell you this," Snagprat said looking sorrowful. "Apparently the potion she was attacked with mimics the physical effects of the cruciatus curse."
"Oh, Ginny," Mrs. Weasley sobbed as she buried her head in her husband’s shoulder.
"How soon before it wears off?" Ron asked hoping it would be soon.
"I wish I could tell you that it will," Snagprat said deflating them all. "So far, the effects are slowly growing stronger as time passes."
"Have you been able to analyze the potion yet?" McGonagal asked.
"Not yet," Snagprat replied. "It’s been infused with some sort of spell to block our attempts to break it down. We can’t even guess at what ingredients were used to make it. Unless that changes, we won’t be able to develop an antidote."
"And if you can’t?" Arthur asked as the words caught in his throat.
"The pain will continue to build," Snagprat replied. "Eventually it will build to a level where the pain medication won’t be able to mask the pain any more. At that point, giving her a higher dose of pain medication would kill her. If we don’t… Well, she won’t be able to take the pain for very long after that."
"Are you trying to say that my sister is…" George began.
"We’re going to do everything we can to develop an antidote in time," Snagprat said. "We haven’t given up on her. You shouldn’t either."
"If any of the teachers at Hogwarts can be of any help to you healer," McGonagal said, "then I place them at your service."
"Thank you, Headmistress," Snagprat said. "I would like to send a sample of the potion over to your potions master to see if he has any better luck than we have so far."
"I’ll deliver it to him personally," McGonagal said.
"I’ll have the sample prepared and brought to you," Snagprat said. "I’m very sorry that I didn’t have better news for you all. I’ll come back and update you on our progress as soon as I can."
Snagprat left the room, and the Weasley’s huddled together around their grieving mother. Across the room, Hermione tore her attention away from the Weasleys as Harry began to stir next to her.
Harry’s eyes sprang open with a wild look in them as he sat up and yelled, "Ginny!"
"Easy, Harry," Hermione said as she put a hand on his shoulder and everyone in the room looked over at him. "The healers are looking after her."
"What happened?" Harry asked, as the look in his eye didn’t soften any.
"They had to sedate you, Harry," Neville said.
"They didn’t have much choice, of course," Luna said softly.
Harry looked over at Mrs. Weasley’s tear stained face as he shot up and crossed over to her and fell to his knees saying, "I’m so sorry, Mrs. Weasley. I should have been there. I failed."
Mrs. Weasley saw the tears flowing from Harry as she gathered him in her arms and sobbed, "It wasn’t your fault, Harry. You didn’t fail."
"I promised to watch after her," Harry said as he cried in pain. "I promised to protect her."
"Harry, you…" Kingsley began before Harry turned to look at him with rage in his eyes.
"Don’t talk to me," Harry said acidly as he stood up to face Kingsley. "I trusted the aurors to keep us all safe. The streets were lined with aurors, and you couldn’t stop two death eaters from attacking Ginny."
"We weren’t prepared for such a small scale attack," Kingsley said.
"Do you think I would have left her side if I didn’t think you could protect her for a single hour?" Harry yelled. "I don’t consider that attack small scale. Neither does the girl laying in that hospital room right now."
Mrs. Weasley gave an involuntary sob, and Harry turned to look at her. He could tell from the look on her face that there was something he didn’t know.
"What is it?" Harry asked. "What’s happened?"
The room fell quiet as Harry looked from person to person growing more anxious with each second that passed. Finally, Hermione stepped forward and began to confess to Harry everything that Snagprat had told them. As she did, they could all see Harry’s rage grow. When Hermione was done, Harry turned and marched straight to McGonagal.
"I want the map back," Harry said not caring that he was being demanding.
"Why do you want it?" McGonagal asked not really needing and answer.
"Why do you think I need it?" Harry said as his voice grew louder and his temper reached a boiling point. "There are people I need to find."
"You know very well that I am not going to give it to you in your current condition," McGonagal said.
"Fine," Harry screamed as he backed away. "There are other ways to find death eaters."
Before anyone could say anything else, Harry disapparated. The tension in the room, already high, grew in the moments following Harry’s disappearance.
"We have to find him," Ron urged. "There’s no telling what he’ll do."
"Uh… Actually," Neville said shyly from the back of the room, "I don’t know how much he’ll be able to do. When we laid him down I took his wand out of his pocket so it wouldn’t get broken. I just didn’t think to give it back to him after he woke up."
"Unfortunately," Hermione said, "in his current state of mind, I don’t know if he’ll let not having his wand stop him from doing something stupid. It could actually be more dangerous for him without it."
"I know how to locate him," McGonagal said quickly. "I’ll have to go back to Hogwarts to do it, but I’ll send Remus to get him back. I’ll send news as soon as I can."
McGonagal disapparated from the room, and left the others in a nervous silence.
Meanwhile, Harry apparated into the entry hall of his house. With fury burning his insides, he felt his pocket briefly for his wand. Not finding it only served to infuriate him more as he reasoned that it had been purposefully stolen from him to keep him from using it for the reasons he currently had planned. Undaunted, Harry ripped open his front door and walked out onto the porch and down to the middle of the walk leading to the street.
Harry planted his feet as he looked around the street and screamed, "Here I am! If you want me then come and get me! Come on! What are you waiting for? I know you’re there! What are you afraid of? Come and take me to that bastard you work for! I’m going to kill him! Do you hear me? I’ll tear him apart with my bare hands if I have to! Come on!"
From a house just down the street, two death eaters sat and watched Harry’s madness play out in front of his house. Between them, a whispered debate began.
"I say we take him while we have the chance," Flint said not taking his eyes off of Harry. "He’s asking us to do it."
"You must have lost your mind, Marcus," Bulstrode whispered. "You know we’ve been forbidden to do anything. All we’re supposed to do is watch the house and report everything we see to the Dark Lord."
"We were told not to go in the house, Millie," Flint corrected. "He isn’t in the house. We can grab him and take him back. We would be heroes if we captured him."
"I really don’t think that was what our master had in mind," Bulstrode said. "He said to watch the house and report. That was all."
"You’re in your first year of being a death eater, Millie," Flint pointed out. "I hardly think I need to ask you to interpret orders for me."
"Well it doesn’t matter anyway," Bulstrode said as she looked out the window and up the street. "The Order just arrived."
"Damn," Flint said. "I could have taken him if you hadn’t been arguing with me."
"Sure you could," Bulstrode said not sounding convinced.
"You can attack a young girl from behind but you can’t face me?" Harry screamed as his voice began to get scratchy. "Come on you cowards! I don’t even have a wand! Come on!"
"Harry," Lupin said as he ran up to the end of the sidewalk, and five other Order members took a defensive position covering angles of possible attack, "what are you doing?"
"You’re ruining everything," Harry said with a wild look in his eye. "They’ll never come out with all of you here."
"Harry, you have to stop this," Lupin said as he took tentative steps closer to Harry. "I know you’re hurting right now."
"You don’t know anything," Harry cried. "How could you know what it’s like to have the thing you hold most dear in your life stolen from you?"
"Because you aren’t the first person to lose someone in this war, Harry," Lupin explained as he walked closer still.
"Ginny means the world to me, Remus," Harry said. "What am supposed to do without her?"
"If it comes to that," Lupin said as he stepped within inches of Harry, "you have to keep going the best you can."
"I don’t know if I can," Harry sobbed. "It just hurts so bad."
"I know it does, Harry," Lupin said softly. "I know exactly how you feel right now."
"How could you?" Harry asked.
"I think it’s time I showed you," Lupin said as he put his hand on Harry’s shoulder. "Will you take a little trip with me so I can show you."
"I guess so," Harry submitted.
Lupin held tightly to Harry’s arm as he nodded to the Order members to let them know everything was resolved. A few seconds later, Harry and Lupin disapparated.
When they reappeared, the fading light revealed an old stone wall with vines clinging to its surface. Lupin let go of Harry’s arm and pulled out his wand.
"Where are we?" Harry asked as Lupin walked toward the wall and stopped in front of it.
"Not far from your house," Lupin said as he tapped some of the stones in the wall with his wand.
Just as with the entrance to Diagon Alley, the stones in the wall began to reorganize themselves into an elaborate tall arch that framed the grassy area beyond. Lupin walked in without saying a word. After only a short delay, Harry followed him.
Harry walked just inside the arch before he looked in the direction where Lupin was headed and he stopped and said softly, "A cemetery."
Lupin stopped in front of a grave and looked back at Harry and said, "Well, you wanted to see it. You need to look at this."
Harry’s feet started walking toward Lupin of their own accord. In his mind, Harry wondered if he really was ready to see what Lupin wanted to show him. It wasn’t until Harry drew even with Lupin that he stopped and looked at the grave before him. The impact of it hit him instantly as he fell to his knees as tears welled in his eyes once again.
"Lily was as kind a person as ever lived," Lupin said as Harry noticed her gravestone and the one beside it. "James was one of the bravest men it was ever my pleasure to know. They loved each other desperately. Together, they loved you even more. The day they were killed was one of the worst days of my life, Harry. I felt then like you do now. I wanted to kill everyone I knew to be a death eater, and I didn’t care if that meant I would be killed in the process. I was so bad that Dumbledore locked me in the dungeon at Hogwarts until he could make me see that there was something worth living for. Dumbledore was looking for Sirius as well, because he was in no better state of mind than I was. He didn’t find him in time though.
"The aurors found him instead," Harry said as he reached out and touched his parent’s gravestones.
"After Sirius was arrested," Lupin continued, "Dumbledore made me realize that there was something worth living for. It was you, Harry."
"Me?" Harry asked as he looked back and noticed Lupin with tears of his own.
"It may sound silly," Lupin admitted, "but he made me see that I was the last one left who could really tell you what your parents were like. I should have brought you here sooner, but I wasn’t sure I could stand to look at their graves again myself. So you see, Harry, I do understand exactly how you feel. I feel that way every day."
Harry stood and pulled Lupin into a hug as he said, "Thank you, Remus. I guess I still need someone to look after me."
"We all do, Harry," Lupin said. "That isn’t something you ever grow out of. Take as much time here as you want, Harry. There’s no hurry."
Return and Departure
It was after nine by the time Lupin walked into the private waiting room at St. Mungo’s with a solemn Harry following behind him. As soon as she saw him, Mrs. Weasley jumped up and ran to Harry, wrapping her arms around him tightly.
"Oh, thank God you’re all right, Harry," Molly said as she kissed his forehead and pulled his head onto her shoulder. "You had us all worried sick."
"I’m sorry," Harry said. "I didn’t mean to make everyone mad at me. I wasn’t thinking right."
"No one here is mad at you, Harry," Arthur said as he stepped closer. "We understand. No one here has been in their right mind lately."
"It’s good to see you back, mate," Ron said as he came over and gave Harry an uncustomary hug as well. "I was just about ready to set out looking for you myself."
"He wouldn’t have been alone either," Bill said as he stepped close and shook Harry’s hand. "Charlie, Fred, George, Percy, Ron and I were conspiring to drag you back here."
"I am ‘appy you ‘ave returned as well, ‘arry," Fleur said as she placed a light kiss on his cheek.
"It’s good to see all of you again," Harry said trying to be as cheerful about it as possible, even though his emotions were still a bit raw. "When did you get here?"
"Shortly after you left," Charlie said. "Everyone was in quite a state when we first arrived. Things calmed down a bit after McGonagal sent word that Lupin had you."
"I guess I’m lucky he found me when he did," Harry said.
"Still," Hermione said, "we were getting worried when you didn’t come back."
"I wanted to," Harry assured them. "I just had to take some time to realize exactly where I fit in this war."
"Did you?" Charlie asked.
"I think it was a beginning," Harry replied. "I still have some growing to do yet though. Did Neville and Luna leave?"
"Kingsley and Tonks took them back to Hogwarts a while ago," Ron said.
"Neville didn’t want to go though, Harry," Hermione said as she pulled Harry’s wand out and handed it back to him. "He wanted you to know that he only took your wand out of your pocket to keep it from breaking. He was so upset by it they nearly had to stun him to make him leave."
"I’ll have to get a message to him to let him know that I appreciate what he did," Harry said. "Things might have been worse if I had it with me"
"What happened?" Ron asked before he realized he shouldn’t have.
Harry looked at all of the people listening and he said, "I’m kind of thirsty. I think I’m going to go and find something to drink. Ron, would you and Hermione come with me? I’d like to know anything else the healers might have said about Ginny."
"Sure, Harry," Ron said as he looked to Hermione for confirmation. "We’ll walk with you."
Once back out in the hallway, Harry walked toward the place the thought he remembered there being a small cafeteria. Ron and Hermione fell in step with him, but remained silent, waiting for Harry to speak.
"The Prophet knows about what happened," Harry said. "There are reporters all over the lobby. They were all asking me about the attack. How can I tell them? I can hardly make sense of it myself."
"Don’t worry about the Prophet, Harry," Hermione advised. "Let the Ministry explain to them how this could have taken place."
"It just makes me sick to think about it," Harry said sadly. "Voldemort didn’t care who he hurt. He was just trying to get to me, and it worked."
"Why did he have to pick Ginny?" Ron asked.
"If he hadn’t it would have been Hermione," Harry said, "or you. He wanted to do this to someone he knew I cared about."
"We’re not going to let you pull away from us because of this, Harry," Hermione said. "We won’t let you shut us out just because you think it puts us in danger."
"I don’t want to," Harry said. "I just feel so helpless right now. I need you to help me find something I can do to help Ginny."
"Just being here is all we can do, Harry," Hermione said as she spotted the door to a small chapel and stopped in front of it. "And we can pray."
Voldemort looked up from his chair to see Lucius walk into the room and bow before him as he said, "My master, I have a report you will be interested to hear."
"Speak, Lucius," Voldemort said guessing what the report may be about.
"The death eaters watching the-boy-who-must-not-be-named’s house report that he was seen there this evening," Lucius said with a smile. "According to their report, he looked and sounded as if he had been driven mad. He stood in front of his house calling to them to come and take him. Flint said he could have captured him if the Order hadn’t arrived and taken him away."
"It would have meant death for him if he had," Voldemort said with an almost happy expression on his face. "They were told to watch the house and report. Make sure he remembers that. Harry is not to be touched. Especially not now that he is hurting so deeply. In a couple of weeks, the potion will rise to it’s full potential, and there will be nothing the healers can do to stop her anguish. I want Harry to watch her final days of pain as she squirms in her bed. It will weaken him more in the long run than anything else I could have done to him."
"You are wise, my Lord," Lucius said with another bow.
"Unleash the dementors, Lucius," Voldemort ordered. "Let them feed. Soon, we’ll break the spirit of the Ministry and the Order just as we have with Harry."
One week later, Mrs. Weasley walked into the waiting room they had all come to know so well to find Ron and Hermione huddled together on the sofa.
"Where’s Harry?" Molly asked with a touch of alarm.
"He’s in the chapel again," Ron said. "He’s spending more and more time there lately. He’s getting desperate for some good news."
"I think we all are," Molly said as she fought to control her tears. "The attacks during the last week have pushed the Order and the Ministry to their limits trying to control it. It’s tearing your father and I apart to have to spend so much time away from Ginny. Our only saving grace is knowing that you three are here to watch after her."
"It’s hard enough for us to watch," Ron admitted, "but I don’t know how much more Harry can take. The healers let us go in and see her again. While we were there, she had another spasm of pain. The healers had to increase the painkiller again. Harry was in tears when he ran out of there and straight to the chapel."
"We all just feel so helpless," Hermione said. "There has to be some way to break though the spell on that potion."
"The healers are trying," Molly assured them. "Professor Slughorn and Professor Lupin have been working on it as well. They haven’t had any luck so far either. I think we could all do with a small miracle jut about now."
Just then, there was a commotion in the hallway as the aurors posted outside the doors stopped someone from entering. They were not at all surprised. Since they had been there, several people had tried to slip past the aurors for one reason or another. Molly pulled the door open slightly to look to see whom it was this time.
"Mrs. Malfoy?" Molly asked as she opened the door wider. "What are you doing here?"
"Mrs. Weasley, I’m so sorry about your daughter," Narcissa said. "I had to come to tell you that, and I wanted to see Harry. I don’t have much time."
"Harry is in the chapel down the hall," Hermione said anxiously as she walked next to Mrs. Weasley. "I can show you where it is if you would like."
"Oh, thank you," Narcissa said. "I would appreciate it."
Hermione walked out of the room followed closely by Ron, who walked just behind the two women as they made their way to the chapel at a quick pace. They came to the open door and paused at the doorway seeing Harry sitting in the front pew with his head in his hands.
"Harry," Hermione said softly making Harry look up and turn around, "there’s someone here to see you."
Narcissa stepped into the small room and Harry shot out of his seat to walk over to her urgently as he said, "You shouldn’t be here. The hospital isn’t protected. Voldemort can find you here."
"I had to come," Narcissa said, "no matter the danger to me."
"I have to get you out of here," Harry said as he reached out and took hold of her hand and turned to Hermione. "I’ll take her to my house for now. I’ll come back as soon as I can."
With that, Harry and Narcissa disapparated. Narcissa was surprised when her body seemed to lighten momentarily just as the view before her eyes shifted instantly to the entry hall of Harry’s house.
"How did you…" Narcissa began in amazement.
"What were you thinking?" Harry asked as he turned and walked into his living area. "You know it isn’t safe for you to be away from a protected area. I can guarantee you that Voldemort is still looking for you."
"I couldn’t stand it any longer," Narcissa confessed. "I was sitting in number twelve for a week after I found out what happened to Ginny Weasley. I knew how much you must have been hurting. You did so much to help me when I needed it, I just had to come and tell you how sorry I was."
"I appreciate that," Harry said. "I really do, but…"
"I know I was taking a chance," Narcissa said as her eyes moistened. "That was the only thing that kept me from coming to you as soon as I read what happened. I just couldn’t stop thinking about Draco, and how I would feel if he were the one in that hospital bed. I thought that if I made my visit short, I could be in and out before Voldemort had a chance to find me, or worse, take control of me and use me for something awful."
"But you could have…" Harry began before what she had said caught up to him. "Wait. What do you mean, take control of you?"
"He has the power to connect with his death eaters through their dark mark," Narcissa explained thinking Harry already knew. "He can control their mind and, therefore, their actions."
Harry slapped his hand to his forehead as the pieces suddenly slipped into place in his mind and he said, "Please excuse me for a minute."
Harry ran out of his living room and up the stairs two at a time as he thought about what he needed. Narcissa walked back to the entry and watched as, he frantically opened a door she had never noticed at the top of the stairs.
Fred and George looked up from the table they were staring at as they heard the insistent banging on the front door of their shop.
George instantly pointed his wand at the table and said, "I didn’t do it, I swear."
Fred made sure all was secure in the back room before he peered out at the front of the shop and said, "It’s Harry. He has bloody scary timing sometimes, George. If I didn’t know better I would say he’s reading our minds."
"I feel sorry for him then," George said with a grin as they walked to the door and unlocked it.
"Come in, Harry," Fred said as his brother opened the door.
"Why was the door locked?" Harry asked. "It’s the middle of the day. Why isn’t anyone on the street?"
"Dementors," George said as he closed and locked the door again. "They’ve been swarming over the street periodically. People are trying to lay low for a while."
"We don’t mind," Fred said. "It gave us a bit of time to work."
"The map?" Harry asked as Fred and George looked at one another and grinned.
"We just finished it this morning," George said. "We had just tested it when you started banging on the door."
"Good," Harry said. "I need to use it right away."
"I’ll get it," Fred said as he shot his brother a quizzical look.
"We changed the words to erase the parchment to ‘I didn’t do it, I swear’, Harry," George said as Fred was off getting the map. "Everything else seems to work just like you asked for."
"So, what are you going to do with it first, Harry," Fred asked as he walked back in and handed Harry the new map.
"I’m going to find a cure for Ginny," Harry said looking more serious than either of them had seen him in recent years.
"How are you going to do that?" George asked as Harry’s likely path flowed into his mind and disturbed him slightly.
"However I have to," Harry replied.
"We’re going with you, Harry," George stated.
"If it’s a cure for Ginny we want to help," Fred argued.
"Not this time," Harry said as he back up a step. "I have to do this on my own."
"What are you planning to do?" Fred asked with concern, sensing that Harry was planning something crazy.
"Make a deal with a devil," Harry said just before he disapparated, and left them both with wide eyes knowing that they needed to tell someone right away.
My Enemy, My Hope
"You what!" Molly and Hermione exclaimed at the same time.
"How could you do that?" Ron asked. "You know what Harry’s state of mind has been like lately."
"What were we supposed to do?" Fred said defensively. "He came by the shop and asked for it."
"We didn’t know he was going to use it right away," George said. "When he told us he was going to find a cure for Ginny we told him we were going to go with him."
"He disapparated before we could stop him," Fred said. "We don’t know exactly where he was going. He just said he was going to make a deal with a devil."
"That’s why we knew we had to tell someone about it," George said.
"He’ll go straight to Voldemort and you know it," Hermione accused. "I’ll go to his house. If he’s there, maybe I can stop him."
"I’ll go back to Hogwarts and let McGonagal know," Ron said. "Maybe she can use the map to find Harry."
"At the very least she can put the Order on alert," Molly said. "I’ll go to the Ministry and tell Kingsley. Maybe they have a way to find him."
"What should we do?" Fred asked.
"Stay with your sister," Molly ordered. "Harry may decide to come back to see her before he goes after You-Know-Who. If he does, do whatever you have to do in order to keep him from leaving. Stun him if you have to. Don’t give him a chance to say no."
"We understand," George confirmed as the others hurried out of the room.
Harry apparated under a clump of trees at the edge of a golf course. He wrapped his cloak tighter around himself to shut out the cold rain that was falling in Seattle that early morning. Walking carefully across the slick grass, Harry came to the edge of the trees and looked across South Spokane Street at the houses on the other side. It was not a house that held his attention, but, instead, the apparently overgrown vacant lot that sat neglected between two of the houses. He stepped just into view at the edge of the trees, and waited. He hoped he wouldn’t have to wait long. Every second mattered now.
Draco Malfoy rolled over in his bed and groaned as he heard the rain against his window once again. Having lived in England his entire life, rain was nothing new to him, but the rain in this foreign land where he might as well have been a prisoner grated on his nerves with every drop.
Summoning what energy he could, Draco rose from his bed and started to dress. Looking in the mirror, he sighed at his appearance. Weeks before he had given up on many of the personal grooming practices he had employed for most of his life. His hair had grown long and ragged in the months previous. To Draco, the state of his hair perfectly mirrored the way he felt inside. He pulled his hair back in a vain attempt to force it to behave, but settled on wrapping a band around it to hold it in a tight ponytail.
Turning to his bedroom door, Draco prepared himself for yet another grueling day, as the unwelcome company of Severus Snape. Barely any words had passed between them concerning the night he had killed Dumbledore, but Draco could see in Snape’s eyes that he blamed him for the predicament they found themselves in. In Draco’s mind it was Snape who was to blame for dragging them half way around the world, and cutting them off from the magical world he had always known. Sequestered in a muggle house, as he was, unable to roam outside even on the darkest of nights, Draco felt it would have been preferable to face the punishment he would have received if he had returned to the Dark Lord. It was a fleeting thought though, for Draco was well aware of the level of punishment he would have received had he done so. If only Snape would allow him to communicate with his mother.
"It’s about time you woke up," Snape said as Draco stepped off of the bottom stair step. "There is more food in the kitchen. I went out briefly last night to procure more."
"I still don’t understand why you can leave the house and I have to stay behind all the time," Draco said moodily. "I haven’t set foot outside this house since we got here."
"You know very well why you can’t," Snape replied dryly. "You refuse to take any of the potion I developed to mask your dark mark for a short time."
"I don’t know how you get any of it down," Draco said. "I literally gag just from the smell while you’re brewing it."
"I drink it because I must," Snape said as if that were answer enough.
"Well drinking it hasn’t gotten us any closer to getting out of here," Draco accused. "I’m going to go crazy here."
"That is because your mind is far too undisciplined," Snape said.
"Oh not that again," Draco said as he raised his voice. "I don’t need occlumency to protect me from anyone but you. You won’t ever let me leave this place anyway."
"Weak," Snape said. "Even Potter was more disciplined than you."
"It won’t work this time," Draco warned. "For all we know Potter is dead right now. The last newspaper you brought back was months ago. We have no idea what has happened since the Dark Lord broke the death eaters out of Azkaban."
"We can’t take the chance of wondering too close to a wizarding community even here in America," Snape said. "There is no way to know how far the Dark Lord’s influence stretches now. I located us in the middle of a muggle community, because it is the last place they would look."
"I know," Draco said as he wondered to the front of the room. "That doesn’t mean I have to like it. Maybe if it would stop raining."
Draco pulled the curtain back slightly to look out at the rain soaked street in front of the house. It only took seconds for him to lock his focus on the dark figure standing against a tree directly across the street.
"Professor," Draco said in a near whisper, "I think you need to see this."
"What is it?" Snape asked as he stood and walked to the window.
"Somebody is standing on the other side of the street under a tree," Draco said as Snape looked. "It looks like he’s looking straight at us. Do you think he can see the house."
"Of course not," Snape said as he noticed the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. "You and I are the only ones it will appear to. The spells I put on it would keep a muggle from taking any interest in the vacant lot they could see."
"Maybe he isn’t a muggle," Draco said as his body tensed.
"Still," Snape said, curious about the stranger himself, "there is no way any wizard could know that there is a house or know that we are in it."
"Well he seems to have taken an interest in the empty lot for some reason," Draco observed. "Otherwise why would he stand out there in the rain for so long."
"We’ll wait," Snape said as a car passed on the road and he watched the man slip behind a tree momentarily before slipping back out after the car had passed. "If he’s still there tonight, I’ll go out and deal with him."
"Is that a good idea?" Draco asked. "I thought we were trying to minimize contact with wizards."
"It won’t really matter," Snape explained. "If he knows there is a house here, it is not safe for us to remain here any longer. We will have to move to a new hideout. I need to interrogate him to make sure the death eaters are not following close behind. At the very least, perhaps he will supply me with the news you are so desperate for."
"Where will we go next?" Draco asked.
"I have already prepared another location just in case we had to abandon this one," Snape answered. "Go and eat something. You may need all your strength. I’ll watch our visitor."
First one hour, then another ticked by as Snape observed the figure standing in the shadows of the tree. It was only when cars were passing on the street that the man slipped out of sight only to reappear in his original spot moments later. Snape began to get frustrated, though he made a point not to let Draco see it. There was no logical reason the man would stand staring at the empty lot unless he knew that someone was hiding there, yet there was also no possibility that they could have been discovered.
"Maybe he saw you when you went out this morning," Draco said as he walked back downstairs from packing his things.
"That is impossible," Snape said as he stood and took his attention away from the window. "I left through the back door and returned the same way. I apparated from the back yard to get the food. I followed the same precautions when I returned."
"Maybe that potion doesn’t work as well as you thought," Draco said cuttingly.
Snape wanted to slap Draco, but resisted as he said, "Keep an eye on our visitor. I am going to secure the things I will be taking with me."
"Fine," Draco said as he sat down in the chair beside the window and looked outside. "Professor! He’s walking across the road."
Snape walked quickly back to the window and watched as the hooded figure walked swiftly across the road to stand on the sidewalk just in front of the house. In one swift motion the man raised his hands and removed his hood.
"Impossible!" Snape exclaimed.
"I don’t believe it!" Draco exclaimed as he looked on in disbelief. "How could he have found us?"
"I don’t know," Snape said as he began to think of a new plan of action. "Perhaps the Order is using Potter as bait to try to get us to reveal ourselves."
"At least it isn’t a death eater," Draco said. "Even I can handle Potter."
"You will do nothing," Snape warned. "Even if Mr. Potter is here alone he is not undetectable. If someone sees him and reports it back to the death eaters they will not leave here until they find out what he was looking for. We will still need to leave here."
"So let’s take him prisoner," Draco said. "We can find out what he knows."
"And then what?" Snape asked. "Will you dispose of him as you did with Professor Dumbledore? He can’t know for sure that we’re in here. Capturing him would only confirm it for him."
They both watched as Harry drew his wand with one hand and a piece of parchment with the other. Harry moved the tip of his wand over the parchment as if writing on it before sending the parchment flying toward the house. The parchment stopped in mid air three meters short of the window and grew to the size of a small billboard. Writing appeared on the parchment in a scribbled black handwriting.
"I don’t have times for games, Professor Snape," Draco read. "We need to talk."
Seconds later, the parchment returned to its normal size and flew back into Harry’s hand.
"I guess that blows your theory about him not knowing we’re in here," Draco observed. "What now?"
"It would appear we don’t have much choice," Snape said still trying to reason how Harry had known. "We’ll have to let him in and capture him before he can tell anyone else where we are."
Harry waited impatiently as the minutes ticked by. He knew that someone inside the hidden house had read the message. Otherwise, the parchment would not have returned to him. For all he knew, Snape may have done the smart thing and left without Harry knowing it. Harry decided to only wait a few more minutes before he would consult his new map once again.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a small folded piece of parchment flew from the vacant lot and landed on the sidewalk in front of Harry. Harry bent to pick it up, and found that an address was written on it. Looking up, Harry could see a house standing in the middle of the previously empty lot. The door was open. They were inviting him in.
Harry walked up the path leading to the door as he gripped tightly to his wand. He was not presumptive enough to assume that Snape was just going to welcome him into the house. He knew that he had to keep his senses alert.
Harry walked slowly through the door, and had just cleared its path when it slammed shut behind him. Wand at the ready, he had already performed a shield charm by the time a red blast erupted from behind a chair and rebounded harmlessly against another wall. Harry whipped his wand at the chair and sent it sailing back into his attacker and pinned Draco against a wall. Harry dived to his side to avoid another blast sent at him from the stairs. Harry rolled to a crouch and brought his wand up, but Snape was already on the move as he tried to rush Harry. Before Snape could get off another spell, Harry oiled the wood floor and sent Snape sliding out of control into a side table. Harry had to roll out of the way again as a purple jet of light lanced out from Draco’s wand and exploded a vase sitting on a shelf on the other side of the room.
"Stay out of this, Malfoy," Harry yelled as he aimed at the chair pinning Draco to the wall. "Levicorpus."
Draco was jerked upside down by an ankle and hung suspended in mid air as he listened to the sound of his wand hitting the ground after slipping out of his grasp. Harry turned back to face Snape just as a force shot from Snape’s wand and caught Harry in the chest. Harry flew backwards recoiling from the impact of the spell, and landed on the floor near where Draco was hanging. Harry quickly stood and then ducked down again to avoid the stunning spell Snape shot at him, and Draco twisted in the air to escape being hit himself.
Snape conjured a shield to protect himself as Harry sent a hex his way that impacted against the shield with a ringing thud. Snape dropped his shield in order to perform another spell, but an unexpected battering spell from Harry hit him in the gut and knocked the air out of his body.
Snape struggled to regain his breath as he whipped his wand forward and pulled Harry’s feet out from under him. Harry hit the ground on his back and before he could regain his feet, a force suddenly pressed down on him and held him to the ground. Unable to move his wand hand, Harry looked up to see a still panting Snape walk closer with his wand trained on him.
"Who is with you, Potter?" Snape asked anxiously.
"No one," Harry replied as he struggled in vain to resist the spell holding him down. "I came alone."
"Do you expect me to believe that?" Snape asked as he stepped even closer so that he was looking directly down into Harry’s face.
"It’s the truth," Harry said. "I’m alone. No one knows where I am."
"Were you foolish enough to think you could defeat me alone?" Snape asked expecting a positive response.
"I didn’t come here to fight with you," Harry said.
"Then why did you come?" Snape asked expecting a lie.
"I came to beg you to help me," Harry said shocking Snape before he was able to cover his surprise.
"Why should I believe that?" Snape asked with a dry tone. "No doubt you wished to defeat Dumbledore’s killer."
"I will when I see him," Harry said. "I know you didn’t do it. Voldemort was controlling you with your dark mark."
"How did you know he could do such a thing?" Snape asked suddenly interested.
"Narcissa Malfoy told me," Harry said.
"My mother?" Draco asked as he continued to hang by his ankle. "Why would she have talked to you?"
"I’ll let her explain that when I take you back," Harry replied.
"What makes you think we’ll be going back?" Snape asked.
"Like I said," Harry groaned knowing he was losing valuable time, "I came here to beg for your help. Ginny is dying. I need your help to try and save her. Bellatrix attacked her with a potion. They haven’t been able to break it down to analyze it yet."
"Why come to me about it?" Snape asked relishing that Harry needed his help and was being forced to ask for it.
"Because the half blood Prince is the most brilliant potions master I know," Harry said truthfully. "I came here knowing that you probably don’t care what happens to Ginny or any of the rest of us who are fighting against Voldemort. I had to try anyway. You’re the last hope I have of saving the woman I love."
Snape’s spell holding Harry down lifted suddenly, and Harry watched Snape take a tentative step back. Harry sat up and made a show of putting his wand away before he stood to face Snape.
"It is not safe for either myself or Mr. Malfoy to roam any place that is not unplotable," Snape informed Harry.
"I can take care of that," Harry said.
"I would not be able to assist you without a full potions workshop full of equipment," Snape said eyeing Harry.
"You’ll have it," Harry promised.
"The Ministry and the Order would arrest me if they found out I was back," Snape said.
"I’ll make sure you don’t have that to worry about," Harry said. "I’ll show them proof that you didn’t kill Dumbledore of your own free will."
"What of Mr. Malfoy?" Snape asked.
"He wasn’t of age at the time when he let the death eaters in," Harry said as he waved his hand in Draco’s direction and he fell to the ground from his hanging position. "They couldn’t put him in Azkaban. For all I know he may have been acting under the Imperious Curse. There will be time to figure all of this out. Time is running out for Ginny though. The healers are only giving her a little more than a week."
Snape detected the wetness forming in Harry’s eyes and realized that he was indeed there for the purpose he claimed. Snape looked to Draco and then back to Harry once again.
"Very well," Snape said. "I’ll gather my things."
"Really?" Draco asked with excitement in his voice. "We’re going back?"
"So it would seem," Snape said as he turned to walk up the stairs.
Harry stood and looked around the house Snape and Draco had been sharing, and, after several long seconds of silence, asked, "How in the world did you end up here?"
"You’ll have to ask Snape about that, Potter," Draco said with only a hint of his usual resentment. "I wasn’t consulted before I was imprisoned here."
Harry grinned slightly imagining what it must have been like having Snape as Draco’s only company before he said, "Well, it should all be over soon. There is someone looking forward to seeing you again. As soon as I get Snape settled, I’ll take you to see her."
"My mother?" Draco asked hopefully.
Harry nodded and said, "She’ll be happy to see you again before Christmas."
"She isn’t in Azkaban is she?" Draco asked fearing the worst.
"No," Harry replied. "She’s safe. I can’t really tell you more until we get there. I promised her I would try to keep you out of my fight with Snape if I ever found you. She desperately wants you to come home."
"Then she’s at Malfoy Manor," Draco said.
"No," Harry said trying not to have to be the one to tell him the real reason why Narcissa would never return there. "She left Malfoy Manor. Since then she’s been staying in a safe place I provided for her."
"I find it hard to believe she would come to you," Draco said.
"It wasn’t easy for her," Harry said. "She was ready to sacrifice herself in order to find out you were safe. I couldn’t turn her away."
"You’ll have to excuse me if I have trouble believing any of that is true," Draco said with a slight sneer.
"If it weren’t, you and I wouldn’t be standing here talking right now," Harry said turning suddenly deadly seriously. "I know full well that you knew what you were doing when you let those death eaters in the castle. I was there on the top of that tower when you disarmed Professor Dumbledore. He had immobilized me under an invisibility cloak before you got there. I watched the entire thing. Trust me, if I had been able to move that night, you never would have left the tower. If it weren't for the promise I made to your mum, you would never leave this house."
Draco looked at the fury burning in Harry’s eyes and knew that at least part of his story must be true after all.
Snape stood on the bottom step and watched the last of the interaction between Harry and Draco, noting Harry’s new found control, and said, "I’m ready to go. Mr. Malfoy already had his things packed."
"Good," Harry responded. "There’s no time to lose. Both of you hold on to my arms. I’ll apparate us back."
"Are you sure you are capable of such a thing?" Snape asked. "Apparating such a long distance is most difficult. It is advisable to apparate in several steps, and only under the guidance of an experienced wizard."
"I made it in one step getting here," Harry said as he started to get annoyed. "I’m perfectly capable of getting back the same way even if I have the two of you in tow. Now hold on to me so we can get going. I’ve wasted too much time here as it is."
"Are you taking us back to Hogwarts?" Draco asked as he wrapped his hand around Harry’s arm.
"No," Harry replied as he thought of where he wanted to go. "We’re going to my house."
Hermione turned around as she heard a floorboard squeak in Harry’s entry hall. Her eyes instantly went wide in shock as her hand moved for her wand instinctively. Ron’s instincts were also alert as he, forgetting all about his wand, balled his fists and darted past Hermione on his way to the new arrivals.
"Ron, no!" Harry screamed as he stepped in front of Ron and physically held him away from getting to Snape and Malfoy.
"Let me go, Harry," Ron demanded desperately. "They killed Dumbledore. They could still be working with the death eaters."
"They’re not," Harry said as he continued to struggle to hold Ron back. "I asked them to come here with me."
"You what?" Ron asked as he stopped and took a step back. "Have you lost your mind, Harry?"
"I might have," Harry said. "It isn’t something I would have done if I weren’t desperate."
"Why, Harry?" Hermione said still holding her wand on the two death eaters as she walked closer. "Haven’t you had enough misery without bringing them back into the picture?"
"I don’t have time to explain everything," Harry said. "Snape is going to try to develop an antidote for Ginny."
"Not if I have anything to say about it," Ron said hotly. "I won’t let someone like him anywhere near my sister."
"Yes you will, Ron," Harry said seriously, yet softly. "You’ll do it if there is a chance he can save Ginny. I swore that I would protect her. I failed once. I won’t fail again. I won’t let anyone stop me from trying to save her now. Not even you, Ron."
"Í want to save her as much as anyone," Ron said, "but Snape and Malfoy?"
"If you’ve ever trusted me before," Harry said as he looked from Ron to Hermione and back again, "you have to trust me now."
Several tense seconds passed as they considered what Harry said before Hermione lowered her wand, and Ron followed by assuming a less aggressive posture.
"There is still the matter of a potions workshop," Snape said as he relaxed his wand hand, "if I am to have any chance of developing an antidote."
"You’ll have it," Harry said as he turned to Hermione. "Hermione, take Snape to the room at the top of the stairs. Tell him everything we know so far about the potion and what effects it’s having. He’ll be staying here until he finds a cure. I’ll move his things to a bedroom upstairs later."
"What should I do?" Ron asked not taking his eyes off of Draco.
"I need you to go to St. Mungo’s," Harry said. "Tell the healers you’ve been sent from Hogwarts to get another sample of the potion for Lupin and Slughorn."
"What if they won’t give it to me?" Ron asked.
"Then tell Fred and George to help you," Harry said. "I’m sure they’ll find a way to get some. If not then I’ll go and steal some myself."
"What do you plan to do, Harry?" Hermione asked, hoping he wasn’t going to go off by himself again.
"I’m going to get Malfoy stowed away safely," Harry replied. "Then I’ll go back to the hospital."
"I’m not staying here?" Malfoy asked.
"No," Harry said with a look that told Draco he still wasn’t necessarily on a friendly standing with Harry.
"When will you come back here?" Hermione asked.
"Not until sometime later this evening," Harry answered. "I realize the Order must be out looking for me. The last thing I want is for McGonagal or Lupin to show up and find Snape here. I’ll come back tonight to get a change of clothes and check on any progress."
"I doubt I’ll make any breakthroughs that soon," Snape said. "This process will take time."
"That’s the one thing I can’t give you much of," Harry said. "I have to have that antidote inside of a week. After that…"
Hermione saw the wetness flood into Harry’s eyes as she stepped forward and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, and said, "Don’t think about it, Harry. We’ll all do everything we can to help Ginny. If it has to be done within a week, then it will be done."
"I’ll come back with a sample of the potion as soon as I can," Ron assured him.
"Thanks," Harry said as he looked at his friends. "Good luck."
"Same to you mate," Ron said as he disapparated with a final look at Hermione.
"I’ll come back as soon as I can, Hermione," Harry said as he walked closer to Draco, knowing that she didn’t relish the thought of being left alone with Snape.
"Take your time," Hermione instructed. "There isn’t much you can do here anyway. I’ll see that Professor Snape gets everything he needs. You have enough people to take care of right now."
Harry nodded in thanks to Hermione as he took hold of Draco’s arm and asked, "Are you ready to leave?"
Draco looked at Harry suspiciously as he asked, "Are you sure you aren’t just planning to turn me in to the Ministry? I’m still not too sure I should trust you."
"As it happens," Harry said dryly, "you don’t have much choice."
Before anyone could say anything else, Harry and Draco disapparated. Hermione turned and noticed Snape waiting with his normal blank expression.
"I find it difficult to believe that Potter, of all people, would have a potions workshop in his house," Snape observed.
"I think you’ll find that Harry has changed quite a bit from the last time you saw him," Hermione said. "He’s almost as good at potions as I am now, and he’s done it without the help of your old potions book."
"I see you haven’t changed much," Snape said. "You still think more of your own ability than is warranted."
"On the contrary," Hermione corrected. "I am well aware that my potion skills are no match for your own. I'm also well aware that my skills would be far more advanced if you had been the slightest bit interested in teaching me. That doesn’t matter now though. Harry knew I wouldn’t be able to break down the defenses Voldemort put on that potion any more than Slughorn or Lupin. That’s why he left to find you."
"Even I may not be able to accomplish the impossible in such a short time," Snape said. "I haven’t even been told exactly what kind of a potion we’re dealing with."
"Follow me then," Hermione said as she turned and began walking up the stairs. "I’ll explain everything I can about that awful potion to you. On the way upstairs just think about what kinds of things you may need in this potions workshop."
Snape, having fallen in line behind Hermione as they ascended the stairs, pictured in his mind exactly how he would like the work area to be set up. He was nearly to the top of the stairs when he looked up and narrowed his eyes as he stopped and stared at the door before him that he was sure had not been there when he arrived. He looked over to Hermione for explanation.
"Harry isn’t the only one full of surprises," Hermione said. "His house has a few built into it as well."
"Where are we?" Draco said after he and Harry apparated into a kitchen with a long table.
"My other house," Harry said in answer as he took his hand from Draco’s arm and heard something stir at the opposite end of the table.
"Harry Potter?" Dobby asked as he peered around the end of the table and smiled until he spotted Draco and his smile evaporated.
"Hello, Dobby," Harry said. "I didn’t know you would be here right now."
"Dobby visits every day just as Harry Potter asked him to," Dobby said still eyeing Draco warily. "Dobby assures that Mrs. Malfoy is safe and well."
"Mrs. Malfoy?" Draco asked. "I think you mean Mistress Malfoy elf."
"I wouldn’t make that mistake if I were you," Harry warned. "Dobby is a free elf. He’s beholden to no one. He only stops here to check on your mother as a courtesy to me."
"Is Dobby to now look after the young Malfoy as well?" Dobby asked with a sour look.
"No," Harry said making Draco look at him quickly. "He has a mother for that now. She’ll handle his care."
"So when do I get to see her?" Draco asked.
"Where is she now, Dobby?" Harry asked.
"Mrs. Malfoy is sitting by the fire in the library," Dobby replied.
"Thank you, Dobby," Harry said.
"Harry Potter is quite welcome," Dobby said just before he disapparated.
"Follow me," Harry said as he made for the kitchen door.
Once out in the hallway beyond the kitchen, Draco looked at his new surroundings and said, "I can’t believe my mother would leave Malfoy Manor to live here."
"Well you had better get used to it," Harry commented. "You’ll be staying here for quite a while."
"So you took me from one prison to another," Draco observed.
"I dare say you’ll find the other inmate here more sympathetic to your cause than your last roommate," Harry said. "Besides, it beats the prison I could have taken you to."
Draco swallowed nervously as he realized just how close he had gotten to the other prison Harry referred to. A promise made to his mother was likely the only thing that saved him from that fate.
Harry stopped short of a closed door and turned to Draco and said, "She’s just inside. I won’t intrude on your reunion."
"You’re leaving?" Draco asked not sure why he would care.
"I have someone waiting to see me as well," Harry said. "Someone I’ve already been away from for far too long. Be nice to your mum, Draco."
"Why wouldn’t I be?" Draco asked.
"If you have any tenderness inside of you at all," Harry said, "then use it with her. Her only wish since you left was to have you back. It was a wish that ended up costing her everything. Even if she never admits it to you, the pain she had to endure to get you back is a debt you could never repay. Remember that."
Before Draco could respond, Harry disapparated. Draco stood outside the door for some time considering what Harry had said. None of what he had done or heard made any sense to him. His worst enemy had saved him from his life with Snape. His mother either could not or would not return to the only home he had ever known. Somehow, she had come to need the aid of Harry Potter of all people. What kind of pain had she suffered? Why wasn’t his father taking care of her?
As much as all of those things troubled Draco, he could feel deep within himself that none of it mattered. His mother was in the next room. That was all that mattered to him.
Draco turned the doorknob and pushed the door open slowly. A fire burned brightly in the fireplace on the far side of the room. He could make out the silhouette of his mother sitting in a chair facing away from him. A warm feeling began to course through him as a yearning he had not expected gripped him tightly.
"Did you forget something, Dobby?" Narcissa asked without looking up from the book she was reading.
Draco opened his mouth and softly said, "Mother."
Narcissa’s head whipped around as her eyes widened in happiness and she breathed, "Draco. Is it really you?"
Draco wanted to respond, but found himself unusually choked with emotion. Draco ran to his mother and sank to his knees in front of her.
Narcissa reached out and pulled Draco into a tight embrace and said through her tears of joy, "Draco. Oh, my precious Draco. You’re safe at last. I missed you so."
"I missed you too," Draco said, comfortable in his knowledge that he truly meant it. "I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner."
"You’re here now," Narcissa said not releasing her embrace. "That’s all that matters. By some miracle, you’re here now."
"Harry!" Fred and George exclaimed as Harry walked into the waiting room at St. Mungo’s.
"Hi, guys," Harry said as they jumped up and walked closer. "I didn’t expect to find you two here."
"We haven’t left here since you took off," Fred said.
"Mum and Hermione were pretty cross with us when we told then what happened at the shop," George explained. "I think they’ve left us here as a punishment of some kind."
"Have the healers made any progress?" Harry asked hopefully.
"I’m sorry, Harry," Fred said. "They still haven’t been able to do a thing to slow the progress of the potion."
"What about you, Harry?" George asked. "Did the map help you to make any progress to help Ginny?"
"I guess I can trust you two to keep it a secret," Harry said in a hushed tone. "You deserve to know what the map you made was used for."
"Did you hunt down Voldemort?" Fred asked.
"What?" Harry asked in surprise.
"Hermione thought you would use it to get an antidote from him," George asked.
"He wouldn’t have given it to me even if he has one," Harry said. "I used it to find Snape."
Fred and George looked at each other in surprise before George asked, "Why?"
"Because I thought I would have a better chance of convincing him to help Ginny," Harry explained.
"I thought you wanted to kill him," Fred said.
"I’ll explain that later," Harry said. "Right now I just want him to find a cure for Ginny."
"You found him?" George asked.
"He agreed to help?" Fred asked.
"He’s at my house right now," Harry said. "He’s going to start working on it as soon as Ron gets a sample of the potion for him."
"Is there anything else we can do?" George asked.
"Stay here a little longer," Harry replied. "If Ron can’t get the potion he’ll be coming to you for help. Besides, I’m sure McGonagal has seen me on the map by now. She and Lupin will likely be on their way soon. I need you two to head them off when they get here."
"What are you going to do now?" Fred asked.
"I’m going to see Ginny," Harry answered. "I just want some time alone with her."
"We’ll see that you get it," Fred said.
Harry left the waiting room and began the walk to Ginny’s room. In his mind, he imagined her sitting up in bed smiling at him when he walked in the room. He wanted to believe that the healers had broken the potion down and had begun to feed the antidote into her system. When he was about half way to her room, all of his imagined hopes suddenly vanished.
Harry didn’t know how, but once again a small flash of light erupted in his vision. He could see a thin rope of light connected to his chest that led down the hall and disappeared through the wall into Ginny’s room. He didn’t need to ask how Ginny was doing. He could feel it.
Harry broke into a run for Ginny’s room, and burst in through the door. Ginny’s body was arched stiffly as she was riddled with agonizing pain. Healers and orderlies worked frantically to hold her down to the bed as they made adjustments to her pain medication
Harry, not knowing what to do, yet realizing that he could somehow feel a portion of the agony she was experiencing, began to concentrate on trying to absorb more of her pain. He hoped the more he absorbed the less she would feel. Slowly, Harry could feel the pain in his own body increasing. Harry staggered from the pain just as Ginny’s body began to relax slightly. Harry gripped the doorframe to steady himself as he pushed on, determined to relieve her of all of her pain. Seconds later, his scar burst apart in a flood of severe anguish. Ever so briefly, before he passed out, Harry could feel the pain leaving his body and being channeled through a connection to someone else.
Bellatrix ran to where Voldemort lay writhing on the floor as if he had just suddenly been hit with an unforgivable curse, and she asked, "What is wrong, my master? What can I do? My Lord?"
Slowly, Voldemort regained his concentration and began to push the invading feelings from him. After what seemed an eternity, still struggling to catch his breath, Voldemort opened his eyes and looked up into the terrified eyes of his servant.
"I will be fine," Voldemort said shakily as he attempted to sit up. "The pain is gone. I have pushed it away."
"What happened, my Lord?" Bellatrix asked as she reached out and helped to steady her still weakened master.
"Potter found a way to momentarily break through the occlumency I’ve been using against him," Voldemort said, not realizing in his weakened state that it was not something he would normally admit.
"Are you sure it was him?" Bellatrix asked before she could stop herself. "I mean, how could he have accomplished such a thing?"
"It was him," Voldemort spat. "I could feel it. I doubt he did this on purpose, but the accident was bad enough. I shall have to remain even more vigilant in shutting out our connection until such time as it suits my purposes to use it against him."
"Is there nothing I can do to assist you, my Lord?" Bellatrix asked.
"Help me up," Voldemort said as his head cleared enough to realize he was still on the floor.
Bellatrix helped Voldemort to stand on shaky legs as she asked, "Are you sure you are all right, Master?"
"I just need to rest for a while to recover my strength," Voldemort said before his head cleared enough to realize that he had already confessed too much weakness to his servant. "Speak of this to no one, Bellatrix."
"Of course not, my Master," Bellatrix responded with a bow.
"Leave me now, Bellatrix," Voldemort ordered.
"As you wish, Master," Bellatrix said as she began to back toward the door.
As soon as Bellatrix closed the door behind her, Voldemort sank into a chair and winced at the soreness throughout his body. He was well aware that he was feeling the after effects associated with the Cruciatus Curse, but he was at a loss to explain how Harry had managed not only to break down his defenses, but send an unforgivable curse to him as well. What disturbed him more was the fact that he detected another unfamiliar consciousness invading his mind along with Harry. The unknown enemy, he knew, was always the most dangerous.
Harry opened his eyes suddenly and shot up to a sitting position as he yelled, "Ginny!"
"Easy, Harry," Arthur said as he placed a hand on Harry’s shoulder as Hermione and Ron walked closer.
"Where am I?" Harry asked trying to shake the tortured dream he had been having.
"You’re still at St. Mungo’s, Harry," Arthur replied as he eased Harry back onto his pillow. "You passed out in Ginny’s room."
"How is she?" Harry asked anxiously looking from face to face.
"Her pain seemed to have eased off for a while, but it slowly crept back up to where it was before," Hermione explained. "The healers don’t know how it happened, but they think it will give her at least another day."
"How long was I out?" Harry asked.
"Two days, mate," Ron said. "You had us all terrified. The healers said you showed signs of being hit with the Cruciatus Curse."
"How is that possible, Harry?" Arthur asked. "The hospital was searched. No one was found who could have done something like that to you."
"I honestly don’t know," Harry said, truly not understanding what had taken place. "I walked into Ginny’s room, and the pain just hit me. Two days? I should have been with her."
"The healers are wondering if that is a good idea," Arthur confessed.
"What do you mean?" Harry asked.
"They worry that your closeness to Ginny somehow caused the pain to be transferred from her body to yours," Arthur explained. "Seeing her again might have the same results, or it might even be more serious the next time."
"So be it," Harry said defiantly. "That’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make if it will keep her alive until they can find an antidote."
"That strategy could kill both of you," Arthur said sadly. "Ginny wouldn’t want you to make that sacrifice. She knows what your destiny is."
Harry closed his eyes and sighed as he realized he was in a losing argument. He and Ginny were not married. Her parents were well within their rights to refuse to allow him to see her. He decided to store that problem away until he could figure a way around it.
"Is there anything I can get for you, Harry?" Ron asked after several seconds of silence.
"I could use a drink," Harry said as he realized how dry his throat was.
"I’ll get it for you," Ron said as he made for the door.
"I’ll let Molly know you’re awake," Arthur said as he followed Ron to the door. "I’m sure McGonagal would like to know as well."
After Ron and his dad had left, Harry sat up and asked, "Has he made any progress?"
"He thinks he’s close to breaking the spell that’s keeping him from breaking it down," Hermione answered, understanding that it would be dangerous to mention Snape’s name.
"Is he at the house alone?" Harry asked.
"Neville and Luna are there right now," Hermione replied. "Other D.A. members are taking turns watching after him. I didn’t think you would mind if I brought Cho and some of the others into it."
"As long as they’re coming to the house through the floo network," Harry said. "I wouldn’t want the death eaters watching the house to see them coming and going too often if they know I’m not there. They might catch on that there is something going on that they would want to put a stop to."
"Don’t worry," Hermione said. "We’re following the precautions you set up before we went back to school. At least, your being here kept Lupin and McGonagal from stopping by your house. Lupin stayed here by your bedside for the past two days. Mr. Weasley finally got him to leave this morning when he promised to stay with you."
"While he isn’t, I need to ask you something, Hermione," Harry said lowering his voice.
"What is it?" Hermione asked lowering her voice to match Harry’s without knowing why.
"What theories do you have about how Ginny and I connected?" Harry asked. "I’m betting you’ve researched it by now."
"I tried," Hermione admitted, "but I don’t have any way to know what kind of a connection it was. There are about a thousand books that mention connections from ropes to the Imperious Curse."
"Look for ones that happen with a flash of light," Harry suggested.
"You have something you haven’t told us, Harry," Hermione said as she eyed him suspiciously. "You know more about this than you’re telling."
"Remember the day we were going to Hogsmeade?" Harry asked. "I started to fall down the stairs and Ron caught me. I told you all that I had seen a flash of light. It was there and gone in an instant. In that same instant, I felt relief. At first I thought it was my relief that Ron had caught me. What if it wasn’t? What if it was someone else’s relief I was feeling?"
"What would lead you to think that?" Hermione asked as her mind began to stir.
"I saw another flash of light when you and Ginny were attacked," Harry explained. "It didn’t go away as quickly as the other one. At the same time, I could feel her pain, Hermione. I knew Ginny was hurt, and I knew exactly where to find her."
"Are you sure it wasn’t a clairvoyant vision?" Hermione asked.
"It wasn’t a vision," Harry assured her. "I didn’t see it in front of me playing out some future event. I felt it inside my own body as it happened."
"And two days ago?" Hermione asked guessing where this was going.
"It was more real than ever," Harry informed her. "The light I saw formed into a solid rope of energy connected to my chest. I was in the hallway walking to Ginny’s room, and I felt everything she was feeling. Everything, Hermione. I ran to her room following the rope, and the other end connected to her chest. I could feel a portion of the pain she was in, so I tried to draw more of it out of her into my own body. It worked, Hermione. I wanted to take all of the pain from her, but it was too much for me. It made my scar burn like it never has before. I think I connected to Voldemort before I passed out."
"I can see why you didn’t want to tell Mr. Weasley about it," Hermione said as she placed her hand to her forehead in thought. "Maybe he was right, Harry. Maybe you shouldn’t get too close to her for a while."
"I really don’t think that will make a difference," Harry said as he laid back down slowly.
"Why do you say that?" Hermione asked.
"Because," Harry said with a slight wince, "that rope of energy I mentioned is connected to my chest right now."
"Cut the connection, Harry!" Hermione exclaimed in near panic.
"I don’t know if I could even if I wanted to," Harry admitted. "I promise I won’t take more than I can handle this time. I just need to siphon off a little at a time."
"Harry, no!" Hermione said as she placed her hand on Harry’s shoulder. "Please don’t do it."
"I have to, Hermione," Harry said. "I finally found something I can do to help her. Please don’t tell anyone else. Just make sure Snape finds that antidote in time. Help him if you have to."
"What about you, Harry?" Hermione asked as the tears flowed from her eyes. "I can’t just leave you here like this."
"The healers will take care of me," Harry assured her.
"Ron will be back in here soon," Hermione reminded him. "Other people will come after that. How do you expect to keep this a secret?"
"I can do it," Harry said. "I was managing well enough when Ron was here before. This connection between Ginny and I was already active when I woke up."
"What if you can’t control how much you feel?" Hermione asked.
"Then the healers will put me on the same medication Ginny is on," Harry replied as his hand clenched at the bed sheets. "The faster he finds an antidote the sooner I can get out of here and find out why Ginny and I are connected this way. You have to use what time we have trying to help Ginny. She only has three, maybe four days left at the most. Hermione, if it comes to it, and if it’s within my power, I won’t let Ginny die. I’ll sacrifice myself to save her. If that happens…"
"It won’t, Harry," Hermione sobbed. "We’ll find a way…"
"Tell her that I loved her," Harry said as another intense pain shot through him. "Make sure she knows."
Hermione considered what she should do for several seconds before she, sobbing, said, "I will, Harry. I’ll tell her for you."
"Is everything all right in here?" Ron asked as he walked in and saw Hermione crying.
"I’m just feeling emotional right now, Ron," Hermione explained leaving out why she was emotional. "Harry is still feeling pain. I’m going to tell the healers to give him something for it."
Before Ron could say anything else, Hermione darted past him out the door. Ron stared after her for several seconds before he remembered the water he had brought for Harry.
"I guess all of us are stretched a bit thin right now," Ron observed as he handed the cup to Harry.
"How are you holding up?" Harry asked after he had taken a long drink and set the cup on his bedside table.
"Not too well, mate," Ron admitted. "I was close to a breaking point already with what Ginny is going through. Having you in here…"
"I’ll be fine, Ron," Harry said.
"Will you?" Ron asked looking seriously at Harry. "I may not be as smart as Hermione, but I’m not stupid either Harry. This connection the healers think you had with Ginny, is it the same one that told you what happened to Ginny in Hogsmeade?"
"Who says you aren’t as smart as Hermione?" Harry asked with a smile as he lay back down. "She didn’t add those things together until I told her about it."
"Is that why you’re still in pain?" Ron asked already guessing what the answer would be.
"Yes," Harry admitted. "I can still feel her pain."
"Why can’t I feel it?" Ron asked. "I’m her big brother. I promised to protect her long before you did."
"I don’t know why, mate," Harry said. "I really don’t know how or why it happened."
Ron closed his eyes as he struggled to control the floor of tears he felt building up, and said, "You have to let her go, Harry. She wouldn’t want you to suffer like this."
"I can’t," Harry said. "I won’t. Don’t ever ask me to abandon her. You would do it for her and you know it."
"Of course I would," Ron said. "That doesn’t mean that you…"
"How effective do you think I would be in a battle with Voldemort if I lose Ginny without a fight?" Harry asked. "I know what everyone expects me to do to fulfill my destiny, but maybe that isn’t my only destiny. Even if she doesn’t want my help, she’s going to get it."
Ron studied the seriousness in Harry’s eyes for several seconds before he grinned and said, "You have to have some red hair somewhere, Harry. You’re just as stubborn as Ginny ever was."
Harry smiled as he clutched the bed again and said, "I wouldn’t go that far."
A healer walked in with Hermione, and Ron stepped back from the bed. Harry was injected with something to mask the pain, and he waited until the healer had left to increase the amount of pain the injection allowed him to absorb. His friends stood by and watched knowing exactly what Harry was likely doing, yet also knowing that any argument against it would be ignored.
Two days later, Lupin stood at Harry’s bedside delivering the bad news as gently as he could manage as he said, "Her family is in with her. They’ve asked that everyone else be kept out of the room out of respect for Ginny. I’m sorry to have to tell you about this Harry. I know hearing this isn’t going to make your recovery any easier. There just isn’t anything more they can do for her."
"How long?" Harry asked as he struggled to draw pain away from Ginny.
Lupin hesitated before admitting, "Early tomorrow morning at the latest."
Harry turned over on his side to hide the tears flowing from his eyes from Lupin. Several moments passed in silence as Lupin tried to think of some way he could soften the blow Harry was experiencing, but could only think of one.
"I could ask the healers to give you something to knock you out until after…" Lupin began.
"No," Harry said flatly. "That would only make it worse."
Silence descended once again as Lupin looked at the floor as he wondered how Lily or James would have handled the situation. As much as he would have liked to have known, he realized that it would likely be Lily that would have had the best ideas of how to tread gently. James likely would have done no better than Lupin had done.
"Thanks for trying, Remus," Harry finally said still not looking at him. "I could use some time alone for a while."
"Of course, Harry," Lupin conceded. "I’ll just go back to the waiting room with Tonks and McGonagal. I’ll come back to check on you in a while. Just have them come and get me if you need anything."
"I will," Harry said.
Lupin turned to leave, but the door opened before he got to it as Neville walked into the room and stared at Lupin for a moment.
"Hello, Neville," Lupin said as he walked over to the door. "I didn’t expect to see you here."
Neville continued to look at Lupin for a few seconds before he said, "I was just visiting my parents. I wanted to stop in and see Harry."
"Well, this might not be a good time," Lupin said. "I just delivered some bad news to Harry. You might want to give him a little time."
"It’s all right," Harry said turning over at last with red swollen eyes. "I’ll talk to you for a while, Neville."
"Right then," Lupin said. "I’ll be in the waiting room."
After Lupin had left, Neville turned and locked the door. When he turned back to face Harry, he had an expression Harry had never seen on Neville’s face before.
"Neville?" Harry asked.
"Hardly, Potter," Neville said as he walked over to Harry’s bedside. "I was forced to assume this identity in order to come here tonight. Believe me, if I had any other choice of appearances I would have gladly taken it instead."
"Professor Snape?" Harry asked hoping it wasn’t just a death eater who had come to visit.
"Of course, Potter," Snape said. "How did you assume I would be able to deliver an antidote to you without assuming another form? I couldn’t very well stroll through the lobby of St. Mungo’s in my natural form."
"You have a cure?" Harry asked as he sat up quickly.
"Possibly," Snape said. "It is still incomplete, but I believe the final ingredient can only be obtained through you."
"Through me?" Harry questioned. "I don’t have any potion ingredients with me."
"Don’t be too sure," Snape said as he removed a bottle of white potion from his pocket. "If Miss Granger has not been misleading me, you may have the final ingredient inside of you as we speak."
"Not unless it’s something I’m not aware of," Harry admitted.
"That does not surprise me in the least," Snape said with a sneer. "Do you or do you not have a connection with Ginny Weasley that enables you to share her feelings?"
"She told you about that?" Harry asked.
"She did," Snape confirmed. "I was ready to give up looking for the final ingredient. After all, no one has ever, to my knowledge, harvested love for use in a potion. When I posed that problem to her, she divulged your secret to me in hopes it would deliver the answers I was seeking."
"That sounds like something Dumbledore would have come up with," Harry said. "He was always going on about the power of love. He said it saved me a few times."
"I am well aware of that,’ Snape said. "I undertook a great deal of research into the matter of love magic at his request. The Dark Lord infused the potion he made with a great deal of malice and hate. The only thing powerful enough to counter it is love, but yours had better be a true love, Potter. It won’t work if you are only infatuated."
"So how do you plan to get it out of me?" Harry asked. "I thought you said it couldn’t be done."
"I can’t get it out of you," Snape said. "Even if I could I would never get near Miss Weasley’s room to administer it. That is why the connection between you is so valuable. You will have to process the antidote in your body and send it with all the love you can muster to her."
"That could be a problem," Harry admitted.
"Don’t tell me you’ve lost the connection when you most need it," Snape said.
"I haven’t lost it," Harry said. "I’ve been trying to pull pain out of Ginny all day, but I haven’t been able to. I can feel her resistance. She isn’t letting me help her."
"She isn’t allowing you to harm yourself," Snape corrected. "That is of no consequence. You don’t need to pull anything from her. You just need to send it to her."
"I’ll try," Harry said.
"Indeed you will," Snape said as he uncorked the bottle of potion. "This potion is going to seem like drinking fire. It will be quite painful until your body is able to absorb the purifying qualities from the potion. There is no way to know how long that process will take."
"It will be before morning," Harry said as he took the bottle from Snape’s hand. "I guarantee you that."
Harry put the bottle to his mouth and turned it up. True to Snape’s words, the potion did indeed feel like liquid fire as it slid down Harry’s throat. The immediate reaction in Harry’s mind was to toss the bottle aside and make the pain stop. A memory suddenly popped into Harry’s thoughts though. Harry remembered the cave he had gone to with Dumbledore. He remembered pouring goblet after goblet of potion down Dumbledore’s throat even though he begged Harry to stop. A new determination swelled inside of Harry as he drained the bottle of its potion before tossing it away and grabbing onto the bed for support as his insides burned.
"I have another potion with me that will cancel out he first and make the pain go away," Snape offered.
"No," Harry said through gritted teeth. "No matter what."
"I understand," Snape said as he observed Harry with a new respect. For Harry’s sake, he hoped the potion would actually work.
It was nearly an hour later before Harry felt the potion begin to spread out from his center to all extremities of his body. Over the next half-hour the hot potion began to cool until Harry was left with a warm, not altogether unpleasant sensation coursing through him.
Snape had been forced to return to Harry’s house, as the effects of the polyjuice potion began to wear off, so it was Hermione who had taken up the watch next to Harry’s bed. She watched as Harry opened his eyes for the first time. She could tell that he was seeing something beyond what she was able to observe as he said Ginny’s name very softly.
It was at that moment that Harry began to send the processed potion from his body to her. He was happy to discover that she made no resistance to his incoming feelings. He could only hope that he wasn’t too late.
Finally, the warm sensation in his body expelled, and beyond exhaustion, Harry closed his eyes once more, and fell asleep.
Debts and Gifts
Harry stirred as he began to wake from the deep sleep he had fallen into. As he did, one of the first sensations he became aware of was another hand holding on to his. He opened his eyes slowly to see Hermione’s blurry form leaning over him. To him, it looked as though she was smiling.
"How are you feeling, Harry?" Hermione asked as she placed Harry’s glasses on his face.
"I’ve been better," Harry replied as he realized just how sore and stiff his muscles really were. "What time is it?"
"It’s nearly eight in the morning," Hermione replied as Harry’s eyes shot open wide and he sat up despite his aching body.
"Is Ginny…" Harry began in fright.
"Easy, Harry," Ron said as he stepped forward and Harry noticed Fred and George standing close by. "She’s doing fine. The healers say her muscles are still too stressed for her to move much, but the pain from the potion is all but gone."
"Hermione tells us we have you to thank for that, Harry" Fred said as he stepped forward with a warm look on his face.
"Save your praise for your sister," Harry said as he relaxed slightly. "What I did was nothing compared to what she fought through."
"Still," George said with a tear barely contained, "it isn’t everyone who would have braved that potion Snape developed. Hermione said it had some rather nasty effects."
"Is she awake yet?" Harry asked, not wanting to dwell on what he knew any of them would have done if they had been the ones with the connection to Ginny.
"She woke up for a few minutes about an hour ago," Ron answered. "The healers gave her something to help her sleep. They said it would be easier for her to sleep while the medicine they gave to her to rebuild her muscles took effect."
Harry immediately swung his legs out of the bed and tried to stand up as Hermione and Ron grabbed him by the shoulders to steady him and Hermione asked, "Where do you think you’re going, Harry?"
"Where do you think?" Harry replied. "I have to go and see Ginny."
"Are you sure you feel up to walking that far?" Ron asked.
"I’m going to find out," Harry replied. "I’ll crawl down the hall to her room if I have to. You can either help me or stand out of my way."
"Well if you’re going to crawl," George said, "maybe you should get dressed first. That hospital gown may turn out to be a bit drafty."
Realizing George was right, Harry blushed as Hermione said, "I’ll go and tell Lupin you’re awake, Harry. I’ll let him know to go to Ginny’s room if he wants to find you."
"Thanks, Hermione," Harry said as Hermione walked toward the door.
Once she was gone, Fred laid Harry’s clothes on the bed next to him and said, "George and I will tell mum and dad you’ll be on your way soon. Ron can stay here to walk with you in case you need help."
"Thanks guys," Harry said.
"No need to thank us, Harry," George said from the doorway. "Anything we do for you from now on is just part of a debt we’ll never be able to fully repay."
"Anything you ever need," Fred said as George walked out ahead of him, "you just ask us."
"I think everyone is making a bit too much out of this," Harry said after the twins had gone.
"Don’t be too sure," Ron said. "We all feel that way. Well, those of us that know what you did anyway. It’s the best Christmas present we could have gotten."
Harry stopped halfway through pulling his shirt on and looked at Ron in horror as he asked, "Is today…"
"No," Ron assured with a grin. "This is Christmas Eve, Harry. The healers think Ginny might be able to go home tomorrow if the muscle potion can repair the stress her body has been under."
"So soon?" Harry asked with a smile. "I can hardly believe it."
"Believe it, mate," Ron said with a smile of his own. "Mum and dad are beside themselves with joy. They haven’t had much to feel happy about lately. I don’t think they’ve been able to sleep at all for the last three days. Seeing you up and about should only make them happier."
"Wow," Harry said with a smile. "This is already the best Christmas I’ve ever had, and we haven’t even gotten to the actual day yet."
"Well get ready," Ron said. "Mum has been using a good portion of the time she’s been staying awake knitting scarves and sweaters. I don’t have to tell you what she plans on doing with them."
"Speaking of that," Harry said, "I still have to find time to run out and get presents for everyone. I never got to finish shopping that day in Hogsmeade."
"Well if the shops in Hogsmeade close too early," Ron said as Harry was pulling on his socks, "the ones in Diagon Alley usually stay open a bit longer."
"That’s good to know," Harry said. "I hope I can get that dress I picked out for Ginny. I knew as soon as I saw it that it was perfect for her."
"We had better hurry then," Ron said as Harry finished tying his shoes. "Something tells me you aren’t going to be easy to get out of Ginny’s room once you get inside."
"Something tells me you might be right," Harry said as he stood up. "Lets get going."
It was nearly lunch time before Harry was willing to release Ginny’s hand. She remained asleep the entire time due to the sedative the healers had given her, but Harry didn’t need any of them to tell him how she was doing. The connection between them never wavered for an instant, making Harry wonder if it was to be a permanent feature of their relationship.
"Harry," Ron whispered, "don’t forget that shopping you needed to do. Hermione and I will stay here with mum and dad."
Harry looked over to the sofa that had been conjured on the other side of the room. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley sat side by side as they enjoyed their first sleep in several days.
"I’m glad to see they finally calmed down enough to sleep," Harry commented in a whisper.
"Well, you were the one who decided to confirm for them that their was a connection between you and Ginny," Hermione said quietly. "You had to expect they would get excited about that."
"I suppose so," Harry said. "I couldn’t help myself. Mrs. Weasley was so happy Ginny and I were both feeling better. When she asked me about what the healers suspected I just couldn’t stop myself from telling her."
"Well you had better be serious about your relationship with Ginny," Ron said with a grin. "You practically became part of the family in mum’s eyes after you told her about it."
"In other words, Harry," Hermione began, "get out of here while you can. We’ll stay here until you get back."
"I guess you’re right," Harry said as he kissed Ginny’s forehead lightly. "I have quite a few things to get done before tomorrow."
"More than just some shopping?" Hermione asked.
"I just have a couple of promises to keep," Harry said as he stood and regretfully let Ginny’s hand slip from his.
Minutes later, having left St. Mungo’s, Harry stood outside the Great Hall of Hogwarts. Harry was guessing that those who had elected to stay behind for Christmas would be gathered in the Great Hall for lunch. If they were there, then Harry was sure McGonagal would be with them.
"Well, I didn’t expect to see you here, Harry," Tonks said as she walked up to him from an adjacent hallway. "Did the healers release you?"
"I guess so," Harry replied. "I walked out and mentioned to Snagprat that I was leaving. He didn’t seem to think there was any reason to stop me."
Tonks smiled as she asked, "So, why are you here anyway? I thought you would be spending time with Ginny now that she’s getting better."
"I did for a while," Harry said. "I’ll get back to her after I get my shopping done. I just need to see Professor McGonagal about something before I run my errands."
"Well, she hasn’t come down from her office yet," Tonks said. "She’s having a meeting with someone. Do you need to see her about something important?"
"I think it is," Harry replied. "Do you think it would be all right if I went up and waited until she finished with her other meeting?"
"I don’t see why not," Tonks said. "She’s been very worried about you and Ginny. I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you. I’ll walk up with you."
"Oh, you don’t have to," Harry said.
"I know," Tonks said with a mischievous grin. "I’m just hoping to meet the man Professor McGonagal is meeting with. I’ve wanted to meet him since I was a kid."
Harry studied Tonks with keen interest as he asked, "Who is he?"
Tonks smiled wider as she said, "I’ll just let that be a surprise. I don’t want to get your hopes up in case he’s left by the time we get there."
Harry tried to pry information out of Tonks right up until they were standing outside McGonagal’s office, but she remained silent behind her continual smile. Tonks knocked on the door and McGonagal called for her to enter.
Tonks opened the door and peeked inside as she said, "I’m sorry to bother you Professor, but you have another visitor who wants to meet with you when you finish here."
"Of course," McGonagal said as she motioned for Tonks to enter. "We’re nearly finished. Who is it?"
"Harry Potter," Tonks answered as she stepped just inside the door and starred with wonder at the man in McGonagal’s office.
"Really?" the man asked with an obvious Northern European accent as he looked back to McGonagal. "I would appreciate the opportunity to meet Mr. Potter before I go."
"Certainly," McGonagal agreed looking back to Tonks. "Show Mr. Potter in Professor."
Tonks opened the door and Harry stepped inside the office to see McGonagal standing behind her desk. The man standing beside her desk was a large wizard in long dark red robes and a matching furry hat. Even under the flowing white beard, Harry could see an enormous smile.
"I’m glad to see you’re feeling better, Mr. Potter," McGonagal said.
"Thanks, Professor," Harry said.
"I would like for you to meet an old friend of Professor Dumbledore’s," McGonagal said as she indicated the man beside her desk. "This is Jorgen Kringle."
"It is a distinct pleasure to meet you, Mr. Potter," Kringle said as he extended his hand to Harry.
"Please," Harry said, "call me Harry."
"Very well, Harry," Kringle said as he shook Harry’s hand.
"You’ll have to forgive me, Mr. Kringle," Harry said, "but as soon as Professor McGonagal introduced you, a vision popped into my head of you sliding down a chimney. I guess you must get that a lot."
"More than you can imagine," Kringle confirmed with a grin. "Technically, I don’t slide down them though. I just floo from one to another."
Harry stared quizzically at Kringle for a moment before he said, "I see. You’re joking with me."
"Actually, I’m quite serious, Harry," Kringle said. "It’s a family business, you might say. I took over for my father, and he took over from his father before him. Someday, my son will take over for me."
Harry looked to McGonagal and then to Tonks before turning back to Kringle and asking, "Kringle? Father Christmas? Santa Claus?"
"Yes," Kringle said. "Many names, but you may simply call me Jorgen."
"You’re real?" Harry asked in amazement.
"As far as I can tell," Kringle said as he patted his ample stomach, "though Albus and I debated that topic extensively."
"I stopped believing in Father Christmas when I was five," Harry said.
"Really?" Kringle asked. "Why so young?"
"Well," Harry said, "I never got anything I asked for. Dudley got more presents than anyone has a right to, and I never got anything."
"Didn’t you?" Kringle asked. "When you were five, didn’t the Dursleys mistakenly leave you behind on your own for four hours while they visited friends and family on Christmas day?"
"Well yes, but…" Harry began.
"What you ask for is not always what you get, Harry," Kringle said. "Sometimes, what you get is what you really want."
"I suppose I did have a good time while they were gone," Harry said with a smile. "Now that I think about it, that happened almost every Christmas after that as well. I thought my uncle was leaving me behind on purpose."
"With your cupboard unlocked by accident?" Kringle asked. "Just so you know, none of the presents Dudley ever got came from me."
"I don’t believe this,’ Harry said feeling like a kid again as he began to realize the enormity of what he was experiencing. "You have no idea how much easier this is going to make it for me when I have children. If they ever start to doubt you exist, I can actually tell them I’ve met you."
"I am delighted to have lifted that burden for you," Kringle said with a chuckle. "I must confess though, that meeting you here today is an unexpected stroke of good fortune. You see, my own son requested a present this year that it was not in my power to create through magic. He wishes nothing more than to have the autograph of "The Chosen One"."
"Me?" Harry asked in surprise. "But why?"
"Is it possible that you are unaware?" Kringle asked as he leaned slightly closer. "My dear boy, your fame resonates through magical communities the world over. Simply put, you may be the most famous wizard in the world today."
"Well certainly not more famous than you," Harry said as he felt his face flush.
"Most of the world believes I am simply a myth created for the enjoyment of children," Kringle said. "Believe me, you, and what you represent, is very real to them."
"I guess I hadn’t realized my fight with Voldemort was anything more than a local issue," Harry admitted.
"Far from it," Kringle said. "It is one reason why I am here today. Death eaters have tried to stop me from making my rounds on Christmas Eve, before. Your Ministry of Magic goes to great lengths to provide security for me, but I came here to ask Professor McGonagal to lend what assistance the Order of the Phoenix may be able to summon. She has graciously agreed to do so."
Harry noticed the look on McGonagal’s face as information she had not intended was revealed to him, and he said, "Don’t worry, Professor. I have no intention of prying into what plans you might have for assisting Jorgen."
"Forgive me, Mr. Potter," McGonagal said. "My reaction was purely instinctual."
Harry smiled as he walked closer to McGonagal’s desk and picked up a quill as he asked, "Who should I make this out to?"
"Make it out to Sven if you would," Kringle replied.
Harry took a moment to write a message on a piece of parchment McGonagal handed to him. He looked it over once before he handed it to Kringle.
"Dear Sven," Kringle read aloud, "Keep the magic alive. Harry Potter."
"I hope that will be all right," Harry said.
"It will be perfect," Kringle replied with a smile. "Is there anything you would like for Christmas that I could give you in return?"
"No, thank you," Harry answered with a grin. "I got what I really wanted this morning after I woke up. Asking for anything more just wouldn’t be right."
"Wisdom beyond your years, Harry," Kringle said with a grin. "I can see why Albus thought so highly of you. Well, I’m afraid I must take leave of you all. As you may imagine, I have a busy night ahead of me."
"The security we spoke of will be in place at the appropriate time," McGonagal said. "Professor Tonks will escort you downstairs."
"I believe that would be fitting," Kringle said. "I am sensing that Nymphadora has something she would like to ask for."
Tonks blushed, but couldn’t keep a smile from creeping onto her face.
A minute later, after the door to the office was closed behind Tonks and Kringle, McGonagal asked, "So, what is it that brings you here on Christmas Eve, Mr. Potter?"
Harry turned to McGonagal and asked, "What would happen if I could prove that Professor Snape didn’t kill Professor Dumbledore?"
McGonagal sat back in her chair in shock as the portraits muttered their own surprise, and she said, "I don’t see either how or why you would wish to do so. The fact of who Professor Dumbledore’s killer was has never been in doubt. Professor Dumbledore himself has never disputed it. You were there when it happened. You told us Snape was the one who used the killing curse."
"I’m not saying he didn’t," Harry said.
"Then what are you saying, Mr. Potter?" Professor Dippet asked with a confused look.
"And since when do you willingly refer to him as Professor Snape?" Phineas asked with a curious smirk.
Harry ignored Phineas as he looked back to McGonagal and said, "We all remember the last time the Chamber of Secrets was opened. In the end we found out it was Ginny who had opened it. Why wasn’t she ever punished for it?"
"Well, I should think that would be obvious," McGonagal said. "She was not responsible for actions committed while someone else was controlling her."
"If I recall correctly," Harry said, "that was the same reason some of the death eaters were set free after Voldemort attacked me and disappeared. They claimed he had used the imperious curse on them."
"I still don’t see what that has to do with Severus Snape," McGonagal said.
"The killing curse came from Professor Snape’s wand," Harry said, "but it was Voldemort who was in control of his actions that night. I can show you proof right now if you want to see it."
"Well, if the proof truly exists then the Ministry will have little choice but to let Severus go free," McGonagal said.
"Good," Harry said.
"Is it?" Professor Fortescue asked. "We have all been under he impression you didn’t care for Snape even before he killed Dumbledore. Why the sudden change."
"Because he saved Ginny," Harry said. "I owe him everything."
"You found him?" McGonagal asked. "You know where he is?"
"I did," Harry replied, "and I do."
"But how?" Phineas asked. "The Ministry and Order have been looking for him for months."
"I won’t bore you with the details," Harry said letting them know he didn’t want to tell them, "but I found him and begged him to come back and try to find a cure for Ginny."
"Is that…" McGonagal began. "Did he develop a cure? Was he the one responsible for Ginny’s sudden recovery?"
"Yes," Harry said. "In return I promised to share the proof of his innocence with the Ministry."
"But how could Snape have administered a cure to Miss Weasley?" Edvard asked. "We know for a fact that no one other than family was allowed to see her other than the healers."
Harry turned to look up at Dumbledore’s smiling portrait and said, "He gave it to me and I passed it to Ginny."
"How could you?" Dippet asked. "Reports said that you never left your room."
"Ingenious," Dumbledore said as he sat back in his chair looking as if suspicions of his had been confirmed.
McGonagal looked at the contented smile on Dumbledore’s face for several seconds before the reality of the situation hit her, and she asked, "Does this have anything to do with the connection the healers suspected between Ginny and yourself?"
"It has everything to do with it," Harry said with a smile as he looked down at the line of energy still connected to the center of his chest. "I’ll be more than happy to tell you what I can about the connection after the New Year. Right now I really need to get some Christmas shopping done."
"Then I shall take you at your word about the proof you have to show me," McGonagal said. "In the mean time, would it be possible for you to arrange for me to meet with Severus."
"Of course," Harry said. "He’s currently staying at my house. Just send Dobby there first to let them know I’m sending you."
"You’ve hidden him in your house?" McGonagal asked. "Isn’t that a bit dangerous?"
"Actually, he’s safer there than you might think," Harry said. "If you plan to try to move him, just be aware that Voldemort can link to him through his dark mark. That was how he killed Professor Dumbledore. It’s only safe for him to stay in a place that is either unplotable, or has other spells in place to block detection."
"I appreciate the warning, Mr. Potter," McGonagal said. "Rest assured that Hogwarts now has spells in place to accomplish just that. As for whether Severus will be moving out of your house, that is something he will have to decide for himself."
"Given the choice I assume he would give serious thought to any such offer," Harry said.
"What of young Mr. Malfoy?" Dippet asked. "Did you locate him as well?"
"I guess I assumed Professor Neligus had informed you of his presence at the Black Estate," Harry replied. "His mother is taking care of him."
"He has apparently avoided entering the room where my portrait hangs," Phineas remarked.
"I doubt he did so out of any disrespect for you, Professor," Harry said with a friendly smile.
Phineas studied Harry for several seconds before bowing his head slightly and saying, "Thank you, Mr. Potter."
Harry smiled again before turning back to Professor McGonagal and asking, "Is there anything else you need of me right now, Professor?"
"There is a great deal I would like to ask you at the moment," Professor McGonagal said with a smile. "I shall endeavor to wait until a more opportune moment for those answers though. I will give you leave to complete your shopping. Happy Christmas, Harry."
"Happy Christmas, Professor," Harry responded before turning to look at the portraits. "Happy Christmas to you all."
Twenty minutes later, Harry apparated into Hogsmeade to great disappointment. Most of the shops, including Gladrags, were already closed for the holidays. Harry stood on the steps of Gladrags and surveyed the rest of the street looking to see who might still be open. His gift for Ginny would have to be changed, but he was hoping some of the other shops would stay open long enough for him to buy the gifts he had planned for a few others.
Half an hour later, Harry dropped off his bags from Hogsmeade in Fred and George’s shop. They assured him that they would stay open for him as long as he needed while he finished his other shopping. With that in mind, Harry made his way first to Madam Malkin’s. He was pleased to find out that, in addition to robes, she sold an entire line of good dresses. Harry couldn’t find one that would have been as perfect for Ginny as the one he had found at Gladrags, but he was pleased to find out that Madam Malkin had the size records on file of several other people he had planned to give gifts to. By the time he had left, still not having a gift for Ginny, Harry took his gift wrapped purchases back to the joke shop. After trips to Flourish and Blotts, Quality Quidditch Supplies, Scribbulus Everchanging Inks, Slug and Jiggers Apothecary, the junk shop, and the Magical Menagerie, Harry had found all of his gifts except for the one most important to him.
Harry was just passing Summerbee’s Instruments of Magic as it’s owner, who was locking the door, turned around and said, "Well, hello, Harry. Getting some last minute shopping done?"
"Most of it anyway, Mr. Summerbee," Harry said as he stopped at the bottom step. "I still have one left. I just can’t seem to find the perfect thing."
"Well it must be someone special," Mr. Summerbee said with a smile. "The special ones are always the hardest to shop for. It wouldn’t be Ginny Weasley you’re shopping for would it?"
"How did you know?" Harry asked.
"Fred and George have told everyone in Diagon Alley that Ginny is recovering from that terrible potion attack," Summerbee replied with a kind smile.
"It’s just that this is our first Christmas together as a couple," Harry explained. "I want it to be something special."
"Ah, young love," Summerbee said as he began to think about something he had on a high shelf in his shop. "Is it a true love or just a passing fancy?"
Harry looked down at the thin line of energy connected to his chest and said, "I know this is for real. It isn’t something that will ever go away."
"Well in that case," Summerbee said, "maybe I have something you might be interested in."
A minute later, Harry walked into the neat little shop behind Mr. Summerbee. There were magical objects on row after row of shelving. Several items seemed to illuminate the immediate area around them, while others hummed softly or rattled around of their own accord. Still more simply lay on their shelves and did nothing at all. Harry resisted the urge to examine some of the more interesting looking objects as he followed Mr. Summerbee to the counter at the back of the shop.
Harry stood on the customer side of the counter while Mr. Summerbee went behind it and stood on a stool to reach a small box on the top shelf. Stepping off of the stool, Mr. Summerbee turned with a smile and placed the box on the counter in front of Harry. The lid was removed, and Harry looked down at an ornate silver lid.
"What is it?" Harry asked.
"A music box," Summerbee replied.
Harry looked up with a questioning look as he said, "It can’t be an ordinary music box. If it was I doubt you would have it in your shop."
"A very special music box then," Summerbee said with a grin. "This box is very particular about whom it will work for and whom it will not. If it chooses to work for you, it will only play one song, and the person you give it to will be the only person who can hear it."
"That’s certainly unusual," Harry said. "What song does it play?"
"I don’t exactly know," Summerbee said. "Legend says that it will play the music of a man's heart. Once you touch it, it will either learn your heart song, or it will simply turn into a beautiful, yet plain, box. Your love would have to be a true one for it to work. Likewise, Ginny’s would have to be true for the song to play for her."
"It’s perfect," Harry said.
"Really?" Summerbee asked. "You understand that you wouldn’t know if the box actually worked for you unless she told you she could hear music coming from it. You wouldn’t be the first person to think twice. Things could go very bad for you if you tell her she should hear music and she doesn’t."
"I’ll take that chance," Harry said with a grin. "Can I get it gift wrapped."
"As long as you touch it before I wrap it up," Summerbee replied.
"That’s easy enough," Harry said as he touched the metal lid with the end of his fingers.
Harry had to admit that he didn’t detect any difference in the box after he had touched it, but he continued to smile as he watched Mr. Summerbee wrap the box in a silvery paper he produced from behind the counter. Harry took the wrapped package and added it to the others he was carrying before following Mr. Summerbee back outside.
"Well, I hope that takes away the last of your gift buying problems this year," Summerbee said as he locked the door and turned around.
"Oh, you have no idea," Harry said. "I wanted to give her something special, and this music box is certainly that."
"Well, I’m glad I ran into you before I locked my shop," Summerbee said. "I was just on my way to The Leaky Cauldron for a traditional Christmas Eve drink with some of the other shop keepers. Would you like to come along. I know all of them would like to have you join us."
"I’d like to," Harry said, "but Ginny is waiting for me at St. Mungo’s."
"I quite understand," Summerbee said as he tipped his hat. "A very happy Christmas to you, Mr. Potter."
"And to you, Mr. Summerbee," Harry said with a smile and a wave as Summerbee took off in the opposite direction down the street.
Thirty minutes later, Harry walked into Ginny’s room. Ginny didn’t know exactly how, but even with her head turned away from the door she knew Harry had just come into the room. Somehow, she could feel it. She turned her head to look at him, and seeing the joy in his eyes, she smiled.
"Harry," Ginny said quietly as she squeezed his hand to wake him.
"Oh," Harry said as he raised his head from the edge of Ginny’s bed, "you’re awake. Happy Christmas, Ginny."
"Happy Christmas, Harry," Ginny responded with a smile as she raised her hand to caress Harry’s cheek as she observed the heavy circles under Harry’s eyes. "I thought you said you were just going to stay last night until I fell asleep."
"I meant to, Gin," Harry said with a smile of his own. "I sat here and watched you sleep for a while. After all the time I spent recently watching you suffer the effects of that potion, I just couldn’t stop watching how peacefully you were sleeping last night. If I didn’t know better I would have thought you didn’t have any pain at all."
"But of course you do know better," Ginny said. "Can you still see it? Did it disappear over night?"
"No," Harry said with a smile. "It’s still connected to us. I felt the pain leaving you little by little for most of the night."
"Then you already know how little soreness I still feel," Ginny said. "The question is, why can’t I see this connection? I feel something, although not as clearly as you seem to."
"I couldn’t even begin to guess," Harry replied. "It isn’t something I tried to do. That I know of, I don’t even have much control of it. I’m certainly not going to try to turn it off."
"Well I should hope not," Ginny said. "It’s only the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard of. There isn’t a girl alive who wouldn’t love to hear that her boyfriend had made a connection to her like this. We girls are very insecure about our boyfriends feelings normally."
"Then I hope this proves to you just how serious I am when I tell you that I love you," Harry said. "I told you I wanted to be with you forever, but, if this doesn’t prove it to you, we’ll find out for sure after you open your Christmas present."
Ginny’s eyes lit up with anticipation as she asked, "What is it? When do I get to open it?"
"I’m not going to tell you what it is," Harry chuckled. "That would ruin the surprise. Your mum and dad are getting things ready at the Burrow for you to come home later today. I left your present there."
"Well, I guess I can wait just a little longer," Ginny said with a grin. "That is, unless I can pry the information out of Ron before then."
"It wouldn’t do you any good to try," Harry said. "He wasn’t with me when I bought it, and I haven’t told anyone what it is. Besides, Ron won’t be around until just before they release you today. He went with Hermione to celebrate Christmas with her parents this morning."
"Don’t tell me you made him go with her just to keep me from questioning him," Ginny remarked.
"I didn’t have anything to do with it," Harry said. "During the time you’ve been in here, Ron and Hermione’s relationship seems to have intensified a bit. You missed it, and you’re in good company. I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I was so concerned with my own feelings about what was happening that I didn’t take the time to realize how close they were becoming."
"Well I never would have expected it out of Ron," Ginny said. "Of course I’ve known for some time about how Hermione feels."
"I really don’t think Ron stands a chance of hiding the way he feels from Hermione," Harry laughed. "Not unless he finds a way to stop talking in his sleep. Apparently, he fell asleep on Hermione’s shoulder several times in the waiting room. Every time he opened his mouth she heard what he was dreaming."
Ginny smiled at the mental image, and she asked, "Do you think they’ll get married some day?"
"Well," Harry replied, "unless they drive each other crazy first, I would say it’s a near certainty."
"Do you think we’ll get married?" Ginny asked with a sly look.
"I would say that, my dear, is an absolute truth," Harry replied as he felt her emotion swell.
Three hours later, at exactly twelve o’clock, Harry helped Ginny out of her bed and into the wheelchair she would take to the lobby. Her parents stood nearby and watched proudly along with Lupin and Tonks.
"All ready then?" Arthur asked with a smile.
"I think so," Ginny replied as Harry tucked a blanket he had put over her legs in at the sides. "I’m pretty sure I could walk out of here."
"Oh, no you don’t," Molly said as she came to her daughter’s side. "The healers said you weren’t to exert yourself for at least another day. We’ve made everything ready for you at home. You can sleep downstairs next to the fire, and we can bring you anything you need. All of your brothers are already there waiting for you."
"I don’t suppose protesting would do me any good," Ginny said.
"Not in the least," Arthur observed.
"You should know that the media are camped out in the lobby waiting for you to be released," Lupin said.
"We could spare you that," Tonks said, "but…"
"I understand," Ginny said. "They need to put it in the papers that Voldemort failed again. I think I’m about to find out exactly how Harry feels most of the time."
"It isn’t so bad," Harry said. "You don’t have to say anything. They’ll ask questions, but you don’t have to answer them. They’ll take enough pictures to satisfy their readers."
"Are you all going to stay with me?" Ginny asked.
"McGonagal asked us to protect you during your transfer to the Burrow," Lupin said. "After that we’ll be leaving on our own Christmas vacation."
Harry looked at Tonks and noticed a subtle flushing in her cheeks accompanied by an almost imperceptible smile. Harry had noticed Lupin’s use of the word vacation instead of vacations. He got the feeling that Jorgen may have paid a visit to Remus during the previous night.
Harry pushed the wheelchair into the hallway, and as Tonks came even with him, he asked, "So, did you get what you asked for, Professor?"
"I’m sure I have no idea what you mean, Harry," Tonks replied with a grin.
Harry smiled back at her as he said, "Oh, of course not. Still, have fun on your vacation."
"I think we will," Tonks said with a wink.
As they emerged from the hallway into the main lobby, the reporters gathered there attempted to surge forward, but they were held back by the spells of a group of around thirty young witches and wizards who stood in the center of the lobby.
"What are all of you doing here?" Harry asked as he pushed Ginny further out and cameras began to flash.
"We’re here to escort Ginny home," Cho said as she stepped forward out of the group.
"You don’t need to," Tonks said. "That’s what we’re here for."
"No offense, Professor," Zacharias said as he stepped up beside Cho, "but the last time the aurors tried to protect Ginny they didn’t do so well."
"I appreciate the sentiment," Ginny began, "but I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t want all of you to miss Christmas with your families on my account."
"You’re part of the D.A., Ginny," Neville said as he joined the others. "We take care of our own; even on Christmas.
"Besides," Luna began, "as soon as we make sure you’re safe at home, we’ll go back to our families. There will be plenty of time for celebrating left."
"Well," Harry said, "we had better get on with it then."
Harry leaned over and scooped Ginny up into his arms, much to her surprise. He then carried her, followed by Tonks, Lupin and her parents into the center of the D.A. members. At the sign from Harry, everyone disapparated at once to a flourish of flashes from the reporters cameras.
An hour later, Ginny sat by the fire in the sitting room at the Burrow as she watched her dad open the gift Harry had given him. Arthur unwrapped the package carefully, and as he lifted off the lid, his face lit up with excitement.
"Oh, Harry," Arthur said as he stared at his gift with disbelief and happiness.
"What is it?" Ron asked as he tore his attention away from the box of sweets he had gotten from Hermione.
"An entire series of muggle books," Arthur said, "and they explain everything about muggle technology."
"I don’t know if I would go that far," Harry said with a grin. "It’s just a series called ‘How Things Work’. It explains some of the technology that even most muggles never understand or care to know about. Knowing your curiosity about muggles, I thought it would help you understand them a bit better."
"It’s perfect, Harry," Arthur said as he stood up and walked over to hug Harry happily.
"Well it looks as though there is only one present left under the tree," Bill said with a sly grin.
"Don’t think you’re pulling one over on me, Bill," Ginny said. "I know very well that you and Charlie have been holding that one back time after time even though it was easily accessible from the beginning."
"Oh, Bill," Fleur said with disapproval, "surely you would not ‘ave done such a thing."
Billy suddenly looked very much like a child who had been scolded as he replied, "Well it was Charlie’s idea."
"Oh no it wasn’t," Charlie said in his defense. "I think it was Fred’s."
"Honestly," George said, as he looked up from trying on the new jacket Harry had given him, "every time a bit of mischief is afoot, everyone always point the finger at me or George."
"Come on, Fred," Bill said, "fess up. I know that you suggested it. I was there with Charlie when you did it."
"You silly gits," Fred said. "You should be ashamed of yourselves. He’s not Fred. I am. Even after all these years you can’t tell us apart."
"Wrong, George," Charlie said with a smile. "You can’t fool us that easily. Harry gave you both different color jackets. Yours was blue and Fred’s was green. We can all plainly see that you are wearing blue."
"Actually," Harry said trying to contain his laughter, "if you wait a few minutes I think you’ll see those jackets change color. They’re linked together so that they both exchange colors every few minutes. I thought it would suit their personalities."
"I can’t believe you did that, mate," Ron said as he laughed. "It was hard enough without the jackets. We may never get them straight again."
"I’m not sure we have them straight now," Hermione said. "It would be just like them to keep us confused with or without the jackets."
"I’m not really interested in telling them apart right now," Ginny said with a smile. "Unless I’m mistaken, the last gift is just waiting for me to open it."
"Well let’s see," Charlie said as he picked the gift up and read the card. "It would appear you were right. It is for you. From Harry."
Ginny smiled expectantly as Charlie handed the gift to her. Once it was in her hands, she looked it over carefully admiring the silvery paper.
"I didn’t put any self opening spells on it," Harry said with a grin. "You’ll have to open it manually."
"I know," Ginny said smiling. "I’m just trying to savor the moment."
"Somehow I think the moment after you open it would be a better moment to savor," Fred observed.
"I do believe you may be on to something, George," George said with a smirk.
"No more of that now," Bill added immediately. "You’ve made your point."
"We could open it for you if you don’t feel up to it, little sister," Charlie said in a tone he had used with her when she was still a small child.
"You just try to get it away from me," Ginny warned. "Don’t say I didn’t warn you though."
"In that case, I’ll just stand over here by Percy where I’ll be far out of reach," Charlie said as he made a show of moving closer to Percy.
"Don’t expect to get any support from me," Percy said to Charlie. "I’m perfectly willing to let her take as much time as she wants."
"I think we all are," Hermione said. "That is, as long as you hurry and open it. We’re all dying to see what it is."
Ginny smiled as she began to carefully peel the paper back to reveal a box underneath which gave no indication of what it might contain. Ginny took a deep breath as she took hold of the lid and lifted it slowly.
"Oh, Harry," Ginny gasped as she saw the ornate silver lid of the music box. "It’s beautiful."
Harry watched as Ginny lifted the music box free and everyone voiced their approval of it’s beauty. Harry sat nervously though as he knew the moment was quickly approaching when she would open the lid of what he hoped would be a music box.
"Oh," Ginny said softly as she closed her eyes after the lid was opened. "How did you know, Harry? I heard this tune over and over again in my dreams while I was at St. Mungo’s."
"Um, what tune?" Arthur asked as he looked as Ginny quizzically.
Ginny opened her eyes and looked at her dad before looking at everyone else to see if they had the same confused expression, and she asked, "Can’t any of you hear the music? Surely you can."
"I don’t hear anything, Ginny," Hermione replied. "The box is empty."
Ginny looked to Harry and said, "Surely you can hear it, Harry."
"It appears to be working exactly the way Mr. Summerbee said it would," Harry said with a happy smile. "It will only play for your ears, Ginny. The song you hear is me. According to Mr. Summerbee, the box learned what he called my heart song as soon as I touched it. Only a true love would enable you to hear it."
Ginny pulled Harry to her in a heartfelt embrace. Everyone else looked on with smiles, knowing exactly the path ahead for Harry and Ginny. After several seconds, a teary eyed Percy looked down as he wiped his eyes. As he did, he caught sight of something else lying under the Christmas tree.
"That wasn’t the last gift, Charlie," Percy said as he knelt down and reached under to pull the package out. "There’s one left."
"Really?" Molly asked. "Who is it for? I thought all of the gifts were accounted for."
"It’s for Ginny," Percy said as he looked at the label with a quizzical expression.
"Who is it from?" Ron asked seeing the look on Percy’s face.
"It just says its from J.K.," Percy replied as he handed the package to Ginny. "Is that one of your D.A. friends?"
"I don’t think I know anyone with those initials," Ginny answered as everyone in the room other than Harry tensed reflexively.
"Maybe you should let us take a look at it before you open it just to be on the safe side," Arthur suggested.
"I don’t think you have anything to worry about," Harry said with a thoughtful grin. "I know someone with those initials."
Ginny lifted the lid off of the box and gasped again as she lifted the dress up to look at.
"Blimey, Harry," Ron gasped. "That’s the dress you wanted to buy for Ginny in Hogsmeade. I thought you said the shop was closed when you got there."
"It was," Harry chuckled.
"Then who gave it to her, Harry?" Hermione asked.
"Sometimes what you get isn’t what you ask for," Harry said. "Sometimes what you get is what you really want."
"Exactly what does that mean?" Ron asked.
"Who is J.K.?" Molly asked.
"A friend," Harry responded. "A friend to us all."
Elsewhere in England, Neville Longbottom wrapped his scarf around his neck just as his Uncle Algee walked by and asked, "Off again, Neville?"
"I’m not going far," Neville replied. "I’m just walking down the street. I’ll be back soon."
"Hoping to see her?" Algee asked with a smile.
Neville’s eyes went wide with shock even as his cheeks flushed, and he said, "I don’t know what you’re talking about."
"Don’t you think it’s time to admit that you like her?" Algee asked. "We’ve all known since you were six years old. Even if you won’t tell her, you can at least admit it to your own family."
"I am not hoping to see anyone," Neville said as he buttoned his coat. "I’m just going for a walk."
"Of course," Algee said with a grin.
"Still," Neville said with a small grin of his own as he opened the door, "it would be nice to know that she’s all right since she didn’t come back to Hogwarts this year."
Algee laughed out loud as Neville closed the door behind him. Neville walked to the street, and turned in the direction of her house. The house he was walking toward was a fair distance down the street, so they weren’t exactly neighbors. In his entire life they had never come close to being friends. Neville remembered how his Gran would force him to go with her as she made occasional social calls on the girl’s parents. The girl herself had always tolerated his presence, though he got the feeling her parents had instructed her to do so.
After their first year at Hogwarts, Neville stopped accompanying his Gran. Neville tried to tell himself that it was because he was a Gryffindor and she had been sorted into Slytherin. Deep down though, he knew that it was because of feelings for her that had only grown stronger each year. He knew he wouldn’t be able to take the embarrassment of her finding out.
Neville was still fifty meters from her house when he heard a loud crashing sound and a scream of distress. Looking up he saw the door to her house open. What he saw next made his hand instinctively reach for his wand.
A masked death eater walked out of her door with another backing out just afterward dragging a struggling girl. The girl hooked a foot on the door frame, but the death eater pulled hard, and even Neville could hear the loud crack as the bone snapped. She screamed again, but the death eater placed his hand over her mouth to shut her up.
The death eaters had expected to walk into and out of the house without challenge, so they were quite surprised when a jet of silver light shot past them narrowly missing its mark. Looking up the street, they spotted a furious Neville running toward them with his wand trained on them. They immediately drew their own wands, but a stunning spell from Neville hit the death eater holding the girl. She fell to the ground in pain as her attacker was laid out beside her.
The lead death eater shot a hex at Neville, but he was quick with a defense as the hex rebounded off to the side against a tree. A quick but well aimed shot from Neville slammed into the death eater’s chest and knocked him back and off of his feet. Struggling to catch his breath, and having dropped his wand, the death eater reached over to grab his unconscious companion before disapparating just ahead of another more savage spell from Neville.
"Oh my God!" Neville exclaimed as he dropped to his knees next to the girl on the grass. "Pansy, are you all right?"
"My ankle," Pansy said through gritted teeth. "It’s broken."
"I’ll take you to St. Mungo’s," Neville said.
"No," Pansy said as she attempted to sit up. "Help my mum. She’s hurt bad."
"Can you apparate to St. Mungo’s on your own?" Neville asked.
"I think so," Pansy replied as she looked at her limp ankle.
"Do it," Neville said. "Once I know you’re safely away, I’ll go inside and find your mum. I’ll get her to St. Mungo’s."
"But I…" Pansy began.
"I’m not going to leave you exposed and unprotected here on the grass," Neville interrupted with authority. "The death eaters could come back any time. Now go!"
With one last look of curiosity, Pansy disapparated without another word. Neville scanned the street quickly before heading into the house. It didn’t take long for him to find Mrs. Parkinson. She was on the floor in the front room. It looked as though she had been beaten severely. She wasn’t moving, but Neville could tell she was still breathing. Within seconds, they were both on their way to St. Mungo’s.
"Are you sure I can’t come with you, Harry?" Ginny asked as Harry leaned over to kiss her.
"You just got home from the hospital," Harry pointed out. "The healers ordered you to rest. Yes, Ginny. I’m sure you can’t come with me. I’ll send along your greetings for you though. Besides, it’s only a dinner. What trouble could there be?"
Ginny rolled her eyes as she said, " You know I hate it when you say that. You’re having dinner with Snape and Draco Malfoy. I would say that is a situation primed for trouble."
"There won’t be any trouble," Harry assured her with a smile. "It’s Christmas. I can’t very well not have dinner with the people staying in my houses."
"Take Ron with you at least," Ginny suggested.
"Not likely,’ Harry chuckled. "Ron and Draco would be at each other’s throats within an hour. I can handle Draco on my own. Besides, his mother will be there to keep him in line."
"Do you promise you’ll come back in the morning?" Ginny asked.
"With the first rays of sunlight," Harry confirmed. "I’ll help your mum get breakfast ready before you even wake up."
At St. Mungo’s, Pansy lay in a bed as Healer Snagprat moved his wand slowly over her ankle as he said, "That should do it. Try to put some weight on it."
Pansy turned and placed her feet on the floor as she slowly put pressure on the ankle that had been broken. It was still a bit numb, but the earlier pain was gone.
"It seems fine," Pansy said. "It’s just a little numb."
"That is to be expected," Snagprat confirmed. "The numbness should wear off in the next few minutes."
"Can I go and see my mum?" Pansy asked with concern.
"Not yet," Snagprat said. "She’ll make a full recovery, but another healer is still treating some of her more severe wounds. It shouldn’t be much longer."
"Good," Pansy said with relief.
"I’ll do the paperwork to get you released," Snagprat said as he gathered up his clipboard and began scribbling on it. "You can wait in the private waiting room. Neville can show you where it is."
"He’s still here?" Pansy asked in surprise.
"He’s been standing guard outside your door since just after he brought your mum in," Snagprat informed her as he turned to go.
As soon as Snagprat left the room, Neville opened the door and walked in. As soon as he noticed Pansy looking back at him, he immediately looked at the floor, placed his hands in his pockets and began to shuffle his feet uncomfortably.
"Are you okay?" Neville asked without looking at her.
"They fixed my ankle," Pansy replied as he noticed how differently Neville was acting from the way he was earlier at her house.
"Good," Neville said feeling the heat rise in his cheeks.
"I guess I should thank you," Pansy said.
"You don’t have to," Neville said as he kicked the floor with his left foot.
"You don’t want me to?" Pansy asked as her brow wrinkled.
"Oh… no, its… well…" Neville stammered. "You can if you want, but…"
"Thank you, Neville," Pansy said as she watched his cheeks flush more.
"You’re welcome," Neville responded with a brief glance at her before looking away again.
"The healer said you could show me where the waiting room is," Pansy said, changing the course of the conversation.
"Of course," Neville said, thankful he didn’t have to deal with the effects any continued gratitude would have on him. "I’ve spent a lot of time there recently."
"I’ll follow you then," Pansy said when she noticed Neville not turning to go.
"Right," Neville said as he turned and opened the door.
A lump swelled in Neville’s throat as Pansy walked out of her room behind him and proceeded to advance to a position directly beside him as they walked. Even seeing her in his peripheral vision, Neville found it difficult to concentrate on the route to the waiting room. A minute later, though it seemed like hours to Neville, they arrived at the waiting room. Neville opened the door and let Pansy walk in first.
"You don’t have to stay if you don’t want," Pansy said as she turned to see the door close behind Neville.
"I don’t mind," Neville replied. "I mean… if you don’t want me to then…"
"So," Pansy said, "you spent time in this room recently?"
"A fair bit," Neville replied, still refusing to meet her eye. "While Ginny was here."
"Of course," Pansy said. "I should have known that you would be here while one of your D.A. friends was hurt."
"I had a lot of friends here," Neville said as anger swelled up in him and he looked up directly into her eyes. "Ginny was in a hospital room. But there were plenty of other people hurting because of it. I was here for them."
"I didn’t mean any offense, Neville," Pansy pointed out. "I was just saying that I should have realized why you were here."
"Oh," Neville said as he softened and looked at the ground again. "Sorry."
"Anyway," Pansy said wondering why Neville only looked at her when he was angry, "I guess I’m lucky you were taking your annual Christmas walk."
"Was I?" Neville asked as he realized he hadn’t disguised it very well.
"Of course you were," Pansy said as she began to get frustrated as Neville continued to look everywhere but at her. "Every Christmas you pass my house on your way down the street. Then you pass it again on your way back. Is there someone on the end of the street you go to see?"
"Someone?" Neville asked. "No. Not really."
"My parents thought you might stop at our house to say merry Christmas," Pansy informed him, "but you never did of course. I told them you wouldn’t."
"I might have," Neville said defensively as he stared at a painting on the opposite wall.
"But you never did," Pansy stated. "Except for today, you haven’t set foot in my house since the year before we went to Hogwarts."
"I didn’t think you wanted me there," Neville said as he shifted his gaze to the floor again.
"I never said I did," Pansy quickly. "My parents were the ones who wondered why you stopped coming over with your Gran. Of course, I knew."
"You did?" Neville asked as he looked up in shock.
"How thick do you think I am?" Pansy said as she raised her voice slightly. "Of course I knew. All of you Gryffindors think you’re so much better than everyone else. I suppose you couldn’t bring yourself to sink so low as to visit a house where a Slytherin lived."
"Oh," Neville said as he exhaled out of relief.
Pansy’s forehead creased even more as she too noticed the relief wash over Neville’s face. She knew instantly that, whatever his reasons, it was not because she was a Slytherin and he was a Gryffindor.
"Miss Parkinson?" An orderly asked as he walked into the room and broke Pansy’s line of thought.
"Yes," Pansy said hopefully.
"Your mum is awake," the orderly stated. "The healer says you can see her for a while now. If you’ll just follow me."
Pansy started to follow him, but stopped and turned when she noticed that Neville wasn’t moving.
"Aren’t you coming?" Pansy asked.
"I don’t want to intrude," Neville replied only glancing at her briefly.
"Then don’t be rude," Pansy said. "My mum will want to thank you for what you did. You can at least extend her that courtesy."
Neville fell into step behind Pansy as she followed the orderly down the hall, and as they turned into a room, Neville said, "I’ll just wait out here for a while. I’ll give you some time with your mum first."
Pansy looked at him, but just shrugged as she proceeded through the door. After five minutes, she opened the door and motioned for him to come inside.
"Neville," Mrs. Parkinson said with a smile from her bed. "Pansy tells me we have you to thank for helping us today."
"I was just in the right place at the right time," Neville replied as he walked closer. "Anyone would have done the same."
"I think we both know that is not the case," Mrs. Parkinson said. "Most people see death eaters and run the other way. I’m thankful that you were among the minority today. I don’t know what I would have done if they had taken my Pansy away."
"I’m glad I could help," Neville replied. "If you want I’ll put the shield charm on your house so death eaters can never come inside again."
"Please do," Mrs. Parkinson said. "I didn’t think we would really need it before, but I can see now that I was wrong."
Healer Withers walked through the door and said, "I’m sorry, but I would like my patient to get more rest now. We’ll be keeping her here for the next couple of days, so there will be plenty of time for you to visit later."
"I’ll come back and see you again tomorrow morning, mum," Pansy said as she held her mothers hand. "Listen to the healer and get some rest."
"I will," Mrs. Parkinson said with a smile as she squeezed her daughter’s hand. "Take care of her, Neville."
"Me?" Neville asked in surprise.
"Mum, I don’t need anyone to take care of me," Pansy said indignantly.
"I don’t want you staying by yourself," Mrs. Parkinson stated. "I know that Neville’s Grandmother wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on you."
"But, mum…" Pansy began.
"No argument from you, Pansy," Mrs. Parkinson interrupted. "I don’t want you in our house alone even if there is a shield on it. Am I clear?"
"I guess," Pansy said with dread in her voice.
"I’ll see that she’s well taken care of, Mrs. Parkinson," Neville said as Pansy realized that Neville didn’t have any trouble looking at her mother when he talked.
"Thank you, Neville," Mrs. Parkinson said as Neville and Pansy turned to go.
Once outside the room, Pansy said, "Well I am not going to stay at your house. I don’t care what my mum says. That uncle of yours is just too creepy."
"Do you…" Neville stammered. "Do you have anywhere to stay? Another friend you could stay with?"
"None that come to mind," Pansy said as she leaned against the wall more frustrated than ever that Neville wouldn’t look her in the eye. "Most of the friends I had at Hogwarts are either in hiding or already death eaters."
"Well if…" Neville began as he studied his shoes. "If you don’t… I… I know somewhere else you might be able to stay."
Narcissa wrapped a cape around herself to cover her new dress as she prepared to enter the floo network, and she said, "I really can’t thank you enough, Harry. This was a perfect night. I know Draco has been anxious to get away from the mansion for a while. We both can’t thank you enough for the beautiful clothes you gave us for Christmas."
"Well, no one should go without a Christmas," Harry said. "Besides, Dobby tells me you’ve made some rather large improvements to the Black estate since I was there last. I figure that has to be good for something."
"That house and I have suffered a similar state of neglect," Narcissa said. "Any improvement in the house is sort of an improvement in me."
"Then feel free to make whatever changes you see fit," Harry said with a smile.
"Are you ready to go, Draco?" Narcissa asked as Draco walked into the room carrying his cloak.
"You go ahead," Draco responded. "I want to have a word with Potter."
"Draco," Narcissa said in that motherly way to leave no doubt she was displeased.
"Sorry," Draco said. "I meant, Harry."
"Don’t take too long," Narcissa said as she jumped into the fireplace and disappeared in a flash of green flame.
"What did you need to talk to me about, Draco?" Harry asked.
"I still can’t figure you out, Potter," Draco said.
"Oh, so we’re back to Potter again," Harry observed with a grin. "Very well. What can’t you figure out?"
"Why are you doing all of this?" Draco asked. "You have to have some kind of angle. There is something you hope to gain from all of this, but I can’t reason what it might be."
"Perhaps you’re just trying too hard," Harry suggested. "Suppose there is nothing to find by scratching under the surface. Maybe your mum was in need of help, and I did what I could to help her. Maybe I needed to find Professor Snape, and I brought you back just because I couldn’t just leave you behind. Maybe I reunited you with your mum just because I knew it was what she wished for with all her heart."
"And how do you explain the Christmas presents?" Draco asked.
"Need one really explain a Christmas present?" Harry queried. "I guess I’m just sentimental. Soft. Crazy. You see, I really do buy into the idea of what Christmas is supposed to mean."
"And what is that?" Draco asked wondering if he could take Harry seriously.
"You know," Harry replied. "Peace on earth. Good will to my fellow man and all."
"Rubbish," Draco said with a sneer.
"That’s your father talking," Harry charged. "I was hoping more of your mum would have rubbed off on you by now."
"Leave my parents out of this," Draco warned. "I still don’t know what it was that happened between them. Mum won’t tell me no matter how much I try to find out. For all I know it was your fault."
"Actually," Harry admitted, "there may some truth in that. However, if that is the case, then you share as much responsibility for it as I do.
"Me?" Draco asked. "I wasn’t even here when it happened."
"Exactly," Harry said. "If you had been then your mum never would have come to me for help."
"I can’t believe you’re trying to blame me for it," Draco said as he felt the heat in his face rise.
"I’m not blaming anyone other that your father for what he did to your mum," Harry said calmly. "What is done is done. None of us can change it. All we can do is try to pick up the pieces and go on."
"I agree," Snape said from behind them. "We have all put a great deal of effort into working against one another. Perhaps it is time to see what we can accomplish working for the same goals."
"The only goal I’m working for right now is to try and make my mum happy," Draco said as he turned toward the fireplace. "She’s waiting for me now."
Draco took a couple of steps toward the fireplace when green flame shot up and Neville stepped out followed by someone none of them expected.
"Pansy?" Draco asked not believing what he saw with his own eyes.
"Draco," Pansy said in as much shock. "Professor Snape. Harry Potter. Where have you taken me to, Neville?"
"What’s happened, Neville?" Harry asked knowing that Neville wouldn’t have brought her there unless circumstances made it necessary.
"I’m sorry to burst in on you, Harry," Neville said. "I didn’t even know you would be here. Death eaters attacked Pansy and her mum. Pansy needs somewhere to stay for a couple of days until her mum is released from St. Mungo’s."
"I’m not staying here if Draco is," Pansy said as she fixed Draco to a poison stare.
"He was actually just leaving," Harry said noticing that Draco shriveled a bit as Pansy looked at him.
Without another word, Draco stepped forward and disappeared as his mother had only minutes before.
Once he was gone, Pansy turned her attention to Snape and observed, "You couldn’t have been hiding out here the entire time, Professor. Potter didn’t have his house built until after you and Draco disappeared."
"Does everyone in Slytherin have to call me by my last name?" Harry asked more to himself than anyone else.
"You would be correct, Miss Parkinson," Snape confirmed. "Mr. Malfoy and I arrived only recently."
"Is it all right with you if she stays here, Harry?" Neville asked.
"I don’t mind," Harry said. "I trust your judgment, Neville. You wouldn’t have brought her here if she didn’t need a safe place to stay. There are no D.A. members here right now, so she can stay in the cupboard under the stairs."
"What?" Pansy started to say in protest.
"Don’t worry," Neville said looking at a chair. "Thanks to Hermione, it’s quite a bit larger than the one Harry had to sleep in. I’ll show you where it is so you can get settled in."
Pansy followed Neville still not believing that she was standing in Harry Potter’s house having just popped in on two of the most wanted men in the country. Of course, sleeping in a cupboard, no matter the size, seemed a cruel joke to her. If it wasn’t acceptable she would have no choice but to put up with Neville’s crazy uncle.
Neville took hold of the handle on the little door under the stairs and opened it; standing aside to allow Pansy to enter first. Once she had ducked inside, she stopped were she stood as her mouth fell open in amazement.
"What do you think?" Neville asked as he stepped in just behind her and closed the door.
"Incredible," Pansy said in awe as she looked around at the chairs and sofas sitting around the fireplace, and the crimson and gold wall coverings.
"I think Hermione really out did herself with this one," Neville observed.
"Is this…" Pansy began.
"The Gryffindor common room at Hogwarts," Neville supplied.
"The real one or a copy?" Pansy asked as she began to slowly move further into the room.
"A copy," Neville answered as he followed her. "Although I have to remind myself of that sometimes. She really is the brightest witch of her age."
"As much as I hate to admit it," Pansy revealed, "I think you might be right."
Neville watched as Pansy sat down in a chair next to the fire, but he turned his gaze on the fire as Pansy looked back up at him.
"I hope you aren’t disappointed," Neville said. "I don’t have any other place for you to stay besides my house."
"I think I can manage here," Pansy remarked as she surveyed her new surroundings again. "The fire should keep me warm enough if Potter can spare a pillow and a blanket."
"Well you can sleep here if you want," Neville commented with a grin, "but you would be more comfortable in the dorm upstairs."
"You have got to be kidding," Pansy said as she noticed the two sets of stair for the first time. "She squeezed all of Gryffindor House into Potter’s cupboard?"
"Well not all of it technically," Neville admitted. "There are only two dorm rooms upstairs. One for the boys, and one for the girls. Each one of them has five beds. I hear that she put some wicked spells on the girls stairs to keep the boys from going up them. As far as I know, no one has been brave enough to test it out."
"Maybe we should make Draco climb them," Pansy said as she looked into the fire and the corners of her mouth dropped into a frown.
Neville glanced over at her to see her expression as he said, "I thought the two of you had been dating."
Pansy whipped her head around to look at Neville a split second before he looked back at the fire, and she said, "Then that makes two of us that were fooled. I don’t want to talk about it. Suffice it to say that whatever we were before is over now."
"I didn’t mean to upset you," Neville said softly as he examined his right leg as it bounced up and down quickly. "I’ll leave you alone if you want."
"So I suppose you’re dating Luna Lovegood by now," Pansy remarked as she watched him to see his reaction.
"Luna?" Neville asked in surprise as he willed himself not to look up. "We’re just friends."
"Are you sure?" Pansy asked.
"Of course I’m sure," Neville remarked as he stopped his leg and began examining the arm of the chair he was sitting in. "She has a crush on Colin."
"Do you look her in the eye when you talk to her?" Pansy asked as her frustration with Neville’s inattentiveness came out of it’s own accord.
"I…" Neville said as he shifted uncomfortably but did not look up. "I uhh… I suppose so."
"I thought as much," Pansy said as her frustration began to spill out. "Why won’t you look at me, Neville? Is it because I’m a Slytherin, or do you really think I’m so ugly?"
"Ugly?" Neville asked as he looked up in distress and his eyes locked with hers. "No! I don’t think that at all."
"Well there has to be something about me you find repulsive," Pansy accused as she willed him not to look away from her again. "In all the years we’ve known each other you’ve never looked directly at me for more than a few seconds at a time. I used to think it was just you being weird, but then I noticed that you didn’t have a problem looking at anyone else. So what is it, Neville? I’m out of ideas to explain it. If it isn’t because I’m ugly then what is it?"
"Please don’t make me tell you, Pansy," Neville pleaded as he continued to look in her eyes and see the wetness forming there.
"Damn it, Neville," Pansy yelled as the first tears rolled down her cheeks. "Tell me."
"It…" Neville began as his heart broke to see her tears. "It’s because… It’s because I don’t think you’re ugly. I’m afraid to look at you for too long because I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop."
"You’re lying," Pansy accused as she looked away into the flames of the fire. "I know what I look like. I know I’m not pretty like other girls. You’re just telling me what you think I want to hear. You’re just like Draco."
"I am nothing like Malfoy," Neville said as he kept his eye on her. "I have never lied to you, Pansy. You’ve known me since we were little kids. Have you ever known me to lie to you?"
Pansy sat looking at the fire in silence for several long seconds as she thought about Neville’s question, and she finally said softly, "No. You haven’t."
"Then believe me now," Neville said no longer caring what kind of fool he was making of himself. "I didn’t stop coming to your house because I didn’t want to come. I stopped because I was afraid I would do or say something that would betray just how much I liked you. I walk down the street every Christmas because I pass your house and know that you’re inside it. I dreamed of walking up to your door and telling you everything, but I never had the courage to try. So, no matter what Malfoy or anyone else thinks, I think you’re beautiful. I always have."
Pansy sat and looked at the fire, but her tears stopped as Neville explained himself to her. Looking back into her memories of Neville she began to realize that the signs had always been there. The awkward forgetful boy from up the street was the only boy she had ever known who never lied to her, never made fun of the way she looked, and was always nice to her in his own shy way.
Neville sat and looked at Pansy in the insuing silence that followed his confession. The seconds ticked by as the silence endured, and Neville began to realize what he had just done. Feeling the need to get away before he caused any more damage, Neville stood.
"I’m sorry, Pansy," Neville said as he inched away from her and toward the portrait hole. "I never should have said any of that to you. This was already likely the worst Christmas day you’ve ever had, and I only made it worse. I’ll leave you alone now."
Neville turned and walked toward the exit, and Pansy turned her head to see him moving away as she asked, "Are you coming back, Neville? With only Snape and Potter in the house, it would be a comfort to me if I had a friend staying here as well."
"You aren’t mad at me?" Neville asked as he turned and looked her in the eye.
"Of course not," Pansy replied with a smile that made Neville’s knees buckle slightly. "It’s just been a stressful day for me. I’m a bit on edge."
Neville looked at her smile and drank it in as he suddenly realized that neither of them had eaten lately, and he asked, "Are you hungry?"
"Now that you mention it,’ Pansy replied, "I’m starving."
"I’ll see if Harry has anything we can eat," Neville said. "If you’ll wait, I could bring it back here for us to eat."
"I’d like that," Pansy said with another smile.
Neville smiled back at her as he turned and left the room. Pansy watched him go, and thought about how drastically her opinion of Neville had changed. In less than a day, she had gone from not wanting to be anywhere near him to eagerly awaiting his return. The person she had always considered a bumbling fool had been acting as her gallant protector for several hours. The boy she thought couldn’t stand the sight of her thought she was beautiful. In the matter of only a few hours, Neville had become perhaps the best real friend she had ever had. She sat back in her chair and thought about how refreshing it would be to end her Christmas with a smile.
On the Offensive
Pops echoed all along the street as around three dozen wizards and witches apparated in front of the Parkinson house. Immediately, they all scanned the area for dangers as they surrounded Pansy and her mother while they escorted them to the front door. Only Harry remained behind at the edge of the yard looking directly at a house on the other side of the street slightly down from where they were.
"I can’t thank you all enough," Mrs. Parkinson said as she paused in the doorway to her house. "Pansy and I certainly didn’t expect such an escort home."
"Well, Neville was planning on bringing you back himself," Ginny explained, "but we couldn’t let him take the risks alone. The D.A. takes care of it's own. Neville reminded me of that recently."
"So what is Potter doing?" Pansy asked as she noticed Harry standing alone. "Isn’t he tempting fate standing out in the open like that?"
"He said there were death eaters watching your house from across the street," Neville replied. "He’s going to send them a message of some kind."
"Besides," Hermione added, "they seem to be under orders not to attack Harry."
"Don’t worry though," Ron supplied. "There are eyes within this group keeping an eye on Harry just in case."
"As soon as you’re inside," Neville began, "Harry will deliver his message."
"Are you coming in, Neville?" Pansy asked.
"I have some things to take care of," Neville responded looking directly into her eyes. "I can come back later to check on you if you want."
"You’ll always be welcome in our house, Neville," Mrs. Parkinson said with a smile.
Pansy surprised them all as she stepped forward and placed a gentle kiss on Neville’s cheek, and she said, "Thank you. Thank you for everything."
With a slight reddening of her cheeks, but with a smile on her face, Pansy stepped back and slowly closed the door behind her.
Avery and Rookwood looked on as Harry stood in the yard across the street seeming to look right at them.
"If I didn’t know better I would swear he could see us," Avery said.
"Don’t be ridiculous," Rookwood sneered. "I put the spell on myself. We could sit here and watch all day and he would never see anything but a blank window. Relax."
"Spell or no spell," Avery said, "somehow he knows we’re here."
Just then, the door to the house closed, and Harry pulled his wand and began moving the tip of it across a piece of parchment. The next thing the two death eaters knew, the parchment had flown to hover directly in front of their window as it grew and a message appeared written on it.
"Let notice be given that the Parkinson home is now under the protection of Harry Potter," Avery read. "Further attacks or surveillance will be dealt with swiftly and completely. You have one half hour to abandon your position."
Immediately, the parchment reduced to its original size and flew back into Harry’s hand. After it did, he and the entire D.A. escort disapparated.
"Like I said," Avery pointed out, "he knows we’re here."
"Go and tell Bellatrix about this," Rookwood said as he continued to look out the window at the house. "I’ll stay here and keep watch until the Dark Lord orders us to leave."
Avery disapparated without further discussion, leaving Rookwood to ponder just how Potter had penetrated his concealment spell. No more than five minutes later, Avery returned with Bellatrix, Malfoy, Dolohov, and Nott. What they found was Rookwood missing from his post, and a note propped on the windowsill.
Nott walked over and picked up the note and read, "A man alone is easy prey. The rest of you won’t stand any more chance than Rookwood did. The clock is ticking. Harry."
"I say we let him come and try to take us," Dolohov seethed.
"As confidant as I am that we could easily defeat whatever force he could bring against us," Lucius commented, "the Dark Lord has not cleared us to engage in that type of battle with the boy-who-must-not-be-named."
"It doesn’t matter," Bellatrix said. "This position has been compromised. It will be abandoned anyway. We have to report the situation back to our master."
Meanwhile, at the Ministry, Kingsley was saying, "… shouldn’t be taking such risks, Harry."
"Believe me," Harry said as he held up a hand, "I’ve heard all of those arguments before. They didn’t do any good then, and they won’t do any good now. I am who I am."
"Still," Scrimgeour said, "you could have just as easily passed the information about the death eaters location to us."
"True," Harry agreed, "but I had to send a message to Voldemort. I’m sure he’s thought that the pain he caused me by attacking Ginny may have broken my spirit. I had to make sure he understood that I was still in this fight to win. Bringing Rookwood to you gives us another opportunity to find out who the leak inside the Ministry is."
"I wasn’t aware you were researching that as well," Scrimgeour said studying Harry.
"Ginny and the rest of the D.A. are monitoring the situation as we speak," Harry said, making Kingsley and the Minister take notice.
"I don’t suppose you can tell us exactly what that means," Kingsley observed.
"Not until I can be sure there are no spies to leak the information back to Voldemort," Harry said. "If they observe any strange behavior from anyone, Ginny will bring it to me. Then I’ll pass it on to you. Assuming, of course, that one of you isn’t the leak. Don’t worry though. I don’t think either of you are."
"Well I just hope they aren’t walking around within the Ministry in places they shouldn’t trying to spy on anyone," Scrimgeour warned. "I won’t be responsible for their safety if you’ve sent them on such a foolish errand."
"Don’t worry," Harry assured him. "They’re all quite safe."
"All right then," Scrimgeour said in frustration. "How long do we have to wait before you get any news one way or another?"
"That all depends on the leak," Harry said. "If he’s anxious to get the information to Voldemort quickly it will make him easier to catch. My guess is…"
"Minister," Percy said as he knocked and stuck his head just inside the office. "My sister is on her way up here with a message for Harry that she wouldn’t leave at the desk. I just thought you should know."
Scrimgeour looked with surprise to Harry and then to Kingsley before looking back to Percy and saying, "Bring her in as soon as she arrives, Mr. Weasley."
"It would appear the informant was very anxious," Kingsley observed. "Rookwood wouldn’t have even been fully processed yet. The list of people who would even know he was here at the Ministry is still a short one."
"Let’s not get our hopes up too high," Scrimgeour said. "It may not be anything that will lead us to the real informant."
The door to the office opened and Ginny walked in with purpose straight to Harry. She handed him a handwritten note. As he read the note, Harry had to admit that it was not a possibility he had considered.
"Are you sure?" Harry asked Ginny.
"We confirmed it after he left," Ginny replied. "He went straight to Voldemort."
Harry turned and handed the note to a very anxious looking Scrimgeour.
"This is impossible," Scrimgeour said as he read the note. "How could you possibly have confirmed this?"
"Voldemort isn’t the only one with eyes in places no one suspects," Harry said cryptically. "If we hurry, we could be waiting for him when he gets back."
"By all means," Scrimgeour said as he drew his wand and led the way to the door.
Minutes later, they were all standing in a short hallway just outside of the main office of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. There was no need for them to walk inside. The person they were waiting for would likely return any minute. While they waited, Harry read the engraved plaque under the blank canvas, and he couldn’t believe it had never occurred to Kingsley or Scrimgeour who the leak might be.
Suddenly, an older man with a cool air of distinction about him popped into the blank picture frame and halted with a momentary look of shock. No doubt he was surprised to find the wands of the Minister and the Chief Auror trained on his portrait.
"Is there a problem, Minister?" Sebastian asked as he composed himself and sat down in the portraits lone chair.
"I’m afraid so," Scrimgeour said with a menacing tone. "It has been brought to our attention that the traitor we have been looking for sits in your portrait."
"That is preposterous," Sebastian charged. "That can have no truth in it since only I sit in my portrait."
"We’ve all just witnessed that you don’t always sit in it," Kingsley pointed out. "You do leave it occasionally."
"Well of course I do," Sebastian confirmed. "I visit with some of the others in portraits through out the Ministry."
"Are you saying that is where you were just now?" Scrimgeour asked.
"Certainly," Sebastian replied. "Where else would I have gone."
"Perhaps you went to tell Voldemort that Rookwood was captured," Harry said as he spoke up for the first time.
"Do you know who I am boy?" Sebastian stood up in an aggressive posture. "I was the first Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. The Dark Lord and his followers are criminals. Any thought that I would be in league with them is outrageous."
"I know who you were," Harry continued. "I can read the plaque easily enough. I also know who you are. Sebastian Lastrange. You are the Great-Great-Great Grandfather of a couple of current death eaters."
"I never made any secret of that," Sebastian said. "I have no control over what my descendants do."
"But you do make a choice about aiding their activities," Kingsley commented. "It would be a simple enough matter to check with the portraits you claim to have just visited. If you’ll just tell us which one you spoke with we could verify your story."
"I’m afraid that will be impossible," Sebastian replied. "I had in mind to visit someone in an office upstairs, but he was napping when I got there. I saw this and returned to my own portrait right away. There are others who could tell you they saw me as I passed through their frames to get there."
"All carefully orchestrated no doubt," Harry charged.
"If you insist," Sebastian said as he turned a sour look on Harry. "Since you seem to be so sure of your own half-blood intellect, go ahead and spin your tale of my supposed nefarious activities."
Harry smiled as he said, "According to my sources, you left the Ministry to meet with Voldemort."
"And just how am I supposed to accomplish such a thing?" Sebastian asked in a condescending manner. "If you were half as smart as you think you are you would know that I can’t leave the Ministry."
"You could if there were another portrait of you that was currently uninhabited," Kingsley said.
"I believe there was one that you visited when this portrait was first hung here," Scrimgeour said.
"That was many years ago," Sebastian replied. "You know very well that the other portrait frame no longer exists. My ancestral home was destroyed during the last goblin rebellion."
"So it appeared," Scrimgeour conceded. "Castle Lastrange was reduced to ruins that can still be seen today. Your descendants put a magical protection on the property so no one could ever disturb the debris."
"Surely you are not suggesting that my frame still exists buried somewhere in those ruins," Sebastian laughed. "I suppose you believe that the Dark Lord is holding court in the open air while he consults with me in a tattered old frame."
"Actually," Harry said, "I know for a fact that the castle still exists. I also know that you went there tonight to a frame that is undoubtedly very well cared for."
"You’re mad," Sebastian charged.
"You got there just as Voldemort got the report about what happened at the house," Harry said as they all watched Sebastian’s eyes widen considerably. "He was so angry that he punished them all. Bellatrix. Dolohov. Malfoy. Nott. Avery."
"How could you know?" Sebastian asked before he could stop himself. "I mean, how could you think…"
"There is no need for you to say more," Scrimgeour said as his wand was held a bit tighter. "If you have another portrait to run to this would be an opportune time for you to do so."
"You can tell Voldemort that there is no longer any place he can hide from me," Harry said just before Sebastian ran out of his portrait.
Scrimgeour and Kingsley both fired off spells that hit the portrait and caused the canvas to smolder and the frame to crack. Seconds later, with the destruction of the frame complete, they lowered their wands.
"I hope it wasn’t a mistake to listen to you, Mr. Potter," Scrimgeour said. "We could have easily cast spells to keep him in that frame."
"Better to be rid of him I would think," Harry said. "Were you planning to send him to Azkaban in that frame? Anyhow, now that you’ve destroyed this frame he won’t have one to return to. That means he had to retreat to his frame at the Lastrange castle. Believe me, Voldemort will not be happy when he finds out his spy was discovered. If Sebastian had time to think about it he would have realized that he actually would have been safer locked in his portrait here."
"Why did you tell him to pass on that the Dark Lord couldn’t hide from you?" Kingsley asked.
"The muggles call it psychological warfare," Harry replied with a smile. "I want him to think that he’s weakening, and that I’m getting stronger. Once he finds out how much I knew about his meeting with his death eaters, he’ll start to wonder if there is a traitor among them. He’ll start to think twice before taking any of them into his confidence."
"A very risky maneuver, Mr. Potter," Scrimgeour observed as he put his wand away. "If he thinks you have a spy supplying you with information he will almost surely mount a direct attack on you in an attempt to keep his secrets from your ears. We shall have to organize auror protection for you until you return to Hogwarts."
"Don’t bother," Harry said. "I’ll be spending the reminder of the break at my house. I’ll be quite safe there. I should think you would put what resources you have available to surround the supposed ruins of Castle Lastrange and try to find a way past whatever protection they put on it."
"That will be done within the hour," Kingsley assured them. "Still, I think you should think twice before you take Ginny back to your house no matter how well defended you think it may be."
"She won’t be there," Harry replied. "I sent her to the Burrow as soon as we left the Minister’s office. Only Hermione and Ron will be staying with me at my house."
"I wouldn’t call that adequate protection," Scrimgeour said shaking his head. "Like it or not we’re going to assign a couple of aurors to watch your house for trouble."
"If you insist," Harry conceded. "Just make sure they stay under cover. I don’t want them to scare off any death eaters."
Kingsley and Scrimgeour looked at one another as if seeking confirmation that they had actually heard Harry correctly. Harry grinned, and he took the opportunity while he was not being watched to disapparate.
"How can this be?" Voldemort screamed in frustration. "First Rookwood and now this?"
"Perhaps he is mistaken, my Lord," Bellatrix suggested until Voldemort shot her an icy look that silenced her immediately.
"Would you have me believe that Harry guessed about everything he told my spy?" Voldemort asked daring her to respond. "He knew death eaters were watching the Parkinson house. He knows that we are hiding here in this castle that no one even suspected still existed. He pinpointed the most hidden spy ever conceived of with ease. He accurately described the meeting here earlier that he could not have known about. Unless…"
Voldemort fell silent as the possibility began to take root in his mind. Bellatrix took a deep breath as he turned away from her. His silence stretched on for several tense seconds.
Finally, Bellatrix pleaded softly, "Please, my Lord, allow me to rid you of this boy who dares to challenge your greatness. I would not fail you, my Lord."
"Perhaps I have been too soft with him," Voldemort admitted still not looking at her. "I want him brought to me. I will kill him here in this room to remind my death eaters what happens to those who work against Lord Voldemort."
"I’ll see to it personally, my Lord," Bellatrix proclaimed happily.
"No," Voldemort said as he turned to look at her disappointed expression. "Send for Macnair and Yaxley."
"But…," Bellatrix complained just before intense pain shot through her insides.
"Never… question… my… orders… again," Voldemort seethed as the pain Bellatrix felt magnified with each word.
"I live to serve you, my Lord," Bellatrix screamed as her body convulsed and the pain suddenly left her body.
"Now do as you have been told," Voldemort said as he drew his wand and blasted the portrait of Sebastian into little pieces.
Harry could have apparated directly into his house, but doing so would have made his last message of the day harder to deliver. Instead, Harry apparated onto the sidewalk in front of his house. Pulling a piece of parchment from his pocket and writing on it with his wand, Harry folded it and sent it sailing directly through the mail slot of the house down the street. Having done so, Harry walked into his house and shut the door behind him.
Millicent walked to the note lying on the floor below the mail slot and picked it up as she asked, "So, are you still so sure he has no idea we’re watching his house?"
"He could have bewitched the letter to seek out the nearest death eater to deliver it to," Flint grumbled.
"I don’t think that theory will work now," Millicent said as she read the note to herself.
"What does it say?" Flint asked impatiently.
"It says we had better straighten the place up," Millicent replied as she handed the letter to him. "More death eaters should be expected shortly."
"Impossible," Flint declared as he read the letter for himself.
"We seem to be saying that a lot about him lately," Millicent observed.
"You had better put an end to your admiration of him," Flint warned. "If there really are more death eaters coming then maybe you’ll finally have a chance to kill him. That is, if you can beat me to it."
"Keep dreaming, Marcus," Millicent laughed as she walked back to the window. "If more death eaters are really coming it will be ones far more experienced at dueling than either of us. We’ll just be covering the rear."
"That’s why you’ll never go anyplace in the ranks of the death eaters, Millie," Flint said. "You’ll always be at the bottom because you won’t even think of taking a chance that may come your way. Not me though. I’ll find a way to make it to the front line in this battle. Someday, I’ll be the one sitting by the side of the Dark Lord."
"Well you can discuss it with Bellatrix when she gets here," Millicent said as she scanned the street for any sign of an auror trap. "If it really is to be a battle, it will surely be Bellatrix and Lucius that lead it."
Minutes later, Millicent and Flint looked around expectantly as they heard several pops announcing the new arrivals. Much to their surprise, Bellatrix and Lucius were not among the death eaters.
"We were beginning to wonder if you would really come," Flint said as he stood from his spot at the window.
"What are you talking about?" Macnair asked as he stepped closer. "Why would you be expecting anyone?"
Millicent stepped forward and handed Macnair the letter from Harry. His forehead wrinkled as he read the note and saw the name signed at the bottom.
"Either the Dark Lord was right," Macnair began, "or the-boy-who-must-not-be-named has a seer working for him."
"What’s happened?" Millicent asked. "Are we being pulled off of this position?"
"In a manner of speaking," Yaxley responded. "We came to capture the boy and take him to our master. After we do, there will no longer be any need to watch his house."
"I’m ready," Flint said as he took a step closer and looked at Macnair, Yaxley, Jugson and the other four expressionless faces he did not recognize.
"I hope so," Macnair said seriously. "I hope you haven’t stopped training during your time here with this soft assignment. We have no way to know what we might be facing inside the house. The last thing we need is for a couple of death eater want-to-bees to get any of us killed. We had planned on taking him by surprise, but it would seem that he knows we’re coming after him. He’s had plenty of time to lay traps for us. Now listen while I tell you exactly how we’re going to attack."
Harry closed his front door and spotted Hermione and Ron peeking around the corner with their wands drawn. He wondered if it had been a good idea to tell them that death eaters would likely strike very soon.
"Did Ginny get the map?" Harry asked.
"She got it," Hermione replied as she and Ron lowered their wands, "just like you said."
"She took it back to the Burrow with her," Ron added. "She wasn’t very happy about having to leave here though."
"I know," Harry admitted. "I had to send the map with someone I could trust though. Besides, I have no doubt that she is monitoring the situation within and around my house as we speak. She’ll know the death eaters are coming before we do."
"I realize that it won’t do any good to ask this," Hermione said, "but wouldn’t it be a better idea if the rest of us were watching it all happen on the map as well?"
"You and Ron are free to leave here now if you want to," Harry said. "I’m going to stay."
"We aren’t going to let you stay by yourself, mate," Ron said. "You may need our help."
"I doubt I’ll have to do anything," Harry said. "The house was built to protect me. Fred and George saw to that. I just want to stay so I can see it in action."
Hermione opened her mouth as if she were about to voice an argument, but realized it was a useless waste of breath. Ron fell into silence as well as they waited for something to happen.
The first death eater to infiltrate Harry’s house entered through an upstairs window into Harry’s bedroom. He scanned the room quickly to assure himself that no one was waiting to attack him before he walked quickly for the door. What he had failed to notice was the bludger that tore itself loose from a trunk in the corner. After a severe blow to the back of the head, the death eater fell face down unconscious. The bludger backed off slightly as it stood guard, waiting for the death eater to make another move.
Two more death eaters entered another room upstairs only to find that the floor under their feet seemed to turn to liquid as they walked. Unable to find a solid surface to stand on, they sank quickly into the floor. Struggling to swim upwards through the liquid, they finally came to a stop as the floor hardened again, trapping their hands above them as the remainder of their bodies hung helplessly from the first floor sitting room ceiling.
"I guess it’s started then," Harry said calmly as he Hermione and Ron watched the two death eaters struggling to free themselves.
There was a loud thud form the kitchen as a frying pan connected with something solid. Harry’s front door flew open, and Macnair placed a foot inside of the house. Immediately, the floorboards sprang up and pulled him to the floor as they wrapped tightly around him. Yaxley, seeing what happened to Macnair, transformed into a column of black smoke as he flew over the bewitched floor. He had just caught sight of Harry and his friends sitting in the sitting room when a powerful force began to pull him toward one of the walls. Not being able to resist the pull, he looked over at the wall in time to see a blank black canvas hanging there. The next thing he knew, he had been transformed back to his solid body. The next thing he became aware of was looking out at the room from inside the frame. He was watching as Jugson entered through the floo network. Jugson had just leaned his head out of the fireplace when the opening closed around him like a great mouth, pinning him to the floor.
"Wicked," Ron said as he looked on in surprise.
"I wonder how many more we can expect," Hermione commented as she looked again at the angry death eaters hanging by their wrists from the ceiling.
"I would say that depends on how fast the aurors Scrimgeour had watching the house react," Harry said as he walked over and stared at Yaxley pounding with his fists trying to break out of the canvas as he hurled insults at Harry.
Seconds later, Kingsley and a host of other aurors ran in through the door with their wands drawn ready to strike at the death eaters. Kingsley surveyed the scene quickly as he made a hand motion and the aurors with him split up into two groups. Three stayed on the lower floor with Kingsley as they made their way deeper into the house. The remaining five ran up the stairs to search for unseen death eaters.
"Are the three of you all right? Kingsley asked as he looked again at the five death eaters struggling to free themselves around him.
"Never better," Harry replied as one of the aurors kicked Jugson’s wand further out of reach from his hand. "You’ll find at least one more in the kitchen. I don’t know how many might be upstairs."
"We tried to get here sooner," Kingsley assured them. "We tried to apparate in, but we couldn’t get any closer than the front walk."
"As soon as the first death eater entered the house they activated the houses defense mode," Harry explained. "It won’t let anyone apparate in, and no one with the dark mark can get out unless I release them."
"Still, they could have gotten to you before the house sprang any traps," Kingsley said. "They could have at least gotten a shot or two off."
"Not with their wands they couldn’t," Harry said with a smile. "The house cancels out all magic performed by anyone besides me. Their wands would have been useless."
"Does that mean that even my wand…" Kingsley began.
"Won’t work until I tell the house to return to a safe mode," Harry confirmed.
Within minutes, Kingsley and the aurors apparated out of the house with the stunned bodies of the seven death eaters captured inside as well as the two younger death eaters they had apprehended outside before they had even come inside. The portrait trap that refused to release Yaxley, even after Harry had returned the house to its normal state, amused all of the aurors. Yaxley, needless to say, was not so amused.
"Are you three all right?" McGonagall asked as she appeared in the doorway of Harry’s house after the last auror walked out.
"Amazingly enough," Ron said, "we are."
"We were never in any danger," Hermione said, although she had not been as confident about that before.
"Still," McGonagall said, "it might be a good idea to stay elsewhere for the rest of the day."
"I couldn’t agree with you more," Harry said, although she could tell there was something mischievous in the way he said it.
McGonagall studied Harry for several seconds before she asked, "Was Severus here during the attack?"
"No," Harry replied. "I sent him to the old headquarters for the day. He’ll be back here tomorrow."
"So you knew the death eaters would attack you here today?" McGonagall asked.
"I suspected it," Harry said. "If it wasn’t today, it would have been tomorrow or the next day after that."
"It just means Voldemort is growing more impatient," Hermione said.
"And more dangerous," Ron observed.
"He’ll fall back long enough to regroup and consider his options," Harry said. "After that, he’ll strike again."
"Hopefully you will all be safely back at Hogwarts before that happens," McGonagall commented.
"Either way," Harry said, "we have to be ready."
Attack of the Rescuers
Harry’s head fell forward as a rain of sweat dripped to the floor, and his clenched jaw loosened like a spring that had been coiled too tightly for too long. Harry felt as though he had only had enough energy left to lift his head one last time, and as he slowly raised it, he could see Snape’s wand lowering in front of him.
"You should take time to recover," Snape said as he put his wand away. "This is too easy for me when you’ve been worn down this much."
"Voldemort… won’t take it… easy on me," Harry stammered as he fought to remain upright.
"That may be," Snape said, "but it will serve no purpose to kill you before he has a chance. It won’t be something that comes quickly or easily. You should be happy with the progress you’ve made already. Besides, I knew that your occlumency had improved the day you found me in Seattle."
Harry grinned slightly as Snape handed him a cup of water, and Harry replied, "I knew there had to be a way that you knew what spells I was going to use before I used them as I was chasing you across the Hogwarts grounds. I’m just sorry I didn’t figure out sooner that you could use that spell wordlessly."
"I doubt it would have done you any good at the time," Snape commented as Harry drank the water greedily. "Believe it or not, I really did try to teach you occlumency before. You just weren’t a very good student. You would never listen to anything I ever told you. Something seems to have changed that though. I had to work for nearly fifteen minutes before I got inside your head this time."
"That won’t be enough with Voldemort," Harry said as he set the empty cup aside and touched his scar with his other hand. "He has an express route straight into my mind."
"Still," Snape said, "even as powerful as he is, he can be blocked. I did it myself on several occasions. It is possible to allow him entry into your mind, yet shield away the information you do not want him to see. As you have already guessed, this dark mark on my arm gives him a direct path into my mind as well"
Both of them looked toward the door as it opened, and Ginny walked in looking worried. Seeing the state Harry was in, her worry only deepened.
"I look much worse than I feel," Harry said before Ginny could raise any protest. "I’ll be fine after I rest a while."
"Maybe I should wait until then to show you what just popped out of the floo system," Ginny said as Harry and Snape noticed the piece of parchment in her hand.
"A letter would not be able to travel through the floo network unless…" Snape commented.
"It was tied to the back of a toad," Ginny supplied.
"Why would anyone toss a toad into the floo network just to get a message to me?" Harry asked. "There are more dependable ways of doing it."
"Owls can be intercepted," Snape observed.
"It certainly seems like the person who sent this might be worried about that," Ginny said as she handed the open message to Harry.
Harry read the note for a few seconds before reading aloud, "They will be coming to get you tomorrow to make you one as well. There is nothing I can do to stop them. Be safe. Be careful."
"Is it signed?" Snape asked.
"No," Harry responded as he turned the letter slightly to look at the bottom half of the parchment. "I know who sent it though. There’s another line scratched out in another hand on the bottom. It says, ‘Please help me, cousin."
"I trust it is not from your cousin Dudley," Snape commented as the examined the look on Harry’s face and could tell that he was already forming plans.
"No," Harry replied as he stood on weak legs. "I need to find Hermione and Ron."
Harry took an unsteady step, and Ginny rushed forward to catch him as he began to fall, and she said, "You aren’t going anywhere. You’re going to rest. While you do I’ll get Hermione and Ron to come here. You can plot all you want with them after that, but you aren’t leaving this house until morning."
Harry grinned as she sat him back in the chair he had been sitting in before, and he said, "Well in that case, after you find Ron and Hermione send a message to Kingsley. I think I’ll need he and the Minister’s cooperation."
"Precisely what is it that you have in mind?" Snape asked.
"I don’t know all the details yet," Harry said, "but I think it should be something the death eaters wouldn’t expect."
Early the following morning, Voldemort asked the death eater before him, "Are you sure he has not left the house?"
"I’m sure, my lord," Pendergast responded. "The windows of the house are not covered. I watched as he traveled from room to room all day long. I sat in the tree just outside his bedroom and watched through the night as he slept. I only left five minutes ago so that I could report to you, my master."
"And the aurors watching the house?" Voldemort asked.
"They made a fatal error last night, my lord," Pendergast said with a confident smile. "I was watching last night when the two aurors arriving to relieve the daytime watch accidentally apparated onto the front porch of a house just down the street instead of apparating directly inside."
"Did they see you?" Voldemort asked.
"No, my lord," Pendergast responded. "My animagus form was a perfect disguise."
"Indeed," Voldemort said. "Go back now and keep watch. Others will arrive soon to retrieve the boy. I shall send another group along to deal with the aurors."
"It is an honor to serve you, my master," Perdergast said as he bowed low before Voldemort.
Minutes later, Pendergast, in his animagus form of a raven, landed on a sturdy branch in a tree across from the Nott home. He immediately spotted Theodore sitting in a chair near the window in the sitting room reading. He watched as his subject turned page after page in relaxed peace. It was therefore surprising to him when, minutes later, he watched as Theodore shot up out of his chair dropping his book as he reached for his wand.
Flashes of light erupted inside the house as Nott ran from room to room defending himself from the attacks of heavily cloaked figures. Not long after the battle inside the house began, dozens of cloaked figures with strangely obscured faces apparated in a ring around the front of the house. Momentarily, Pendergast thought the death eaters must be attacking, but then he saw one of the group wave his hand in front of his face and remove the spell that had been obscuring it. The face was one that every death eater knew, but his name was forbidden to speak.
The door to the house was ripped open, and Theodore Nott ran out with his wand shooting spells over his shoulder. One of the cloaked figures stepped into the doorway and was hit directly in the chest with a stunning spell. As he fell, another attacker stepped into the doorway and shot a spell that caught Nott in the middle of his back just as he reached the top step.
Nott was propelled off of the porch several meters out into the yard before he hit the ground and rolled to a stop. He immediately stood and aimed for a shot back at his attacker, but Harry separated himself from the ring surrounding the house and shot a spell that hit Nott and sent him flying back limply as he came to rest in a heap on the lawn. Harry ran forward and placed a binding around the unconscious Nott as the ring of defenders closed in to make a ring around Harry and Nott.
Seconds later, there were two silver blasts from the wands of the aurors running across the street toward the scene of the attack. Before they reached their mark though, the entire group of attackers disapparated.
Pedndergast watched in amazement as twenty more aurors apparated close by and ran to the original two with their wands drawn. He was close enough to listen to the conversation as the two aurors described what had happened. To his surprise, the aurors were of the belief that it had been the death eaters who had attacked Nott.
Pendergast suddenly realized that, unless warned not to, the death eaters would come soon. He flew away from the scene until he was sure none of the aurors could see him before changing back into his human form and apparating back to the headquarters to stop the planned attack.
"Pendergast!" Voldemort roared when the death eater apparated directly into the main room in front of him where his death eaters were gathered. "You were told to watch the boy!"
Pendergast fell flat on the floor at Voldemort’s feet as he said, "I beg your forgiveness, my lord. I had to leave my post in order to warn you not to carry out the planned mission. There are aurors crawling the grounds of the house as we speak."
"What?" Voldemort asked. "How is that possible? They could not have known we were coming."
"I assure you that they did not, my master," Pendergast said, as he remained prostrate on the floor. "They came because Theodore Nott was kidnapped."
"Kidnapped?" Voldemort asked as he magically raised Pendergast from the floor until he was looking directly into his terrified eyes. "Explain."
"I watched as you instructed, my lord," Pendergast uttered nervously as he began to tell the story he knew would only anger Voldemort further. "Everything was calm. The boy sat by a window reading a book when he was suddenly attacked inside the house. I thought our attack had begun, but seconds later more attackers apparated in a ring outside the house. Nott ran out of the house and managed to hit one of the attackers from the house, but was knocked out by a spell from one of those outside. In a matter of seconds, he was bound and the attackers disapparated with him"
"The aurors carried out such an attack?" Voldemort asked, unbelieving.
"No, my master," Perdergast said. "The aurors arrived just before the attackers disapparated. They were trying to stop them. The aurors believe we were responsible."
"It is plainly obvious that we did not," Voldemort said as he gestured to the assembled death eaters that were to be sent. "You say it was also not the aurors. Who else could mount an attack like that?"
"It was Harry Potter," Pendergast said aloud before he was able to stop himself.
All of the death eaters took an involuntary step back as they witnessed the look of madness that washed over the face of the Dark Lord. They watched as he brought up his arms trembling with rage and slowly closed his hands with loud cracks until they were balled into tight fists in front of his face. With a guttural cry of fury, he brought his hands down quickly to his sides. The powerful force that erupted from Voldemort in his rage slammed into the death eaters before him and sent them all flying back into the wall behind them. They all landed on the floor on top of one another, and as they attempted to untangle themselves, they suddenly convulsed in more pain than they had ever experienced before. The death eaters lucky enough not to be selected for the secret mission heard the chorus of screams coming from the main council chambers, and made a conscious decision to move further from that area.
Meanwhile, Theodore Nott opened his eyes and blinked experimentally as Harry’s smiling face came into focus, and Nott asked, "What in the world did you hit me with?"
"Well I had to make it believable," Harry said as Nott sat up on the couch.
"Served you right if you ask me," Ron said as he folded his arms and sent a somewhat sour look at Nott.
"Oh really, Ron," Hermione said. "You can’t blame him for that. You were the one who stepped right in front of that stunning spell."
"Well he didn’t have to aim it so well," Ron said. "You and I sent tons of spell at him inside the house. Did I try to hit him with even one of them? No."
"The point is," Kingsley said as he walked closer, "it worked. You all pulled off a very convincing kidnapping."
"We couldn’t have done it without your help, Kingsley," Harry said. "Be sure to extend my thanks to the Minister. Things could have been much more complicated if he hadn’t let you warn the aurors about what was going to happen."
"Are you sure my dad won’t be in any danger?" Theodore asked anxiously.
"I’m sure he would have been if we had simply come and taken you away secretly," Harry said.
"Harry’s idea to make it look as though we took you away against your will should dispel any thought that it might have been a rescue mission," Hermione assured him.
"Assuming that you were right about death eaters watching the house that is," Kingsley pointed out.
"They were," Harry said confidently.
"Well," Kingsley said, "if so then I’m sure the aurors on the scene allowed the information we discussed to be overheard. Still, the Prophet will have to be told about the kidnapping. I’ll head back to the ministry now to release a statement to them blaming the entire thing on death eaters."
"Of course, Voldemort already knows who really did it," Hermione said sternly. "You never said it was part of the plan to drop your obscuring spell, Harry."
"I hope you have somewhere a little less obvious to hide young Mr. Nott, Harry," Kingsley pointed out.
"Actually,’ Harry replied with a grin, "I do."
"I almost wish you had just let me be taken by the death eaters, Harry," Theodore said as he dusted himself off. "It couldn’t have been much worse than staying here."
"I think you’ll find that not to be the case," Harry said with a grin.
"That’s easy for you to say," Theodore countered. "You’re going back to Hogwarts tomorrow. You aren’t the one who has to live with Draco Malfoy for the rest of eternity."
"I doubt it will be that long," Harry said. "Besides, it’s a big house. You don’t have to share a room with him. Mrs. Malfoy is actually a very pleasant person. She’ll keep Draco occupied for a good deal of the time."
"And for the rest of the time he’ll want to talk to me," Theodore complained. "Just the thought of those hours of torture is enough to make me think twice about all of this."
"I could ask Kingsley to put you in a ministry safe house," Harry said already knowing he wouldn’t be fond of that idea.
"From what you said they just uncovered a spy at the Ministry," Theodore reminded him. "Those safe houses may not be so safe anymore."
Just then, Narcissa walked into the kitchen and said, "I thought I heard voices in here."
"Did you get my message that we would be coming?" Harry asked.
"Oh, yes," Narcissa responded. "I have a room all prepared for you Theodore."
"Thank you," Theodore said. "I like to spend most of my time alone, so I won’t be in your way very often."
"Nonsense," Narcissa replied. "You’re free to spend your time as you wish, but you will never be in the way here."
"So how did Draco take the news about having another person in the house?" Harry asked.
"I haven’t actually had the chance to tell him yet," Narcissa said. "He’s been in a bit of a foul mood the last few days. He’s been spending a lot of time locked in his room."
"I’m sorry to hear that," Harry said.
"This too shall pass," Narcissa shrugged.
"I hope so," Harry said. "Well, I’ll let you show Theodore where his room is."
"You’re leaving?" Theodore asked.
"I’m afraid so," Harry replied. "I have a meeting I have to go to."
"I was hoping you could stay and see some of what I’ve done with the house," Narcissa said. "Could you join us for dinner tonight? You could bring Ginny if she’s feeling up to it."
"I would love to," Harry said with a smile, "assuming that I’m not in Azkaban by nightfall."
"Why would you think that?" Narcissa asked with concern.
"Because the Minister is about to find out that I’ve been hiding Professor Snape," Harry supplied. "Something tells me he isn’t going to like hearing that."
An hour later, Harry sat in his front sitting room playing wizards chess with Ginny. He was quickly learning that she was almost as good at outmaneuvering him as Ron. Of course Harry also realized that he was never as distracted by the person he was playing when he played Ron. As it was, the connection Harry shared with Ginny told him exactly how contented she was feeling to be spending time with him. He was so distracted by the feeling that he failed to hear the warning tone from the entry hall mirror.
"Harry," Ginny said with a smile as she noticed the look in Harry’s eye as he looked right at her. "Harry."
"Oh, sorry," Harry said quickly as he was shaken from his daydreams. "Is it my turn?"
"Someone is at the front door, Harry," Ginny grinned. "Didn’t you hear it?"
"I guess not," Harry said as he looked toward the door.
Ginny waited for several seconds for Harry to move, but when he didn’t she said, "Don’t you think someone should get the door, Harry? You are expecting the Minister of Magic after all."
"I guess I forgot," Harry said with a look on his face that told her he still wasn’t totally out of his fantasy.
Ginny grinned as she stood and began walking toward the entry as she said, "I’ll get the door then. You can use that time to pull yourself together."
Ginny opened the door to find Minister Scrimgeour standing there flanked by Kingsley and a woman she did not recognize.
"Good afternoon, Ginny," Kingsley said. "The Minister is here for a meeting with Harry."
"Come in," Ginny said as she stood aside to let them pass. "He’s been expecting you."
"I’m glad you could come, Minister," Harry said as he motioned for him to sit.
"I thought I should," Scrimgeour said. "Usually when you ask me to meet here at your house you have dangerous missions in mind. I hope you will understand my reasons for adding another auror to my escort."
"You can rest easy this time, Minister," Harry said with only a hint of a grin. "I don’t have anything dangerous planned this time. At least, I hope it doesn’t turn out that way."
Scrimgeour narrowed his eyes slightly as he studied Harry, but he didn’t stiffen until he noticed Ginny quietly slipping out of the room. With a slightly quickened heart rate, he wondered at what surprise Harry may be ready to spring on him.
"I found someone you’ve been looking for," Harry said knowing Scrimgeour was paying close attention. "I called you here tonight to ask you to stop looking for him."
"The only reason we would be looking for someone would be if they had committed a crime," Scrimgeour replied. "If that is the case, then you would be wasting your time asking us to stop looking for him."
"What if I could prove that he was innocent?" Harry asked as he leaned forward.
"Then you may tell us where he is,’ Scrimgeour replied. "We will apprehend him and then you will have a chance to submit your evidence at his trial."
"There can’t be a trial in this case," Harry said as he sat back. "Voldemort would never let it go to its end. Are you aware that he can control his death eaters through their dark marks?"
"There have been theories about it," Scrimgeour replied. "So, this man you say is so innocent is a death eater."
"He has the mark," Harry confirmed. "I give you my word that he is not a death eater."
"The two do not come separately," Scrimgeour said. "You do not get one without the other."
"Even if I can prove he was working as a double agent?" Harry asked.
"Cut to the case, Mr. Potter," Scrimgeour said as his voice raised slightly. "Who is the man you claim is so innocent?"
"I am," Snape said from the doorway.
Scrimgeour’s head whipped around to look at Snape, and an instant later he was on his feet drawing his wand along with his auror escorts. Harry moved quickly as well, and placed himself between Snape and the wand tips.
"Stay calm," Harry warned. "I would advise you to put your wands away."
"Are you mad?" Scrimgeour asked as his face reddened. "Stand aside, Potter, or I’ll have no choice but to arrest you as well."
"I am not mad," Harry said calmly. "You might well be if you think I didn’t put some thought into where this meeting would take place. Professor Snape is an invited guest in my house. As such, my home defenses will protect him from any attack you may throw at him. Your wands are already useless to you. If you try to take him by force the house will respond. If you want to experience that then attack now. Otherwise I suggest you relax and resolve this matter peacefully."
"How can you defend him?" Scrimgeour said lowering his wand slightly. "You said yourself that he killed Dumbledore."
"I was wrong," Harry said. "Voldemort was in control of him at the time. I can show you that."
"I doesn’t change the fact that there must be a trial," Scrimgeour said.
"A trial would be too public," Harry argued. "Voldemort would find a way to get to him."
"He would be well guarded," Scrimgeour countered.
"The way Azkaban was?" Harry asked quickly, knowing that it would strike a sour chord inside of Scrimgeour. "The way that death eater was on the detention level. We all know that Voldemort is capable of getting to anyone he chooses no matter how well guarded. Our only chance is to keep his presence a secret."
"That is not for you to decide, Mr. Potter," Scrimgeour said sternly still holding his wand on them. "I will ask you one last time to stand out of the way. If you do not, then I shall have my aurors remove you."
"I wouldn’t advise it," Harry warned calmly. "You won’t be happy with the results."
Tense seconds followed as the Minister looked into Harry’s eyes and tried to predict his next move. In those seconds, Ginny reappeared behind Snape and knew instantly that things had not gone as well has Harry had hoped.
An almost imperceptible nod of the Minister’s head was all it took to send the two aurors into motion. They had taken only two steps toward Harry with their wands at the ready when the wallpaper on the wall behind them separated from the wall and quickly enveloped both aurors and pulled them back into the wall. The Minister looked on in disbelief as the forms of the aurors were only visible behind the wallpaper for a few seconds before the wall became as still and smooth as it had been previously.
Scrimgeour turned back on Harry with rage brewing in his eyes as Harry raised his hands and said, "I tried to warn you. They haven’t been harmed. They’ve been placed outside the house."
Before the Minister could respond, the front door flew open and Kingsley ran inside only to have the floor boards grab him and pin him to the entry floor. His auror companion didn’t fair any better as she entered and the entry chandelier flew down and wrapped its wire around her, pinning her arms at her side. An instant later she was suspended high above Kingsley as he struggled to free himself from the floor.
"I can wait while you call more aurors to see if they do any better if you like," Harry said seriously. "Otherwise, we can all take a minute to calm down and talk about where we go from here."
"Do we really have a choice?" Scrimgeour asked with a heavily creased brow.
"Of course," Harry said. "You can stay and talk, or you can leave."
"Without Snape I suppose," Scrimgeour observed.
"He’s free to go anywhere he wants," Harry pointed out. "I doubt he’ll go with you before an understanding is reached though."
Seconds passed as Scrimgeour considered which option to choose. Finally, he took a step back and lowered his wand. Harry responded by turning toward the entry and swiping his hand through the air. The boards pinning Kingsley loosened their hold, and he began to stand up even as the woman being held by the chandelier was gently lowered to the ground and set free.
As the Minister and the aurors put their wands away, Harry turned to Ginny and asked, "Was it ready?"
Ginny nodded her head as she held up a roll of parchment and replied, "I have it with me."
"Good," Harry said with a slight grin. "At least something has gone right so far."
"So," Scrimgeour began, "what now?"
"I’d like you to come upstairs with me so I can show you the evidence I’ve found," Harry responded.
"And the aurors?" Scrimgeour asked suspiciously.
"I thought you would want to leave them to watch after Professor Snape," Harry said.
"Or perhaps you wish to get me out of the room so Snape can attempt to escape," Scrimgeour observed.
"If I wanted that there would have been no need to invite you here tonight and allow you to see him," Harry pointed out. "Besides, I’m leaving Ginny here with them. Do you really think I would place her in a position of possible danger?"
Scrimgeour looked at Harry, then to Ginny, and back to Harry once again before he said, "Very well. Lead the way."
Harry led Scrimgeour up the stairs and into the room of requirement. In the mean time, Ginny motioned Snape and the two aurors toward chairs and waited for them to sit before she sat as well. Once she had, the silence that ensued was deafening. To her surprise, it was the auror she didn’t know who broke the silence.
"So, you look well, Severus," Fiona observed with a familiar tone.
"I suppose," Snape replied wondering if he should know her.
"How long have you been staying here with Mr. Potter?" Fiona asked.
Snape studied Fiona questioningly for a few seconds before he replied, "Since just before Christmas."
"Really?" Fiona asked with a genuine smile. "You got to spend Christmas with "The Chosen One"? Wow."
"Excuse me," Ginny said. "Do you know Professor Snape?"
"Oh yes," Fiona replied. "We were at Hogwarts together."
"You were in Slytherin?" Snape asked.
"You really don’t remember me do you?" Fiona asked. "Fiona Moss. I was one year behind you, but I was in Ravenclaw."
"You are correct," Snape said. "I do not remember you. I paid little attention to those outside my own house."
"Oh how well I know that," Fiona chuckled. "Still, I thought you might remember the most embarrassing moment of my teenage life. You were the cause of it after all."
"If it makes you feel any better," Snape said, "I’m sure I feel very sorry for that now."
"No need to be sorry," Fiona said. "It was a stupid thing for me to do in the first place."
Silence again descended as neither Snape nor Fiona made any attempt to elaborate on their discussion further.
"I don’t mean to pry, but…" Ginny began.
"She’s right, Fiona," Kingsley said. "You can’t bring up a topic like that in polite conversation and leave it unexplained. Our imaginations will be taxed unbearably if we do not learn what it is that you did all those years ago."
"Oh, it’s a silly thing," Fiona said as her cheeks reddened slightly. "When I was in my fourth year I gathered up all the courage I had and asked a boy to go to Hogsmeade with me. He was a year ahead of me and in a different house."
"That was you?" Snape asked, uncharacteristically surprised.
"Indeed it was," Fiona confirmed. "I walked straight over to you as you and some of your friends stood up to leave the Great Hall, and I asked you to go with me. Of course I should have waited until we weren’t standing in front of the entire school. I nearly died of embarrassment when you said no and walked away with your friends laughing at me. Needless to say, they weren’t the only ones who laughed."
"You did that to her?" Ginny asked Snape.
"I thought you were the one trying to embarrass me," Snape said, ignoring Ginny’s question.
Fiona chuckled and asked, "And just how was I supposed to do that? I was a year behind you. I left the safety of my own house table and asked a boy out in front of all of his friends."
"You mean…" Snape began. "You mean to say that you actually wanted to go to Hogsmeade with me?"
"I had only been working up the nerve to ask you for two years before I did it," Fiona said with a grin. "Of course I wanted to go with you."
"Boys," Ginny said disapprovingly as she crossed her arms.
"I know," Fiona agreed. "There is nothing else on earth like them, thank God."
Kingsley was just about to dispute that sentiment, when he heard Scrimgeour coming back down the stairs. Kingsley and Fiona stood from their seats immediately.
"I would tend to agree with you, Mr. Potter," Scrimgeour said as he reached the bottom of the stairs. "The evidence you’ve shown me would surely be enough to get any charges against Snape dropped. Especially taking into account the work he did finding a cure for that potion. You have to understand the position I’m in though. I can’t make a decision like that on my own. There is a process in place to deal with this though a trial."
"Is that your final decision?" Harry asked
"It has to be," Scrimgeour replied.
"Well reason didn’t work," Harry said as he moved to stand beside Ginny. "Maybe bribery will work better."
"Keep your money," Scrimgeour said. "I’ll do you the favor of forgetting that you tried to bribe a government official."
"I wasn’t actually talking about money," Harry corrected. "Think of it as a trade if you like. You give Professor Snape to me, and in return I’ll give you a way to find the rest of the death eaters."
"You have a way to find them?" Scrimgeour asked as Ginny handed the map to Harry.
"This map will pinpoint the location of any death eater not located in an unplottable area," Harry explained as Scrimgeour’s gaze locked on the map. "The Order of the Phoenix is currently in possession of a similar map. If you don’t agree to this deal, I’ll give this map to the muggle Prime Minister."
"What use would it be to the muggles?" Scrimgeour asked. "They would still need for us to capture the death eaters."
"True," Harry confirmed. "I’ll have to have something to bribe the Prime Minister with in order to make him grant amnesty to Professor Snape and myself. Of course, we won’t need it if you agree to my offer now."
"That map could prove invaluable to us," Kingsley offered.
"I’m well aware of that," Scrimgeour said, never taking his eye off of Harry. "That is, if it really works."
"I think you’re well aware that it does," Harry said as he held it out to the Minister. "You wondered all summer how I managed to find so many death eaters. Take this and you’ll have your answer."
Scrimgeour slowly reached out and placed his hands under the map to support it as if it were a delicate thing. Once he had, Harry removed his hands. Scrimgeour studied the parchment in his hands for several seconds in silence as he came to realize the enormous advantage the ministry had just gained.
"It may take some time to clear all of the channels at the ministry for a full pardon for Snape," Scrimgeour said. "I’ll have to convince each of the judges individually in order to keep it a secret."
"Will you be able to?" Harry asked.
"I still have enough favors to call in," Scrimgeour confirmed.
"Good," Harry said with a smile. "Now, there is just one other thing I need to discuss with you. Draco Malfoy…"
Train, Housemate, Centaurs
"I’ll tell you, Harry," Ron said as he glanced out the window of the Hogwarts Express, "if anyone had told me this time last year that you would be sticking your neck out to save Draco Malfoy, I’d have either laughed in his face or punched him."
"I’m not really sticking it out that far," Harry said with a grin.
"Don’t be too sure, Harry," Hermione warned. "From what Ginny told us, Scrimgeour was in a right foul mood by the time he left your house."
"I’m betting he’ll be a bit more agreeable by the end of the day today," Harry assured them. "I’m sure they will have started picking up death eaters with the help of the map, I gave them by now."
"Still," Ginny pointed out, "he wasn’t at all happy to find out that the Order had a better map than he did."
"Exactly," Harry grinned. "He’ll be anxious for the upgrade I offered him to get one just like the one McGonagall has. If he wants that, he knows what it’ll cost him."
"What if he isn’t as anxious as you think?" Neville asked.
"It doesn’t really matter," Harry assured him. "He can look all he wants for Draco, but he’ll never find him. He would need my map to do that, and I’m not about to give him one."
"I don’t blame you, Harry," Hermione said. "I’m not even sure you should have a map that can peer into unplottable locations."
"Then you should be happy to know that I plan to destroy my map as soon as my battle with Voldemort is over," Harry said.
"What?" Ron asked in surprise. "But why?"
"Because a map like that would be too dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands," Ginny explained.
"That map is power," Harry said. "It gives a great deal of power to the person who has it. No one should have that kind of power at their disposal permanently."
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely," Hermione said as she realized exactly who Harry wanted to avoid becoming like.
"I’ll also ask McGonagall and Scrimgeour to destroy theirs or place them in the Department of Mysteries," Harry said.
"And if they won’t?" Ron asked.
"Don’t worry," Harry said. "I’ll just need to tell Fred and George. They’ll know what to do. Of course you all realize that… if I’m… not able to destroy the map…"
A tense silence fell over the compartment as they all realized what Harry was alluding to.
After several seconds, it was Neville who said softly, "We won’t let you down, Harry."
"Thanks," Harry replied with a grin.
It was several minutes later before the mood in the compartment returned to a lighter level. By the time the train finally came to a stop, they were all smiling and laughing as the result of Ron’s good-natured teasing of Neville about his relationship with Pansy Parkinson.
"Ha-ha," Neville said with a grin. "Go ahead and laugh. I don’t mind."
"We really don’t mean to laugh, Neville," Ginny said, "but even you have to admit that it was a big surprise for us all to see that kiss she gave you before you got on the train."
"No one was as surprised as I was," Neville said, unable to keep the smile from creeping onto his face. "I’ve only dreamed about it since I was six years old."
"No one will ever say that you can’t keep a secret," Hermione said
"Too bad she isn’t coming back to Hogwarts this year, Neville," Ron said as he was gathering his things. "After that kiss I don’t know how you’ll survive without another one."
"I had never even held her hand," Neville said in a dreamy state as he took his bag from the overhead rack. "Then she just kisses me out of nowhere. Even now it seems like it was a dream. I’ll have to send her an owl as soon as possible just to make sure it was real."
"Hurry up, everybody," Harry said as he quickly took his own bag down. "We have to get this man to he owlery before it’s too late."
"No," Neville said as he held up his hand. "I’m not going to rush this one. I don’t want to do anything to mess this up."
Everyone else moved out of the compartment ahead of them, but Harry held Neville back and said, "If you find yourself missing her too much, just let me know. If you want to see her I can arrange that for you."
"Thanks, Harry," Neville said. "I kind of thought you would understand what I’m feeling right now. I’ll keep your offer in mind."
Once the carriages had stopped inside the gates of Hogwarts, Harry and his friends got out and began the walk to the castle. They were completely unaware that as they turned to enter the castle an excited centaur ran out of the forest and stopped ten meters away from it to watch them. The centaur had no more than broken the tree line than Hagrid darted out to block his path.
"That be far enough, Orlef," Hagrid said. "You’ve no business here. Go back or I’ll have to make ya."
Only a couple of seconds elapsed as Orlef seemed to not even notice Hagrid’s presence. As suddenly as he appeared, Orlef turned and sprinted back into the forest. Hagrid listened to the sounds of the centaur running further and further into the forest, and he knew that something had made him abandon his watch suddenly. Hagrid turned and walked quickly toward the castle. McGonagall had to be told about the unusual behavior before it turned into something more serious.
At number twelve, Narcissa was setting the table in the kitchen for dinner, and wondering if she would end up having to take Draco’s plate up to his room yet again. Much to her surprise, she looked up just as Draco walked in.
"Well, good evening, Draco," Narcissa said as if she had actually seen him in the last three days. "Dinner will be ready soon."
Draco noticed the three place settings on the table and asked, "Are you expecting guests?"
"No," Narcissa replied as she set the napkins. "You missed the ones we had last night though. Harry was here with Ginny."
"And I’m so sorry I missed that," Draco said sarcastically.
"It would have been nice if you had been there," Narcissa said. "After all, he did begin negotiations with the Minister of Magic to clear you for what you did."
"Why?" Draco asked.
"What do you mean?" Narcissa replied.
"There has to be something in it for him," Draco explained. "There has to be something he hopes to gain from it."
"You don’t know?" Narcissa asked with a chuckle. "You went to Hogwarts for six years. Surely you’ve observed the differences between the houses by now."
"Well of course I have," Draco stated. "I don’t see what that has to do with anything."
"Gryffindors are chivalrous to a fault," Narcissa explained. "They believe in honor and justice as undeniable truths. Harry believes that more so than any other Gryffindor I’ve ever met. What he hopes to gain is a confirmation of his belief that those truths will always prevail in the end. He believes it so much that he risked being sent to Azkaban for hiding you."
Draco considered his mother’s words for a moment before he said, "I wouldn’t have done it for him, nor would any Slytherin I know. That should prove how deniable his truths are."
"He knows that," Narcissa said, "and yet he persists in his effort to help us. He saved me, he reunited us, he’s working to clear your name as well as Snape’s, and now he’s saved Theodore Nott from the death eaters."
"Theodore Nott?" Draco asked in surprise. "What happened… Is he here?"
"Harry brought Theodore here yesterday morning," Narcissa confirmed. "He’s in the room down the hall from you. Speaking of that, could you run up and let him know that dinner is ready?"
Less than a minute later, Draco found the room his mother had indicated and opened the door to find Theodore Nott sitting on the bed reading a book. For his part, Theodore didn’t look surprised to see Draco standing there gaping at him.
"I had no idea you were here," Draco said as he tried to catch his breath.
"Would it have made a difference?" Theodore asked as he placed a bookmark in the book and closed it.
"Of course," Draco replied. "I’m interested to hear what happened."
"I’m not here for your amusement," Theodore said as he stood up.
"That’s not what I meant," Draco said quickly. "I just haven’t had anyone my own age to talk to lately."
"It seems you haven’t been talking to anyone lately," Theodore pointed out. "If you had then you would have known that I was here much sooner. If you had come to dinner last night then you would have had more people your own age to ‘talk’ to."
"Mum told me that Potter was hear last night with Ginny," Draco confirmed. "I don’t want to talk to him though. There are too many things I can’t seem to figure out about him."
"I’m not surprised," Theodore stated.
"What’s that supposed to mean?" Draco asked.
"You’re a Slytherin," Theodore said as if it was explanation enough.
"So are you," Draco charged.
"Of course I am," Theodore said. "I never said I wasn’t. What you haven’t realized is that, because of that fact, you think every action someone takes has to have some immediate personal benefit."
"You think that rule doesn’t apply to Potter?" Draco asked. "The only reason he came to find Snape was for his personal benefit. He used him to save his girlfriend."
"True," Theodore admitted. "Do you really think the actions he’s taking to help Snape now would be any different if Snape hadn’t developed an antidote in time?"
"Sure they would," Draco said. "If it had been me…"
"Do you really believe that you think the same way as Harry Potter?" Theodore interrupted. "If so, then you’re a fool."
"Watch who you call a fool, Nott," Draco warned as his hand inched closer to his wand.
Theodore took a couple of steps closer to Draco with a serious expression as he said, "You’ll regret it if you reach for that wand, Malfoy. I’m a Slytherin. You can’t intimidate me the way you would a Hufflepuff. I don’t have any qualms about acting in my own self interest, and I won’t think twice about it."
Draco seriously considered testing just how fast Theodore could get to his wand, but after a few seconds of intense staring, Draco relaxed and said, "I was sent to tell you that dinner is ready."
"I’ll be right there," Theodore said not wanting to have to endure Draco’s presence on the way downstairs.
"Suit yourself," Draco said as he turned and walked out.
Theodore grimaced to himself as he straightened his arm and let his wand slip from the sleeve into his hand. He had hoped that Draco would stay barricaded behind his door for the rest of his stay there, but it had been wishful thinking he knew. As it was, he realized that this meeting was only the first of many to come.
At Hogwarts, McGonagall, having just had a discussion with Hagrid, stood at the front of the Great Hall revising her welcome speech.
"Before the feast begins," McGonagall said, "please allow me to welcome all of you back for a great year at Hogwarts. As always, your professors are looking forward to your eager learning in classes. Once again we would like to ask you to at least keep your use of certain novelty joke items to a minimum. In a related note, the second floor corridor in the east wing has been cleaned and reopened. Also, until further notice, the Hogwarts grounds outside of the castle are off limits"
At that moment, there was a general murmur of disapproval from the students, but McGonagall raised her hand for quiet before continuing.
"Students who participate in classes outside will meet their professor inside the castle. The professor will then escort the entire class outside. This arrangement is only temporary, and we hope to have the problem resolved in the near future. That being said, let the feast begin."
"What do you suppose that was all about?" Ron asked as the food appeared. "They’ve never banned us from going outside before."
"Surely nothing broke through the defenses outside," Hermione reasoned. "If they had we wouldn’t be much safer in the castle."
"Maybe one of their defensive traps has gone off on it’s own," Harry supplied with an unconcerned grin. "Maybe there are pockets of unreality covering the grounds like a mine field, and if you step into one you’ll be transported to another dimension."
"Honestly, Harry," Hermione scolded. "Aren’t you even curious about what might have happened?"
"Not enough to lose sleep over it," Harry said. "I could just as easily think this is all a plot to keep me from trying to leave the castle."
"It isn’t always about you, you know," Ginny pointed out.
"Not always," Ron agreed as he took a bite out of a turkey leg, "but it usually is."
Later that evening, McGonagall stood on the balcony outside her office and looked at the forbidden forest beyond. A nervous chill ran down her back as she thought about the report she had just heard.
"Are you sure?" McGonagall asked not taking her eyes off of the tree line.
"Positive," Lupin confirmed. "Hagrid said that Orlef came back within a half hour with three others. Since then another five have joined them. They aren’t coming onto the grounds, but they’re walking around just inside the forest."
"They ran further in as soon as we tried to approach them," Tonks added. "What ever it is that they’re doing, they don’t seem to want us to know about it."
"It was quick thinking to close the grounds to all of the students," Lupin said. "I’m sure there will be several wild rumors about exactly why they were closed. It should help to deflect suspicion away from the real reason."
"Don’t be too sure," McGonagall said as she turned and walked back into her office. "Do you really think Harry hasn’t suspected it already?"
"I doubt he understands the actual reason," Lupin conceded, "but I suspect he thinks it’s about him."
"It isn’t always," Tonks said, "but this time I would say it’s a certainty."
Heart of a Woman
Harry awoke after his first night back at Hogwarts, and knew even before he opened his eyes that Ginny was sitting grinning down at him. He could hear, or rather feel, that she wanted him to wake up. Opening his eyes, his feeling was confirmed as Ginny’s face came closer until their lips met.
"Did it really work?" Hermione asked. "Did you know she wanted you to wake up, Harry?"
"I would assume so," Harry replied with a contented grin as he reached for his glasses. "I am awake after all."
"But could you feel it?" Hermione persisted. "Ginny was betting she could wake you using just the connection you have with her. She never touched you or said anything to you at all."
"Of course I felt it," Harry confirmed. "I feel everything. Would you like me to tell you exactly what time she finally fell asleep last night?"
"You can tell that?" Ginny asked in surprise.
"I seem to be getting more in tune with your feelings every day," Harry said. "It’s kind of a strange sensation feeling someone else’s feelings along with my own. Normally I can only distinguish general feelings, but if I concentrate I’m better at picking up on subtle details.
"Amazing," Hermione said. "If only it was that easy for me to wake Ron up."
Harry observed the circles under Hermione’s eyes and said, "So I guess you lost sleep over it after all, Hermione."
"What?" Hermione asked.
"You stayed up late trying to figure out why they won’t let us go outside," Harry explained.
Hermione narrowed her eyes as she looked at Harry for a few seconds before asking, "Do you have a connection to me as well?"
"No," Harry said with a smile. "Not that I can physically see anyway. I just know you. I could tell when we all went to bed last night that it was still on your mind."
"Well of course it was," Hermione confirmed.
"Keep it down," Ron groaned from his bed as he rolled away from them.
"If you’ll excuse me," Hermione said to Harry and Ginny, "it looks as though I’ll have to wake Ron up the old fashioned way."
"Good luck," Harry said with a grin.
"So, Harry," Ginny said after Hermione had walked away, "are you trying to say that you haven’t been thinking about why they won’t let us go outside?"
"Not at all," Harry admitted. "I just didn’t lose any sleep over it is all. Besides, we can still go outside. We just can’t go onto the grounds."
Ginny narrowed her eyes trying to guess what Harry had in mind, but eventually asked, "What exactly did you have in mind?"
"Well," Harry said, "I thought I would take a trip up to the astronomy tower tonight before dinner."
"Of course," Ginny said as she placed her hand on her forehead. "Why didn’t I think of that? We’ll be able to see the entire grounds from up there."
"It could also prove to be a romantic moment to spend with you under the stars," Harry said with a smile.
Later that morning, on the way to breakfast, Harry, Ginny, Hermione and Ron had just stepped off of the last step when a familiar voice said, "Hey, Potter."
Looking off to their left they could all see Pritchard leaning against the wall looking at them. Harry could tell that something was on his mind.
"All of you go on ahead," Harry said. "I’ll be there in a minute."
"Are you sure you don’t want me to stay, Harry?" Ron asked, still suspicious of any Slytherin.
"I’ll be fine," Harry said.
"Don’t be too long," Ginny said with a smile as she and Hermione took Ron’s arms and escorted him toward the Great Hall.
"So," Harry began as he stepped closer to where Pritchard still stood against the wall, "what can I do for you?"
"I guess you were wrong about Nott," Pritchard said. "You told us he wasn’t a threat, so we left him alone. Now he’s run off with the death eaters, and half of Slytherin house is nervous about what information he might have gathered about them while he was here."
"What makes you think he’s become a death eater?" Harry asked holding back a grin.
"Don’t you read the Prophet, Potter?" Pritchard asked as he finally came away from the wall and stood up straight. "Don’t tell me you believe that story about him being abducted against his will. Even if he was, the Dark Lord now has access to him. He won’t be able to keep anything from him."
"Voldemort doesn’t have him," Harry said.
Pritchard eyed Harry for several seconds before he said, "The Ministry of Magic says otherwise."
"I know," Harry said with the grin he had been holding back. "It absolved them from any responsibility in the abduction."
"So he was abducted?" Pritchard asked.
"If I tell you any more I have to know that I can trust you to keep what I tell you a secret," Harry said.
"Fine," Pritchard said quickly. "Whatever."
"Because you don’t want to find out what I’m capable of if you don’t keep it a secret," Harry said seriously.
Pritchard soberly considered Harry’s words, resolved, and said, "Go on. I’m listening."
"He was abducted," Harry explained, "but not against his will. He found out that the death eaters were going to come to get him to become a death eater. He didn’t want that, so he sent me a note asking for my help. I staged the abduction so the death eaters would think he was taken against his will. It was the only way not to implicate his dad for warning him that they were coming to get him."
"You’ll have to excuse me if I have trouble believing any of that," Pritchard said. "Of all people, Theodore Nott wouldn’t have gone to you for help."
"Why not?" Harry asked. "You did."
"That was different," Pritchard protested.
"Was it?" Harry asked as he stepped close to Pritchard and grasped his arm. "If you don’t believe me, then just ask him yourself."
Before Pritchard could protest Harry’s holding onto his arm, he felt weightless momentarily and the scene before his eyes shifted suddenly. He jumped back from Harry even as he noticed Theodore Nott turning to look at them.
"Another one?" Nott asked. "This place is starting to be overrun by Slytherin, Harry."
"He won’t be staying," Harry explained. "He was just concerned that the death eaters had you under their control."
"Worried about his own hide no doubt," Nott observed. "If I tell him I’m not will he leave?"
"I’ll see to it personally," Harry assured him.
Nott tuned to a still wide-eyed Pritchard and said, "I am not, nor have I ever been under the control of the death eaters. Goodbye."
Pritchard was only vaguely aware of the pressure on his arm as he suddenly found himself back at Hogwarts where he had been before.
"What…" Pritchard began as his mind raced to catch up to recent events.
"I’ll just take it for granted that you believe me now," Harry said. "You’ll have to find a way to reassure your fellow Slytherin without revealing what I’ve told you. Don’t disappoint me. I’m counting on you to keep your word."
"Sure," Pritchard agreed having just gained some insight into what Harry might be capable of, and being a little frightened by it.
"Good," Harry said with a genuine smile as he turned and walked toward the Great Hall.
"You were right, Harry," Ron said as he chewed his breakfast. "Scrimgeour’s used the map already."
"The Prophet says they caught four of them yesterday," Hermione said as she turned the paper so Harry could read the headline.
"I hope they don’t get too excited and catch too many too quickly," Harry commented as he began to load his plate.
Ron stopped with his fork halfway to his mouth and looked at Harry as he asked, "Why would you say that?"
"If they catch them in large numbers day after day then Voldemort will figure out they must have some way to find them," Harry explained. "He’ll pull them all back to unplottable locations and they won’t be able to catch any more. Worst case scenario, he’ll get desperate and spring an attack on me sooner than he would have otherwise. That has to wait until after we find the last horcrux."
"Blimey, Harry," Ron said, "I forgot all about there being two more."
"Two?" Hermione asked. "By my calculations there are still three."
"There’s only one left," Harry said, shocking them all.
"One?" Ginny asked. "But how?"
"The Order has been looking for them as well," Harry explained. "Lupin and I found out that one had been hidden in Azkaban. McGonagall has it in her office. I don’t know if she’s been able to destroy the horcrux yet though. The other one was Nagini, Voldemort’s snake. It was apparently killed when Scrimgeour rescued Ollivander and Fortescue."
"Harry," Hermione said as Ron breathed a sigh of relief next to her, and Ginny felt something she hadn’t expected from Harry, "why didn’t you tell us about this sooner?"
"There was so much going on lately, that it didn’t seem as important," Harry said knowing full well that Ginny felt that something was amiss about his explanation, and hoping she would keep her questions about it until a more appropriate time.
"I guess you’re right," Hermione said sympathetically. "Things have been a bit hectic lately. Anyway, it’s good news. At least there is only one more to worry about."
"Except that we haven’t got a clue about what the last one might be," Harry said. "Still, I do like our chances better now."
"Harry, look," Ron said as he pointed down the table to where Neville sat reading a letter he had gotten. "It looks as though someone else likes his chances."
The four of them watched as Neville finished reading his letter with a wide smile. He closed his eyes as he brought the letter closer and smelled the slight fragrance emanating from it. He continued for several seconds as if lost in a memory before opening his eyes and taking notice that everyone at the table near him was watching him. That fact wasn’t enough to remove the smile from his face though, as he folded the letter carefully and slid it back into the envelope it had come from.
They all watched as Neville stood up holding his letter and walked to the teachers table and asked, "Professor Lupin, would it be possible to arrange for someone to escort me across the grounds to the owlery during lunch today?"
"Of course, Neville," Lupin replied. "If it’s important I could take you there now before classes start."
"I haven’t written my letter yet, Professor," Neville said. "I’ll have it ready in time though."
"I’ll meet you here in the Great Hall then," Lupin said. "I’ll escort you myself."
"Thanks, Professor," Neville said with a smile as he turned and walked away.
Lupin leaned in closer to Tonks as he said, "Neville is in love."
"How can you tell?" Tonks asked.
"He has it written on his face right now," Lupin explained. "I’ve seen that look quite a bit lately."
In response, Tonks flashed a knowing smile as she resisted the urge to reach out and hold Lupin’s hand. Their vacation had been everything she had hoped for and then some. Keeping her mind on her work now that they were back was going to be quite a challenge.
By the time Harry, Ginny, Hermione and Ron left the Great Hall, they still had plenty of time to get to their classes, but Ginny was still surprised when Harry said, "You two go on to class without me. I’m going to walk Ginny to class and then I’ll be right there."
"Are you sure, Harry?" Ginny asked. "You’ll be cutting it close on time."
"I’ll make it," Harry said with a smile.
"Of course you will, Harry," Hermione said as she took Ron by the arm and started leading him away. "If you apparate you may even beat us there."
Ginny started walking and Harry fell into step beside her as she said, "I’m surprised you wanted to walk me to class."
"Why is that?" Harry asked. "You wanted to have a talk with me didn’t you?"
"I might have known I couldn’t hide that from you," Ginny said moodily.
"No more than I can hide things from you any longer," Harry said.
"Why did you lie about the horcruxes, Harry?" Ginny asked softly so she wouldn’t draw attention from the other students in the passageway.
"Because I’m guilty of the same offenses as McGonagall," Harry admitted. "I’ve been willing to lie about things in some twisted belief that I was protecting you, Hermione and Ron. I don’t want to make any of you worry about the things I do any more than necessary. I can’t do that with you any more though. Not now that I know so intimately how it makes you feel to find out about it this way. It would be better if I had just told you everything."
"Are you going to tell me everything now?" Ginny asked without looking at him.
"No," Harry said.
"Why not?" Ginny asked angrily.
"Because you haven’t decided yet if you really want to know," Harry explained.
"Damn it, Harry!" Ginny exclaimed as she stopped and faced away from him. "Stop that. It isn’t fair that you should know what I want before I do. I can walk myself the rest of the way."
"Of course," Harry said as he turned and walked back down the corridor.
After he was well away from her, Ginny said softly, "And it isn’t fair that I know it hurts you as much as it hurts me."
At Castle Lestrange, Bellatrix and Malfoy watched as the unfortunate death eater who had delivered the news to their master lay unconscious yet twitching involuntarily on the floor. Each of them were thankful that they had been spared from punishment in this instance. Still, each of them shuddered slightly as Voldemort turned to look at them.
"What can you tell me about how this happened?" Voldemort asked.
"My Lord," Malfoy began as he bowed slightly out of respect, "each of the four were stationed separately at great distances from one another. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between them that we can see. The Ministry…"
"The Ministry be damned," Voldemort yelled with a maddened look in his eye. "There is a common thread so obvious that even the most simple minded should see it plainly. He is still to blame now as he has been all along."
"The-boy-who-must-not-be-named got on the train bound for Hogwarts yesterday, Master," Malfoy said hoping he would listen to reason.
"And yet there is no one who can confirm that he stayed on that train," Voldemort said sternly.
"My Lord," Bellatrix said, "it was the Ministry who took credit for the capture of our comrades. It is the Ministry who has encircled this castle looking for a way in. We must focus on our true enemy. A single boy couldn’t be capable of…"
Before Bellatrix could complete her sentence, she and Malfoy both were hit with a power that knocked them off of their feet. Hearing the footfalls of their master coming quickly closer to them, they both prostrated themselves before him hoping for mercy from his anger.
"Do not ever make the mistake of underestimating what Harry could do," Voldemort warned. "If you need reminding then just go down to the dungeon and talk to Nott about his son. He’s inconsolable about his son’s abduction. So much so that I’ve kept him sedated for his own safety. As I recall, you all had a hard time believing that Harry had been ‘capable’ of the kidnapping he had carried out. Yet he was clearly identified as the person responsible. If you require proof then feel free to capture one of the multitude of aurors surrounding this castle, and question him about who really pulls the strings of the Ministry. No. Better yet, capture one of Harry’s D.A. friends, and I’ll question them myself. Then you’ll have your answers. Now go!"
At Hogwarts, class ended for lunch, and Ginny, normally looking forward to seeing Harry and her friends again, made the decision to skip lunch and go back to her dorm to get away from everyone for a while. She wanted to be so mad at Harry for the lies he had told to them all, but she could still remember the emotional torment she had felt from Harry as he carefully crafted his words to deceive them once again about the horcruxes. Did such lies really scar him so deeply, or was he simply projecting those feelings so she would feel them? Was it all just another lie?
Ginny closed the door to her dorm and threw herself onto the bed as her tears of anger, frustration and doubt erupted from her in a flood of stored up emotion. Even when her mind told her that she couldn’t possibly create any more tears, it continued. Yet, as her tears flowed, she became aware of sudden and unexpected feelings of worry, sadness and regret.
It was Harry she was feeling once again. A part of her wanted to shut the feelings off, but another part of her yearned to learn the reasons for Harry’s deep scars. It was clear that it was because of more than his lies about the horcruxes. Of course, she was well aware that he always blamed himself for things that were beyond his control. Then again, perhaps even that apparent pain he kept inside was a lie. How could she really be sure?
Still sobbing, Ginny turned her head to the other side and saw the only proof she would ever need. She reached out her hand and ran it lightly over the polished metal lid of her silver music box. As she did a warm feeling spread through her insides and pushed her anger aside. Lifting the lid of the box, she rolled onto her back and listened to the music for several minutes as she relaxed smiling.
Nearly ten minutes after she had entered her dorm room, Ginny, her mood lightened and improved considerably, walked down the stairs into the common room and found Harry just coming in through the portrait hole. In his hand was a single plate of food, and on his face was a truly surprised look.
"I’m sorry, Ginny," Harry said sincerely. "I didn’t mean to intrude on you. I was just going to leave this food for you here in the common room."
"Didn’t your connection with me tell you where I was?" Ginny asked softly. "Surely you knew you would find me here."
"I have to concentrate to pick up on details like that," Harry said as he walked forward and set the plate down on the table beside the sofa. "I haven’t been able to do that very well today. My own feelings have been so confused it was hard to distinguish what yours were. I tried all morning to block out what you were feeling because I know it upsets you sometimes. It was useless of course. I don’t have any control over it."
"I’m sorry I hurt you with what I said this morning, Harry," Ginny said as she stepped closer.
"Oh, I didn’t mind," Harry said. "You had every right to say what you did."
"You can’t lie to me, Harry," Ginny said. "This connection isn’t a one way thing. You aren’t the only one who can feel things. For me to feel it that clearly it must have hurt you much deeper than you’re willing to admit. I know that it hurt you much deeper than I had intended. For that, I’m sorry."
"So am I," Harry admitted. "I should have been honest with you from the start. I can’t believe what a hypocrite I’ve been. I’ve been doing to you the very thing that I complained so strongly about McGonagall doing to me. I thought I was protecting you, but really I was just protecting myself."
"Then promise me something right now, Harry" Ginny said as she reached out and took his hand. "No more lies between us. I won’t hide anything from you, and you won’t hide anything from me."
"I will promise that," Harry agreed. "No matter what, I’ll tell you everything."
"Good," Ginny said as she pulled him to the sofa and they sat down together. "Start by telling me about the horcruxes. This time I really do want to know."
"I was the one who planned and led the mission to rescue Mr. Ollivander and Mr. Fortescue," Harry admitted. "Kingsley, Scrimgeour, Moody and Fred and George went with me. When we were leaving Nagini attacked me. She was one of the horcruxes Voldemort created before he gained the magical protection in my blood. Just like with Professor Quirrell, she couldn’t stand to have me touch her. When I did, she was destroyed along with the horcrux inside of her."
"So the entire story you told us in Diagon Alley was a lie?" Ginny asked.
"No," Harry said. "Not all of it. I just omitted most of the details. Nagini had bitten my arm, so they took me to St. Mungo’s. I woke up there to find myself getting a blood transfusion from your dad that helped them heal me quickly."
"My dad knew about it and he never told me?" Ginny asked hotly.
"Don’t hold it against him," Harry said. "He really does think he’s protecting you by not saying anything. Besides, I just told you that Fred and George were involved and you didn’t seem surprised."
"I guess I’m jaded," Ginny said with a grin. "Nothing they do surprises me any more."
Harry grinned as he said, "Anyway, everything I told all of you after that point is true. They did release Tonks that morning. Then Scrimgeour released Stan Shunpike. After that was when I met all of you in Diagon Alley."
Ginny sat back and took a deep breath as she said, "Somehow I thought I would be more shocked by all of this. Maybe I’m coming to expect crazy stunts from you as well. After all, look at everything you did up to this point. You’ve been capturing death eaters, and getting into duels with Voldemort. You saved Narcissa Malfoy and then reunited her with Draco after hunting he and Snape down in America. You staged a kidnapping to save Theodore Nott. You risked being sent to Azkaban in order to clear Professor Snape and Draco. Somehow you going on dangerous missions to recover horcruxes doesn’t seem to be all that unusual."
Harry spent the next few minutes relating the details of the recovery of the horcrux from Azkaban. Needless to say, Ginny was far more shocked by Ron’s involvement than Harry’s.
"So you see," Harry said, "why I didn’t want you to question me about the horcruxes in front of Hermione. She was nearly in a state of panic when Tonks took Ron away in the first place. I don’t know what it would have done to her if she had found out the truth."
"I guess you’re right," Ginny said. "I don’t like keeping it from her, but that’s a tale Ron should tell her when he’s ready."
"Well you had better think of something to tell her," Harry said surprising her. "She knew something was wrong when you didn’t come to lunch. You know how she is. She’ll keep after you until she finds out what was wrong. Feel free to tell her the truth about Nagini if you want. It won’t hurt anything for her to know that now. She’ll lecture me for a while and then everything will go back to normal. The only thing I need to know is, how are we? Can you forgive me for lying to you?"
"I’ll tell you what," Ginny said as she took his hand with a mischievous grin. "Meet me on the astronomy tower after classes today and I’ll show you how we are."
"I’ll be there," Harry said with a grin of his own. "I hope you don’t have plans to throw me off of it though. After all, we aren’t allowed on the grounds."
Later that day, Harry Ron and Hermione emerged from the Potions classroom and Ron asked, "So should we find Ginny before we go up to the astronomy tower?"
"Actually…" Harry began.
"I thought you said everything was fine between you two," Hermione said in her worried tone of voice. "Maybe you should let me talk to her."
"That’s not it," Harry explained. "Really. Everything is fine between us now. It’s just… I hate to ask you this, but would you mind letting me go up to the tower alone?"
"Why would you want to do that?" Ron asked before it occurred to him what Harry might have in mind.
"But, Harry," Hermione protested, "you might need me there to help figure out why they won’t let us go outside."
"Let him go," Ron said with a smile as he placed an arm around Hermione’s shoulder and pulled her close in a rare public expression of his feelings. "He isn’t going up there to find out why they won’t let us go outside. He has something more important on his mind."
"But, Ron…" Hermione began before Ron gently placed a finger over her lips.
"We can go up there after dinner," Ron said. "While we’re there you can do anything you like."
Hermione stared at Ron in amused wonder for several seconds before she smiled and asked, "Where is Ron and what have you done with him?"
"Well," Ron replied, "you can go up to the astronomy tower right now and he’ll be waiting on you when you get back. Otherwise, you can come back to the common room with me now and we can talk about keeping me around a bit longer."
Hermione suppressed a girlish giggle as she turned to Harry and said, "It looks as though you’ll have to go to the tower on your own, Harry. I can’t pass up an opportunity like this one."
"I quite understand," Harry said with a smile of his own. "Wait for us in the common room and we can all go to dinner together."
"Take your time, Harry," Ron said as he started leading Hermione away. "I’m not in any hurry."
By the time Hermione looked back to wave goodbye to Harry, he was already gone. Of course, Harry had decided to apparate to the tower instead of walking all of the steps to get there.
Ginny stepped onto the last step before the door leading out onto the astronomy tower, and caught her breath. She had hurried up the steps a bit to quickly for her own good, but she was hoping to get there before Harry. As she stood there she reprimanded herself for not thinking to stop in the common room for her cloak. She had been so intent on getting there first she had completely forgotten that it was a cold winter evening beyond the door. With nothing to be done about it, Ginny pushed the door open and gasped as she stepped onto the tower.
A light snow had fallen earlier in the day, but there was no sign on it on top of the tower. Instead, Ginny looked down to see rose petals strewn under her feet and covering the entire floor of the tower. Candles hovered in a ring around the perimeter of the tower and glowed softly in the fading light of the setting sun. A piano played a slow soft tune from some unseen location, and Harry was walking toward her.
"Put this on," Harry said as he draped a warm cloak over her shoulders. "I don’t want you to catch cold out here."
"Harry," Ginny began, as she looked at him in wonder, "what is all of this?"
"I just thought we could spend some time together and then watch the sun set," Harry answered as he held his hand out to her. "Will you dance with me?"
"Dance?" Ginny asked as she took Harry’s hand. "You want to dance now?"
"It would be a shame to waste the chance," Harry said with a smile. "It isn’t everyday you hear piano music playing like this."
"I can’t argue with that," Ginny said happily as Harry pulled her to him tightly.
For several minutes, they danced slowly holding tightly to one another as Ginny placed her head on Harry’s chest so she could hear the rhythmic beat of his heart. As soon as she did, the intensity of the connection she usually felt from him multiplied a hundred fold. She knew at that moment that she was feeling Harry’s emotions as strongly as he usually felt hers. The sheer purity of what she felt from him brought tears of happiness to her eyes. She knew at that moment that his love burned only for her. She could feel that one of his greatest desires was the moment when he would place a ring on her finger.
As the song ended, Ginny took her head off of Harry’s chest to look up into his eyes. As she did she could feel the sensitivity to his feelings returning slowly to their previous level. That is, until Harry leaned forward and placed his lips gently to hers. As soon as contact was made Ginny went weak as an explosion of joyous love burst from Harry into her. It was a feeling she could neither describe nor get enough of. Seconds later, their lips parted and she was left with a residual tingling sensation throughout her body. When she opened her eyes she caught sight of a dim light connecting Harry’s chest to hers.
Ginny looked up at Harry in surprise as he looked back at her with the same expression as he asked, "You can see it?"
"Yes," Ginny replied. "But how?"
"I have no idea," Harry said with a happy smile. "I haven’t even figured out why I see it yet."
"I love you, Harry," Ginny said with heart felt smile. "I wish this moment could last forever."
"So do I," Harry said. "If only I hadn’t promised Ron and Hermione we would meet them for dinner. At least that would give us a little more time."
"The sun is setting now," Ginny said as she stepped closer to the edge of the tower to look at the streaks of color on the horizon. "I guess there isn’t anything we can do to stop it right where it is."
"Maybe we shouldn’t want to," Harry said as he stepped next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. "I could have wished the same thing during the last sunset, but then we never would have made it to this one. I want to see a lot more sunsets with you, Ginny. I want to see them all with you."
"I want that too, Harry," Ginny said as she snuggled closer to Harry. "You have no idea how much I want that."
Harry was just about to do something impulsive when Hagrid’s voice drifted up to them on the cold night air. Looking down they could see Hagrid standing near the forbidden forest with his arms spread as he blocked the way of fifteen centaurs who had wandered out onto the grounds. For their part, the centaurs paid no head to Hagrid, but instead directed their attention toward the top of the tower where Harry and Ginny stood.
"What in the world is going on?" Ginny asked as she looked back at the centaurs.
"I don’t know," Harry replied. "I’m betting we’re looking at the reason why we can’t walk outside."
"It’s weird," Ginny said. "It feels like they’re looking right at us."
"Maybe they are," Harry pointed out. "We knew that one centaur had been watching me from the forest before. Maybe the reason we can’t go out there really does have something to do with me."
"But what do they want?" Ginny asked. "You haven’t done anything to them."
"I could ask McGonagall if she knows," Harry said, "but I doubt she would tell me even if she does. I’ll see if I can get a chance to ask Hagrid what it’s all about."
Before Ginny could comment on the wisdom of such an idea, she looked up and saw a silvery dove flying toward them. Her heart sank with a sense of foreboding as she pointed it out to Harry.
"A dove," Harry said anxiously. "That’s Katie Bell’s patronus. Something must be wrong."
Seconds later the dove landed in front of them and with Katie’s voice it said, "Harry, something terrible just happened. I had just dropped Cho off at home when death eaters attacked us. I’m on my way to the Ministry now to report it. They took her, Harry. They took Cho."
With those words the dove dissolved into a wisp of silver vapor, and Harry ran hand in hand with Ginny down the stairs on the way back to the common room. Nothing was said between them as they ran. Nothing needed to be. Ginny could feel the anger and frustration build in Harry with every step.
As the portrait opened to let them into the Gryffindor common room, Harry ran ahead and straight through to the stairs. Ginny ran in behind him just as Hermione and Ron were standing to look after Harry. When they saw Ginny they stopped her to ask her what was wrong. After she had told them, Hermione led the way to Harry’s dorm to stop him from doing anything stupid.
"Harry, don’t," Hermione screamed as she entered the dorm and spotted Harry looking down at his map with his wand drawn.
Harry looked up at them and scanned their faces briefly before looking back to the map where a dot with Cho’s label appeared in the dungeon of Castle Lastrange.
"You can’t, Harry," Hermione persisted. "Tell McGonagall. Let the Order find her."
"He can’t do that, Hermione," Ginny said as she looked at the map. "None of them would be able to get in there without Harry’s help anyway. He has to get her out of there before they can question her. She knows how to perform the shield charm. If Voldemort gets that information out of her then it’ll be disastrous."
"You aren’t seriously going to let him go, are you?" Ron asked in disbelief.
Ginny looked into Harry’s eyes and said, "I love you, Harry. Be safe."
An instant later, Ron and Hermione gasped as Harry disapparated. Ginny sat down on Harry’s bed and cried silent tears as she watched the map for a dot she knew would appear there soon.
Ron had been lucky enough to find Lupin hanging up a notice in the common room. Racing up the stairs to the boy’s dorms, Lupin burst through the door to see Ginny and Hermione paying close attention to the map in front of them.
"Where is he?" Lupin asked in a panic as he walked to them quickly.
"He just appeared down the passage from where they’re holding Cho," Hermione said not taking her eyes off of the map.
"Oh my, God!" Lupin exclaimed as he saw how close Lucius and Bellatrix were to Harry’s position, and Lupin placed his wand to his throat. "Order code green. Gryffindor tower. Dorm six."
Lupin’s alert rang out throughout Hogwarts. Almost instantly, a house elf appeared beside McGonagall as she stood quickly from her chair in the Great Hall. Soon after, McGonagall appeared with a worried expression in the dorm beside where Ron was standing.
"What’s happened, Remus?" McGonagall asked quickly as she walked to him. "Where is he?"
"He’s just apparated right into Voldemort’s hideout," Lupin explained as he tried to will Harry not to move from where he was. "Cho was kidnapped, and he ‘s gone to try to save her."
"Foolish child," McGonagall admonished. "Why didn’t you all stop him?"
"Could you stop the wind from blowing?" Ginny said calmly. "Wind blows because that’s its nature. I can’t deny Harry his nature. Not now that I can feel how deeply he feels things. Besides, he’s the only one who could get to her."
"Exactly," McGonagall said. "He got himself in there, and now there is no way for any of us to get in to help him."
"Maybe he won’t need it," Ginny said as she watched Lucius and Bellatrix walk right past where Harry was standing and away from the area.
"Let’s hope his luck holds out," Hermione said as she looked past McGonagall and noticed the wetness forming in the eyes of the little house elf who had brought McGonagall there.
Harry watched Lucius and Bellatrix disappear around a corner, and he finally let out the nervous breath he had been holding as he had felt his control of the concealment charm slipping. He still couldn’t figure out how Ron held it, so easily, for so long. Having become fully visible again, Harry listened for any approaching footsteps. Hearing none, he moved down the corridor toward the cell at the end where he had seen them put Cho.
Harry was beginning to think that his rescue of Cho was going to happen quickly and quietly; but he was surprised when a cry of fury rang out from a cell he was passing, just as an arm from that cell reached out in an attempt to grab him. Harry jumped aside just in time to avoid being grabbed, but he knew that, with the man in the cell yelling and alerting anyone near to his presence; his time for a rescue was running very short.
Ignoring the old man’s screams of apparent loathing, Harry ran to the end of the corridor and blasted the lock, on Cho’s cell door, to pieces. Harry pulled the door open and ran inside quickly.
"Harry, you have to get out of here," Cho said as Harry ran to where she was chained to the wall. "Don’t touch the chains. They put some kind of spell on them."
Harry backed off slightly and aimed his wand at where the chains were attached to the wall as he said, "We’ll have to figure out a way to get you out of them later. We’re almost out of time."
A spell sprang from Harry’s wand and impacted the stone at the connection point, but as it did another spell narrowly missed Harry and hit the opposite cell wall. Turning his wand in the direction of the corridor, Harry immediately sent a battering spell in the direction of his attacker.
Bellatrix, having seen Harry turning with his wand raised, jumped as far to her left as she could as Harry’s spell passed her by. Lucius however, had not been as quick. He was attempting to summon a shield to protect him, but the spell impacted with a great force that lifted him off of his feet as it propelled him backwards down the corridor. He hit the floor and continued to slide several meters, and when he had stopped he made no further movement.
Bellatrix looked back from where Lucius lay unmoving in time to see Harry peek around the doorframe. Once he had pulled his head back, she immediately changed her position and readied her wand. As she had thought, the next time Harry popped his head out it was to aim a shot at where she had previously been standing. He pulled back inside just in time to avoid being hit by her stunning spell as it narrowly missed and impacted on the stone instead.
"Give up now while you still can," Bellatrix called out over Nott’s wild screaming just behind her as she changed her position once again.
"Not likely," Harry yelled as he again shot a spell that missed his intended mark. "Cho, are they loose enough?"
"Just a few more seconds," Cho said as she turned with her back on the floor and her feet against the wall as she yanked on the chains. "I can feel it moving."
Harry felt the impact of Bellatrix’s spell as it impacted the stone he was hiding behind. He quickly brought his wand up and aimed it just around the corner as he spotted Bellatrix moving across the corridor. Almost too late, she realized what was happening as she twisted to the side and quickly summoned a shield. Harry’s spell hit the shield at an angle and glanced off to impact against the door of a cell and exploded its lock.
Bellatrix immediately dropped her shield and sent another battering blow to the stone Harry had been hiding behind. To Harry’s dismay, the stones began to fall in toward him. He had to dive forward to avoid being hit by them. He realized immediately the predicament he was in. Having dived forward to avoid being crushed by the stones, he found himself splayed out on the floor in the middle of the doorway, and in plain view of Bellatrix. He saw her raising her wand as he began to scramble to his feet.
A smile crept to Bellatrix’s lips as she opened her mouth to utter the stunning spell. She was so intent on her target that she didn’t hear Nott’s rage filled screams coming closer to her. So close in fact that he knocked her aside as he ran wildly toward Harry with his fists ready. Harry had just gotten to his feet when the elderly death eater slammed into him and tackled him with the force of someone half his age.
Harry landed hard on his back as Nott fell onto him astride his chest. In an instant, Nott’s left hand wrapped tightly around Harry’s throat.
Cho succeeded in pulling her chains away from the wall only to turn around and see Nott beginning to slam the back of Harry’s head into the stone floor repeatedly. She lunged at Nott even as she saw Bellatrix righting herself to walk toward them. Cho tried to pry Nott’s hands away from Harry, but she wasn’t strong enough. He continued to smash Harry’s skull into the stone even though Harry was already unconscious.
Bellatrix was almost to the cell door by the time a tiny hand clasped onto Harry’s shoulder and transported him away along with Nott and Cho. Bellatrix let loose a guttural scream of frustration that drowned out the groans of Lucius as he began to stir.
Those who had been watching the map anxiously, after seeing Harry disappear and then searching for where he had gone, made their way quickly to the hospital wing of Hogwarts. McGonagall led the way as they entered the hospital wing to see Cho sitting in a chair looking worried as her chains still hung to the floor. Madam Pomfrey and two nurses worked frantically to stabilize Harry. Nott was laid out on a bed as if he were asleep with thick straps holding him down.
"Cho," Hermione said as they all walked toward her, "are you all right?"
"It doesn’t matter," Cho replied as tears ran down her cheeks. "Harry is the one who deserves our love right now. I told him to leave me, but he wouldn’t. Doesn’t he know how important he is to us all?"
"He does," Ginny confirmed as she tried to stem the flow of her own tears. "What’s hard for all of us to understand is how important we are to him."
Ron turned and looked at Nott stretched out on the bed across from them and asked, "What happened over there? Why did a death eater come back with you?"
Cho nearly choked on her emotions as she said, "I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t… pull him off of Harry. I… couldn’t stop him. If Dobby hadn’t…"
"Where is Dobby, Cho?" Hermione asked.
Cho responded by raising her arm and pointing to a dark corner. In the dim light on that side of the room they could barely make out the small form of the house elf sitting with his knees drawn up to his chest with his face buried behind his knees.
"What’s wrong with him?" Ron asked.
"I couldn’t make him let go," Cho said feeling ashamed of herself. "Dobby had to."
"Oh, no," McGonagall uttered quietly.
Ginny separated herself from the group as she slowly walked toward Dobby. When she was only a meter from him she kneeled down.
"Ginny Weasley should not get close to Dobby," Dobby sobbed without looking up. "Dobby does not wish to soil Ginny Weasley with his filth."
"Don’t say that, Dobby," Ginny said as soothingly as she could. "I think what you did was very brave."
"Dobby was hurtful," Dobby cried. "Dobby is forbidden to use magic against a wizard. Dobby is an evil house elf."
"An evil house elf would have hurt a wizard and felt good about it," Ginny said. "I can see that you don’t. I know what you feel inside now though. I know the pain you feel, because I know someone who feels that same pain over the things he has to do. Tonight you had to do something you didn’t want to do in order to save that person."
Dobby looked up for the first time as he asked, "Harry Potter is filled with this regret like Dobby?"
"Every single day," Ginny answered. "Not only for the things he’s done, but for the thing he already knows he has to do. He knows it, and yet he goes on."
"How?" Dobby asked.
"That isn’t an easy question to answer," Ginny replied with a small grin. "Harry hates the idea of fighting, yet he understands that there are things worth fighting for. He’s had so many friends and family members taken away from him already, and he can’t stand the thought that another one could be. He’s willing to sacrifice his own life to stop that from happening. That’s why he went to rescue Cho tonight. That’s why he worked so hard to find a cure when I was in the hospital."
"The Great Harry Potter does these noble things, and yet he feels guilt?" Dobby asked.
"Yes," Ginny replied. "I hope you realize that Harry would be happy that you feel guilty right now. All of us do. If it hadn’t been for you, Harry might have been killed."
"Dobby had not considered this," Dobby said as he let his legs relax and stretch out before him. "Preserving life is a noble thing. Elves believe this. Harry Potter believes this. Dobby believes this also."
"So do I, Dobby," Ginny said. "From the bottom of my heart I thank you for preserving his."
"So Harry Potter will recover?" Dobby asked.
Ginny reached out her hand to the elf and said, "Let’s go find out together."
Dobby took Ginny’s hand and they stood together before walking back to the gathered group of friends. As they made it back, Madam Pomfrey turned with a grim expression as she walked away from Harry toward them.
"How is he?" McGonagall asked.
"It’s still too early to make an accurate prognosis," Pomfrey replied. "He’s suffered a severe head trauma. We’ve stopped the bleeding. His skull is in the process of being healed. I’m afraid we won’t know about any lasting injury to his brain for some time yet. I’m sorry. I wish I had better news."
The Ties that Bind
Dolohov and the Lestrange brothers entered their master’s council chambers in response to his summon. They were all momentarily taken aback to see Lucius and Bellatrix unconscious on the floor at the feet of the Dark Lord. Knowing better than to question what had happened, they all bowed to their master.
“Remove these two from my sight,” Voldemort said as he turned his back and walked away from them a few steps. “Antonin, stay here. I wish to speak with you.”
“As you wish, my Lord,” Dolohov replied as the other two picked up the unconscious death eaters and carried them out.
When they were gone, Voldemort asked, “Can I trust you, Antonin?”
“Without question, master,” Dolohov replied. “I am at your service.”
“As were the two trusted death eaters who were just carried out of here,” Voldemort pointed out without turning to look at him.
“Should I ever fail you I would expect no less punishment, master,” Dolohov said with a slight bow.
Voldemort considered this for several seconds before saying, “The castle defenses have been breached.”
“The aurors?” Dolohov asked surprised.
“Not the aurors,” Voldemort yelled as he turned to face Dolohov with his earlier rage coming back to him as his fists closed into tight balls with cracking knuckles. “It was Potter!”
“How is that possible?” Dolohov asked in disbelief.
“According to Bellatrix, he was aided by an elf,” Voldemort replied.
“My God!” Dolohov exclaimed.
“How many house elves do we have in the castle right now, Antonin?” Voldemort asked.
“Four, my master,” Dolohov replied.
“Am I wrong in assuming that they are responsible for repelling any attack from another house elf?” Voldemort asked.
“You are correct, master,” Dolohov answered, wondering if Voldemort suspected one of them of helping the-boy-who-must-not-be-named.
“They have failed miserably in that duty,” Voldemort said. “Gather them all together. Pick out he strongest one, and kill the other three. Make sure the survivor knows what is expected of him should another elf arrive here.”
“It will be done within the hour, my master,” Dolohov assured as he bowed.
“Once that is done, there is another matter that must be attended to,” Voldemort said. “Eldred escaped from his cell while Bellatrix was battling with Harry. He was taken away along with a newly acquired prisoner.”
“Nott?” Dolohov asked not wanting to believe it.
“Yes,” Voldemort confirmed.
“First his son and now this,” Dolohov said. “Please, my Lord, allow me to find him and attempt a rescue. He’s saved my life countless times before. Allow me to repay him for that now.”
“Your loyalty is admirable, Antonin,” Voldemort observed. “It has always been a strong trait in you. It is why I would trust no other to carry out such a rescue. After you have dealt with the house elves, devise a way to gather information from the Ministry as to Eldred’s location. Once you have that information, come back to me. We shall plan the rescue mission together. Time is of the essence. It will be easier to attempt the rescue before he is transferred to Azkaban.”
“Then I shall delay no longer,” Dolohov announced with a bow. “With your permission, my Lord.”
Half an hour later, Bellatrix opened her eyes slowly as she asked, “Where am I?”
“Lucky to be alive if you ask me,” Rodolphus said as he took his feet off of the table in front of him and let the front legs fall back to the stone floor. “The Dark Lord must be feeling generous tonight.”
“Perhaps he was just having a little fun, brother,” Rabastan said from the other side of the room where he watched over Lucius as Bellatrix sat up. “We don’t even know what they did to incur our master’s wrath.”
“Indeed,” Rodolphus agreed as he watched Bellatrix stretch her stiff muscles. “So, did that acid tongue of yours finally wag at the wrong time, Bella?”
“Why?” Bellatrix asked as she glared at her husband. “Did you miss it?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Rodolphus replied with a smirk. “The Dark Lord can have you for all I care. If you can’t bear children then you’re of no use to me.”
Bellatrix, her temper on fire, lunged at Rodolphus with her claws ready to scratch his eyes out, but his fist was quick to connect under her chin and send her falling back onto her bed. Undaunted, she scrambled back to her feet and reached for her wand just as Rabastan stepped between them and urged her to calm herself as he pushed his brother away.
“You know very well this is exactly why the Dark Lord tries to keep you apart, Bella,” Rabastan reasoned. “The two of you can’t go five minutes without having a go at one another.”
“It’s only a matter of time,” Bellatrix warned as she lowered her hand from where she had been ready to pull her wand out.
“That’s something you may be running short on if tonight is any indication,” Rodolphus smirked.
“Would you shut up?” Rabastan asked his brother. “I want to find out what happened. That won’t happen if you don’t sit down and keep your mouth shut.”
Back at Hogwarts, Lupin had taken Cho to find a way to remove the chains still attached to her wrists. McGonagall had gone to send a message to the Ministry alerting them to Nott’s presence in the castle as well as Harry’s condition. Dobby insisted that he be allowed to fulfill his nightly duties even though McGonagall excused him from the responsibility. Ginny sat by Harry’s side holding his hand as Hermione sat next to her with a consoling hand on Ginny’s shoulder. Ron had attempted to sit early on, but found it much more suitable to pace angrily while hurling insults at the still unconscious Nott.
Taking a look at a painting on the wall, Hermione was the only one who noticed Dumbledore standing there watching over them. Behind him, Godric Gryffindor paced with a worried expression.
“I never should have let him get mixed up with the Slytherin,” Ron said. “I knew it would lead to nothing but trouble. We should have let the death eaters have Nott if they wanted him so badly.”
“Keep quiet, Ron,” Hermione admonished. “You’re not helping.”
“I can’t see it anymore, Hermione,” Ginny uttered softly without looking away from Harry. “I can’t see it.”
“See what, Ginny?” Hermione asked as Ginny stifled a sob.
“On the tower tonight,” Ginny explained, “I felt more from Harry than I ever could have dreamed possible. I could see the line connecting us. It was very dim, but I could see it. I can’t see it now, Hermione. What does that mean?”
Hermione thought carefully about how to answer as she said, “It may not mean anything. Pomfrey said he was very weak right now. Once he recovers I’m sure the line will reappear.”
“Do you think he can still feel me connected to him?” Ginny asked.
“I…” Hermione replied. “I don’t know.”
“I have to believe that he can,” Ginny cried. “There has to be some way for me to help him the way he helped me.”
“Harry spent a lot of time praying when you were in the hospital,” Hermione said.
“I started doing that as soon as he disapparated from his dorm room,” Ginny said as she laid her head down gently on Harry’s chest. “Please come back to me, Harry. I’m waiting for you. No matter how long it takes, I’ll be waiting for you.”
McGonagall waited by the fireplace in her office for a response to the message she had sent to the Ministry. Just when she began to think the message had perhaps not gotten through, first Kingsley, then Scrimgeour stepped out of the floo network.
“Sorry for the delay, Professor McGonagall,” Kingsley said. “We had a situation that had to be dealt with before we could come.”
“Good Lord, Minerva,” Scrimgeour said with the lines of stress already apparent on his face, “tell me you overstated the seriousness of Harry’s condition.”
“I’m afraid not, Minister,” McGonagall responded. “Madam Pomfrey says the longer he is unconscious the more likely that the damage to his brain will be more severe.”
“Maybe we should move him to St. Mungo’s,” Scrimgeour suggested.
“We’ve already been in consultation with the healers there,” McGonagall replied. “They agree that it is best not to move him just yet unless necessary. There is little more they would be able to do until he regains consciousness anyway.”
“Well we certainly can’t let word of his condition leak out until we know more,” Scrimgeour said. “People would swamp the Ministry in hysterics if they found out ‘The Chosen One’ was so seriously injured.”
“I would agree,” McGonagall said. “I’ve already taken steps to slow the leakage of information from Hogwarts. The owlery is temporarily off limits, so the students won’t be able to send out owls to alert anyone on the outside. In addition, the floo network has been suspended in all Hogwarts fireplaces not located in a Professor’s office. Even these steps won’t hold back the information for very long. Some of the students have other more exotic ways to send messages.”
“It will have to do,” Scrimgeour stated. “The captured death eater is another matter altogether.”
“We need a secure place to keep him for a while,” Kingsley explained. “After we got your message about Harry and Nott, we guessed that the death eaters might suspect we had Nott and try to break him out. We studied the map we got from Harry to see if any death eaters were inside the ministry. Just before we left, one appeared.”
“Dolohov appeared and walked straight through the lobby to the elevators,” Scrimgeour continued. “The ease with which he moved was enough to tell us that he was under an invisibility cloak. Instead of making his way to the holding cells on the lower levels, he went straight to the security offices where a prisoner would be processed. We were guessing that he was attempting to gather information about where Nott was being held.
“I went down there with a team of aurors, and I briefed them about the plan on the way,” Kingsley said. “We made it to the inner offices and told one of the aurors already there that Nott had been captured by Harry and taken directly to Azkaban. I sent that auror to Azkaban to process Nott properly, and sent one of the aurors I had briefed along with him to fill him in on what was happening.”
“I watched it all on the map,” Scrimgeour said. “Dolohov left the offices with the two aurors and made his way back out without making any other stops.”
“You let him go?” McGonagall asked in surprise.
“It was regrettable to have to,” Kingsley replied. “We wanted the information we had leaked to make it back to You-Know-Who. If he thinks Nott is already in Azkaban there won’t be any reason to launch an attack against the Ministry itself to get him back. If he decides to attack Azkaban he’ll find it much more difficult than the last time. Making him believe we have Nott also prevents him from coming to Hogwarts to look for him.”
“I see,” McGonagall said. “We can keep Nott here in the dungeon until you decide what to do with him.”
“I’ll send aurors to guard him if you wish,” Scrimgeour offered knowing what her response would be.
“That won’t be necessary, Minister,” McGonagall replied. “He’ll be quite secure here.”
“Very well,” Scrimgeour agreed. “Now that we’ve settled that, would it be possible for me to see Mr. Potter for myself?”
“Of course,” McGonagall replied as she motioned them toward the door. “You should be aware that Miss Weasley is sitting by his bedside refusing to leave. Her emotions are understandably strained over this incident.”
“I understand,” Scrimgeour said as he walked toward the door beside McGonagall. “I’ll pay special attention to choosing my words with care.”
Before McGonagall and the Minister ever reached the hospital wing, Ginny’s eyelids began to get heavy as her head continued to lay on Harry’s chest. She was barely aware of her approaching need for rest before her eyes closed and she drifted quickly into a dream like state. She saw a faint light ahead of her, but as she tried to concentrate on it she suddenly realized that it wasn’t in front of her, but all around her. It was faint at first, but as the seconds passed it grew in intensity. Taking a look behind her she could see a tunnel of light stretching off into the distance with a noticeable lessening of brightness that got further and further away from her. Turning back around she realized that she was moving without moving deeper and deeper into the tunnel of light. Then she began to hear it.
Ginny began to perceive the sounds of music being played. As it got louder, she realized that the sound was a chaotic menagerie of notes and rhythms. It was as if several orchestras were playing over top of one another. As the volume of the muddled notes increased to a thundering crescendo, Ginny emerged from the tunnel of light into a bright open chamber where other light tunnels of varying colors intersected. She felt as if she were in some kind of musical hub.
Ginny looked around at the web of converging light strings and realized that some were brighter than others. The tunnel she had been in had been a pure white color, but she noticed that four of the other bright strings were a vivid gold color. Another string pulsed with a pale pink glow while yet another was a cool frosty blue. As she strained her eyes beyond the light, she could see that there were hundreds upon hundreds of similar strings glowing faintly in the distance.
Unconsciously, Ginny drifted closer to one of the golden strings. She didn’t realize where she was until she was right next to it. Reaching out experimentally and touching it with her hand, Ginny was stunned as the cacophony of sound she had been hearing fell away instantly as a single tune reached her ears. Letting go of the string, the sound of a thousand orchestras returned once again. Moving to the cool blue string, Ginny reached for it and the sound fell away again. In its place a slow mournful tune filled her head as if sorrow itself had been captured in a musical instrument. Moving on to another string, introduced yet another song. Each successive string she tried after that produced the same result. No two tunes were ever alike.
Then she saw it. Ginny drifted along the path of the strings until she found the central nexus where all of the strings converged. Thousands of strings ran to a single point, and from that point an enormous pure white string led away beyond where she could see. Curious, she moved closer and placed her hand on the string. As she did, tears nearly sprang to her eyes in surprise as she heard the unmistakable sound of Harry’s heart song just the way her music box had played it.
Looking back to the nexus above her, Ginny found the white string that had brought her to where she found herself. Removing her hand from Harry’s string, Ginny placed a hand on her white string. The tune she heard was a bright hopeful one that reminded her of the blooming of spring flowers. Looking around, she could see the radiant tangle of intermingling strings, and of all of the varied colors represented hers was the only white one. She knew immediately whose song she was listening to.
Ginny let go of her own string and drifted once again toward Harry’s with purpose firmly rooted in her intentions. She knew that Harry still existed somewhere at the far end of his own string, and she intended to find him. She grabbed onto Harry’s string with both hands as she pulled her body to it as if willing it to let her inside.
Seconds later she opened her eyes to find herself floating inside a large tunnel of light with thin colorful filaments surrounding her and descending far into the tunnel below. With only a brief thought as a command, Ginny began moving downward. On and on she went until the fear began to seed in her mind that she may not find him in time. Instinctually, she knew that he needed her. She could feel him calling out to her.
Finally, she saw him. He was lying at the bottom of the tunnel atop a churning dark mass. As she closed in on him she wasn’t shocked by his nakedness, nor was she embarrassed by her own state of undress. Her only thought was getting to him.
Coming to rest beside Harry, Ginny observed him in near panic. He remained very still. Even the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest was missing as he gave no indication of being alive at all. Ginny saw Harry with his arm raised above his head, and she saw the hand firmly grasping onto a thin white string of light.
Tears fell from Ginny’s cheeks as she pleaded, “Please wake up, Harry. Harry, don’t leave me. I’ll find some way to bring you back. Just don’t leave me.”
Ginny reached out and placed her open hand in the center of Harry’s chest. As soon as the skin made contact Harry inhaled sharply and his eyes shot open wide. An instant later, Ginny was pulled away from Harry as she traveled rapidly back up the tunnel and out to the central chamber. Back into her own tunnel, Ginny struggled against the force pulling her away from Harry.
“Ginny, you have to get off of him,” Hermione said as she and Ron pulled Ginny backwards as her eyes shot open.
“Harry…” Ginny said as she watched Madam Pomfrey leaning over examining Harry.
“Did you fall asleep or something, Ginny?” Ron asked.
“Harry just groaned,” Hermione supplied. “He may be regaining consciousness,”
McGonagall entered quickly with Scrimgeour and Kingsley after seeing Pomfrey examining Harry so closely, and asked, “What’s happened?”
“He’s trying to wake up,” Pomfrey replied. “Coming around this soon may mean we were able to repair the injuries to his brain sufficiently.”
Ginny smiled as she relaxed in Hermione and Ron’s grasps and said softly, “It’s back, Hermione.”
“What is?” Hermione asked.
Ginny continued to smile as she replied, “The line that connects me to Harry. It’s back.”
“Does that mean…” Hermione began with barely contained excitement.
“Can you hear me?” Pomfrey asked as she leaned close to Harry after seeing his eyes flutter slightly.
“Yes,” Harry responded in an almost inaudible voice.
“Do you know where you are?” Pomfrey asked.
“Am I your most frequent patient yet?” Harry asked in a whisper.
Pomfrey displayed a rare grin as she said, “I’ll take that as a yes. How do you feel?”
“Bludger… inside my head,” Harry whispered as he opened his eyes experimentally before closing them again.
“I don’t doubt it,” Pomfrey commented. “Anything else?”
“Too loud… sounds,” Harry replied quietly.
“We’ll have to wait and see on that a bit longer,” Pomfrey said. “We may have accidentally boosted your hearing, or you may just be more sensitive to sounds thanks to that bludger you think is in your head.”
“Terrific,” Harry whispered sarcastically.
“Is that all?” Pomfrey asked as Harry opened his eyes again and starred blankly at the ceiling.
“Can’t see,” Harry said softly.
“Would you like your glasses?” Pomfrey asked.
“Can’t see,” Harry repeated as he closed his eyes once again. “Glasses won’t help.”
“Oh no!” Hermione exclaimed.
“Shhh,” Harry pleaded quietly.
“Sorry, Harry,” Hermione replied more softly. “It’s just…”
“It would be best if all of you leave now and give me a chance to diagnose the cause of Mr. Potter’s vision loss,” Pomfrey said as she pointed the lighted end of her wand directly at Harry’s eyes.
“I want to speak with Ginny alone,” Harry said.
“There will be time for...” Pomfrey began.
“It’s important,” Harry whispered. “It can’t wait.”
Pomfrey looked to McGonagall for an indication of her feelings on the matter, and McGonagall nodded her head slightly.
“Very well,” Pomfrey said as she put her wand away, “but only for a few minutes.”
Ginny walked to Harry’s bedside and kneeled down beside him as she gently took his hand in hers. As quietly as possible, everyone else moved away toward the exit.
“I’ll never leave you, Ginny,” Harry whispered, surprised to feel so calm and comfortable with what he was about to say. “I need to ask you something.”
Hermione was the last of the party to reach the exit. Just before she walked out, she turned to look back at Harry and Ginny. The last thing she witnessed was Ginny reaching into Harry’s pocket and pulling out a small cube shaped box. It wasn’t until she was fully out in the corridor that her mind caught up to what she had just witnessed. The realization of it made her reach out and grab Ron’s shoulder for support.
“What?” Ron asked as he noticed the wide smile spread across Hermione’s face even as a tear formed in her eye.
“I think Harry was right,” Hermione replied as she pulled Ron into a tight hug. “I think what he needed to say was more important than we suspected.”
The Shocking Proposal
“Blinded!” Scrimgeour exclaimed quietly as he Kingsley and McGonagall walked far enough from Hermione and Ron not to be overheard. “This is disastrous for our cause.”
“I should think you would be happy he survived,” McGonagall observed.
“Of course I am,” Scrimgeour responded. “Chaos would have broken out if he had died, but it won’t be much better than that once people find out he’s been blinded.”
“We don’t yet know that his loss of vision is permanent,” McGonagall pointed out.
“We don’t know that it isn’t either,” Scrimgeour said as his brow wrinkled further in worry.
“I have every confidence that Madam Pomfrey will do all she can to restore his vision,” McGonagall said as she straightened her already erect posture even more. “Speculating at this point will serve no purpose. Frankly, I’m more interested in his psychological health. After an attack like that there is no telling what state his thoughts are in right now.”
Inside the hospital wing, Ginny reached into Harry’s pocket and pulled out the small box just as Harry had asked her to. Her emotions were too stretched and her mind too preoccupied with Harry’s condition to wonder at what was inside the box.
“I have it, Harry,” Ginny said as she looked at the smile on his face and wondered how he could smile after what he had been through. “What do you want me to do with it?”
“On the tower tonight,” Harry said in a whisper, “I made a promise never to keep anything hidden from you again. After that I stopped holding back the true deepness of my feelings and emotions from you as well. I think you could feel it.”
“I could, Harry,” Ginny confirmed softly as she tightened her grip on his hand. “It was so unexpected and beautiful.”
“It enabled you to see the connection between us,” Harry said. “I can’t believe that I was keeping you from seeing it for so long just because I wasn’t willing to open up to you fully.”
“I can see it now, Harry,” Ginny confirmed. “I couldn’t while you were unconscious, but Hermione thinks it was because you were so weak.”
“She was probably right,” Harry said with a grin. “She usually is.”
“I know everything will be alright, Harry,” Ginny said hopefully. “I’m sure they’ll have you back to your old self in no time.”
“I’m not sure I want that,” Harry whispered as Ginny’s jaw fell open in surprise.
“Harry…” Ginny began soothingly.
“I nearly lost you tonight,” Harry continued. “Rather, you nearly lost me because of my hero complex you identified so well months ago.”
“I can’t expect any less from you, Harry,” Ginny said leaning closer to him. “It isn’t an easy thing to live with mind you, but I won’t ask you to change.”
“I know,” Harry said with a smile. “I suppose I couldn’t change even if I tried. Some day I may end up doing something that will take me away from you forever. I can resign myself to that possibility, but I don’t want it to happen and leave me with regrets.”
“Regrets?” Ginny asked curiously.
“Professor Lupin gave me that box while you were still in the hospital,” Harry said, bringing Ginny’s attention back to the box in her hand. “I’ve carried it around with me since then trying to find an appropriate time to give it to you.”
“Is it a present?” Ginny asked as she looked at the box.
“Open it,” Harry suggested.
Ginny let go of Harry’s hand and lifted the lid of the box as he suggested. Her eyes went wide with the sight of the three shimmering diamonds sitting atop a gold band as if suspended there by a sheer act of will.
“Is this…” Ginny asked as she looked back to Harry with tears forming in her eyes.
“It belonged to my mother,” Harry explained with a smile. “My dad gave it to her the night he proposed to her. I think they would approve if I used it for the same purpose. Ginny, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Those gathered in the hallway outside of the hospital wing were shocked into a surprised fear when they saw Ginny walk through the doorway sobbing with her right hand covering her mouth. Hermione and Ron were at her side in an instant even as McGonagall and the others hurried closer.
“I… I need… to send a… message to my parents,” Ginny sobbed to a wide eyed McGonagall.
“My lord,” Scrimgeour uttered fearing the worst. “What’s happened?”
Ginny lowered her hand from her face to reveal a wide smile as she brought up her left hand with three diamonds sparkling in the light, and she said, “I’m getting married!”
As soon as Ginny had started walking away from Harry’s bed, Madam Pomfrey walked over to him to begin her examination. As she got closer, she noticed as Harry turned his head and looked right at her with a strange expression.
“Has your vision returned on its own?” Pomfrey asked as she reached his bedside.
“No,” Harry answered as he continued to look at her oddly. “At least I don’t think it has.”
“Well don’t keep it from me, Mr. Potter,” Pomfrey urged. “The more you tell me the better my ability to diagnose you.”
“When Ginny was sitting beside me I could… feel her sitting there,” Harry attempted to explain. “My connection with her allowed me to perceive her presence. It was like I was seeing a bright white aura encircling her body. I wasn’t seeing it though. I couldn’t have.”
“There remains a great deal we don’t know about this connection you share with her,” Pomfrey pointed out. “The ways in which you perceive that connection may not only be limited to your vision.”
“Then explain to me why I can see a pale pink aura around you,” Harry said taking her by surprise. “Tell me how it is that I knew it was you even before you said anything. I’ve never had a connection to you like I have with Ginny, and yet…”
“Fascinating,” Pomfrey commented as she bent over to examine Harry’s eyes closer. “Perhaps you are still receiving sensory information through your eyes, and your brain is having difficulty interpreting it.”
“I don’t think so,” Harry said as he closed his eyes. “I can still see you moving around with my eyes shut. Without turning my head I know that Nott is strapped down to a bed close by. He’s radiating a blue light while Professors Dumbledore and Gryffindor are glowing like gold in the portrait on the wall.”
“How could you…” Pomfrey began asking.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Harry interrupted. “I can also see Ginny out in the hallway talking to Hermione, Ron, Kingsley, Professor McGonagall and the Minister of Magic.”
“That’s impossible,” Pomfrey charged. “Even I can’t see them from where we are.”
“Apparently walls are no barrier to whatever it is that’s happening to me,” Harry said. “I don’t seem to be able to detect anyone further out, so I guess it does have a limit on distance.”
Pomfrey stood in stunned silence for several seconds before looking to the portrait on the wall and asking, “Do you have any advice as to our next course of action in this case, Professor Dumbledore?”
“Well,” Dumbledore said looking deep in thought, “I suppose Harry should give some thought to the wedding arrangements.”
“I meant advice about Mr. Potter’s condition,” Pomfrey corrected as she placed her hands on her hips in frustration.
“My dear Madam Pomfrey,” Dumbledore said with a kind smile, “if Harry is seeing the auras of those around him it would seem fitting that you should consult with the divination teacher about your next course of action.”
“I doubt Trelawney would come out of her tower even if I sent for her,” Pomfrey commented with a smirk.
“She will if you tell her I’ve seen another death omen,” Harry grinned.
“I was actually thinking of our other divination teacher,” Dumbledore corrected.
“The centaur?” Pomfrey questioned. “He’s nothing more than a stargazer. He won’t be of any use to me.”
“I think you might be surprised about that,” Harry said as the memory of a conversation sprang back from the recesses of his mind.
“Something tells me you just might be right, Harry,” Dumbledore said with a proud smile.
“Before that, would it be possible to give me something for this pain in my head?” Harry asked with a grimace.
“Of course,” Pomfrey confirmed as she reached into her apron for a bottle of potion she was carrying.
Once she pulled the bottle out, Harry said, “That’s weird.”
“What now?” Pomfrey asked.
“I can’t see the bottle,” Harry replied, “but I can see the potion inside. There are three different colors of green swirling around one another. What is that made out of?”
“Three standard ingredients from Professor Sprout’s greenhouse,” Pomfrey answered with another questioning look to Professor Dumbledore.
“Fascinating,” Dumbledore said as Godric stood next to him and looked thoughtfully at Harry.
“Can you see anything else in the room, Harry?” Godric asked. “The bed? A chair?”
“No,” Harry replied as loudly as he could endure so he could be more easily heard across the room.
“So this aura vision is limited to organic materials,” Godric said more to himself as he tried to think of a way to explain what Harry was experiencing.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with vision though,” Harry said. “I know this is going to sound odd, but I think I’m hearing all of you in some way.”
“How could you explain that?” Pomfrey asked. “How could what you hear be producing visions of colored auras?”
“I don’t know,” Harry conceded. “Somehow my brain is interpreting as color what my hearing is picking up as… well… music.”
“Music?” Pomfrey asked.
“I warned you it was going to sound odd,” Harry pointed out.
McGonagall, having received the request for Firenze’s assistance, descended to the first floor to deliver the request personally. Upon reaching the bottom floor she witnessed Tonks standing by the front entrance holding back several students who were eagerly questioning her about something.
“What is the meaning of this?” McGonagall asked as she walked nearer, making the students quiet immediately.
“Professors Lupin and Firenze went outside to deal with a problem,” Tonks explained. “The students seem to believe there was something happening that they should be interested in.”
“Stop this foolishness,” McGonagall ordered the students. “Professors are permitted outside. Students are not. I would suggest that you all return to your common rooms before curfew. It would not be… prudent to be caught out of bounds at this point.”
The tone of McGonagall’s voice and the look in her eye was enough to make the students scurry away as quickly as possible.
“Thank you, Headmistress,” Tonks said as she gave a sigh of relief. “I said the same thing to them, but they didn’t seem to want to take my word for it.”
“That is because you have not developed an air of authority about you yet,” McGonagall observed. “It will come in time. It took several years for me to develop my own.”
“How is Harry?” Tonks asked.
“That is actually my reason for coming down here,” McGonagall admitted. “Harry regained consciousness, but there are complications. I’ll explain all of that on the way back to the hospital wing. For now, Madam Pomfrey has requested the assistance of Professor Firenze. Do you know why he went outside?”
“Remus said Hagrid was having trouble with some of the Centaurs,” Tonks replied.
“Good lord,” McGonagall said in frustration. “What else can go wrong tonight?”
As McGonagall and Tonks walked out of the castle and across the grounds toward where the Centaurs were confronting Hagrid, Magorian stepped forward and said, “It could have been purposefully faked to deceive us. There is no telling how many of our secrets you’ve divulged to the humans Firenze. You have admitted already that you have not personally seen it, yet you are willing to simply take the word of wizards that it exists.”
“The word of some wizards is as unquestionable as is your own, Magorian,” Firenze stated.
“Then prove it,” Magorian charged. “Bring him before us and allow us to unravel the truth behind his deception for ourselves.”
“I’ve already explained that will be impossible,” Lupin reminded them.
“You claim it is so, wizard,” Orlef said.
“What is all of this about?” McGonagall asked as she drew near to the group. “Why have you all come here?”
“You send your minions into our forest often enough, Headmistress,” Magorian said with mock respect. “Why should it bother you that we choose to walk your grounds from time to time?”
“They came because of Harry,” Lupin informed her while keeping a close eye on the Centaurs.
“As I suspected,” McGonagall sighed. “Well it shall have to wait. Mr. Potter has been seriously injured tonight, and won’t be leaving the hospital wing for some time. There is not time to discuss your issues at the present. I am in need of the immediate assistance of my professors.”
Without further explanation, McGonagall turned and began walking back toward the castle with her teachers falling in line behind. The centaurs stood in stunned silence for a few seconds before they began to murmur among themselves.
In the hospital wing, Harry lay still enjoying the silence as Madam Pomfrey prepared a message for the healers at St. Mungo’s. He knew they were coming before they ever entered the room. They entered as a group, but it was Firenze who stood still in the doorway in front of them.
Firenze stood in shock even though he had been warned. The thin white rope of energy that connected Harry to Ginny was plainly visible to him as it jumped out of Harry’s chest and stretched at an angle upwards until it disappeared through the ceiling. A truth he had always believed in had just been confirmed, and it was enough to bring a tear to his eye.
“I’m not asleep if that’s what you were wondering, Professor,” Harry said with a grin without opening his eyes.
Firenze walked toward Harry slowly as he asked, “Did you know I was here, or were you referring to one of the others?”
“I knew all of you were here,” Harry replied still not opening his eyes.
“Yet I was told you had been blinded,” Firenze pointed out.
“Welcome to the mystery of the moment,” Harry said. “We’ve just been trying to figure out what’s happening to me. Do you have any ideas?”
“I was only told that you had been blinded, and that my assistance had been requested,” Firenze informed him as he continued to examine the light connected to Harry. “I was just explaining your connection to Miss Weasley to the other centaurs though I had never seen it for myself. To see it now…”
“You can see it?” Harry asked as he opened his eyes for the first time.
“I can, Mr. Potter,” Firenze confirmed. “You remember learning the reason why centaurs do not like humans.”
“This is what you were talking about?” Harry asked. “If I had realized that sooner I would have found you before now.”
“It is adequate that I have seen it tonight,” Firenze said. “The question is, is that the only connection you see?”
“It was before tonight,” Harry replied. “Being blinded seems to have brought more like that to me. I can see, or feel, or hear a connection to everyone inside of a certain range. I even have one to the potion ingredients Madam Pomfrey gave to me for pain.”
“So…,” Firenze began, “you can see a connection to me?”
“Yes,” Harry confirmed knowing how much it meant to Firenze,” a nice silver colored one.”
“There is no way you could have known that,” Firenze said with a proud smile. “It is truly a great day. Silver is the color all centaurs share. Before now, there has been no other who could have known that. So, white is the color of the connection between all humans?”
“Oh, no,” Harry replied with a smile. “Ginny seems to be the only one with that color. Most of the others are gold. Madam Pomfrey is pink, and Mr. Nott is blue.”
“Fascinating,” Firenze remarked as he leaned in closer to Harry. “I have never known there to be more than one color among a species. Do you have any idea why you see so many different ones?”
“Not the slightest,” Harry replied. “I was actually hoping you might be able to tell me.”
“It may require a great deal more investigation before that becomes evident,” Firenze said as he noticed the angle of the white line from Harry’s chest descending steadily until it was nearly horizontal. “This connection you have with Miss Weasley, is it different from the others in some way?”
“Well,” Harry began, “it’s much stronger. I don’t think it has a limit on distance. I have yet to find one anyway.”
“I have been told that you can feel her emotions,” Firenze said as the white line lowered enough to pass right through him toward the hospital wing entrance.
“I can feel a good deal more than that,” Harry corrected. “She doesn’t hide anything from me. As of tonight, I’ve stopped hiding things from her as well. I’m really not sure how to describe to you what I feel. Ginny is a part of me. I know every move that she makes. Every time she takes a breath I feel it.”
“Such intensity of feeling is unheard of, even among the centaurs,” Firenze said in astonishment.
“You can ask her how much she feels from me if you like,” Harry said with a contented smile. “She’s on her way here with her parents.”
“She feels the connection as well?” Firenze asked.
“Yes,” Harry confirmed. “I think she feels what I allow her to feel. Earlier tonight I opened up to her completely, and the intensity of her feeling grew in relation. So much, in fact, that she was able to see the line connecting us very dimly.”
Firenze wanted to respond with wonder, but words failed him as his mouth hung open and he watched Harry turn his head toward the door and smile happily. Turning his head, he saw Ginny standing in the doorway with her parents just behind her along with Hermione and Ron.
“Oh, Harry,” Molly said as she walked quickly to Harry’s bedside and kneeled down beside him. “Is there anything we can do for you?”
“I’m just glad you came,” Harry replied. “Everything is being done that can be.”
“I’ll be expecting a reply from the healers at St. Mungo’s within the hour,” Pomfrey said as she walked closer. “I believe Mr. Potter can be helped most at this point by a good night of rest. His body has been through quite an ordeal.”
“We had to come to make sure you were all right, Harry,” Arthur said as he kneeled down beside Molly. “We had to make sure you were… well… thinking clearly.”
“I assume you’re referring to my proposal to Ginny,” Harry said knowingly.
“Proposal?” Tonks asked as she looked around at Ginny. “What proposal?”
In answer, Ginny raised her left hand and let them all see the ring Harry had placed on her finger.
“I have never been thinking more clearly, Mr. Weasley,” Harry said with a smile. “The moment I slipped that ring on her finger I knew my destiny was being fulfilled. I know with all my heart that we were meant to be together.”
“Oh, Harry,” Molly said as tears flowed from her eyes, “It made us so happy when Ginny told us about it.”
“It really did, Harry,” Arthur confirmed with a grin. “Molly was so happy she nearly fainted.”
“Don’t you listen to him, Harry,” Molly warned. “I may have been a bit light headed, but I would never faint at a time like that.”
Lupin stood shaking his head as he said, “Leave it to Harry to nearly get himself killed and get engaged in the same night. There’s no doubt he’s James’ son.”
“May I ask you a question, Miss Weasley?” Firenze asked after his previous moments of deep thought.
“Of course, Professor,” Ginny responded unable, or unwilling to remove the happy smile from her face.
“Can you both see and feel your connection to Mr. Potter at this time?” Firenze asked.
“Yes,” Ginny answered. “I couldn’t see it while he was unconscious, but it returned as soon as he woke up.”
“Is that the only connection you can see,” Firenze asked, “or can you see the others as well?”
“Others?” Ginny asked as she looked away from Harry to look directly at Firenze. “What others?”
“Apparently Mr. Potter is now seeing a similar connection to everyone here,” Firenze supplied.
Ginny looked back to Harry in silence for several seconds before the grin returned to her face, and she asked, “They wouldn’t happen to be different colors would they?”
“How could you know that?” Pomfrey asked. “You were not in the room when Mr. Potter revealed that to us.”
Ginny spent the next several minutes explaining what she previously thought of as a dream. She told them about the colored strings of light that converged into a central nexus. She explained to them the music produced from each string. She related the details of the enormous white tube at the end of which she had found Harry.
“Wicked,” Ron said as he reached over and clasped Hermione’s hand in his.
Ginny walked forward and gently placed her hand on the center of Harry’s chest. Instantly, colored beams of light sprang up through her hand and branched off to connect to everyone in the room.
“You can see them,” Harry said, feeling what she felt.
“Yes,” Ginny confirmed. “There are nine gold ones, one white one, one blue one, a pink one and a silver one.”
“Then you can see it,” Firenze said excitedly. “To see what you see right now… I can not explain to you the significance of tonight’s events to the cultural beliefs of the centaurs. With your permission, Mr. Potter, I would like to leave now to discuss these developments with my fellow centaurs.”
“Of course,” Harry said. “I don’t mind if Professor McGonagall doesn’t.”
“I believe it is time we all heeded the advice of Madam Pomfrey and give Mr. Potter a chance to rest,” McGonagall commented.
Minutes later, Ginny and her parents were alone in the hospital wing with Harry. Madam Pomfrey agreed to give them a few more minutes to talk over the implications of Harry’s proposal. Nearby, Dumbledore and Gryffindor softly discussed theories about Harry’s recent mystery. Lupin and Tonks removed Nott from the hospital wing to the dungeon. McGonagall accompanied Firenze back outside.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” McGonagall asked as they walked across the grass toward where Hagrid stood near the centaurs.
“I believe it is necessary,” Firenze responded as he stopped well short of their destination. “You must remain here while I speak with them.”
“Are you…” McGonagall began in surprise.
“I must speak to them alone,” Firenze explained. “It is forbidden for me to speak of certain topics in front of a human. I need to gain the cooperation of the centaurs, and that will not happen in your presence.”
McGonagall hesitated as she considered her options, but eventually said, “Very well. Hagrid and I will give you the privacy you ask for, but we will act if they make any clear aggressive moves against you.”
“Considering their feelings about choices I have made,” Firenze said, “I would agree with your concern were this any other day. They are far more interested in Mr. Potter tonight though.”
“I can’t say that I’ve been completely convinced of that,” McGonagall uttered.
Without further discussion, Firenze turned and walked toward where the centaurs stood waiting. A short exchange of words later, Hagrid warily turned and walked to where McGonagall stood.
“I assume you have something to say to us now that you’ve sent your human friends away,” Magorian alleged as he stepped closer to Firenze.
“I’ve seen it with my own eyes now,” Firenze said attempting to control his excitement. “The connection between Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley is as real as any other that we see.”
“So you say,” Orlef charged.
“There is more though,” Firenze continued. “Much more.”
The centaurs listened as Firenze explained to them everything he had learned about Harry’s ability to see connections. There were murmurs of disbelief, but no one tried to interrupt his tale.
“I am not compelled to believe your story on your word alone, Firenze,” Magorian said calmly. “Again I say, bring him before us so that we may discover the truth for ourselves.”
“Professor McGonagall will never allow that,” Firenze pointed out. “She does not believe that your presence here is due to your curiosity. You will have to offer her something of great value to change her mind.”
“What exactly do you believe we can do to accomplish that?” Magorian asked. “Why should she want anything from us?”
“She was telling the truth when she said that Harry Potter had been injured tonight,” Firenze said. “A head injury has left him blinded.”
“And?” Orlef asked. “What are we supposed to be able to do about that?”
“He sees as we see,” Firenze said. “He feels as we feel. I am proposing the use of the sacred circle of healing.”
“For a human?” Magorian asked angrily as the others also voiced their protest.
“It is no less than we have done for other noble creatures of the forest when they were in need of our assistance,” Firenze yelled above the protests.
“He is not a creature of the forest,” Orlef pointed out with a scowl.
“It is pointless to even consider it,” Magorian said. “The healing circle is used for healing fairly minor wounds. Even to do that requires the strength of every centaur in the forest. To restore Potter’s vision would require a herd three times our present size at least.”
“It could be done,” Firenze began, “if we include the humans.”
“You can’t be serious,” Magorian stated. “There is a reason why it is called a sacred healing circle. There are some things they are not worthy to know.”
“Can you still read the stars?” Firenze said as he looked up at the dark sky. “I can. The message there has only become clearer.”
“I know perfectly well what the stars say,” Magorian said hotly.
“Then you know what is coming,” Firenze said. “Without his sight, Harry Potter will not overcome the power of the Dark Lord. If that happens, we are all aware of what that means for the future of the centaurs of the Forbidden Forest.”
Magorian considered that thought momentarily before he said, “This is not a decision that can be made here. It will have to be discussed by the rest of the centaurs in the forest. I need not remind you that the others will not be as receptive to the idea of bestowing this honor upon a human as we have been. Bane will be against it from the start. His faction won’t be easy to win over. This could create divisions in the herd that may never be mended.”
“If Mr. Potter loses,” Firenze said, “it won’t really make any difference.”
Early on the morning after Harry had woken up, Hermione and Ron walked into the Great Hall only to be informed by Neville that there may be cause for concern over the prisoner currently being held in the dungeon. Much to the protest of Ron’s stomach, they left the Great Hall and proceeded to the dungeon right away.
Walking to a deeper level of the dungeon even than the Potions classroom, Hermione and Ron eventually rounded a corner to see Zacharias Smith standing against a wall looking intently into the cell in front of him. As he heard them coming, Zacharias turned his head to look at them briefly before returning his attention to the cell.
“Good morning, Zach,” Hermione said as she stopped near him.
“Morning,” Zach said stiffly.
“You’re getting an early start this morning,” Ron observed.
“It would have been sooner if someone had bothered to tell me about what happened last night, before this morning,” Zach said with an accusatory tone in his voice.
“So, now that you know,” Hermione began cautiously, “why did you come down here?”
Zach turned his head quickly with a stern expression to look directly at her as he asked, “Why do you think? A death eater killed my dad. Maybe it was this one.”
“Maybe it wasn’t,” Ron pointed out as Zach looked back to the cell.
“I’ll find out as soon as he wakes up,” Zach said as Hermione looked back at Ron with a worried expression.
“You may miss your first class if you wait for him to wake up,” Hermione said.
“Do you really think that means anything to me right now?” Zach said without emotion. “Harry has been using that map of his to capture death eaters since the summer. He even gave one to the Order. Out of all of those death eaters captured, this is the first one I’ve had access to. I’m not going to let this chance get away.”
Before Hermione could think of a response there was a groan from inside the cell. She instantly saw Zach tense as he took a step forward. She was about to tell Ron to stop him, but Ron moved past her to stand side by side with Zach. Looking at the expression on both of their faces, it was plain to see that she was alone in her call for calm rationality.
Nott opened his eyes as the stone ceiling above him came into focus. His last memory was of his attempt to kill Harry Potter. He was unable to remember if he had succeeded or not in that task. If he failed, Potter may still be nearby. He quickly sat up only to notice the two young men standing looking at him. It didn’t take long for him to notice which side of the cell door he was on. He stood slowly as he watched them. Walking closer to the door, he could see that they did not shrink back from the presence of a death eater.
“Tell me the truth, death eater,” Zach said as he took another determined half step forward. “Are you the one who killed my dad?”
Nott stopped just short of the bars as he studied the faces of the boys before him, and he looked intently at Ron as he replied, “How should I know? I don’t even know who you are, but I do know you Weasley.”
“Is that supposed to scare me?” Ron asked as his temper surged upwards a few notches.
“It will if I ever get out of this cell,” Nott replied as his temper flared as well. “I’ll plant you in a grave right next to Potter.”
“You’ll have to try harder than that to kill Harry,” Ron screamed in Harry’s defense. “If he doesn’t kill you, then I will you bastard!”
“So, Potter isn’t dead yet,” Nott said more to himself than Ron.
“You wish,” Ron said with a sour look. “I can’t believe he tried to help you.”
“He kidnapped my son!” Nott exclaimed angrily as he rattled the bars of his cell door.
Nott’s temper outburst served to fuel Ron’s further as Ron walked closer quickly as he prepared to punch Nott through the bars of the cell door. Nott was ready for him though. He reached as far out as he could and grabbed the front of Ron’s robes before pulling him hard into the iron bars. His hand was reaching for Ron’s throat when a painful spark of red flame erupted from the back of Nott’s hand and he had to pull it back and let go of Ron. As Nott was rubbing the pain out of his hand, he looked up to see Hermione with her wand lowering.
“If everyone will calm down we may be able to clear up a few misunderstandings,” Hermione said as Ron retreated from the cell to stand closer to her.
“There is nothing I need from you other than the whereabouts of my son,” Nott said sourly as he stepped back to the bars.
“I’m not sure I can tell you exactly where he is,” Hermione said knowing better than to reveal the Black estate to a death eater. “I can only tell you that he’s safe.”
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t take your word for it,” Nott said with a sneer.
“You should listen to her,” Zach said. “We all took part in the abduction. For my part, I wouldn’t have minded letting the death eaters have him. Harry was making the decisions though. He seemed to think he was worth saving.”
“Theodore got your note that the death eaters were coming to get him,” Hermione explained. “He sent it to Harry asking for his help.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Nott seethed. “Why would he do something like that?”
“Because he was desperate, you git,” Ron supplied. “He didn’t have anyone else to turn to. You certainly weren’t any help to him.”
“You don’t understand anything,” Nott said defensively.
“You could have walked away from Voldemort and protected your kid,” Ron charged hotly. “That’s what parents are supposed to do.”
“That’s what I was doing,” Nott countered. “You have no idea what it took just to send that note to him without the Dark Lord knowing about it. I couldn’t…”
“You couldn’t!” Ron said forcefully. “You mean you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t help him, so Harry had to do it. Now Harry is lying in a hospital bed because of you.”
“That is the least of what he deserves,” Nott said angrily.
“Don’t you understand?” Hermione asked. “We could have easily rescued Theodore in a far less dramatic way. It would have been easy enough for him to step into the floo network and pop out into Harry’s sitting room, but that would have told the death eaters that he had been warned. You would have been the first person they suspected. Theodore didn’t want that, so Harry staged the entire thing to make it look as though he was taken against his will. He did it to protect you.”
“Lies,” Nott said as he turned his back on them and walked back to his bed. “I won’t listen to any more of them from your mudblood lips.”
“Watch what you say, death eater scum,” Ron said as he stepped forward and grabbed hold of the bars. “Not all of us are as concerned with your health and safety as Harry.”
“Save your threats for someone they might work on,” Nott said as he sat on the bed still looking away from them. “I’ll find a way out of here, and then we’ll just see how long it takes you to tell me the truth about my son.”
“Long before that you’ll tell me what you know about what happened to my dad,” Zach said. “I’m Zacharias Smith. My dad was Jonas Smith, and he didn’t deserve to die the way he did. He never did anything that would have made him a target of the death eaters, but you killed him in London during the summer anyway. Before you leave here, you will tell me why.”
Nott remained silent as he continued to face away from them, but the ensuing silence was broken as McGonagall rounded the corner and asked sternly, “What are you three doing down here? This is no place for children.”
“He’s awake,” Ron said as he indicated Nott in the cell.
“That is no excuse for your presence, Mr. Weasley,” McGonagall said.
“They came to find me. Professor,” Zach said. “They were just trying to keep me out of trouble.”
“Very well,” McGonagall said not sure if she completely believed that was all there was to it. “It is time for all of you to get back upstairs and prepare for your classes.”
Without another word, and feeling very lucky, the three students walked past McGonagall and out of the dungeons. McGonagall waited until she was sure they were gone before she walked forward and looked into the cell.
“Now that you’re awake you’ve probably already noticed that you are not at the Ministry,” McGonagall said as Nott continued to look away. “The Minister of Magic has requested that you be kept here until they can decide what to do with you.”
“I don’t care what they do to me,” Nott said as he stood and began walking closer to the cell door. “I’ve been in Azkaban before. You had better hope they send me there very soon, because I won’t stop trying to escape until I find out what Potter has done with my son. I assume you already know that he abducted him.”
“Of course I know,” McGonagall confirmed. “I’ve sent one of my Professors to bring him here to see you.”
“You…” Nott said as he stared at her in disbelief. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m having Theodore brought here to see you,” McGonagall explained. “I was personally reluctant to allow such a meeting to happen, but Mr. Potter asked that I do so.”
Nott studied her for several seconds before backing away slowly as he said, “You won’t break me that easily. I won’t fall into your traps and deceptions. I will surrender no more information to you than I did to those children you sent in to interrogate me first.”
“As you wish,” McGonagall said in an unconcerned tone. “If you had waited a bit longer you would have found out that I didn’t come here to ask anything of you. I look forward to getting you out of the castle as soon as possible. Until that time you will be fed and cared for to the extent required. Now that you are obviously awake, breakfast will be brought to you as soon as I can send the order to the kitchens. Good day, Mr. Nott.”
McGonagall then turned and walked away leaving Nott with serious questions to be answered. He sat on the bed and wondered if it were even slightly possible that McGonagall had been telling him the truth. Perhaps she really did intend to let him see Theodore. He was still considering the possibility minutes later when a house elf appeared with a plate of food and a mug of hot coffee. After taking the food, he sat on the bed once again and stared at it wondering if it could be laced with some kind of potion to make him more cooperative.
At number 12, Theodore sat in the library reading in a chair by the fire. He tensed instinctively as he heard the door open. Footsteps warned him of the event he had hoped to avoid.
“You weren’t there for breakfast this morning,” Draco said as he walked in and bit down on the slice of bacon he was carrying.
“Very observant of you,” Theodore said dryly.
“It’s becoming a regular occurrence for you not to come to breakfast,” Draco observed.
“A keen mind misses no detail,” Theodore responded without taking his attention from his book.
“If my mum is going to go to the trouble of cooking breakfast for you then the least you can do is turn up to eat it,” Draco said with poorly disguised hostility in his voice.
Theodore turned his attention to Draco for the first time and said, “For your information I have a great deal of respect for your mum. So much so that I stand in the kitchen and help her cook breakfast almost every morning long before you decide to wake up for the day. She and I eat together, and if you ever made an attempt to talk to her you might have known that.”
“What do you mean?” Draco asked insulted. “I do try to talk to her.”
“You talk at her,” Theodore charged as he stood to face Draco. “You use every chance to pressure her for information about what happened that would lead her to ask Harry Potter for help. You pester her continually about your dad. Don’t you understand how much it hurts her when you ask those things? If I had grown up with a mum that cared for me as much as she does for you I would be happy to just return that love. You don’t want her to love you though. You want her to serve you. You treat her no better than your dad did.”
“What do you know about it?” Draco asked hotly. “You don’t know anything about my family.”
“I know a good deal more than you might think,” Theodore countered. “My dad told me quite a bit about what your dad is like, and how he treats people. I may not know all of the specifics, but I know enough to guess what happened between your parents. If you were less self centered then maybe you would realize it as well.”
Draco, unable to control his anger any longer, swung his fist at Theodore’s face as Theodore, ready for just such a thing, sidestepped Draco’s punch. With Draco’s arm extended, Theodore realized that his opponent was in an off balanced position, and took advantage of that by bringing his own fist down hard against Draco’s cheek. Draco was knocked to the floor and Theodore backed off to a safe distance as Draco tried to right himself.
Just as Draco stood back up with a bruise already swelling and discoloring on the side of his face, Narcissa walked in and, upon seeing what was happening, asked, “What is going on in here?”
Draco looked at her briefly and could see the concern in her eyes as he said, “It’s nothing. It was just a misunderstanding.”
“Well…” Narcissa began, unsure if she should interfere, “if that is all it is. Come with me now Draco. Theodore has a visitor.”
Draco and Theodore both looked to the doorway with interest to see Professor Lupin walk into view.
“Good morning, Mr. Malfoy,” Lupin said as he stepped into the room beside Narcissa. “Mr. Nott.”
“What are you doing here?” Draco asked sourly.
“As your mother already explained, I came to see Mr. Nott,” Lupin replied.
“Come, Draco,” Narcissa said as she motioned for him to join her. “Give them some privacy.”
As soon as the door to the room closed, Theodore asked, “Did Harry send you?”
“No,” Lupin admitted. “Professor McGonagall sent me to bring you to Hogwarts.”
“Why?” Theodore asked as his heart began to pump a bit faster in anticipation. “Has something happened?”
“There has been an incident,” Lupin said. “Your father has been captured. He’s being held in the dungeon at Hogwarts.”
“Was he hurt?” Theodore asked quickly.
“No,” Lupin replied. “Harry has been though.”
In his cell at Hogwarts, Nott finally set his plate down on the bed beside him after examining the food carefully for several minutes in an effort to discover if the eggs potentially held a stronger dose of potion than the sausage links. Even the mug of coffee remained untouched as Nott, though his stomach disagreed with the decision, refused to allow McGonagall to overtake him so easily with potion in the food. Eventually he knew he would have to eat it, potion or not. He was prepared to hold out for a couple of days at least.
“Was the food not to your liking?” McGonagall asked as Nott looked over and noticed her watching him.
“Did you really think I would eat it?” Nott asked with a sneer. “Death eaters can’t afford to take food from other death eaters without suspicion. I would be a fool to take it from you.”
“I understand,” McGonagall commented sympathetically. “I regret to inform to that your food was only food. There was nothing more harmful than perhaps a touch of salt added to it. It was my intention to see that you were well fed before your son’s arrival.”
“You can stop your attempt to persuade me,” Nott said as he continued to sit on the bed. “I know very well you have no intention of allowing me to see my son.”
“On the contrary,” McGonagall said, “He’s being instructed as we speak about the things he is not to discuss with you.”
Nott sat in silence, and McGonagall was content to let him. After a couple of minutes, Nott’s heart caught in his throat as he heard the sound of footsteps on stone coming closer. One set was moving faster and faster than the other the closer they got.
“Dad!” Theodore called out even before he came into view of the cell where Nott stood quickly.
“Theo?” Nott asked excitedly just before Theodore came into view and they both ran to meet one another at the cell door. “Oh, Theo, I was so worried about you. I never thought I would see you again.”
“I wanted to send you a message to let you know I was safe,” Theodore said, “but I was in hiding. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Nott said as he reached through had hugged his son through the bars. “It’s enough for me to know that you’re unharmed.”
“How are you?” Theodore asked as he stepped back slightly to look at his father. “They told me you hadn’t been harmed.”
“I’ll be fine,” Nott said dismissively. “I’m just happy that I got the chance to see you again.
Lupin stepped forward slightly and said, “If you’ll stand back away from the door, I’ll open it so he can come into the cell with you.”
Nott stepped a good distance from the door, and, after Lupin had opened the door, Theodore ran to his dad and they embraced urgently. Lupin closed and relocked the door before he turned and walked back out of sight of the cell.
“I’ll give you some privacy,” McGonagall said. “I’ll be nearby, but take as long as you wish. Just yell to me when you are ready to leave.”
Eldred Nott watched McGonagall walk away as he listened to her footsteps fade well into the distance. He pulled away from his son and looked at him carefully trying to determine if he had really been treated well.
Theodore spotted the plate of food on the bed and asked, “Aren’t you eating? It doesn’t look as though you’ve touched you’re food.”
“I didn’t believe I could trust it,” Nott explained. “They offered it to me too easily. It has to be full of something to make me answer their questions.”
“I can almost guarantee you it isn’t,” Theodore said with a smile. “Not everyone thinks like the death eaters would. McGonagall is likely to question you for weeks before resorting to something like that.”
“I didn’t think even she would hesitate after what I did to Potter,” Nott explained as he watched Theodore tense up at the mention of it.
“I wish I could have found some way to get a message to you to let you know I was just fine,” Theodore said. “My day to day existence may not be ideal, but I have Harry to thank for what freedom I do have.”
“So, what they were telling me was true?” Nott asked.
“Yes,” Theodore replied. “Now sit down and eat your food. I’ll tell you everything I’m allowed to.”
“Allowed to?” Nott asked suspiciously. “What does that mean?”
“They don’t want me to tell you exactly where I’m staying,” Theodore explained as he led his dad over to the bed. “I also can’t tell you who I’ve been staying with.”
Lupin walked into the hospital wing and met Ginny at the door as she was on her way out and she stopped to say, “Good morning, Professor.”
“Good morning, Ginny,” Lupin replied as he took note of Ginny’s smile. “You seem in good spirits this morning.”
Ginny raised her left hand as the ring sparkled in the light and she asked, “Is there some way I couldn’t be? I woke up this morning and looked on my finger to realize that last night hadn’t been a dream at all. I’m going to marry Harry Potter. Do you know how many years I spent dreaming that this would happen?”
“I thought as much,” Lupin said with a grin. “That was actually why I came here this morning. I thought I would have to remind you that you have Defense Against the Dark Arts as your first class. I expected to have to drag you away from Harry’s side though.”
“No need,” Ginny replied dreamily. “Harry told me to go to class. Professor Firenze arrived a couple of minutes ago, and he wanted to speak with Harry alone.”
“I see,” Lupin said as he spotted Firenze near Harry, and obviously waiting for them to leave. “Well, we had better leave them to it then.”
Firenze waited until Lupin and Ginny were gone before he asked, “So, you are still seeing the colored lines?”
“Yes,” Harry responded.
“Do you notice any change in them since last night?” Firenze asked.
“Not that I’ve noticed to this point,” Harry replied. “Should there be one?”
“That is still unclear,” Firenze said. “There is still much we do not know about what you see.”
“That may be,” Harry commented, “but you wouldn’t have asked a question like that if you weren’t hopeful that there would be more.”
“Indeed,” Firenze admitted. “You are correct. I mentioned to you once that the Centaurs connection to the other things in nature also came with a sensory ability that allows us to gain strength from those things. Your description of your connection with Ginny Weasley gave me hope that you would develop a similar sense of the things around you.”
“How would I recognize it if I had it?” Harry asked.
“How do you recognize your connection with Miss Weasley?” Firenze asked in return.
“Well…” Harry began. “I don’t know. It’s just there.”
“Yet, that was not always so,” Firenze pointed out.
“I didn’t become aware of it until Ginny was in distress,” Harry said. “I can’t wait for everyone to be in that kind of distress.”
“Perhaps we can find a way around that if we work together,” Firenze suggested.
“I’m willing to try,” Harry said. “How should we start?”
“Calm your mind and concentrate,” Firenze said.
“Do you have any idea how many of my lessons have started that way?” Harry asked with a grin.
“Concentrate, Mr. Potter,” Firenze said softly. “You have said that you hear music along with the individual connections. Center your concentration on one of them and listen to the music intently. Try to find variations in the music. In these variations you may find information to decode as you do so naturally with Miss Weasley. Just concentrate.”
Harry lay in his bed doing his best to concentrate for nearly twenty minutes while Firenze stood unmoving at his side. Harry’s mind was as calm as it had ever been when he began to hear the faint sound of a new tune. The new tune surprised Harry since he had been trying to concentrate on the sound of his connection to Firenze. Madam Pomfrey was the only other person within his known range, and yet the tune didn’t belong to her either. Harry concentrated on the tune as he tried to ignore the interference of Firenze and Pomfrey’s tunes. Closer and closer he willed the sound to come. Clearer and clearer it became. In time, a smile spread over Harry’s face.
“What is it?” Firenze asked. “Did you detect something?”
Harry smiled as he said, “Theodore Nott is visiting with his dad. He’s very happy.”
“But…,” Firenze began in disbelief, “how could you know that? He is in the dungeon. For you to detect him so far away is far beyond what you said you were capable of last night.”
“I was just as surprised,” Harry said. “This is really wicked.”
“You said he was happy,” Firenze pointed out. “Does that mean you actually felt his happiness, or were you simply inferring that he would be happy to meet with his father?”
“I think I felt it,” Harry replied. “It wasn’t anything like the amount of feeling I constantly have with Ginny, but I know I felt something.”
“Then perhaps you have taken the first steps to awakening the true extent of the power still inside of you,” Firenze said. “It is fortunate that you have done so. I informed the other Centaurs about your new ability last night. It can only help your case if you can feel as we do. Not even the Centaurs can connect to someone as far away as you have just done though.”
“Can I try it again?” Harry asked with an excited grin.
“By all means,” Firenze answered as he watched Harry close his eyes and concentrate as he had done before.
In the potion classroom, the seventh year Slytherin and Gryffindors concentrated on copying down the brewing instructions for a complicated potion. About halfway through copying an ingredient, Hermione’s hand stopped moving suddenly as her head popped up and she looked around behind her quickly and scanned the immediate area.
“Is there something the matter, Miss Granger?” Slughorn asked as he noticed her odd behavior.
“Did you hear that?” Hermione asked as she looked from Slughorn to Ron and the rest of those near her.
“Hear what?” Ron asked as he shared everyone else’s question.
“Surely you must have,” Hermione said as she continued to look from one to another. “I just heard Harry’s voice. It was as if he were standing right behind me.”
“No one has come into the classroom, Miss Granger,” Slughorn explained. “Perhaps you imagined it. What did Mr. Potter say?”
“He said, ‘Copy it accurately, Hermione.’ quite clearly,” Hermione said. “I didn’t imagine it.”
“Well of course I believe her, Harry,” Ron said just before his eyes went wide realizing he had just heard Harry as well.
In Defense Against the Dark Arts, Ginny’s breath caught as she sat up straighter and witnessed the white line connected to her grow brighter. Seconds later, varying colors of lines sprang from her chest to connect to every other person in the room.
Seeing the smile on her face, Lupin asked, “Is there something you would like to share with the class, Ginny?”
“It’s Harry,” Ginny said with a smile as if that were explanation enough.
“I see,” Lupin said with a grin. “Well send him on his way. He’s disrupting class.”
Ginny watched as the lines receded back into her chest. Harry’s parting message came through just as Ginny saw the white line return to its previous brightness.
“I love you too, Harry,” Ginny said with a happy smile as she looked down at the ring on her finger once again.
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