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harry potter
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 21 - Protecting the Snake
~~~***~~~

Outside, the rain continued to pour down as Harry made his way back to the Gryffindor common room. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen this much rain. The conditions were miserable, and Harry had to sneer, thinking of Malfoy and what he’d have to do to return to the castle. By now, the Slytherin would be up and about in Hogsmeade. What would he try to do? Harry stopped to look down through a window to the Hogwarts grounds below. Through the glass he could see large puddles forming everywhere, and the lake burgeoning. He leaned his head against the cold glass and thought back to Dumbledore’s words of forgiveness, but then quickly shoved them aside. “If they can’t help her, Malfoy,” he whispered, his words fogging the pane before him, “you’ll join her there. I promise you that.” A hand touched his shoulder.

“Hey, Harry,” he whispered. “Got a minute?” Harry spun ready to fight, and found that it was only Anthony Goldstein, the Ravenclaw’s eyes darting up and down the corridor. “We’ve made a plan if you want in.” A smile broke out on his face, and for a moment Harry thought he was looking at the smirk of Lucius Malfoy.

“Plan?” Harry asked. “Really, Anthony you’ve got to…”

“Great!” Goldstein jumped in not listening to a word. He held Harry’s arm and walked over by one of the pillars lining the corridor. “Franklin tells me that every night there’s a group of Slytherins that sneak out to one of the classrooms on the second floor for a bit of dueling practice. One of them is Malfoy. But, he seems to have disappeared… somehow,” he winked at Harry. “That conveniently drops their best duelist out of the group.” Again his eyes shot back and forth scanning the corridor. “I’ve got six, maybe seven Ravenclaws. We’ll be waiting for them tonight at ten. Once they’re down, we’re taking them into the forest and leaving them there.”

“The forest!” Harry exclaimed. “You can’t go in there. Do you have any idea…”

“You’ve been in there loads of times, Harry, and you’re fine. We’re just going to scare ‘em a bit. A night’s sleep under the trees will do ‘em some good.” Goldstein’s face was sinister and full of malice. “They’ll pay for what they did to Cho. They’ll all pay!”

“Anthony, listen,” Harry was searching for the words, “it wasn’t all of Slytherin. It was Malfoy. You can’t just assume…”

“They’re all the same, Potter!” he choked. “Luna told us how you fought them off last year. I didn’t believe it, not until today in class. And we know their dad’s are Death Eaters. We need to get them out… eliminate every… last… ONE!” Harry saw a picture of Vernon flash before him as a bit of foam formed on the corner of Anthony’s mouth. “It was a Slytherin that killed your parents, Harry. It was a Slytherin that killed your godfather. Are you in with us, or out?” Harry suddenly found his compass spinning again. The need for revenge was deep and dropping Malfoy in Hogsmeade for a walk home in the rain had not quenched his thirst. “Well?” Goldstein pressed.

“In,” Harry breathed. A broad smile broke out on Goldstein’s face. It was not a smile Harry shared. Then, quite suddenly, Harry’s forehead split open in a searing pain. His hand shot up to his scar. It was on fire. It was the first time he’d felt like this since… since…”

“Harry? Are you okay?” Goldstein asked as Harry bent over in agony.

“What? Are you daft?” Harry yelled. “No, I’m not okay!” He was rubbing his forehead, and as quickly as it had come, the pain receded. He straightened and took a deep breath. Then looking at Goldstein with a scowl he snapped, “Well?”

“Okay… nine-thirty then,” he whispered to Harry, “outside the Ravenclaw common room. If you don’t show, Harry, we won’t wait for you.” He slapped Harry on the shoulder. “Tonight we begin to take back Hogwarts.”

His head pounding, Harry made it back to common room and he began a feeble attempt at working on what homework he could. Throughout, he was wondering what might have caused the pain in his scar again. Throughout, he knew that, somewhere, something bad was about to happen, if it hadn’t already. He went to put his things away as students were making their way in from the last class of the day. When he entered his room, he found Neville lying in bed, his pillow over his head. “Hey, Neville, everything okay?” he asked. Neville pulled the pillow down to reveal a smile on his face.

“Perfect,” he said with an uncharacteristic grin. It was an unusual look for Neville, and an even more unusual response. Harry started to change for dinner and noticed the dragonhead in his trunk. He pulled it out and set it by his bed. “Whoa!” Neville exclaimed. “Cool! Where’d you get it?”

“A friend,” Harry said simply. “For my birthday.” He handed the dragonhead to Neville.

“It’s a Hungarian Horntail, isn’t it?” asked Neville. Harry nodded. “Look at the teeth! Does it move?”

“Nope, just a statue.” He paused. “A Muggle made it.” He was wondering what Neville’s response would be.

“Fantastic!” he exclaimed. The acceptance seemed to warm Harry’s heart which had been so cold of late. “But… a horntail? How?”

“She saw the statuette I had from the Tri-Wizard tournament.” The explanation satisfied Neville, as it had Harry before, but this time the words coming from Harry’s own mouth were troubling; something wasn’t quite right. Still, not everything slipped passed Neville.

“She?” he asked, handing the dragonhead back. The tone in his voice was obvious and the flush of Harry’s skin, and grin on his face gave Neville the answer before Harry said a word. “That makes us two for two, Harry! After Professor Sprout’s N.E.W.T. today, Helen Hedera from Hufflepuff pulled me aside. She wondered if I’d like to help her pot some plants tonight.”

“She’s pretty, Neville,” Harry winked, noticing for the first time that Neville seemed to be growing more handsome himself. “Always wears a flower in her hair, right?”

“Yeah,” Neville sighed, flopping back on his bed and smiling at the ceiling. Ron and Goyle walked in. Goyle was laughing about something as he entered, but stopped abruptly when he saw Harry.

Harry set the dragonhead down next to his bed, but when he pulled his hand away his finger caught on one of the creature’s sharp teeth. “Ow!” he yelped. A small red bead of blood began to prickle to the surface. Harry sucked his finger. When he looked back at its tip, the wound was gone. When he stood up, he saw that Ron had noticed, but no one else.

“Hey, Neville,” Harry called. “How ‘bout dinner.”

“Sure!” Neville said. “I want to hear more about this girl of yours.” Harry watched Ron’s eyes widen a bit, but he ignored him. “See you guys at dinner,” Neville said brightly.

When he and Harry sat to eat, the sky above was still dark and foreboding. The sound of rain filled the Great Hall. His heart growing lighter with the telling, Harry actually opened up about Gabriella in the broadest of terms. It was nice to share with someone else, in a small way at least. Neville seemed to be perfectly accepting.

“You know,” Neville said, munching on a dinner roll, “Seamus’ dad’s a Muggle. You ought to ask him how his folks met.” Harry nodded looking over at the Ravenclaw table. Seamus was sitting with a group of Ravenclaws, one of which was Anthony Goldstein. They were huddling together.

“How obvious can you get,” thought Harry. He looked up to the head table. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention. Dumbledore was gone, and Professor Snape was actually discussing something with Hagrid. Harry walked over to the group of Ravenclaws.

“Why don’t you tell the whole bloody school you’re planning something,” he hissed. “Break it up.” Then, in a louder voice to give a reason for his visit he asked, “Seamus, can I have a word?”

“Sure, Harry!” Seamus stood up and walked over with Harry against a side wall.

“You’re not in on this are you?” Harry whispered.

“Why not?” Seamus snapped back under his breath. “Goldstein says you’re in. Are you?” Harry looked around the hall. He really wanted to be having the conversation Neville suggested.

“It’s not safe Seamus,” Harry pleaded. “Just stay out of it.”

“They figure the one thing I got bein’ from Gryffindor is guts, an’ you wan’ me teh chicken out?” It was Seamus who was turning scarlet. “I don’ back down from a battle, Harry, never. Besides… she’s yer girlfriend, ain’t she?”

“Yes… I mean, no. It’s just that….”

“Yeh better figure it out, Harry, ‘cuz we’re doin’ it tonight, with or witho’ yeh.” Seamus patted Harry on the chest and walked back to the Ravenclaw table. Harry took off his glasses with one hand and rubbed his eyes with the other. He was suddenly very tired, and still had Astronomy. The cluster of Ravenclaws broke up and began to leave the hall in twos.

There was a clap of thunder that shuddered through the Great Hall, and Harry walked over and said his goodbyes to Neville. He was on his way to the tower when two students burst through the front doors soaked to the bone. Through the opening he saw Dean and Ginny on the steps. He walked over for a closer look.

“Really, Ginny,” said Dean smiling, water dripping down his face, “I’ve got to go. Astronomy will start any minute.” The two kissed. The rain was splashing down on them.

“Stay,” Ginny teased. “You can’t see any stars tonight.” Dean caught a glimpse of Harry in the doorway.

“Look,” he pointed, “Harry’s headed there now. If Professor Sinistra cancels, I’ll be right back. I swear.” They kissed again, and he pulled himself away. Together, Dean and Harry made their way to the astronomy tower, Dean’s shoes squeaking at every step.

As the pair entered the tower a bit late, Professor Sinistra directed them each take a seat. “I’m afraid viewing the stars will be quite out of the question,” she said. “I thought we…” and as if someone had turned off the spout, the rain stopped. Suddenly, silence filled the air, and the class gave out a small round of applause. Professor Sinistra walked out onto the parapet and looked up to the sky. “Hmm.” She stroked her chin.

For the first half of class, they reviewed planetary information from last year. This year, they were to examine the major gaseous clusters and galaxies. Professor Sinistra kept walking out onto the parapet to check the sky. Finally, she said, “Yes, I think we can have a go.” Each student conjured up a telescope and began to examine the stars. For quite some time they compared their charts with their observations. Dean and Harry were working side by side comparing notes and helping each other out with their charts.

“So, Dean,” Harry asked, “any more trouble from Ron?” He tried to keep his voice as light as possible.

“Tell you what, Harry,” Dean replied, “when Ron stops being an ass, that will be news. Believe me, I’ll let you know when it happens.” He took his quill and scribbled a note on his star chart. “I’ve been thinking about what you said though, and you’re right.” He looked up from his telescope to Harry. “I’ve got his parents on my side, right?” Harry nodded. “Ginny told Fred and George last year when we were first going out and they’ve been cool about it.” He shook his head. “What am I doing looking for Ron’s approval? I don’t need it, and neither does she.” His voice had been resolute throughout, but wavered at the end.

“What?” Harry asked. “Ginny said that…”

“Oh, I know what she says,” Dean interrupted. “I also know what she feels, and it really hurts her that Ron’s being so… so… hell I don’t know.” Harry could feel his blood begin to heat. If Ron was really hurting Ginny in all this, he’d do something about it, and fast.

“Well,” Harry said, trying to keep it light, “I’ll bet he’ll turn around. You’ll see.”

“I hope so,” Dean sighed looking back into his telescope. Harry glanced back into his own eyepiece. A bright swirling galaxy was flanked by countless stars.

“They are beautiful, aren’t they?” he admired.

“Yeah, I think I’d rather draw the galaxies than study them,” Dean whispered. They were almost through when the sound of a cart coming down the flagstone path to the castle broke the silence. The night was dark except for the torches burning outside the castle, and the flashes of lightning that could be seen on the horizon toward Hogsmeade. It was hard to see. A wizard stepped out with a student dressed in class robes. Harry’s heart skipped; was it Malfoy?

“Ladies and gentlemen, that should be enough for tonight,” Professor Sinistra called. “Put your things away. Next time bring with you a description of the ten largest galaxies in the known universe. Three scrolls should suffice.” Harry conjured away his telescope and dashed down the stairs ahead of the rest. He had to see if they’d dragged the Slytherin back to the castle.

When he came around the corner into the castle entranceway, all he could see was the back of Professor Dumbledore. He was speaking to the wizard that had just arrived.

“He didn’t want to come back,” the wizard said. “He’s a bit frightened after what happened to him.” Harry’s heart began to race… it was Malfoy. “But, when he woke up all he could talk about was missing classes.”

“I’m sure,” said Professor Dumbledore, “he can easily make up the material from the classes he’s missed.”

“No!” Harry yelled stepping out into the entranceway. “You can’t let him back in! You can’t.” Dumbledore turned to face him, and when he did so Harry instantly realized his mistake. There stood James Chang, and obviously the wizard next to him was his father.

“Excuse me, Mr. Potter?” Dumbledore inquired, glancing over his spectacles. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.” Harry was caught. He’d just given it away, all away. Dumbledore would put the pieces together in an instant.

“Potter?” Mr. Chang asked, walking over to Harry.

“Yes, father,” said James. Mr. Chang walked quickly toward Harry, his arms lifted in the air, and then he wrapped them around Harry in a large embrace. Without saying a word he began to sob uncontrollably. Harry put his arms around him in return.

“Thank you my child, thank you,” he heaved. “James has told us about your bravery. My daughter owes you her life.” He let go of Harry and then put both hands firmly on his shoulders. “You’ve saved her, Harry.”

“No,” Harry backed, “no, I didn’t. It… it was Hermione. She went and got the healer.” He was starting to feel cold. To feel death. It didn’t make sense.

“Not on the train, Harry,” Mr. Chang continued, “in the hospital. They say she was holding on to something, not wanting to let go. When she finally came around and started asking about you, we knew. You, or the thought of you, brought her back from the dead, Harry.” Mr. Chang took a deep breath and wiped his face. Then he addressed Dumbledore again. Harry was growing more nauseous by the minute. “I would like to meet this Malfoy, Professor Dumbledore. I need to know why.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible at the moment, Mr. Chang,” Professor Dumbledore said calmly. “Mr. Malfoy has been missing since this morning. He was involved in another altercation,” Dumbledore’s eyes flashed at Harry showing a mark of concern, “and was last seen on his way to my office.”

“He has… run away?” James called out.

“Perhaps, young Mr. Chang,” Professor Dumbledore said with a slight twinkle in his eyes, “but I think not.” The wise wizard looked at Harry who was now starting to turn a bit pale. Harry knew the feeling washing over his body, but it couldn’t be. “Harry, the Sorting Hat and I have decided to place Mr. Chang in Gryffindor for this term. He will rotate as the year progresses. Would you help him with his things and escort him to the common room. Find Mr. Weasley, and have him set up a bed for him.”

“Yes, Headmaster,” Harry said weakly, as a cold shiver ran down his spine. He walked over by the door and pulled out his wand to levitate James’ trunk when the door flew open and a body smashed against his arm flinging his wand across the flagstone entranceway.

The intruder was breathing hard and was covered in mud. His clothes were in tatters and the muck was dripping from his robes onto the floor. The thing crawled on all fours toward Professor Dumbledore. Harry couldn’t tell really what it was, much less who. A cold wind blew through the door.

“S-s-ss-sir,” it shivered reaching for the hem of Dumbledore’s robe. “D-d-Demen-Dementors!” Immediately, Dumbledore crouched down holding the person close him.

“Dementors? Where Draco?” he yelled, his voice anxious. Malfoy pulled away from Dumbledore, crawled toward Harry by the door, and pointed. He was shaking violently.

“H-Hogsmeade” he croaked. James had caught the name ‘Draco’ instantly. Standing behind Dumbledore now walking toward the door, the first year was pulling his wand. Mr. Chang was on the far side of the hall. Harry saw it all begin to play out, and reached for his own wand, but it was gone. He could feel the surge in his right arm again.

“Draco!” James screeched. “You’ve killed her!” Malfoy was either unaware he was under attack, or unable to defend himself. In an instant, Harry crouched down close to him holding Malfoy with his left arm and raising his right. “Incendio!” James screamed. A huge blast of flame erupted from his wand. Harry opened his right hand.

“Protego!” Harry called. The flame hit his hand and spread out over him and Malfoy. It was as if they were surrounded in a glass cocoon. The spreading fire was warm, but it didn’t burn. A moment later the flames were out. Mr. Chang had taken his son’s wand and was holding him around the chest. Dumbledore strode to the door and looked back at Malfoy.

“How many Draco?” But Malfoy just sat shivering, unable to speak. Dumbledore strode to a painting of a wizard in the hallway. “Everard,” he said, “sound the alarm. Get as many as you can to Hogsmeade, but make sure the rearguard remains in place.” By this time a group of students had begun to gather around; Hermione was among them. Dumbledore’s voice took command of the situation.

“Ms. Granger, see that James is escorted into the Gryffindor common room. Mr. Potter, find some others and carry Mr. Malfoy to the hospital wing. Don’t use magic, not in his state. Mr. Chang, I believe we have some work to do?” Mr. Chang who was staring at what he’d just seen, handed his son’s wand to Hermione and drew his own, a moment later both he and Professor Dumbledore were flying the carriage toward Hogsmeade.

Hermione walked up to Harry. “What happened?” she asked.

“Look out!” Harry called. James, free of his father, shoved Hermione, and started pounding on Malfoy. “Get him out of here!” Then Harry called to those gathered. “Dementors are attacking Hogsmeade. Alert your Heads of House! Everyone to their rooms!” When he caught sight of Dean in the hall, he called, “Dean! Do you have any more chocolate?”

“Sure, Harry.” Dean walked over and gave Harry a bar. Harry ripped it open and handed it to Malfoy.

“Eat it Malfoy,” he said, but Malfoy glared defiantly at him shivering. “Eat the damn chocolate!” Grudgingly, he took a bite, and the shivering began to calm. He took another. “Dean, can you give me a hand? I can’t carry him myself.” Earlier, there had been three or four Slytherins in the entranceway, but when they’d heard Dementors they had vanished. “There’s loyalty for you,” Harry thought. “Accio wand!” he called, and his wand flew back in his hand. Dean shot him a glance.

The two Gryffindors lifted Malfoy onto his feet. He was barely able to walk and was still shaking. How he made it from Hogsmeade was a miracle. They were about halfway to the hospital when Dean noticed. The left side of Malfoy’s face was exposed, covered in mud, but the scar was clearly visible.

“Oh, my,” Dean gasped. Malfoy either didn’t notice, or didn’t care. For a while, Dean just stood examining it as they continued down the corridor. And then, in a voice of pure admiration, he said, “Harry, Ginny said this was your handiwork. Did you do it?” Harry took a second to figure out what Dean was talking about. He wasn’t feeling well, and it was hard trudging Malfoy down the hall. Harry was starting to think Malfoy wasn’t walking on purpose.

“Yeah, I did it,” he huffed stopping to look at the staircase they needed to climb.

“It’s bloody exquisite!” Dean breathed. Suddenly, as if broken from a trance, Malfoy realized they were talking about the scar on his face. He pushed Dean away.

“Get away from me you filthy mudblood!” he croaked. But the second he tossed Dean off, he lost complete support and crumpled down to the floor. He tried crawling on all fours up the stairs. “I…” he gasped, “… can get there… myself.” They watched him climb about six steps and then collapse. Harry knew what it was to feel the Dementors drain you of your happiness. Malfoy had laughed at Harry’s vulnerability during their third year. He wondered what had changed to make Malfoy so overcome.

“Your father?” breathed Harry.

“Stay away from me!” Malfoy screamed, but the voice was week and shaky. Harry wondered what it would be like to have first known, then lost his own father, even to prison. Had the Dementors found this new weakness in Malfoy? Harry bent low to one knee.

“Draco let us help. We’ll just take you to the hospital wing and be out of your hair.” Malfoy looked ready to spit in Harry’s face. “You have my word.” Malfoy looked into Harry’s eyes. The blonde’s gray eyes were bright against the dark brown mud caking his face. For a second, he knit his eyebrows, the fire still burning with hatred. Then, the fire left, and an expression Harry had never seen cross Malfoy’s face appeared. Malfoy nodded his head, and fell back on the steps.

Harry reached down and took one arm and Dean took the other. The going was slow, and Harry wondered why Professor Dumbledore told them not to use magic. Dean broke the silence of the journey just before they were at the doors to the hospital wing.

“Malfoy, I know you hate it, but it’s… well fantastic! I’d swear it was Tibetan. And how Potter put it on your face when he draws like a monkey is beyond me.” Malfoy remained silent. They were at the doors and about to go in when Harry held Malfoy against the wall. All three of them were now covered in mud and stained with blood. He held his face close to Malfoy’s.

“I need to know. How many?” he asked. Malfoy’s eyes began to float into space. He began to tremble again.

“Hundreds,” he breathed. His eyes were wide. “They were like flies. I tried to outrun them, but…” He looked down at his hands. They were bleeding and raw. “Someone from the town saved my life,” he whispered as tears began to fill his eyes. “He summoned a patronus, but it was too weak.” The shivering was growing. “I just wanted to die… they were over me… and reached down, and…” He felt the left side of his face. “They dropped me… they… they took him.” Malfoy was now shaking violently. Harry took his own sleeve and wiped the mud from Malfoy’s face the best he could. The ache in his arm was gone.

“I… I’m sorry Draco,” he whispered. “It’s my fault.” His words were heavy, but sincere. He took a deep breath and pulled Malfoy’s arm around his neck. “Get the doors Dean,” he said. And walking through the archway Harry Potter carried for the first time the full weight of Draco Malfoy--body and spirit.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 22 - Salazar’s Pride
~~~***~~~

At breakfast the next morning, everyone looked exhausted. No one had slept the night before. Harry, Dean, Neville, Ron and even Goyle were huddled around their window looking for some sign of what was going on. It was early in the morning when wizards and witches began to appear on the grounds. The night sky glowed with a hint of the sunrise to come. At one point, Ron and Hermione had been called out by Professor McGonagall, only to return saying no one was to leave their dormitories. There was no more news to give other than all was safe. When the sun finally peeked over the horizon, the students were released to head for breakfast.

In the Great Hall, there was a frenetic thirst for information. In such an environment rumors grow exponentially. One common thread was that somehow Malfoy was linked to the Dementors. “Why else would he be in Hogsmeade,” called Parvati, “if he wasn’t in on it?” Many echoed her opinions; even the Slytherins were thinking that Malfoy had summoned the Dementors to town.

Then there was the talk about how Harry, having heard of the evil that Malfoy summoned to Hogsmeade, brought the Slytherin down in the entranceway, dueling him while Dumbledore watched. Their only evidence… the witnesses that had seen Harry crouching over Malfoy like a lion ready to devour its prey. Some spoke of how James Chang had tried to stop it, but that he was sent away by the Head Master. Considering that every Slytherin ran in panic the moment they had heard the word Dementors, Harry was not surprised that they didn’t have a clue as to what really happened.

Assigned initially to Gryffindor, James sat a few tables down from Harry. He was making a halfhearted attempt at eating. He seemed content to listen to Dennis Creevey tell him all the wonderful things there were to learn about Hogwarts. Seated next to Harry were Hermione and Ron. He had tried to leave when Hermione arrived with Ron at her side, but she grabbed Harry’s robes and with surprising force insisted that he sit.

“I’ll sit,” he said, “but don’t think I’m talking. Not with him.”

“I don’t know what you two are having a row about,” Hermione chided, “but I want you to talk about it and get it out in the open right now.” Harry raised his eyebrows.

“I told you to ask him for answers, not me,” Harry retorted. Then looking across the table he added, “Unless, Ron, you’d like to tell us all what you’re upset with me about.” Sitting to the other side of Hermione was Neville and Dean.

“Yeah Ron,” chimed in Neville, “you’ve been in a pretty lousy mood ever since you got here. What’s up?” Dean flicked Neville on the arm and shot him a glance that told him to be quiet. Harry caught it, but Ron had his hands to his forehead, and did not look well.

“Really, Hermione,” Ron said, looking at his uneaten breakfast, “I’m too tired this morning, okay? Maybe tomorrow.” When he looked back up to Hermione, his eyes had a look of fright in them. It wasn’t there when the two had walked in. Harry looked around the room, then back to Ron. It was as if everyone’s emotions were leaving an imprint on Ron’s face.

As they were talking, a murmur fluttered through the Great Hall and it suddenly became quiet. Harry looked from Ron to the Head Table. Dumbledore had just entered and stood beside his chair, waiting for complete silence. When it came, he began to speak.

“Last night,” he said, his voice clear and strong, “some two hundred Dementors rampaged through the town of Hogsmeade.” There was a collective gasp. Many had heard it was Dementors, but the words coming from Dumbledore’s mouth made them real and Hogsmeade made them close. “The Ministry, many local inhabitants, and many witches and wizards of the staff here went to repel the attack. By midnight, nearly one hundred Dementors had been captured; the rest fled. There were many injuries, and much damage, but no fatalities. Such is the way of the Dementor. There was one wizard, Mr. Silverton, who lost his soul saving the life of one of our own students.”

There was a general murmur. The words “Malfoy” and “Draco” bounced off the walls like ping-pong balls. James Chang began scanning the room, looking for his nemesis. Dumbledore pressed on.

“Yes, Mr. Malfoy. He is recuperating in the hospital wing. He is well and will be returning to class shortly.” There were more whispers. “No,” Dumbledore boomed emphatically, “he did NOT have anything to do with the attack. He was unfortunate to find himself in Hogsmeade at the wrong time.” Dumbledore’s face did not move, but Harry was sure he saw a flash of blue glance his way. “The school is safe, as are the grounds.” The elderly wizard seemed to age for a moment, and then stepped away from the Head Table and down among the students. It was most unusual, but as he surrounded himself with the students, he gathered strength, and years were wiped from his face. His stature straightened and he spoke as if holding the hands of each individual student. Harry noticed the fear begin to fade from Ron’s face.

“We will not let terror rule our lives. We will defeat this evil on every front. We will push back his advances. We will deny his goals at every turn. The day will come when Voldemort is utterly destroyed.” This time his eyes bore straight on Harry. Hermione noticed and held his hand. Dumbledore turned and took in the Great Hall. “By staying true to the principals this school was founded on, by working together for a greater good, you will lead the charge. Yes, each of you will have your hand in his ultimate defeat.” The room fell silent for a moment as Dumbledore began to walk back to the Head Table. There were a few whispers weaving their way through the air like snakes.

Dumbledore returned to his chair, and spoke one last time wearing a broad smile. “We will continue as we have for centuries. The Hogsmeade weekend will not be canceled. We will fight fear with bravery, destroy hate with love.” There was a loud cheer throughout the room. As the room quieted, Dumbledore smiled. “There is one thing more we have done for centuries… study hard, and do our homework.” There was a collective groan. “You have only fifteen minutes before class. Finish your breakfasts!” He clapped his hands, and the sound of forks and plates clanging together returned to fill the room.

Ron turned back to see Hermione holding Harry’s hand. For a moment his face flushed, then it lost all expression as he closed his eyes. Hermione pulled her hand away, slightly embarrassed, while Harry tried to kick Ron in the leg, but he was too far down the table. It was too late. Ron had read Hermione’s mind, and now knew what she had been thinking -- the prophecy of Harry’s fate. When Ron opened his eyes they were as big as silver dollars and focused straight at Harry.

“Why… why didn’t you tell me?” he gasped. Hermione thought he was upset about her holding Harry’s hand. She began to explain how she was just holding Harry’s hand because of last night’s trauma. But she was telling a lie that Harry knew Ron could see through. Ron now knew of Harry’s ultimate confrontation, at least, Hermione’s interpretation of it, and she was dead bang on. Harry didn’t say a word. He stood up from the table and walked away.

“Harry,” she called. But Harry was having nothing to do with Ron… ever. He was nearly out of the Great Hall when the sound of multiple screeches signaled the arrival of the morning post. He waited, but Hedwig was nowhere to be seen. Her absence only plunged his heart lower. He was about to leave when Seamus walked up to him from the Ravenclaw table.

“We’ve moved the timetable, Harry,” he whispered, “for obvious reasons.” He glanced over to the Slytherin table. “Late next week. I’ll let yeh know.” And before Harry had a chance to say a word, Seamus was back laughing at the Ravenclaw table.

“At least he’s happy,” Harry thought, and he left to make his way to Potions.

He was early. There was only one other student waiting for Professor Snape. In the back of the room, considerably cleaner than the night before, sat Malfoy. His blonde shoulder length hair was pristine and his robes pressed. He was certainly not the tatters and blood of just a few hours ago. For a moment Harry hesitated, then stepped back to leave when Malfoy turned his head to see who had entered.

Harry just stared. Malfoy had removed the bandage completely, the scar was revealed. It was the first chance Harry had time to truly examine the design up close. Save for the two lightning-bolts on the base of the sword that burned his forearm, the marks were identical. Malfoy just stared back, his lips turned in a slim smile. The mark was less red than the mark that appeared on Harry’s arm. But against Malfoy’s light skin it was clear to see from a distance.

“Well, Potter,” he snapped, “what do you think? Your mudblood friend thinks it’s ‘exquisite’, or am I simply some sort of freak?” He turned back facing the front of the classroom. “Well, either way, I’m not hiding it anymore. We’ll see what the school thinks of your handy-work.” Harry just looked at the back of Malfoy’s head. Could this statue of ice before him be the same sniveling creature he saved from being torched? Harry simply walked toward the front of the class and sat down.

“I hope, Draco,” Harry said, facing the front of the classroom himself, “you won’t stun me in the back again.” He turned to face Malfoy, a sneer slashing across his own face. “It would be a shame if you found yourself waking up in Voldemort’s basement this time. But then, maybe you’d prefer…”

“You!” Draco yelled. “I knew it! How Potter? Damn you! You almost cost me my life!” He stood drawing his wand, the chair he was sitting in scraping across the stone floor and reverberating in the empty classroom.

“And YOU!” cried Harry. “You killed everything that made her Cho! Not nearly Draco. She’s as good as dead!” And Harry stood, wand in hand.

At the same moment about six students walked through the doors, stopping instantly and gawking at the scene before them. An encore, they thought, to the duel from the night before. Harry pressed on.

“You’ve been a slug, Draco, and a ferret,” he taunted. “What would you like to be this time?” Students were piling up on the outside of the door. It was a commotion that went unheeded by either of the two students inside.

“If it hadn’t been for you Potter, Old Man Silverton would be having breakfast with his wife this morning. They took him because…” Malfoy took a deep breath as a pang of regret welled up inside him. “…because he tried to see me here safely.” Malfoy’s words were a stiletto slicing deep into Harry’s innards. Immediately, the Gryffindor dropped his wand to his side, turned and slumped to his chair. He could hear the crowd outside collectively sigh and make their way into the dungeon classroom.

“Harry, what’s going on?” It was Hermione, her hand on his shoulder as she sat down next to him. He was looking down to his hands, rolling over Hagrid’s words of manhood in his mind. He looked over to Hermione.

“I killed him,” he whispered. There was pain in his green eyes. “I killed her,” he whispered again. “I’m death, Hermione. Death.”

“Harry you’re not…” The dungeon door burst open with a clang. They didn’t need to turn to know it was Professor Snape.

“I’m glad you could find your seat today Mr. Potter,” he sneered as he came to the front of the class. Then he looked to the back. “Mr. Malfoy please face the front of the class, you can…” his sentence broke for just a beat as Malfoy revealed his face, “…take these notes down.” He waved his wand in the air and the class board filled with the morning’s lesson. Throughout the lesson, Harry was an automaton. Mechanically, he read the instructions and mixed the ingredients. When the lesson was over, he’d made the best draught he’d ever attempted in Potions, but he didn’t care. After he handed his flask to Professor Snape, he turned to speak with Malfoy, but the blonde had already left.

During Care of Magical Creatures he was silent, standing to the back away from Ron, away from everybody. When Hagrid tried to engage him with questions he would respond with a simple yes, no, or just shrug his shoulders. At lunch, Hermione and Ron were talking to Goyle and laughing about something. Harry deliberately sat with Colin so that he wouldn’t have to say more than a word or two. Once again he had found his internal compass spinning. How could he possibly save the world when everything he touched turned to death?

When it came time for his Transfiguration lesson, Harry found himself arriving early. For some time he sat alone drawing his own doodles around the edges of his notebook. They weren’t pictures of brooms, but of sunsets. Without invitation, Malfoy sat down next to him just before class was to start. He sat on Harry’s right ensuring his partner would have a good long look at the mark on Malfoy’s face. But Harry didn’t need to look; he knew what was there. The two sat silently before the start of class as Professor McGonagall chatted with Hermione in the front.

Harry took his wand out and set it on the table in front of him. Without looking at Malfoy he said, “Draco, I’m sorry.” Except for the soft murmurs of students in the class, there was silence. Then Malfoy pulled out his wand and began to twiddle with it in his hands.

“It’s just that…” Malfoy started. With a finger he slowly stroked the grain along his wand’s shaft, and then he shook his head. He set his wand down next to Harry’s and brought his left hand to his face. Before he could say more, Professor McGonagall called the room to begin.

While she had most the class working on the previous lesson, a few students were moving on to more advanced efforts. Hermione along with Anthony Goldstein, and Harry with Malfoy were given a box turtle again, but this time they were asked to change it directly into another animal, a snake. It was the first time in class they’d attempted an animal-to-animal transfiguration. McGonagall showed the new spell and wand movement to both pairs. Harry wondered if it would be more difficult than when he was angry and turned Goyle into a toad.

After the professor left Harry and Malfoy, they grabbed their wands and began, neither wanting to be second best. It was as if the two were dueling. With each flash of the wand their transfigurations became better and better. At one point, Harry had turned the turtle into a rather squat snake with stubby legs.

“Pitiful Potter,” Malfoy drawled. He untransfigured the creature back into the turtle and attempted the spell himself. “Quadrena Serpses!” The turtle stretched and lost its legs. The head became snakelike, but the shell remained.

“Not QUAD-re-na, quad-RE-na,” Harry corrected. It goaded Malfoy, but Harry was right, and Malfoy nodded. Toward the end of class, it was Malfoy who succeeded first.

“Looks like a snake to me,” the Slytherin snickered.

“You should know,” Potter griped back. Two more attempts later, Harry succeed in the transfiguration. A glance to the front revealed that Hermione still hadn’t mastered the spell. When he looked back to his desk, the snake was attempting to slither over the edge. Malfoy re-centered it with his wand. Then, an idea flashed across the blonde’s face.

“Can you talk to it?” he whispered.

“I don’t know,” Harry said. “It was a turtle, after all.” There was a mischievous glint in Malfoy’s eyes.

“Well, give it a go,” Malfoy coaxed. “Ask it something.” Harry glanced up to find McGonagall correcting Anthony Goldstein’s wand movement. He wasn’t sure why, but the tone in Malfoy’s voice was compelling. He leaned down next to the snake.

“Hassa hayaheth?” he whispered. The snake raised its head and looked at Harry. “Hassa shessa rahess,” Harry continued. The snake clearly looked at Malfoy, flicking its tongue then back at Harry. Malfoy leaned in close, transfixed.

“Well?” he asked Harry. The scene looked very conspiratorial: Harry and Malfoy shoulder-to-shoulder, forehead-to-forehead leaning down over the snake.

“She says,” Harry replied, “you’re better at this than I am.” Malfoy leaned up grinning and punched Harry on the shoulder.

“Hah!” he shot. The smile curved the dagger that plunged down from his eye. Harry forced himself not to look.

“She also says,” continued Harry, “the whole thing is making her dizzy, and could she be a turtle again? It feels safer.”

“Simple enough,” Malfoy smiled and flicked his wand, “Quadrena!” and she was back to being a turtle. He stared at her for a moment, and then looked back at Harry. He squinted his cold gray eyes. “Father says you learned it from him,” he whispered looking slightly nervous, “when he gave you that.” Malfoy’s eyes shot to Harry’s scar then dropped meeting Harry’s. For a moment, eye-to-eye, the two were frozen in time, then Harry leaned back.

What was this about? Had he forgotten who he was sitting next to? Every word he said, every deed he accomplished would certainly be recorded and reported back to Voldemort as surely as he was speaking to a Death Eater’s son.

“I don’t know, Draco,” Harry said at a distance but squinting his eyes to match Malfoy’s. “I’ve left you with a mark; can you speak with snakes?” For a second Malfoy considered the possibility, but Harry didn’t let the thought stay for long.

“Oops! I take that back,” Harry smirked. “You talk with them every day… don’t you?” He turned and watched Professor McGonagall as she began to clear the desks with her wand. Without looking at Malfoy he said, “I won’t be your personal spy back to daddy, Draco.”

“Spy?” Malfoy hissed. “I’m not a spy, Potter.” For a beat Harry resisted the temptation, but he couldn’t resist; he needed to be cruel.

“No?” he spat a bit too loudly; a few students looked their direction. “Then tell me Draco, whose side are you on? Are you with your father, in league with Voldemort or not?” Malfoy looked up to see far too many eyes on him.

“You’re insane Potter!” he called out certain that those near would hear. “Simply insane.” By now Professor McGonagall was at the back of the class clearing the desks there.

“Mr. Potter, Mr. Malfoy,” she called from a few rows away looking over the top of her spectacles, “I’ve been watching you this afternoon. You both performed exceptionally. Ten points to Slytherin.” The other Slytherins in the room cheered.

“What?” Harry called out. “You said BOTH of us!” He stood up out of his chair, half leaning on the desk in front of him.

“It was Mr. Malfoy who transfigured the turtle first, Mr. Potter.” It was almost as if she were enjoying the words. Harry couldn’t believe it. His own Head of House! “Perhaps next time, Mr. Potter,” she said. Harry sat back down and shoved his wand back inside his robes. Malfoy slipped his in grinning all the while.

As class broke out into the corridor Harry deliberately stayed behind to ensure he was one of the last to leave, and giving Hermione a long head start. When he finally left the class and entered the corridor he was stunned to see Malfoy leaning against the far wall.

“Here to gloat are you Malfoy?” he said without stopping. “I noticed you didn’t answer my question.” Malfoy paced at his heel.

“Too many ears, Potter,” he whispered. “Something you would have learned if you’d have been in Slytherin.” The only students in sight were those well in front and heading to the second floor.

“You know, Potter,” said Malfoy, “you should have been in Slytherin.” The words, so close to a path that Harry often wondered about, prickled the hair on the back of the Gryffindor’s neck.

“Never,” he spat through gritted teeth still striding down the corridor.

“How did you do it? How did you get me to Hogsmeade?” questioned Malfoy.

“Playing spy again, Malfoy?” Harry turned to the stairs for the second floor.

“Somehow,” Malfoy drawled, “I doubt you were playing by the rules. Were you?” Harry was silent and the smile of Malfoy’s face widened. “You never play by the rules, do you, Potter?” And then he hissed at the back of Harry’s ear, “Salazar would have been proud.”

Harry could feel Malfoy’s warm breath, but it sent a cold shiver shooting down Harry’s spine. Harry remained silent until they reached Basic Apparation. Malfoy’s words, however, kept bouncing off the walls in his mind, and kept resurfacing all through the day. There was a part of Harry, deep inside, that smiled at their retelling.

At dinner that night, Harry found himself sitting with Katie, trying to discuss Quidditch strategies. Once again, he had shunned Ron and Hermione. Sitting, talking Quidditch with Katie, surrounded by dozens of people Harry would have called friends, a sense of loneliness began to come over him.

“Where’s your head, Harry,” she snapped. “If I wanted to talk to the wall, I would.”

“What? Oh, sorry,” Harry said. “Can’t seem to get my mind clear tonight.”

“Well you better get it clear soon. We’ll be playing before you know it. I don’t know the playbook like Angelina did. I always flew the way I was told, and I’m going to need your help putting something new together this year. If we give the same look again, we’ll be destroyed.” She dropped her fork into her mashed potatoes splattering gravy on her robes.

“Here,” Harry said sliding out his wand, “let me get that.” He pointed at the gravy dripping down the front of Katie’s dark blue blouse. “Scourgify!” he called. The gravy vanished, but then the blue began to turn white, and suddenly the threads on the front of Katie’s skirt began to tatter and disintegrate. Katie quickly held one hand over her front while grabbing her wand with the other. Un-phased, she pointed the wand at her napkin.

“Vestio!” she called, and the napkin transfigured into a gray smock. She held it over her front. “Potter,” she said, rolling her eyes, “you’re a genius on a broom, but how you ever got in to six N.E.W.T.s is beyond me.” She stood up and walked to the entrance of the Great Hall to the sound of claps. Fenton Clint of Hufflepuff let out a whistle and said something derogatory Harry couldn’t make out just as she was at the doors. Katie flashed her wand his way, and a bowl of soup flipped over and landed in his lap. “Potter!” she yelled. “Clint needs some help!” And she turned and left the room. Harry held up his wand as if to offer Clint a hand, and Clint quickly covered up, which brought laughter to everyone watching.

“I told you to be careful.” Harry turned to see Hermione. “Your wand’s amplifying.” Harry held his wand up and looked at it.

“Looks the same to me,” he said and slumped down on the bench, his back to the table.

“Anything else?” she asked.

“What did you and Ron talk about at lunch?”

“I’m not going there, Harry,” she said emphatically. “If you have a question for Ron, ask Ron yourself. I’m not playing envoy.”

“Sorry,” he said, and then he grunted a laugh. “Hmm… I’ve been saying that word a lot today; what a waste.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, hands to his face. His long black hair hung down hiding his expression. “I can’t do this, Hermione.” She reached her hand and slipped the hanging hair over his left shoulder. The silver lightning-bolt dangled down. She remained silent. Harry began to wonder if things would be better if he had parents he could talk to.

“Last year,” Harry said, staring at the floor, “did you write your parents about Umbridge?”

“Well, sure,” Hermione replied, “as best I could. She was reading the post, you know that.”

“When you write, what do you write about?” Hermione turned a little on the bench.

“Well,” she searched, “all kinds of stuff. I tell them about what’s been happening, and what I’ve been learning.”

“Did you tell them about Victor?”

“Victor?” she looked bewildered.

“Yeah, Krum, and the dance.” He sat upright and looked at her. “Did you tell them how you felt, or ask them what they thought about you going to a dance with someone from a foreign school?”

“I guess you could say,” she paused, “I asked for some advice about the dance.” Harry could see she was sidestepping. Why couldn’t she just tell the truth? What was she hiding? He stood up.

“Lies,” he sighed. There was no energy left in him to be angry. “All lies.” He wanted, no, he needed to talk to someone… to get it all straight in his head. For a second, part of him thought he could use Hermione, or maybe her parents. He suddenly felt that it was a stupid thought, and only made his sense of isolation build.

The Great Hall was emptying. At the teacher’s table, locked in conversation, only Professor McGonagall and Professor Dumbledore remained. Stars were breaking out on the ceiling above, a large, red glow shown bright in the center of the sky, almost mocking him.

“Harry,” Hermione said, “I would never…”

“Stop it!” Harry snapped. His words echoed off the walls in the emptying room. He held his hand up, palm outward, and backed toward the wall. “Just… just stay away.” When his back hit stone, he began to slide down coming to rest on the flagstone floor. “Just stay away,” he repeated in a weak whisper.

Hermione was helpless. She looked around. Save for the two Professors, seemingly oblivious, there was no one in the room. Slowly, she made her way to the entrance of the Great Hall. She glanced back one more time to see Harry, in a heap, motionless against the wall, and then she left.

Harry sat on the ground with his head slumped against his folded arms. “Why am I here?” he said to himself out loud. “It isn’t fair. It isn’t right.”

“No. No it isn’t,” a deep voice echoed off the walls. “But you won’t find answers sitting on your bum, Harry.” He looked up to see Dumbledore standing over him. “Get up son.” His blue eyes were kind and he was smiling, but his face still bore a deep sadness. “I’m thinking desert is in order. Would you care to join me?” Dumbledore held out his hand and Harry took it, standing by his side.

They walked toward the chamber behind the teacher’s table off the Great Hall. “I’ve had them fix up something my mother used to make.” For the first time since he’d arrived at Hogwarts, Dumbledore put his arm around Harry’s shoulder. “Far too much chocolate for an old man, but with your help, I think we might just finish it.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 23 - Chosen Paths
~~~***~~~

The anti-chamber seemed somewhat smaller than Harry had remembered. It was cool, and the only light flickered from a dozen candles floating above a small round table to one side of the room. There, were placed two small purple plates and in the center an enormous desert that looked like a mixture of whipped chocolate pudding and fudge cake, topped with cherries.

Dumbledore walked over to the fireplace. “Incendio!” he called and the logs burst into flame. Warmth and light filled the room. “A simple spell, with so much impact,” he said whimsically walking toward the small table. “It’s one of the first spells Wizard children learn, often camping with their parents in the woods. And yet, even you have not realized its full potential. Please, Harry, have a seat.” He held out his hand for Harry to join him at the table. Harry sat down and Dumbledore began to slice into the desert with a large knife. “I find desert tastes better if you use your hands, don’t you?” he said with a sparkling smile and a twinkle in his eye. Harry couldn’t help but smile back. Dumbledore gave Harry a very large portion, and then he served himself spilling it over his plate. With a finger he wiped the table and licked the chocolate.

“Did Cho ever tell you her brother was a Wizard scout?” Dumbledore asked, stabbing a cherry on his plate. Harry, his mouth full, shook his head. “He’s very impressive for his age. Holds more badges than any other youth in Britain. There was never any doubt he’d make it into Gryffindor,” Dumbledore winked taking another bite. Suddenly he grimaced.

“Ouch!” He reached to his mouth and pulled out a cherry pit. He held it up like a diamond examining every detail. “Fascinating, don’t you think Harry?”

“How so, sir?” Harry asked wiping his mouth with his napkin and wondering what in the Wizarding world would be fascinating about a cherry pit. Dumbledore looked longingly at the pea-sized seed.

“Cherries are, I’m afraid to say, one of my greatest weaknesses. They are, in my opinion, the most perfect fruit on the face of the earth.” Dumbledore’s face was filled with rapture. “And yet, every now and then… they bite back.” He placed the pit on his plate, and stabbed another cherry holding it out on the tip of his fork. “Tell me Harry, should I stop eating cherries because a few challenge my chewing?”

“Of course not sir,” said Harry smiling.

“I agree!” Dumbledore smiled back and popped the cherry in his mouth following it up with a large scoop of chocolate whipping. Harry took another bite from his own plate and then put his fork back down.

“Sir, I…” he stopped unable to find the words. Where would he begin, or should he bother saying anything? It was Dumbledore who spoke again.

“Have you been writing to Gabriella?” he asked. Harry reddened.

“Yes,” Harry answered, “I’m waiting for a letter from her now.” Dumbledore grinned almost mischievously.

“I hope you don’t mind Harry, but the other day I had to take a look. She is quite beautiful.”

“You… you’ve seen her?” Harry shot out. “How is she? Is she okay?” Dumbledore held his hand up.

“Easy, easy,” he laughed. “I stopped in to see her the day before classes began. I understand how you might be taken with her.” Dumbledore sat upright in his chair then leaned in toward Harry. “I’ve taken the precaution to place a few protections around her, Harry. Just in case.” His face darkened somewhat. “I was busy there the night the train arrived.” Harry looked down to his plate, and then up to meet Dumbledore’s eyes.

“It’s my fault, sir.” His voice was raspy. “You wanted me to bring them together, and all I did was start a war among the houses…”

“Really? Dumbledore asked wiping some dripping cream from off his beard. “Last night I thought I saw a Gryffindor save a Slytherin’s life, or at least save him from untold weeks in the hospital wing. Was I mistaken?” He looked at Harry over his half-moon spectacles. “And the way you accomplished that was most interesting.” Harry subconsciously began to rub his right forearm.

“And what about Mr. Silverton?” Harry countered. “If Draco hadn’t been in Hogsmeade, if I hadn’t…”

“There are untold paths to every action, Harry,” Dumbledore cut in. “It is impossible to predict the outcome of every one. Even the greatest seers of our time have been wrong. The difficulty always lies in staying true to our hearts. I believe this,” and he tapped his finger to the side of his head, “far too often gets in the way.” Dumbledore wiped his mouth, set his napkin on the table and walked over to the fireplace.

“And even when we remain true I’m afraid, the path can twist.” He held his hands up warming them against the flames. “You sat with Cho, because you like her. Draco entered your carriage because he hates you. But Draco hates so much,” Dumbledore shook his head, “he hates everything he doesn’t understand… a poisoned mind. Cho decided to stand against him… another choice. And today… today Ravenclaws conspire to attack Slytherins in secret.” Dumbledore turned to find Harry’s eyes were wide and his mouth a bit slack. Dumbledore continued.

“And still, last night you chose to reveal one of the gifts you hold secret to save your very enemy. A powerful gift, I must say, I have only seen one other use in my many, many years. And a choice… a choice that promises very interesting consequences.” Harry walked to the fire and stood next to Dumbledore.

“Professor,” Harry whispered, “am I… am I some kind of freak?”

“You are growing up, Harry,” said Dumbledore warmly. “Nothing more, nothing less. You are becoming a man, and a very fine one too if I might add.” Again, Dumbledore put his arm around Harry. “As old as I am, I still learn new things. I fear the day when the morning sunrise doesn’t promise a new discovery. Why, just last night I discovered a very curious thing happens when a patronus traps a Dementor against a wall.” Dumbledore’s eyes seemed to flash a small glint of revenge, and his mouth formed a silent “Pop!”

Harry simply stood there, and watched the flames flicker. His mind was racing through time and space trying to gather the courage to ask the one thing he most wanted. But his bravery faltered.

“Sir, can people change?” he asked, “I mean, really change, deep in their hearts?”

“You already know the answer to that Harry,” answered Dumbledore. “And Dudley sleeps under your very roof.”

“The remember-ball,” Harry chuckled, nodding in agreement.

“As for Draco,” Dumbledore shook his head, almost reading Harry’s mind. “If he has any hopes of changing, it is with his father behind bars, with himself at Hogwarts, and…,” he hesitated, “with you as his guide.” He walked over to the table and waved his wand. The plates of desert vanished, and almost instantly the lines on his face grew deeper. “Harry, I tell you this in deepest confidence, do you understand?” Harry nodded. “If Cho does not recover, I’m afraid he’ll have to join his father.” Again he flicked his wand and two chintz chairs appeared. Dumbledore sat with a slight groan.

“You asked what you were doing here, Harry. Do you know the answer?” At these words Harry threw himself back into the other chair and sank deep into the cushion.

“To save humanity?” he quipped.

“No,” Dumbledore said immediately. “You are here to learn. Our founders established this school so that knowledge, and even some wisdom, might be handed down from generation to generation. This is a time to discover and sharpen your skills, to deepen your understanding of Wizardry. Tools you will need in the war to come. But it is also a time to discover who you are, who you will become, and decide what difference you are willing to make in this world.” Harry couldn’t help but think of Soseh’s words on his birthday.

The log popped throwing a red ember out on to the floor. Dumbledore swished his wand and tossed it back to the fire. “The mark on Mr. Malfoy’s face,” Dumbledore began. “Was it Ms. Granger who gave you the idea for the design?” Harry repositioned himself in the chair.

“No,” he said. “I just… I just wanted him to know what it was like to be different, to be stared at all the time.” He started to squeeze the cushion of his chair. “If I had known…”

“Yes?”

“If I had known, I’d have thrown him out the window!” Harry spat.

“And it would be you who would face the unhappy prospect of joining Lucius Malfoy at Azkaban,” Dumbledore replied. “Instead, Draco is alive, and there is hope. Given the choice, it is always wisest to choose hope. Indeed, I had hoped you’d be Quidditch Captain this year.” Harry’s ears perked. “But, alas, Professor McGonagall said you were too prone to adventures.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Harry sang out.

“Exactly what I said!” Dumbledore chimed in. “You’re the best flyer hands down in all of Hogwarts I said. Certainly, you have one of the best heads for the game.” And without knowing what had happened, Harry plunged into an exchange of Quidditch with Professor Dumbledore that lasted twenty minutes. All thought of Dementors or Death Eaters had evaporated. The pressures of playing the hero disappeared. The conversation ended with Professor Dumbledore telling Harry that next year, he’d have the All-England Team out to see him fly. “A noble profession, Quidditch,” he finished.

“That would be excellent, Professor,” said Harry, grinning. “We’ve tryouts this weekend. I think I might want to put a few plays together for Katie, just to put the rookies through their paces.”

“Wonderful, but I think you need to finish your homework first, and I’ve kept you far too long.” Dumbledore stood and Harry followed. He waved his wand and the chairs were gone. “I understand that you want to become an Auror,” he said. “Something to fall back on should Quidditch fail.” They laughed together as they walked to the Great Hall.

“Harry, I was a fool last year for not telling you how I felt. This year will be different. My door is always open, do you understand?” Harry nodded smiling, and Dumbledore patted him on the back.

They left the darkened Great Hall and walked out to the front corridor. As Harry took his leave and started for the Gryffindor common room, he turned to Dumbledore.

“Professor!” he called down the corridor. Dumbledore, about to turn the corner, stopped and looked back. “The other… who could do magic without a wand… who was it?” For a moment Dumbledore hesitated turning something in his mind. Then a simple smile graced his face.

“In good time, Harry. In good time,” he said, and disappeared around the corner.

That night, Harry slept in peace, and over the next few days, he studied hard, but thought more about Quidditch than his lessons. Harry ignored the fact that Goyle had somehow replaced him as Ron’s best friend. He paid no attention that Neville was clearly falling in love with Helen Hedera, and she with him. Harry had stumbled on the two kissing in the botanical section of the library. And, he was quite happy when at breakfast he told Seamus and Anthony in no uncertain terms that he was ‘out’. Instead, his mind was, and would stay, focused on flying.

When the day of Quidditch tryouts had arrived, the air was warm and clear, and the grass green as they walked out onto the pitch. Besides the starting four, Harry, Katie, Ron and Ginny, there were over a dozen Gryffindors ready to try their skill--and one Slytherin. There were various types of brooms. Harry noted that Geoffrey Hooper had a new Nimbus 2001, and wasn’t whining too much, at least not at the moment. Jack Sloper was also there looking to make Beater again. His size had definitely improved since last year, and Harry hoped his coordination had as well.

The night before, the four starters had discussed what they were looking for in Chaser and Beater positions. Harry and Ginny had put together the strategies for the various plays they’d have the prospects work through. On the field, however, Katie took command.

After a few moments explaining the drill to everyone, she started with the first group, released the Bludgers, tossed the Quaffle, and let the Snitch free. Harry kicked off from the ground and in an instant found himself high above the stands. The sudden acceleration took him by surprise, but the flight up was as smooth as silk. He gently glided down to the end of the pitch near Ron, and even though he was still mad at him, Harry couldn’t help but smile.

“Don’t let ‘em score on you King!” he called with a grin. Slowly, he leaned on the nose of the Caduceus and he shot like a bullet to the far end of the pitch weaving his way past a Bludger and over the head of Geoffrey Hooper. His eyes were wide, the acceleration exhilarating. He tried a few more moves bringing the broom high and then dropping it into a dive. “The Potter Pounder,” he thought, because anybody foolish enough to stay with him would be pounded into the ground. Inches from the turf, he nosed the Caduceus up, his feet brushing the tips on each blade of grass.

“Potter!” Katie yelled. “Your broom is lovely. Now find the Snitch! I want the next group out on the pitch.” Harry saluted, beaming, and brought the broom back up high over the field. It was as if he was flying without a broom. It reacted almost to his thoughts. Suddenly there was a glint down low behind Ron’s head. Three seconds later the Snitch was in his hand, as Ron nearly fell off his broom in Harry’s wake. Katie called the next set to the field.

“So, your hindness,” Harry said to Ron, “did they score?” Ron straightened himself.

“Strangely, no.” Ron smiled back. “It seems I anticipated their every move.” Harry’s eyebrows furled, but he remained silent.

The next group included Goyle. Compared to the rest of the Gryffindors he was massive. Harry pulled down close. “Remember, you’re supposed to keep the Bludgers away from me, right?” Goyle just smirked.

Again Harry took the first few minutes to exercise his broom. He tried a few sudden stops and swerves. The Caduceus was incredible! Jack Sloper, trying to keep a Bludger from hitting Harry, misjudged the broom’s speed and nearly dismounted Harry as he knocked the Bludger just in front of him. Harry simply smiled and looked to the blue sky. “I wish it were raining.” Indeed Harry found his heart light and his mood the best it had been since being at the pool with Gabriella. When the thought of her seeped into his mind he turned his broom toward Little Whinging. He’d been expecting an owl for days, and still Hedwig had not returned.

“Potter!” Katie yelled again. “Look out!” But Harry didn’t need to hear her words; some internal instinct had him already responding. He turned just in time to see a Bludger whizzing toward his head. He pulled hard and the Caduceus reacted instantly. If he’d been on his Firebolt, he’d be falling to the ground now. He looked down. The grass was at least two-hundred feet below. What was a Bludger doing this high? He looked to see Goyle below turning his broom away as if nothing had happened. Harry was at his side in an instant.

“Playing tricks are we Goyle?” Harry spat.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about Potter,” Goyle said dismissively. He charged his broom at a Bludger that was headed toward Katie and knocked it across the pitch. For a moment, Harry watched as Katie carried the Quaffle toward Ron. She passed it to Ginny who swooped to her left, slowed and shot it over to Katie at the other ring. It was a tremendous feint and even Harry expected Ginny to try the score. Instead Katie caught the Quaffle and tossed to the ring on the left, but Ron was in position and stopped the score. Katie cursed.

“Bloody hell, Weasley!” she cried out. “That was brilliant.” Harry knew why, of course, and something about it was starting to bother him.

The afternoon was waning when the final group had finished. Still, Harry was in no mood to stop. He’d had no problem catching the Snitch the first time he saw it. Six in a row with no escapes was a personal best. He’d spent much of his time looking at the moves of the candidates. Not one had been able to score on Ron. In fact, Ron was starting to gloat about it. Harry swooped over to him before he lit on solid ground.

“Ron, a word,” he said and headed his broom to the other side of the pitch. Ron followed him and they hovered near the stands.

“What’s up, Harry?” Ron smirked, running his fingers through his hair. “Not a bad practice, eh? ‘Course you’d think someone would score.” He looked down at the cluster of candidates below. Katie was saying something in a very animated way.

“Ron, you can’t just use your mind to look into people’s heads!” Harry snapped.

“Why not?” Ron snapped back.

“You’ve got to use your eyes and your understanding of the field.”

“I’m doing just fine!”

“Sure, today, when the stands are empty!” Harry’s voice was loud and started to echo off the other side of the pitch. The group below turned their way. “What happens when this place is filled, and every mind thinks the score’s coming from a different direction? What then?”

“What? Are you worried you’re going to lose your position as our savior? Don’t tell me you’re jealous!” Ron retorted.

“Jealous! Are you crazy!” Below, Goyle mounted his broom and was heading their way. “Have you done anything to get this under control?” Ron was silent, his face reddening. “I didn’t think so. I won’t have you ruin Gryffindor’s chances!”

“I’m not ruining anyone’s chances!” Ron spat, nosing up close to Harry.

“Everything okay, Ron?” Goyle said coming up to join the pair. Harry shot him a glance of pure fire.

“Goyle, I’ll give you three seconds to get back down, or you’ll be headed there the hard way!” Harry warned through gritted teeth. Goyle glanced down to the ground and pulled out his wand. Harry raised his right hand.

“Expelliarmus,” Harry hissed. The wand flew out of Goyle’s hand falling fifty feet below. “Move it Goyle… NOW!” Goyle’s eyes were wide. He glanced to the ground, then to Harry. Finally, he turned and sped downward to gather his wand. Harry looked back at Ron.

“What? Now that thug’s coming to your aid?” he said, not waiting for a reply. “You two have become pretty chummy in only a couple days. You might as well send an owl straight to Voldemort!” Harry turned, fired his broom downward, and landed by the group of Gryffindors. Ten minutes ago he was as happy as he could be, and now he was ready to spit venom.

Katie was explaining that they’d take a few days to decide who would take what position. She thanked them all for putting their best effort in at a hard tryout.

“Hard?” Harry called out, still steaming with anger. “Who here thinks what they just went through was hard?” A few raised their hands. “Then get out now, because what you’ll have to go through to be on this team will be ten times worse! We practice in the cold, and the rain, and the wind. We’ll work hours into the night debating tactics and strategy. When game time comes this winter, you’ll be lucky to see the sun shine. The crowds will be screaming, and the other team will want to rip your heads off. Some of you saw it up close last year. Kirke knows.” As Ron and Goyle landed, Harry pointed to Andrew Kirke who had replaced one of the Weasley twins at Beater. “He had a good long time with Madame Pomfrey after the game with Hufflepuff, didn’t you Kirke?” Kirke’s face reddened. “The point is, if you’re not in this for the long run, if you’re not committed to making Quidditch your life, get out now!”

Nearly half began to leave the field. Katie cringed sliding over next to Harry. “Great job, Potter,” she whispered, “that’s two of the best in the lot gone.”

“They’re no good to us if they’re not going to put in the effort,” Ginny said crossing her arms. Harry turned to Goyle.

“What are you still doing here?” he sneered.

“None of your damn business, Potter!” Goyle erupted. “I’m here, and I ain’t leavin’.” Goyle stood tall, defiant, his eyes fixed on Harry and unblinking. Harry looked at him hard, and realized, for the first time, that this mattered to Goyle. He really cared. Then Harry looked over at Ron, whose eyes bore a look of sincerity. The redhead nodded.

“We don’t need a few days, Katie,” Harry turned to his teammates. “We can do this right now.”

“But…” she started.

“Goyle and Hooper at Beater, Creevey at Chaser,” Harry said flatly.

“Dennis?” Katie questioned. “He’ll be blown out of the pitch with the first good wind!”

“And Goyle’s gone after Christmas,” Ginny joined in. “What do we do then?”

“Listen,” Harry replied. “Creevey’s got his own Firebolt, and as small as he is, he’s faster than the two of you. He’s also crazy out there. It’ll either score us points or get him killed. We’ve got to have an edge they won’t expect. As long as Goyle’s in the air keeping him safe,” Harry glanced Goyle’s way, their eyes meeting, “I think it’ll be scores.” Dennis was grinning so wide Harry thought he might explode.

“As far as Goyle leaving at Christmas,” Ron jumped in, “we can have Kirke and Sloper keep practicing with the team through the fall. When Goyle’s out, one of them will be able to take his place.”

“Wait a minute!” Kirke interrupted. “I’m not going to practice all fall just to have a fifty-fifty chance that I might play winter term. That’s crazy.”

“No it’s not,” Sloper said. “You’ll have the chance to play with some of the best players Hogwarts has ever seen. The practice will be great even if you don’t play next term.” Katie surveyed her prospects.

“Harry,” said Katie, “you’re right. We need commitment.” She took a deep breath, and then called out clear and strong. “Goyle, Hooper, Creevey--First String. Kirke, you’re out, Sloper’s the only backup we’ll need. First practice is next Saturday after lunch.” Then she turned to Goyle. “I expect you to work as hard as anyone else, and that includes giving Jack a few pointers on the fine art of being a Beater. I want him pounding Malfoy off his broom this spring.”

Goyle actually smiled back nodding his head. As they were walking back to the castle Goyle slapped Jack Sloper on the shoulder. “Jack, you remember when Katie was cutting behind…” and in an instant, Greg Goyle was a full-fledged member of the Gryffindor Quidditch team.

Ginny came over to Harry and said, “What was that all about?”

“He’s giving Jack a few pointers.” Harry shook his head. “We’re insane.”

“No,” she corrected, “you and Ron. What were you two going on about?” she asked. Harry shook his head. He stopped, letting Ron and Katie pass by, and waited until they were well ahead.

“Ron and I have come to a fork in the road, Ginny,” Harry said coolly. “I’ve decided to choose one path, and he’s decided to choose another. It happens, that’s all.” They started walking back to the castle. “It’s… well, I don’t think we can be friends anymore.” The sun was low, and their shadows stretched out before them toward the castle. What warmth the day had was slipping away.

“You can’t mean that Harry,” Ginny said, taking him by the arm. “There are only three things he ever talks about--Hermione, Quidditch, and Harry.” Both of them laughed, but Harry’s smile fell as he stopped and took Ginny by the hand.

“Your family’s been wonderful. They’ve kept my soul alive for the last six years. But it’s time for me to move on. Friends grow apart, Ginny. Ron will be talking about someone else before you know it.” Harry immediately thought of Goyle.

“Oh Harry,” Ginny cried, and she put her arms around him, giving him a great hug.

“Hey you two! What’s up?” It was Dean standing at the castle entrance. He had a smile on his face, but his eyes were darting from Ginny to Harry and back again. “Ginny, we were going to meet for dinner, right?”

“Oh, I’m sorry Dean, it’s just that…”

“Yeah, I know… more Quidditch lessons from Harry.” He shot an eye at Harry, and brusquely put his arm around her. “McGonagall’s looking for you, Potter,” he said coldly.

Harry watched Ginny put her arm around Dean, pulling him close as they walked to dinner. He looked back to see the sun begin to dip beneath the horizon. There was no cloud to bring color to the dusk, just a dying yellow… fading to night. He walked to Professor McGonagall’s office. When he entered, he found her at her desk reviewing papers.

“Ah! There you are Mr. Potter,” she forced a weak smile, but lost it immediately. “Have you eaten?”

“Not yet Professor,” Harry replied. “We’ve just set the Gryffindor team. We started with Ginny, Ron, Katie, and me. Today we added Dennis at Chaser,” her eyes widened, “Geoffrey at Beater…”

“Bit of a whiner isn’t he?” she asked.

“A whiner with a new Nimbus 2001,” said Harry with a grin, he paused, “and Greg as Beater.” He sighed.

“Greg?” Professor McGonagall queried in confusion.

“Goyle, ma’am,” said Harry, and then he added quickly, “with Jack as backup for when he leaves next term.” Her eyes peered over the top of her spectacles. She slipped them off and set them on her desk.

“Albus was right,” she said to herself, straightening her robes as she stood. “I wouldn’t have thought it possible.”

“Right about what, Professor?”

“There’s no time for that now, Harry.” She walked over to her shelf and pulled down a small box. Harry knew instantly what it was.

“What’s happened?” His heartbeat quickened. “Where am I going?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“Mr. Chang has sent word,” she began then stopped, trying to find the words. Harry’s heart crumpled. “Things are not well for Cho, I’m afraid. He would like you to… to come say goodbye… before the end.” Harry was white as she opened the box revealing the small golden portkey. Harry stepped back.

“No. I…” He stepped backward into a chair. “I can’t… she can’t… she can’t die!” A torrent of emotions spewed up from within. He kicked the chair at his side, sending it across the room. He threw the papers on a nearby desk at Professor McGonagall. “She can’t die!” He began to tremble, and bent over the desk with his hands to his face. Professor McGonagall set the box down on her desk, walked over to Harry, and put her arms around him, and let him sob on her shoulder. Finally, she pulled back and held his face in her hand.

“She needs you, Mr. Potter. The healers say she’s gone, but for one thread. She won’t let go until she can see that you are okay.” She wiped his face with her hands and straightened his hair. With a quake in her voice she said, “It’s time to be brave, Harry.”

He walked over to her desk, and starred at the small box.

“St Mungo’s?” he asked, looking into her wet eyes.

Professor McGonagall nodded. Slowly, he reached down to the golden sphere, took a deep breath, and snatched it like a Snitch.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 24 - A Dark Mark
~~~***~~~

The first thing Harry noticed was the smell. Memories of his stay at St. Mungo’s during the summer came flooding back, and he began to rub his arm. Looking around, he found himself near the inquiries desk at the hospital. Behind it stood the great picture of Dilys Derwent. There was a great look of sorrow on her face as she looked down at Harry. The witch behind the desk was talking to a woman that had a snake going in one ear and out the other.

“Spell Damage--Fourth floor,” she directed. Harry approached the desk apprehensively.

“Erm, Cho Chang,” he breathed unable to quite get the words out.

“Excuse me, dear?” she asked.

“Cho… Chang,” he said somewhat stronger.

“And you are?” she asked again looking down at her registry.

“Harry… Harry Potter.” The receptionist’s eyes shot straight forward, caught his, and drifted upward. Harry simply sighed, and she let out a slight gasp.

“I heard you were with us earlier this year,” she said intently staring at his scar. It was always a bit unnerving to have conversations with people who talked to your forehead. Harry turned away and looked at the people around him. To Harry’s left there was a disturbance. A group of healers were racing a woman down the corridor yelling at people to get out of the way. The corridor was crowded, and they were having trouble getting people to move. Finally, at the far end, they pushed through two double doors that swung open. For the briefest instant, a tall, slender girl with black hair that had been chasing behind turned and Harry’s heart skipped.

“Oh, yes,” the receptionist said pulling Harry’s attention away, “they’re expecting you. Just head down the hall to your right, and then take a left.” He glanced back down the corridor, but all was quiet again. “You look tired dear,” she said kindly. Harry rubbed his eyes and nodded. As he turned to leave the receptionist said, “I’m sorry for your loss, dear.”

When he reached the corridor outside Cho’s room, he found James sitting with an elderly woman. She had wisps of gray hair against the black, and wore glasses. With her wand in hand, she watched two knitting needles weave their way back and forth in front of her with gold and crimson thread. James was reading a magazine, Outdoor Wizard, when he saw Harry. At first he looked back down as if he hadn’t seen him. Then he started to shake, closed the magazine, and put his hands to his face. The needles stopped and the woman put her hand around him, and looking up she noticed Harry.

“It’s okay Jimmy,” she whispered. “It’s okay.” James shuddered, and then took a long deep breath. He stood and walked over to Harry. His eyes were red and filled with tears.

“They said you’d come tonight,” he choked. Harry couldn’t tell what the expression was on James’ face. They stood, looking at each other, as a woman in a white gown with blank eyes floated past locomoted by a healer. “Go away,” he whispered, tears starting to fall down his cheeks. “Go away!” Harry was speechless. He had no idea what to say, or what to do. The elderly woman came behind James and put her arms around him. “Make him leave Gran!” he yelled. “Not tonight, please! Not tonight!” And he broke down again in deep heaving sobs.

The door to Cho’s room opened; it was her father. His mood was dark, and his face tired and gaunt. Behind him was a tall witch dressed in green, a healer. James let go of his grandmother and repeated his plea to his father. Mr. Cho simply held his son close, as the healer stepped over to Harry.

“Hello Mr. Potter, I’m Healer Altus,” she said with a quiet voice, holding out her hand. Harry shook it. “Can we walk for a moment?” And she started to stroll down the long corridor with Harry at her side. “It is, I’m afraid, a very sad case. I doubt you’d remember, but I was your healer over the summer. Your injuries were very similar. Frankly, I’m amazed you survived. And I’m amazed Ms. Cho has lasted this long.” Her voice was grim. She stopped walking and stood at a banister surrounding an atrium. There were small bushes and flowers around a bubbling waterfall. A small child had snuck through and was splashing at the water’s edge.

“Harry,” she continued. “There is nothing left of her brain. She’s lost the will to eat and is losing her ability to breathe. It’s hard to say what kind of pain she might be in. The one thing we know is that she wants to see you.” She reached out and held his shoulder. “We believe she’s holding on until she knows you’re safe. With supplements and a bronchial-breathing spell we could keep her in this state for months, but not forever. Her parents have decided to let her go.”

“Can’t you…” Harry started.

“No,” Altus interrupted. “We’ve done everything. I understand your apprehension, Harry. I’m sorry to say, her brother sees you as the Grim Reaper, here to take his sister away. Nothing could be further than the truth. You need to know that. She’s trapped, Harry, and she needs you to release her.” They began to walk back to the room. When they returned, James was again sitting next to his grandmother. This time he was held in her arms. Mr. Chang was standing by the door.

“Harry,” Healer Altus warned in a whisper, “you should realize she’s not the same girl you knew before. Just prepare yourself for that.” She opened the door and Harry followed her into the room. Mr. Chang was a step behind. The room was fairly large. Flowers were everywhere, some suspended in midair. And a few balloons with GET WELL emblazoned on them floated in the corner. There was a woman behind a curtain standing at Cho’s bedside holding her hand.

“Sun-Yung,” Mr. Chang whispered. “He’s here.” Mrs. Chang stroked Cho’s hand and gently kissed it, and laid it back on the bed. She walked over to Harry her shoulders slumped. When she met his face she smiled, a tear falling from the corner of her eye.

“I see now why she wrote so much about you last year.” She held her hand to his face. “You are sad, no?” Her eyes were tender and her smile sincere. “We are all sad, Harry. We ask you here to answer her call one last time. It is a great request, and you honor us by answering our daughter.” Harry began to tremble. She took him by the shoulder and walked him to Cho’s bedside.

“Cho,” she said, her voiced raised, “you have a visitor. Harry… Harry Potter has come to see you.” Cho was motionless. Mrs. Chang looked back up to his face. “Take your time, my son. We will be right outside the door.” Her voice wavered. “If there is… a change, you will call?” Unable to speak, Harry nodded, his eyes wet. As the door shut behind him, he took in the scene more fully.

Cho’s face was sunken and sallow. Purple veins streaked down her arms, clearly visible through her translucent skin. Her brown eyes were open, almost fearful, but fixed at the ceiling. She thrust her tongue forward as if trying to speak, but fell silent, drool oozing from the side of her mouth. Harry grabbed a towel at her bedside table. His hand was shaking as he wiped he mouth. He sat at the side of her bed and began to stroke her black hair. It felt thin and lifeless. He looked at the flowers around the bed and then he noticed, there were no portraits of wizards or witches in this room. “Death is private,” he thought.

“Hello, Cho,” he whispered, his voice cracking. “We’ve missed you at school.” Her eyes twitched, but nothing more. He slid closer to look into her eyes bringing one knee onto the bed. “Gryffindor’s picked its team. They’ve flipped the usual schedule; this year we play Ravenclaw first. I… I don’t know what they’re going to do without you at Seeker.” He stroked her cheek. “I don’t know what any of us are going to do without you.” Her head moved slightly to the side, and her eyes seemed to focus on his face.

“Hi,” he said softly, trying to smile. The fear in her eyes faded.

“Harry?” she breathed faintly. “Have you seen Harry? Is he okay?” Her breaths became labored, almost rhythmic.

“I’m here, Cho,” he said, tears falling from his eyes. “Right here in front of you. I’m safe.” Slowly, she moved her hand, and he took it in his own. It was cold. “Harry is safe, Cho.” A small smile creased her thin face.

“Safe?” she breathed, the rhythm was heavier and slowing. Her eyes looked through Harry to another place. “Safe,” she whispered in satisfaction. Harry climbed fully onto the bed and held her face in his hands. His eyes so full of tears he couldn’t see.

“Don’t go, Cho,” he cried. “Stay with me. Just for awhile, please.” But her breaths continued to grow more labored, and the rhythm continued to slow. Harry leaned down and kissed her cheek. He looked down into her eyes. His heart ached and he held her tight. “Please, just a little longer,” he whispered. As he pulled back, through his tears he thought he saw a green light grow in her eyes, but then her breathing stopped and all was dark. “No! Please no!” he cried out loud, and he reached down once again and held her close. Cheek to cheek, he began to sob as he rocked her in his arms. The door opened behind him. He could hear Mrs. Chang break down and cry. A hand patted Harry on the back.

“It’s okay Harry, she’s gone now,” said Mr. Chang, but Harry wouldn’t let go. He was feeling weak, and dizzy, but he held her tight still sobbing. In his arms was his first love, lifeless, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was responsible. And then, inexplicably, a burst of warmth hit his ear… a breath. He froze. Another.

He pulled himself up wiping the tears from his eyes, and looked down. Her eyes were closed, but some hint of color had returned to her face. There she lay, thin and gaunt, but she was breathing. He began to shake, holding his hand to her face. It was warm. Harry heard Mrs. Chang let out a gasp. She grabbed her daughter’s hand and felt her forehead. And then she turned to Harry.

“What happened?” she asked. Harry shook his head, still shaking.

“I… I don’t know,” he stammered as he slid his feet off the bed and onto the floor. The room seemed to spin, and his legs were weak. “She was… she…”

Mrs. Chang stroked her daughter’s face. “She hasn’t closed her eyes since she arrived.” Harry suddenly realized that the whole family was in the room. Healer Altus stepped closer to look. “What does it mean, Healer?” Mrs. Chang asked.

Healer Altus held her wand over Cho’s head. It emitted a faint orange light. When the light went off, Altus’ hand began to tremble ever so slightly. She looked to Mrs. Chang. “She… she’s sleeping,” the healer said with bewilderment.

“I don’t understand, Healer,” Mr. Chang said, stepping forward. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she replied looking at Cho and then to Harry. “The trauma is gone.” But these words did not register with either of Cho’s parents.

It was James who stood at the back of the room with his grandmother and whispered, “Harry.”

Mrs. Chang looked down at her daughter. “I don’t understand either. Is she…” But her words were cut short by her daughter’s own.

“M-Mom?” Cho said in a very faint and weak voice. There was a collective gasp in the room. Everyone suddenly gathered around her bed, everyone but Harry, who took a step backward. A moment passed, and slowly Cho opened her eyes. “Mom?” her voice was stronger, but still weak. “Where am I?” There was a jubilant explosion as everyone tried to speak at once. Harry backed unsteadily toward the door, walked out into the corridor and sat down. He suddenly felt ill, trembling and cold, and he didn’t know why.

How long he sat, he wasn’t sure. He found himself staring at the cover of Outdoor Wizard, which bore the picture of a Unicorn, its head tossing up and down. He opened the magazine and tried to read an article on camping Muggle style in the high country with only a wand and a portkey. His vision seemed blurred, and he was just trying to read how Muggles pitch tents when the door to Cho’s room opened and Healer Altus stepped out. Harry dropped the magazine and straightened in his chair. The healer was shaking her head, but wore a broad smile.

“She’s talking,” said Altus, “and hungry.” She came over and sat down next to Harry. “What happened in there, child?” Harry looked at the closed door.

“I… I said I was fine,” he said, and then looking at his shoes, “I told her she could go,” he lied. “I thought, I thought she had.”

“Well, the brain is the most mysterious thing of all,” Altus replied. “Whatever you said, it has brought her back from the brink. She still has some nerve damage, but she’s alive and as soon as we get some weight on her she should be ready to go home.” Altus stood and ruffled Harry’s hair. “You’ve worked magic today, Mr. Potter,” she said grinning and walked down the corridor. No sooner had she left than Mrs. Chang came half way out of the door.

“Healer Altus says she needs to rest, but Cho wants to see you before you go.”

“I… I don’t think…”

“Come. Come,” she insisted, waving Harry to the door. When he entered Cho’s room, James immediately wrapped his arms around Harry.

“Thank you, Harry,” he said. “I’ll never forget what you’ve done today.” Harry looked down at the young wizard and smiled. He walked over to Cho’s bed as the rest of the family left the room. Slowly, he seemed to be regaining his bearings. Cho had her head higher up on the pillow and was sipping from a cup in her left hand through a straw. She grimaced.

“Yuk,” she puckered, “this is awful.” She slowly handed Harry the cup as he continued to smile.

“Wait till you try the green gravy. I hear it puts hair on your chest,” he laughed putting the cup down and stepping closer. It was as if he were looking at a different person. She bore a bright smile and warm eyes. He took her right hand, but noticed it did not take his in return; its life had not yet returned. “I thought we had lost you, Cho. We all did.” She looked down.

“I was lost Harry.” She pulled a flower from one of the vases by her bed and breathed in its aroma. “It was as if I was floating around these flowers watching myself wither away.” She looked back up to him. “And then you entered the room, and a flash of spring seemed to warm my heart again. You called me back, Harry. Thank you.” He stroked a wisp of hair from off her face.

“You brought yourself back, Cho.” He offered her another sip, but she declined. “Will they let you come back to school?” Cho nodded.

“I think so.” He squeezed Cho’s right hand, but it still lay limp. “Soon, I hope. James tells me Gryffindor plays Ravenclaw in the first match this year. I can’t wait to…” Her mouth opened wide as she let out a long yawn. Harry bent low and kissed her forehead.

“Sleep,” he said. “Everything else will come soon enough.” He took the flower from her hand and pulled her covers up to her chin. “Goodnight,” he whispered and left the room.

Together, Harry and James took a portkey back to Hogwarts. They found themselves at the front entrance to the castle. It was well past curfew, and Professor McGonagall stood waiting to greet them. James immediately ran into her arms, hugging her tight and Professor McGonagall held him close starting to sob.

“What are you doing here, James,” she cried. “You should be with your family.” But when James pulled away he held her hands wide in his. He wasn’t crying, he was laughing, spinning her around in a half dance. Professor McGonagall was at a loss. She looked to Harry who wore a broad grin.

“I didn’t know you could dance so well, Professor!” he called. Professor McGonagall was flummoxed.

“What happened, Mr. Potter?” she called, on one particularly wild spin. But it was James who answered.

“She’s alive! She’s alive!” he sang. “Harry brought her back! She’s alive and well Professor!” He stopped a bit winded, and Professor McGonagall tried to regain her composure.

“Harry?” she whispered.

“He’s just happy Professor,” Harry said walking close to her. “Cho has regained consciousness.” He laughed, watching James dance up and down the steps. “They say she might return to school soon, right James?”

“Yep!” he called out hopping down three steps at a time, and then racing back up. Professor McGonagall looked to the front door of the castle apprehensively.

“Oh dear,” she muttered with a look of concern across her face that then gave way to a smile. “Oh dear!” She grabbed James by the back of the collar as he whizzed by. “Come on, the two of you, it is time to head in.” They walked to the front doors and she stopped just short. “Gentlemen, the people inside believe that Cho has died, please be sensitive to that fact.”

They walked through the front doors into a crowded entranceway. Assembled from each house were the Prefects, the Head Boy and Head Girl. Professors Flitwick, Snape and Sprout flanked Professor Dumbledore who was sitting on a chair next to the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge. At the side of the room next to a fine grain leather trunk, stood Draco Malfoy; behind the blonde was his mother, Narcissa Malfoy. The room was grim and silent. Marietta, a Ravenclaw Prefect this year, was staring blankly at the floor. Hermione and Pansy Parkinson were both crying, but for different reasons.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Fudge spoke up. “Well,” he said, “It’s time, Narcissa, I’m sorry.”

“No!’ she screamed, her shrill voice piercing the silence of the sullen scene. “You can’t Cornelius! I’ve told you, it was an accident!” If it was possible, Malfoy’s face was even more pale than usual, but his eyes showed no fear. Instead, his expression was one of resignation. When he caught Harry’s eyes from across the room, there was no malice, and perhaps, Harry thought, a sense of regret. Professor McGonagall strode across the entranceway to where Professor Dumbledore was seated and began to whisper in his ear. James, however, could stand it no longer. He was trying to stay composed when a giggle and then a guffaw of laughter exploded from his belly. He ran straight to Marietta, jumped up, wrapped his arms around her, and the two fell over onto the ground.

“She’s back!” he yelled. “Marietta, she’s back!” Most everyone in the room bore the same look Professor McGonagall had moments earlier. Marietta, on the ground with James on top of her grinning from ear-to-ear, grabbed him by the shoulders. She began to understand.

“All the way?” she asked. James nodded wildly. Marietta gripped him close, smiling. Professor Dumbledore stood from his chair.

“It appears, Cornelius,” he said, “that Ms. Chang has recovered. Your services are no longer required, unless, of course, you would care to join us for the celebration.” And with that, Dumbledore waved his wand and conjured a long table covered with sweets near the front doors that reminded Harry of his birthday celebration. “Perhaps a slice of cake?” he asked with a smile. Dumbledore walked over to Mrs. Malfoy who, at his words, locked her son in an embrace. She was weeping violently, but her tears were tears of joy.

Most everyone had surrounded James and Marietta exchanging hugs and smiles trying to get details from James. Hermione was the first to walk to Harry whose mind was fusing the scene of his birthday party with the vision now before him. “We were told she was to die tonight,” she sniffed, wiping her reddened face. “Professor Flitwick said that they would let her pass after she said goodbye to you.” She reached out and took Harry’s hand. “What happened?”

Harry scanned the room. People were starting to get food from the table, exchanging Cho stories with smiling faces, hypothesizing when she might return. Harry’s glance returned to Hermione. “I went to say goodbye,” he said, and his hands began to tremble. “But, I couldn’t. I asked her to come back to me, and… and she did.” He looked at her as if, perhaps, he’d done something wrong.

“Oh, Harry,” she cried, and held him close. Harry saw Ron looking at them, but when their eyes met, Ron turned away toward the table of food. Still, Harry let go of Hermione.

“Let’s get a bite,” he suggested. “I missed dinner.” He was following her to the line that had formed when he noticed Malfoy standing at the back of the entryway. He was making his way toward James, tapped him on the shoulder and motioned for him to walk away from the others. Alone, the two started talking. After some time, Malfoy took James by the shoulder and held out his right hand. James hesitated, but then took the offer. As the two shook hands, James said something to Malfoy and the two simultaneously looked at Harry. James continued talking as Malfoy’s and Harry’s eyes locked together. Harry decided he would not look away first. Finally, Malfoy nodded and let go of James’ hand just as Pansy came up to him grinning and giving him a hug.

Harry was exhausted by the time he started up the stairs to Gryffindor. Ron had left an hour earlier, and Hermione not much after that. Harry was caught retelling the story of Cho’s recovery over and over. Everyone found it fascinating, even Mrs. Malfoy who thanked Harry for saving her son, as if that were Harry’s only motivation. She never mentioned that Harry had horribly scarred her son’s face. Evidently keeping him out of Azkaban was of prime importance.

Only Dumbledore seemed unsatisfied with the telling of Harry’s story, as if some critical aspect of her return had been overlooked. Passing through the portrait of the Fat Lady, Harry found the common room empty. The fire was dying down and the room dark. The portraits on the walls were silent as the witches and wizards slept in their frames. He looked at the stairs to the boys’ dormitories, but then decided to sit in front of the fire.

He had not told anybody about Cho’s lifeless arm. “She’ll recover,” he said to himself. He looked at the smooth skin of his own right arm in the glow of the embers. What had happened tonight? He tried to replay the scene in his mind, but he was too tired. He needed to get to bed. At least tomorrow he could sleep in. The fire cracked, and Harry thought he heard a rustling sound. He leaned his head back against the cushion; his lids were heavy. Maybe he’d just rest here a moment and then head up to bed.

The fire was bright and warming. Maybe a bit too warm, Harry thought. It seemed to be growing brighter and brighter. It started to crackle loudly and Harry pulled his feet in as embers the size of golf balls began to fly out toward him. There was a rhythmic swoosh-swoosh-swoosh as he realized he was sitting in the middle of a grassy field, a group of gnomes was running away from him. He pulled his knees in close. The sound was closer, swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. Suddenly black and red embers began to rain down on his head. He held his hand high but it was no use. The embers began to burn through his robes. He screamed in pain. A gnome was running straight at him and jumped on his chest. “Harry Potter!” it yelled.

“Harry Potter, wake-up, wake-up!” Harry threw the voice off his chest and jumped up brushing the embers off his robes… but there were no embers. He was in the common room. On the floor, next to the fire now almost extinguished, was Dobby the house elf rubbing his head.

Harry looked around trying to place himself. The pain in his arm had returned. He blinked at the fire. “Dobby?” he whispered, rubbing his eyes and face. “What are you doing?” His words were sharper than they should have been, but Harry was agitated and the sight of a house elf didn’t help.

“Dobby is cleaning sir,” the house elf said rising to his feet and bending in a low bow. “But then Dobby hears the great Harry Potter screaming, so Dobby wakes him.” Dobby looked sincerely concerned, but then Dobby always looked concerned. Harry’s arm was throbbing, he was tired, and he’d just had a very unpleasant dream. He wiped the perspiration from his forehead.

“Great, Dobby,” Harry snipped, “I’m off to bed.” Harry headed toward the stairs.

“You have a mark upon you sir,” Dobby whispered. Harry stopped. His sleeve was down. Had Dobby seen it while he was sleeping? He turned to find Dobby facing him, but bowing low.

“What have you seen, Dobby?” Harry stepped toward him.

“Nothing, Harry Potter, sir, nothing.” The words irritated Harry. If he hadn’t seen his arm, then how would he know?

“Liar!” Harry yelled. “You’re ALL liars!” He was angry, and he had no right to be. His face was hot, his eyes on fire. “WHAT HAVE YOU SEEN?” He was towering over Dobby. The house elf was frightened; Harry had misunderstood.

“You have a mark upon you sir,” he repeated. “A new mark. Someone has…” Harry bent low putting one knee to the ground, his face inch’s from Dobby’s. For some reason he had an overwhelming urge to throttle the house elf, but resisted the temptation.

“You’ll tell no one,” he sneered through gritted teeth. “Do you understand? NO ONE!” They were nearly nose-to-nose. Glowing red by the fire, Harry could see the reflection of his face off the large orbs of Dobby’s eyes. It was contorted and cruel.

“But sir,” Dobby whispered with a questioning voice, “surely no one has seen it?” He reached his hand to Harry’s face but did not touch. “It is everywhere, and nowhere,” he said, moving his hand as if stroking an invisible cloud around Harry’s face. “No wizard could see it.”

“SEE WHAT?” yelled Harry grabbing Dobby’s hand before him. The sleeve on his robe slipped down his right arm revealing the mark by the glow of the fire’s dying embers. Dobby saw it immediately and gasped. Clearly this mark was a revelation. Harry let go, pulling his sleeve down and standing away.

“Harry Potter, sir,” Dobby said walking toward Harry as if to help. “Harry Potter has been touched by a Dark Wizard.” There was a commotion from the stairs leading to the boys’ dormitory.

A voice said, “Lumos!” and a bright light filled the stairway. Whoever cast the spell was walking down. Harry turned to the house elf, thirsty for an explanation.

“Dobby, what do you…” but Dobby was gone. When Harry looked back to the stairs, he saw Goyle groggily stepping down in green pajamas. At first he hadn’t noticed Harry was there, he didn’t see the Harry that was now shaking with rage.

“Ron, you better be right,” he said to himself walking toward one of the cupboards above the common room counter. He opened it to find a piece of cake from the evening’s celebration. A grin flashed across his face. Taking the plate he began to head back upstairs when he noticed Harry holding his wand.

“Potter,” he spat, “what are you doing here? So help me, if you…”

* * *


In bed, Harry once again cleared his mind before finally falling to sleep. On this night, the last thing to leave his thoughts was the result of his last spell… an image of a jar holding a large toad in green pajamas with frosting all over its face.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 25 - Out of Bravery, Fire
~~~***~~~

The red eye stared back at Harry burning with anger, threatening and ominous. “When will we meet again Voldemort?” Harry whispered in the cool darkness. The glowing crimson orb made no reply. “You may find me a bit more mature this year, Dark Lord. But what surprises will you have for me? I know you’ve made your move already; I can feel it. But, what is it I wonder? Dementors? Bombs? I think not. You want me… I’ve heard you calling Tom… but you can’t have me. You’ll never have me.”

Blinking, Harry pulled away from his telescope. For weeks they’d been studying clusters and galaxies, and on every clear night when they observed the stars he couldn’t help but gaze at Mars as it continued to brighten in the night sky.

“Fifteen minutes, students,” Professor Sinistra called out. Another astronomy class was over, and again Dean hadn’t been willing to talk to Harry. He was perfectly polite, but behind the façade were cold waters. Harry knew it was about Ginny, but every time Harry tried to bring the subject up, Dean would change the direction or stop it in its tracks. When Professor Sinistra finally dismissed the class, Harry tried again.

“Hey Dean,” he said with an earnest voice, “do you think you can give me a hand with these charts tonight? I’ll never get this globular cluster drawn right.” Dean continued to slide his perfect renditions of the same images into his case.

“Gee Harry,” he replied not looking up, “I’m kinda busy tonight. Hermione and I were going to work on Arithmancy together. Sorry.” Dean pulled his pack over one shoulder and started down the stairs. Frustrated, Harry shook his head and walked over to the parapet. The night sky was brilliant as the quarter moon gently lit the grounds below. He put both hands on the banister and sighed.

Every day the people he could count as friends seemed to be growing smaller. Ron and Dean were speaking more to each other than to Harry. And if Ron was found laughing in the common room with anybody it was with Hermione or Goyle. Seamus blamed Harry for Ravenclaw’s utter defeat in their ‘secret’ attack against Slytherin. Somebody had been tipped off, and the Slytherins never went into the classroom to duel. Instead they waited for the Ravenclaw’s to leave and ambushed them in the corridor. Seamus’ face was still popping green puss that smelled of boiled cabbage. Even Anthony Goldstein had turned his back on Harry. Anthony was angry, not because he’d been beaten by Slytherin, but because Harry, not Anthony, had saved Cho’s life. As for Dean, he seemed more distant with each passing day, while Neville was spending most of his time with Helen Hedera. Neville hooking up with Helen, however, met Harry’s approval. He noticed that the coupling definitely improved Neville’s confidence in all of his classes.

What bothered Harry the most was that Hedwig had still not returned. At first he was worried, but then his thoughts turned to an irrational fear that Gabriella had decided to let their paths part. After all, he’d told Hedwig to stay with her; maybe she had. Lately, his mind had turned that fear into anger and resentment, deepening his sense of isolation. Only Hermione made any effort to be friendly to Harry, but after Ron had seen her holding his hand, even she became more cautious of seeming too close.

The one loyal friend he thought he’d never lose, Dobby, had disappeared completely. Every minute Harry could spare was spent searching for the house elf. He slept in the common room, visited the kitchens, and left notes that disappeared, but were never answered. With the cool night’s breeze blowing gently at his face, Harry stood on the parapet in the dark and his ears echoed Dobby’s words -- touched by a Dark Wizard. But no Dark Wizard had touched him, unless Voldemort had left something behind last year… something hidden.

Below Harry, the front doors to the castle opened and Firenze jumped out onto the front lawn. He walked near the Whomping Willow, but the tree remained still. For a long time as Harry gazed at the centaur, the centaur gazed at the sky, his hoof nervously clawing at the ground. Something was clearly troubling Firenze, but when Harry looked up at the stars he couldn’t tell what it was. “Could centaurs see Dark Marks?” Harry wondered. Just as the thought crossed Harry's mind, Firenze noticed him on the parapet. The centaur nodded his head in a subtle bow, and Harry waved in return. Then Firenze walked toward Hagrid’s cabin and disappeared behind.

Harry looked out across the lake toward Hogsmeade. The town’s lights gave a faint glow to the horizon. His mind turned to Malfoy and the soul that had been lost because of Harry’s own foolishness. At least he and Malfoy had stopped dueling, directly anyway. Simple insults towards one another had become their language of choice. Much like their magic in transfiguration, their verbal sparing had become a competition of sorts. But there had been no sincere threats since Harry had returned from St. Mungo’s.

For some minutes, Harry stood silently trying to put all the pieces together, but the puzzle was getting too large, too complex. By the time Harry made it back to the common room, he had again found himself with far too much homework, far too little time, and no friends to help him accomplish it. Ron, Ginny, Dean and Hermione were working together by the fire. Goyle was talking to Katie and Sloper about Quidditch. He thought about joining them, but then shrugged his shoulders and headed to the boys’ dormitories.

His room was empty. Harry thought about the very real possibility that Neville might be breaking curfew if he didn’t get back in soon. He grinned to himself. Looking around to make sure he was alone, he walked over to his trunk and pulled out a birthday gift, Soseh’s painting. For quite some time he just looked at her, wishing he could stroke her black hair and dive into her black eyes. His fingers traced her head and back, but did not touch the delicate painting. “Where are you, Gabriella?” he whispered. His words were sorrowful, but then, suddenly, his mind began to bend his sorrow into anger. “You’ve found someone else, haven’t you?”

He examined the portrait’s dying day, the orange sun plunging into the azure ocean. If anything the colours were more brilliant. Looking closely at her face, he sensed somehow sadness in her expression. How could he not have noticed before? He began to peer more closely at her eyes when he heard footsteps climbing the stairs. As he slid the portrait back, he noticed Dudley’s gift and held it in his hand. The thought of clunking the head of whoever was coming up the stairs crossed his mind. When he saw that it was Ron and Goyle, the urge was palpable.

“I’m beat, mate,” Ron said to Goyle, not noticing Harry crouching low between his trunk and bed. “Did you three come up with any new strategies?”

“Well,” Goyle began, “we’re trying to make sure we don’t rely on the Seeker winning the game every time, right? Gryffindor’s got to be able to win the match outright even if Ravenclaw gets the Snitch.” Ron nodded his head in agreement, as he changed into his pajamas. “That means more aggressive play and faster ball handling. How Potter convinced Katie that that shrimp Creevey could play… I don’t know… she won’t budge.”

“Potter pretty much gets his way around here, mate,” Ron replied crawling into bed. “Get used to it.”

“Well, you’d a thought he’d get detention for… well, you know.” Goyle began to shudder rubbing his face. “As if I could really surprise the great Harry Potter! Merlin’s Beard! I was just trying to get a slice of cake! I didn’t even see it coming, I tell you.”

“You don’t get it do you,” Ron sighed putting his hands behind his head on his pillow. “That transfiguration was well past N.E.W.T. level. There are maybe two guys in Ravenclaw, and maybe Hermione who could cast that spell right in all Hogwarts. If I tried, you’d be some sort of blob on the floor, pretty much like you were on the train last year.” Ron began to laugh.

“That’s not funny!” Goyle yelled, and then he brought his voice down low leaning down to Ron at his bedside. “A snake is what he is.”

“Potter’s not…” but Ron’s words were cut short. Harry could take it no longer. He stood up and grabbed his pillow.

“This snake…” he stuck out his tongue and hissed at Goyle who was so frightened he fell over backwards knocking over a lit candlestick into his own book pack and starting a small fire, “…will be sleeping in the common room tonight.” Then he turned to Ron. “So I’m a Potter now; is that right, Weasley?” The look on Ron’s face told Harry he wanted to take the words back, but pride mixed with guilt stood in the way.

“I’ll call you whatever I want to call you, Potter,” he snapped back. “Enjoy the couch!” Somehow the words hurt. Harry didn’t want them to, but they did. He wanted to say something, something spectacularly virulent, but his face withered and his shoulders slumped. Still holding his red, round, rock in one hand, and his pillow in the other he slouched down the stairs.

Behind him he could hear Goyle blurt out in a loud whisper, “That’s tellin’ him!” But there was no reply from Ron. On the way down he passed Dean and Neville.

“Hi, Harry,” said Neville with a warm smile. Dean said nothing. “Going to try and catch a glimpse of Dobby again, eh?”

Harry shrugged. “Yeah, I guess,” he said grimly.

There was a first year student sitting in the couch by the fire reading a book. Harry didn’t know his name… Patrick something. Not wanting to be rude, he went and got a glass of water and sat at the table rolling the red ball around from hand to hand, left to right to left... “One lone student,” he thought, “and he’s got to sit there.” The ball was heavy, very heavy, right to left… “I should have just cracked him!” he murmured under his breath. “Potter pretty much gets his way around here,” he mocked now throwing the rock from hand to hand, left, right, left… “As IF!” he spat loudly, standing and beginning to pace the room, right, left, right… “If I’m a snake, he’s poison,” he said to himself. “Haseth Hayaheth!” he hissed. “There! How’s that for snake?” He was trying to think of what he should have said. What was the perfect retort to Potter? There were so many, too many really. He squeezed, pressing the red rock with the fingers of his right hand. Ron made an easy mark, and Harry knew anything he’d say would cut to the bone. His fingers loosened. He couldn’t do that to Ron; he wouldn’t do that to Ron.

The anger began to ebb away, and Harry took a deep breath. The stone ball seemed somehow lighter in his hands. He looked down and admired the intricate red and black patterns on its surface. He walked over to the first year to ask if he could use the couch.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but do you mind if I…” He looked at the first year to see a shaking white wisp of a thing staring back at him. The child’s eyes were wide with fear as his eyes darted from Harry to the table. Harry looked back to see that his glass of water was steaming. What water he had was now nearly all boiled away. “Oh, that…uh yeah. It’s probably one of the ghosts playing tricks again. Maybe you’d best be off to bed, eh?”

Trembling, the first year closed his book and headed toward the staircase facing Harry all the while. Harry walked over, grabbed his pillow and tossed it onto the couch. “See ya!” He waved as the first year finally passed up the stairs and out of sight. He flopped himself onto the couch and tried to clear his mind. At first, it was impossible. Angry, self-pitying thoughts kept flashing into his head. As he rolled the ball around in his hand, he began to relax, and finally his thoughts began to drift away. Before long he was asleep.

There was a thud and Harry woke abruptly reaching for his wand. He was still by the fire in the common room. A glance out the window confirmed it was still night. The fire seemed to have more logs on it than he remembered. He sat up for a moment rubbing his face, looked around, and seeing nothing lay back down to sleep. Suddenly, he realized that his stone was no longer in his hands. He looked to the floor--nothing. He was still a bit groggy as he swiveled off the couch and crouched low to see where it might have rolled. Finally, he saw that it was in the fire nestled among the glowing embers. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the brightness.

“Damn,” he cursed, looking for some way to get it out. “Your wand stupid,” he said to himself. Half asleep, and without really thinking he called out, “Accio stone!” Instantly the stone flew toward him, and instinctively he reached for it like a Snitch. Before the ball hit his palm, his mind realized he’d made a mistake, but it was too late. The fiery stone struck his flesh.

He gave out a small shriek and dropped the stone to the floor. But, something was wrong. His half-sleeping mind was trying to fit the pieces together. He’d felt no pain. He looked at the palm of his left hand, and there was no blister. He bent low and kneeled next to the stone on the floor. He held his hand over its surface. He felt no heat. With one finger he touched the red surface. It wasn’t hot; it wasn’t even warm. If anything, it was cool. He held it in his hand, perplexed.

With his wand, he levitated it into the hottest part of the fire and set it there. He went over and refilled his glass of water taking a drink and waiting. After a few minutes he levitated the stone out of the fire and slowly let it sink into the glass of water. Instantly the water sizzled as it struck the stone’s surface. Steam poured out. Again, Harry repeated the experiment; only this time, without fear, he dropped the ball into his own left hand, fully expecting to hear the same sizzling sound. But none came. The stone felt cool. He shook his head. What was going on?

“Very brave!” a voice rang out breaking the stillness and silence. Harry dropped the stone on the floor again and spun on the sound, wand in hand. “Very brave, indeed Harry Potter, sir!” It was Dobby. There was a smile on Dobby’s face, but the house elf looked ill. He was thinner, if that were possible, and his colour looked… well, off.

“Dobby!” Harry called. Seeing the house elf in front of him looking back with the first smile that had faced him in over ten days, Harry reached down and hugged Dobby. Then, with one knee on the floor, he held his shoulders looking at him closely. “Are you okay? You’re ill!”

“Not ill, Harry Potter, sir… not ill.” Dobby smiled, a bit overwhelmed by Harry’s hug. “Dobby has been busy, very busy.” Harry picked Dobby up in his arms and carried him to the couch by the fire. His eyes were clearly exhausted, and his clothes, which of late had been so new, were tattered. There was the slightest tremble as he held Dobby in his arms, as if the house elf was cold.

“Sit here Dobby, rest,” he said laying the house elf on his pillow and covering him with a quilt.

“You are a great wizard, sir,” Dobby said trying to sit up, “Dobby must stand.” But Harry held him down.

“You’ll stay there Dobby,” Harry insisted. And the house elf, truly unable to push back, gave in and put his head against the pillow. “Why have you been busy Dobby?” Harry asked. Dobby lifted his head slightly off the pillow.

“Is it safe, Harry Potter, sir?” he whispered. Harry looked around the room and nodded. Exhausted, Dobby put his head back down. “Dobby has been traveling sir, looking. But Dobby has failed. Dobby has failed Harry Potter!” Dobby began to bang his head with his hands, and Harry grabbed each with his own.

“Stop it Dobby!” said Harry. “You haven’t failed me. I… I’ve failed you. I had no reason to be so cruel to you. I’m sorry, Dobby, truly sorry.” He held Dobby’s thin hands in his own. “Can you forgive me?” Dobby’s eyes began to fill with tears and he reached down and blew his nose in his tattered shirt.

“Dobby tells them,” the house elf began, “Dobby tells them all, and each year the stories of Harry Potter grow greater. Dobby has friends, sir, many friends. They won’t admit it sir, but Dobby tells them of your greatness, sir. And now it is not just Dobby telling the stories. Your name is known, sir.” He took Harry by the right arm. “And so Dobby searched sir. Dobby traveled to all his friends. And Dobby’s friends asked more friends.” The house elf’s voice grew quiet. “There are many house elves Harry Potter. And many friends work in dark places,” he whispered lower. “Dobby asked who could leave such a mark on the great Harry Potter. But Dobby failed sir. There is no Dark Wizard in all of Britain that could do such a thing, at least not one known to us.”

“Dobby,” Harry said quietly, “what Dark Mark? Please, tell me. What can you see?” Harry rolled up his sleeve to show the smooth skin on his right forearm. “Is it this? Is it the mark you saw here?” To Harry’s surprise, Dobby shook his head, no.

“It is a charm, sir,” Dobby spoke as his eyes cleared. “House elves can see it, but wizards can’t. Dobby can see it all around you.” Again, Dobby held his hand to Harry’s face but did not touch, stroking an invisible layer Harry could not see. “It is Dark magic, Harry Potter, sir.” Dobby shuddered as he pulled his hand away.

“A charm?” Harry asked. “A charm, or a hex? Do I have a curse set upon me Dobby?”

“Dobby can not see its purpose sir,” Dobby said shaking his head, “only its nature. It is old magic, very old. It is a charm, I think, not meant for a wizard.” Dobby tried with all his might to pull his head off his pillow, but he couldn’t. He began to speak again, but Harry stopped him.

“Shhh,” Harry breathed with his finger to his lips. “Later Dobby. You need to eat and rest. Let me carry you downstairs.” Dobby’s eyes began to fill with tears again.

“He cares more for Dobby than… than to know…” Dobby sniffed and blew his nose in his shirt again. “Truly, Dobby’s greatest friend! There may be other places, yes? Other elves Dobby has not spoken to?” Dobby’s eyes began to focus elsewhere. “I will return, Harry Potter, sir. Dobby must discover the cause; I must not fail!”

“Dobby, no!” Harry yelled. “You’ve got to rest… to eat.” But Dobby raised his hands, smiled and disapparated before Harry’s eyes. Harry flopped back onto the pillow that Dobby had just left. He pulled his right sleeve up and looked at his arm.

“What mark is it Dobby?” he spoke to the fire. He had so many questions, but Dobby looked ill, very ill. And now he was gone, not to rest, but to search for more answers. Harry noticed the red orb at the front of the fire again, and levitated it toward his hand. Again it was cool in his palm.

“Where did you get this, Dudley?” he breathed, looking at its bright orange crevices, and its crimson depths of smoke. Harry thought of Mad-Eye’s words. It could be cursed, or some sort of orb to track Harry’s whereabouts. Perhaps it was listening to every conversation he had. Harry sighed. What other kids had to worry about their gifts being bewitched. “It’s just a rock,” he told himself, and holding it with both hands on his chest, he relaxed and watched the flames reflect off its surface. Finally, his mind drifted off to sleep.

He woke, his eyes still closed, to the touch of someone stroking his hair. “It’s long, isn’t it?” Ginny whispered.

“Yeah,” Hermione replied softly. “I don’t know. I think I liked it shorter.”

“Oh, no. I think it gives him a more edgy look. He’ll need that.” There was concern in Ginny’s voice. “When, do you think?” she asked wrapping a finger around a half curl of Harry’s black hair.

“I don’t know, Ginny. I don’t know. But we’ll all have to be ready when it happens.” He could hear Hermione walk around the couch. “Harry,” she whispered rocking his shoulder. “Harry, it’s time to wake up.” Harry opened his eyes, blinking.

“Hello, sleepy head,” said Ginny, grinning over the back of the couch. “You’d best get ready.” The morning bustle of students preparing for class was filling the common room.

“Yes, Harry,” said Hermione grabbing him by the shirt. “Get up, or you’ll miss Potions.”

“Wouldn’t that be awful,” Harry mumbled, rubbing his eyes as he sat up. The tremendous number of short people filling the room made him think, for some reason, of Gringotts. “Tell me we weren’t that small,” he said. Hermione just smiled. From behind, Ginny was still fiddling with his hair.

“Hey, Ginny!” Dean called, a hint of irritation in his voice. “Are we going to breakfast or what?” Ginny quickly let go.

“Yes, Dean,” she replied in a kind voice. “Just trying to wake Harry up.”

“Harry’s a big boy now,” said Dean, adding a bit of acidity to the irritation. “He certainly doesn’t need my girl to get him out of bed.”

“YOUR GIRL?” Ginny shot back adding a level of indignation. “Your girl can get whomever she wants out of bed!” Ginny yelled, her voice filling the common room, which suddenly fell silent as everyone stopped and stared. Dean glanced around, embarrassed.

“Fine!” he yelled, stomping off.

“Oh dear,” Ginny said biting her lower lip. “I didn’t mean it like that. Excuse me guys, I… I better apologize.” She left calling Dean’s name down the corridor. Harry stood and looked at Hermione. A grin broke across his face.

“Happy Birthday,” he said giving her a hug.

“You remembered,” she said with a smile and a blush, as she tried patting his hair down in what was sure to be a fruitless battle.

“Of course I remembered. Will there be a party?” Hermione’s ears turned scarlet.

“I don’t think so,” she answered, pulling her hand away. She started looking around, avoiding Harry’s eyes. Harry’s heart drooped a little.

“Well,” he said gently, “I have a gift for you anyway. I’ll get it to you today sometime.” He looked as everyone headed out the portrait of the Fat Lady. “I better get going.” He stroked her face with his hand and darted up the stairs to prepare for the day. When he got to his dormitory, everyone else was already dressed. He met Ron’s eyes for an instant, but they each turned and looked the other way unwilling to say a word. Harry rolled the red stone in his fingers thinking of last night. If Ron hadn’t come when he did, Harry would have slept in bed and, perhaps, Dobby would have gone to eat and rest.

Harry sat on his bed tossing the stone in the air and catching it with the other hand. It was certainly not any bigger than a Snitch, just a bit heavier maybe.

“What’s…” Goyle began but the look Harry shot him instantly told him to be quiet. It wasn’t long before Neville, Ron and Goyle were set to head downstairs. Before they left, Harry spoke up.

“Hey, Goyle,” Harry called. “You’re friends with Malfoy, right?” Everyone stood still. Goyle, one foot on the stairs to the lower level, was a bit confused by the timing of the question

“Yeah,” he replied, “I guess, why?”

“You and Crabbe, right?”

“What’s your point, Potter?” asked Goyle impatiently.

“You… you’re friends with a Weasley now. What does your friend Malfoy think of that?”

“I can be friends with who I want,” Goyle charged.

“Can you?” Harry pushed. “I know Malfoy’s seen you being chummy with Ron. He knows you’re playing Quidditch for Gryffindor. In class, I’m forced to speak with his disfigured face almost every day. But, he hasn’t said one word, Goyle, not one word about his good friend palling it up with, next to me, his least favorite wizard in the world. Why is that do you think?”

“Yeah! Why is that?” Neville repeated. Goyle glowered over the top of Longbottom, and Neville simply started down the stairs.

“The way I figure it,” Harry continued, ignoring Goyle and looking straight at Ron. “He either wants you to be Weasley’s pal, or he doesn’t care. You, Crabbe, and Malfoy… six years at Hogwarts, spending nearly every waking minute together... and he doesn’t care. Unlikely, don’t you think?” The question was aimed fully at Ron. “But why, I wonder, would he want you to be Weasley’s friend?”

“Come on Greg,” said Ron. “Let’s go.” And the two left without another word.

By the time Harry had showered and dressed, it was clear he wasn’t going to have time for breakfast. He was sitting on his bed, lacing his trainers, when the red stone he’d left there rolled over next to his thigh. He picked it up and set it down on the table next to his dragonhead. The table, or the castle floor, being not quite level, the ball began to roll off the edge. Harry grabbed it and searched to put it somewhere. He looked down at the small Snitch-like ball of crimson in his hands, then up to the black dragonhead before him. Its eyes… its eyes were… red. Slowly, side-by-side, Harry compared the stones of the dragon’s eyes and the stone in his hand. They were, by all accounts, identical.

The mouth of the Horntail was open, waiting for something to bite. A blood red moon? Gently, Harry set the stone into the razor sharp teeth of the Hungarian Horntail. The fit was perfect. He waited, but nothing happened. “Well? What were you expecting, Potter,” he said to himself, “fireworks?” Staring at his two birthday gifts, he couldn’t help but think they looked right together. Finally, shaking his head, he grabbed his book pack and headed off to class, leaving his future behind.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 26 - A Girl’s Best Friend
~~~***~~~

When Harry went to dinner, he had no trouble finding a seat at the Gryffindor table. Most all the sixth years were gone. Ginny and a few others were also absent. A scan around the Great Hall for a few of Hermione’s friends from the other houses revealed they were also gone. He knew, of course, what they were doing, having a grand time at Hermione’s birthday party. He just didn’t know where. He sat down and a plate of chicken, green beans, and roasted potatoes appeared. He was taking a sip of milk, thinking of Dobby, when Dennis Creevey sat down next to him.

“Hey Harry!” his voice cracked. “Where is everyone?” A plate appeared in front of Dennis and he began to eat.

“Hermione turns seventeen today.” Harry sighed. “The party’s tonight.” Adjusting his glasses, Harry stabbed a potato with his fork and thrust it into his mouth. Dennis scanned the table up and down, looked at Harry, but didn’t say a word. Instead, he simply took another bite. Harry couldn’t help but think of the difference between Dennis and his brother Colin. There was a wisdom behind Dennis’ eyes that Colin just didn’t have. Knowing when not to speak was a great gift. Happy to be able to guide the conversation, Harry spoke first.

“You were tremendous out on the pitch the other day,” Harry said hoisting what energy he could into his voice. “You flew right at that Bludger almost daring it to hit you.”

“When you’re as small as I am,” Dennis shrugged, “you can change directions faster than a Bludger. Colin showed me that over the summer.”

“Colin?” Harry was surprised.

“Yeah. He took some moving pictures of me practicing and was able to show me some things I was doing wrong.” Dennis smiled. “He’s great with a camera. If you’d like, I can have him get some shots of you.” He took a drink of milk. “But with that Caduceus of yours, they’d probably all be blurry.” Dennis smiled.

“Sure,” Harry found himself saying. “That’d be great.”

They spoke mostly about Quidditch for quite awhile. But they also touched on the summer activities of the Creevey family. Dennis’ father, being a milkman, didn’t make much money. There were no trips to Germany in the Creevey household. Instead, Colin and his brother did yard work around their neighborhood and Colin did some work as a photographer at Muggle weddings.

“I know it’s not much,” Dennis said shyly, “but we get along okay.”

“Are you kidding?” Harry smiled. “It’s brilliant! I worked in a sporting-goods shop this year. It means something, Dennis, when the money in your pocket is earned from your own effort.” Dennis grinned back nodding his head in agreement.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. We made enough to buy the Firebolt.”

“We?” Harry asked.

“Colin gave me his summer savings so I’d have a chance to make the team,” Dennis replied. It hit Harry right between the eyes. Of course, his father could never afford a Firebolt as a milkman, and one summer’s work mowing lawns wouldn’t do it either.

“Everything?” Harry asked.

“Well, he bought some dress robes with the rest, but, yeah, everything.” Dennis spoke as if it were the most natural thing in the world for someone to give all they had for their brother. Harry thought back to Remus’ words: It’s never about how much, but how you use it that makes the difference. Harry looked at Dennis a bit embarrassed.

“It was the Firebolt,” Harry said, “that got you on the team.”

“I figured as much,” Dennis answered un-phased. “There were a lot of good players at the tryouts.”

“But that doesn’t take away from the fact that you’ve flown brilliantly,” Harry added. Dennis looked up with a look that needed reassurance and Harry gave it without a second’s thought. “Brilliantly,” he emphasized. “You’re picking up Katie’s plays faster than anyone else on the team and that includes me.”

By the time the two had finished, Harry found himself feeling much better than when he first sat down. Talk of Quidditch strategies and general Muggle life seemed to lighten his heart. They were headed out of the Great Hall when Dennis began to look uncomfortable.

“What is it Dennis?” Harry asked.

“Well,” Dennis wavered. “You know… Professor Tonks is great and all, but… well, there are some of us who had a good time last year when… well, when you were teaching us… you know?” Harry didn’t know what to say. It was an odd turn in the conversation. “I know it was because Umbridge was so awful, but it was fun. Like our own club or something, it was great!” Again Dennis became uneasy. “Well, a few of us were wondering if maybe you could, you know, start it up again this year.” Harry began to shake his head.

“Look,” Harry said politely, “Dennis, I really don’t have the…”

“I know. I know.” Dennis cut in not wanting to put Harry in an uncomfortable position. “You’re busy. I understand. It was just a…”

“No,” Harry interrupted. “No, I’m not busy.” He paused watching students pass down the corridor. Probably heading to the library, he thought. If anything, he was wasting his time thinking. He needed, he wanted to do something. Still, he was a bit apprehensive. “There’s the dueling club you know.”

“I said fun, Harry,” Dennis said rolling his eyes. “Snape runs that club like a boot-camp, except for his own Slytherins who he lets cheat every time they get a chance.” The two stopped at the bottom of the staircase.

“Listen, Dennis. If I’m running Dumbledore’s Army again, we won’t exclude anybody willing to fight Voldemort. That includes Slytherins.” Harry waited for a howling complaint, but Dennis took his words, rolled them in his mind, and then nodded in agreement. Then a huge smile burst across his face.

“Same place you think?” Dennis asked.

“Well we won’t have to hide this year. I think we can use the room to…” Harry stopped. “Of course,” he whispered, his eyes casting a glance upward. “Do you still have your coin?” he said excitedly.

“Sure.” Dennis replied. Harry started running up the staircase.

“Keep it handy,” Harry called back. “I’ll let you know when!” He was jumping the steps three at a time. When he passed through the portrait of the Fat Lady, he found the common room empty of all sixth years except two. There by the fire, Neville and Helen were holding hands.

“Neville!” Harry called out. “She can’t be in here! Does she know the password?”

“If Goyle can know the password, Helen can,” Neville replied with a somewhat dreamlike voice. “I just wanted to show her around Harry, that’s all.” Harry didn’t have time to argue. He shot up to his dormitory and grabbed a small package with a bow. On the way down the stairs he passed Neville and Helen climbing up.

“Neville, just…,” Harry sighed, “…just be careful,” he said, and jumped the rest of the way down the stairs. In minutes, he was at the Room of Requirement, Hermione’s present in hand and sweat beading on his brow. The corridor was silent as he wiped his face. When he pushed the door open he was met with a blast of voices mixed with music. His guess was right. It was Hermione’s party.

“You made it!” called Lavender who was standing next to Parvati. Each had a plastic cup in their hand, and both seemed to be a bit too giggly. Grinning, they both spoke in unison, “They said you were sick.”

“They did, did they?” sneered Harry. “Well, I’m feeling much better now, I assure you.” He stepped deeper into the room. Virtually every Gryffindor sixth year was here. There were party favors and crackers everywhere. Balloons filled the ceiling and confetti littered the floor. What was left of a rather large cake sat on a table beside a barrel that Harry figured to be a keg of beer. There against the wall stood Dean and Ginny, oblivious to everything around them, arm-in-arm, and all smiles. The room was filled, and as each person caught eye of Harry, they seemed to stop their conversation or laughter. He heard a small cheer coming from a side room. As he walked toward its entrance, Ginny caught sight of Harry and a look of surprise spread over her face. He poked his head into the side room, and found it also filled with people. Hermione was sitting on a couch next to Ron. There was a large flash of light. Colin was taking pictures of Hermione opening her presents. By the looks of things, Hermione had received mostly books, and loved every one.

He stepped in and the laughter stopped. Hermione looked up to see what was wrong, and saw Harry walking toward her. He hoisted a grand smile on his face. He was used to silent stares. He set his small present with what appeared to be yet more books on the table before her.

“I told you I had a present for you. Happy Birthday,” he said continuing to smile wide. “It’s a wonderful party. Really wonderful.” Looking down he noticed that Ron was wearing a T-shirt with the logo of a German beer company that matched the emblem on the keg in the outer room. “A present from vacation?” Harry asked. Ron reddened, but remained silent. Harry looked straight into Ron’s eyes. They were bloodshot, drooping, and reminded him of Duncan’s after a night of drinking. “Yes, well… I didn’t think you’d have the guts to answer.” Ron simply scowled.

Hermione took the gift in her hands and removed the paper. It was a small velvet case about eight inches long. When she opened it she gave a small shriek. “Oh Harry! You shouldn’t have!” She stood up and hugged him tight. Then reaching into the box she pulled out a golden necklace studded with diamonds. There was a collective squeal from most of the girls in the room. Parvati, who’d been peaking in, ran over to Hermione.

“Here!” she said, smiling excitedly. “Let me help you put it on!” She stood behind Hermione, held the chain in her hand, her mouth aghast, and clasped the sparkling jewelry around her neck. “It’s gorgeous,” Lavender whispered in Hermione’s ear.

“I thought,” said Harry, still managing a smile, “sixteen deserved something more than books.” Hermione reached out and held him in her arms.

“Thank you, Harry,” she said, and kissed his cheek. Harry looked around the room and suddenly became uncomfortable. For the first time, Harry realized that Hermione was starting to look more like a woman than a girl.

“I really must be going, Hermione,” he excused himself. “Thanks for everything, but I have a busy day tomorrow.” Still smiling he turned and started to weave his way through the people that had poked their heads in to see what he was saying. He had just entered the main room when Ron called him from behind.

“You know you weren’t invited Potter!” he slurred. Harry stopped without looking back. He had not intended to give the gift to Hermione in front of Ron, but somehow knowing it hurt Ron made him feel better. He took a step to the door, there was a small gasp, and the people around Harry pulled away. Harry continued to walk toward the door, and Ron continued to yell at his back. “You shouldn’t have come! Why do you have to ruin everythin’ you touch, Potter?” said Ron, trying to inflict what pain he could. Harry refused to look at him, and continued to the door.

“Ron, please… stop,” Hermione’s voice pleaded. “Put it down.”

The ache began at the tips of Harry’s fingers and wrapped its way around his forearm and struck like a knife into his right shoulder. He tucked at his shirtsleeve ensuring it was down all the way. The smile on his face washed away. The placid nothingness he felt walking in was now growing into full-fledged anger. Dean had backed into a corner, but Ginny looked livid.

“Ron Weasley!” she yelled, “Put your wand down this instant or you’ll have more to worry about than Harry Potter blasting you into smithereens!”

“You don’t think I can beat him!” Ron’s voice pitched higher. “So smug, so perfect. Well he’s not perfect I tell you!” Harry took a deep breath and forced himself to step once more to the door. “You know that mark on Malfoy’s face?” Ron called to the crowd. “It’s not the…” Another collective gasp in the room cut him short. Harry had spun, his wand out, and fire in his eyes.

“Weasley!” he shouted with a voice that commanded the room. “Please demonstrate to the rest of our friends why one shouldn’t drink and cast spells. You’re blathering like a raving lunatic!” Everyone chuckled which, for Ron, made matters worse.

Ron’s face reddened more, if that were possible, and he called out, “Reduc…” But his spell was too slow.

“Petrificus Totalus!”

Instantly, Ron froze and fell to the floor. Behind him stood Hermione, a span of diamonds across her neck glittering in the bright candlelight, and a wand in her hand. She had cast the spell at Ron’s back that dropped him like a statue to the floor.

“I’m sorry,” she said looking at Harry.

“He’s right about one thing, Hermione,” Harry said putting his wand away. “I shouldn’t have come.” He left the room rubbing his arm. He’d only gone a few steps down the corridor when Hermione’s voice called him back.

“Harry, wait!” she said running up to him. “He didn’t mean it. He hasn’t been himself lately.” Her eyes wandered to the party room and then back to Harry. They were mixed with concern and sadness. “I know there’s something wrong, but he won’t…” Harry’s eyes looked to the floor. In that instant, he’d given himself away.

“You know,” she whispered. “You know what’s wrong with him, don’t you?” Harry weakly shook his head.

“No. I can’t say that I…”

“Don’t feed me that trash,” she said, her face flushing. “Now who’s spewing the lies?” Harry continued to shake his head.

“I gave my word, Hermione. I know the two of us are finished, but I gave my word. I can’t.”

“Even if it kills him?” she yelled grabbing Harry by the arm. He winced, and she let go. “It’s back?” she asked. Harry nodded. He lifted his sleeve to show her. Her hand covered her mouth, but she said nothing. He lowered his sleeve, and for a moment they remained silent.

“Hermione, you need to get him to see Madame Pomfrey,” he whispered looking up and down the corridor. “His scars are getting worse.”

“Just a bit redder,” she said shaking her head. “I saw… well, I know the welts don’t seem to hurt as much.”

“Not on the outside, Hermione… on the inside.” He paused and took a breath. “The scars run deep,” he said, looking at her over his glasses. Hermione’s color drained.

“How deep?” she asked, her eyes growing wide. Harry wouldn’t say. He knew he didn’t need to. “The headaches,” she whispered to herself. “Voices… he said voices…” her mind was running to an inexorable conclusion. “The brain!” she grabbed Harry’s arm again, and again he winced. “Oh Harry, why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t he tell me?”

“He’s better when he’s not around people,” Harry said. “He needs quiet, and solitude.”

“And he was surrounded tonight,” she said exasperated. “No wonder he was so… so…” Her eyes shot back to the party room. “I’ve got to get him out of there.” She darted back toward the door.

“Hermione,” Harry said, “let Ginny do it. Stay and enjoy your party. She and Dean can get him back to Gryffindor.” Hermione tried to smile, but made no reply as she started for the door. “Hermione,” Harry called again. “I’m sorry. No more secrets, okay?” Her eyes would not hold his gaze; she nodded looking away and disappeared into the Room of Requirement. Harry returned to the common room wondering why it had been so hard for the three of them to be honest with each other. He was determined to make things different.

But after a week of effort on Harry’s part, the friction between him and Ron wasn’t getting better. If anything, it was growing worse. Despite Hermione’s best efforts, Ron refused to visit Madame Pomfrey. He was becoming more irritable toward everyone. Everyone, that is, except Goyle with whom he was spending more and more time. The one positive note was that Harry didn’t share every class with him. It was hard to believe that less than a month ago they were both bemoaning the same fact. This morning, however, was Charms with Professor Flitwick. Ron sat, as always, with Hermione toward the front of the class. Harry sat next to Malfoy.

It was hard to explain. He and Malfoy clearly were not friends. Outside of class their words to each other were always taunts or insults. And yet, they had most of their classes together, and in those they nearly always partnered. It had become an unfriendly competition. Knowing Cho was becoming better, Harry’s pure hatred of Malfoy had diminished somewhat. And what animosity Malfoy felt toward Harry he couldn’t say. The scar still hung from the corner of Malfoy’s left eye. It was perhaps, fainter, but clearly visible, and a day didn’t go by that someone new would see his face for the first time and gasp. Harry wondered if Malfoy truly felt what it meant to be different for a change. Yet, whenever Malfoy showed Harry any kindness, Harry couldn’t help but think Malfoy was trying to maneuver him into saying something about the Order to feed back to his Death Eater connections.

“Today, class,” Professor Flitwick squeaked, “we will be learning an extraordinary charm. He set a small statue of an eagle on the desk in front of him. Pointing his wand at the bird, he said “Invsitata!” The statue disappeared and the class gave out a small ooh and clapped.

“That’s no different than Scourgify,” Ron chided from the front row next to Hermione.

“I’m afraid it’s quite different Mr. Weasley,” Professor Flitwick corrected kindly. “Scourgify removes waste matter from its current location, decomposes and translates it to the world around us. That spell would never remove such a large object. Invsitata does not remove objects; it hides them. The eagle is still here.” And with that he placed a small white linen over the eagle, its shape clearly visible. Again the class murmured.

“The spell,” Professor Flitwick continued, “is good for hiding inanimate objects. The better you are at it, the larger the object can be. Properly done, and with the appropriate modifications, you can make an entire automobile disappear.” He winked at Ron. “It is more difficult, however, if the object is moving.” He took off the linen and appeared to be slowly lifting the statue in his hand. Then he began to quickly shake it back and forth. The eagle began to snap in and out of visibility with every jerk of his hand. The faster his hands moved the clearer it became. Tired out, Professor Flitwick put the bird back down on the table, held out his wand, and said “Cresco!” The eagle reappeared, stationary on the table before him.

“How sophomoric!” Malfoy drawled into Harry’s ear. “One day they may actually teach us something useful in this school.” Harry ignored him as Malfoy leaned back in his chair.

“I must warn you not to use the spell on animate objects,” Professor Flitwick cautioned, “particularly living creatures.” He brought out an owl in a cage. Harry was suddenly reminded of Gabriella. He had not yet heard from her, nor had Hedwig returned. His eyes narrowed and he suddenly found himself sulking. Along with Malfoy, he sunk back in his chair. He had missed Professor Flitwick’s words, but didn’t much care. Malfoy was right, what would he ever use this spell for?

Professor Flitwick pointed his wand to the bird and called “Invsitata!” The bird’s wings began to fade, as did its flesh. The arteries, and veins as well as the heart and lungs wove a fabric around the bird and were clearly visible. “The bird’s blood moves with each pump of the heart and so we see it and the organs through which it passes as clearly as if we pealed the animal open to take a look inside.”

“Professor,” Hermione called raising her hand, “can the spell be used by healers to see into the body?”

“Very good, Ms. Granger!” said Professor Flitwick as he clapped his hands. “Five points for Gryffindor! That’s exactly how they use it. Tumors, clots, narrowed arteries, all become apparent without harming the patient.” Then Professor Flitwick smiled. “A few wizards and witches have used it to hide their treasure, only to have forgotten where they last left it lay. You can’t bring the object back without a clear shot with your wand.” He scanned the room for a minute and cast his wand. Eagle statues appeared at each table. “We’ll discuss that one later,” he chuckled. “In the meantime break into pairs and help each other master the spell you’ve just learned.”

“Pathetic,” Malfoy said with a sigh, pulling his wand from his sleeve.

“Well, then, have a go!” Harry challenged. Malfoy rolled his eyes and stared at the eagle.

Malfoy raised his wand at the bird and called “Invsitata!” The statue seemed to shimmer for a moment or two, and then simply reappeared as it was. Harry laughed.

“That’s the definition of pathetic Malfoy!” he jabbed. “Weasley could do better than that.” Malfoy’s eyebrows furled and his face puckered. Harry took Malfoy’s pouting moment to glance up at the front of the classroom. Hermione brought her bird back from nothingness. Ron’s efforts had less effect than Malfoy’s. In fact, Harry saw nothing happen.

“Well?” Malfoy called. “Are you going to watch your girlfriend and her diamonds all morning, or are you going to demonstrate your own worthlessness as a wizard.”

Harry pulled out his own wand and pointed it at the bird. “Invsitata!” he cast, and the eagle began to fade. The bird’s head disappeared, but then nothing more happened. “Cresco!” he called and the bird reappeared fully. This time, Malfoy laughed.

“I just had a vision of your future, Potter!” he said, and grinned.

“If you can’t do better, Malfoy, just admit it now and leave the room. I’m sure Snape has some socks and underwear he needs washed again.” With that, Malfoy stiffened and the competition was on. By the end of the period the two had mastered the skill, while most the class was still having only marginal success. Ron was having no success at all. Harry could see Hermione trying to explain the wrist movement, but Ron never had liked her lecturing him. His best progress had always been made with Harry when she wasn’t even watching. He was growing redder and more irritable by the second. Finally, he burst.

“Quit trying to show off!” Ron yelled. “You’re just a pratty little know-it-all who likes to lord it over other people.” The class turned to the commotion in front. Know-it-all was the one insult that had always cut Hermione deepest. She turned red herself, and raised her wand at Ron.

“Invsitata!” she yelled clear and strong. Ron stood motionless, which was perhaps a mistake. His clothes began to disappear in front of everyone. A quick glance down told him what everyone was laughing at. Immediately he shot for the door. His movement brought his clothes back and covered his skin, but by now everyone, except Hermione and Harry, was screaming with laughter. Harry darted to the door after Ron. A few started to follow and he stopped them.

“No!” Harry yelled. “You’ll stay here.”

“Everyone to their seats!” Professor Flitwick commanded. The students returned as Harry chased Ron down the hall.

“Ron! Stop!” he called. “I’ll change it back.” Hearing Harry’s words, Ron ducked into an alcove behind a suit of armor and waited for Harry to catch up. A moment later, Harry turned in to meet Ron, his wand in hand.

“I can’t believe she turned my clothes invisible!” he yelled. Harry just stood there, his jaw open, and his eyes wide. “What?” Ron asked. “What’s the matter?” But Harry couldn’t speak; his heart was pounding. Instead, Harry pointed his wand at the back of the suit of armor.

“Argenta!” he whispered. The back of the soldier’s armor turned mirror-like. Harry pointed for Ron to see his reflection. Ron walked over and looked.

“No,” he whispered reaching his hands to his back but unable to grasp the thing he was reaching for. It was too deep.

Not only had his clothes disappeared, but as he stood still long enough, so too had his skin and bone. What was revealed was the human vascular system. Harry stared at the model before him. A model he’d seen in books on anatomy. Only this model had one difference. High on the neck was a weaving network of arteries and veins that no human ever had. It was a twisted web that curled around his spine down to the middle of his back. What was worse was the network that moved from the middle of his neck upward. This moving fluid was not red or purple; it was a dark green. It wove its way up his neck to his brain invading its lower quarter in a web of darkness with tentacles that poked deeper in. For all appearances, it was a green weed winding its way into Ron’s scull.

Try as he might, Ron couldn’t touch it. “Take it out Harry! Take it out!” he yelled clawing at his neck.

“Cresco!” Harry whispered and Ron’s form, fully clothed, reappeared. Ron’s fingers were bloody. He had torn at the scar on his neck. His collar was red, and the wound was seeping blood. Harry grabbed Ron’s arms and pulled them to his side. He held Ron’s eyes in his. “You’ve got to come with me Ron.” His words were firm and direct, but Ron tried to pull away.

“I can’t go,” he said shaking his head madly. “I won’t go!” he yelled. But Harry held tight to his arms as Ron backed against the wall.

“We’ve got to do this, Ron,” Harry whispered. “I want to help you.”

“Liar!” Ron snapped. “You hate my guts, Potter!” But Harry was undeterred.

“No more lies, Ron, remember?” Holding Ron by the shoulders against the wall, Harry closed his eyes and opened his mind.

A picture flashed of the first time Harry and Ron met on the Hogwarts Express… a film played of their flight in the Ford Anglia… Harry stood horrified watching as Ron was pulled into the Whomping Willow… they were in the Ministry as the brain wrapped around Ron while Harry chose to run hoping the Death Eaters would take him instead. There were many visions Ron could see in Harry’s mind, but the most plentiful were those of the two of them together… just friends. The projections stopped and Ron slumped onto an old wooden chest, his hands in his face.

“I… I can’t do this anymore, Harry,” he choked into his hands. “I’ve got to end it.”

“Then come with me,” Harry said, lifting Ron back to his feet. “Trust me Ron. I won’t let them turn you into a lab rat.” He pulled Ron’s hands down and looked up into his eyes again. “I swear.”

Finally, Ron nodded and rubbed his face again taking a deep breath. “Thanks, Harry.” Together, the two walked down the corridor to the hospital wing to visit Madame Pomfrey. A very pretty fifth year from Hufflepuff ran past them going the other direction. She was a new student, and Harry remembered her at the sorting, but they didn’t share any classes.

“You know, Ron,” said Harry, as they both looked back over their shoulders. “If you ask around, I think you might manage a few dates this week.”

“Why’s that?” Ron asked, suddenly swerving to avoid running into a pillar.

“Well, you were naked in front of the whole class. It won’t be long before word gets out about your special attribute, and the ladies start lining up at your door.” Ron flamed bright red.

“Would you stop,” said Ron, shoving Harry on the shoulder and laughing. For the first time in a long time, Harry laughed with him. When they arrived at the doors to the hospital ward, Ron was in a better mood, but still apprehensive. For a moment, he hesitated.

“You have my word,” Harry whispered. With that, Ron pushed the doors open, and they walked in.

“Harry! Ron!”

The voice wasn’t that of Madame Pomfrey; it was Cho Chang.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 27 - Flying to the Falls
~~~***~~~

“We have an agreement for now, Harry,” Dumbledore said with warm eyes, while Harry grinned from ear to ear. “As long as he continues to improve.”

“He will sir,” Harry assured him. “Madam Pomfrey says…”

“Yes, yes,” Dumbledore interrupted. “We’ve been over all this for the past three days. It’s against my better judgment, and if…”

“I’m sorry sir,” Harry cut in. “It’s getting late, and I promised Cho we would practice out on the pitch.”

Dumbledore raised one eyebrow. “Practice?” he asked.

“Flying, sir,” Harry replied eager to leave before Dumbledore changed his mind. The creases that had lined Dumbledore’s face of late seemed to vanish, and a warmth filled his blue eyes.

“Remarkable, Harry,” the wizard whispered. He put his hand on Harry’s shoulder and walked him to the door. “Truly remarkable.”

When Harry burst out of the castle, Caduceus in hand, he found the air crisp and the sky blue. It was Saturday, and the last two days had been his best since he’d come to Hogwarts. Seeing the severity of what was attacking Ron’s brain, Madame Pomfrey was able to stop it, and in fact somewhat shrink the growing green mass. She was not, however, able to remove it completely. Still, the treatments were already having a noticeable effect on Ron. His headaches had diminished and his general mood had improved dramatically. He was also learning to shut out the unwanted voices--Occlumency with Professor Snape. Fortunately, Professor Snape’s hatred of Harry didn’t transfer to Ron Weasley, and the first two lessons seemed to go rather well according to Hermione. Against her will, she again found herself Ron and Harry’s go-between. After three hard days of campaigning with Professor Dumbledore and Madame Pomfrey, Harry had fulfilled his pledge to Ron, but he still refused to associate with someone who couldn’t accept people for what they were inside.

Outside, there was the slightest breeze in the air, and a squawking brought Harry’s eyes up to the sky. A flock of white geese were flying south for the winter. Some two-dozen birds formed a large V in the air. Harry thought of Hedwig. She had still not returned. “It’s over,” he sighed to himself still stroking the silver earring that had never left his ear. Before falling asleep each night, it was the thought of Gabriella that was the last to leave his mind. But for the last three mornings, when he woke, it was the thought of Cho that was the first to enter.

He had risen early every morning to visit her in the hospital wing. She was trying to catch up on the work she’d missed in preparation for starting classes on Monday. Her mind was clear and sharp, and her ability to learn what she had missed over the last four weeks was astounding. Cho’s attitude was upbeat and positive even though she still had little to no use of her right leg and was barely able to lift her right arm. Already, she had mastered writing with her left hand. “A true Ravenclaw,” Harry admired. When he brought up flying her first night back, she began to cry.

“I’ll never fly again, Harry.” He held her tight until the tears had stopped. She had cut her hair short, and he stroked the left side of her head around her ear. He could feel the scar hidden behind her dark hair. Forehead to forehead, his green eyes looked deep into her brown.

“Yes you will,” he said firmly. “This weekend.” And a smile broke across her face.

The geese disappeared over the top of the castle and Harry continued to the pitch. As he approached he saw Cho standing at the north entrance. Well, not really standing so much as levitating. She was using a self-locomotion spell to move herself about. Other students were forbidden to use such spells in the interest of physical fitness. For Cho, however, it was her only practical means of getting from one part of the castle to the other.

In her left hand was her broom, a Nimbus 2001. For a moment Harry watched as she tried to mount the broom with her good leg holding fast with her good arm. A few feet from the ground, she switched and tried to hold with her right hand. The transfer was awkward and her center of balance shifted. Her right leg couldn’t compensate and she spun off, hitting the ground hard with her left shoulder. Harry ran over and helped her to her feet. She held tight to his neck as he lifted. Far from being upset, Cho was as determined as ever.

“Well, that didn’t work,” she said in a matter of fact tone. She balanced on her left leg and brushed the grass off her pants with her left arm. “Without my right leg, Harry, I can’t keep my balance.” She looked to the sky. “A stiff wind and I’m done for.”

“I said you’d fly again,” said Harry confidently. “I didn’t say it would be easy.”

“Nope,” Cho grunted trying to reach for her broom. “I think not.” Harry took her hand, and straightened her up.

“I have another idea,” he said. He had dropped his broom about twenty feet away. He was helping her balance so, without pulling out his wand, he raised his hand and called, “Accio Caduceus!” The broom popped into his hand. Cho gasped.

“You didn’t…” she began.

“No, er… no I didn’t,” Harry stopped her. “Bit of a new trick I’ve picked up. I’d rather you not talk about it, not yet, okay?” Her eyes were wide, but then she smiled warmly and nodded.

“So many secrets, Harry,” she said. “Will I ever learn them all?” Harry returned half a smile, but did not reply. Cho’s eyes seemed to assess Harry as she said, “A challenge then.”

“Here, try this,” said Harry, handing her his broom and trying to shift the conversation. “Its charms hold you tight at two-hundred miles per hour. Let’s see how they hold at two miles per hour.” As before she mounted with her good leg. Harry could see that her center of balance was off, but the Caduceus compensated. Within a few seconds she was flying some twenty feet off the ground. Her face was beaming.

“Not too high Cho!” Harry called. Cho, grinning wildly, nosed the broom down, but wasn’t ready for its quick response. Instantly, she was hurtling toward Harry. She pulled up on the nose and the broom stopped dead. Instinctively, Cho released the broom and held out her hand to stop her fall. It was exactly the wrong thing to do. While the broom stopped, she kept going, flipped in the middle of the air, and landed on Harry who was trying as best he could to catch her. Their heads hit and together they crashed to the ground. For a second Harry was dazed.

“Oh, Harry, are you okay?” Cho asked brushing the hair from the side of his face. Harry seemed to be having a tough time breathing, but when she turned his head to look at her, she saw that it was because he was laughing.

“I can’t…. I can’t… hah, hee, hee,” Harry breathed. “Whooo! Did you see that? A triple summersault with a half twist!” He laughed again. “You should be in the Olympics! Hah… hah… heh…” The laughter was contagious and soon both of them were laughing hard with tears running down their cheeks. The sight was comical: Cho on top of Harry, splayed out on the grass in the middle of the Quidditch pitch. Finally, their laughter slowed, Cho wiped the tears from her eyes and held her hand to Harry’s face.

“I… I haven’t laughed since I saw you in the hospital,” she whispered. “Thank you.” She leaned down and kissed him lightly on the lips. Harry closed his eyes. The kiss was warm and gentle, and his heart began to race. Cho rolled over on her back feeling the thick, soft, grass beneath her. “What a beautiful day,” she said with a smile as she took in the blue sky. Harry put his hands behind his head and crossed his legs.

“Yes,” he said, “a beautiful day.” Examining the sky together they began to describe what creatures or people they could see in the few clouds that billowed by. “Cho,” he said, “I’m as happy today as I’ve been since I arrived.” He sat up and looked down at her. “And it’s all your fault!” He grinned, tickling her right side. She pulled away smiling. He reached out and held her right hand, and began stroking the fingers. “Can you feel that?” he asked.

“Yes,” she sighed. “I have feeling in my leg too. It just won’t do what my mind tells it to. The connections in my brain have been destroyed.” She let out another deep breath. “Every day’s a bit better though.” Her words brought one of his chief concerns to the surface. His mind was caught on something he needed to know.

“And Malfoy?” Harry asked. Cho’s eyes narrowed. “If you could have your way, would you have him destroyed?” His words were almost an offer. There was a somewhat sour smile that appeared on her face. Harry continued. “Most all of Ravenclaw is ready to tear anyone from Slytherin apart for what he did to you. I… I almost killed Malfoy myself.” Harry’s eyes faded off to somewhere across the pitch in the general direction of Hogsmeade. With her good hand, Cho pushed herself up level with Harry.

“When I arrived at Hogwarts the other night, my brother was in the hospital wing waiting for me. After I was settled in, he just paced the room from one side to the next. I could tell he was uncomfortable, and I finally asked him why. He told me that Malfoy had come up to him the day I was healed and apologized for what he’d done. He was fearful I’d be mad that he accepted the apology.”

“Were you?” Harry asked.

“No,” she paused. “I already accepted it myself.”

“You… H-How?” Harry stammered.

“He and his mom came by St. Mungo’s for a visit.” She paused, thinking back in time, and all sourness left her face. “When I saw the scar on his face, my first thought was that he put it there himself, some sort of mark of support for You-Know-Who. I pointed at the scar and told him he could leave, if he was in league with… but he stopped my words. He said you put the mark there and wouldn’t take it off.”

“On the train,” Harry nodded. “After…”

“He was… well… a different person, Harry,” Cho continued. “Or maybe he was pretending to be. He apologized… his mom apologized… I don’t know. What could I do? Tell them to shove off? So I accepted. They only stayed for a few more minutes, and most of that time was spent talking about you.”

“About me?” Harry asked. “What about me?”

“Now I have a secret,” she said with a grin, and pinched his side. The sun was dipping behind the high stadium seats to the west of the pitch casting a shadow over the two. The late afternoon breeze was beginning to pick up, and Cho began to shiver.

“We’d better get in,” Harry said. He stood and helped Cho to her feet. She held him tight, more tightly than she really needed thought Harry happily. His broom was still floating some five feet off the ground. Seeing it, his eyes began to twinkle. “One more ride?” he offered. “Together?” Cho smiled and nodded. Harry mounted first and then Cho climbed on from behind holding him around the waist first with one hand and then more lightly with the other. Immediately the cool bite of the air disappeared. They were both warm and felt no breeze.

“It’s amazing,” she whispered her chin tight against his shoulder.

“Hold tight,” he said. “This is what’s amazing.” And with that, Harry shot up from the ground high into the sky. The castle and the grounds fell away instantly growing smaller and smaller. A gentle nudge of the broom, and they were flying twenty feet off the canopy of the Forbidden Forest. A Threstral appeared on Harry’s left flank and seemed to enjoy chasing along side the two of them. Cho didn’t or couldn’t see it. Harry arced to the right, and the Threstral sunk back into the trees. They pushed deeper into the center of the forest, when suddenly it opened up into a large clearing that revealed a tall cliff from which cascaded a large shimmering waterfall. Harry had never seen this place. He circled back and saw pools below. They were beautiful and inviting, but he knew better than to stop for a closer look.

“I think I’ve seen enough trees, how about some water,” Cho whispered in Harry’s ear and she squeezed Harry close. Seeing the glistening falls below, he was a bit confused by her words, but brought the broom back toward the castle and soon they were over the lake. He dropped the broom close to the water and accelerated. The broom’s wake caused the water to spray into the sky as they past by. In seconds, they were nearly upon Hogsmeade. “We can’t…” she began but Harry dropped his shoulder and they gently turned back once again toward the castle. As they came close, he pulled up high, and then plunged in a sharp dive toward the pitch from where they started.

“Don’t let go this time,” Harry called. But Cho was holding tight, her heart racing. A few feet from the ground, Harry pulled up and gently stopped. Cho let out a deep breath and loosened her grip ever so slightly. The sun was fading into the horizon as a bright full moon rose in the east. She laid her head against his back.

“Not bad,” she said breathlessly and then laughed. They both got off the Caduceus and Cho brought out her wand. “Mi-Locomotus!” she called and her feet rose about six inches from the ground. “Accio broom!” Her Nimbus 2001 flew to her hands. “Is it time for dinner do you think? I may like to try the Great Hall tonight.”

Together they made their way up to the castle. They were about to enter when Harry stopped and took Cho’s hand.

“It was a perfect day, Cho,” he said but there was sadness on his voice.

“Yes?” Cho asked anticipating more.

“It’s just that… I need to tell you…” His words were stopped as Anthony Goldstein burst through the doors. He was a bit surprised to see the two of them at the entranceway, and took half a moment to gather his bearings.

“There you are!” he called to Cho and ignoring Harry. “I was just to the hospital wing and Madame Pomfrey is frantic. You were supposed to be back over an hour ago.”

“Well, I thought maybe dinner in…” Cho started.

“Exactly!” Anthony cut in. “I’ll get you to the hospital wing and,” he shot a glance at Harry, “order up two dinners. Not to worry, I’ll keep you company tonight,” he said with a smile. Cho glanced at Harry and back to Anthony.

“Harry,” she said, “maybe we can finish our talk tomorrow?”

Harry nodded. “Sure,” he said. “Hey, Anthony, Cho was up flying today. She’s brilliant.”

“You were?” said Anthony, surprised. “That’s fantastic! I told you she was terrific, didn’t I Harry?” Anthony asked without moving his eyes from Cho.

“You sure did,” answered Harry, but his own smile was fading.

“You can do anything you put your mind to Cho, anything,” Anthony beamed taking her broom. “Come on. Let’s get you back to Madame Pomfrey.” Cho sighed, but she wore a smile on her face as she and Anthony went into the castle leaving Harry behind.

Harry started to walk back toward the pitch, but then stopped and sat against the base of a large statue. Broom in hand, he watched as the stars began to appear overhead. The familiar feeling of loneliness was beginning to encircle his heart again. It was growing dark, and his attention turned to the large red star overhead. He wasn’t supposed to be out of the castle after dark. “Who would notice?” he thought. “Who would care?” Maybe someone. He stood up and mounted his broom. A flash later, and he was in front of Hagrid’s cabin. He pounded on the door.

“Hagrid!” he called. “Hagrid!” There was no answer. “Probably at dinner,” Harry whispered to himself. He sat on the footstep to Hagrid’s cabin and looked back at the castle. Two students were running up the steps from the lake. Hearing them laugh, he thought of his afternoon with Cho and a smile crossed his face. It had been a truly spectacular day. He had no reason to mope. He stood up and began to walk toward the castle, when a voice caught him by surprise.

“Harry Potter, you should not be out after dark.” It was Firenze. He had walked from behind Hagrid’s cabin. “These times are far too dangerous, and you, above all, are wanted dearly.”

“It’s good to see you too Firenze,” Harry said. “Don’t your fellow Centaurs want you dead as well?”

“I am still unwelcome,” Firenze said, looking back to the Forbidden Forest. “But soon they too will see.” He looked to the darkening sky. “The heavens are in motion.” He looked back to Harry, and said nothing more. Centaurs never did say much, and Firenze was no exception.

“Well,” Harry said feeling the first pangs of hunger, “I’ve got to be going.”

“I believe,” Firenze said, “Hagrid is still eating within the castle. If you see him, tell him that I have finished for tonight.”

“Finished what?” Harry asked, but Firenze simply bowed his head and trotted around the back of the castle.

When Harry entered the Great Hall, most everyone was done eating. Hagrid and Tonks were the only two professors at the head table. Before sitting to eat, Harry walked over to deliver his message.

“Hello, Harry,” Tonks said.

“Hello, Professor’s,” said Harry with a shiny grin. The words made Hagrid puff out his chest a bit. “Hagrid, I have a message from Firenze. He says he’s finished for the night.” Hagrid stroked his beard and nodded.

“Very good, very good,” he said. “He never tires I tell yeh. Well,” Hagrid stood and so did Tonks, “thank yeh Harry. Got teh be goin’ now.”

“Yes,” Tonks added, “I have a few things to prepare as well.”

“But what did Firenze finish, Hagrid?” Harry asked.

“Ah, never yeh mind, Harry. Nothin’ important.” And with that Hagrid and Tonks left the Great Hall.

As Harry sat at the Gryffindor table, Parvati and Lavender rushed in and sat next to him, oblivious to his presence.

“Five more minutes, Lavender,” Parvati gasped, “and we would have missed dinner!” Then looking at Harry she said, “Oh… Hi, Harry.”

“I know, I know,” Lavender breathed, “but it was worth it! I told you didn’t I?” And then as an afterthought, “Er, Hi, Harry.”

“Yes, yes” said Parvati with excitement. “You were right. Just like clockwork.” Plates appeared on the table and the two began to eat. Parvati took a drink of water and sighed dreamily. “Do you think he noticed?” she asked.

“Centaurs notice everything,” Lavender replied. “But who cares.” She smiled.

“So,” Harry jumped in awkwardly, “what’s going on?” The two young women seemed to suddenly notice that Harry was sitting with them, and worse, listening. Indeed, he was trying to put their words together in his mind when Lavender’s eyes looked up past Harry.

“Oh! I haven’t seen her in ages, Harry,” she said. “She’s so beautiful, don’t you think Parvati?” Harry looked just in time to hold out his arm and let Hedwig perch. Instantly, his heart began to pound. His fingers trembled as he stroked her feathers looking for any kind of injury, but she was fine. Her feathers were brilliant white, and if anything she looked a bit plumper than when she left. Harry held her close, and when he breathed in, the scent of Gabriella filled his head. Memories of her black hair and black eyes rushed into his mind. Harry kissed Hedwig on the head.

“You’re okay?” he asked. Hedwig hooted, and Harry smiled. Suddenly he found his whole body trembling as he looked down to see what, if anything, was on her leg. There was an envelope, and on its face the word Harry. He took the note from Hedwig’s leg; she hooted and flew off to the owlery.

“You’re wonderful with her,” Lavender said. “I can see she loves you too.” Harry looked at her, somewhat confused by her words.

“Oh, yeah,” he said staring at the folded yellow parchment he’d just removed from the envelope. “She’s my best friend I think.” Once again, the two girls started to chat with each other, but Harry’s mind didn’t hear a word. Was this it? Was Gabriella finally going to say their paths had pulled apart? He looked about the Great Hall. There were too many students still eating. He couldn’t open this here, not now. He wasn’t sure what his reaction would be. He could feel his emotions starting to get away from him. Perspiration was beading on his forehead.

“Harry, are you feeling alright?” Lavender asked. His mouth was dry and he was starting to feel quite hot.

“Erm, I got to go,” he said weakly and left the Great Hall. Without thinking he began searching for someplace to unfold the parchment. He walked blindly down one corridor after another, but every alcove, every turn was filled with students. Where had they all come from? He began to descend a flight of stairs. The air was cooler here, and less crowded. He turned left and left again. Finally, he was alone. He sat on a stone bench and slowly unfolded the parchment. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears.


Harry My Love,

Where has the time gone? I wanted to write sooner, but I couldn’t. Tonight is my first night home in weeks. Mama was taken seriously ill and was just released from the hospital. Each night I spent alone in the hospital, I stared out the window at the stars thinking of you. At home, I left my window open for Hedwig, free to fly to you, but when I came home tonight she was still here. I must have held her in my arms for an hour wishing she were you. I’m trembling as I write, wondering what you must think of me. I’m so sorry, Harry.

It’s awful about your friend being sent to the hospital. I hope he has recovered and I hope you’re okay. Mama’s doing better, but her mind still seems to wander off on its own at times. Papa’s grown thin with worry. I wish so that you were here with me now. I don’t know how I’ll ever catch up with all the class I’ve missed at Stonewall, and Mama needs my help at home now more than ever. I don’t think I can do it the way we’ve chosen to live.

Please write back soon and tell me you’re okay. I need to know you’re okay--my heart has been so worried. And please don’t hate me.

I miss you terribly.

Love,
Gabriella


Harry’s heart was still pounding as he read the letter for the third time. He was joyous she was okay, and worried about Soseh. He found his fingers again tracing her script. He breathed in the smell of her perfume from the parchment and smiled. There was a rusted creak as a door opened. Too late, he realized he was in the dungeons as Snape emerged from the Potions classroom.

“Oh no,” Harry whispered.

Snape took only two steps before realizing Harry was sitting before him. His eyes narrowed and his eyebrows furled in. At first he said nothing, as if turning an apple over in his hand trying to decide where to take the first bite.

“Why are you here, Potter?” Snape asked coolly. Harry folded the letter into his hand.

“No reason,” he shrugged. Snape looked up and down the corridor. It was quiet, too quiet. He clearly suspected foul play, but what was it? Harry tried to casually slide the letter into his pocket, but Snape was too sharp to miss the move.

“What is in your hand?” he pressed.

“Nothing,” Harry said calmly. Immediately Snape’s wand was pointed toward Harry. Pain shot down Harry’s right arm. “Accio Parchment!” Snape called. The paper slipped through Harry’s fingers. He had no time to reach for his own wand. Ignoring the pain he raised his right hand.

“Incendio!” The letter burst into flames just before it reached Snape’s hand. Snape’s fingers curled around the flaming paper. He let out a small cry and threw the graying embers to the ground stomping on them. Harry was both nervous about Snape’s next move and incensed that he had just burned Gabriella’s letter. At first Snape’s face was furious.

“Follow me, Potter!” he yelled turning back into the Potions classroom. Harry followed, but as he cautiously entered the classroom he slipped his hand into his robes and held his wand at the ready. Snape opened a cabinet and pulled out a glass jar containing orange paste. “Of all the idiotic…” he muttered to himself. He gently dabbed the paste onto his blistered hand, and then wiped it clean with a dry cloth; the blisters disappeared.

“Sit down!” Snape yelled over his shoulder. He turned leaning back against the cabinet to look at Harry. “Let go of your wand, or you’ll be in detention for the rest of the school year.” Reluctantly, Harry released his wand, but ensured it protruded ever so slightly from his sleeve.

“I had heard about your new ability Potter,” he began. “Burning paper without a wand is,” he paused, “notable.” Harry, his face scowling, refused to say a word. “You’re angry, Potter. Why?” He began to examine Harry again. “What was on the paper?” Harry was silent, and try as he might to stay calm he could feel the anger rising up inside him. All year long he’d been able to remain calm, but for some reason he was loosing control. He didn’t want Professor Snape to notice the anger flushing his face, so he turned his back to the professor. “Was it a note,” Snape jeered, “from one of your many admirers?” Harry’s arm was throbbing, his breath growing heavy. He didn’t understand why, but his mind was raging. Snape wanted Gabriella, and Harry couldn’t let that happen; he had to protect her. In his thoughts, he began to imagine wrapping his fingers around Snape’s neck and squeezing. At that very moment Snape reached for his throat and began to gasp. Harry, his back still turned, took no notice. His mind continued to flame with anger squeezing his fingers more tightly around Snape’s windpipe. Snape fell to his knees knocking the jar of orange paste to the floor and shattering the glass. The sound broke Harry’s trance and he turned to see what happened.

“Professor!” he called out, truly concerned. Snape began to heave in large breaths of air holding himself steady with the edge of the cabinet. Quickly, Harry ran over to his side. “What’s wrong? The potion?” Harry asked, helping Professor Snape to his feet. The sincerity in Harry’s voice clashed with Snape’s suspicions. “Is it your hand?” Harry asked again, still clueless as to what he’d just done.

“No you fool!” Snape croaked. He planted both his feet and took in another deep breath. Professor Snape shook his head trying to focus his thoughts. “Sit down,” he whispered. His voice was regaining its composure. He began to pace toward the front of the classroom and back. He was torn about something, and finally he stopped and stared at Harry. “Dumbledore asked me to pass on this news directly to you,” he said through gritted teeth. “There is a plan underway to remove you from the castle.” His words were slow and deliberate, and then he added flippantly, “Perhaps to run errands as a farmhand.” Snape’s eyes narrowed in warning and then became impassive. “That is all, you may go.” He turned and flicked his wand cleaning the broken glass off the floor.

“What?” Harry squawked. “Is that it?” He was dumbfounded, first that he would hear any news of plans, second that the news would come from Snape, and finally that it would be so bloody vague. “That’s all you can tell me, or all you will tell me?” It was Harry’s voice that was now cool. Snape shut the cabinet door and looked at Harry.

“You’ll repeat nothing that was said here tonight, Potter; not to a student, not to a professor… any professor. Dumbledore is consumed with your protection, and the Dark Lord is consumed with your destruction.” Snape shook his head. “Why, I have no idea. It will be the downfall of one, or the other, I’m sure of it,” he spat. “Please, don’t let your ego kill another of the Order this year.” His words slithered out his tongue and fell on the floor like so many snakes. Harry clenched his fists.

“I said,” Snape spoke sharply, “you may go.” He flicked his wand and the iron door to the dungeon flung open.

Snape’s words stabbed Harry’s heart. Forcing himself to remain calm, Harry slowly turned and walked out. He began to tremble with anger as he passed through the heavy iron doors when, suddenly, they slammed themselves shut, reverberating down the empty corridor, and shaking mortar from between the stone walls into a fine dust cloud that filled the Potions room in his absence. As he began to stride down the corridor back to the Gryffindor common room, he could hear with satisfaction Professor Snape choking on the dust-filled air. It would take some time before those doors would open again.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 28 - Gray to Green
~~~***~~~

“You have done well,” hissed Harry’s voice to a cloaked figure bowed low on one knee before him. “If your holiday is successful, you will be rewarded greatly. Fail, and…” Harry held out his wand with gnarled, white fingers, “Crucio!” he spat. The figure fell to the floor screaming in agony. Satisfied, a smile spread across Harry’s face as he left the room, but when he went through the door he found himself in the middle of a field. The fog was thick, but he could see that the grass all around his feet was dead and he could feel that the air was cold. He exhaled and his breath billowed before him in a smoky cloud. Somewhere to his left there was the trickling sound of water. Cautiously, he walked toward the sound, and as it grew near his heart became more fearful. The fog began to clear when there was a loud scream. From the haze a large reddish figure came galloping toward him. It crashed into his chest knocking him to the ground.

Breathless, Harry heard the voice whisper in his ear, “Rebirth grows near.”

Harry opened his eyes to a face full of red hair. He was in his bed, but for some reason, Ron was on top of him, the back of his head planted against Harry’s nose.

“I’ll rip you to shreds, Ron!” Dean yelled out and soon Dean was on top of Ron, on top of Harry. Harry gasped for air as Ron and Dean flailed at each other on top of him. Goyle reached down and grabbed Dean lifting him off of Ron. Freed from his attacker, Ron stood up and reached for his wand, but Neville grabbed him from behind pulling him back as best he could. A quick glance to the window told Harry it was early morning, the faintest hint of the day’s promised sun was striking a hint of gold on the clouded horizon. Harry stood up between the two adversaries, rubbing his eyes. They were both struggling to free themselves from their respective captors.

“Stop it!” Harry yelled, but they continued to struggle. “Ron, what’s going on?” he asked.

“He… he…!” yelled Ron. “Let me go, Neville!” cried Ron, trying to wrench his arms free. Harry took note that Neville was doing a very good job at holding back his larger classmate.

“He hexed me!” Dean yelled out. “In my sleep, he hexed me!” The side of Dean’s face was dotted with orange blisters. “I’ll kill him!” Dean began kicking at Goyle with little more effect at freeing himself than Ron.

“Hold still,” Harry said to Dean, taking his wand from off the table. “Cicatra,” he whispered. Blue light bathed Dean’s face and the blisters faded away. “Goyle, haul him downstairs to cool off. I need to talk to Ron.” Goyle turned to Ron for affirmation. Ron stopped struggling and nodded his head. A few moments after Goyle disappeared with a squirming Dean, while Neville reluctantly released his grasp on Ron.

“Neville,” Harry said, “do you mind if I talk to Ron alone?” Neville nodded back.

“My gram always says to take a deep breath when you’re mad, Ron. Give it a try.” He headed to the exit. “I’ll be just outside if you need a hand.” Ron took in a deep breath of air. The tension in his face began to recede.

When the two were alone, Harry sat back on his bed rubbing his nose. “You almost broke it,” he said. Ron followed suit and sat down on his own bed.

“Sorry,” he said in a low voice. He began to rub his temples.

“Well?” Harry asked. “What happened?”

“As if you care, Harry,” Ron snapped without looking up. He stood and began pacing the room.

Four weeks had passed since Ron had started getting help. When he was in large crowds, he could now stop the voices from penetrating his thoughts. The new treatments and his skill at Occlumency had eliminated his headaches, improving his mood considerably. On the Quidditch pitch, he was impenetrable. His side of the field had been nicknamed the Weasley Wall. In fact, Katie often subbed Sloper as Keeper so the team could get some practice scoring.

“I care if you’re going to break my nose!” Harry snapped back. His shoulder ached. The mark on his forearm had not disappeared after his night with Snape. It would fade, but never completely, and now it was burning. If Ron’s mood was improving, Harry’s was getting worse. But, there was no reason for it. He’d started writing to Gabriella again. Each new post brought word that Soseh was slowly improving as life in Little Whinging returned to normal. Yet, whenever Gabriella would mention having fun with Duncan, or Emma, or even Wes, who seemed to be helping her through her homework, Harry grew angry. It wasn’t fair that she could be having any fun without him. He wanted her to be as miserable as he was, but she wasn’t, and that made Harry angrier. Of course, he knew he didn’t want her to be miserable, but that only stoked his self-hatred. To make matters worse, or better (Harry didn’t know), he’d been spending more and more time with Cho. Guilt was gnawing at him, but he kept pushing it aside. They had grown comfortable holding hands, or even giving each other friendly kisses, but in Harry’s mind, it wasn’t serious… nothing really. But he knew it wasn’t fair to Cho… to Gabriella. And as each day passed, Anthony became more and more upset at the time Cho was spending with Harry. Still seated on his bed, Harry pushed the thoughts aside.

“He was sleeping, Ron!” Harry started again. “What could he possibly do to you if he was sleeping?” Ron stopped pacing the floor to look out the window.

“Dream,” Ron whispered. “He can dream.”

“Ron, you didn’t…”

“I was asleep myself,” Ron shot back. “It was there before my eyes… the two of them… the two of them… Argh!” He kicked his table breaking the leg out from under it and spilling books and papers to the floor.

“It was a dream, Ron,” said Harry, trying to stay cool. “Dean’s dream. It wasn’t real.”

“I’m takin’ a shower,” Ron said grabbing a towel. “I need to cool off.”

“Ron, prefects can’t go around hexing their classmates. You owe Dean an apology, or he might see you lose that silver badge of yours.”

“And you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Ron sneered, heading off to the showers. As Ron stomped off, Harry noticed a loud rhythmic thumping noise coming from the common room.

“What now,” Harry whispered to himself. Still in his pajamas, Harry started down the stairs. He could hear Ginny’s voice before he saw the scene.

“And if I ever…” she cried out followed by a loud thump, “see you…” thump. Harry entered the room to find Dean sitting on the ground dazed and Ginny holding out her wand at Goyle who was levitated into the air and being pounded against the stones above the fireplace mantle. There was a flash of light as Colin Creevey snapped a photograph. The other few Gryffindors that had risen this early were standing all around not sure what to do. “…touch one hair…” thump. Goyle’s nose began to bleed. “…of another Gryffindor…” thump. “…I swear I’ll…” thump.

“Ginny!” Harry called. She broke the spell and Goyle fell to the floor landing half in, half out of the fireplace. Quickly, Harry pulled him out.

“Let him burn,” Ginny yelled. “He nearly choked Dean to death! If I hadn’t…”

“That’s because,” Harry cut in, “Dean was about to annihilate your brother.” Harry’s words seemed to stem Ginny’s venom toward Goyle, or at least redirect it. She turned to Dean who was just getting to his feet.

“What’s he talking about?” she snapped.

“He… he hexed me!” Dean stammered trying to regain his composure. “He hexed me in my sleep!”

“For what?” she queried again.

“I don’t know,” Dean replied rubbing his arm. “Ask him!”

“I will!” Ginny yelled and charged up to the boys’ dormitories.

“Ginny he’s in the shower,” Harry called out. “You can’t…”

“As if I care,” she howled back. “It’s time for a family meeting!” And she disappeared up the stairs. Harry helped Goyle to his feet.

“Looks like our Beater’s taken quite a beating,” Harry said with a thin smile. Goyle glowered holding his nose. Drops of blood fell to the floor. Dean started up the stairs. “Stop there, Dean,” Harry called out. “You heard Ginny. This is a family matter.” Dean stopped for a second and started up again. “Thomas!” Harry yelled. “I fixed your face this morning. I can put it back again!” Dean stopped and sulked back into the common room flopping into one of the overstuffed chairs. Harry turned back to Goyle who was still dripping blood onto the floor.

“Here,” said Harry with a sigh, and holding up his wand to Goyle’s face, “let me see that.” Goyle’s eyes widened and he stepped back. “Merlin’s beard, Goyle, let me fix your nose.” Goyle stepped back again falling over the couch by the fireplace and nearly landing in the embers again.

“What’s the commotion?” Hermione called out just emerging from the girls’ dormitory. She walked over to see Harry’s wand drawn and Goyle bleeding, and shot Harry a vicious look. “Come on, Greg. Let me fix that.” Goyle got to his feet and let Hermione stop the bleeding.

“It wasn’t me!” Harry said defiantly. He pointed to the loosened stones above their heads. “Ginny was smashing him against the wall.”

“Ginny?” Hermione asked confused.

“Yes,” Ginny’s voice echoed in the room. She descended the staircase and walked over to Goyle. “I owe you an apology, Greg. I’m sorry.” She held out her hand to his. “Forgive me?” Slowly, he reached out and held her hand in his.

“Only if you score at least forty against Ravenclaw,” he said, trying to muster a smile, and then he shook her hand.

“Deal,” Ginny replied smiling. “Where’s…. There you are!” She walked over and sat on Dean’s lap, whispered something in his ear, and kissed him on the forehead. “Promise?” she asked out loud. Dean nodded.

“What’s going on?” Hermione asked Harry. Goyle started up the stairs as Harry walked Hermione to the side of the common room. Colin snapped another photo of Ginny on Dean’s lap.

“Creevey!” Dean yelled. But Colin simply smiled and left for breakfast stepping through the portrait of the Fat Lady. At the corner of the room, Harry told Hermione all that had happened.

“For what he was dreaming?” she asked incredulously. Harry nodded.

“HARRY!” Goyle yelled from somewhere upstairs. It was the first time he’d ever used Harry’s first name, and Harry new at once something was terribly wrong. Harry left Hermione and darted up the stairs to the boys’ dormitory.

“Goyle! Where are you?” he yelled out of breath.

“In the shower!” Goyle called back.

Harry ran into the bathroom to find Goyle shaking at the entrance to the showers.

“What is it?” Harry asked pulling his wand. Goyle just pointed and stammered. Harry entered to see Ron stuck a good three feet up against the wall with what looked like a huge spider webbing. Except for his horrified face and bare feet, he was completely encased with his arms and legs extended. Creeping across the ceiling and along the floor were about a dozen black furry spiders the size of small poodles. One had just put its leg on Ron’s bare foot and hoisted itself up onto the web in which he was encased. The collective clicking of pincers buzzed in Harry’s ears.

“G-G-Greg, g-g-get rid of it!” Ron stammered. Slowly the spider made its way up Ron’s web-covered leg toward his belly. “Greg!”

“Brilliant,” Harry whispered with a smile. “Some family meeting.”

“Don’t just stand there!” Ron’s screeched. “Get it off! Get it off!” Plastered to the wall, Ron could barely move, although he was stretching his neck as far from the spider crawling up his torso as he could. Harry walked casually to Ron’s side watching the creature’s hairy legs work their way up Ron’s chest, its three-inch long pincers clicking loudly back and forth.

“What’s the matter, Ron,” he said with a disinterested voice. “Don’t tell me. Prefects don’t like black spiders.” Creeping ever so slowly, its front legs were finding footing at the base of Ron’s neck. The spider’s fur began to brush Ron’s exposed chin. Ron began to whimper. Harry pulled out his wand and pointed it at the spider, but then stopped and began to walk away. “But then, I wouldn’t know. I’m just a pratty, know-it-all, glory seeker who wants nothing more than your prefect’s badge.”

“Harry!” Ron screamed.

“Your friend Goyle can handle things.” Harry looked at Goyle who held his wand high as his eyes darted from one spider to another, but he was too petrified to move. “Can’t you Goyle?” A long black point passed Ron’s right eye as the spider’s leg brushed across his face. Harry started to leave the boys’ showers.

“Please,” Ron whimpered nearly in tears. Harry spun and held his wand straight at Ron’s face.

“Arania Exumai!” he whispered. A narrow beam of white light shot from his wand striking the spider squarely in the thorax. Either the spider, or Ron, (maybe both) gave a small screech as the creature fell to the floor and shriveled into a ball. Goyle was still shaking as three other spiders began slowly advancing on him. Harry sighed.

“Goyle come here,” Harry said walking over to the Slytherin. He held Goyle’s arm up for him and said, “Snap your wrist down, and repeat the spell.” Goyle’s eyes glanced at Harry and then back to the closest spider. “Go on.”

“A…Arania Exumai!” Goyle yelled. His wand erupted with a broad blast of white light and took out two spiders. “It worked! I… I don’t believe it. I did it!”

“Excellent,” Harry praised. Ron stared, white as a ghost and eyes wide as another spider made its way to him from the ceiling above. “Okay, now those two.” While Goyle finished dispatching the other spiders, Harry sliced Ron from his bindings on the wall. As he was finally cut free, he began to fall and Harry caught him in his arms. Ron was shaking and could barely stand.

“Come on,” Harry said. “Grab a towel and sit for a bit.” The two left Goyle blasting at spiders in the shower. In the restroom, Harry stood against the wall while Ron leaned against a sink and looked in the mirror, pulling web out of his red hair. Harry couldn’t help but stare at the scars on Ron’s back. If they were getting better, he couldn’t tell.

“I’ll kill her,” Ron breathed flicking a piece of web into the dustbin. “I was defenseless! I swear… I’ll… I’ll…”

“And who will we get to play Chaser?” Harry asked with a smile. Ron looked back to Harry and slowly smiled back. It was the first time Harry had felt any warmth at all toward his best friend in over six weeks. For a moment, there was silence and then Goyle yelled out he’d killed the last one.

“Well, get rid of them now and clean the place up!” Harry yelled back. Ron was struggling for something to say.

“You know, Harry,” he said. “I didn’t mean it.” Ron went back to the mirror, but then looked at Harry. “I never meant any of it. I swear.” The smile from Harry’s face faded.

“You attacked him in his sleep, Ron,” he said walking toward the redhead. “He was defenseless.” Harry shook his head. “I don’t care what the jab of the day is. You just don’t get it. It’s not about me. It’s about us… ALL of us.” Harry washed some of the webbing from off his hands into the adjacent sink. “You think it’s just two roommates… that’s all. But if two guys who were once good friends can’t find peace with each other and work together against Voldemort, how will four separate houses join together? How will mudbloods, and half-bloods, and pure-bloods come together? How can wizards, and witches, and house elves, and goblins, and centaurs, and giants, and all the other sentient beings of the world rise together against this evil? You think it’s only about two peas in a pod… black and white, rich and poor, strong and weak. Pick the difference Ron, we can always find a reason to hate.”

Harry began to walk out the door, but as he started to leave he found Goyle standing at the entrance to the showers listening intently to his words. “Good job, Greg,” said Harry, hitting Goyle firmly on the shoulder. The Slytherin smiled.

“Thanks,” he said. As Harry started out to get his own towel, he passed James Cho on the way in.

“Harry, can I go?” he asked.

“Go where?” Harry returned.

“Tonight…” James said through gritted teeth as if Goyle shouldn’t overhear. “You know.” And then Harry remembered. Tonight was to be the first meeting for Dumbledore’s Army.

“James,” Harry said, “it’s not a secret. Anyone can come, even if they’re from Slytherin. I would think you, having been accepted by all four…”

“What?” Goyle asked. “What’s goin’ on?” Harry couldn’t believe Goyle didn’t know. Everyone was constantly stopping Harry in the hallway for details. In fact, so many students were inquiring that even Hermione was worried they wouldn’t all fit in the Room of Requirement.

“You were a member of the Inquisitorial Squad last year, Goyle,” Harry said. The eagerness in Goyle’s eyes dimmed, but Harry wasn’t saying it to be mean. “You tried to grab us all coming out of the room. Do you know what we were doing?” Goyle’s large eyebrows curled up forming a solid brow across his forehead. He shook his head no.

“Practicing,” Harry said. “Preparing.”

“Harry was teaching us Defense Against the Dark Arts when Umbridge wouldn’t,” Ron added. “He was fantastic.” The eagerness in Goyle’s eyes began to burn bright again. James kept looking back from Goyle to Harry. His expression was one of concern, as if telling this Slytherin anything, much less one who’s father was a Death Eater, would lead to certain disaster.

“I wouldn’t get to excited yet, Greg,” Harry said in a very serious tone. “If you walk in the door, it means a commitment to support Albus Dumbledore and Hogwarts. It’s a commitment to fight against Voldemort and his Death Eaters.” Harry raised an eyebrow. The name of the Dark Lord made Goyle flinch much as it did Ron. James remained focused on Goyle’s reaction. Goyle’s face grew dark.

“I’m not my father, you know,” he said in a slow deep voice. He slid down the wall and sat on the tiles of the bathroom floor. Even seated he was nearly as tall as James standing at his side. “My dad was always sniveling after Draco’s dad. ‘Lucius said this, Lucius said that.’ Merlin it was disgusting.” He let out a heavy sigh. “A year before I ever came to Hogwarts, my dad was telling me ‘Be sure to look after Draco now Greg. He’ll need your help.’ Usin’ me to suck up to Malfoy Manner. Well, look where it’s got him,” Goyle spat kicking a dustbin and flying it across the room into the sink next to Ron. Goyle stood up to put the dustbin back.

“I know I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed around here, right?” Nobody spoke. “But I can fly. If I can get through another year here, I have a decent shot at turnin’ pro. I can make a little money on my own, and not have to go dippin’ for hand outs,” he sneered slapping his hand against the wall with a large thud. “It’s my only ticket out of hell, Potter. That’s why you won’t be gettin’ a Bludger to the head week after next. We’ll put Ravenclaw to shame, but don’t go lookin’ for any mercy when I’m wearin’ green again,” he said with a smile.

At the same moment, both Ron and Harry said, “We won’t.” As Harry walked out to get his things, he heard Goyle whisper to himself.

“I’m not my father.”

* * *


That night, Harry and Hermione left early to the Room of Requirement. They paused when they got to the front door.

“Well,” Hermione said before they entered, “it’ll be a little cramped. Maybe we can work in shifts or something.”

“It was a bit bigger for your party,” Harry replied. “Let’s have a look.”

Hermione was first to enter and when she did she stopped in the doorway in front of Harry and gave out a little gasp. The sound seemed to echo as if she’d entered a large cavern.

“What is it?” Harry asked reaching for his wand. She moved in and Harry followed her. His jaw fell and his eyes went wide. “This is impossible,” he murmured. The room was enormous. It was larger than the Great Hall itself. At the end near the entrance through which they’d just walked stood five rows of textbooks twenty-feet long all dealing with Defense Against the Dark Arts. Cushions lined the floors, but there were day-to-day items as well including statues, suits of armor, desks, and chairs. At the far end, the room turned into a small forest that resembled an outdoor setting much like Firenze’s Divination class. Here were all the components Harry had thought of in the days leading up to their first meeting. He wondered how they could make the battles more realistic and less sterile. He knew not all the fights would be inside. The Room of Requirement was, once again, providing everything he could think of including what looked like a small street corner outside Hogsmeade.

“I was thinking about what Tonks has been teaching us,” Harry said to Hermione who was just now recognizing the treasure in books at her side. “You know, use the environment around us. I was picturing what those environments might be… and here they are.” He shook his head in disbelief. “It’ll be pretty silly… all this with only five people showing up.”

“Come-on Harry,” Hermione said, opening Defense Without a Wand. “We put up loads of posters, I’m sure people will show up. I already told you that most of Gryffindor said they were interested.”

“Interested?” Harry snorted. “That doesn’t mean they…” The door opened and in walked Luna Lovegood followed by about ten Ravenclaws.

“Hi Harry!” she said. She was completely un-phased by the change in the room, although it could hardly be called a room any more. “I saw you talking to Greg Goyle today at lunch. Are you becoming friends now?” Before Harry could answer, another group of about ten entered. Again they were mostly Ravenclaws, but James and Cho were both with them. Harry smiled at Cho as Anthony Goldstein walked up to him.

“Kind of expanding aren’t you, Harry?” he asked, amazed at the sight before him.

“Listen, Anthony,” Harry began, “you need to know…” but his words were cut short as more students arrived, this time from Hufflepuff. Within fifteen minutes, nearly a quarter of the school had filled the room. Hermione, Ginny and even Luna were trying to gather them together in some organized fashion. Harry was about to speak when Ron and Goyle walked in.

“What’s he doing here?” Anthony yelled pointing at Goyle the only Slytherin in attendance. A few of the Ravenclaws began to jeer. Three of them pulled their wands and began to jog toward Goyle standing near the front door. Ron pulled his wand. The room was large and Harry was extremely far away when he raised his own wand.

“Immobulus!” he called in a loud and commanding voice. A yellow-white light shot out of his wand and struck the three, freezing them in their tracks. The sheer distance, accuracy and power of the spell immediately gathered everyone’s attention.

“Rule number one in Dumbledore’s Army!” Harry called to them all. “We are here for one common goal… to defeat Voldemort and those who stand at his side.” A murmur of agreement rippled through the large crowd. “We will never turn a wand in anger against those who would join us, whether in or OUT of this room! Ron, get them out of here.” Ron cast a locomotion spell and soon had the three headed toward the door.

“Wait a second!” Anthony yelled. “You can’t…”

“Rule number two!” Harry called out again. “I decide who stays and who goes. If there are those of you here who can’t abide by these two rules, leave now.” A few of the Ravenclaws cast glances to one another. Even Seamus seemed upset, but none left. Soon Ron re-entered shutting the door behind him and the first lesson began.

Those present were broken out into groups based on class year, not by house. Members of last year’s DA began instructing a review of the basics they had all learned. Harry walked in and out of each group offering suggestions. But his greatest effect was on the morale of those he was near. In each instance, they seemed to focus better, or try harder. When he neared Cho he could see, needing to cast spells with her left hand, she had lost some of her skill from the year before. She was teaming with Anthony trying to show fourth years how to cast a hex-deflection charm.

“Here,” said Harry, gently holding her hand. “You’re trying to turn your wrist the wrong way. Spin it like this.” And he softly twirled her wrist in the proper motion. “Come on Anthony, give it a go.” Anthony held his wand up and cast a hex in their direction. Cho twisted her wand and spoke the incantation and a golden translucent shield appeared deflecting the hex up into the air. The fourth years cheered as Cho grinned.

“Super,” said Harry with a smile and gently rubbing Cho’s back. He lingered for a moment until Goldstein asked if they could get on with the lesson, and then sheepishly started for the next group. They’d only been half an hour into it, but already Harry was feeling exhausted. There were far too many for him to help them all. He let out a deep sigh and started toward the group of seventh years when the door opened and in walked Tonks. Almost immediately everything stopped as they waited for the professor to send them packing.

Her look was different than that of the Tonks from Defense Against the Dark Arts class. Instead, she was wearing jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with then name of a band that Cho had earlier told Harry about, The Howling Heads. Her hair was black, jet black, and she certainly had an edgy look about her.

“Well, get on with it!” she called out smiling. “Let’s see what you’ve all got!” A hundred grins returned hers and the students began where they left off. Tonks strode over to Harry and Hermione walked over to join the two of them.

“Hello, Professor,” Hermione beamed. “It’s nothing formal really. A few students thought it might be fun if…”

“Don’t worry, Hermione,” Tonks interrupted graciously. “You’re not hurting my feelings. I know about last year, and I think it’s great!” Tonks scanned the room. “By the way Hermione, I think your calculations might be correct. I’m two for two now.”

“Really?” Hermione exclaimed, not really considering where she was. “If it works all the time, we’d have the upper hand then, wouldn’t we?” Tonks smiled back but Harry was too busy watching the crowd to pay much attention. Ron, helping a second year with a wand movement, ducked just in time to avoid being hit in the back with a spell from a first year.

“’Bit dangerous out there, wouldn’t you say?” Tonks grimaced.

“Yeah,” said Harry, puffing out his cheeks and releasing a long sigh. “I didn’t dream there’d be this many people.” Tonks smiled back at him.

“I did,” she said with a grin. No sooner had the words left her mouth than Madame Guérir, one of the new healers at Hogwarts, walked into the great chamber. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head as the door closed behind her. “Madame Guérir!” Tonks yelled. “Over here!” she called waving. Soon Tonks had explained the situation and Madame Guérir was running in and out of the various groups helping those who hadn’t shielded properly or who were the victims of errant spells.

Tonks walked over to Goyle who was casting a tremendously strong stunning spell, but unable to hit the target. He’d already shattered one of the statues to pieces. “Greg,” Tonks said in a very casual tone, “can I suggest something?” Goyle shrugged his shoulders and nodded. For some time Tonks worked with Goyle, until finally he started to hit his partner, Parvati, every time. Parvati was exceptional with her shielding charm; particularly having the advantage of knowing the spell was coming. Goyle’s face began to light up. But no sooner had he smiled than he suddenly turned grim.

“Fighting the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters won’t be this easy, Professor,” Goyle said sending another streak of red light at Parvati.

“No, Greg,” Tonks replied holding one hand to her chest, and rubbing the spot where she’d been hit last year. “No it won’t.”

After a while, it was clear that Goyle had mastered the skill. Tonks came back to speak with Harry and Hermione as Parvati sent red light Goyle’s way.

“Hermione,” Tonks started, “do you mind if I have a word with Harry?”

“Not at all,” said Hermione. “I’ll watch things from here. Go on.”

“Harry?” Tonks asked. Harry followed Tonks to the far end of the chamber where the room began to turn to forest. Once they were under the foliage, the clamor and noise of the practicing students all but disappeared.

“How have you been?” Tonks asked with a gentle face, taking hold of Harry’s right hand. “You haven’t stayed after class for quite some time.”

“Fine,” Harry said simply. There was a faint rustle in the trees above them as if from an invisible wind. His answer was almost honest. Guilt about Cho had been gnawing at his insides. But there was something else, something he didn’t understand himself.

“That doesn’t seem too convincing, if you ask me,” she replied. “How’s Gabriella?”

“She’s great.” Then he sighed. “Everything in Little Whinging is perfect.”

“I see. And Cho?” Tonks asked, drawing out the question for emphasis. “I’ve seen you two together around school quite a bit.”

“She’s getting better,” Harry said, holding his gaze at the grass around his feet, but he could feel his face redden. Tonks held Harry’s hand up closer to her.

“You need to tell them, Harry. You can’t live a lie.”

“I better get back,” Harry said, but Tonks held his hand tight as he tried to leave.

“Wait,” she insisted. “Tell me, Harry. You’re teaching all these students to prepare for the battle. Who’s preparing you?”

“I already know where my path lies, Tonks,” Harry whispered back watching the leaves in the trees rustle.

“I know you’re great with a wand, Harry. But if you could change your appearance at will, it would be a huge advantage.” Reluctantly, Harry nodded his head. Tonks smiled.
“Have you practiced any more?” she asked.

“Not really,” Harry replied glancing back at the students on the far end of the chamber.

“Come with me,” said Tonks, pulling Harry deeper into the woods. Soon they were out of sight and Tonks took both his hands in hers. “Okay, think of someone you know. Someone you’re very familiar with. Pick someone about your own size and build. Can you think of anyone?” For a moment Harry hesitated. Thoughts of Ron and Seamus flashed into his mind… even Neville now that he was thinner. Finally he locked on the face and nodded his head with his eyes closed. “Start at the top of your head and work down. Think about their hair, their face, how they stand. Try to become that person.”

In the darkness, under the rustle of leaves, Harry’s hair began to straighten, falling only a bit further down his shoulders. His nose narrowed and his eyebrows lightened. His chin began to protrude ever so slightly as his own cleft disappeared. It took all of about three minutes with Tonks prodding suggestions along the way, especially once she realized who he had picked. Finally, he was done and opened his eyes to look at her.

“Well?” he asked nervously, not sure himself why he had chosen this form above all the others.

“You’ve done this before Harry,” she answered with a questioning smile. “I can tell.”

“Well… never him,” Harry said. “Am I close?”

Tonks leaned in gently holding his narrow face in her hands, and stroking his long blonde hair. “Almost,” she said approvingly, holding his hands again. “Just one problem; you have green eyes, Draco.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 29 - Lost at Sea
~~~***~~~

The day was crystal clear and cold as Harry made his way back to the castle after Care of Magical Creatures. A few yards ahead walked Ron flanked by Crabbe and Goyle. During the last few lessons, the three had banded together. To the betterment of Crabbe Harry hoped, but doubted. The day was easily the coldest of the year and, as a slight breeze blew, everyone pulled their cloaks up tighter to their ears. Harry watched as the three climbed the front steps to the castle, and as his eyes tracked further up they caught sight of Hermione standing next to Cho. A few steps later, Ron met Hermione and the two began to talk. Ron shook his head casting a backward glance at Harry. Hermione went into the castle with him. Cho, however, still using her locomotion spell to travel, waited for Harry to meet her.

“Hi, Harry,” Cho said cheerfully. “You’re free next period right? She, quite naturally, took his right hand in her left as they entered the castle.

“Yeah,” said Harry, looking back at Cho who wore a sly smile. “Why?”

“Professor Flitwick is preparing for the Halloween Feast tonight and said he could use some help. Want to give it a go?”

Since last week’s DA meeting and Tonks’ comments, Harry had been desperately searching for a way to tell Cho about Gabriella, but still he had been unable to muster the right words. Perhaps it was the part of his heart that didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but more likely it was the part of his heart that wanted to have her for himself. Every time he opened his mouth to tell her something inside began to boil. “No,” his thoughts would say, strangling his tongue. “She’s mine. They’re both mine.” And then he would feel the warm embers of a jealous rage begin to kindle. With increasing difficulty, he would turn his thoughts to cool the embers, but seemed to be growing less able to get the words out before the opportunity to reveal the truth passed. And now, given the chance to spend more time with Cho, he could once again feel his heart begin to pound with excitement.

“Yes,” he said grinning, although he could hear his mind saying no. “Er, right now?”

“I’m ready if you are,” she said with a beaming smile that inferred more meaning in her words, and she held his arm more tightly in hers. Together they entered the Great Hall.

Professor Flitwick was busy levitating the various pumpkins toward the ceiling. Their carved faces were ghastly, their glowing red eyes sinister, eyes that Harry had seen before. He shivered.

“You’re cold,” Cho said rubbing his arm. “It was quite cold out there, wasn’t it?” Harry nodded in agreement. Professor Flitwick had finished levitating the last pumpkin when he noticed the two before him.

“Ah! Mr. Potter! Ms. Chang!” he squeaked out. “What a delightful surprise to see you both. You’re quite early, as you can see. I still have much to do. Perhaps in an hour or two you might…”

“We’re here to give you a hand Professor,” Cho interrupted. Professor Flitwick seemed somewhat taken aback by the offer.

“Well, that’s wonderful. I… let’s see… I’ve never had anyone offer to help before.” Harry cast Cho a steely glance, but she just smiled back. “Perhaps you could start lighting the Jack-O-Lanterns. A small, non-extinguishing, fire charm should work.” Harry just look confused, but Cho nodded.

“Certainly sir,” she replied. She pointed her wand to a pumpkin over her head and called, “Incendi-Permentia!” Instantly the face began to glow. She looked over to Harry who still looked confused. “Focus on the fire burning inside the pumpkin. The first time I tried this, the whole pumpkin went up in a great blaze that wouldn’t stop burning.”

Soon, the two began the pumpkin lighting. They also helped animate some of them to wink, or bite. Against the wall near the Gryffindor table, Harry suggested to Professor Flitwick that they put some sort of spider display. The whole wall was one large spider web crawling with black furry spiders the size of poodles. To Harry’s disappointment, Cho placed a containment charm so that they couldn’t escape. The other wall held a mural of pirates. At least, they once were pirates, but now were nothing more than rags and bone. The skeletons reenacted a brutal beheading of one of their member caught trying to pilfer from their treasure chest. A dense fog covered the floor so that only the tops of the benches could be seen, and Professor Flitwick enchanted a hundred feathers to fly beneath the haze and rub against the ankles of the unsuspecting.

“Well,” Professor Flitwick said grinning after they’d placed a few more tricks and treats, “I think that should do the trick.” He slid his wand into his robes and rubbed his hands together. “The feast should start in a little under an hour. Thanks so much for your help. I must remember to ask you both to help next year.” Cho grinned, but the smile that Harry had been wearing after their afternoon’s accomplishments fell instantly, his mind locking on the doubt of ever seeing next year alive.

“You’re welcome, Professor,” Cho said not noticing Harry’s expression at her side. Professor Flitwick noticed, however, and he walked over to Harry, the fog rising to his waist.

“Mark my words Mr. Potter,” he said with firm confidence. “One year from today, you’ll be sipping pumpkin juice and smiling about the clever tricks you planted for your fellow students.” Professor Flitwick looked into Harry’s green eyes with a gentle smile, and inside Harry warmed and smiled back. For that moment at least, he thought there might be a next year. “I’m off to get ready; don’t dally too long,” said Professor Flitwick with a wink, and he left the Great Hall.

Save for the spiders, pumpkins, rustling feathers, black cats and screaming pirates, the two were alone for the first time in weeks. Cho moved closer to Harry, putting her hand to his face. Again Harry’s heart began to pound and he could feel the scar on his arm prickle. He could easily see what her brown eyes were telling him. He reached up to bring her hand down. It was time he told her everything. But, when he touched her left hand with his right, all logic seemed to fade. Instead of taking her hand away, he pulled her close and kissed her.

* * *

A few students had already entered for the feast when the two came out of the anti-chamber behind the teacher’s table off the Great Hall. The only professor present was Tonks, who was busy reading a book and drinking pumpkin juice. The two slipped around to the Gryffindor table backed by spiders.

“I… I better go get ready,” said Harry, suddenly uncomfortable. Cho nodded and kissed him goodbye. He started to leave when she remembered.

“You’re going to Hogsmeade tomorrow, aren’t you?” Distracted with churning thoughts, Harry nodded. “Shall we go…” Harry’s eyes grew large as the dawning comprehension hit him.

“No,” he whispered. “No… I can’t go.” His mouth hung open and he kicked at a feather hidden beneath the fog tickling his ankle.

“Why not?” Cho asked a bit too heatedly. “I thought…”

“I don’t have permission,” he groaned. “I don’t believe it. I don’t have permission.” He slammed his hand against the wall, smashing a spider and spraying green ooze all over his arm. He stormed out of the Great Hall.

“Harry, wait!” Cho called, following him out.

“Look Cho,” Harry snapped, as he headed toward the staircases. “I don’t want to talk right now, okay? I don’t have permission so, NO, I’m not going to Hogsmeade tomorrow. My parents are dead. My godfather is dead. I DON’T HAVE BLOODY PERMISSION!” He began to run up the stairs as students heading to the feast gawked.

As he blasted by Gryffindors headed the other way, he passed Hermione who grabbed him by the arm.

“Harry, where are you going?” she asked. He grabbed her hand by the wrist. Anger was raging in his veins, a foreign anger that was building from within. All he saw was red.

“Where am I going?” he replied. “WHERE AM I GOING?” He began to push her against the wall.

“Stop it!” she cried. “You’re hurting me!” Her words pierced his rage, and instantly he released her arm and stared at her backing away. He began to breathe hard, his heart racing. He looked from his hands to her eyes. His face was in agony.

“I… I’m sorry,” he whispered hoarsely. He turned and ran, not stopping until he was seated on his own bed. He looked down at his right arm pulling up the sleeve. The scar was red and raised. “What’s going on?” he whispered. There was a squeak in the floorboards to his right, and he began to reach for his wand just as Neville walked in from the showers.

“Hey, Harry!” he called primping the collar on his shirt. “Better get goin’, we’re both gonna’ be late.” Harry pulled his sleeve down and leaned back on his bed.

“I’m not feeling too well Neville,” Harry moaned. “I think I’ll stay in tonight.”

“That’s a shame,” Neville said. “It’s always fun, but this year promises to be the best.” Neville slipped a reddish-yellow flower from a vase and turned to Harry. “For Helen.” Neville winked and left the room.

Harry took a deep breath and tried to find true north again. With each passing day, he felt like he was loosing more control. He was starting to believe that Voldemort had left more than a Dark Mark behind from last year’s encounter. “Dobby, where are you?” he whispered to himself.

Only the cold wind blowing against his window answered his words. He closed his eyes to clear his mind, to sleep. He began to smile thinking of Cho, when there was a rap at the window. Harry turned to see Hedwig hovering outside. She pecked once again at the glass. Quickly he went to let her in. As he opened the window, a cold gust of wind blew in pushing him backward and sending shivers down his spine. Hedwig landed in her cage and took a drink of water. A letter was tied to her leg. The smile on Harry’s face fell, and then began anew only to fall once more. He was riding on waves of emotion, rising and falling, rising and falling, with no land in sight. Hesitantly, he took the letter from the white owl’s leg, sat down on his bed and began to read in the soft glow of candlelight.


Harry my love,

Tonight is my first time celebrating Halloween in England. Mama says it’s quite different than the way we normally celebrate the feast. Many on Privet Drive have gone all out decorating their homes. Except, of course, your aunt and uncle. The front of Duncan’s house is covered with skeletons and spiders. Emma and I helped him carve pumpkins last night. What a mess! Emma was almost giddy slicing away, but I must say I think mine was the best. I wish so that you could have been here to help us decorate. I miss you, and can’t wait for Christmas. I’ve already told Mama that we can’t prepare anything until you arrive. I want you to see first hand how we celebrate in our family. It’s fantastic!

Dudley said to pass on to you that his parents have already been talking about celebrating the holiday with his Aunt Marge. I must say that over the last few weeks, he’s become almost sweet. He still smokes, which I hate, but at school everyone talks about the change that’s come over him this year. I can’t believe he was ever that horrible.

Mama’s slowly improving, although she still seems to forget things now and then. She keeps checking to make sure she locked the front door, over and over. As for me, I’ve finally caught up at school, and I’m starting to grow accustomed to Stonewall. I’m just not sure that’s a good thing. I’ve also started helping Duncan with his classes. He told me the other day that he’s glad he stuck it out to graduate. I think we spend most of our time talking about you, Harry.

I know you’re doing well at school. I only hope you miss me as much as I miss you. I’m keeping my little box with your heart warm in my room. It’s waiting for you when you come home. Do write back soon. Your last letter took far too long. I began to worry.

Have I ever told you that I love you?
Gabriella


Holding the note in both hands and reading it for the third time, the paper began to tremble. He wanted to leave now, to be at her side, to hold her tight to him. He walked over to the window and looked out at the clear sky, placing his hand flat against the cold glass. The stars were bright, and the moon that was full last week still lit the grounds below. But then, why was Dudley being so sweet? And why was she spending so much time with Duncan? A pang of jealously began to creep into his veins. With difficulty, he pushed it aside and flopped back onto his bed. He forced himself to focus on relaxing.

“Occlumency,” he hissed. “What a joke.” The ocean of his emotions was beginning to form white caps. He tried to picture the waters calm and still. The evening following Cho’s kiss and Gabriella’s “I love you.” were crashing against the walls of his skull. It wasn’t peace that pushed him to sleep, but exhaustion.

The fog billowed about his ankles as spiders crawled against the wall. He was carrying Cho in his arms to a large chintz chair. The fire was hot as he removed his shirt. He looked to the chair, but Cho was gone. He sat down and fully faced the fire. There was only the crackle of the fire and the sound of slithering around his feet. There was so much to get ready for… so many plans. A voice called his name and he stood in anticipation; he held his wand close wondering what the answer would be.

“She has granted your wish my Lord,” the cloaked figure said on one knee. Harry’s bony fingers loosened their grip on his wand. He began to laugh in a high cold screech. Suddenly, a blast of pain hit him in the forehead and everything went black. His brain was on fire, and he began to scream. Pain, as if he were being stabbed by a thousand knives, shot up and down his arm and he screamed harder.

Harry woke to Ron shaking him about the shoulders. Harry was confused. It was morning, but he’d only just closed his eyes. His bed was wet from perspiration, but he felt chilled. He began to shake uncontrollably. Everyone was up staring at him from their beds.

“Harry,” Ron said letting go of his shoulders, “you were screaming. Is it…?”

This time Harry nodded rubbing his forehead. Dean and Neville had already left for the morning, and Goyle had just returned from the shower. A look of panic spread across the Slytherin’s face.

“The mark!” Goyle gasped. “It’s the same mark!” Harry’s shirt was off and his bare arm revealed the red scar of the sword and snake. Harry was too shaken to attempt any effort to hide it.

“Greg,” said Ron sternly, “what goes on in Gryffindor, stays in Gryffindor. We agreed, right?”

“But he… Malfoy… he’s got the same…”

“We agreed, RIGHT!?” Ron snapped back. Goyle, ashen faced, reluctantly nodded his head. Ron turned back to Harry. “Is someone being hurt? Did you see?”

“It’s too late, Ron.” Harry whispered, half dazed. “Whatever it is, we’re too late.”

* * *

At breakfast he sat with Hermione and Ron, and spoke only of the cloaked figure in his dream.

“It’s a woman,” Harry said softly. What he didn’t say is that, as Voldemort, he felt there was some sort of attraction at play.

“You’ve got to tell Dumbledore,” Hermione said. “You know you do.” At first, Harry began to argue, but a second later he stood from his chair and walked over to Dumbledore seated at the head table. Moments after he relayed the story, Dumbledore stood from his chair and patted Harry on the shoulder. Then, he walked over to Tonks who began to follow him out of the Great Hall. As she passed Harry, she put her hand to his face.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered. She gave him a wink and smiled. “We’ll see what’s up.” As she left the Great Hall behind Dumbledore, Harry looked back at the tables. Already students were beginning to depart for Hogsmeade. He walked back to his seat.

“What did he say?” Ron asked when Harry returned.

“He said if it had already been done, he would have heard by now,” Harry replied. “He’s gone to warn the Order.”

“Do you think it’s another attack on Hogsmeade?” Hermione whispered. Harry shrugged his shoulders.

“Seems logical enough with the students out and all.”

“You shouldn’t go, Harry,” Hermione said holding his hand. “You should stay here.” Harry jerked his hand away.

“I can’t go, Hermione. I HAVE to stay here,” he spat. “I don’t have a signed permission slip.” The words were loud enough to carry and Goyle caught them in his ears.

“You’re not the only one staying,” said Goyle with satisfaction. “Draco won’t be going either. They say he’s lost his nerve for Hogsmeade. You know, after the Dementors and all.” He stabbed another sausage with his fork.

“You could ask…” Hermione began, but then realized that Dumbledore had already left the Great Hall. “Well… what about Professor McGonagall?” Harry just rolled his eyes. What little appetite he had, evaporated.

“You guys have fun, but be careful, okay?” Harry said pushing his plate forward. “I’m finished,” he whispered and his plate and cup vanished.

Cho caught Harry on his way out of the Great Hall. Together they walked to the castle entrance where students were already lining up to leave for Hogsmeade. Mr. Filch was marking them off one-by-one. Filch saw Harry, and a truly vicious grin creased his face. He knew Harry didn’t have permission. Cho took Harry’s hand.

“I’ll stay Harry,” she offered, smiling as best she could. “We can find other things to do.” She was beautiful, Harry thought. Her brown eyes were large and he had a vision of the two off them flying on their broomsticks with her short black hair whistling in the wind. But a deeper voice inside turned his thoughts toward Little Whinging.

“Erm, no,” he said, clearing his throat. “No. You go have a good time. I’m way behind on all my homework. I haven’t even started on my star charts, and I don’t a clue where to find gillyweed.” Cho rubbed his shoulder.

“I won’t stay too long,” she said. “Maybe I can get back early and we can go over your homework. By the way,” she said with a smile, “gillyweed is found on the North Shore.” Cho got in line, and as Harry started up the stairs, Anthony Goldstein walked over and stood in line next to her. Cho looked up to Harry and waved. Anthony looked up to see what she was looking at and quickly turned back to Cho.

In the Gryffindor common room, Harry sat on the couch and watched the fire. He could take the invisibility cloak, but it was getting too small to cover him properly. He’d have to hunch around the whole time. He was determined to find a way to get to Hogsmeade, the need growing in his mind. Finally, a challenge was put before him. But how? Unable to come up with any reasonable ideas, he sighed and decided to head to the library to see if Cho was right about the North Shore.

When he arrived he found Malfoy sitting at one of the tables with a few first and second years scattered about. A large book was open before him, but he was staring straight ahead into space. Harry walked over to him.

“What’s up Draco?” Harry asked kindly. He was unable to find it in himself, for some reason, to be snide. Malfoy rolled his eyes.

“Merlin’s beard! Potter,” he drawled. “I see enough of you in class. Can’t you just leave me alone?” he snapped. His sneering words were tinged with a sadness that Harry knew all too well.

“I just thought…”

“Well you thought wrong!” Draco yelled. He snapped his book closed and laid it on the table, and then he paused for a moment looking at Harry. “You…” he began in a softer voice, but then he shook his head, stood and left the library. Harry watched him leave and glanced back to the book Malfoy had not been reading… A History of Horrors in Azkaban. On the cover, a picture of a Dementor floated in and out of frame. Harry began to feel cold, and turned the book face down. He leaned on the table and noticed Malfoy had left his cloak on the back of the seat where he sat. Against the green wool lay a glistening strand of blonde hair. He held it up and stroked the long strand between his fingers. And then it came to him. Quickly, he left the library and soon found himself in the tunnel below the one-eyed witch.

With the cloak about his shoulders and the golden strand still in his fingers, he closed his eyes and began to concentrate. This time he was thinking gray, not green. A few moments later, the transformation was complete. He was an exact duplicate of Draco Malfoy. He glanced down the tunnel and everything was blurry. Realizing his error, he reached up and took off his glasses slipping them inside his pocket.

Once inside Honeydukes, he started up the stairs from the cellar. The candy-shop was packed. Nobody paid any attention that Draco Malfoy had entered the room from an unusual entrance. He scanned the shop and started to move forward to the front counter. An interesting thing happened. Normally, Harry would be pushing and shoving his way through the throng apologizing at every step of the way. Instead, as he moved forward, the crowd parted. Everyone moved out of his way without him saying a word. At the counter the proprietor, Mr. Dulcis bowed his head.

“Master Malfoy,” he said, “a pleasure as always to serve you.” He bowed again. “What will you have?” Harry made a selection of various candies. The choices seemed to confuse Mr. Dulcis. Harry pulled out a gold galleon and told him to keep the change. His eyes widened in amazement. Again as Harry turned to go, the crowd parted. Only Toby Vilis, a sixth year Slytherin stepped in front of him and patted him on the back.

“I told ‘em you’d be here, Malfoy,” Vilis sneered. “You’re not afraid a nothin’!” Something about the way Vilis was in his way, or how he touched him upset Harry. He suddenly felt quite angry and evidently the anger showed on his face. Immediately his fellow Slytherin dropped his eyes and backed away apologizing.

It was strange to be so respected. Harry stood a little taller in his new body and walked out the door. The moment he was outside he was tackled from the side and nearly fell to the ground. He began to reach for his wand, but hesitated knowing that it would give him away. In the same instant, Pansy Parkinson’s voice hissed in his ear.

“You lying dog,” she whispered. “Not feeling well. Hah! What a joke. Didn’t think I’d find you did you.” She bit down on his neck. “Word travels fast in Hogsmeade darling.” She looked up into Harry’s eyes. Harry was at a loss for what to say. He’d practiced his voice on the shopkeeper, but Pansy would know in an instant if something were wrong. And, by the look in her eyes, she already had.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. Harry straightened getting to his feet and held her aside.

“I…I told you,” he said hoarsely. “I’m not felling well. I just thought it’d look bad if I didn’t show up… you know.” He was hoping she’d know, because he sure didn’t.

“So true darling. So true,” Pansy said taking one finger to Harry’s face and scratching along his scar with her finger.

“Have you seen Potter?” Harry asked just trying to see the reaction. Pansy sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Is he all you can talk about anymore?” she asked exasperated. “Every day it’s Potter this and Potter that.” She took in a deep breath and exhaled. “Can you just go ten minutes without bringing up that half-blood’s name?” Harry was silent thinking about what she meant. Pansy needed to fill the silence with her own words.

“I know Goyle’s been getting chummy with those curseable Gryffindors, but where’s Crabbe?” she asked, scanning the streets. Finally, Harry put on the best scowl he could.

“I don’t know,” he croaked. “But there’ll be hell to pay for dodging me.” Pansy actually looked a bit frightened.

“I believe he thought you…”

“Crabbe and thought don’t belong in the same sentence,” Harry drawled with more confidence. “Go find him and tell him to meet me at the Hog’s Head in half an hour, or you’ll both regret the day we met.” Pansy scanned the streets.

“S-Sure, Draco,” she stammered. “N-No problem.” And she ran off down the street and around the corner.

“Finally,” Harry whispered to himself. He reached up and rubbed his eyes and felt the scar on the left side of his face. It was slightly raised, but he felt no pain when he pressed against it. An elderly wizard passed by noticing the mark. His eyes opened wide and he stared taking two more steps and running into a witch headed the other way. “Exactly,” Harry thought.

A flash of red caught the corner of Harry’s eye, and he turned to see Goyle and Ron walking his way toward Honeydukes. A mischievous smile crossed his face as he stood his ground. A moment later the two were nearly upon him when they noticed he was there.

“Draco,” Goyle choked in surprise, “you’re here.” He took a half step away from Ron.

“Always so brilliant, Goyle -- a true Merlin among men. You thought otherwise?” Harry drawled in his best Malfoy voice yet. And then turning to Ron he sneered, “Hello, Weasles.”

“A bit brave being out all alone, aren’t you?” Ron spat back. “Wouldn’t want to be kissed by a Dementor, or something worse like Parkinson.” Harry turned his attention to Goyle.

“I heard you were at a DA meeting Goyle,” Harry slithered between his teeth. Goyle shot a nervous glance to Ron and took another half step away. “That would be Dumbledore’s Army, wouldn’t it?” Suddenly Harry had the feeling that an intruder was entering his mind. A picture of Tonks flashed in front of his face, but Harry quickly turned the invasion away as Ron groaned and held his hand to his head.

“Just trying to get some practice in,” Goyle sputtered. “That’s all Draco, really.”

“I see,” Harry said snidely. “You are still a Slytherin, aren’t you Goyle?”

“Don’t you have better things to do with your time, Draco?” Ron snapped. “I know we do! Come on Goyle.” He started to step away.

“Where’s your precious Potter, Weasles?” Harry drawled again. “Hiding in his bed at Hogwarts again?” Ron turned on Harry and drew his wand.

“Say another word about Harry, and I’ll turn you into an oozing ball of jelly again Malfoy.” Ron stepped closer. “He’s got more bravery in his little finger than you have in that big fat head of yours.”

“It’s good to see someone who knows how to be loyal,” answered Harry, and he turned and walked away, his forehead starting to ache.

A short walk later, he found himself in front of Madam Puddifoot's. “I wonder,” he whispered to himself. He opened the door and walked in. The place was packed, decorated to the gills with miniature Halloween creatures throwing orange and black confetti on to the patrons. In the back sat Cho at a table with Anthony Goldstein. For a moment he felt his insides begin to churn. A flash of anger filled his eyes. Suddenly, Harry’s forehead, where his scar would be, began to burn. He winced and rubbed his brow leaning against a counter. The room came in and out of focus. He took a deep breath as the pain ebbed away, and a sudden sense of euphoria replaced the rage. In Madam Puddifoot's were many students from all four of Hogwarts’ houses. Conversation filled the room. A thought crossed his mind, an opportunity for unity.

“Excuse me everyone!” Harry called. A few students looked his way. “Excuse me!” he yelled out louder. The room fell silent. Anthony Goldstein made to stand, but Cho grabbed his hand and he sat back down. Harry began, “At the start of the school year on the Hogwarts Express I nearly killed Cho Chang.” There was a murmur in the shop. A few Slytherins grinned. “I was angry at her for getting in the way of one of my far too frequent spats with Harry Potter. She sits here before you, harmed by what my senseless rage did to her, and I wish to take this moment to offer her a public apology.” A few students looked over to Cho who had straightened in her chair, still holding Anthony’s hand. The Slytherins were confused. “Cho, Anthony, all of Hogwarts, I am sincerely sorry for what I did on that train. I promise you… the next time we find ourselves together on the Hogwarts Express, it will be a very different ride indeed!” Harry walked over and took a glass of water from off one of the nearest tables and raised it in the air. “To Hogwarts!” he called. More than half returned the toast, including Cho, and even a couple Slytherins.

He set the glass down grinning at what had just happened. “Progress,” he thought to himself. Cho stood and started to walk towards him when, screeching like the old train’s brakes, a loud siren split the air. It reminded him of a World War II air-raid siren, and the sound sent shivers down his spine. Suddenly a voice filled the shop.

“All Hogwarts students are to return to the school immediately!” It was the voice of Professor McGonagall. The sirens continued to blare as students emptied the various shops and businesses. “All Hogwarts students shall proceed as quickly as possible to the school,” she repeated. And then a man’s voice echoed through the street. “Residents of Hogsmeade prepare to defend yourselves.” At his words, a woman standing at the corner began to scream uncontrollably until two men helped her inside the inn. The pace of the students quickened as various professors who had also been visiting joined them. One stood high above the rest.

“Now don’ anyone panic!” Hagrid yelled out. “Follow me, an’ no one ‘ill get hurt.” He was an instant magnet as everyone drew close. Harry found himself swept up in the crowd unable to get back to Honeydukes. He was in a group of Slytherins as they hurriedly made their way toward the castle.

“What happened?” one of them asked panicky.

“Kings Cross,” one yelled in the commotion. “It’s been blown to bits.”

“What?” Harry yelled.

“How did you know Draco?” another asked his eyes more frightened of Harry than of what had just happened.

“Know what?” Harry replied.

“The Hogwarts Express… in Puddifoot's you swore it’d be a very different ride. You… you knew!”

“But how?” Toby Vilis called out, coming to some internal realization that Draco was truly in league with the Dark Lord’s actions. “How did you know they’d blow all of 9-¾’s?” Harry stared unable to speak.

“He knew?” another Slytherin asked. He turned to Harry and patted him on the back saying, “You’re brilliant Draco! You really had me goin’ in Puddifoot's! Absolutely brilliant… a different ride!” He began to laugh, but Harry began to shiver. “They’ll need a whole bloody new train!” And the entire group of Slytherins started laughing, patting Harry about the shoulders.

Harry lowered his head and rubbed his brow. “What have I done,” he whispered to himself. In that instant, the hope of unity he had felt five minutes before faded into darkness.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 30 - The Stone of Cinnabar
~~~***~~~
---

All indications point to Voldemort’s Death Eaters being behind the horrific attack yesterday at King’s Cross Station. Nearly 30 Muggles and 12 wizards died in the blast that occurred at just after 11 am. Many more were injured. The Director for Wizarding Security, Arthur Weasley, stated that two suspects were being held in connection with the attack, although he refused to provide their names. “The two sorcerers in our custody are providing valuable information, which promises improved security for both wizards and Muggles alike.

Mrs. Alisa Clarke, Director of Magical Mischief, disagrees. “How anyone can think 42 dead is an improvement is beyond me. We need to go on the offensive before we’re all killed!” Indeed the Ministry of Magic has been flooded with complaints, many calling for the resignation of Director Weasley. The Dailey Prophet has it on good authority that Weasley’s office had word of the impending attack hours before, but still was unable to prevent its dire consequences.

The Minister of Transportation, Pushem Longer, stated that repairs are already underway. “Muggles believe it was another Mid-East terrorist attack, although the head of government has been contacted by Minister Fudge with our suspicions. Charms are still in place to prevent the various magical tracks from being discovered. Platform 9-3/4’s will be rebuilt in time for the Christmas holiday.”

Among the dead, Engineer Thaddeus Fleming, is credited with saving the lives of countless children as they disembarked after their return from a morning sightseeing trip to Hogsmeade. Fleming used a shield charm protecting the children from falling debris as he ushered them into a shelter. The shield charm failed just before he entered the chamber himself, and he was struck and killed by a falling beam.
---

“I know him,” Harry exclaimed. “On our first night, he helped Hagrid with the first years when everything went crazy in Hogsmeade.” His hand began to shake as he took a sip of tea. James Chang laid the paper down revealing a picture of the Hogwarts Express in flames.

“It’s awful,” he said with a grimace. “It goes on -- just more about who died and who was hurt. What if we’d been on the train coming back from school?” The thought sent a slight shiver down his spine.

Harry took another halfhearted bite of egg and glanced back to the entrance of the Great Hall. He’d been sitting with James and the Creevey brothers throughout breakfast, and still there was no sign of Ron or Hermione. When he woke to find Ron’s bed empty, he assumed he’d find them both eating. He asked Goyle about Ron, but Goyle either didn’t know, or was silent.

“Don’t worry James,” Dennis said reassuringly. “They’ve got who did it, and they’ll be sure it won’t happen again.”

“Maybe, Dennis,” replied James, unsure. “It’s just… not knowing.”

“That’s what he wants,” Harry spoke up. “Fear. Fear of what will happen next.” He pointed his fork at Neville and the row of Gryffindors that had been reading over James’ shoulder. “He’ll try to use that against us. Don’t let him.”

A sliver of sunshine split the gray ceiling of the Great Hall as Goyle leaned in to the conversation. “I hear Draco knew it was going to happen before it did,” he whispered looking back over his shoulder. “He used some lame excuse to apologize to Cho so he could show off he’s connected, if you know what I mean.” James looked at Harry, and Harry began to rub his head. James leaned in himself.

“I knew it!” he hissed. “He’s as foul as his…”

“No he’s not!” Harry said abruptly. “All he said was…”

“You weren’t even there Harry,” Colin interrupted. “Some snakes can’t be saved. I know you two have been…”

“We haven’t been anything!” Harry yelled now turning heads in the Great Hall. He even caught Professor McGonagall’s attention. She was acting Head Mistress, sitting in for Professor Dumbledore as neither he nor Tonks had been seen since the day before. Harry stood. Colin started to say something again, but Dennis grabbed his arm and shook his head.

Standing, Harry looked around the hall. The whole place was in whispers; everyone was frightened, unsure. There was no grand speech from Professor Dumbledore like the morning after the Hogsmeade attack. There was no rallying cry to bring confidence to the school. Harry scoured the hall for Ron and Hermione, but they were still nowhere to be seen. The few Professors at the head table with an appetite to attempt breakfasting were grim and stoic.

“I did this,” Harry whispered to himself.

“You did what?” Colin asked with a much calmer tone. Abruptly, Harry stood on the Gryffindor table and held his wand toward the gray sky above.

“Candeo!” he called as fireworks shot out of his wand toward the ceiling. Everyone gasped in surprise.

“Mr. Potter…” Professor McGonagall started quietly, but Harry ignored her and spoke his mind, his heart.

“Students of Hogwarts!” he yelled. As all the faces in the Great Hall turned his way, Harry felt himself stand somehow taller. “They attacked Hogsmeade, and Professor Dumbledore told us, didn’t he? We will defeat this evil… We will deny his goals! But what, instead, are you doing?” He turned at a group of Hufflepuffs grouped over the cover shot on the Daily Prophet. “Huddling together in fear?” He turned to a large group of Slytherins who had surrounded Malfoy who was clearly at a loss. “The Slytherins think Draco Malfoy’s public apology to Cho Chang was some kind of ruse to prove he knew the attack was imminent.” He turned to the Ravenclaws who were muttering in agreement. “And so would you conspire and seek vengeance?” He looked back to his own table. “Dumbledore said that by staying true to the principals this school was founded on WE would lead the charge.” He looked up to the head table. Surprisingly, Professor McGonagall had retaken her seat. “We cannot defeat his evil with fear. We cannot defeat his evil with anger.” Crabbe let out a snort that turned the heads of those around him. A number of Slytherins smiled, but Malfoy stared at Harry unblinking.

Harry pointed his wand straight at Malfoy. The student’s around him scattered but Malfoy sat unflinching. “I assure you,” Harry called out advancing on Malfoy. “There is only one among us who hears Voldemort’s thoughts.” Then dropping his aim from Malfoy to the table in front of him Harry called, “Serpentortia!” A large venomous cobra sprang from the tip of Harry’s wand and landed in front of Malfoy. There were screams everywhere, and Professors from the head table began to move toward Harry and Malfoy at the other end of the Great Hall. Harry slipped his wand in his robes as the snake raised to strike Malfoy. Still he sat unflinching. Harry narrowed his eyes and began to speak.

“Hasheth-Hayahess. Hasheth-Hayaheth.” The snake turned toward Harry flicking its tongue. “Hasha-sayeth. Sayeth.” Slowly, Harry reached down and lifted the snake into his arms. There was a collective gasp as everyone froze, including Professor Flitwick who had nearly made his way down to stop the activities. Harry began to smile stroking the snake’s head.

“Draco’s father is in Azkaban, but that doesn’t make him a Death Eater.” Harry held the snake higher so that everyone could see. “Can we learn to embrace that which is different? Can we find ways to accept apologies for past mistakes?” There was a general murmur of support, but still Malfoy said nothing. “Can we join together to fight this evil?” Scattered applause broke out even at the Slytherin table. Harry placed the snake back on the table, flicked his wand, and it was gone. “Then join us Slytherin! Join Dumbledore’s Army today after lunch. Together we can win. Together we WILL win!” The room cheered and even the professors began to clap.

In the applause, Harry looked to Malfoy whose face had not flinched and whose gray eyes had been fixed on Harry the entire time. For a moment they were frozen in time as Malfoy, ever so slightly, ever so slowly, shook his head no. No one else noticed, but Harry understood and, nodding his own head, he returned to the Gryffindor table. When he sat back down, Colin was grinning.

“Brilliant, Harry,” he whispered grabbing Harry’s right arm. Harry realized that it didn’t hurt, and a quick feel of his thumb to his forearm confirmed the scar, for the first time in weeks, had again faded away. For some time they sat eating in silence. Ginny came over and asked for the paper.

“Is it true?” she asked. “Are they saying it’s Dad’s fault?”

“Oh, Ginny,” Dennis replied handing her the Daily Prophet, “it’s nothing. When you’re in a position of authority, someone always thinks they know better.”

“I know, but he takes criticism so badly. I know he’s…”

“Mr. Potter!” Professor McGonagall called having stepped to the side of the head table. Dennis and Ginny continued to chat as Harry made his way up to speak with his head of house. She was looking at him over the top of her glasses. “Come with me,” she said and together they exited to the small chamber where he had had desert with Dumbledore. When the door closed behind them, a small smile appeared on her face.

“Professor Dumbledore sent message that he and Professor Tonks would be delayed,” she said. Even with the small smile, Harry could tell that she was worried. “He knew that there would be concern among the students, but asked that I say nothing of the incident until after lunch today.” Her smile broadened. “His hope was that a student, or two, might take it upon themselves to initiate discussion. Once again, he was correct.” She removed her glasses and walked toward the fireplace. “He also mentioned you might need assistance if you held a DA meeting and Professor Tonks was absent. A few of the professors have volunteered their time should you need it.”

“If… if Slytherin shows,” Harry said with not much hope in his voice, “we’ll need the extra wands.” Professor McGonagall looked at Harry with an intent look.

“Oh, they’ll come, Harry. Slytherins lack, shall we say, a certain amount of bravery? They’re frightened of what’s been happening and driven by their own self-interest. Some, I’m sure, feel that this evil might triumph, and so are waiting to see what happens next. But even a handful of Slytherins looking to join will be a victory.”

“Getting the Ravenclaws to accept them will be more difficult,” Harry answered staring at the logs in the fire.

“Oh, I don’t know, Harry.” Professor McGonagall said holding his shoulder. “Most of them are looking to Cho for guidance. She can lead them in the proper direction. And, I understand the two of you have been seeing quite a bit of each other.” There was a broad grin on Professor McGonagall’s face.

“Yeah,” Harry whispered and for an instant he began to return her smile as he stared at a Chintz chair, only to drop the look immediately. “I mean no. Er… no.” It suddenly felt cool by the fire. “Professor, I really must get ready. Is there anything else?” Professor McGonagall was a bit perplexed, but shook her head.

“No, nothing more,” she said as Harry turned to leave looking at his shoes and walking to the door. “You’ve grown quite a bit this last year Mr. Potter. Perhaps it’s time to slow down a tad. Try to have some fun this morning. Go out and enjoy the sun.” Harry nodded not looking back.

On the way to the Gryffindor common room, Harry was stopped by Malfoy who pulled him on the arm and dragged him to the side of the corridor. His gray eyes were steel and his brow furled.

“Scowling again, Draco,” Harry said before Malfoy said a word. “It doesn’t suit your scar.”

“Polyjuice Potion, Potter?” Malfoy asked flatly.

“I don’t understand, Draco,” Harry replied calmly. “What are you talking about?” Malfoy squeezed his arm harder.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about, Potter.” Malfoy hissed. “I was nowhere near Hogsmeade yesterday. You know that. But somehow, last night, I’m the hero of Slytherin. If they didn’t think I was in it up to my neck before, they do now. You can
talk to snakes ‘till your tongue ties, but they’ll still think I’m in it.” And then Malfoy’s face broke out into a toothy grin, and he slapped Harry lightly on the face. “Thanks, Potter. Like I said before, Salazar would be proud.” Malfoy began to laugh to himself as he headed back toward the front doors of the castle. Harry watched the blonde stride confidently away until he disappeared out of sight.

When Harry entered the Gryffindor common room those inside began to clap and cheer. Ginny who was holding hands with Dean by the window walked over and gave him a hug.

“It was brilliant, Harry!” she said. “You would have made Goderick Gryffindor proud!” Neville came up and patted him on the shoulder.

“I’d never have the guts to do it,” he added. “Not even for Helen.” His face flushed a shade of rose. Harry searched the common room. He needed to talk to Hermione. Ginny began to walk back to Dean at the window who was sulking. Probably because of the hug, Harry thought.

“Where’s Hermione?” he asked.

“They’re out,” Ginny called back over her shoulder not thinking.

“They?” Harry asked. Ginny looked at Neville who looked at her, but Harry caught the glance in an instant. Knowing his easier target, Harry advanced on Neville. “Neville can we talk for a minute?” he asked in a bit too gentle voice. And then firmer, “Upstairs.” Neville looked back to Ginny who was giving him a stern look Harry couldn’t read, but guessed it was to keep quiet.

“Gee Harry,” Neville sputtered. “I… er… gee.” Neville started backing to the exit.

“Goyle made a pretty funny frog,” Harry laughed with no humor behind the words. “Don’t you think?” He slipped his hand to the sleeve where he kept his wand. “Come on, Neville. I really need to talk to you in private.” Again Neville looked at Ginny who hadn’t moved from her position halfway between Harry and Dean. Her silence was not the support he needed.

“Erm… sure Harry,” he said nervously. “Just for a bit though. Helen’s waiting for me outside. We’re going to look for Fentaci-Fungi near the lake.”

“Yeah,” said Harry, shooting a glance to Ginny. “Just for a bit.” The two started up the stairs. “Finally,” Harry thought, “I’m going to discover what they’ve been up to.” And then he asked out loud to Neville. “Interesting, don’t you think? The war’s afoot, and the next day they come up missing. Where are they?”

“Well… you see…” Neville began as they entered the boys’ dormitory, “it’s just that…”

“PUT THAT DOWN!” Harry screamed ignoring Neville’s words. There in front of him, standing at his desk, was Greg Goyle holding Harry’s dragonhead in his hands slipping the large stone in and out of the creature’s mouth. The shock made him jump and the stone fell to the floor, rolling under Harry’s bed. “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?” Harry yelled again, this time slipping his wand out and pointing it at Goyle’s head. Goyle began to tremble falling to his knees and reaching under Harry’s bed as he spoke.

“S-S-Sorry Harry,” he said shaking. “I was just… oh gees… I’m s-s-sorry.” He reached deep under the bed and when he pulled up he hit his head. “Ayyy!” Goyle yelped. The sight made Harry smile and the rage in his heart crashed like a wave on the beach disappearing into nothingness. Goyle quivered on the floor holding the stone in his outstretched hand toward Harry. He kneeled there shaking, as he looked the other way with his eyes closed waiting for the curse. Harry slipped the wand up his sleeve, snatched the stone from Goyle’s hand, and held it in his own. He walked over to the desk and placed it in the mouth of the dragonhead.

“It is beautiful,” he whispered. “Don’t you think?” Goyle opened one eye and scampered to his own bed and sat.

“Y-yes,” he said nervously. “It’s Cinnabar, I think.” Harry looked at him with wide eyes. Goyle knew something about the stone? “They used to make Bludgers out of the stuff years ago before lead. The stone’s brittle, but holds enchantments so well you can stop it from shattering.” Harry stood astonished, while Goyle took a breath and gathered his composure. “I… I’m sorry Harry. I know that means a lot to you. It’s just so… I don’t know.” Harry looked at Goyle and sat on his own bed holding his two treasures and turning them in his hands.

“I don’t know either Greg,” he whispered. “Did I tell you?” he asked, holding up the dragon. “A Muggle made this.”

“Yeah,” Goyle nodded. “Well, no… er… Ron did.”

“Ron?” Harry thought and suddenly he remembered what he was there to do, but looking up, Neville was gone. “Damn!” Harry hissed. He put the dragonhead on his desk and ran to the top of the stairs. Neville was just leaving through the portrait. “Neville!” Harry yelled as he ran down to the common room. Ginny and Dean were gone. By the time he was out into the corridor, Neville had vanished. He ran a short way down the corridor, but only saw a few dozen random students. “You’ll regret this Longbottom!” Harry yelled to the air turning heads everywhere. “I swear -- you’ll pay!” He gritted his teeth and roared to himself clenching his fists. His arm began to ache again. Once again, he was angry, too angry really, and he didn’t know why… he just was. They were up to something; he knew it. They were up to something and leaving him out.

For a while, Harry wandered the corridors looking for both Ginny and Neville, but with no luck. Often he was pulled aside and praised for his talk in the Great Hall, or asked about the afternoon’s DA meeting. He hadn’t given the DA meeting much thought. His mind was singularly focused on what everyone was up to that was so important or so dangerous Harry couldn’t be involved.

After lunch, when the DA meeting did take place, Harry was relieved to find Professors Flitwick and McGonagall there to assist. More than a dozen Slytherins were in attendance. A respectable first showing, Harry thought, but their presence had everyone on edge. Ron and Hermione, noticeably, were absent. Ginny and Neville were also no-shows. At first, Harry thought they were just avoiding him, but when he realized that Luna was gone, his mind assembled a different puzzle.

Everyone missing had been with him at the Ministry the year before in an attempt to save his godfather, Sirius. He had wanted them all to stay at Hogwarts, but they insisted they come. And in his vain attempt to play the hero, he nearly got them all killed. Now, the day after the attack on King’s Cross Station, that same band of heroes was missing. All, that is, accept Harry. He was coming to the realization that it wasn’t just Ron and Hermione. They were all in on it. Dumbledore, and probably Tonks, were leading his friends into some sort of adventure. They were deliberately leaving Harry out of it to protect him… to keep him safe. Who else, Harry wondered, was in on it?

Professor Flitwick was working with a group of sixth years on camouflage charms. Students were near the indoor forest, and when the charm was cast they began to take on the appearance of the trees nearby. Harry, standing next to a large rock, found his clothes and hands turning a dark gray with white speckles that matched the marbling of the stone. As the students began to work with each other, Harry started over to Professor Flitwick. On his way he ran into a boulder that wasn’t there a minute before, only to discover it was Goyle.

“Ouch! Oh, Sorry Greg,” Harry said.

“No problem Harry,” Goyle replied, grinning with dark gray teeth. “I think I’ll try this one out on Crabbe when I get back.” Goyle’s words made Harry look around.

“Where is Crabbe?” Harry asked, “I thought maybe you might…”

“Malfoy,” Goyle said sharply, his smile fading. “It all begins and ends with Malfoy, Harry. I’m not so sure I’ll be coming to any more DA meetings after I go back.” Harry simply nodded and continued to Professor Flitwick. He was complimenting Parvati, saying that her choice to blend in with a patch of yellow and purple wildflowers was visually stunning, if not the best defensive posture.

“Professor,” Harry called. “May I have a word?” Professor Flitwick stepped away from the students and walked over to Harry.

“What is it Mr. Potter?” he asked a bit winded from the afternoon’s efforts.

“Ron and Hermione,” Harry asked simply, “do you know where they are?” A look of flushed embarrassment filled Professor Flitwick’s face instantly. He began to twiddle with his wand not holding Harry’s gaze. Slowly, he began to shake his head.

“Mr. Potter…” he looked up to meet his green eyes. “Harry… It’s not my place to…”

“Then it’s true!” Harry yelled, his voice echoing down the imitation streets of Hogsmeade. “I knew it! And Dumbledore didn’t think I could handle it! Is that it?” he asked again, but didn’t wait for the answer. “Am I that delicate, Professor? Do I need that much protection?” He could feel the rage building within as he gripped his wand so tight his fingers turned white. Professor Flitwick tried to put his hand on Harry’s shoulder.

“It is precisely this reaction…” he began, but Harry pulled away.

“Reaction? What reaction?” he snapped gritting his teeth into a toothy smile. “I’m fine!” He turned to rows of students firing spells at one another. “Enough! That’s enough for today! Take some time to enjoy the sun!” he yelled still grinning and then turning to Professor Flitwick. “Isn’t that right, sir? We wouldn’t want them to grow up too quickly.”

The students began to file out. Professor McGonagall left with Madame Guérir who was assisting a third year that had been slightly burned because he was too slow with his defensive spell. As Professor Flitwick was about to leave, he looked at Harry to speak, but then dropped his head and left the room. Harry noticed a first year Slytherin talking to a first year Ravenclaw about a wrist movement. For an instant his mind turned to his true purpose for being where he was. “The future,” Harry thought. As the last of the students departed for the day, Cho came up to him and asked him how things were.

“I’m fine!” he snapped without cause. Undaunted, she came closer with a warm smile, but she was unable to defrost the ice from around his heart.

“I know something’s wrong,” she said kindly.

“Did you notice who was missing?” he said folding his arms and stomping out of the room and down the corridor.

“Sure,” Cho replied. “Tonks was gone, but I heard she was off with Dumbledore. I hope they’re okay.” Her last words had a slight tremor in them as she glided down the corridor beside him.

“Not Tonks!” Harry yelled back, paying no attention to the fear in her voice. “Hermione and… oh… you wouldn’t understand,” he breathed in exasperation.

“Hermione?” Cho asked with a bit of frost on her own words now. “What about Hermione?” As they made their way to the entrance for Ravenclaw, Harry stopped and took Cho’s arm. She clearly didn’t understand Dumbledore’s plans.

“Don’t you see? She and Ron went off today and…”

“And why should that concern you?” Cho interrupted again with ever more ice in her voice. The interruption only sparked Harry’s own frustration from being left out of whatever it was they were all doing. “Don’t tell me you’re jealous!”

“No!” Harry spat emphatically. But his eyes couldn’t hold Cho’s. He had to look away. He was jealous. Dumbledore was letting his two best friends work for the Order, while he was left to teaching students who would have nothing to do with the final outcome. Cho, however, read the look a different way.

“You are!” she said, her eyes widening. “Look at me, Harry!” Now it was Cho who took Harry’s arm as she looked into his face. Then, she spoke very slowly. “Tell me. Are you jealous of Ron?” Again, Harry missed her point.

“I told you!” Harry pulled away. “I don’t give a damn what they do!” He still couldn’t look her in the face, but the surety of his answer seemed to satisfy Cho. A small smile of triumph crossed her face. This time she put both arms around Harry and hugged him.

“You don’t need her, Harry,” she whispered. “You don’t need either of them.” She reached up and stroked the side of his face. Harry, looking down into Cho’s smile, seeing her beautiful brown eyes look into his, felt the rage and jealously melt away. He smiled back at her and sighed deeply, letting the tensions slip away.

“You’re right, as always. Thank you, Cho,” he said putting his own hand to her face and then hugging her. His heart lightened, but as he looked into her eyes, they darkened to black. Harry blinked and shook his head. When he looked back they were again chestnut brown. A shiver went down his spine and he began to tremble slightly. “Cho… listen,” he began. “We need to talk. Our paths…”

“Shhh,” she breathed holding a finger to his lips. Cho pulled him close to her and gently laid her head on his chest. “I don’t know what our future holds, Harry. But… right now… I need you.” Hearing her own words, she laughed to herself as a tear streaked down her face and fell to the floor. “We all need you.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 31 - Opportunity for Disaster
~~~***~~~

Harry stood at a large mahogany table pondering the purpose of the strange silver instrument spinning before him. He’d walked in to find out what was going on. It was a thirst for information he shared with all his classmates, and part of him felt uncomfortable for using his relationship with Professor Dumbledore to such ends. Everyone had seen Professor Dumbledore at breakfast, and had fully assumed he’d make some sort of speech, but he didn’t. He ate quietly, spoke a few words with Professor McGonagall and left the Great Hall. After Charms, Harry came straight to his office hoping to find him, hoping to finally learn what his two best friends were doing behind his back. When Professor Dumbledore welcomed him in, it was with a half-hearted smile and a gloomy face. Clearly, something was concerning the Headmaster, and the expression threw Harry off his stride. Now, looking at his own reflection in the silver disk spinning on the table, Harry was at a loss for how to begin.

“Have you seen the golden instruments at Grimmauld Place?” Harry asked hesitantly. “I’ve never seen anything quite like them.”

“Yes,” said Professor Dumbledore, nodding from behind his desk. “They are quite unique.” He held his hands together at his chin. “Should you go on to become an Auror, you will learn about such things. As he delved further into the Dark Arts, Sirius’s grandfather had those especially made. It is a shame that such a great a Wizarding mind wasted so much of his life in search of immortality. And so it is with Tom,” Dumbledore shook his head. There was a short pause as Harry shuffled his feet. “And yet, I don’t believe you came here to discuss the toys of wizards, or the resurrection of the dead. Did you, Harry?” The sixteen year old turned and adjusted his glasses as he looked at Professor Dumbledore.

“Where’s Tonks?” he asked flatly. “She wasn’t at breakfast this morning.” Professor Dumbledore bit at his upper lip and shook his head.

“I don’t know, Harry,” he replied weakly with a small tinge of apprehension in his voice. “She and Ms. Granger…”

“Hermione?” Harry rudely interrupted. Dumbledore nodded, and Harry’s face reddened.

“Professor Tonks and Ms. Granger were working on a method to track an apparation.”

“But that’s impossible,” Harry replied. His emotions were torn between anger for being left out, and curiosity for what had been done. “Isn’t it? I mean, once a wizard apparates, they’re gone.”

“Amazingly,” Professor Dumbledore replied, “Ms. Granger developed the calculation in her Arithmancy class.” The old wizard grinned. “Truly astounding, really. Professor Tonks practiced the technique with another witch in Hogsmeade, and with good success.” The white-haired wizard’s face again became grim. “Your tip was helpful, Harry. Professor Tonks and I had nearly a dozen wizards and witches watching King’s Cross Station as well as other locations across the country. I was at the Ministry when word came of the explosion. We were able to stop two other attacks including one at the under channel crossing to France. Two of Voldemort’s followers were apprehended at King’s Cross Station. One of the attackers apparated, and this time Nymphadora followed. That’s the last we’ve heard of her.” Professor Dumbledore stood and walked over to the spinning silver instrument. He held out his wand and what appeared to be a field of stars suddenly surrounded the spinning silver disk.

“Each of these,” Professor Dumbledore began pointing at one of the stars, “is a member of the Order.” He smiled looking down at Harry. “We’ve grown somewhat since last year. Only a few of us know of our new foreign recruits.” And then his face turned grim again. “I should see all our members unless there is some magical cloak at play or…” his voice trailed off.

“Or what, Professor?” Harry asked weakly.

“It will not show me the dead, Harry,” Professor Dumbledore replied. He raised his wand and the field of stars vanished. “My fear is that she was successful, but with no one there to assist….” The creases on Professor Dumbledore’s face deepened as he sat back down in his chair. The leather seemed to gasp under his weight. He looked more tired than Harry had ever seen him. For the first time Harry felt that, perhaps, they were losing the war. Harry walked over to Professor Dumbledore’s desk. He knew his selfish desire to learn about Ron and Hermione was trivial compared to the lives being lost at the hands of Voldemort. He thought to ask about his scar, about Dobby, about his growing moodiness, about the crimson stone, but his mind couldn’t let go of the adventures that his two best friends were having, adventures from which he was excluded. He had to know.

“Professor…,” Harry began, “yesterday… Ron and Hermione were gone. Do you know where?” Professor Dumbledore’s eyes seemed to lighten at the question as he looked back at Harry over the top of his half-moon spectacles. It was an expression Harry had not anticipated.

“Yes,” he said simply. At the word, Harry stepped backward and looked for something, anything other than Professor Dumbledore to hold his gaze. He fixed first on Fawkes. The phoenix must have just flamed, for he was covered in white down and only a few inches tall.

“W-Well…,” Harry stammered. “I thought you might. I mean… them working for the Order and all. Probably an important…”

“Who’s working for the Order?” Dumbledore asked derailing Harry’s attempt at cogent speech. Harry still couldn’t look Professor Dumbledore in the eye, and instead shuffled over to the painting of Dilys Derwent who winked and smiled, but said nothing.

“Erm… you know… Ron and Hermione. I’m sure it was important and all. They’re…”

“Harry,” Dumbledore interrupted again, “I needn’t remind you, of all people, that there is an age restriction on being a member of the Order of the Phoenix.” There was a slight smile on the elderly wizard’s face. “Neither Ron or Hermione are of age. Nor, I might add, are you.” Professor Dumbledore stood again and walked over to Harry turning him so that they could see each other face-to-face.

“Harry, I know you want to be out there fighting Dementors and Death Eaters. But, the time, your time, is not at hand. We both know you’re capable. We both know you’re brave. I have no doubt that you would perform as well, if not better, than many of the Aurors in the Ministry. And yet, your greatest strength is not what you can do with your wand, but what you can do here at Hogwarts with this.” Dumbledore held his hand over Harry’s chest. “Your heart. Such magic is deep and impenetrable, and should you succeed, Voldemort will surely fail.” He walked over to Fawkes and conjured a small piece of fish for the bird.

“Professor McGonagall told me how you performed in the Great Hall in my absence. A bit theatrical, perhaps,” Professor Dumbledore grinned, “but admirable. You have offered the students at Hogwarts choices they never before dreamed possible. And I hear nearly a dozen Slytherins came to your meeting on Sunday.”

Somehow thoughts of the battles his friends were facing faded from his mind, and Harry was thoroughly embarrassed for coming to Professor Dumbledore’s office. He nodded, feeling both proud for the wizard’s praise and sheepish at the same time. Professor Dumbledore patted the side of Harry’s head, and noticed the silver lightning-bolt.

“I think you have some choices to make yourself, Harry,” he said, his voice light but firm. “And I don’t think they involve Voldemort.” Harry reached up and stroked the silver.

“No,” he said. “No sir, they don’t.” Harry started to the door. “It’s almost lunch, I best be going.” He walked through the door holding his right forearm with his left hand. Surely he should ask. He stopped and looked back at Professor Dumbledore, but the words failed him in favor of his primary goal. “Pardon me Professor, but if Ron and Hermione are not working for the Order, what did you have them doing?” At these words, Professor Dumbledore smiled and put his arm around Harry.

“I have often found, Harry, that the quickest way to find out what someone is doing or thinking is to ask them directly. It is not always successful, but quite often the eyes reveal the truth. Nevertheless, I believe they’ve been telling you for some time, what you would not hear.”

As Harry left Professor Dumbledore’s office, he could again feel his emotions splashing and splattering around in different directions. The thought that Tonks might be dead was foremost in his mind as he made his way to the Great Hall for lunch. When he entered, he saw Ron and Hermione seated next to Neville, Lavender and Parvati. When he looked toward the Ravenclaw table, he saw Luna reading a newspaper. There was space between Neville and Goyle who towered over the other Gryffindors. Harry walked to the empty space and sat down.

Goyle was busy putting fork to mouth, but Neville seemed to have suddenly lost his appetite. A plate with a corn-beef sandwich, potato salad and chips appeared before Harry. A glass of milk followed. Everyone, but Goyle, was looking at him apprehensively as he took a sip from the glass and set it back down on the table. He grabbed the sandwich and started to take a bite when Hermione broke the silence.

“Well,” she said, her voice a bit shaky, “what did he say?” Harry looked at Hermione and placed the sandwich back down on his plate. He turned to Neville at his side.

“Neville,” he said calmly, “I owe you an apology.” He put his hand on Neville’s shoulder. “If I ever act like that again, you can turn me into a toad, okay?” Harry smiled and Neville smiled back.

“I would if I knew how,” said Neville regaining his appetite.

“Maybe I can show you at the next DA meeting,” Harry said. “Greg, do you think you could give us a hand?” Everyone started to laugh.

“Very funny, Potter,” said Goyle, smiling back with a drip of sauce running down the corner of his full mouth. “Very funny.” He swallowed and wiped his chin, but then his face became stern. “I hope you haven’t forgotten the first match is this weekend. We are practicing tonight, aren’t we?”

“Katie’s reserved the pitch,” Ron jumped in. “She says to eat dinner quick and be ready to go.” Throughout, Hermione’s eyes had been fixed on Harry since her first question.

“Harry,” she started again, “what did he say?”

Thoughts of Tonks being dead and Voldemort winning the war flooded into Harry’s mind. He couldn’t bring himself to tell them Tonks might be dead. His stomach lurched, and then he thought of his own choice between black or brown eyes. He suddenly had lost his appetite and pushed his plate forward.

“Finished,” he whispered and the plate vanished. The long pause had them all worried as they waited for Harry to answer. Finally, he looked at Hermione in the eyes.

“He said I should ask you myself,” Harry said leaning in across the table.

“Ask me what?” she asked.

“Where were you and Ron yesterday?” Harry asked watching her eyes as they darted to look at Ron, and back to Harry. There was a collective rustle as everyone who heard the question repositioned in their seats. Harry looked at them all. Even Parvati and Padma seemed anxious to hear the answer.

“I just don’t think now’s a good time, Harry,” Hermione whispered. He looked intently into her eyes, looking for an answer. Again, she looked to Ron. “I swear I… we’ll…”

“If you don’t tell him,” Ron said with a strong clear voice, “I will.” Ron looked from Hermione and then to Harry. “No more lies, right, Harry?” Hermione was clearly nervous and uncomfortable.

“Not here,” she said. “Not like this.”

“Oh, come on Hermione,” Parvati chimed in. “It’s not like we all don’t already know anyhow.” Hermione began to redden.

“Really, girl,” Lavender added, “it’s the worst kept secret at Hogwarts.”

Hermione looked like a trapped rabbit. Everyone, including Ron, was waiting for her to say what they all, all but Harry, already knew. She reached across the table and took Harry’s hand.

“Promise me, Harry,” she began furling her brow and looking quite nervous, “that you won’t be mad.”

“I promise,” Harry said dismissively. “There’s nothing you can say that I haven’t thought of already.”

“Well, this summer, Ron and I…”

“I knew it!” Harry jumped in. “Vacation! Hah! What did he have you do? Come on… what was it? Spy?” Hermione, who had barely enough fortitude to start in the first place, was suddenly at a loss.

“Spy?” she asked.

“Okay,” Harry replied, “maybe not spy, but something surely. Did it start in Germany?”

“Well,” Hermione said looking back at Ron and taking his hand. “I think it’s been going on for some time really. It was just this summer when things got serious.”

“Of course,” Harry said taking to his feet and pacing as if to assemble all the parts of the puzzle. The only problem was that he had the wrong pieces. “Things only really got serious when the Ministry saw You-Know-Who, right? I just don’t understand why it was just you two, and not me. I suppose Ginny and Neville are in on it too?”

“Ginny’s known since…” Ron said smiling at Hermione, “since before we did I think.” Harry grinned putting both hands on the table and leaning in. Somehow, the fact that they were finally clearing the air made Harry’s heart lighter. It didn’t really matter that they had gone on to work against Voldemort, even if it wasn’t for the Order. They didn’t really need to now that Ron’s dad was leading the effort against Voldemort at the Ministry.

“Ginny’s always been brilliant,” Harry whispered. “You know, you could have just told me. I might have been a bit jealous at first, but I would have gotten over it.”

“I don’t think you quite understand, Harry,” Hermione said uneasily. “Look, you’ve enough to be going on about without worrying about Ron and me. If I’d have known you were this upset…”

“But I’m not upset, Hermione. Honestly, I’m not,” Harry shot back too quickly. “True, my mind’s been on… other things since I left Little Whinging.” His voice trailed off, and he looked over at Cho who was laughing at Anthony Goldstein. Anthony had made some sort of Quidditch doll in red robes and was showing it getting whacked by a Bludger from behind. Suddenly, inexplicably, the blood in Harry’s veins caught fire. He’d lost all thread of what he’d been talking about and all his attention turned to Anthony and Cho. Cho wiped tears of laughter from her face and held Anthony’s arm.

“Excuse me,” he whispered through gritted teeth.

“But, Harry!” Hermione called out, exasperated.

Harry ignored her, and found himself walking over to the Ravenclaw table, the urge to throttle Anthony strong, when out of nowhere a stabbing pain ran down his arm. Joe Blunt, a Beater on the Ravenclaw team, had his wand out pointing it at Harry under his robes. To Harry it all seemed to happen in slow motion. Joe whispered something, and a yellow light began to leave the tip of his wand.

“Loooook Ouuuuuut!” Hermione yelled from behind him. Harry spun, reaching for his own wand.

“Protego!” Harry yelled, wand drawn, just as the beam of light was upon him. The light bounced off an invisible shield in front of Harry and was deflected directly into Anthony’s back.

Anthony’s face turned white, and immediately he began to vomit all over the front of Cho’s robes. There was general screaming at the Ravenclaw table, and soon some of the first years began to throw-up as well. Joe stood up and began to slink away when Cho levitated from the table and ensnarled him in ropes.

“Joe Blunt!” she screamed. “Look at me!” She was about to cast another spell when Professor McGonagall called out.

“Everyone! Return to your seats!” she yelled. A few heads turned to see Professor McGonagall, Professor Flitwick, and the somehow more intimidating Hagrid standing at the head table. The room fell silent except for Anthony who kept retching on the floor. Professor McGonagall turned to the nearest student at the Gryffindor table, James Chang.

“James,” she said, “escort Mr. Goldstein to the hospital wing. Tell Madam Pomfrey what has happened.” James took to his feet. “Wait,” Professor McGonagall called. She conjured up a large purple bucket and handed it to him. “Have him carry this along the way. Mr. Filch will be angry enough when he sees what’s happened here.” James grabbed the bucket and helped Anthony up. When the two left the Great Hall, Professor McGonagall addressed the remaining students silencing the Slytherin table, which was beside itself with laughter.

“The rest of you,” she called out, “get cleaned up and ready for class. There will be no excuses for tardiness!” She then turned to Professor Flitwick. “Filius, I believe Mr. Blunt belongs to Ravenclaw?” Professor Flitwick rolled his eyes and nodded his head.

“Yes, yes,” he squeaked. “And they tell me my house has all the smart ones! Taking on Harry Potter….” Professor Flitwick just shook his head and proceeded to the Ravenclaw table. “Are you insane, boy!” he chided, as he unbound Blunt and took him by the scruff of the neck with some sort of clenching charm out of the Great Hall. Cho, still wet, went over to the Gryffindor table.

“I’m so sorry, Harry,” she said earnestly. “I heard some rumblings from a few of the team members that they needed to get an edge for this weekend’s match, but I’d never dreamt they’d turn a wand on you.”

“Listen…Cho,” Harry began.

“Hold that thought, Harry,” she said. “I’ve got to get out of these clothes and ready before class.” And she was off before Harry could say another word.

On the way to Defense Against the Dark Arts, Harry found himself walking with Ron and Hermione. His preference to shun Ron was overcome by his keen desire to learn about what missions the two had been performing. They had just left the Great Hall when Hermione began on a different track.

“You know, Harry, we haven’t discussed your,” she paused, “your gift for quite some time. I’ve been reading books all over on wandless magic. In some ways it’s really rare, and in some ways it isn’t.”

“I don’t understand,” Harry said as they climbed the stairs. “Everyone who sees it always raises an eyebrow.”

“Well, Harry,” she replied in a way Harry knew meant she’d never finish before they made it to class, “it’s all a question of magnitude. I mean… wizards can all do little things to change the world around them. Usually it’s a form of telekinesis or conjuration. Some enchantments can be done to objects without a wand, and certainly hexes can be placed on people as long as eye contact is maintained.” They rounded the first corridor to Professor Tonks’ classroom. “The point is you’re doing it on a much greater scale. It’s as if you’ve tapped into to some huge energy source and are projecting it at will. Normally, that’s what wands are used for. In your case, a wand just makes your spells that much more powerful.” They were nearly to the classroom. “I don’t know Harry, it might have something to do with,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “your arm. It might be some kind of controlling hex to make you stronger so that you can do someone else’s bidding. Or maybe you’ve discovered a new form of energy. But nothing’s really changed in your life since last year, has it? I know you were getting along better with the Dursley’s, but that just doesn’t seem powerful enough to me.” They were at the door when Hermione looked to Harry for some kind of answer.

“Fascinating, Hermione,” Harry said. “Thank you.” With that he entered the class. They weren’t late, but they weren’t early either. Hermione stepped forward to sit with Ron. Standing in the front of the room with crossed arms and wearing a scowl, was Professor Snape. Harry made to sit with Malfoy as he always did in Tonks’ class, but Malfoy slid the open chair further under the table and looked the other way. Harry took the cue and headed to the empty seat where Anthony usually sat next to Parvati. Evidently Joe’s spell was still doing its business. Harry smiled.

“Well, if it isn’t the king and queen of the castle,” Professor Snape sneered and a few of the Slytherins laughed. “I’m so glad you both could take time out of your busy schedule to join us.” Parvati put her hand on Harry’s lap and patted it to calm him, but Harry was calm. He had, for the most part, learned to control his emotions when it came to Severus Snape.

“Forgive us, sir,” Harry said apologetically. The words caught Snape off guard.

“Is Professor Tonks ill, sir?” asked Parvati in a concerned voice. The glib look on Snape’s face vanished. For the first time in Harry’s memory, Professor Snape looked concerned about something other than his own neck.

“Professor Tonks,” Snape replied regaining his composure, “will return as soon as she is able.” He strode over to a large desk at the front of the room and pulled open their textbook. So far this year, Tonks had only referred to it a few times. Nearly all their work had been practical. “Ms. Granger, how far have you progressed through your text?”

“Well, Professor, we haven’t really used the text all that much.”

“I see,” Snape answered, a thin smile returning to his face. “Then who, other than Ms. Granger, can tell me the three primary defensive spells?” Only a few students raised their hands, nearly all of them Ravenclaws. Professor Snape, however, called on the one student who seemed the least interested. “Mr. Malfoy, perhaps you would share your insights?” Malfoy seemed only to slouch lower in his chair.

“Protego,” he answered with a bored voice. “Protego, and I suppose Expelliarmus, would be another.”

“Very good,” Snape said. “And the last?” Malfoy looked uncomfortable, almost irritated for being asked the question.

“Áreddotu, Professor,” he said finally.

“Excellent!” Snape praised. “Ten points for Slytherin.” Neville raised his hand. “Yes, Mr. Longbottom?”

“I’m sorry, Professor, but Áreddotu? What’s that?” Professor Snape shook his head putting his fingers to his brow.

“As I suspected,” Professor Snape sneered. “The use of constant substitutions throughout the years has been harming your education.”

“It’s a reflection spell, Neville,” Hermione said. “If the caster…”

“I don’t recall anyone asking your opinion, Ms. Granger,” Professor Snape chided smiling. “Five points from Gryffindor.” Hermione’s face hardened to stone, and fire lit her eyes, but she said nothing. Professor Snape then turned back to Neville. “It is indeed a reflection spell, Mr. Longbottom. It returns the spell back to the sender. It’s advantageous if you know the spell you’re about to be hit with. It is poorly used without such knowledge.”

“Can it be used against the Unforgivable…”

“No it can not,” Snape answered briskly. “For such curses there is very little that can be done without a strong mind, and so you have very little hope, I’m afraid.” Snape walked back to the front of the class. “For the killing curse there is no known way to stop it.”

“I’m not so sure of that Professor.” A young woman’s voice shot from the back of the classroom. All heads turned to see who it was, including Harry’s. There, at the back of the room, was Tonks. Harry’s heart skipped, others gasped. There were two large scratches across the right side of her face and, as she stepped forward, she walked with a distinctive limp. She stared at Snape without blinking. “That’s a bit overblown, don’t you think?” she asked with an intellectual tone. Though concerned about her injuries, Harry had to smile. Professor Snape on the other hand was completely speechless. He simply gawked at her as she continued to limp to the front of the class.

“I mean,” she continued, “as long as you’re not directly hit by the curse, you can survive. And there are a number of ways to avoid being hit by the green light, wouldn’t you say?”

“Of course,” Professor Snape offered quietly, “that might be true, yes. But the point is…”

“The point is,” Tonks interrupted, “that I am deeply indebted to you for watching my class in my absence. I believe I can handle the rest of the afternoon’s lesson. Thank you.” Snape’s brow furled and his hand came to his chin.

“Do you think that wise, Professor?” he asked. “Wouldn’t you prefer to…”

“I prefer teaching my class, Professor Snape. Again, thank you for your assistance. Good day.” She walked over to the text on the desk, closed its pages, and handed it to Professor Snape. “I believe this is yours?” Hesitantly, Professor Snape took the book from her hand, and then he leaned over and whispered something in her ear that Harry could not hear. Tonks nodded with a slight smile that Snape did not see. Quickly, he strode out the room and shut the door behind him. The class erupted into cheers, and Tonks was bombarded by a dozen questions in the same instant. Tonks raised her hand, but only to about chest level. She was clearly in pain. The room silenced.

“Áreddotu is a very advanced spell,” she said sitting on the chair at her desk. “To use it wisely, it is true one must have knowledge of the spell being cast. Further, if the wrong wrist movement is applied, the caster might simply amplify the attacker’s curse onto his or her self.” She proceeded to show the class the correct movement and incantation. After some time of working without wands she clapped her hands. “Break out into pairs,” she said, “and try to use the spell against a mood lightening charm. At least we can all leave the class happy today.” As the class started to split out into pairs, Harry noticed Tonks starting to swoon a bit and then sit back in her chair. He began to walk over to her, but she pointed her wand at him.

“Mr. Potter,” she said sternly, “you have work to do. Questions can come later.” Harry hesitated, but continued toward her. “Go on, Harry,” she whispered in all the commotion. “I’m fine.” Finally, Harry turned to find a partner only to discover Malfoy, still slouching in his chair, as the odd man out.

“Do you have any friends, Draco?” said Harry with a sigh, and lining up against the blonde. Giggles were already beginning to be heard around the room. Neville and Helen were in a particularly happy mood, although Harry hadn’t seen them cast a spell yet. “He better keep her out of the dormitory, that’s all I can say,” he mumbled to himself.

“Sneaking girls from other houses in to Gryffindor?” Malfoy asked Harry as he looked at Neville. “Perhaps there’s hope yet.”

“You’re hopeless, Draco, and if you tell a soul…”

“Shall we try something with a bit more… fire, than a mood lightening charm?” Malfoy drawled. The boredom had left his face, and was replaced with pure mischief. Harry looked over at Tonks whose eyes were fixed on the far side of the room. “Looking for mommy’s permission, Potter? Maybe you aren’t Slytherin material!” Harry drew his wand and moved to a relatively empty part of the classroom. He’d never attempted this spell, and a miss on the first time would mean scorched fingers. The only heartening aspect was that beads of perspiration were popping out on Malfoy’s forehead. Clearly he was a bit nervous too.

“You first, then?” Harry asked. Malfoy pulled his wand. “And Draco, when this comes back into your face, you may want to try and deflect it here. He pointed his wand at an empty dustbin and filled it with water. No one paid any attention as Malfoy pointed his wand at Harry.

“Incendio!” he called out. A streak of fire shot toward Harry as he called out the new incantation.

“Áreddotu,” he said quietly. The fire stopped in midair and started on its path back toward Malfoy. The call of the fire spell turned much of the class their way, including Tonks.

“Protego!” Malfoy yelled, and the fire deflected itself off him, but not back to Harry. Instead, it was headed straight for Neville who was standing some ten feet right of Harry. Quickly, Harry pointed his wand at the water and levitated the dustbin in front of Neville just in time for the fire to hit it, burst the dustbin, and spray warm water all over Neville. Malfoy burst out laughing as Neville’s soaked robes dripped warm water to the floor.

“Enough!” Tonks yelled. “Ten points from both your houses. And you’ve just landed yourself in detention. See me after class, which is right now. Class dismissed!” The students began to walk out, as Hermione walked over to Neville and dried him instantly with a flick of her wand.

“I could have used that the first night we were here,” Neville said.

“Neville, I don’t want to think what the Professors would have done if anybody had lifted a wand that night,” replied Hermione as she looked back at Harry. She nodded her head toward Tonks in a ‘find out what happened’ look.

Harry and Malfoy stood waiting for the last students to leave. Malfoy, twiddling with his wand, had a smirk on his face. Harry, to the contrary, was trying to remember why it seemed like such a good idea at the time to bounce fire around the room. Tonks limped over to the two of them. The scratches across her face had vanished.

“What a pair of self-centered showoffs!” Her words were intense, but not loud. “Following simple directions isn’t good enough for the two of you. You’re too above regular lessons?” Malfoy snickered, and in a flash Tonks had her wand in his face, which instantly lost what little colour it had. She tapped the side of Malfoy’s face that didn’t have a scar. “I can give you a matching pair if you like Mr. Malfoy. Although I dare say my artwork would not be as refined.” Malfoy began to tremble, and he shook his head.

“Good,” Tonks said with a satisfied grin. She limped back to her desk and slowly lowered herself into her chair. “I believe four detentions should do the trick. We’ll begin tonight.” Harry’s jaw dropped instantly.

“That’s detention every night this week, and the match against Ravenclaw’s this Saturday!” Harry pleaded. “Can’t we…”

“Tonight!” Tonks said sharply.

Whatever interest he had in Tonks’ injuries left Harry’s mind in a flash. He could feel a sense of rage building inside. Something was wrong, very wrong. Clearly she was possessed! He clenched his teeth and took a step towards Tonks, but Malfoy grabbed his shoulder.

“Come on, Potter,” Malfoy said coolly. “Let’s go.” Harry looked at him as if he were crazy. “We’ll see you tonight, Professor,” Malfoy said politely with a smile.

As the two students walked down the corridor, it was Malfoy who was correcting Harry. “What’s with you, Potter?” he asked. “You were about to go off on a Professor!” And then he grinned. “I should have let you do it. I wonder what your precious Dumbledore would say then.”

“Well at least I’m not kissing up to my head of house!” Harry snapped back. “Don’t tell me you actually read the book.” Malfoy simply shrugged.

“You don’t get it, do you?” he quipped. “Sure, I read the book. I was told to read it last night. Not the whole book, mind you, just the part on the three primary defensive spells.”

“A set-up?” Harry asked.

“Like I said Potter,” Malfoy drawled, “maybe you aren’t Slytherin material.” The two walked for a few moments.

“When I walked in, you pushed your chair in,” Harry said. “Why? I sit next to you in…” Malfoy pulled Harry to the side of the corridor.

“Don’t play so thick with me, Potter,” he sneered. “I know you and Snape have hated each other since day one. And if you’re so connected to You-Know-Who’s thoughts, it’s pretty obvious why. Snape’s in with him and you know it,” Malfoy hissed.

“How do you…” Harry began.

“My father was a Slytherin, Potter.” Malfoy’s eyes darted around ensuring they were alone. “He loved the power of being a pure-blood.” Malfoy shook his head, his face held a look of disgust. “But that’s not where true power comes from, Potter. It was his failure in understanding that fact that put him in Azkaban.” Malfoy’s eyes narrowed, and his expression grew cold. “Knowledge is power,” he whispered. “Knowing where the pieces are set upon the board. Knowing their strengths, their loyalties.” Again, Malfoy took Harry by the arm and pulled him further off the main corridor. “Together, we could assemble the whole board. Together, we would know all the pieces. Together, we would shape the outcome of this war to our own advantage.”

Harry began to pull away, but Malfoy held him tight. “Do you think the Ministry gives a damn about your vision of togetherness, Potter? Do you think they care about how many Muggles die before this war is over? We can make a difference… Harry.”

Harry began to answer, when he looked up to see Crabbe and Nott passing on their way to the Slytherin common room. Malfoy looked back over his shoulder.

“I swear you’ll pay, Potter!” Malfoy yelled. “The only time I’m ever in detention is because of you. Think about what I’ve said!” Malfoy shoved Harry against the wall and walked over to Crabbe and Nott, both snickering at what they’d just seen.

Harry watched them disappear down the stairs. He found himself trembling, and he wasn’t sure why. If he could discover Voldemort’s whereabouts… if Malfoy knew… Harry could…. The possibilities were beginning to spread through his mind like a rapidly expanding cloud in the sky.

“Yes,” Harry whispered to himself. “Yes, it just might work.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 32 - Escape from Azkaban
~~~***~~~

Harry woke to the sound of footsteps leaving the boys’ dormitory. A glance to the window told him it was still quite early. Low in the sky was a bright crescent moon, and only the faintest shade of purple was glowing to the east. He sat up in bed rubbing his eyes and groaned thinking of his day to come. He would have Potions this morning, and because of last night’s Astronomy lesson and detention with Tonks, he hadn’t finished his parchment on the uses of ground dragon scales. Worse, he would have to tell Katie that he couldn’t practice tonight because he had yet another detention with Tonks. Again, he let out a deep sigh and sat up in bed. Neville’s bed was empty, but everyone else was still sleeping. He decided to get up and try to finish his scroll for Potions.

After he had showered and dressed, he made his way down, books in hand, to the common room. The room was deserted save for two sitting on the couch in front of the fire.

“Neville?” Harry asked. “Incandessa forte,” he whispered and the candles in the common room burned bright. Neville looked back over the couch shielding his eyes.

“Hey, Harry, come on,” he complained. “You’re kinda spoiling the mood, you know.”

“Mood?” Harry asked. But just then he noticed that next to Neville was a brunette with a grand blue flower in her hair, Helen Hedera. “Neville!” Harry hissed quietly through gritted teeth. “Can I speak with you for a moment?” Each word seemed to carry more emphasis. Neville sighed and walked over to Harry.

“What is it, Harry?” he asked a bit peeved. “We’re kinda busy, you know.”

“Yeah,” Harry shot back, “I can see that.” He pulled Neville by the arm to the side of the room. “She can’t be in here, Neville. I know you think she’s the greatest person in world, but the rules…”

“Don’t talk to me about rules, Harry,” Neville interrupted. “You’re the last person to be giving advice about rules. What? Do you think Ron or Hermione are going to give me detention?” Neville grinned, but Harry just glowered at him, his eyes like daggers.

“It’s not detention you need to worry about, Neville.” For a moment Neville seemed resolute to stay, staring back into Harry’s eyes defiantly. But his courage faltered, and he turned and walked back to the couch.

“Fine!” he shot out. “Come on Helen, let’s go down to the lake and watch the Solapria turn to the rising sun.” Helen stood up, but wore a bright smile.

“I’m sorry,” she said nervously. “I know it was an intrusion.” Neville put his arm around her, and the pair walked out the portrait of the Fat Lady. Harry wasn’t sure why he should feel so strongly about Helen in the common room, but something deep inside was telling him she was a danger.

Harry sat at the large oak table to the back of the common room and finished his Potions homework as best he could. He was making his way down to breakfast with Dennis Creevey when Katie called him from behind.

“Potter!” she yelled stopping the two in the corridor and striding up to them with her finger pointed straight at Harry’s nose. “If I had a galleon for every time you were in detention…” Her face was furious. “How many more nights?”

“Just three more,” Harry replied innocently, but Katie was having none of it.

“You’re out until the game? You know we were going to practice Goyle’s new strategy,” she fired back. “That’s why we had the pitch reserved for two nights this week. How are we supposed to signal the Seeker, if the Seeker’s in detention? You need to know what the signals look like!” Harry’s shoulders slumped. Katie was right, of course.

“Er, Katie,” Dennis cut in quietly. “I have an idea. What about Colin?”

“Your brother?” Katie queried. “Why on earth…”

“He can play Seeker and…”

“Seeker! Are you out of your…”

“Listen!” Dennis jumped in, the strength in his voice pushing Katie back half a step. “He can record the practice with a video, and Harry can watch it later. It’s not as good as being there, but at least Harry will have an idea about what to look for on Friday’s practice.” Katie looked confused, but Harry’s face broke out in a broad smile.

“Brilliant, Dennis” he said smiling a bit too broadly. “Absolutely brilliant!” Harry turned to Katie. “Well, there you go. Colin can play me as Seeker tonight while the rest of the team tries Goyle’s handiwork. Then, Colin can show me the important stuff later tonight.” Harry patted Katie, who still looked confused, on the back. “Problem solved, Katie.” And he and Dennis headed off to breakfast.

A bit further down the corridor, Harry turned to Dennis and said, “You do know electronics are totally useless on the Hogwarts grounds?”

“You do know my brother’s a genius when it comes to photography?” he shot back confidently. “You’ll see.”

After breakfast, Harry walked to Potions with Hermione. Every time Harry asked her about her theory on apparation tracking, she tried to turn the conversation to Tonks’ injuries. He was more concerned with what she had been up to, while she kept suggesting that there was more unseen harm behind Tonks’ limp. When they arrived at Potions, the two turned their homework parchments in along with everyone else, but it was Harry’s parchment that Professor Snape decided to read to the whole class. Well, not so much read as criticize. Without even looking at Harry’s parchment, Professor Snape walked to Harry as he sat preparing the day’s potion. Glowering over Harry with a smug look on his face his sneering voice reverberated off the stone walls.

“Potter,” he began, holding the parchment high for the others to see, “do you really believe that these scribblings are sufficient to answer the question posed for your lesson?” Harry didn’t think it was his best work, but it wasn’t his worst either, and certainly it was better than many that were submitted. He looked at Snape’s face and realized the trap being set. This time Harry would not lose his temper.

“Sir, I gave it a solid effort,” Harry returned sincerely. “It will require your expertise to determine its quality.”

“I had asked for ten parchment pages on dragon scales and you return only nine and a half,” Snape sneered. Harry knew that Cho had submitted only eight, and Marietta only five. “And your description on the various grinding techniques is completely insufficient.”

“I’m sorry sir.”

“I’m sorry too, Potter.” Professor Snape tore the parchment to pieces, not having read it at all, and sprinkled them in front of Harry. “Let’s try again, shall we? And this time be more thorough.” Professor Snape stood waiting for the reaction, but Harry gave him none.

“Absolutely, sir,” he replied, pushing the pieces of paper together like a spilt deck of cards. “Sorry, sir.” He placed the pieces in his robe pocket. Professor Snape stood still waiting, but Harry looked up to him smiling and then back to the day’s lesson steps that had been scribbled on the board. He began crushing his Tentacula Root counterclockwise, flashed Snape another sincere smile, and returned to the work at hand. The professor gave a feint snort and briskly paced to the other side of the room to examine Marietta’s work. As he crossed the dungeon, Hermione patted Harry on the knee.

“Brilliant, Harry,” she said handing him a torn scrap of paper that had fallen her way. “We can put these together tonight and he’ll never even know.” Harry grinned, gave her a wink, and poured the root into his caldron.

Later, in Care of Magical Creatures, Hagrid presented the class with nearly a dozen poisonous creatures. Snakes, insects, spiders, and hybrids Harry had never seen before. After the lesson, the class was assigned the task of ranking the creatures by determining which would kill them the fastest. As Harry started back to the castle, wondering if there would be a practicum, Crabbe, Goyle and Ron stopped him at the bottom of the steps. Crabbe’s eyes kept darting back up to the castle as the rest of the class disappeared into the front doors. It was clear Crabbe didn’t want to be seen, but Goyle was steady and still as the lake.

“Hey, Harry,” Goyle spoke first. “Detention with Malfoy tonight?” Harry looked at the threesome wondering what was going on.

“Yes,” he said waiting for where this would lead.

“I have it on good authority,” Goyle glanced over at Crabbe who reminded Harry somewhat of a nervous rat he knew, “that Malfoy wanted you in detention for a purpose.” Harry furrowed his brow.

“Why? So I couldn’t practice for the Quidditch match?” Harry asked incredulously.

“He thinks he can bring you into his confidence,” Ron answered. “He thinks he can get you to talk about… well… you know.” Harry’s eyes narrowed on Ron.

“And we don’t talk about those things, do we Ron?” Harry asked with a bit of a bite in his tenor. “To anybody.” Harry looked at Goyle. “Yes, Greg, that means you.”

“I’m just telling you, Harry,” Goyle replied, unperturbed, “that Malfoy wants to know something that’s behind that scar of yours.” Goyle cast another glance to Crabbe who seemed to be extremely uncomfortable. “I hear you and Malfoy have been pretty chummy lately. I just thought I should…”

“Chummy?” Harry replied in disbelief. “Why? Because we don’t always hex each other in the back?” Goyle looked again at Crabbe who was now trembling with saucers for eyes.

“It seems,” Goyle said slowly, “last night… in the dormitory…while Draco was sleeping…” Suddenly Crabbe squeaked saying nothing, and shaking his head violently. Goyle just rolled his eyes. “Just be careful, Harry, that’s all. You can’t trust him, okay? I don’t care what he says in his dreams. Hell, you can’t trust any of us,” he said smiling and started up the stairs with Crabbe whispering something in his ear. Ron stayed back with Harry.

“What’s that all about?” Harry asked.

“Crabbe knows something,” Ron shrugged, “but what it is, he’s not sayin’ to me, and Goyle’s under some sort of oath.” The two watched as Crabbe and Goyle disappeared into the castle. “You havin’ lunch?” Ron asked hopefully. Harry looked at Ron and then turned to look at Hagrid’s hut. The giant had gone inside and a thick white smoke was now billowing from the chimney. Harry set his back against the stone wall at the base of the steps offering only a sigh.

“You’re right, you know,” Ron said turning to the glassy lake. “You’re right to tell me to shove off. I deserve it.” Harry said nothing. He was resolute on this point and wasn’t going to change his opinion for anybody. Ron continued looking off across the lake his mind somewhere else. “I’m trying, Harry. I swear I’m trying.” Ron’s voice was uneven, and as Harry looked at him he could see a shudder pass over Ron’s body. “It’s just… this summer…”

“I told you, Ron,” Harry interrupted, “I don’t care what you and Hermione were doing for the war.” His voice was sharp and, as hard as he tried to the contrary, his words insincere.

“You don’t understand, Harry,” Ron began again. He closed his eyes as if gathering courage against an unseen storm. “I told her I wouldn’t say,” he whispered. “But I can’t….” He turned to look back at Harry who was doing his best to be disinterested. “They… they beat her.” The words turned Harry immediately.

“What are you talking about, Ron?” he asked slowly a hint of concern in his words.

“This summer… in Germany… we were supposed to be back before dark, but we got lost. We found ourselves….” Ron began to tremble and started walking away from the castle steps and out toward the lake. Harry followed. Ron began to clench and unclench his fists, over and over. “It’s all my fault,” he whispered. “I told her, ‘Just a few more minutes. They won’t care,’ and she listened. She never listens to me, but that night… that night she did.” They made their way to a barren tree at the side of the lake. The air was still and the sky gray. Ron gathered another great breath.

“There were three of them, two black guys and a white guy with a tattoo of a leopard across the right side of his face; they stopped us on the street. It was dark and there were people walking everywhere, but no one paid any attention. No one!” Ron’s fists clenched again. He reached down and grabbed a rock throwing it far into the lake, and Harry wondered if he hadn’t heard Ron mutter the word Muggles. The splash sent ripples in a large circle toward every shore. “They started teasing us at first, circling like vultures. Miss Peacemaker, well she whispered in my ear to ignore them, but the biggest and the darkest of the three caught her words.”

“‘English!’ he said in a German accent to one of his friends. ‘She did not say zey ver English.’ Then he walked toward her. ‘Oh, I don’t zink you’ll be able to ignore us sveetheart,’ he sneered putting his face close to hers. I couldn’t stand it and pulled my wand.”

“‘Ron, no!’ she yells at me.” Ron cast another rock into the lake sending larger swirls in every direction.

“Can you believe she was actually more worried about what would happen to me if I used my wand?” He gave another sigh, but it seemed to Harry a sigh of admiration. “But Hermione couldn’t hear their thoughts, could she? Well, I could: hatred, nothing but black-dark-hatred. I shouldn’t have listened to her… I knew better, but I… I hesitated. Damn it, I hesitated! Instantly, the other black guy slugs me in the face and plants me flat on my back, and I lost my wand. Leopard face holds a knife to my throat while the other two cornered her. She warned them, but they kept coming. Finally, she pulled her own wand.” Another rock flew into the lake just as a flock of geese started passing overhead in a large V-shaped pattern. The breeze picked up, and it seemed to grow colder.

“There was a witch, or a wizard there, Harry,” said Ron looking over the surface of yet another stone and scraping some of the mud from its side, “there had to be. She didn’t hear the spell; I didn’t hear the spell, but for no reason her wand went flying through the air. Defenseless, she tried to push the guy in front of her away with her hands and… and he slapped her. The guy over me begins to laugh, ‘I zink she liked zat,’ he said drooling. They slapped her again.” Ron continued to clean a spot on the stone that was already starting to take on a dull luster.

“She tried to let out a scream for help when the smaller guy grabs her throat. I heard her choking when…” Ron dropped the stone and sat to the ground pulling up dead grass. “All I could see was red, Harry.” He looked up at his best friend, and a tear streaked down the right side of his face, a face filled with hatred. “Red… and black,” he hissed.

“The guy over me dropped his knife and stared at his hand, and then… then he began to scream. He fell to his knees shrieking and holding his hand. I stood up and the two black guys beating her had stopped. They were now on their knees, reaching for their throats. They were silent… dead silent. I was in their heads, and as the heat pricked the back of my neck I listened to the screams that no one else could hear. She yelled at me to stop, but I wasn’t about to. ‘Scream you bastards!’ I thought. She slapped me across the face, and they fell to the ground, gasping for air.”

“We grabbed our wands and we ran. We ran until we finally found a street that looked familiar. By the time we found our way back, we had sworn not to tell anybody.” Ron looked at Harry. “Since I first rode the Hogwarts express, it was the only time I’ve ever used magic without a wand.” Ron looked at his two hands. “And I almost killed them, Harry. I would have, if she hadn’t…” There was a long pause. This time Harry picked up a stone and tossed it in the lake. It too sent out rings on the still water.

“Now,” Ron whispered, “when I see Dean with Ginny….” Again he shuddered looking to the ground. “I know it’s insane, Harry. I know Dean’s a great guy and all, but…. I’m trying, Harry; you’ve got to know that.” Ron stood to his feet holding a new rock in his hand and ignoring the dried grass clinging to his robes. “You’ve got to.” He tossed the stone in the water and the ripples intersected the rings emanating from Harry’s toss. The two shapes formed a spider web across the lake that slowly made its way to shore causing a little wave that splashed on the lake’s edge at their feet.

Harry had questions, lots of questions, but he knew the answers would come without him asking. Perhaps, he hoped, the invisible wall was beginning to crumble. He looked out across the lake toward Hogsmeade, took in a deep breath, and slowly let it out.

“Let’s eat,” he said to Ron. “I’m starved aren’t you?” The thinnest hint of a smile crossed Ron’s face and he nodded.

The clouds broke as the two friends made their way back to the castle, and the sun cast a yellow glow against the castle walls. A glint off one of the upper story windows caught Harry in the eye and, squinting, he looked up. The gray clouds closed together, and Harry saw a figure standing at the window in the Gryffindor common room staring back down at the pair.

“Merlin’s beard!” he yelled, picking up the pace. Ron saw that he was looking up at the castle.

“What is it?” he asked keeping pace with Harry and looking up himself. “What do you see?”

“That idiot Neville let her in again!” Harry called out. “You do know, Prefect, he’s been sneaking Helen Hedera into the Gryffindor common room?”

“He can’t do that!” Ron yelled starting to breathe hard as they ascended the steps. “I just changed the password!”

“He’s been doing it all year when nobody’s around.” Harry started up the moving staircase. “Before breakfast… after hours… and I guess now, lunch.” They moved through the portrait of the Fat Lady and made their way into common room. The room was empty. They searched everywhere, but found no one.

“Are you sure you saw…” Ron began.

“Yes, I’m sure,” Harry breathed. “I even saw the flower in her hair.” He dropped back into an overstuffed chair rubbing his forehead. His head was aching.

“Look,” Ron said, “I’ve got to clean these robes. They’re covered in grass. Maybe we can catch them in the Great Hall.” He disappeared up the stairs to the boys’ dormitory. Harry sat trying to turn Ron’s story over in his head.

“It had to be Hermione,” he thought holding his arm over his eyes and trying to stop his head from pounding. Suddenly he heard Ron give a short muffled yell.

“Ron?” he yelled up the stairs. There was no answer. “Ron!” He ran up the stairs, turned into his own dormitory, and banged heads with Tonks. They both fell to the ground. Harry was seeing stars, his vision blurred.

“Come on, mate,” Ron said lifting him to his feet as Tonks slowly stood.

“Harry, are you okay?” she asked rubbing the side of her head. Harry blinked his eyes hard as his head began to clear.

“What… what’s wrong?” he asked, his head searing with pain.

“Nothing,” said Tonks with a smile as she rubbed her own head. “I just came to get this.” In her hand was the Walkman Harry had borrowed. “My little sister’s going to try flying on a Muggle airplane tomorrow, and I thought she might enjoy listening to some music. I figured it’d be pretty quiet at lunch and I didn’t want to draw a lot of attention.” She reached over to Harry holding out her wand. He took a step back as a beam of blue-green light sprung forth toward the knot that was growing on his forehead. The pain between his temples receded.

“I only saw Neville,” Tonks continued, putting her wand away and stroking a wisp of hair behind Harry’s ear. “He was more interested in getting off to lunch it seemed.”

“Did you see Helen Hedera?” Ron asked. “Was she with Neville?”

“No,” Tonks said shaking her head. “But I came up here before Neville left.” Tonks squinted her eyes at Ron. “Isn’t she in Hufflepuff?” she asked. Ron shot Harry a glance.

“She’s usually waiting for Neville outside the portrait,” Harry replied not wanting to get Neville in that much trouble, at least not yet. “They’ve become… close.” At his words, Tonks grinned.

“Well,” Tonks said starting for the stairs. “I must be going. Class with the first years is going to start soon.” As she descended she called back, “I’ll see you tonight, Harry.” He adjusted his glasses and sighed remembering his requisite detention.

“He must have gone past us in the corridor,” Ron said shaking the grass off his robes and clearing the droppings with his wand. “They probably ducked behind that suit of armor or down at the side alcove when they saw us coming.”

When Ron and Harry entered the Great Hall for lunch, sure enough, Neville and Helen were eating side-by-side at the Hufflepuff table. Helen had a bright red rose in her hair. When Neville saw the two he smiled and waved. Ron, however, was none too pleased. He stomped over to the two of them.

“You know I can put you both in detention for sneaking in like that. Dumbledore may be letting the houses mix more, but the common rooms are off limits.”

“I’m sorry Ron,” Helen said sincerely, but with a slight look of confusion. “It’s my fault, I just asked to see what it was like is all, and Neville… well he’s just a sweetie.” She grinned and kissed him on the cheek. The sight of someone kissing Neville Longbottom was a bit more than Ron could take, and his anger evaporated.

“Well… don’t let it happen again,” he snapped but the bite in his words was gone.

While Ron was tearing into Neville and Helen, Harry couldn’t help but hold his eyes on Helen. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. When Ron came back to the table where he was sitting, the thought swirling in the back of his mind vanished.

After lunch, the pair made their way to Transfiguration, Ron talking the whole while about the previous night’s practice that Harry had missed. “Colin showed us some of the picture show he put together,” Ron said excitedly. “He’s an awful Seeker, but you’ll get the idea. Ravenclaw won’t know what hit ‘em.” He was grinning and Harry grinned back. As the two entered class, Hermione looked up just in time to see them both smiling. Ron gave Harry a nod and walked to Hermione while Harry sat down next to Malfoy.

The blonde was writing on some parchment, but as Harry sat, he quickly rolled it up and put it into his pack. “Hey Potter,” he drawled. “I thought you’d had it with that low life.” Malfoy looked at Ron, and then back to his Transfiguration partner. Harry was about to speak when Professor McGonagall walked briskly into the classroom.

“Take your places,” she called across the room. Minutes later, the class began to transfigure cats into dogs and back again. “One must feel the transition of transfiguring one life force into another,” Professor McGonagall said to the class. “The energy is there, and the mind’s eye must see what the goal is.” She walked around the room. Anthony Goldstein was only able to transfigure his cat from a tabby to a calico. The early attempts around the class that were failing caused a lot of laughter. “It will be much harder,” Professor McGonagall continued, “to create the illusion of life, where before it did not exist.” The laughter and commotion increased in the room, but Malfoy’s eyes were steel and his expression stoic.

“Well?” Malfoy turned to Harry, his voice low. “I know we couldn’t talk about it in detention last night. That insufferable Professor Tonks refused to leave us alone.” He looked around to ensure no one was looking. “Do you have your answer?”

“You seemed to like the extra lessons last night well enough,” Harry quipped, focusing his wand at the cat before him. “Gaperro!” he called out. A flash of light hit his gray tabby and it began to change into a miniature schnauzer, only its fur was still very much cat-like and its tail long and ringed. Harry sighed. “Pegatto.” The tabby returned and he gently slid it over to Malfoy.

“Tell me Draco,” Harry said in a low voice. “Have you spoken of this to anyone?” Malfoy looked at him intently and cast his own spell on the cat. His first attempts had been more successful. This time, only the head transfigured. Malfoy scowled. “Something wrong, Draco?”

“I hate snitches,” Malfoy drawled. “There’s no room for them in Slytherin.” He transfigured the creature back into a cat and roughly shoved it over to Harry. The cat meowed in pain.

“Unless, of course,” Harry added scratching the cat behind the ears and getting it to calm, “it serves their own purpose. Isn’t that the Slytherin way? Loyalty last?”

“You know nothing of what it means to be in Slytherin,” Malfoy hissed. “You’ll never know. So pure, so perfect, so… so Potter.” Malfoy slumped in his chair, but then a smile crossed his face and he leaned in next to Harry tapping the scar of the sword and snake on his own face. “But you’re not so pure, are you, Potter?” Harry said nothing. “Let’s talk about snitches. I hear you’ve been playing Cho off another girl. Am I right?” Again, Harry said nothing, but the blood drained from his face and his insides went cold. He didn’t need to say a word; Malfoy now knew the answer.

“Who is she, Potter?” he drawled. “Not that mudblood Granger?” Harry clenched his wand, his knuckles white, and pointed it at the tiny tabby before him. It was all he could do not to blast Malfoy across the room. His hands were shaking. “Gaperro!” he yelled. A blast of light erupted from his wand and the tabby began to grow. Its cute button nose slowly turned snout-like. The tiny feet grew into pads the size of Harry’s own hand. Before them was a dog some four feet tall, dark black, with large fangs and fierce green eyes. Drool dribbled down from its mouth onto Malfoy’s hand. It was he, who now was shaking. The dog eyed him contemptuously.

“I don’t think he liked you shoving him at me like that,” Harry said sharply through his teeth. He was still angry, but had felt some of the anger leave him. He looked at the dog and realized he was looking at the very likeness of his godfather.

“Sirius?” Harry whispered. The dog paid him no attention. Malfoy was pushing backward in his chair away from the dog when it pounced.

The class, which had stood in dumbfounded silence to this point, let out a collective scream. All except Ron who yelled, “Get him boy!” Malfoy fell backward in his chair and turned on his belly to escape, when the dog landed squarely on the blonde’s back, knocking the wind out of him.

“Help!” he gasped, clawing to get away, but unable to move. “Get it off! Get it off!” Warm drool ran down onto the back of his neck as the dog’s huge nostrils sniffed for where he’d take the first bite. Wisps of blonde hair flew into the air with each snort. Malfoy’s legs were kicking as Harry held his wand high. Professor McGonagall was running from the front of the class as the door slowly opened.

“Pegatto!” Harry called out. The dog instantly shrunk back into its original form. There, at the back of Malfoy’s neck, was a small gray tabby scratching and hissing at the blonde locks.

“Get it off!” Malfoy screamed again apparently unaware of the transfiguration. “Help me please!” he begged. The site was comical. Malfoy spread-eagle on the floor begging for help from the vicious tabby kitten on the back of his neck. The class began to laugh.

At the door, a deep sneering voice bellowed out. “Get off the ground, Mr. Malfoy.” The laughter and the reverberation shocked Malfoy to his senses and brought him back to the present. Suddenly, putting it together, he reached up and grabbed the cat.

“Don’t you hurt a hair on that kitten’s head, Malfoy!” Hermione yelled from across the room. Looking around he placed the kitten on the floor and stood up wiping the drool off his neck, and trying to straighten his robes.

“May I help you Professor?” Professor McGonagall asked, irritated at both commotion and the intrusion.

“I’ve come for Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Potter, Minerva,” Professor Snape said with eyes that could spit fire. “I thought class was over.” Professor McGonagall glanced at a large hourglass by her desk. The sand had run out.

“Indeed it is, Severus,” she replied. “Class dismissed. Harry, Draco, please stay behind for a moment.” The class exited, although Ron and Hermione seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of time.

“I’m sure you’ll hear all about it, you two,” Professor McGonagall chided. “Now be on your way!” Dejected, they left the classroom leaving the two students and the two professors alone. Malfoy was still trying to wipe the slime off his neck.

“Sit down you two,” Professor Snape commanded. He looked around to ensure the door was shut. Harry reached for a chair, but Malfoy shoved him aside and took the same one. Harry was about to take action when Professor McGonagall cleared her throat. Looking up, he saw her eyes flash him a look that said ‘sit down’, and he took the next chair and sat. Turning another chair to face them, Snape sat as well, and then began to speak very slowly and deliberately.

“I think we all know there is certain amount of, shall we say, animosity between the two of you.” Malfoy’s eyes narrowed on Harry and he let out a low huff. “A danger now faces you both.” They both looked at him confused. “For you, Draco, it is a temptation that could lead you to ruin. For you, Harry, it might mean your very life.” Now even Professor McGonagall was perplexed as she leaned in closer trying to understand his words.

Professor Snape stood, walked behind his chair, and looked back at the two boys. “Lucius Malfoy, Augustus Rockwood, and Selaton Nott have escaped from Azkaban.” Harry slumped in his chair and shook his head. Malfoy first looked to Harry, and shot him a glance he hadn’t expected -- fear. But when he turned back to face Professor Snape his look was confident, almost smug.

“I knew he’d be back,” he smirked. “Now you’ll pay. You’ll all pay.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 33 - Dealing with the Snake
~~~***~~~


The night outside Hogwarts Castle was clear and cold, but news of tomorrow’s expected storm was well known to all. Three feet of new snow was forecasted and already the wind had begun to pick up, howling around the castle like dozens of wolves calling to the moon. Inside, the castle was abuzz with activity. Storm-proof signs and banners were being made in preparation of tomorrow’s big match--the first Quidditch tournament of the year between Ravenclaw and Gryffindor. With the fall of darkness over the pitch, the teams had retreated indoors to discuss strategies and last minute changes. Nearly everyone was focused on the tomorrow’s match. Harry, however, was focused on the eleven and one-half inch yew wand now pointing directly at his face.

Except for the handful of candles flickering above the desk, all was dark. Harry’s face was cast in silhouette as the same light glinted off the gray in Malfoy’s eyes.

“There’s no way you’ll deflect this Potter,” he sneered. “Your time has finally come to an end. What will Gryffindor do without the great Harry Potter as Seeker?”

“Win,” Harry said without hesitation. His green eyes looked intently for the first hint of Malfoy’s spell.

“Let’s finish where we left off, shall we?” Balancing the wand with his thumb, Malfoy, ever so slightly, stroked the shaft of yew with his thumb. It was the signal Harry had come to expect. Before the words left Malfoy’s mouth, Harry pulled his wand from his pocket.

“Where we left off?” Harry thought to himself as he raised his own wand. Then he remembered. He knew what Malfoy’s spell was to be, but where to deflect it? He decided on the stone fireplace as Malfoy cast the spell.

“Incendio!”

“Protego!”

The spells were uttered almost instantaneously and Malfoy’s spell deflected to the fireplace. The logs, already burning, exploded in fury. The heat was intense, but quickly diminished. Malfoy cursed.

“You’re lucky, Potter!” Malfoy snapped dejectedly. “Lucky!”

“I told you two to keep the hexes simple!” Tonks called out. She sat at her desk in the front of the classroom grading parchments.

“Just needed a bit more light Professor.” Malfoy grinned; he seemed to actually be enjoying himself.

“Okay, Mr. Malfoy,” said Tonks still looking down at her papers. “I believe Mr. Potter’s now three up on you out of seventeen. Place your wand in your pocket and hold your hands high. Should you again reach down before the sign is seen, you will again lose five points from your house.” And then her voice became more intense. “Look for the move, Draco. When they think they have the upper hand, every wizard has one. It’s the pre-spell warm-up that signals their intent.”

“Yes, yes, Professor,” said Malfoy with a sigh having already heard these lines before. “Allowed only to act on instinct, the wizard’s spell will be quicker. Let them think they have the advantage and, if you know what to look for, they can be beaten.”

“Very good, Mr. Malfoy,” she said, trying not to smile. “But have you seen what it is that Mr. Potter does before he casts his spell?” At these words, Malfoy’s carriage drooped; he didn’t know. “Think, Draco. He holds his wand at the ready and…” Malfoy thought hard. They’d blasted each other over a dozen times tonight, but on the last three Harry had seen something in Malfoy’s movement and now was deflecting his spells at will. In his mind, Malfoy went through Harry’s motions and then, suddenly, saw it. A grin spread across his face and he held his hands in the air.

“Nothing too painful, Potter,” he drawled. “I do so want to cheer for Ravenclaw tomorrow.”

“Yes, Mr. Potter,” Tonks echoed. “I want no trips to the hospital ward tonight.”

Harry held his wand at the ready and pointed it at Malfoy’s face. As was the required routine, he needed to say something, but he was running out of good lines. His mind turned the morning’s news in his head and his face turned grim.

“So, Draco,” he said in a solemn tone. “You’ve come to save your father. You know I cannot let you pass.” The words put Malfoy off center for only an instant.

“I’m not here for my father, Potter,” he scoffed. “I’m here for you.” Malfoy’s steel eyes stared intently into Harry’s green. He was saying something more, something hidden from Tonks, but there for Harry to find. Harry narrowed his eyes and began to cast the spell.

“Petrificus—”

“Expelliarmus!” Malfoy rang out, wand in hand. Harry’s wand, to the contrary, shot backwards towards Tonks’ desk. Slowly, she left here seat and winced as she reached down to pick it up.

“Excellent, Malfoy!” She smiled and handed Harry his wand. “Excellent. The secret is almost always in the eyes. Almost.” She walked back to her desk and Harry noted that the limp that had been gone earlier in the day had returned.

“Professor,” Harry spoke with a hint of concern, “is everything okay?” She leaned against her desk and looked back at Harry. Her face was unusually grim, almost frightened.

“No, Harry,” she said bleakly. “Everything is not okay. The Dark Lord and his minions grow stronger every day. Like rats, they’re multiplying exponentially. We catch a handful at every attack and they double in size. And now,” she looked at Malfoy, “old allies are returning.” Malfoy looked away. “The choices we make in the weeks, the days, to come will be crucial.” She sighed deeply and sat down at her desk.

“As for me, Harry,” she offered a thin smile, “I’m fine.” Then looking at the desk before her. “But, I have far too many papers to read and I’m sure you both have other places you’d rather be. Your detentions are finished. You can go.”

Harry hesitated as Tonks took a parchment and began reading. Malfoy grabbed his arm, tugging him toward the door. Harry looked at Malfoy who was motioning him to leave and then to Tonks. She had tried to heal herself, but her powers were failing somehow. Malfoy tugged again, and this time Harry acquiesced.

Malfoy was beaming as the two emerged into the corridor. The light was bright and Harry’s eyes needed a moment to adjust. “She’s brilliant,” said Malfoy catching Harry off guard. “Shall we get into detention next week?”

“Something’s wrong,” Harry said, concerned about Tonks. They were halfway down the first corridor when Malfoy glanced around and pulled a distracted Harry into an empty classroom.

“Well, Harry?” he asked, finally having Harry to himself. “You heard what she said, didn’t you? We need to act now.” His words were intense, and his eyes afire. “You’re a fool, do you know that? You’re worrying about tomorrow’s match, when our hour is at hand! Where are your priorities, man?” Harry looked at Malfoy, his own eyes intense.

“What is it you’re really after, Draco?” he asked. “Will you turn to your father when he returns? Or, am I already speaking to Lucius right now?” Malfoy’s nostrils flared, his contempt palpable.

“His escape changes nothing,” he spat. “He’s still imprisoned, only he doesn’t know it.” Malfoy turned his back on Harry and began to pace the room. “Tell me Harry, when does my precious father show his head again? Not at the Ministry’s Christmas party. There will be no more cocktails with Mr. Fudge, no more friends for tea and caviar.” He turned and looked at Harry. “Only more secret meetings at night, in the darkness, after all have gone to bed.” Malfoy, uncharacteristically, ran his fingers through his hair.

“Do you know how many friends have come to visit my mother since father went away? Do you?” he yelled. Harry said nothing. He had very little pity for the Malfoy family, and all the tears in the world weren’t going to change that. But, Malfoy wasn’t crying; his tears had dried up long ago. Malfoy sat in a chair rubbing his hands in broad circles on the large oak desk in front of him as if examining the wood’s grain.

“She sits alone at night and wonders if he’ll come back. She actually believes he can come back! But for that to happen, we both know who needs to win the war, don’t we?” For a moment Malfoy’s hands stopped, clutching the edge of the desk as if gathering strength. He shrieked, and heaved the desk over onto its side. Harry’s eyes widened and he stepped back. Malfoy, standing over the scattered papers, turned once more to his nemesis.

“The Dark Lord can never win, Harry. He’ll ruin us all.” Malfoy stepped closer. “But neither can Dumbledore, can he?” He stepped closer again. “If either had the advantage, it would have been over last year, at the Ministry. Don’t you see? They can’t win.” He paused, putting his hand on Harry’s arm. “But we can.”

Harry stood speechless. Malfoy’s rant was truer than he could know. He was offering up all he knew of Voldemort’s pieces, maybe more. There they were, waiting for Harry to open his hand and pick them up. But was this the unity that Dumbledore had spoken of? He had to be sure.

“You have much to offer, Draco,” Harry finally whispered, “and much to gain.” Harry now held Malfoy’s arm. “Tell me, what do you have to lose?” The question was unexpected.

“What do you mean?” Malfoy asked.

“If I betray your confidence… what might happen?”

“I would be killed,” Malfoy said simply. Harry shook his head and squeezed his arm. Malfoy took no notice.

“You’re a Slytherin, Draco. If your life were on the line, I’d see it in your eyes. What do you have to lose?” he repeated, his voice hard. Malfoy’s expression opened up. The look Harry had seen in Malfoy’s eyes when Professor Snape had told him of Lucius’ escape returned.

“Everything, Potter,” he whispered. “Everything.”

“That’s what you say, but what I hear is that this is all a grand plot of yours.” Harry said walking away. “A strategy to lure me in.” This time Malfoy laughed.

“The pieces on the board know my position, Potter. They think they do, anyway. They also know yours. It is imperative that we maintain that… that illusion.”

“Then I need a sign,” Harry said again, intently looking into Malfoy’s eyes.

“A sign?”

“A demonstration of your… sincerity,” Harry explained. “I don’t trust you, Malfoy. However we work this out, it’s going to go slow. I need to know you’re not going to strike me in the back. Your life may not be at risk, but mine is.”

“Then you’ll do it!” Malfoy grinned eagerly, and then he began to stare into space thinking intently. “A proper demonstration will take time.” And then his eyes returned to the Gryffindor before him. “If we do this… I need your word you’re in… in it all the way.”

“You know my way, Draco, and I know yours. It’s oil and water, and it doesn’t mix.”

“We’ll just have to shake things up a bit then, won’t we?”

Harry stepped close to the blonde and whispered, “Draco, you have my word that I’ll do whatever it takes to defeat Voldemort.”

Malfoy stepped in close and held open his hand. “And you, Harry, have mine.”

For a moment, Harry hesitated. Thoughts of knowledge and power filled his head. “Where’s room for love?” he thought to himself. Was this the only way? Was this the best way? He took a deep breath, and firmly held Malfoy’s hand in his own. “I await your demonstration, Draco.”

Late that night, laying in bed in the boys’ dormitory, the conversations were entirely on Quidditch. One by one, all the Gryffindors fell asleep. All, that is, except Harry. His mind was filled with the opportunities that Malfoy might bring to the table. He’d only glanced at Colin’s moving pictures, but then he didn’t need to do much. The strategy was simple, but with Ron as Keeper, Harry thought, unnecessary.

“If he knew where Voldemort’s hiding,” he whispered to the darkness. He heard Goyle stir. In silence, Harry’s mind spun on.

If he knew who at the Ministry were spies… the tide could change, and the veil of fear might be lifted. With Voldemort gone, Harry could begin anew with Gabriella. She’d be safe again, and together they’d be free to take on life together. The next instant, he thought of Cho, and his stomach lurched as he turned on his side. Every time he made an effort to talk with her, to tell her the truth, he was denied. They had grown comfortable in each other’s arms. They had found warmth in each other’s smiles. But when Harry’s thoughts turned to the possibility of a future, that future always included Gabriella.

“Gabriella,” he whispered, his hand flat on the bed beside him. He had written her every week. Perhaps they weren’t directly connected with a beam of energy, but Hedwig was a close substitute. In his last letter, he had considered telling her of the mirrors, but dismissed it. He turned onto his back, his hands behind his head, and stared at the dimly lit ceiling. At last, he began to clear his mind. His last thoughts were on the demonstration to come, a demonstration that could seal his fate and the Wizarding World’s future.

He woke with a start, panting, his breath shallow and his heart pounding, droplets of perspiration running down his face. He felt as if he’d been running, but he wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t running away, he was chasing somebody, or something. One thought lingered in his mind: water. He wiped his brow with his forearm, sat up, and looked out the window. It was covered in frost, and the morning still dark.

“It’s time to get up,” a voice whispered from behind. Harry jumped. Goyle was sitting up in bed, reading by candlelight. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Harry answered, still off balance. “What are you doing up so early?” he asked. Goyle’s face, lit with the single flickering candle, smiled wearily.

“I never went to sleep.”

“Greg, the match is today, and —”

“And I have far too much homework,” he interrupted. “After we win today, tonight’s going to be one long party,” he said grinning, “and I’m not going to wait until tomorrow.” He returned to his book. “Whoever dreamed that Muggle Studies could be so difficult? Without the help of Hermione and Dean, I’d be sunk.” Goyle looked over at Ron’s bed. “Don’t tell him, but Ron’s worthless.” Harry looked at the redhead across the room still snoring lightly.

“I’ll bet he already knows,” he whispered. He wiped his face with both hands and stood. The room seemed to tilt a little. Harry walked over to Goyle’s bed. “You know I live with Muggles. Why didn’t you ask me?” A dim light was seeping in through the dormitory window, and Goyle put the candle on his desk and blew it out. He set his book down and stood. A good foot taller than Harry, he looked down and simply shook his head giving a snicker. He grabbed a towel and started for the showers. Harry grabbed his own towel and followed.

“What’s with the laugh,” Harry asked, a bit put off. “I know you know —”

“From what I’ve heard around here, Harry,” Goyle interrupted, “you spent ten years locked in a cupboard with the most vile Muggles imaginable. Once they were sure you were a wizard, it wasn’t much better. I hardly think you’re a poster child for the Muggle way of life. At least, I hope you’re not. Otherwise, my dad’s been right all along.” The words, like the shower’s water, were cold and biting.

“The Halloween he killed your parents and you vanquished him, however you did it, Harry Potter became the most famous wizard in the world,” Goyle continued, washing his head. “I knew your name before I knew Dumbledore’s.” He looked at Harry. “Everyone in Slytherin thinks you, like Draco, are a spoiled brat, brought up with only the best. After all, when You-Know-Who killed your parents, any Wizarding family would have taken you in. You should have grown up with the best of everything and instead you have ten-plus years of torture to look back on.” Goyle finished and grabbed his towel. “That’s what your precious Dumbledore did for you--ten years of hell. Thanks, Harry, but I’ll get my Muggle Studies help elsewhere.”

As Goyle left, Harry remained silent, not bothering to adjust the cold water splashing his head and running down to the floor. He began to shiver, but not because of the cold. What did he really know about Muggles? He’d spent only one month with Gabriella and thought he knew what it might mean to be a Muggle and be happy for the rest of his life. He leaned his head against the shower wall, the water running down his back.

“Ten years of torture,” he whispered to himself. And what had the years at Hogwarts been like? He thought of his detentions with Umbridge, the deaths of Sirius and Cedric, the attacks of Dementors and Basilisks. Against his will, he felt his mind forcing him to think of his parents and all he had lost. Tears began to trickle down his face. “Sixteen years of hell.”

“Harry? Harry, what is it?” Ron had entered the showers. Harry spun immediately.

“Were you just…” he spat, pointing to his own head.

“No!” Ron answered immediately, holding out his hands. “I swear.” For an instant, Harry glared at Ron, then splashed his face with the water and grabbed his towel.

“I’m the same as ever, Ron,” Harry said weakly, realizing he had been wrestling with his own mind. “Whatever that means.”

At breakfast, the Great Hall was frenetic about the day’s match. Laughter filled the room, and everyone seemed to be smiling. It was the most positive energy Harry had seen in these walls all year. Even in near blizzard conditions, Wizards had been arriving all morning to find the best seats, and word had gotten out that the scouts from the Chudley Cannons and the Tutshill Tornados were in attendance. Ron was beside himself with excitement. Harry had been slapped on his back so many times it was starting to ache. Helen Hedera, a scarlet red iris in her hair, walked over to the Gryffindor table and kissed Neville good-luck. Everyone howled.

“I take it you’re playing Chaser today, eh, Neville?” Ron joked. Neville just sat silently waving back to Helen as she sat down. “I think she’s taken his mind!” he said with a laugh.

“She’s taken his heart,” said Hermione and smiled.

For the first time in weeks, Ron, Harry, and Hermione sat down to eat breakfast together. It was an opportunity to share some laughs for a change, but Harry’s mind was not at Hogwarts. It had run down the shower drain and was on its way out to the lake. His face was anything but a smile. Hermione, sitting directly across from him turned from Helen to see his blank stare.

“Harry, what’s wrong?” Hermione asked. Slowly, he looked at her with dead eyes.

“Potter! Weasleys!” Katie yelled from down the table. “Finish up, we need to get ready!” Having taken only one bite of toast, Harry pushed his plate forward.

“I’m finished,” he said. He stood to answer Katie’s call. The looks his friends were giving him, he had come to know. They were concerned and questioning, but they too had known Harry long enough not to ask. Ron, sitting next to Ginny, still had food on his plate and gave Harry a half-wave.

“Be there in a bit, mate,” he mumbled munching on a muffin. Harry tossed his hand in the air and started to leave.

Even here, among all these people, he was feeling alone again. He looked to the ceiling and sighed. The roof of the Great Hall was white with snow, and the wind whistled around the windows. It would be cold on the pitch today.

“Good luck, Harry!” a voice called out. James Chang, sitting with a group of first years, was smiling and waving. Harry tried to smile back, but couldn’t. He felt empty inside, like a great darkness had swallowed him whole. The emptiness had left a vacuum into which thoughts of who he was, and what his future might be came rushing in.

“Why am I here,” he thought once again. He scanned the room at all the happy faces and felt so very out of place. Was he ever really happy here? He couldn’t remember. Dumbledore said he was here to learn. Somehow, at this instant, it felt so pointless. “Learn what?” he breathed as he turned to leave.

As he made his way out of the Great Hall, he saw something that he had not expected. Cho Chang was walking in to breakfast. Marietta was at her side, holding her left arm, but Cho was walking. Harry’s heart skipped, his eyes widened, a great light shone onto his soul, and a smile broke out upon his face. He ran over to her, and grabbed her in his arms.

“Look at you!” he yelled, holding her arms out wide and then hugging her close again. “I knew you could do it,” he whispered. He looked into her eyes and kissed her. “I knew it.” He squeezed her tight, buried his head into her shoulder and suddenly began to sob. “I knew it.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you, Harry,” she whispered back into his ear. Harry took a deep breath and looked at her smiling face, her eyes looking up into his. Students, exiting the Great Hall, began to stream around them.

“You’re amazing, you know that don’t you?” he sniffed wiping his face. “You’ll be flying in the next match.”

“One step at a time, Harry,” she said, and wiped his face with her hand. “One step at a time. Right now, I’m hungry.” She took a step, teetered, and Marietta, herself all smiles, held Cho’s arm again. “If you hear someone screaming ‘Down with Gryffindor!’ today, that’ll be me. Hope you don’t mind.” With her free hand she stroked his face.

“If you’re standing, you can cheer for whoever you want!” Harry beamed. Slowly, Cho and Marietta disappeared into the Great Hall and the deafening sound of cheers and applause. Just then, Ron emerged with Ginny and Jack Sloper.

“You’re late!” Harry called. “Katie will be a dragon!”

“And she isn’t already?” asked Ron.

As they were about to enter the Gryffindor locker room, Sloper became a bit uncomfortable.

“Well,” he said, “er… good luck.” He turned to the corridor leading to the stands when Harry stopped him.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“To cheer you on,” Jack replied, trying to muster a smile.

“You’re on the team, right?” Harry asked and Jack nodded. “Then you’ll suit up with the rest of us! You’ll fly to the pitch with the rest of us, spin out and cheer in uniform from the side. If one of us goes down, you’re in.” Sloper’s smile grew wide as Ron patted him on the back and they entered the locker room.

Just before the game, Katie covered the last minute details. Her eyes had a somewhat crazed look to them as she attempted to give the team a last minute pep talk.

“Visibility is zero,” she said. “Potter will be lucky to see the Snitch long enough to catch it. There’s no way he’ll see our signs.” Harry sighed in relief knowing he hadn’t really studied the signals that much anyway. “It’s a Chaser’s game,” she said looking at Ginny and Dennis. The Bludgers can see through snow, so stay alert. “Geoffrey. Greg. Keep them off our backs as best you can.” Dennis, the smallest on the team, looked nervous. To the contrary, Ron looked calm and unconcerned.

“Catch it as soon as you can, mate,” Ron whispered at his side. “They’re not scorin’ on me today and I don’t want us out there any longer than we need to be.”

The door to the pitch opened. “Doin’ okay there, Dennis?” Harry asked.

“I don’t know,” Dennis’ voice quivered.

“Don’t worry.” Harry grinned as the snow began to blow into the locker room. “I was nervous my first time too.”

“What happened?” Dennis asked mounting his broom.

“Not much,” said Harry smiling as he mounted his Caduceus. “Voldemort took possession of one of the professors and he jinxed my broom from the top row. I nearly fell off and died.” Harry slapped Dennis on the shoulder, and he and the rest of team flew out. Madame Hooch, wearing goggles and a fur cap, whistled for them all to huddle close so she could see them.

“I want a clean match today!” she yelled, the snow was blowing sideways in the wind. Harry could see the Ravenclaw’s, but couldn’t distinguish one from the other. She released the balls and tossed the Quaffle.

The game was on.

On the Caduceus, Harry was warm at least. His glasses were dry, but he still couldn’t see more than a few feet to either side, and the wind was howling so loud he could barely hear the crowd below. “This is impossible,” he whispered to himself. He tried, as best he could, to fly along the outer edge of the pitch. He had a good sense for how long it took to fly from one side to the other. His plan was to fly high, through the center, and hopefully not run in to anybody. With luck he might stumble across the Snitch.

On his first pass through the center, Dennis zipped by, missing his head by only inches. He was beaming as he held the Quaffle in his hand.

“Hey, Harry!” he yelled his voice fading into the distance as he disappeared into the snow. With a whoosh, two Ravenclaws passed by giving chase. Seconds later there was an eruption of applause; Dennis had scored. When Harry reached Ron, he found the redhead shivering, but smiling.

“That’s sixty to nothing!” Ron yelled. Harry had missed the first two scores. “Have you seen it?”

“I can’t see anything!” Harry yelled back. Suddenly Ron’s attention shifted. He slipped quickly from the center ring, and moved to the ring on his right. Harry could barely see Ron, never mind any Ravenclaw coming to score. Suddenly, he saw the Quaffle zooming toward the right ring’s center, but Ron twisted his broom and smacked it away.

“Catch, the bloody thing!” Ron yelled. “I’m cold.”

Again Harry streaked down the center. Suddenly his arm burst with pain. Without knowing why, he turned his broom to the right, just as a Bludger brushed his shoulder. Goyle was right behind, and smacked it toward the far end of the pitch.

“Are you crazy!” Goyle yelled at Harry. “Stay to the east of the pitch, I’ll tell Hooper, and we’ll make sure the Bludgers stay west.” Harry was going to argue, when Goyle disappeared into the snow.

His arm ached, but he moved to the east. He was just as likely to see the Snitch there as anywhere else. Ginny swooped past with Katie close behind holding the Quaffle. Moments later, there was another eruption of cheers buried in the howling wind. Harry moved quickly up and down the east side of the pitch for what seemed like an hour. He could hear occasional cheers, but didn’t bother to check on the score. He was confident Ron had everything in control as Keeper. His single goal was to find the Snitch and end the match before they all froze to death.

A familiar hum passed his ear and his heart leapt. A second later, he ducked just in time to avoid being hit by Les Bowers, a third year, and Ravenclaw’s new Seeker. Harry cursed under his breath. Les was fast and agile. Harry was sure Gryffindor was ahead, but was it more than one-hundred-fifty points? In an instant, he was speeding toward Les and the Snitch. He easily caught Les, but finding the Snitch was more difficult. He couldn’t see it, but he could hear the hum fade in and out in the wind. The Snitch was trying to climb high into the wind. They were moving west, and moving fast. The wind eased, and suddenly the Snitch dived low. Both Seekers slipped toward the ground, neither knowing how close they were to disaster. Les pulled back, but Harry plunged forward. He’d missed the Bludger on instinct; he’d know when he was close to the ground.

The Snitch leveled and sped forward, but Harry was now with it at every turn, the Caduceus responding instantly. “Faster!” he thought, and the Caduceus responded. Rocketing through the air, he sat high on his broom and reached up to grab the Snitch when, for an instant, everything suddenly went scarlet. He was off his broom, and was falling to the ground, someone falling with him. His mind was on the Snitch and how close he was. He looked down and saw the ground. He hit. They’d only dropped some fifteen feet, two feet of snow cushioning their fall. Harry smiled to himself as the driving snow began to lighten. He sat up, when he tasted something warm and salty in his mouth. He looked up and saw the people in the stands coming into view, but then his vision began to fade. He was suddenly cold, very cold. A figure lifted itself off the pitch and walked over to him. It was Greg Goyle.

“I’m sorry, Harry, he said reaching down to give Harry his hand. “Are you…” he stopped. His face looked odd, Harry thought. He was going to grab Goyle’s hand when he realized he was holding onto a broom. He looked down to find his hands holding the stock of Goyle’s Nimbus 2001 near the bristles. The point had pierced Harry’s chest and proceeded out his back. In the snow around Harry, a large ring began to expand outwards. Its color matched his scarlet flying robes.

“Oh,” Harry gurgled unable to breathe. He could hear the screams as wizards were racing toward him, their footsteps muffled in the white powder. He fell stiff on his side. “I almost had it,” he thought to himself, and everything was black.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 34 - First of the Number
~~~***~~~

The circle of blood spread out in an ever-growing ring around Harry’s body. He lay lifeless on his side, pierced through the chest by Goyle’s Nimbus 2001. Like a statue, the giant Slytherin stood frozen, dumbstruck as the red seeped around his boots. The Hufflepuff students sitting in the lower west tier were first to arrive. Taylor Smythe, a seventh year, ran to help, but when he saw the ring of blood, he wouldn’t pass. Horrified at the sight, he began to step backward as the blood oozed toward him. Ron was the first Gryffindor at the scene.

“Take it out of him Goyle!” he screamed. Goyle pulled out his wand, and pointed it at the broom in Harry’s chest.

“STOP!” a high voice yelled. Madame Guérir was running through the snow clutching a small box in her hand. “Don’t touch anything!” She was as white as the snow, her breath heaving and billowing small clouds into the cold air. She looked at Harry, and any color she had left drained completely. “Heavens,” she whispered. Quickly, she grabbed her wand. “Corpus arestum!” Blue light sprang forth, stopping the diminishing stream of blood that had been squirting in pulses from Harry’s chest. “Mr. Goyle, grab his hand!”

There was a crackling, tearing sound like raw meat being torn from bone.

“Odd,” Harry thought as his stomach sank and he began to rise from the scene. He found himself hovering some fifteen feet above his body, and suddenly felt warm and comfortable. On the ground, wizards and witches had encircled his corpse. From the north side of the pitch, he could see Professor Dumbledore pushing his way through the crowd. “Am I dead?” he whispered to himself, holding his hands in front of his face. They weren’t white, but they were translucent, a shimmering pale blue. He looked at his chest, and where the broom had pierced through bone and flesh, a large black hole remained.

“No. Not dead, young man.” Harry spun to see Sir Nicolas drifting towards him from the Gryffindor stands. Nicholas looked down at Harry’s body in the snow. “Not yet, anyway.”

“Sir Nicolas?” Harry asked, sensing fear for the first time. “What….” He looked down and then back at the approaching ghost. “What’s happening?”

“You are between worlds, Harry,” Nick replied his face grim and sad. “You have begun to leave the earthly realm. A few moments more and it will be time for your choice. Do choose wisely.”

“What?” Harry bellowed. “I… I can’t die now! Not like this! What about Voldemort? I have to defeat him!” Harry looked down, and noticed he’d floated further away. On the ground below, Dumbledore had arrived at Harry’s body. Madame Guérir was speaking with very animated gestures as Goyle knelt at Harry’s side.

“Perhaps you will return,” Nick sighed. “It happens. But, seeing you like this,” he held Harry’s hand in his own examining it like a piece of fruit in the market, “I think you’ve left Hogwarts for good.” Harry jerked his hand away and reached down trying to force himself back into his own body. He couldn’t move.

“Everyone!” Dumbledore commanded. “Stand back!” The old wizard’s face was frightened as he pulled out his wand. Save for Madame Guérir and Goyle, the group around Harry’s body retreated outward. Dumbledore held out his wand and focused his eyes on Harry, the Harry lying dead on the ground. He was whispering something Harry couldn’t hear. What looked like the flicker of green fire slowly emerged, not from the tip of his wand, but rather from the eyes of the Headmaster. No one on the ground seemed to notice as it poured forth like a green fog of fire spreading outward and upward in an ever-expanding sphere.

“Oh my,” Sir Nicholas let out in surprise. “I never knew.”

“Knew what?” Harry yelled. The green bubble of fire was fading as it moved outward. “What’s going on?”

“It’s not enough,” Sir Nicholas sighed. “He can’t reach you.”

The green flicker began to fade into nothingness when Dumbledore cried out as if reaching for something just out of his grasp. The bubble surged, and was nearly at Harry’s feet when he noticed Goyle on the ground taking the hand of his body and reaching for the small box in Madame Guérir’s hand. Almost in concert, Dumbledore collapsed to the ground and there was a collective gasp on the pitch.

“No! Wait! Professor!” Harry screamed. Suddenly, the green bubble of fire grabbed his ankle. “Nicholas! I’m not ready! I need to help him!” he called out reaching for the ghost who seemed to be fading away down a darkened tunnel. The small white figure faded as the circle of light shrunk smaller and smaller. Soon, all was dark.

Again, there was a crackling, tearing sound.

The next instant, fire filled his chest, while ice spread through his veins, and Harry knew he had returned to his body. He wanted to rise, to come to Dumbledore’s aid, but he couldn’t move. A moment later, he felt something yank at his navel -- the portkey -- shooting pain throughout his body. He gasped for air, but none filled his lungs. When the spinning stopped, his eyes opened for an instant to see Greg Goyle and a wizard in green robes looking down at him. An orange light hit him in the chest, warmth filled his body, and he faded from consciousness.

The chirping of crickets filled the night air. The stars were bright and the sky clear. Harry could hear the sound of water trickling to his side. He walked over and found a small spring bubbling clear water out of the side of a rock. It was the head of a small stream that wound its way down a gently sloping hill. There were large trees behind him, and the only way to walk was along the clearing following the path of the stream. There was something about this babbling brook; it was calling to him. He reached down to touch the water, when suddenly the scene changed.

He was in a dimly lit room, as a sharp pain struck him in the forehead. Breathing hard, Harry took a few moments to get his bearings. Behind him, the floorboard squeaked, and Harry spun to see a figure in a dark cloak step forward.

“The first of the number have been taken, my Lord.” Though her face was covered, Harry knew the voice well; it was Bellatrix. “Shall we begin?” she asked.

“Begin,” Harry heard his own voice rasp in a high familiar pitch. As if anticipating a delicious chocolate cream pudding for desert, Harry turned, licking his lips, and faced the far wall. There, shackled to peeling pillars, was Neville Longbottom.

“Wake-up,” Bellatrix called from inside her hood as her hand slapped Neville across the face. As Neville blinked his eyes, the Death Eater pulled her wand.

“Crucio!” she cried out. Instantly, Neville screamed in agony.

“Get out!” a voice yelled from deep inside Harry’s mind. “Close your mind!” Slowly, he felt his consciousness pulling away, Neville’s screams echoing in his ears.

“Will you not save him?” another voice hissed in his ear. “Will you not save the others?”

“I won’t play the fool this time, Tom,” Harry’s mind pushed back. “Once bitten, twice shy… It won’t happen again.” The darkness swirled and the voices faded to nothingness. Finally, Harry slept.

When his eyes opened, he was in bed, covered with white linens. Flowers and cards filled the room. ‘Get well, Harry’ signs were everywhere, some flashing different colors. The smell told him instantly where he was. At his side sat Hermione, asleep in a chair, while Ron stood at a table on the far side contemplating a box of chocolate frogs.

“Go on,” Harry breathed. He winced as his lungs let out air. His voice was raspy. “I won’t eat them.” Ron dropped the box and instantly spun.

“Harry!” he squeaked, as a nervous smile broke on his face. “You know, I’m really getting sick of this place. Pretty soon they’ll have to admit me. How do you feel?” Hermione heard the noise and groggily opened her eyes.

“Harry?” she whispered. “Harry!” She jumped to her feet and gave him a hug. Harry let out a small whimper. “Oh, dear, sorry” she apologized and a tear fell from her face. “They didn’t think…. Can you breathe?” Harry tried to take in a breath of air, but a sharp pain stopped him short of a full breath. The door suddenly flew open.

“I heard yelling.” It was Greg Goyle, wearing Gryffindor flying robes still stained with Harry’s blood. “Is he… He’s not…” and then his eyes met Harry’s. “You’re alive,” he gasped. “They thought maybe today…,” his voice trailed off then said, “…but you’re alive.” Harry held his hands in front of his own face. This time they were solid and flesh colored.

“Looks like it,” Harry smirked sarcastically. Slowly, Goyle walked over to Harry’s bed, and Hermione bent low to Harry’s ear.

“You’ve been here near death for a week, Harry,” she whispered. “Greg’s refused to leave your side since he brought you in with Madame Guérir.”

“How…” Goyle tried to speak. He was nervous. “How does it feel?” Gingerly, Harry sat up in bed and looked down at his chest. There were no bandages, just a large circular scar, four, or five ribs up on his right side. He touched it, and felt no pain.

“Okay,” he said looking at the others. “Really. It’s fine.” Then he focused on Goyle and said lightly, “No thanks to your flying”

Goyle walked to his bedside and knelt. Even on his knees he was tall. He held Harry’s arm. “Merlin, Harry. I never meant…. I would never…. I had just hit the Bludger heading for Dennis and there you were!” He began to tremble. “We could have lost everything, Harry, everything.” The tone in Goyle’s voice struck a chord in Harry’s heart.

“It’s only a game,” said Harry smiling back and patting Goyle’s shoulder, but knowing full well Greg had meant much more. “Did we win?”

“We re-started an hour after they took you and Dumbledore from the field,” Ron said.

“Dumbledore? Is he okay?”

“Tired is all, Harry,” said Hermione. “It’s the best way to put it, very tired.” She stood up and Goyle took the chair. Walking over to Ron she stroked the redhead’s hair. “Ron was really shaken after you’d left; and without Greg, our Chaser’s were having a lot of trouble.”

“They started scoring on me at will,” Ron said gloomily. “They were up fifty points when he caught the Snitch.”

“You lost after Bowers took the Snitch?” Harry asked dejectedly.

“No,” said Ron grinning. “We won after Sloper grabbed it!”

“Sloper?” Harry asked, hardly able to believe his ears.

“He substituted for you,” Hermione joined in. “Ravenclaw was demolishing us when the Snitch appeared below Bowers’ broom. Sloper saw it and in a flash, we won!”

Harry leaned back against his pillow. “Brilliant.” Goyle began to nod off in the chair.

“Okay, Greg,” Hermione said kindly. “You’ve seen him alive and well. You can go back to school now. We can look out after him for the weekend.” At her words, Goyle straightened in the chair.

“Yeah, er, listen, guys,” Goyle said wearily to Ron and Hermione, “you’ve been great. I’d just like a couple minutes alone with Harry. Okay?”

“Sure, mate,” Ron said, a hint of concern in his voice. “Take all the time you want. We need to go tell the healer he’s awake anyway.” When Ron and Hermione left the room, Goyle wrung his hands together trying to find the right words.

“They didn’t want to tell you, not until you’re back,” he began in a whisper, constantly glancing at the door. “But I think you should know.”

“I knew it,” Harry snapped. “Dumbledore. What’s wrong? Is he…”

“No. Not Dumbledore,” Goyle interrupted. He slid the wooden chair closer to Harry’s bedside, and stole another look at the door. “It’s Neville; he’s gone.” Harry’s heart skipped.

“Gone? I… I don’t understand. How do you mean?”

“Ron told me. The night after the match, he never showed up in the common room. Ron had seen him leave the stands with Helen, and thought maybe he was breaking curfew with her and let it slide. But the next morning both Neville and Helen missed breakfast. That’s when Ron went to McGonagall. They searched the whole castle and found nothing. Only…” Again he glanced at the door. “Helen was found wandering the greenhouse. Her mind’s a mess. It sounds like the Imperius Curse to me,” he whispered. With each line in the telling of Goyle’s story, Harry’s heart sank lower.

“He’s taken Neville,” he exhaled. His eyes darted this way and that looking at nothing and everything. “But where, damn it? I know I’ve been there before.” Finally, Harry focused all his energy on Goyle. “Greg, you need to get Ron and Hermione in here right now. We can’t wait a minute more.”

“You can’t tell them I told you, Harry.”

“You don’t understand!” Harry breathed. Then he paused and spoke very deliberately. “Greg, Voldemort’s taken Neville.”

“You can’t know that,” Goyle replied somewhat agitated. “Maybe Helen dumped him, he cursed her, and ran for it.” Harry was torn. There were only a few who knew the reality of his special connection with Voldemort. He wouldn’t share it with Malfoy, but what about Goyle? He adjusted his pillow trying to sit up higher in bed and grimaced in pain.

“Where are my clothes?”

“No way!” Goyle snapped. “There’s no way you’re ready to leave. I…” Once again, Goyle knelt at Harry’s bedside, one massive hand gently holding Harry’s shoulder down. “I killed you Harry. By rights you should be dead. It was Dumbledore who somehow brought you back, at least most of the way. Even with all his help they never thought you’d live.” The door swung open and a healer in green robes entered followed by Ron and Hermione. He was tall, with a pointed black goatee, and had his wand at the ready.

“Brought me back?” Harry asked.

“Yes, Mr. Potter,” the healer replied with a French accent. “It’s called resuscitation, and there are few better than Albus Dumbledore. Although to catch a soul at such an advanced stage…” he paused almost amazed at listening to his own words, and clucked his tongue. “Well, let’s see, shall we?” The healer held his wand over Harry’s chest and a greenish light emanated down. “We had to do a lot of soul stitching in your case. You are fortunate that I was in Britain.” For a moment Harry had a vision of Gilderoy Lockhart. He hoped this wizard at least knew what he was doing. “How do you feel? Can you breathe?”

“I’m fine, really. Never better.”

“I see,” the healer replied. “Tell me, does this hurt?” He pointed the tip of his wand at Harry’s side, and the light turned from green to blue.

“STOP!” Harry screamed out. Deep within his chest, it felt as if his someone had just poured molten lava. The healer’s light turned red, and the pain vanished with a cool splash.

“Never better, eh?” he asked rhetorically, looking at Harry with sharp eyes. “Your ribs are fine, but we’re still growing lung tissue, and that will take at least one more day. You also lost the top portion of your liver. Growing liver is far more complex, and much less necessary. The rest of your liver will suffice. Perhaps, this summer, the good healers here will admit you and take care of the deficiency then.” He slid his wand into his jacket. “Until then, you need rest, and no distractions. Now that you’re alert, I believe the vigil can end. Your friends will have to wait for you at Hogwarts.” He looked at the three huddled at the end of Harry’s bed. “You have ten more minutes, and then you really must go.” And with that, the healer left the room.

“Ten minutes!” Ron called at the shutting door, and quickly opened up another chocolate frog. “Just doesn’t seem right if you ask me,” he complained, stuffing the frog in his mouth.

It was clear that Goyle was not going to leave without the other two, and Harry was desperate to tell them without alerting Goyle. He laid his head on his pillow and exhaled, closing his eyes and concentrating hard.

“Ron!” he called with his mind. “Ron! If you can hear me drop the vase.” Nothing happened. “Ron! If you can hear me drop the vase.” Suddenly the vase of flowers crashed to the floor.

“Oh, Ron,” Hermione chided, “I swear….” She pulled out her wand and began to clear the broken glass.

“He’s taken Neville,” Harry called to Ron with his mind. “I’ve seen it in a dream. Voldemort has Neville. We have to find out where. Perhaps a farmhouse.” Harry paused. “Say something!”

“Er… erm… S-Sorry Hermione,” Ron muttered weakly.

“Well you could be a little more…” Hermione began, but looking up saw him pale and shaking. “Ron, you’re white! What’s wrong?”

“We, er… we need to go,” Ron said. He put his arm around Hermione and started toward the door. “Now!” Hermione, a bit confused, looked back to Harry.

“Relax, Harry! Get better,” she called.

“I’ll be out soon, don’t worry,” answered Harry. “Believe me staying here is,” he paused and looked at Ron, “torture.” Ron winced and shuttled Hermione through the door. Goyle held back and held Harry’s eyes with his own.

“You know, I never meant to…” Goyle began.

“I know, Greg,” said Harry sincerely. “I don’t know why, but I know.” Harry was by no means a mind reader, nor was he terribly adept at reading people’s intentions. He thought of the imposter Mad-Eye, and how Harry’s trust in him had led to Cedric’s death. He thought of Kreacher, and Sirius’ fall through the black curtain. He believed Goyle, but he wasn’t going to place his life on it.

“They think I tried to kill you,” Goyle murmured.

“Who?”

“Gryffindor,” Goyle said with a grim face. “I was going to ask Dumbledore if I could stay, but after this…. Everyone was waiting for it to happen, and it did.”

“You know what, Greg,” Harry said brightly. “I know a couple of things, and one of them is how Gryffindors think. They have a soft spot when it comes to loyalty, and when I get back I’ll set them straight. Don’t you worry.” Goyle smiled, bent low, and shook Harry’s hand.

“You’re all right, Potter.”

“You know what else I know?” Harry smiled as Goyle made for the door.

“What?”

“Hangin’ around a hospital for a week in bloody racing robes makes you stink. Get back to school and take a shower man. Whew!” Harry started to laugh, but winced as Goyle opened the door. Before the door shut, Goyle turned to the kid he’d killed.

“Be careful, Harry,” Goyle said in a solemn voice, but then his face brightened. “I want you back up flying. When I return to Slytherin and we play this spring, I want to be able to knock you off your broom with a nice fat Bludger to the brain.”

“You wish,” said Harry with a grin. They waved and Goyle let the door click behind him.

As the room fell silent, Harry began to contemplate his options. He tried to take a breath, but the pain was intense. He needed to get back to Hogwarts, but he had no portkey. He wished he could create his own like Dumbledore. No matter, he thought. The first step was to get out of this room. Slowly he straightened himself out onto the floor. The stone was cold beneath his feet as he walked over to the large cabinet against the wall.

“You heard what the heeler said,” an elderly witch chastised him from a portrait on the wall. “You need your rest.”

“What I need is clothes,” Harry shot back. He opened the cabinet doors to see his trainers lying on a shirt and a pair of jeans. “Perfect,” he whispered. He heard a deep, throaty cough from the hall outside and froze looking back at the door. He slipped off the hospital pants and reached for the jeans, when he heard the cough again, louder this time. The sound was somehow familiar he thought, reaching for the shirt. He wasn’t able to bring his right arm up so, with shallow breaths, he stopped to gather the strength for another attempt. The door burst open, and Harry dropped the shirt, spinning to see who it was.

“You still have that thing in your ear I see, Potter.” At the door, Mad-Eye Moody stood, his magical eye spinning to either side. “You don’t think it had anything to do with you’re accident I suppose.” Harry took a breath to speak, and the pain struck him in the side.

“Professor Moody,” he rasped his heart pounding. “They’ve…”

“First things first, Potter,” Moody snapped. “Back in bed.” Harry opened his mouth to speak, but Moody held up his hand. “Back in bed. And drop the ‘professor’ business.” Furious, Harry changed back into his hospital pants and climbed back into bed. By the time his head hit the pillow, however, he was dizzy and his breaths rapid and shallow. He was glad he didn’t have to find a way out of St. Mungo’s tonight. Moody sat in the wooden chair.

“Okay, Potter. Spill it.”

“They’ve taken Neville Longbottom,” Harry breathed. The scars on Moody’s face contorted into something resembling a grin.

“And you’re going to go save him are you?” Moody queried. The Auror pulled in close to Harry’s bed, and with his wand flashed a yellow light at the single portrait hanging on Harry’s wall. The witch screeched and ran off. “The wall’s have ears boy, don’t forget that. He’ll be trying to listen to anything you say.”

“I saw, sir… the imperious curse… Voldemort…” Harry was trying to say it all, but his trip out of bed had made the pain worse, much worse. Moody held his arm.

“Slow down, boy. Slow down.” His eye began to spin and then came back to Harry. “We know they’ve taken him, Potter. We don’t know where. The Ministry and half the Order are out searching for the lad.”

“And the other half?” Harry couldn’t help ask. Mad-Eye simply patted the boy’s arm.

“We need to get you back to Hogwarts and that means you need to heal.” Mad-Eye started to stand.

“Wait,” Harry rasped again. “I know where.” Moody’s eyes narrowed. “It’s an old house… near farmland. Inside, the paint is peeling.” His eyes focused into space. “Rural, with a great field in front.” He looked back at Moody. “It feels familiar.”

Moody patted Harry’s arm again and smiled. He’d come to learn that Harry Potter’s words were never to be dismissed lightly. Still, narrowing it down to an old farmhouse was not much help.

“Good work, Harry,” he said. “That helps a lot. I’ll pass the information on.” Moody turned to go. “And you need to get better. We’ll take it from here,” he said closing the door behind him. Knowing that the Order of the Phoenix had his information, Harry’s angst began to subside. His breathing slowed and his chest relaxed. Finally he was able to clear his mind, and soon he was asleep.

He woke to the morning sun streaming through the window, and a hooting at his bedside. Harry reached for his glasses only to find Hedwig with a morning post.

“Hedwig?” he asked, confused. The sound of his voice was stronger. He took a small breath and then a larger one. There was no pain. Harry sat up and stroked the owl’s white feathers. “You’re amazing girl.” Smiling, he took the white envelope in his hands. For the first time in ages he felt rested, and there was something warming about the golden sun shimmering on the walls of his room. And now, even at St. Mungo’s, with a letter from Gabriella, everything seemed right with the world. He slipped his finger under the flap, tore it open, and pulled out a pink sheet of paper wondering what Gabriella would think if he bought her real parchment for Christmas.


Harry,

I’ve begun counting the hours until you come home. I miss you dearly. For the last few days, I’ve spent each night looking at the photo Emma took of us at your birthday party. It seems so long ago -- I miss your smile. When you come home for vacation, I’m having her take a hundred more. I want you all over my walls. Although, I’m not sure Papa likes the idea. He’s been dropping stronger and stronger hints that I should be seeing other boys. Not that it really matters; Papa’s rarely home. He can’t seem to look at Mama anymore.

She has not improved. Every time we think she’s getting better, she falls back into forgetfulness. We can’t seem to talk about anything important anymore. Her mind wanders off and I can’t bring her back.

Now and then, Duncan stops by to visit. He talks more about Emma than anything else. I must say he’s a bit obsessed, but then he probably says the same thing about me, since I always talk about you. Still, here in the house I feel so alone. I’ve met so many people in Little Whinging, Harry, but all are missing something you have. I’d like to say it was your heart, or your bright green eyes, or the way you smile when somebody tickles your side, but it’s something more. Before she fell ill, Mama said there was something special about you. I want her back in the present, but I look into her eyes and I see her fading further into the past.

As the walls here seem to close in around me, you’re the one bright light that still burns in my heart. I’m sure you’re terribly bored at school, and these awful letters don’t help much, but I’ve enclosed Emma’s picture of us. I just want you to know, I think of you every day. Stay safe, and write soon.

Love,

Gabriella

P.S. I’m glad to hear your friend is doing much better. I can tell your heart is lighter. With you at his side, I’ll bet he’ll be walking in no time.


Looking at the photo of himself with Gabriella beside a car tire filled with spiked punch, Harry couldn’t help but smile. He put the letter down and scratched Hedwig under her beak. Suddenly, his heart had a sliver of ice in it. “She’s been seeing Duncan,” he said with a bit of irritation in his voice. “How often is ‘now and then’, Hedwig?” He dropped the photo on his bedside table and set his feet on the floor. “Go on girl,” he said, sending Hedwig on her way back to Hogwarts, and then he went over to put his clothes on. As his thoughts turned to Soseh, the ice began to melt. “They’d take care of her properly if she were here,” he thought looking at the walls. “How many Muggles have died because of an injury like mine?” He slipped on his pants and felt the circle on the right side of his chest. “If only we could share,” he whispered. There was a knock at his door. “Come in,” he called. The door swung open and in limped Cho Chang. In her hand was a small bag. Seeing Harry only half dressed, she half-heartedly looked away.

“Oh… sorry, Harry,” she stammered, but with a bit of a grin. “I didn’t mean…” Harry grabbed her in his arms.

“You’re walking on your own!” he cried out. “No Marietta? Excellent!” It was a hug Cho hadn’t expected, and she held her head against Harry’s chest and squeezed him tight holding his flesh to hers and clinging to the moment as long as it would last. “They let you out on your own?” he asked.

“And why wouldn’t they?” Cho replied defiantly. “St. Mungo’s sent word you were to be released today. Since I had to stop in for an exam, Professor Dumbledore suggested that I escort you back.”

“Professor Dumbledore?” Harry asked incredulously.

“Yes, why?” Harry paused for a moment, searching his own thoughts. Perhaps he was worried for nothing.

“No reason,” he finally replied. “It’s great to see you.” He gave her a gentle kiss as her hand met his chest. She let out a light breath and looked down.

“Is this it?” she asked. Her finger traced the six inch scar on his chest just below his right pectoral. Harry nodded.

“Amazing isn’t it. A week ago you could have put your fist clean through.” The words turned Cho white. “Did anybody see it happen?”

“We all saw too much, Harry,” Cho said as her voice quaked. “The sky cleared, and there you were in a bath of blood. I’ve never seen the professors more frightened. I don’t know what I would have done if I had lost you too.” Harry kissed her cheek, and smiled.

“Well, I’m here now,” he said trying to lighten the mood. Let me get dressed and we can get out of here. He walked over to the dressing cabinet, and with his back toward Cho, he started putting on his clothes. “You know, I don’t really blame Goyle for what happened,” he began. “You could barely see the end of your own broom, never mind the other flyers.” He started to recount the entire story of the game. As he started lacing his trainers and telling her how he almost had the Snitch, Cho’s voice interrupted him. It had an odd tone, a tone Harry had never heard in Cho’s voice.

“Harry?” she asked. “Who is Gabriella?”

Hearing the words, Harry missed the knot on his last trainer, turned, and looked up. Cho was sitting on Harry’s bed. In one hand was a white envelope; in the other was a pink sheet of paper. Her hands were steady and her face stern. Her brown eyes waited for the answer, as Harry looked up at her over his shoulder.

“G-Gabriella?”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 35 - The Truth Revealed
~~~***~~~

A thick cloud passed over the morning sun and the golden light that had turned Harry’s room so warm and bright began to fade. Backlit by the window, Cho’s face darkened, and so too did Harry’s heart. For weeks he’d attempted to tell Cho about Gabriella and had been, he felt, thwarted. Now, faced with the prospect of uninterrupted truth telling, Harry’s courage faltered. Where to begin? In her bedroom on Privet Drive, Gabriella held his heart in a finely crafted wooden box. She was the one person Harry would leave the Wizarding world for and the one reason why he would never do that--not until Voldemort was vanquished forever. With the turn of a phrase, she could brighten his soul or freeze his heart. He would see her this Christmas and he would love her. Cho, standing over Harry, asked again.

“Well, Harry, who’s Gabriella?”

“Nobody,” Harry’s voice choked. He turned to tie his trainer, but was fumbling miserably.

“Nobody?” she asked in disbelief. “You’re the one bright thing that burns in her heart. That doesn’t sound like nobody to me.” Cho limped over and stood in front of Harry who was concentrating hard on his laces. She was wearing black leather boots that zipped on the sides.

“Those are nice boots,” he began. “Where’d you…”

“I asked you a question, Harry Potter!” she snapped. Her calm demeanor had faded and her hands, still holding the pieces of paper, began to tremble. “Who is she?”

Harry gave up on the knot and sat up. He could see fear, or sadness, or anger in Cho’s eyes. Perhaps he saw all that, and more. She was in pain and instinctively he stood to hold her. He reached his hand to hers, but Cho pulled away, shaking the papers in his face. Slowly, he took them from her and set them on the table by his bed. He sighed and rubbed his face.

“I tried to tell you,” he said with a soft, gentle voice. “I swear… I tried.” Cho looked at him, her eyes disbelieving, but her mind searching her memory. After a moment, it came to her.

“This is the one?” she whispered to the air.

“I met her over the summer in Little Whinging. We started spending time together, and became… close.” The word didn’t feel quite right. “More than close,” he added.

“A girl… from home,” Cho whispered again as if trying to divine a calculation in Arithmancy. A look of curiosity entered her eyes and she asked, “A Muggle?” Harry nodded in reply and then the thinnest hint of a smile creased her face. “Boy, was I wrong,” she said to herself shaking her head. “I thought you and….” She stopped herself, and then limped over to the table and held the note to read it again. She took in a deep breath. “Well, it doesn’t matter what I think, does it Harry? It’s clear she loves you.” For some time she scanned the letter, and finally set down the note and looked at Harry with kind eyes.

“Do you love her?” she asked with a placid voice.

“Yes,” Harry replied without hesitation. Cho walked over and held her hand to his face. She hesitated, and then took the silver earring in her hand.

“This is from her, isn’t it?” she whispered. Harry reached up and took her hand in his. He felt as if he was stabbing Cho in the heart with each reply and still she wore a gentle smile. Holding her hand, he nodded.

“Why couldn’t you tell me, Harry? Why doesn’t anybody know?” And then a thought seemed to enter Cho’s mind and her manner changed ever so slightly. “Maybe… maybe something in your heart is telling you that there’s no future with a Muggle. Does she know about you… about our world?”

Harry shook his head, but didn’t answer. In an instant, his mind had wandered to Gabriella, to his friends, to Neville and back to his dream, and with each step there was a growing sense that something more was at play. He slipped on his glasses and looked around the room for anything else he needed to take back to Hogwarts. The room grew darker as the clouds outside thickened. There was a clap of thunder from somewhere off in the distance as a light rain began to patter against the window.

“Neville’s been taken,” he said quietly to himself. Cho moved closer to hear his words. “Yes, Neville’s been taken,” he repeated to himself again, as if by saying the phrase out loud he might understand its meaning. “Voldemort has taken Neville and wants me to try and save him. It’s another trap.” Taking hold of Harry’s hand, Cho gently stroked his arm and shook her head.

“We all know he’s missing, Harry. But… You-Know-Who? That’s a bit of a stretch.”

“He’s the first of others,” Harry answered, still speaking to himself, his voice growing more solid with each word, and his green eyes stern and steady. The confidence and the surety with which he spoke began to frighten Cho.

“But… but how?” she asked with a slight shudder. But, again, Harry made no reply. He was trying to bring the thought that burned inside to the fore. And then, Cho’s earlier words echoed in his mind, and its images stepped back from Neville to Cho. Why hadn’t he told her about Gabriella? His thoughts were swirling and he was having trouble holding on to any of them.

“If he knew…” Harry spoke, picking up the last of his things in the room. “If Voldemort knew that Harry Potter was in love with a Muggle from home…”

“He’d kill her,” Cho answered. “Or… or worse.” Cho tried to take in Harry’s reason for secrecy. She knew she’d stopped his attempts to say anything, but then that was because she thought….

“Oh, Harry,” she sighed and pulled him close. “I’ve put you in an awful spot.”

“Don’t be silly,” Harry caught himself saying. “It’s my fault for not just coming out with it. Only, Ron knows the details.” And then looking into her eyes he said, “You can’t tell anybody; I mean it. Nobody can know.”

“Don’t worry Harry,” Cho answered. “I swear I’d never…” But then, suddenly, Harry’s eyes widened.

“Neville!” he yelled. “Oh no… Neville!” Harry reached down, grabbed Gabriella’s letter and shoved it in his pocket. “My wand! Where’s my wand?” Cho carefully walked over to where Harry had slept. On the wall, at the head of the bed, was a small drawer.

“They’re usually…” the drawer slid open and she slipped out Harry’s wand. “There,” she said holding out his wand. “Most folks like them close. Merlin, you’d think you’d know; you spend so much time over here.” She poked him gently in the ribs.

“Thanks.” Harry breathed deep and felt his chest spasm with pain. His mind was searching its memory of the meal he’d shared with Neville. He’d told him that he was seeing a Muggle in Little Whinging. But, what else? “I’ve got to tell Dumbledore. He’ll know what to do. We have to go.”

Their return trip to Hogwarts was the very same that Harry had taken with Cho’s brother James two months earlier. A lifetime ago, Harry thought. For support, he held Cho’s arm as they ascended the front steps to the castle, but the warmth and intimacy that had been their days earlier was gone. The first drops of rain were just beginning to fall. They were heavy, and each splatter on the stone steps sounded like the report of a pistol being shot into the air. The castle grounds were deserted. Odd, Harry thought, for a Sunday.

“Are they forcing the students to stay inside?” Harry asked.

“Not that I know of,” Cho replied wondering the same thing.

At the front entrance, stood Professor McGonagall. She wore an unusually broad smile, but still had a look of concern on her face. She put her arm around Cho and helped her to the front doors.

“How was your check-up, Ms. Chang?” she asked. Harry realized that he hadn’t asked himself.

“Fine, Professor,” Cho answered. “They’ve confirmed that my brain cells are growing back. The same steady growth since I first regained consciousness is continuing. They don’t know why, but I think I do.” She cast Harry a glance that he did not detect.

“Excellent!” Professor McGonagall answered. Her attention also turned to Harry who was doing his best to be patient, but was starting to lose the battle. When she looked at Harry, he saw something in her expression he’d never seen before. She was looking through him, almost as if part of him was missing. “And you, Harry?” she spoke in a softer voice. “How are you?”

“We need to get inside, Professor,” he answered pushing at the front doors. “I have to speak with…”

As the doors flew open, he was met with a blast of cheers. Hermione was the first to greet him. She wrapped him in her arms and kissed his face. Tears of joy welled up in her eyes as she held him tight.

“I hate Quidditch,” she said as a flood of other students encircled Harry and began to hug him or pat him on the back.

The entrance hall had been decorated for a celebration. Against the wall was a banner that flashed in different coloured lights ‘The boy that lived!’ Harry searched the throng for Professor Dumbledore, but only found his classmates and one very large professor that parted the sea of students as he strode toward Harry.

“I thought… I thought fer sure yeh was dead,” Hagrid said reaching down and holding Harry with his huge hands. He lifted him off the ground and pulled him close. Hagrid’s grip made Harry wince in pain.

“Hagrid, you can’t lose me that easily,” Harry breathed, trying to smile back at the giant. The added height gave him a new perspective and as he looked around, he saw students from all four houses, even Slytherin, but he still couldn’t find the Headmaster. “Where’s Professor Dumbledore?” Harry asked, and Hagrid’s face grew dark.

“It took a lot out of him teh bring yeh back, Harry,” Hagrid replied, setting Harry back to the floor. “He’s been… restin’.”

“I need to…”

“Hey mate,” Ron called, rubbing Harry’s hair with his hand. Standing next to Hagrid and Ron, Harry suddenly felt very short. “If you think this is something, wait ‘till you get to the common room. Gryffindor still hasn’t celebrated its victory over Ravenclaw. It’s been a pretty gloomy week around here, what with you, Neville, and all.”

“Listen!” Harry called out, but the room was so filled with people talking that nobody heard. Hagrid lifted Harry up again.

“Pay attention now!” Hagrid yelled, and the room fell silent. Harry cupped his hands to his mouth.

“Thank you all so much for everything. It was your spirit that brought me back.” There was a cheer. “Please stay and enjoy the food, but I need to go properly thank someone who’s not here right now, the man that saved my life.” Hagrid put Harry down and he started for Professor Dumbledore’s office. Before he was out of the entrance hall, however, Professor McGonagall stopped him.

“Mr. Potter,” she said, “I know you wish to see the Headmaster, but he really must not have any guests right now.”

“I have to, Professor,” Harry shot back. “I know about Neville. I know…”

“Yes, yes,” Professor McGonagall interrupted. “Alastor has already given us that information. Rest assured that we are all putting it to good use.” Harry shook his head madly.

“You don’t understand Professor. There’s more. If I could only…”

“Welcome back, Mr. Potter!” The voice of Professor Dumbledore reverberated down the corridor. It was clear, if not strong, and turned the heads of many of the students. Another cheer rang out. Professor Dumbledore walked to Harry and was himself surrounded with students. The elderly wizard breathed in deeply as if filling himself with the energy around him. He stood tall, looking every bit the part of the greatest wizard walking the face of the earth. But, Harry noted that something was not right. Nonetheless, when he spoke, he addressed the crowd in a powerful voice. “I am so proud that all the houses turned out today to show their support for a fellow student. It is a testimony to the spirit of Hogwarts. Please excuse the two of us for a moment. I promise to return Mr. Potter to you shortly.” His words put fire into Professor McGonagall’s eyes.

“Headmaster!” she scolded. “You really shouldn’t…”

“There are many things I shouldn’t do Minerva,” he cut in. “Eating cream cakes after midnight, for example. This, however, is not one of them.” He took Harry by the shoulder and the two walked down the corridor to his office. When they had finally cleared the crowd and noise, Harry began to speak.

“Professor, I need to…”

“Not yet, Harry. Not here.”

They ascended the spiral staircase to Professor Dumbledore’s office. When the door shut the two of them in, Professor Dumbledore exhaled and slumped against his desk. In the blink of an eye, his strong demeanor turned weak. He was an aged old man and looked as if he would faint to the floor. The portraits of old headmasters yelled for him to get back to bed, but he held up his hand for them to be still, and fell into his chair.

“Silence,” he whispered weakly. Harry was at his side in an instant.

“Professor? What’s wrong?” The old wizard looked at Harry and smiled gently. He reached out and placed his hand against Harry’s face.

“Nothing is wrong, Harry. Indeed, the very fact that you are standing in my office now is proof that everything is right.” His voice trailed off as he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “There was a moment when I thought the prophecy had failed. Your destiny is strong, yet one dare not tempt fate.”

“You need to rest, sir,” Harry urged holding Professor Dumbledore’s arm. The wizard faced Harry flashing bright blue eyes that were ageless.

“It was you who asked for me, Harry. What is it you have to say?” Seeing Dumbledore so weak and frail, Harry had let his thoughts of Neville and Gabriella slip away. But, with the wizard’s question, they rushed back in a torrent.

“He has Neville,” Harry began. “At a farmhouse, or an old house in a field.” Dumbledore looked closely at Harry’s green eyes, and saw concern and compassion.

“Alastor, told us,” Professor Dumbledore replied. “He’s in your dreams again?” A pang of guilt poked at Harry’s innards, and he looked away.

“It’s… different this time,” Harry answered slowly. “I’m having visions I don’t understand… but they’re not from him,” he insisted. “And other times, when I forget to clear my mind… he calls. I can tell when it’s Voldemort… when I’m Voldemort. We… we can talk.” At these words, Dumbledore sat higher in his chair.

“Harry, this is very important. What does he say?” Dumbledore leaned in waiting for the answer.

“He’s taken Neville. He’s torturing Neville.” Harry’s face was pained as he looked at Professor Dumbledore. “He wants me to save him. He’s challenging me to step forward or… or he’ll take others.”

“He’s challenging you to save your friend, and yet you do not know where to go?”

“Until today, I thought it was a trap, a lie like… like Sirius.” Harry walked over and sat in front of Dumbledore’s desk. “There’s more, sir. Only Ron and one other know about Gabriella.” Harry paused feeling that, somehow, it was his fault that Neville had been taken. “Neville knows I was dating a Muggle in Little Whinging.” The conversation Harry had with Neville began to play in his head. “He knows she’s tall, and has black hair.” With each revelation the panic in Harry’s voice increased. “He knows she’s my neighbor.” Harry stood. “If he knows to ask, it won’t take Voldemort long to know it’s the girl across the street.” Dumbledore was rolling the information over in his mind slowly -- too slowly for Harry’s sake.

“Harry, it was only a matter of time,” Dumbledore said taking a deep breath and standing, his legs unsteady. “I have placed significant charms to protect Gabriella.” Dumbledore walked over to his spinning disk and touched it with his wand. He examined the rising points of light that Harry thought represented members of the Order, each spread out across a map of the globe -- stars that only Dumbledore could identify. “She still knows nothing of your wizardry?” Harry shook his head, no. At this, Dumbledore asked, “Nor her family?” The tone in the question didn’t seem right to Harry. It was as if Dumbledore expected a different answer.

“She’s seen things,” Harry answered. “But Muggles see magic everyday and don’t really see it. I mean… well… she’s smart, sir.” Harry smiled thinking about how he had to kick her out of his room. “She knows I’m different.”

“And her family?” Dumbledore asked again.

“Her mother’s not well. And her father… her father hates me. He doesn’t know me at all. He thinks I’m a Muggle juvenile delinquent.”

In silence, Professor Dumbledore intently watched one particular point of light for quite some time. It was red, and seemed to disappear and reappear at different locations in the field of white stars. “She has returned to the Isle?” he whispered to himself. Shaking his head, he feebly waved his wand and the lights fell back into the spinning disk. Leaning against the table, he looked at Harry.

“Harry, there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect Gabriella,” he said finally. “I need to know, however, have you made your choice?” For a moment, Harry looked up confused, but then the Headmaster’s meaning became clear.

“Cho knows,” he said softly. “She learned of Gabriella this morning at the hospital.”

“That was not my question, Harry,” Professor Dumbledore said firmly. The sixteen year-old walked over to Fawkes and began to stroke the bird’s neck. The phoenix was full-grown now, and his plumage brilliant.

“The choice was made months ago, sir. It’s Gabriella. It’s always been Gabriella.” At Harry’s words, Professor Dumbledore nodded, and slowly crumpled back into his chair. His blue eyes began to twinkle and a smile spread across his face.

“Then it is time to tell her the truth, Harry.” Harry looked at him in surprise. Dumbledore nodded to his questioning face. “Perhaps… over Christmas.”

“I can go home?” Harry asked, remembering Dumbledore’s concern that it was no longer safe.

“If it is safe enough for Gabriella, it certainly will be safe enough for you.” Harry noticed that the white in his beard seemed somehow duller, and yet his eyes were as bright as ever. “Now, however, you have guests that await. What you’ve said has been helpful, Harry. I am unsure of your visions. They are not unusual in someone your age. As for speaking with Voldemort, it would be best to close your mind completely to his thoughts; you know this.” Dumbledore stood slowly, and Harry knew it was time to go. “If Tom wants to send you messages, let him use the post.” He walked Harry to the door, but it was clear it took some effort. Suddenly, Harry stopped short of the door and put his arms around Dumbledore.

“Thank you,” Harry whispered holding the wizard tightly in his arms. “Thank you. I saw you bring me back to life. I was watching from above.” He looked into the headmaster’s eyes. “But if I knew that it would cause you this much suffering, and I had it in my power, I would never…”

“Suffering?” Dumbledore exclaimed with a hoarse laugh. “Pain?” He shook his head and held Harry tightly by the shoulders looking intently into his eyes. “The gift, as my family calls it, has been in our line for generations. It is a sharing of spirit… of energy. It is not taught and is only given willingly. What I shared with you, I may retrieve again.” Professor Dumbledore smiled kindly. “At my age, everything takes longer than it used to, and there are never guarantees. Now be on your way.”

Harry was uncertain as he looked at Professor Dumbledore. Still, he nodded his head and left the headmaster to rest. By the time he’d made it back to the entrance hall, most everyone had left. The sky had cleared and many were taking the opportunity to get outside to enjoy the relatively warm autumn day. Ron and Hermione were clearing away the tables, and Goyle was standing in the corner talking to Toby Vilis, one of the Slytherins that had been so proud of Malfoy for knowing who blew up the Hogwart’s Express. Hermione saw Harry as he entered and quickly strode over to him.

“How is he?” she asked. And then, without waiting for an answer, “We haven’t seen him all week. They were saying he had died.” She was clearly not herself. A sense of worry was on her face that had begun to set like drying plaster. The uncertainty in Harry’s eyes was not reassuring.

“He’s…” Harry began, and his eyes wandered around the room, unable to hold Hermione’s gaze. They fixed on a large suit of armor against the far wall where Ron was removing the last table. He could feel tears welling in his eyes, and he breathed hard to keep them in.

“Harry?” she asked again, now with a quaver in her own voice.

“If I hurt him,” he whispered to the far wall at the banner still flashing coloured lights, “it won’t be ‘The boy that lived.’ It will be ‘The boy that killed Dumbledore.’” He turned to look at her again, and found a tear streaking down her cheek. With his hand, he gently took hers. “He says he’ll get better, Hermione. We’ve got to believe that… don’t we?” Ron waived his wand at the banner and it disappeared. Then, he made his way over to Hermione and Harry.

“Why the gloomy faces?” he said cheerfully. “There’s a Gryffindor party waiting upstairs, Harry. A real party, if you know what I mean, mate.” Ron slapped Harry on the shoulder, but as he got closer he sensed the something he’d missed. Ron looked at Hermione and wiped the tears off her face, and she rushed to put her arms around him. Ron held her in his and said softly, “He’s getting better Hermione, you’ll see. He’ll be blasting Death Eaters in no time.” Ron tenderly kissed her cheek in a way Harry had never seen before.

“Come on,” Harry said to his two friends. “If Fred and George were here, they’d start playing violin music. Let’s try to have a good time tonight. There might not be too many chances left.” As they started up the stairs he asked in his best, disinterested voice, “How long did Cho stay for?” Ron slapped him on the shoulder again and Harry, still tender, winced.

“You do know, mate,” Ron smiled, “she’s in love with you, right?” Harry looked at Ron, and knowing Hermione was still there tried to talk in code. Which, knowing Hermione, he was sure would fail miserably.

“I… I… told her... I told her today, Ron,” Harry stammered.

“Told her what?” Ron asked, dully. Harry rolled his eyes and sighed.

“I told Cho about you-know-who,” Harry whispered.

“About V-Vold… You-Know-Who?” Ron’s eyes scrunched in confusion.

“Or for goodness sake, Ron!” Hermione jumped in. “You’re as thick as Hagrid’s waist. He’s saying that he told Cho today about Gabriella.” Harry stopped dumbstruck. Hermione shyly smiled and took his hand. “Ron told me weeks ago, Harry. Well, a little anyway. I’ve been dying to ask you more, but I promised.” She looked at Ron apologetically.

In the hallway to the Gryffindor common room, Harry glared at Ron whose eyes began to grow in fear that Harry might erupt in anger. But inside, there was no anger, no sense of betrayal, only a splashing of emotions against the walls of his brain. He wasn’t sure what to say, or what to do. Hermione broke the momentary silence.

“Was Cho angry?” she asked. Harry’s mind spun from Little Whinging back to Hogwarts with her words, but he had missed the question.

“What?” he muttered in a small voice.

“When you told Cho, did she get angry?” Hermione asked, pulling on his hand, and beckoning him toward the portrait of the Fat Lady. Harry nodded his head no.

“She knew already, I think,” he whispered. “But she’s upset. She just won’t show it. No more tears this year, she said.” Then he turned his attention to Ron who was following a few steps back. “Ron, who else? Who else have you told?” His words were sharp and his eyes intense. Ron stepped close to Harry and held him by the arm.

“Nobody, mate,” he said solidly. “I swear, nobody else knows.”

“Because if you…” Harry continued and looked at them both, “if either of you have told anybody, her life’s at risk.”

“Nobody else knows,” Ron repeated.

“Nobody,” Hermione echoed. Harry took a deep breath and sighed, and then his own shoulders slumped.

“Neville knew,” Harry said quietly as he watched a third year Gryffindor pass by and enter the common room through the portrait of the Fat Lady. As the painting swung open, the sounds of laughter and singing poured out and down the hall. Clearly, the party had begun in earnest without them. As it swung shut and silence filled the corridor, Harry continued. “I told him about her, and now he’s been taken by Voldemort.” Ron’s face whitened. “The first of others, he told me.”

This time, even Hermione didn’t question his assertion. Somehow she knew, they all knew, that Neville was in the hands of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. In silence, the three looked at each other knowing the other’s thoughts. They would do everything they could to get Neville back. There was a grim look of determination on all their faces as they pondered their next move. The portrait swung open again, and Ginny peeked through the opening.

“They said you guys were out here!” she called smiling. “Come on Harry… you too Ron. Colin wants to get a photograph of the team!” Harry hoisted a smile onto his face.

“On our way Ginny!” he called down the hall. As he started for the open portrait, Hermione touched his arm and he turned.

“You’re not alone in this Harry,” she said softly. “You never have been.” A burst of laughter rang down the corridor. Harry looked at his two best friends and smiled.

“I know Hermione, I know. Now, let’s let Neville know the same thing.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 36 - Out of Wisdom, Blood
~~~***~~~


The air was cold as Harry looked up at the afternoon sky, and the grass, damp against his back, scratched at the nape of his neck. There were no clouds, only a light haze that turned the sky a milky blue. A week had passed since his return to Hogwarts and still they were no closer to learning the whereabouts of Neville Longbottom. Ron and Hermione listened to Harry repeat his dreams to them all week. Each felt the descriptions familiar, but neither could come up with a location. Harry had suggested trying to reach out to Voldemort’s mind again, but Hermione’s protestations and Harry’s promise to Dumbledore kept him from the attempt. As for Dumbledore, no one had seen nor heard from the great wizard and rumors were swirling that he was near death. Despite Harry’s adamant denials that the Headmaster was well, he was losing the battle against the gossip, and students, brought to Hogwarts to be protected from the Dark Lord, were talking of how their parents were thinking to remove them.

The only bright spot was that Harry had cleared the air about Gabriella with Hermione and Ron. He had told them about his summer with her, of the accident, and about how he stunned the police officer. And, while Ron gaped and Hermione furrowed her brow, it was as if a great burden had been lifted from his soul. Hermione had been right, sharing his worries made them seem more tolerable, and his fears more faceable.

The one secret he felt they would not understand was his secret alliance with Malfoy. The blonde had yet to demonstrate anything more than arrogance and a smug attitude. In class and in the corridors, Malfoy and Harry were at each other’s throats, but during the few private moments they had together, they would share their visions of a world without a Dark Lord. Unfortunately, those visions, as far as Harry was concerned, were quite different. Malfoy continued to ask Harry to be patient, that he was working on a demonstration that would permit Harry to place his faith fully into Malfoy’s commitment. “You’ll know when the time comes, Potter,” Malfoy whispered the last time Harry asked.

Harry was growing skeptical and impatient, so Malfoy offered a small token towards their new alliance only two days before the second Hogsmeade trip. He promised to make himself scarce, allowing Harry to again enter Hogsmeade as the Slytherin. Believing Harry had concocted a Polyjuice Potion, and still disinclined to enter Hogsmeade on his own, Malfoy was perfectly happy to let Harry convince the rest of the school that the Slytherin’s bravery was steadfast. For his part, Harry was determined to set things straight with Cho and the Ravenclaws. Borrowing a set of Malfoy’s clothes, he went to the broom shop in Hogsmeade and bought another Caduceus, and in the Three Broomsticks he presented it to Cho as atonement for his actions. “A token from the Malfoy estate, that you might find a way to fly again,” he said in his best Malfoyian voice. To his disappointment, the Slytherins, and most of the Ravenclaws assumed the broom was cursed, but back at school Harry convinced Cho that Malfoy was being sincere, if not a show off. Her trust in Harry’s words was why he found himself now flat on his back in the middle of the pitch, damp from the melted snow, his eyes scanning the sky above. A streak of blue flashed by the rings on the south end of the pitch and an instant later Cho, in her Quidditch robes, was hovering above him some six feet off the ground.

“This is amazing,” she said smiling down at Harry. “It’s as if it’s flying me!” And, in a swirl of color, she was off again. The broom’s sticking charms and self-adjustment abilities, along with Cho’s continued recovery, worked in unison allowing her to fly across the sky with relative ease. Harry stood up and walked over to a large leather chest in the middle of the pitch, opened the lid, and pulled out the Quaffle. Holding it in his hands for a few moments he tossed it high into the air. Cho appeared from nowhere, reached to grab it under her arm, but fumbled and it slowly fell toward the ground. She turned and made another reach, this time tucking it under her left arm and racing for the rings at the south end of the pitch. She tossed the Quaffle through the right ring and Harry let out a lone cheer.

“Score!” he yelled, and then he hopped on his own broom and raced to meet her. She had been in the air for over two hours, improving with every minute, and the smile on her face was broad. Still, Harry could see she was tired.

“I think that’s enough for today, don’t you?” he offered gently. “It’s almost time for dinner.” Cho shot down and scooped up the Quaffle just before it hit the ground and returned to him at the center ring.

“Catch!” She laughed hurling the Quaffle at Harry, who grabbed it fully in the stomach winding him for an instant. “What’s the matter? You’re not getting tired are you?” she teased, but an instant later the features of her face hardened. “You’ve been laying on the grass for most of the afternoon. Frankly, I’m not sure why you’re even out here.” She turned her broom to make another run to the rings on the north end. “Why don’t you go to dinner? Believe me, I’m fine without you.” Her words had an unnecessary bite to them.

It had been Harry’s hesitant suggestion after breakfast that they come out and fly together, and after Cho had finally mastered the basics, he had chosen to relax and simply watch. She was correct on one count. He was tired, very tired. He had still not caught up with his studies after having missed a week of school, and most his spare time had been spent trying to come up with a way to find out where Neville was. Helen was certainly no help, and the few leads he and his friends had went nowhere. Harry sighed and nodded his head dejectedly. He dipped his broom low and started for the castle, but Cho was at his side before he hit the ground.

“Harry, wait!” she called, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. You’re right… I am tired, and I get grumpy when I’m hungry.” The two landed on the ground, Cho taking a moment to find her balance. When Harry reached to help, she slapped his hand away, but in so doing twisted backwards and fell to the turf. She rolled over and sat dropping her face in her hands, and she began to cry. “Just… go… please… leave me alone!”

Harry stood with his Caduceus in one hand trying to decide if he should try to help, or obey her wishes. He took a step toward her.

“Go away!” she yelled staring up at him with red eyes and a wet face. Harry dropped his head and started up for the castle. Just before he entered he looked back to see Cho still sitting on the ground, still crying, alone. For a moment he hesitated, and then he turned and passed through the castle doors.

When he entered the Gryffindor common room to change for dinner, he found it crowded with activity. Ginny and Dean were again seated together on the couch by the fire, Dean helping her write a scroll on various sleeping draughts. Ron and Hermione were at the large table at the back of the common room and, for a moment, Harry thought to sit with them and ask if they’d come up with any new ideas. But he knew they’d ask him about Cho, and just thinking about that was exhausting. Instead, he started up the stairs and soon found himself prone on his bed, staring at the round ball of cinnabar in his hands.

As he rolled the red rock around in his fingers, his mind again turned to Little Whinging and Gabriella. Christmas was a month away and he suddenly realized that he needed to get her a present and perhaps something for her parents. He might even buy a gift for the Dursleys he thought smiling to himself, perhaps a book on yard maintenance, or home décor. Looking at Dudley’s gift in his hands, he told himself that he would buy something special for his cousin, something with meaning. The room was quiet as he sat up and looked at Neville’s empty bed.

“I’ll bring you back, Neville,” he whispered. “Just hang on. I swear… I’ll bring you back.” He stood and placed the ball back in the mouth of the black dragon, reading once again the inscription on the mahogany base. Out of bravery, fire. Out of wisdom, blood. Out of love, true power. “Gabriella, I hate puzzles,” he said rubbing his temples and then running his fingers through his hair. He changed his clothes and started for the stairs when he stopped.

“I wonder,” he breathed. He turned to his desk and sat at his chair, placing the dragonhead squarely in front of him. Slowly, he extended his finger and pricked the tip on one of the dragon’s teeth. A small red drop appeared and he lifted his hand and watched as the droplet grew and then dripped from the tip of his finger on to the cinnabar stone in the dragon’s mouth. He looked and waited for something, anything, to happen. He let another and another droplet fall to the stone and still there was no change.

“Hey, mate,” Ron called from behind. “We’re headin’ for dinner, do you want to come?”

“Er, yeah,” Harry said nervously, quickly wrapping his finger with his other hand. “I’ll meet you down in the Great Hall.”

“Everything okay?” Ron asked.

“Yeah, I just got a parchment cut is all. I’ll heal it and be down in a second.”

“I hate those. They never do seem to heal right away.” Ron started on down the stairs. “We’ll save you a spot,” he called back.

“Stupid,” Harry hissed. “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid!” He took his wand out and bathed his finger in blue light. “What were you thinking, Potter?” he muttered to himself. “It’s some sort of Muggle puzzle, so start looking for a Muggle solution.” The blue light faded, but the prick on his finger remained. “What?” he whispered. Again, he waved his wand and this time spoke the incantation forcefully, but the small slit on his finger would not vanish. “Great,” he spat, “I get to go to Madame Pomfrey with a paper cut.” He grabbed a sock and dabbed the blood and, before his eyes, the wound sealed. His brow furled in confusion and he shook his head taking the sock over to wipe off the red ball of cinnabar. But, when he lifted it in his hand, he found it clean and polished. He rolled it in his fingers, but nowhere could he see dried blood on its surface. Had he cleaned it already? Again he shook his head and slowly placed the ball back in the dragon’s mouth. For a moment he stood there, staring at the gifts on his desk and at his finger, trying to put the pieces together. His stomach growled and the thought of dinner filled his mind. He sighed, tossed the sock on his bed, and started for the Great Hall.

As Harry passed the front doors to the castle, he saw Draco Malfoy and Vincent Crabbe hiding in the corner. He stopped and watched as Phillip Pacer, a Beater on the Hufflepuff team, passed by. Malfoy held out his wand and cast a spell hitting Pacer in the back. He stopped momentarily, rubbed his neck, shook his head, and continued on his way. Crabbe snickered as the two stepped out of hiding and started for the Great Hall. Malfoy looked up and saw Harry staring down on them. He whispered something to Crabbe who was busy watching Pacer. Instead of joining Crabbe to the Great Hall, Malfoy went to the front doors. When Crabbe disappeared, Malfoy looked up at Harry and beckoned him to follow outside.

The sky was growing dark as a full moon lifted its head above the horizon in the east. Two minutes behind the Slytherin, Harry made his way down the steps from the castle entrance and watched the stars spring out across the evening sky, the cold air biting at his face. Stopping to admire the sight, Harry sighed and his breath billowed up before him. He saw a figure with blonde hair walking toward the lake and then disappearing behind one of the leafless trees. When he caught up to Malfoy, he found him sitting at the base of the tree, looking out across the lake, and smoking what appeared to be a sort of cigarette.

“Hello, Harry,” he drawled taking a puff and blowing a large plume of acrid smoke. “I hear things didn’t go so well today with your girlfriend. Did you think if she could fly again, she’d fall in love with you?”

“You know nothing of love, Draco.”

“No… no, I suppose I don’t,” he replied flatly, crushing the burning ashes into the frozen ground and rising to his feet. By the light of the moon, his skin seemed even more pale and the scar on his face more stark. For a moment, Harry felt a pang of regret, then quickly shoved the feeling to a dimly lit recess of his brain. Malfoy stepped close to him, his steel eyes, unblinking, met Harry’s gaze. “But then, there’s a lot about me, Potter, that you don’t know,” he breathed, his voice like ice. “Time will tell.”

There was a small splash out on the lake as the two stood eye-to-eye, neither saying a word, nor moving. And then, unmistakably, Harry noticed Malfoy’s scar begin to fade ever so slightly. It was clear even by moonlight that the sword and snake on Malfoy’s face had diminished, but Malfoy seemed unaware of the change. Instead, he let out a deep sigh as if removing a tremendous weight from within.

“It’s time for your demonstration, Harry,” he whispered still transfixed on Harry’s green eyes. “The moment you, we, have both been waiting for.” Malfoy turned and began to walk slowly toward the lake. Wary to follow, Harry began to look around, wondering if this was a trap. Malfoy stopped and laughed at Harry’s hesitation. “I think this warrants your bravery, Gryffindor.” Irritated, Harry stepped forward and followed Malfoy to the lake’s shore.

“What is it, Draco?” Harry snapped in a hushed voice. “I’ve got better things to do than—”

“You have NOTHING better to do!” Malfoy shot back. “It was you that wanted this to go slowly, Potter. But, we don’t have time for slow. He’s coming to Hogwarts and you don’t seem to see that, do you? The bombings and attacks around the world, all mean nothing to him. That’s being done by someone else’s hand, but you don’t see that either. Do you, Harry? There’s more evil in this world than just Voldemort.”

“I can think of one family in particular,” sniped Harry.

“Power isn’t evil, Potter, nor is knowledge. It’s what you do with them, isn’t it? Their ultimate master and his apprentice have gone insane. Their eyes are bent on one place, one person… Harry Potter, and they’ll kill us all just to get to you and I don’t intend to wait for them to try!”

“Very eloquent, Draco,” Harry replied smoothly, “but your words are shear speculation, a mere theory, and hardly a demonstration of your commitment to our common cause. I need—”

“My father and Augustus Rockwood are hiding in Belvaird Castle just east of Glenfarg. They just arrived last night and they won’t stay more than a day or two.” Malfoy reached down and picked up a rock, reminding Harry for a moment of Ron. But, instead of throwing it out across the lake, he rolled it over in his hand, rubbing its muddy surface in his fingers, and then tossed it to Harry who caught it in his hands. He stepped over to Harry and with the same muddy hand reached up to examine Harry’s earring with his fingers, but Harry grabbed his wrist.

“What’s going on Malfoy?” he sneered.

“What’s the matter, Harry? Don’t you like to get a bit dirty?” Malfoy smiled. “This bit of silver hasn’t left your ear all year,” Malfoy said, withdrawing his hand. “For a little prat that can afford anything, it’s clear that this token means something. I’ll know we’re even, when you tell me the truth about the earring. I want to know what’s in here.” Malfoy placed his muddy hand on Harry’s chest, turned and briskly strode toward the castle. At the base of the steps he turned and yelled, “Only one day, Potter! Make it count!”

Harry stood in disbelief. Malfoy had just betrayed his father, or knew of an elaborate trap for those that would come to take him away. The question was, “What to do with the information?” The night was growing colder as the moon rose in the sky. Harry made his way to the castle doors and heard, or felt, a deep rumble that seemed to emanate from the very ground itself. He was about to lose his footing when the rumble suddenly stopped, the air still and silent save for the gentle sound of waves splashing on the shore of the lake. He looked around; only a billowing smoke from Hagrid’s hut made any movement in the night air. Finally, he made his way to dinner.

When he arrived in the Great Hall, he found Hermione and Ron just finishing with dinner. At the head table, Professor McGonagall had ended her meal, but was speaking with Professor Flitwick in what appeared to be a very deep conversation.

“Hey, Harry,” Ron called, “I don’t know what your definition of a minute is, but mine ended about an hour ago.”

“Yeah, er,” Harry glanced back to the head table, “sorry. I ran into…” Professor McGonagall rose from her table. “…homework’s crazy and I needed to…” She made her way to the exit. “…Quidditch, and… er, excuse me, be back in a minute.” He turned to catch up with Professor McGonagall as she left the Great Hall. Ron simply shook his head, pondering if he should have another desert while he waited.

“Professor!” Harry called to the Gryffindor Head-of-House. “Professor, wait!” She turned to see Harry running after her.

“Yes, Mr. Potter,” she replied. “What is it?”

“I need to speak with you,” he cast a glance left and then right, “alone.”

“Really, Mr. Potter, I don’t have time for—”

“I have a message for the Order,” he interrupted in a whisper. Professor McGonagall cast a look around and with a hint of resistance beckoned Harry to follow her to her office. Once there, she waved her wand and all the portraits vacated.

“Very well, Mr. Potter,” she said sitting behind her desk and straightening a small stack of papers. “What is it?”

“I know where Lucius Malfoy is,” Harry answered. Professor McGonagall’s eyebrow raised above her right eye as she looked at Harry over the top of her reading glasses. “He’s with Augustus Rockwood at Belvaird Castle, east of Glenfarg.” Her eyes widened.

“The Headmaster told you specifically to shut your mind,” Professor McGonagall snapped. “Do you have any idea what sort of tricks he could be playing in your head?”

“I know what I know, Professor. He’s there, or it’s a trap. Either way, we can’t let the opportunity pass; they’ll be gone by tomorrow night.” She took her glasses off, tossed them on the desk in front of her, and stood from her chair.

“Albus,” she whispered to the air. Her face had turned ashen, almost frightened, but in a flash the fear had washed away with resolve. “Very well, Mr. Potter, I’ll pass the word on one condition.” Harry tilted his head waiting for her words. “You will shut your mind to that beast, no matter what he tries to tempt you with.” Harry nodded his head to reassure her.

“I’ll do my best, Professor. You have my word.”

“Very well, be on your way; there’s much to be done. I know someone in Fife that might be able to help check things out. We’ll only get one chance though. She moved toward the back door of her office. Harry had never been behind that door and always wondered… “I said, be on your way, Mr. Potter!”

He went first to the Great Hall in hopes of getting something to eat, but the doors were shut. He thought maybe Ron would have saved him a bite back in the common room, but instead of returning to his room he turned toward the kitchens. The thought of Dobby entered his mind. It had been weeks since he’d last asked and perhaps there was some more news.

The house elf opening the door to the kitchen bowed low when he saw who it was. “An honor, sir, an honor. Might the lowly Tellus get the great Harry Potter something to eat?” Before Harry could say turkey sandwich, he was seated and surrounded by house elves serving him dinner.

“Please, that’s enough, really,” he begged. “I have plenty.”

“Harry Potter’s deeds grow greater with each passing day, sir,” said Caesar, the house elf Harry assumed to be the head cook. He was certainly larger than the others and they all seemed to pay him deference as he walked past. “Anything Caesar can do for the great Harry Potter, shall be done.” There was a general murmur of consent around the kitchen as pots and pans continued to clang away while the house elves cleaned up after the evening’s dinner.

“Have you heard from Dobby?” Harry asked.

“Caesar has heard of Dobby’s quest, sir,” Caesar said quietly while slowly passing his hand about Harry’s head just as Dobby had done. “The mark is here, but from where…” Caesar shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “It is foreign to all of us.”

Harry finished his food, learning little more about the magic that surrounded him than he knew before. A “dark mark of protection” they all called it. “Ancient magic.” The one thing new, according to Caesar, was that the aura that surrounded Harry seemed to be tightening around him. Caesar had never seen this before, and only shook his head when Harry asked if that was a good thing. As Harry left the kitchens he bowed to Caesar.

“You are a great cook Caesar and a great friend to me. If Dobby returns, you’ll send me word?” Harry hoped the compliment might help and it seemed to as Caesar broke out in a great toothy smile.

“You have Caesar’s word, Harry Potter, sir,” Caesar replied bending so low his ears touched the ground. “It is true, what they say. Harry Potter is a very great wizard.” Harry turned to leave. “But the greatest wizard of our age should know… Caesar is no cook.” He bowed again and closed the door.

That night, Harry again said nothing of his pact with Malfoy to Hermione or Ron. When they asked why he rushed off to see Professor McGonagall, he lied and told them it was to ask about Dumbledore. When they asked how the Headmaster was, Harry told the truth and said not well. It was something in the way Professor McGonagall had called out the name Albus that told him that something deeper was wrong. Her face was white and whereas before she would have spoken first with Dumbledore, this time the decision she had made was clearly her own. The Headmaster was ill… very ill.

At breakfast, there had been no word of anything unusual happening in the Wizarding world, but when the three Gryffindor friends entered the Great Hall for lunch that same afternoon they found the room filled with commotion. The Daily Prophet had arrived with a special edition and emblazoned on the headline was “Death Eater Re-Captured”. Hermione grabbed a paper on the Gryffindor table and began to read it out loud.


The Ministry of Magic brings one back after Arthur Weasley himself goes on the attack. Early this morning in a brilliant move, the Ministry re-captured You-Know-Who’s right hand man, Augustus Rockwood. Found hiding outside of Glenfarg, Rockwood was taken without incident. Mr. Weasley with the help of six other Ministry officials found Rockwood in his sleep.

Rockwood, who had just escaped Azkaban with Lucius Malfoy, was one of the top ten most wanted wizards by the Ministry. “The rest will soon follow,” said Thomas Snively, one of the Ministry’s spokesmen. When asked if there was any sign of Lucius Malfoy, Mr. Snively assured the Prophet’s reporters that the area had been “completely cleared of all dark wizards.”

Hermione glanced up from the paper to find Harry looking across the hall at the Slytherin table. Crabbe was patting Malfoy on the back, offering some sort of assurance, or congratulations, Harry couldn’t tell.

“Harry,” she called, “I know you hate Malfoy, but it’s not worth it. They’ll capture his father, you’ll see. It’s unbelievable that the Prophet doesn’t know that Lucius is Voldemort’s right hand man.”

“He may have slipped through this time, mate,” Ron chimed in. “But, you can bet he’s running hard now. He’ll be living like a wild animal, which for a Malfoy is pretty much normal, I guess.”

“Yeah,” Harry answered weakly, “I guess.” Neither Professor McGonagall, nor Tonks were at the head table.

“Well, they got one of the bastards!” Anthony Goldstein yelled out from the Ravenclaw table. “They’ll catch the other snake soon enough!”

“Oh, no,” Hermione murmured. “He’s going to try and provoke them.” Malfoy remained seated, but the Slytherins around him instantly rose to their feet scraping the bench against the stone floor behind them. Immediately, the sound of benches scraping across the stone floor filled the Great Hall as the Ravenclaws stood in answer. Then, Great Hall fell silent.

“Goldstein!” Harry yelled, taking to his feet and walking toward the Ravenclaw table. In the eerie silence his voice seemed to echo off the stone walls and all eyes turned to him. “Who’s your money on this week? Hufflepuff or Slytherin?” The two teams were scheduled to play the following weekend and already banners had been going up around the school. With Goyle off the Slytherin team, Hufflepuff was the heavy favorite to win. Anthony looked at Harry with a puzzled expression. “As for me,” Harry continued with a smooth, but loud voice, “my money’s on Slytherin.” There were some murmurs from around the hall and some outright snickers from Hufflepuff. The smattering of laughter seemed to spread out across the Great Hall in a wave and soon many, other than those at the Slytherin table, were laughing. The tension that was in the air evaporated into nothingness, but Goldstein stood defiantly.

“I have two-hundred galleons,” Harry pressed on, now standing nose-to-nose with Anthony, “that say Slytherin wins Saturday.” There was a collective gasp, and the murmuring began in earnest.

“Harry!” Hermione called out, but he ignored her.

“That assumes, of course,” Harry continued, “Slytherin’s starting team actually plays on Saturday.” Harry wore a bright, broad smile, but his eyes were cold as they held Goldstein’s in their gaze. Then Harry looked up and down at the Ravenclaws still standing before him. “Surely, there are enough Ravenclaws standing here to take the bet?”

For the smallest of moments the room was quiet, waiting for Anthony’s reply. But he made none. Then someone from the Hufflepuff table started with “Take the bet.” Soon it was repeated and a low rumbling chant began. “Take the bet. Take the bet. Take the bet.” Finally, Goldstein could bear it no longer.

“You’re on Potter!” he yelled, and the Great Hall erupted in cheers. All except for the six Ravenclaws standing, who now looked at Goldstein as if he were insane. Everyone sat back down except for Harry, who walked over to where Malfoy was seated eating nothing more than a green salad.

“Do you think you can keep from falling off your broom, Malfoy?” he sneered in his nastiest of voices.

“We don’t need you to fight our battles for us, Potter,” Malfoy snapped back.

“I’m looking to make money, Malfoy,” Harry replied shrewdly. “After the match, they can stomp you all to smithereens for all I care.” Standing there in the light of day, he noticed that the scar on Malfoy’s face had indeed faded from the day before. “It’s all about catching your prey, Malfoy, and all you need to do is… catch the Snitch.”

“Yeah, you did a great job of that last match, Potter,” Crabbe chortled. Harry took a quick step forward and Crabbe recoiled.

“Pathetic,” Harry whispered.

When Harry sat down at the Gryffindor table, Ron was the first to be critical.

“You just blew two-hundred galleons, you do know that don’t you?”

“There’s hope,” Harry said weakly.

“Are you kidding?” Ron called back leaning forward on the bench. “They lost two Chasers, Warrington and Montague to graduation and their best Beater plays for Gryffindor. I’ve been listening to their new captain, Sykes, and his strategy’s out of the stone age.” He sat back down shaking his head. “Two-hundred galleons.”

“The point is Ron,” said Hermione while looking around the Great Hall, “everyone’s just eating their lunch. Five minutes ago, the hall was about to erupt with wands again. But, look now. No one’s fighting or shooting off their wand, are they?” She turned to Harry. “Well spent, I say.”

“I can’t buy peace forever, Hermione,” Harry answered, spearing a potato with his fork. “It’s a festering wound just beneath the surface, ever ready to rise up and pop.” The potato shot into his mouth. “If we can’t bring the houses together in some meaningful way…” he shook his head and speared another potato.

At the Slytherin table on the far end of the hall, Malfoy sat erect and ate his salad, slowly slicing a tomato and placing it in his mouth with his fork. His eyes looked up at Harry and, for just a moment, the two spoke silently across the room. Malfoy reached for a cruet of oil and vinegar, held it up in a hidden toast to Harry, shook it violently, and slowly poured it across his lettuce leaves. Setting the mixture down on the table, Malfoy speared a purple leaf and thrust it in his mouth. Harry lifted his own glass from the table and while no one was watching tilted it in Malfoy’s direction.

“Oil and water,” he whispered. “Oil and water.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 37 - Diversity of Strength
~~~***~~~


The moon was full and so bright in the sky that observing gaseous clusters, even with magical telescopes, was impossible. Professor Sinistra had opted, instead, to lecture to the class for most of the lesson and as the evening was coming to an end she turned philosophical, speaking poetically about the intricacies and precision of the universe. She compared the creation to the cogs, gears, and springs of a giant watch that had been set in motion billions of years earlier. “Each small part in the mechanism has its place!” she declared emphatically, but Dean Thomas couldn’t help but snicker.

“I think someone’s forgotten to wind it lately,” he jabbed, and the class laughed. But Professor Sinistra, sitting at her desk in dark, satin-blue robes was unperturbed.

“Precisely, Mr. Thomas!” she exclaimed to everyone’s surprise. “The energy of the mechanism has failed. The harmony with which it operates is in discord. The gears now begin to slow and the rhythm of each tick becomes more lethargic. Where once was vitality, darkness rushes to fill the void, spreading despair across the land.” She closed her text and stood from her desk. “And where does the energy necessary to operate this grand design come from?” she asked the class.

“The stars?” Parvati asked, and Professor Sinistra smiled slyly.

“The Centaurs believe so, and you would think that, as a student in astronomy class, we should first look outward. But…” she waited.

“Inward,” Dean answered, almost pensively.

“Yes, Mr. Thomas?” Professor Sinistra queried. “How do you mean?”

“It’s the energy within each of us,” he replied, almost questioningly.

“Deeper,” she said slowly, walking out onto the parapet, the moon shimmering off her robes. “You are each so similar to the Muggles we live with on this planet and yet you each have an ability to tap into something that Muggles cannot.” She walked back in towards Dean. “It is arrogance to believe that the power is inside here.” She tapped Dean’s head with her wand. “And it is such arrogance that promises to doom those who would practice the Dark Arts. True energy… pure energy resides not within us, but rather around us all. It is the link that binds us to each other and the world we live in, and when we come to hate the world and its creatures, to hate each other, the energy that holds all living things together begins to fade. Without that energy, we grow weak.” At these words, Professor Sinistra’s voice seemed to crack.

“I’ve kept you far too long with my ramblings,” she said after taking a deep breath. “I still expect two scrolls on the moons of Jupiter by next week and extra credit for how we might determine the number of planets in a cluster. Class dismissed.” She strode over to her desk and sat back down, looking out across the open parapet, the moon’s glow turning her face white. Harry picked up his pack and walked over to her.

“Professor,” he started, interrupting some thought she was holding in her mind, “how is Professor Dumbledore?” Again, she let out a deep sigh. Everyone in the class had left, leaving the two alone.

“Harry,” she said softly, “it is time you knew.” She straightened in her chair, but was struggling to meet Harry’s eyes with her own. Finally, she looked up and began, “Professor Dumbledore is--”

Suddenly, the earth began to rumble as an earthquake shook the grounds. The castle walls began to pitch violently, candles fell from the chandeliers and portraits fell from the walls. Students exiting the tower began to scream as they tumbled down step after step.

“Is it an attack?” Harry yelled above the rumble, as he tried to reach for his wand. But, as quickly as it began, it stopped. The only sound was the scattering of dust and pebbles as they slid down the outside of the castle walls toward the grounds, and the rustle of leafless branches in the night’s breeze. Professor Sinistra was clearly agitated.

“No, Mr. Potter, everything is fine,” she snapped as she reached for her cloak and strode out of the classroom. “It is not an attack… yet!” she yelled, brandishing her wand and disappearing out the door.

It took Harry a moment to find his bearings. Alone in the darkened classroom, he walked out onto the parapet and looked across the grounds. The moon shimmered brightly off the Whomping Willow, but Harry saw nothing out of the ordinary. He began to turn when the corner of his eye saw movement. Towards Hagrid’s cabin he could make out the back end of Firenze and, as he strained his ears, he could make out hushed whispers. It sounded like Hagrid, but Harry couldn’t be sure. Pounding his hoof, Firenze seemed to be cross. Harry strained to hear, but unable to make out the conversation he left.

As he walked back to the common room, he heard many students talk about the earthquake, but, oddly, the professors he passed seemed not to care. Only Professor Flitwick seemed rather irritated as he raced down the corridor wearing an expression much the same as Professor Sinistra. Passing through the portrait of the Fat Lady, the Gryffindor common room was abuzz with activity, everyone talking about what had just happened. Most were retelling what they saw fall from the walls or ceiling. Ron was sharing his near death experience from almost being hit by the falling portrait of Sir Cadogon the Knight.

Halfway through Ron’s story, which included some rather choice words from Sir Cadogon, Harry decided he had heard enough. Smiling to himself, he slipped his pack from off his shoulder and started for the boys’ dormitory. As he walked passed a large standing lamp, Ginny saw him and her eyes lit up.

“Harry!” she cried out. “Thank goodness you’re safe. I was so worried.” She reached over and gave him a light hug. No sooner had her arms wrapped around Harry, than Dean appeared stepping down the stairs from the dormitory above. “I thought maybe, Voldemort… maybe he’d come.” Ginny’s eyes flickered with fear and Harry took her hand in his.

“Not at Hogwarts, Ginny,” Harry replied with a warm smile. “He won’t be coming here, I promise. You’ll see; we’ll take the battle to old snakeface.” Dean stepped down and strode over to the two and pulled Ginny’s hand out of Harry’s.

“The only battle you need to worry about, Potter,” Dean snapped coolly, “is with me!”

“Dean,” Ginny exclaimed, “it’s not what you think!”

“It never is… is it Gin?” Dean snapped back. “But he’s always sliming around trying to get his hands on you.” At this point, a good portion of the common room had turned to see what was going on. At first Harry felt apologetic and wanted to explain that nothing was going on, but then some sense of resentment, or jealousy began to grow like wildfire inside, and he found himself flashing to anger, and then inexplicably to hatred.

“And what,” Harry said, stepping forward and putting his face directly in front of Dean’s, “do you intend to do about it, Thomas?” The ‘T’ splattered Dean’s face with phlegm.

“Harry,” Ginny pleaded, but he was ignoring her now. His mind was burning with pure hatred toward the adversary in front of him. But Dean refused to back down, and drew closer to Harry, their noses nearly touching.

“Draw your wand,” Dean sneered in a whisper.

“I already have,” Harry whispered back, placing his right hand on Dean’s chest. He leaned forward to Dean’s left ear and whispered again, “Adficio Cruris!” Instantly, Dean’s legs turned to jelly and he fell to the floor. Dean, stumbling around, tried to reach for his wand, but kept losing his balance. The common room erupted in laughter, but Harry wasn’t smiling. When Dean finally had his hands on his wand, Harry had his own pointed in Dean’s face.

“Please, Dean,” Harry said loud enough for all to hear. “You’ve made such an ass of yourself already, perhaps I should turn you into one.” Word had already passed around that Harry had turned Goyle into a frog, and for a moment Dean thought Harry actually might do it. His eyes grew large; he dropped his wand to the floor and started to use his hands to push himself backwards away from Harry, who followed him with his wand pointed directly at his face. When Dean’s back ran up against the wall, he began to tremble.

“Turn him into an ass, Harry!” someone yelled from across the room. But the idea of turning Dean into an ass had past. No, Harry, or some dark part of Harry, had already decided -- Dean must die. It was the only way to truly protect Ginny. Slowly and deliberately he raised his wand.

“Harry, please stop!” Ginny yelled, and the words stayed Harry’s hand. Seeing his dorm-mate at his feet wriggling with fear, he suddenly felt the anger ebb away as if a cool breeze had just passed through an open window and woken him from a strange dream.

“Deletrius!” Harry called out, removing the Jelly-Leg Jinx. He wanted to say he was sorry and reach out to Dean, but the look of fright he saw staring back at him pushed him away. He turned to see smiles around the room except for Ginny; she looked as if she didn’t recognize him. He went over, picked his pack off the floor, and strode up the stairs, two steps at a time.

In the dormitory, Goyle was in bed reading by candlelight. Harry sat on his own bed and found himself trembling. He held his hands out and realized that the scar on his arm had appeared again, the familiar ache was marching its way up toward his neck.

“What was Dean yelling about?” Goyle asked calmly as he turned a page on the book he was reading. Harry remained silent. “Don’t tell me you had your hands on Ginny again,” Goyle said, placing the book down and rubbing his eyes. Harry again said nothing, but he looked up at Goyle and his own eyes answered. “You do know, Harry, that Dean’s tremendously insecure where Ginny and you are concerned. He was just talking to me about it. He knows she had a crush on you and now all he can think about is that he’ll lose her to you.” Goyle sat upright. “You’re quite the playboy, Harry: private flying lessons for Cho, extravagant diamonds for Hermione, and a secret rendezvous in the owlery with Ginny. The last thing he needs is to see you two touching. Which, I might add, you seem to do a lot.” Goyle picked his book back up and leaned against his pillow. For a second, all was silent and then Harry took to his feet.

“I do not touch her!” he snapped. Goyle only raised his eyebrows and returned to his book. “I mean, we’re friends… that’s all.” Harry began to pace. “She’s my friend and friends help each other out, right?” Harry was looking for affirmation, but Goyle was silent. “You wouldn’t understand; it’s complicated.”

“I wouldn’t?” Goyle asked sarcastically, not looking up from his book. Harry paused, and then strode over to Goyle. He grabbed his book and threw it to the ground.

“No! No you wouldn’t!” Harry yelled. “She was possessed by Voldemort. Do you know what that’s like, Greg? Do you? Do you know what it’s like to lose control of yourself and have an appetite for pure evil coursing through your very being? Do you know what it’s like thirsting to see people tortured, their minds ruined, and then put to death -- IF-THEY’RE-LUCKY?” Goyle’s eyes began to widen and the colour began to leave his face, but Harry wouldn’t relent. It was bursting forth from him now and Goyle, alone with Harry in the boys’ dormitory, would hear it all.

“Do you understand what it means to lose control of your mind, your soul, and to wish for your own death just to make the pain of his presence end?” Harry leaned in to Goyle, who was now, much as Dean had done earlier, pulling himself away from Harry.

“Ginny knows!” Harry fired. He walked back to his own bed and his shoulders slumped. “Ginny understands,” he whispered, and sat back down and rubbed his forehead. “It’s a scar we both share and if Dean can’t handle it, too damn bad!” Harry tossed himself back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. After a moment of silence, Goyle gathered himself together and got out of bed to retrieve his book.

“Potter!” Dean’s voice rang out as his footsteps could be heard ascending the staircase. He entered the dormitory with his wand drawn, but the instant he stepped toward Harry’s bed, Goyle grabbed him by the front of his shirt and lifted him against the wall.

“Not in here, Thomas,” he said sternly, “and not tonight; put it away.” Slowly, Dean slid his wand back into his jeans and as he did so, Goyle slid him down the wall to set him on his feet. Still holding Dean by the front of his shirt, Goyle continued, “Harry’s writing a letter to his girlfriend, who, you should know, isn’t Ginny Weasley. When are you going to get it through your skull that they’re just friends? Everybody can see that, except you.” Goyle released Dean’s shirt and took a half step back. “Why don’t you go downstairs and come back when you’re head is on straight?” Dean tried to look over Goyle’s broad shoulders to see what Harry was really doing. “Take her down to the kitchens for some treacle tarts; you know they’re her favorite.” Dean, unable to see past Goyle, turned and went back downstairs without saying a word.

“Thanks,” Harry said, still looking at the ceiling. Goyle looked down the staircase then turned and leaned against the wall.

“Harry… I’ve seen the fear he burned into my dad’s eyes,” Goyle answered in a small voice. “I guess I never thought… I never knew he… I’m sorry.” Without saying anything more, Goyle went back over to his bed and began reading again. Taking Goyle’s lead, Harry rolled over and grabbed his pack hoping that homework might take his mind off the remnants of anger still roiling inside him, but looking at star charts didn’t help. He tossed them to the floor and walked over to his desk.

“It’s time for another meeting, I think,” he said out loud with a bit of excitement in his voice. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a golden coin. After a few adjustments, he slid it back into the drawer. “There,” he said with satisfaction as he fell back onto his bed. Let’s see what sort of showing we get now we know the Dark Lord’s out to snatch Hogwarts students.” He slipped off his glasses and into bed, but his eyes remained open for most of the night.

The next evening, Harry arrived early to the Room of Requirement just to ensure nothing had changed. It was exactly as he had hoped, with one noted exception. Already in the room browsing the bookshelves was Tonks. She was bent low looking at the bottom row of texts and when she saw Harry she flashed him a smile and stood, slowly stretching her back and holding her sides with her hands. She had been moving around in class without any noticeable difficulty, but her face seemed more tired than Harry had ever seen it before. This evening, she wore dark robes and short black hair that spiked up and her skin glowed pale, almost ghostlike.

“Hi, Harry,” she said stretching her spine from side to side. “Still a bit stiff, but getting better,” she answered anticipating Harry’s question. “I was hoping you’d get here a bit early; I wanted to talk to you alone.” For an instant, Harry’s heart skipped. But his mind turned it toward Neville and the need to find his friend came to the fore.

“Hermione and I were talking at lunch,” Harry said eagerly. “We were thinking they might be hold up at the old Riddle house. Maybe you could--”

“We’ve been watching that dilapidated property and the surrounding farmland for months, Harry. It was the first place I suggested we look.” Tonks walked over to Harry and held his hand as they stood together among the stacks of books. Her touch again quickened Harry’s heart, but he didn’t know why. “I wanted to talk about you, Harry,” she said softly. “You seem distracted in class… more than usual,” she said gently. “Do you want to tell me what’s going on?”

Harry’s heart began to race and he could feel his pulse pounding in his ears. He unexpectedly felt very warm and he was sure she’d notice. His thoughts were swiftly swirling. She seemed, somehow, more beautiful tonight, more fragile, more desirable. Harry hesitated at first and then he felt compelled to tell her all he had kept secret these past few months. He’d been aching to confide in someone who would truly understand, and he somehow knew she would.

“Tonks,” he started, “you should know that--” A flash of pain streaked up his right arm, and his face winced. He knew the scar which was absent at breakfast had returned, only this time the pain seemed to drive a dart through his skull. Harry staggered backwards feeling as if he were under attack.

“Harry, what is it?” Tonks asked reaching her hand to his arm. But, Harry instinctively pulled his arm away, backing further. He reached up, took his glasses off, and rubbed his face with his hand. The pain began to recede just as the door to the room opened and in walked a number of students from Ravenclaw including Luna, Cho and Anthony. Anthony had his hand on Cho’s arm as they stepped through the door, and seeing the two together Harry felt a faint pang of jealousy.

“I’m fine, Tonks, really. Er, thanks,” he said over his shoulder, and he started over to talk to Cho, but Luna cut him off.

“Hi, Harry!” she called with an exceptionally loud voice. She was only a few feet from Harry and continued to scream out. “What’s the plan for tonight!”

“Why are you yelling, Luna?” Harry asked, his eyes on Anthony and Cho as they walked over to speak with Tonks.

“Clearing out the Fenticulitis!” she continued to yell. “Dad says to clear them out once a month, or they’ll become unmanageable!”

“Clearing what?” Harry found himself yelling back for no reason.

“Excellent, Harry! Exactly!” Luna screamed as the door opened and more students began to flood in. Harry shook his head and smiled. Luna was an extraordinarily different person, but then, who at Hogwarts wasn’t? They were each unique in their own way and as he watched more students pass through the door he realized that it was their differences that would make them strong. Voldemort demanded conformity to his will and, for the first time, Harry saw a weakness he could exploit and a strength he could develop. He weaved his way to the center of the open chamber and began the meeting.

“Today,” he called out, “I want everyone to concentrate on the one thing they’re really good at. Concentrate on turning your greatest strength to its greatest benefit. Pair up, one-on-one, or in groups and come up with your own ways to put your strengths to use.” Everyone began to murmur, but nobody seemed to move. Finally, Tonks called out.

“Goyle!” she hailed, pointing her wand at the largest student in the group. “Your stunner is the most powerful in this whole room, but you’re lucky to hit the side of a barn. Go over to the forest and have a large group come at you. Rather than attack them one-by-one, see if you can stop them all in one go!” Then she turned to Ron. “Mr. Weasley! You seem to have a knack for anticipating your opponent’s next move. Take two groups to the town and help defend your group as they’re attacked by the other group in door-to-door combat.”

“If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas,” Harry added, “Tonks and I will be walking around to help.” But, before long, Dumbledore’s Army was running on autopilot. They were using the entire room for the first time and while they were working hard there were also a lot of smiles. By the end of the meeting, everyone was talking about how it was their best practice ever. Tonks left early with Madame Guérir whispering to Harry that they needed to talk more later. Ron and Hermione stayed after to help finish cleaning up.

“That was a blast, mate,” Ron said, flying cushions back against the far wall.

“Absolutely! A great idea tonight, Harry,” Hermione commended. “I think it’s the first time everyone seemed to be performing as one.”

“And they were all doing something different,” said Harry, happy it had worked. He reached down, picked up a book, and slid it into the lower shelf; his mind turned to earlier in the evening. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” Hermione replied.

Harry told the two of them about what had happened with Tonks and how he had reacted. “I don’t know why I reacted that way. But…” he hesitated. “It wouldn’t be the first Defense Against the Dark Arts professor that turned sour.”

“Hey, mate,” Ron grinned. “If she held my hand that way, I’d turn three shades of red too. She was looking pretty hot tonight if you ask me.”

“Nobody’s asking you,” Hermione shot with a steely glance and Ron found he didn’t need to hold Tonks’ hand to turn a deep shade of red. Then she turned to Harry and said softly, “You’re over-thinking, is all, Harry. Tonks just wants to help; she’s always had a soft spot for you.” Hermione looked at Ron. “But not in that way.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Harry answered, and the three left the Room of Requirement not speaking of it further.

Chatting about the meeting they made their way back to the Gryffindor common room, but the mood was instantly spoiled when their paths crossed Draco Malfoy. He was seated lengthwise on a bench, his boots up on the cushions, and his back against a pillar. He was reading a scroll of some sort and he raised his eyes for only a moment to look at the trio and then continued reading. Hermione grabbed Ron’s shirt and tried to keep him moving, but he couldn’t remain silent.

“Spying again, Malfoy,” Ron sneered stepping toward the bench. “Are you worried? We’re getting more Slytherins to join every meeting and your watching in the outer corridor isn’t going to stop that.”

“Just reading a letter from home, Weasles,” Malfoy drawled. “It appears that the Ministry’s growing concerned about that tottering old fool of a Headmaster. If he isn’t better by next term, it looks like they’re going to replace him.”

“What?” Hermione exclaimed. “They wouldn’t dare.”

“Oh, but they would,” Malfoy sneered with a twisted smile, turning to sit straight on the bench. “Not that a mudblood would understand the ways of true wizards.” Hearing the words, Ron pulled his wand.

“No!” Harry yelled, stopping him. “Let me!” And Harry pulled his own wand.

“Three on one,” Malfoy drawled again, “just your kind of odds, Potter.”

“Let’s take it outside, then,” Harry challenged with contempt in his voice. “Alone.”

“Harry, no,” said Hermione, reaching for his arm. “You know you shouldn’t be out at--”

“Afraid of the dark!” Malfoy laughed, and Hermione realized she had said the wrong thing.

“You two can go,” Harry said sternly. “This is between Malfoy and me. It’s time we finally settle this.” The blonde stood to his feet and with one hand pulled his wand, while the other hand stroked the scar on his face. Hermione looked at Harry and then to Ron.

“Let’s go,” she whispered.

“But--” Ron began.

“Let’s go!” she repeated, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him down the corridor.

“The side door’s this way, Draco.” Harry said quietly, still holding his wand in hand. The two didn’t speak until they had made their way out onto the castle grounds. The air was cold, and the night sky dark and starless. The two stood under a torch at the castle’s side entrance, each chilled, and then Malfoy slipped his wand back into his robes.

“Well, Potter,” he began, “is it time to shake things up a bit?” Harry was silent, but slowly, with trepidation, he nodded. Malfoy smiled like a child at Christmas. “I believe we agreed… you owe me a sign of your own,” he challenged. “The earring… is it from Chang? Granger?” Harry held his hand to the silver dangling from his ear. He was not ready to reveal Gabriella to Malfoy, not yet, perhaps not ever.

“Something better, I think,” Harry said quietly. Malfoy looked intrigued and stepped closer.

“Well?” he asked with anticipation. Harry reached down and pulled up the sleeve of his robes. The constant throbbing of his right arm all through the DA meeting had been calling to him, reminding him that the scar was still there and now, even by torchlight, the sword and the snake were clearly visible, raised and red against Harry’s forearm.

“We share something more than a common hatred of Voldemort,” Harry whispered. Malfoy reached forward and took Harry by the arm, looking at the scar intently.

“You did this to yourself?” Malfoy asked in disbelief. “And then to me? Why?”

“I wanted you to understand what it means to be different, Draco. What it means to be stared at… an outcast of your own people. You search for ways to belittle any who don’t match your perfect world.”

“Perfect world?” Malfoy howled. “Potter, you know nothing of what it means to be truly different. Scars bring stares and silent whispers, but still the Slytherins gather to my side and the Gryffindors gather at yours. Only someone like your pal Lupin understands what it means to be reviled for what you truly are.” He squeezed and his fingers dug into Harry’s forearm. “You… you have no hope of understanding what it means to be… that I’m--” he stopped, watching the scar on Harry’s arm slowly fade before his eyes.

“What trickery are you trying to pull, Potter!” he spat, thrusting the arm back at his nemesis. Harry raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders almost apologetically.

“Mine fades,” he said without blinking at Malfoy and rubbing his arm. But Malfoy’s eyes were disbelieving. “I swear!” Still, Malfoy was having none of it. Harry searched his mind for another demonstration and then he grinned to himself. “Truly different, Draco?” asked Harry as he reached over and picked a hair off of Malfoy’s shirt. “The trips to Hogsmeade… it’s not Polyjuice potion.” Stepping from torchlight into the darkness, Harry transformed into the very likeness of Draco Malfoy, who stood dumbstruck staring at his own face.

“A Metamorphmagus!” he breathed. “It can’t be.” For a moment, Malfoy stood motionless and then, slowly, he put his hand to the scar now on Harry’s face and traced it with his fingers; Harry didn’t move. “So this is what it looks like,” Malfoy whispered. His touch was soft, but his fingers cold as they ran their way down the shape of the sword hanging from Harry’s left eye. Harry stood in silence as he looked back into Malfoy’s stunned face. “Does it burn?” Malfoy asked, already knowing the answer.

“When it flares onto my arm it does,” Harry drawled and hearing his own voice, Malfoy stepped back. Then, unexpectedly, his steel eyes smiled.

“In class… your red eyes… of course,” he whispered. Malfoy held Harry by the arm. “We can use this, Harry. Yes, we can use this. Who else knows?”

“Tonks,” Harry said in a distorted voice as he transformed back; the name bothered Malfoy. “Tonks and…” he hesitated. Malfoy rolled his eyes.

“Don’t tell me… Weasles,” he groaned. “What you see in that--”

“Loyalty,” Harry cut in, “and friendship. Don’t forget, Draco, I’ve been you. Tell me who you have to compare, because I haven’t seen them.”

“Bl-… nobody,” Malfoy said flatly, and then he leaned in close. “You say you’ve been me. That’s only partly true. You’ve been the part of me that everybody sees. Tell me, Harry, when you walk into a crowded store, what happens?” Without waiting for an answer, Malfoy answered himself. “The crowd splits apart, that’s what happens. That’s called respect, Harry, and I’ll take that over friendship any day.”

“Fear is what it is, Draco, and when your father’s back in jail and Voldemort’s destroyed who then will they fear? Who then will they… respect?” Without hesitating, Malfoy answered.

“The two Hogwarts students that vanquished the Great Lord Voldemort, Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter,” breathed the blonde in a cold voice. “Malfoy and Potter.” The words sent shivers down Harry’s spine, shivers that remained with him as he tried to clear his mind that night before falling asleep.

He remembered his first trip to Diagon Alley, passing through the Leaky Cauldron. “Bless my soul. Harry Potter… what an honor,” they said. “So proud, Mr. Potter, I’m just so proud,” they praised, bowing their heads in deference. How much lower would they bow knowing he had defeated the Dark Lord again? Only now, he would soon be of age and possibly capable of destroying any who would oppose him. At least, that’s if he lived. Harry’s heart quickened, as his mind began to slip into a fog.

“Come again, Mr. Potter, come again,” the clerk said, bowing low to the ground as Harry gathered his goods. “It was certainly my pleasure.” Harry turned to leave the crowded store and as he did so the sea of people parted to let him pass. A small child ran to take his hand in gratitude, but Harry shoved him aside.

“Kindness is a weakness,” he thought. “Draco taught me that.” He strode forward and pushed open the shop door, but instead of emerging out into the street, he walked onto a patch of green grass. At his feet, flowed the water of a small stream that wound its way around a hill and Harry, borne by an urge he did not understand, began to follow it. The air was cool and the day bright, but the shade of the surrounding trees cast a dim filter over all he saw. His pace was quick and his breath billowed from his mouth in large plumes. Unexpectedly, he came to an immense cropping of stone blocks, which seemed unnatural, almost hewn, into which the stream plunged and disappeared. A voice, ancient and wise, began to grow, emanating from the stones or perhaps his own mind, until it erupted with an unexpected power.

“No!” Harry yelled. “It is NOT a weakness!” His words disappeared into the stillness of the surrounding trees. He fell to his knees watching the cool clear water flow by. “What have I done?” he whispered. “What evil has taken me?” And, without reason, Harry reached down to splash his face with the water that passed into nothingness. Instantly, the crack into which the water disappeared grew to the size of a large crevasse. He lost his balance and began to fall into the gaping fissure.

With a start, he woke and found himself drenched in sweat on the floor next to the bed. The room was cool, dark, and quiet; the side of his head ached from hitting something hard on the way down. His dorm-mates made no sound, oblivious, Harry thought thankfully, to his nightmare. “But, what was the nightmare?” he wondered, as he crawled back into bed.

“This isn’t the way,” he whispered, as his damp body began to shiver again in the cool air. “This can’t be the way.”

“It’s the only way,” a cold voice whispered in his ear. “The only way.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 38 - And Then There Were Two
~~~***~~~


“Come on, Hermione!” Ron yelled, adjusting his jacket and heading through the portrait of the Fat Lady with Harry. “We’ll miss the opening toss!”

The day of Hufflepuff’s match with Slytherin had arrived and Gryffindor Tower was already emptied; everyone had left to watch the two houses face-off. A day of Quidditch always offered a welcome diversion from day-to-day studies, but this afternoon’s match was imbued with added excitement: Harry’s two-hundred galleon challenge with the Ravenclaws that Slytherin would win. Harry had sent post to Remus asking if he would bring the gold and Remus, who had been looking for a reason to visit, agreed. He found Harry in the Great Hall just after breakfast and, as others watched, dropped the heavy purple pouch into Harry’s hand.

“A pretty hefty price just to stop a food fight,” Remus said sternly. Harry simply shrugged his shoulders. Remus mustered a grin, but there was worry on his brow. “I must see the Headmaster, Harry. I’ll meet you after the match; maybe we can get a bite to eat in Hogsmeade. I don’t think he’ll mind.” For a moment, a flash of sadness seeped into Remus’ eyes, but it evaporated into a hopeful smile.

“I’d like that,” said Harry, smiling back. He watched as Remus left the Great Hall and he wondered what his father’s friend would find after he ascended the circular staircase.

Now, following Ron through the portrait of the Fat Lady, a purple pouch hanging from his side, Harry’s mind was consumed with the fact that they were late for the match.

“Come on, Hermione!” Harry called out, echoing Ron’s summons.

Since breakfast, she had been very quiet, even more disinterested in conversations of Quidditch than normal. Now she stood in the center of the common room, looking almost embarrassed.

“Hermione!” Ron pleaded.

“She’s not coming,” Harry said in a soft voice to Ron. Then turning to Hermione, he asked, “Why?” For a moment she could not look their way, and bit at her nail.

“I’ve got some extra homework to do and…”

“Homework!” Ron erupted. “Harry’s about to lose two-hundred galleons and you have homework to do?” He started to step forward, but Harry held him back. He’d seen the look in her face too many times not to recognize it… she was hiding something again. Ron was just too polite to read her mind.

“Come on, Ron,” he said. “She’s up to something and we’re not in on it.” For a moment Ron looked back, then shrugged his shoulders and turned to walk away.

“I’m not saving you a seat!” he called back and then softer, “Not that we’ll be able to find any ourselves.”

The game was underway by the time Harry and Ron arrived on the pitch. Hufflepuff was up sixty-to-twenty, and Ron yelped with a cheer as he saw the score, but quickly checked his enthusiasm.

“I mean, hoorah, good to see Slytherin’s not down too far, eh mate?”

“I know you want Hufflepuff to win, Ron,” said Harry. “It doesn’t matter to me.” But inside, it did matter. He searched the sky for Malfoy and found him far over on the south end of the pitch. Malfoy was flying much higher than the Hufflepuff Seeker, Summerby, too high Harry thought, should the Snitch appear near the field. The thought of a low flying Snitch caused Harry to search himself near the frozen turf, but he saw nothing. What did catch his eye was a large, unwieldy green serpent in the Ravenclaw stands on the other side of the pitch. Luna and Marietta seemed to be trying to get it to breathe fire, but it was only able to manage a few feeble sparks. Once again, Luna had brought a smile to Harry’s face.

“Come on, Harry,” Ron called out. “There are two spots over here.” For a second, Harry hesitated. The open seats were next to Dean and Ginny who were both looking to the sky above. But there were no other openings, so, reluctantly, Harry followed Ron and made sure the redhead sat between he and Dean. Ron pointed to Sykes, the Slytherin Captain. “Look at that idiot! He’s flying way too…” The crowd cut him off with a groan. Crabbe had just bashed a Bludger straight into Zacharias Smith, who plummeted to the ground. “Hufflepuff doesn’t have another Chaser!” Ron yelled with worried excitement.

Indeed, Smith had been carrying the Quaffle, which was scooped up by Slytherin’s Pucey who scored an instant later. Still, even a Chaser down, Hufflepuff continued to pull away as the afternoon wore on. Both Harry and Ron had expected Slytherin to start their more underhanded tactics as the score started to slip away, but instead they seemed to play with more speed than brawn. Ron turned to Goyle who was seated only a few feet away. “They’re trying to fly faster. Where, I wonder, did they get that idea?” Goyle just looked at Ron with a smile and shrugged his shoulders innocently.

The tactic seemed to work. Hufflepuff had been playing mostly a defensive flying strategy all day, anticipating Slytherin’s attacks. When they didn’t happen, the team started to become confused. Instead of crashing at the Hufflepuff Chasers, Slytherin was picking at the Chasers with the Quaffle and by mid-afternoon the tide began to turn. It was the longest game Harry had ever seen at Hogwarts. Malfoy and Summerby continued to scour the field for the Snitch and when they passed by the Gryffindor seats, the frustration on their faces was evident. Harry, however, began to notice that Summerby was growing tired. The last few times he flew by he would glance at the crowd, almost looking for something to do other than hunt for the Snitch. Malfoy, to the contrary, remained steely-eyed, searching for the Snitch and oblivious to everything around him. So much so, in fact, that a Bludger nearly took him off his broom from behind, only Malfoy, at the last instant, ducked as the Bludger glanced over his head. “Curious,” Harry thought.

The air grew cool, as the sun began to set. Floating torches blazed around the pitch so that the players and the fans could all see. “I’m hungry,” Ron growled. “A man needs more to survive than hopping hot dogs. You’d think one of them would catch the bloody thing by now.” Slytherin had pulled close and were down only 360 to 400, but the players were clearly all exhausted.

Sykes was near the Gryffindor stands when he yelled at Crabbe. “I’m gonna call time-out!” A second later he started to fly toward Madame Hootch, positioned at the south-center of the field. No sooner had he started than there was a collective gasp, a shudder, and then a cheer.

“There it is!” someone yelled. Harry looked up to see everyone pointing to the other side of the field. The flash of gold instantly caught his eye. Low to the ground, only inches above the turf, the Snitch was hovering, almost daring the Seekers to catch it. Both Seekers darted for their target, but as they did so, the Snitch, zipped toward the south.

“It’s gone!” Ron cried out, almost in despair. But it hadn’t gone. Harry could see it flying faster than he’d ever seen it fly, only a few inches above the ground. Based on the wind, Malfoy had the better position, if only he saw. Summerby, who arrived at where the Snitch had been hovering just an instant before, turned to the crowd hoping to get a vector on where it had gone. Harry glanced at Summerby, and then back to Malfoy.

“Come on Draco,” he whispered under his breath. “See.” Malfoy was flying fast from the south end and, as the Snitch passed under his broom, he lowered his hand uncurling his fingers from the wrist. The movement was hardly noticeable and most eyes were on Summerby at the middle of the field. Madame Hooch blew the whistle.

“What?” Ron asked shooting his head back and forth. “What happened?”

“He caught it,” Harry shot out emphatically, pumping his fist. “Draco, caught the Snitch!”

“Draco?” Ron asked, looking at Harry. “But…” Ron looked up only to see Malfoy flying to the center of the field, holding the golden ball in his hands. “Merlin’s beard.” Malfoy was surrounded in a swirl of green, as cheers rang out all around the pitch. And then a chant began to start from the Slytherin stands.

“The Eagle bets against the snake;
The Lion now, their gold will take!”

The two verses started quietly, but then were picked up by all of Slytherin, and then Gryffindor. Soon Hufflepuff was chanting too. Harry tried to raise his arms to quiet the Gryffindor side, but it was hopeless, as the chant continued while the stands emptied.

“Let’s eat,” said Ron grinning, slapping Harry on the shoulder. “I knew it all the time, Slytherin was a shoe-in; let’s collect our money.”

“Our money?” Harry asked, but Ron simply smiled and started down the steps toward the castle. Harry began to follow when a hand grabbed his shoulder. Reaching for his wand, he spun only to find Remus Lupin looking back at him.

“Whoa!” said Remus, staring down the end of Harry’s wand. “Looks like someone’s gotten a bit jumpy since he left for school.” The green-eyed Gryffindor dropped his wand immediately and slipped it back into his cloak.

“Sorry, Remus,” he said looking around and hoping nobody had seen his silliness. “Things have been a little crazy around here.” They began to descend the steps together.

“Yes,” replied Remus, “I suspect it has.” His tone was soft and melancholy and Harry wondered what had caused the sadness that seemed to surround him. Harry deliberately slowed his pace to ensure the stands emptied before them and soon they found themselves alone, at the end of a long line heading back toward the castle.

“Sir, can we talk?” Harry asked, motioning toward a small alcove behind one of the stands.

“Sir?” Remus chided. “I thought we’d gotten past that, Harry, and I would hope by now you’d know we could always talk.” They moved toward the alcove and away from the crowd. “In fact,” Remus continued, “I’ve been rather disappointed… only two owls all term.” The tone in Remus’ voice reminded Harry a bit of Sirius’ and a pang of guilt tugged at Harry’s insides.

“I know,” Harry said in a small voice. “I just…” Harry slumped back against the stone wall draped with the crimson and gold tapestry of the Gryffindor stands. He couldn’t seem to find the words. For weeks he’d been trying to fight, or lead, or love, or… something. He had just won two-hundred galleons, but there was a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and whether it was because Dumbledore was ill, or because he’d made a pact with Draco, or because the voices had been entering his head again, he didn’t know. “I just…” but he lost the words, again.

Remus leaned against the wall with Harry, but said nothing. With their feet, they scraped at a frozen patch of snow as the evening’s darkness grew around them. The night was still and silent save for the crackle from the torches encircling the emptied pitch. Finally, Harry began to speak. At first it was a trickle, but soon everything gushed out in a fury. He told of the accident in Little Whinging, the stunning of the policeman, and the scar on his arm. He described how the house elves could see a mark or aura around him, but no one else could. He told him of his dreams, and his fears about Neville. The only thing he held hidden which he felt no one would understand was his pact with Malfoy. Throughout, Remus said nothing, he simply listened, and nodded. Harry finished and waited for the judgments or the exclamations. He was nervous of what Remus would think and he suddenly felt very cold. Remus stood and looked at Harry, putting his arm around his shoulder.

“I hated my sixth year,” he said in a whimsical voice. “Your father and Sirius seemed to be discovering new abilities each and every week. Some they liked and some they didn’t.” He smiled thinking back to his days at Hogwarts. “Just after Christmas holiday, Sirius developed a nasty flu and every time he sneezed, his nose would grow whiskers,” Remus laughed and so did Harry. “Your father developed a knack for enchanting objects. We all came up with the idea behind the Marauder’s Map, but it was your father who made it work. Sirius and I worked out some of the more comical bits.” Remus held his head high and sighed as the stars began to fleck the darkening sky. “I miss them.”

“They’d all still be here, if it weren’t for me,” Harry whispered to the darkness.

“Don’t say that!” snapped Remus. “Don’t ever say that! You meant more to your father and mother than you can possibly imagine.” He walked over behind the stands and looked back at the Forbidden Forest. “Before you, Harry, they…” he took a deep breath. “You completed them. Through you, they found love… true love.” He came over and held Harry by the shoulders. “The night you saved Peter, both Sirius and I saw the same compassion you brought to your mother and father at birth. It was as if you’d given the gift anew to two old men who had found nothing but hate in the world.”

Harry wasn’t quite sure what to say. He’d never spoken much about his parents with Remus. But now, it seemed that the time was right to ask the questions that had gnawed at him for so long and hear the answers that Remus had been waiting patiently to give. The moment the thought entered his mind, however, his forehead erupted in pain doubling him over to the ground.

“Your scar?” Remus asked coolly reaching down to help him up. Harry nodded when a large siren blared across the castle grounds -- three short bursts that nearly pierced the eardrums and then a voice that told Harry instantly trouble was at hand.

“All students are to return to their dormitories at once!” Professor McGonagall’s words rang out in every direction. Prefects are to ensure that all students are in their dormitories immediately.” Alone, and in the dark, both Harry and Remus pulled their wands to the ready.

“Come on, Harry,” Remus said, looking in every direction. “I’ll walk you back.” Cautiously, the two made their way to the castle without incident. Once inside, they found no professors and only a handful of students in the corridors, and those were running toward their dormitories. They made their way up the stone staircases, and as Remus was about to walk Harry into Gryffindor through the Fat Lady, Professor McGonagall emerged headed the other way. Her face was ashen, but when she saw Harry some of her burden was lifted.

“Bless Merlin,” she sighed, seeing the two wizards approach.

“What is it Minerva?” Remus asked. “How can I help?” Professor McGonagall cast a look over at Harry, and then spoke to Remus.

“Another student has been taken,” she sighed. “All the professors are out searching, but I fear we are too late. I thought, perhaps, you too, Harry,” her voice cracked and for the briefest moment Harry thought she was about to cry. But, in the next instant, the expression passed and her face was stern, her eyes determined. “Professor Tonks and Sinistra have gone to Hogsmeade in an effort to detect any unusual apparations and I’m sure they could use your help, Remus.”

“What about Albus? Surely…” started Remus. Harry caught the look Professor McGonagall had given to stop him short. “Of course. I’ll help anyway I can, Minerva. Harry, we’ll talk more soon. Please, stay in the castle.” The two professors began to hurry down the corridor, while Harry started for the portrait. Before he entered, however, he called back.

“Professor! Which student?”

“Luna Lovegood, I’m afraid. She was last seen with Marietta, trying to get that contraption of theirs to work behind the stands. Marietta’s lost her mind and Luna… well, Luna’s gone.” Professor McGonagall held her hand to her face, turned, and quickly paced down the corridor with Remus at her side.

When Harry entered the common room, he was stunned by its silence. Everyone seemed to be staring blankly at the walls. Hermione saw him and shrieked.

“HARRY! YOU’RE OKAY!” She squeezed him so hard he couldn’t breathe. “Luna’s gone missing and when they called everyone back and you weren’t here, we all thought…”

“I told her you were okay, mate,” Ron called out from across the room, but when Harry looked over, he could tell that some of the colour was still missing from his friend’s face. With Harry’s appearance, however, the conversation in the common room began to pick up. Soon, everyone was talking about Luna, but in the far corner of the room Hermione, Ron, and Harry huddled.

“Anthony found Marietta in one of the classrooms,” Hermione began. “She was just like Helen. Whoever took Luna is the same witch that took Neville.”

“Or wizard,” added Ron. Hermione looked at Ron to say something, but then stopped. “And he must be getting in during the Quidditch matches,” Ron asserted. “That’ll be it for open matches; that’s for sure.”

“Forget about open matches, Ron,” Harry said grimly. “With two students taken from Hogwarts, parents are going to start taking their kids back home.” Hermione’s face fell.

“Harry’s right, Ron. If we don’t find out who’s doing this, they might close the school. With the talk about Dumbledore dying, parents are going to lose trust that he can keep us safe.”

“He can’t,” Harry added. “I’ve killed him.” He stood to walk away from his friends, when Hermione took his hand.

“You haven’t killed anybody, Harry,” she scolded. “If he told you he was getting better, he is. You have to believe.”

“I have to find Neville and Luna,” Harry shot back. He held her hand in both of his and his features grew stern. “He wants me to find them, Hermione. I’m going to let him tell me where they are.” Harry let go and started towards the staircase to the boys’ dormitory.

“Harry, wait!” Hermione yelled, and with her words the common room fell silent.

“Wait?” Harry yelled back. “That’s all I’ve done since they killed Sirius! Wait at home, Harry! Wait in hiding, Harry! Wait at Hogwarts, Harry!” He started to climb the stairs. “He’s taken two students because of me… two of my friends. I’m through waiting!”

By the time Harry entered his dormitory, his blood was boiling. “Wait!” he hissed under his breath. “I’ll show them, wait.” He went to lay down on his bed with the full intention of calling out to the Dark Lord with his mind, but there was a hoot and Harry looked up to find Hedwig in her cage. On his bed, she had left a letter, a letter that could only be from Gabriella. He reached down, picked it up, and was about to toss it on his desk, when he caught the faint aroma of her perfume. It was as if an ocean wave crashed onto the fire burning in his blood extinguishing the flame and leaving only embers. He pulled the letter close and examined the writing as he sat down on his bed.

“Harry,” Ron panted as he climbed the stairs, “Harry, you can’t.” He entered their dormitory, only to find Harry reading a letter by candlelight. “You, er… you’ve got to stay, erm…” Harry looked up at him and smiled.

“Yes?” Harry asked. Ron’s eyes narrowed and he glanced to the open window. He walked over and shut it tight.

“You… You’re not flying out.” Ron said with determination. For an instant, Harry honestly didn’t know what Ron was talking about. Gabriella’s letter had taken him back to Little Whinging. It was filled with talk of his return for Christmas and mixed with a subtle sadness that Soseh was still not well. He set the letter down, took off his trainers, lay down on his bed, and began to read the letter again. He cast a glance at Ron who was still standing defiantly at the window.

“We’re always getting in the way of the Order’s business, Ron. I’m staying put, so you can sit back down.” He turned the paper over in his hand and then whispered to himself, “At least through Christmas,” he said and took in a deep whiff of air.

He lay there with the letter in his hands the rest of the night. He held it as Goyle stomped up declaring that he’d find the Death Eater sneaking onto the grounds. He held it as Dean slipped in, cast Harry a steely glance, and went to sleep in silence. He held it as Ron wearily swore he’d stay awake to watch him, only to begin snoring seconds later. He held it knowing his other dorm-mate would not be sleeping in his bed at Hogwarts this night. He held it as he thought of Luna and wondered if now, before Voldemort himself, she felt fear. He pulled the comforter up close, rolled over on his side, and with Gabriella’s letter in his hands, whispered, “I’m sorry,” and fell asleep.

All was dark as the smell of wet paint filled his nostrils. He heard the sound of steps ascending the stairs, the squeaking of floorboards outside the door, and whispers. They were arguing again. “Who would be brave enough to wake him?” he thought with satisfaction. There was a pause, the doorknob rattled, and slowly the door opened.

“Damn, Wythe, he’s sleeping,” someone whispered.

“I know that, Pendleton, you fool,” a voice hissed back. “He wanted the package to come directly to him. Wake him up.”

“YOU wake him up,” was the response, and Harry had to smile thinking of the cowards who would both be punished shortly. He had expressly forbidden his Death Eaters to use their names in front of others, even each other. That privilege was reserved for the Dark Lord alone. And then came an unexpected voice.

“So that’s Voldemort,” she said flatly. “He doesn’t look like much. Somehow I figured him much… bigger. My father always said that…”

Instantly, Harry rose to his feet, wand at the ready. There, in the doorway, was Luna Lovegood bookended by two Death Eaters in dark brown cloaks. “Luna!” he called out. The two Death Eaters looked up at him frightened and bewildered. Clearly, this was a side of their Dark Lord they had never seen before. Luna stared at his eyes with a quizzical expression. Rage began to fill him from within and his scar exploded in pain.

“Leave me!” Voldemort screamed in a high, cold voice. “I’ll summon you later.” The three stepped backward out the door, shutting it as they departed. “They will pay!” he hissed, holding his hand to his forehead. His heart was pounding in his chest, and his breath shallow. Slowly, he began to regain his composure. “So you’ve come to join me, Harry,” Voldemort’s voice said, but his lips did not move. “It’s not polite to eavesdrop, although it was I who left open the invitation.” At once, Harry realized who he was… who he was with. His mind began to push back, but he hesitated in his desire to learn about his friends. He felt Voldemort smiling at the decision.

“Welcome, Harry, to my world. Perhaps, a bit more light. Incandessa forte!” The room grew bright, as the candles seemed to burn like torches. It was the same room Harry had seen Neville in, small and cramped with chains hanging from the walls. Only now, instead of peeling paint, the room was a freshly painted, dark green. I thought perhaps your friend might enjoy the work.” Voldemort turned and with him so did Harry. Huddled in the corner, covered in green paint, and holding a small paintbrush tightly in his right hand was Neville Longbottom. His eyes were open, but vacant, staring blankly into nothingness. Harry tried to reach out for him, but was held fast.

“He’s waiting for you, Harry,” the voice hissed in his mind. “We’re all waiting for you.” Voldemort began to laugh cruelly. “And now we have another of your co-conspirators. Tell me my young Gryffindor, how many will it take before you act.” The laughter stopped abruptly and the voice in his mind turned to pure ice. “Coward,” it hissed slowly. In that instant, Harry was consumed with a rage he’d never felt before.

“I’ll have your heart!” Harry’s mind screamed out and his forehead, Voldemort’s forehead, split open in searing pain and suddenly he found himself, found Voldemort, falling to his knees. It was unexpected and Harry could see that for an instant Voldemort was confused and angry. But then, the Dark Lord began to laugh as he stood again.

“I have no heart, Potter,” Voldemort hissed. He felt something slide across his ankle, and looked down to see Nagini coil in a great arc about the dusty floor. “Join me, Potter,” Voldemort beckoned, and Harry could feel himself being pulled in deeper. Instinctively, he pushed back, as if slapping Voldemort in the face. Instantly the scene changed. He was at the water’s edge, only this time for no reason he was fearful. Was it acid? He stepped away, only to slip and fall into the clear liquid, and screamed until the burning sensation reached his throat.

When Harry woke, he was shaking and nauseous. The dormitory was still dark and he stubbed his toe as he hurried to the bathroom and emptied what little there was in his stomach. When he finally went to wash his face, he ran into Dean coming to take an early shower.

“Dean,” greeted Harry weakly with a nod of his head.

“Harry,” Dean returned, as Harry went to wash his face. As Harry bent low he heard Dean whisper from behind, “Viswa Vajra.”

“What?” Harry asked turning. Dean’s eyes were wide, fixed on Harry’s arm.

“Viswa Vajra,” he whispered again, stepping closer to Harry. Without asking, he took Harry’s arm holding it close and examining it as if it were a fine painting. Over the past weeks, his scar, much as Malfoy’s, had been fading. But now, it was as vivid as it had ever been, red and raised on his forearm. Dean, still holding Harry’s arm, looked up into his eyes. “This bit here, it’s the mark on Malfoy.” Harry nodded. “Except this.” Dean traced his finger around the two lightening bolts that crossed at the base of the sword. “Viswa Vajra,” he whispered again, letting go of Harry’s arm. “I knew it was Tibetan,” he smiled with satisfaction.

“You know this mark?” Harry asked.

“It’s a pretty good brand, Potter,” Dean complimented. “But why hide it? Did you do it this summer?” Harry was speechless. “I like that you left off the symbol of protection when you hexed Malfoy. Certainly, he’ll never have a hand in destroying evil.”

“It’s a charm,” Harry whispered looking at his own arm, and then it dawned on him. “Viswa Vajra -- a protection charm.” No sooner had the words left his mouth than the mark began to disappear. He sighed, placing both hands on the sink before him, his head hung low. “Dean,” he began, “you need to know that I would never…”

“Look, Harry,” Dean interrupted, “I’ve got to get ready. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.” And before Harry could say another word, Dean had left for the shower. Harry watched and wondered as his dorm-mate left.

At breakfast in the Great Hall, the mood was grim with only a handful of professors at the head table, the others having joined the various search parties. Still feeling a bit nauseous, Harry only poked at his food. He decided not to speak of his dream, which was fine since everyone had already jumped to the simple, and correct, conclusion that Voldemort had taken Luna. He was mad at himself for not staying long enough to discover where they were.

“Padma was going to help them with that stupid snake,” cried Parvati in tears, she could have been taken too.”

Ginny held Parvati’s hand and asked the group, “What will happen to Hogwarts?”

“It’s tough to have school if none of the professors are around,” answered Ron as he looked up at the head table from which McGonagall, Tonks and Hagrid were absent.

“Tonks is searching for Luna, tracking whoever took her,” said Hermione knowingly.

“She’s not strong enough yet,” Harry whispered back with concern. “She doesn’t have the power to…” The door off the side of the Great Hall opened and everyone’s head turned. There, with a large text in one arm was Remus Lupin. Professor Flitwick stood to greet him and escorted him to where Tonks normally sat for breakfast.

Remus looked out across the Great Hall and found Harry. He didn’t wave, but just held his gaze for an instant, then sat down for breakfast. The murmurs of confusion and foreboding continued to rumble around the room. Harry wasn’t sure what he felt. His face had smiled back at Remus, but part of Harry was distinctly irritated by the new professor’s presence. Where was Dumbledore?

“Blimey,” whispered Ron, “they decided to accept a werewolf as substitute teacher?”

“I’m sure they’ll take anyone they can trust, Ron,” said Hermione as she slumped back on the bench and looked around the Great Hall. “But I don’t think it matters any more. The word’s out -- nobody’s safe, not even here. Don’t you see? Hogwarts is no longer under Dumbledore’s protection. If something doesn’t change, they’ll close the school.”

Harry briskly pushed his plate forward and it disappeared to the kitchens below. Then he stood and began to walk away. Hermione grabbed his hand.

“Harry, it’s not your fault,” she said looking up at Harry’s eyes as they burned with fire. Then she took in a deep breath. “Any more than it is mine.” There was guilt in her words as she looked away, but then she stood at his side. “Leave it to the Ministry, to the Order. They’ll find Neville and Luna; I’m sure they will.” Harry took a step closer to Hermione so that only she could hear.

“I could have found out last night where they are, Hermione. It was at my fingertips. I just had to… to ask.” His words were soft, but trembling with rage. “Last night I blinked. It won’t happen next time. It won’t happen ever again.” He let go of Hermione’s hand, and walked out through a sea of low murmurs that filled the Great Hall with despair.

“NEVER AGAIN!” he cried out with his hands clenched at his sides as he passed through the entrance to the Great Hall. The torches that floated to either side of the huge wooden doors burst bright with flame. A few students shrieked as Harry’s words echoed about the room.

“Never again! Never again!”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 39 - A Loss of Self
~~~***~~~


It was late, very late, but candles flickered all about the common room. The rhythmic tick-tock of the Yorkshire oak grandfather clock was starting to lull Harry to sleep. The fire was warm and his eyes were heavy. He could not remember ever being this tired, and for a moment he considered just resting his head on his arms. But no sooner had he laid down his quill than Hermione, without saying a word, poked him in the ribs. Ron flipped open another book about Muggles and, shaking his head, let out a hapless sigh. Indeed, the room was filled with wretched faces silently reading, or scrawling on their parchments. Every so often, there would be a hushed whisper, a cough, or the occasional snore. Parvati had left an hour earlier in tears, cursing that it wasn’t fair.

Two weeks had passed since Luna’s abduction and despite the many student complaints, Professor McGonagall had decided the best way to keep their minds on their education was exams. Each class was to have an end-of-term test. Students in each N.E.W.T. were required to pass the test in order to proceed with the class the next term. Hermione thought it a smashing idea and had to be repeatedly reminded not to whistle while the rest of Gryffindor crammed for their upcoming exams.

Surprisingly, only a handful of parents had removed their children from Hogwarts. There had been scattered incidents of terror all about Great Britain and Western Europe, and the threat of something yet more serious made Hogwarts seem the safest place. It was clear, however, that many students were told by their parents to stay away from Harry. The general feeling was that if you got too close, you might wind up a target, and despite Harry’s isolation, it was a hypothesis that he shared. He preferred that his friends stay distant and safe, but Hermione and Ron were steadfast in their support and they were constantly seen at Harry’s side.

The worst of Harry’s exams tomorrow, he knew, would be Potions. Professor Snape had grown increasingly agitated over Harry’s newfound ability to mix the required concoctions with ease. By remaining calm and with a few secret pointers from Malfoy, Harry was performing as well or better than any student in the class. Still, he was sure that Professor Snape would be out for blood, and Harry wasn’t going to give him the opportunity. At least, that’s what he thought four hours ago when he would normally be crawling into bed, laying his head to pillow and clearing his mind of all thought. Now, well past midnight, his mind was too tired to focus on much of anything

His eyelids dipped low again, and a flickering vision of Voldemort danced across the darkness. So often as he fell asleep Harry considered reaching out to Voldemort with his mind, but each time his thoughts turned to Dumbledore who, everyone knew by now, was near death. Harry would not forget his promise to the Headmaster, particularly after what happened last year. So, he redoubled his efforts at Occlumency. He and Ron worked together as Ron would try to enter his mind and Harry would push him away. Ron had achieved a much great acumen at focusing his mental attacks, occasionally finding paths around Harry’s defenses. Once, Ron saw a vision of Malfoy smoking a cigarette before Harry cut him off. Ron’s face furled hoping for an explanation, but Harry gave none, and staying true to their agreement before they started, Ron didn’t ask. Now the redhead held the same scrunched up face as he peered into his book on Muggles. Ron slammed the book closed, popping Harry’s eyes fully open.

“That’s it,” Ron hissed, standing and stretching to the ceiling. “I don’t care what the proper process is for obtaining a valid driver’s license! Can you imagine Harry, I’ve been driving for years and I’m not eligible for even a provisional permit until I’m… er…” Ron reached for the book again.

“Seventeen,” Harry replied.

“Right! Seventeen!” he called out to Hermione hoping that she might agree that waiting such a long time was insanity. But, garnering no support, he turned back to Harry. “How’d you know that?”

“I’ve got mine,” said Harry as he reached into his jeans, pulled out his wallet, and withdrew the plastic card. “Not a very good picture, but then I was… erm, not well.” Hermione snapped it from his hands.

“Harry, that can’t be real,” she said indignantly, glancing down at the card with his picture. “It says you’re seventeen. But you’re not… you can’t…” Harry took the card back and looked at his picture.

“Don’t be silly,” he whispered, and with a thin smile he closed his potions book. “You’re right, Ron. We’re as good as done. Let’s go to bed.”

“But you haven’t even reviewed your dragon scale potions, Harry!” Hermione whispered back. The three were starting to get some glowers from about the room. “And what about Basic Aparation? You’ve only—”

“Good night, Hermione,” Ron interrupted, and before she could say another word, both he and Harry were headed for the stairs.

When Harry finally collapsed into bed, Ron reminded him to clear his mind, and he nodded. But his mind wasn’t on exams or abductions. It was turned fully to Little Whinging. Just last night Hedwig had returned with another letter from Gabriella. Harry reached his hand under his pillow and read it once again.


Harry,

The nights grow cold and seem to last forever. I can’t believe only one more week and I’ll see your face again. I miss you so. Mama has been filled with excitement for the holiday. Usually she breaks out in a grand smile, and in those moments I know she’s with me. But lately she seems to be growing more agitated. I know it’s not what I dreamed of last summer, but nothing is ever what we dream.

I saw your aunt yesterday and she said that she was well aware that you would be returning for the holiday, and would I please mind my own business. They’ve been loading the place up with presents, but I don’t imagine any are for you. Don’t worry though. I have a special present all my own -- I hope you like surprises! Have you solved the riddle yet?

I woke up this morning, and the air was silent. There was a layer of snow covering Privet Drive and it seemed to magically turn the world into a whisper. It’s my first time in the snow, at least that I remember. I don’t know what I was expecting, but for a moment I forgot all my cares and dreamt of sitting here at the fire with you at my side. Maybe you can make one of my dreams come true!

Love,

Gabriella


Harry folded the paper and tucked it under his pillow. Ron was already snoring when Harry waved his hand and extinguished the candlelight. In the darkness, he held the same hand to his face and, in that instant, considered reaching out to Voldemort. But inside a voice whispered, “Don’t be silly,” and Harry rolled to his side, cleared his mind, and fell asleep.

When Harry and Hermione arrived for the potions exam the following day, they were both surprised to see Professor McGonagall standing at the front of the class. Snape had never missed a class in all the years Harry had been at Hogwarts. After everyone had filtered in, she raised her hands to silence the murmurs.

“Professor Snape,” she said in a strong clear voice, “could not be here this morning to administer your exam. He asked that I present you with the following problem.” She waived her wand at the board and there appeared a list of some twenty questions that ended in a practicum: Create a draught capable of healing severe burns.

“Oh no,” Marietta muttered. “That’s over ten ingredients.”

“It’s not so bad,” consoled Cho who was sitting at her side. “Just remember to—”

“Silence!” Professor McGonagall called out. “You will answer the questions on fewer than two scrolls AND complete the concoction within the allotted two hours beginning… now.” She turned a large sand-dial over and the grains began to fall, far too quickly for Harry’s liking. In his mind, Marietta was right, twelve ingredients was only half the battle. Each had to be specially prepared and when they had attempted the potion in class originally, no one finished on time. Harry glanced around the room. Malfoy was already scribbling furiously on his first sheet of parchment. Harry took a deep breath and began.

Malfoy was the first to finish, making far too much noise as he stoppered up his potion and walked forward presenting it to Professor McGonagall. Hermione was a close second. They both began to leave when Professor McGonagall stopped them.

“Please remain quietly in your seats until everyone is dismissed,” she whispered. Hermione nodded, but Malfoy groaned.

“But Professor,” he whined, “I’ve finished the bloody potion. What more could there possibly be?”

“Please return to your seat, Mr. Malfoy,” replied Professor McGonagall. Her voice was tight and her eyes cool. Harry had never quite seen her like this, except perhaps, last year with Professor Umbridge. An inexplicable sense of dread began to fill him from the inside as he carefully crushed the last ingredient. He needed ten minutes to brew the potion and he only had about twelve left. Quickly, but carefully he began to add the ingredients in his cauldron, slowly stirring one way and then the other. A few more students stepped forward with there work, including Cho and Marietta. A bead of sweat dropped down the side of Harry’s face. His hands were wet and as he reached for a bottle to fill with his potion, the glass slipped from his hands and shattered to the floor. With his wand he reassembled it, filled it, placed the cork and handed it to Professor McGonagall with about ten grains of sand to spare.

There were three students still working when Professor McGonagall called time, and one of them was Anthony Goldstein.

“I’ll take your parchments now,” Professor McGonagall said to those still working, “but leave your potions where they are.”

“But why?” Anthony called out. “It’s nearly done. I should get partial credit.”

“According to Professor Snape, who left strict instructions, credit is only given to fully successful potions and what you have there will be utterly useless.”

“Successful?” Hermione choked. Professor McGonagall’s face turned sour and lost a bit of colour, but she seemed resolute.

“Each of you will receive a burn on your forearm. After which you will take the potion to determine its success.”

“But—” started Cho.

“If your potion fails, I have prepared my own here.” Professor McGonagall turned to a dozen potion bottles at the desk behind her.

“She’s not expecting much success, is she?” Harry whispered in Hermione’s ear. She just shook her head.

“He’s vicious is what he is,” she replied through gritted teeth. Malfoy stepped forward and bared his right forearm.

“I’ll be happy to go first, Professor,” he said with an air of smugness. Professor McGonagall simply shook her head.

“Very well,” she whispered. She reached for his right arm, but he pulled it away offering up his left. Holding the arm in her hand, she pointed her wand directly at the soft portion of his forearm. “Incenditto!” she spoke softly. A small blast of flame erupted from the tip of her wand and Malfoy jerked away. Grinding his teeth, he refused to scream as he grabbed his potion and swallowed in one gulp. Instantly, the charred blisters began to fade and in only a few seconds, his arm was perfectly healed.

“Very good, Mr. Malfoy,” Professor McGonagall congratulated. “You may go.”

“Oh no, Professor,” he smirked, “I have to watch this.” And he sat up on one of the desks to get a clearer view of the practical exam. By the time Harry’s turn came, some eight students had failed. Besides Malfoy, only Cho and Hermione were successful at removing the burn from their arms. Hermione had squealed in pain, but Cho simply grimaced. When Marietta’s potion failed, she began to scream in panic. It took some moments before she came to her senses and took the potion from McGonagall.

As Harry stepped forward, a sudden panic overcame him. “Dragon scales,” he thought suddenly to himself. “I forgot the dragon scales.” His heart began to race as Professor McGonagall also reached for Harry’s right arm, but he too turned and presented his left. “I’ve failed the N.E.W.T.,” he whispered out loud. His future began to play in his mind and he imagined Snape smirking over him at the beginning of next semester and telling him to leave his class. All hope of becoming an Auror came crashing down.

Professor McGonagall slid his robe back exposing the arm, but no sooner had she raised her wand than his right arm began to prickle. When she cast the spell, instead of grabbing for his left arm like so many had done before, he buckled to his knees holding his right. On the floor, he simply dropped his head and cursed. “How could I have been so stupid?”

“Look at him squirm,” Malfoy drawled.

“Take your potion, Mr. Potter,” Professor McGonagall said handing him his vial. Knowing it would fail, he popped the liquid down his throat and took to his feet. He began to walk to the desk to get one of Professor McGonagall’s potions, when her words stopped him in his tracks.

“Very good, Mr. Potter,” she said. “That healed far faster than any of the others. You may leave if you so wish.” Harry looked down at his left arm. The flesh was un blistered, not even red. With his left hand, he reached under his robe to his right forearm, which was, as he expected, raised with the scar he knew too well.

“A protection charm,” he thought. Not wanting to watch any other students suffer, he turned to get his things only to find Malfoy sitting upon his desk. Harry slipped his cauldron and other tools into his bag, and was starting to leave when Malfoy noticed that on a strip of paper at his side were four precisely cut dragon scales.

“Hey Potter, wait up,” he called and followed him out of the classroom. “Missing something?” Malfoy held up the paper with the scales on it. “I don’t suppose you cut these up as extras, considering we were so pressed for time. So that means you didn’t use them, and yet, your potion worked. Tell me, how is it that—” Harry stopped short in the hallway, stepped close to Malfoy, and held his right arm out to show him the scar.

“I told you,” Harry said. “It comes and it goes. Somehow it healed the burn on my other arm.” Malfoy began to smirk with a knowing expression.

“Then, Harry,” he said stepping closer, “you’ve given me a very special gift.” He paused for a moment. “I added the drendle wings before the cypress leaves. My potion shouldn’t have worked either.” He placed his hand on Harry’s shoulder. “A special gift… and if I’m not mistaken, I believe it’s been growing stronger,” he drawled, and then strode ahead on up the stone steps and out of sight. No sooner had he disappeared than Hermione was at Harry’s side.

“That was just dreadful,” she whispered sliding a parchment into her pack.

“He’s never missed a class, Hermione, never. We haven’t seen Tonks in two weeks and now Snape’s missing.” Hermione simply shook her head.

“If Professor Sinistra says Tonks is okay, then—”

“Would you stop that?” Harry snapped back. “When will you realize that they’re lying, you’re ALL lying!” They stopped in the hall and Harry stepped close. “Don’t deny it, Hermione,” he hissed through gritted teeth, anger gurgling throughout his insides. “You’re in on it up to your neck. Both you and Ron, I’m sure, are having a grand old time!”

“Ron doesn’t know,” Hermione said quietly, looking down.

“What?” Harry asked taken aback. Hermione looked at him and her eyes moistened.

“I said he doesn’t know, Harry. He can’t know.” Her words seemed to have no effect. Harry just stared at her blankly. She blinked and wiped her face with the cuff of her robe.

He stood there for a long time wondering what, exactly, she was getting at. For two weeks a question had been gnawing at his insides. For two weeks, they had studied side-by-side and Harry couldn’t help but wonder if maybe…. “Surely Ron would see… would know,” he told himself, but that wasn’t enough. Now, hearing her words… he could bear it no longer.

“Hermione,” he asked, “where were you when Luna disappeared?” An innocent question, but he new she’d take it for how he meant it. There was no way around that. Instantly, her own face flushed with anger. She stepped toward him and her eyes, now clear and defiant, blazed with such fury he almost reached for his wand.

“How dare you!” she yelled stabbing him in the chest with her finger. The pain jolted him backwards into the wall. “Everyone turns their back on you, while Ron and I have spent every minute of every day watching yours. Six years of risking my neck to keep yours safe and you think…” She groaned and turned to leave, but Harry grabbed her cloak.

“Keep me safe?” he yelled back. “I don’t need you, or anybody else to keep me safe! I didn’t see you when I was facing Voldemort in the dungeons. I didn’t see you there when I was bitten by the Basilisk!” He was advancing on her now. She’d seen him angry before, but never like this. “Where were you while I was dueling Voldemort? Where were you when he tried to possess me?” Hermione took another step back. “You can keep your bloody neck safe and sound. You and Ron and... and… whoever, can keep your secrets. I don’t need your help, or anyone else’s.” This time it was Harry who started to storm off. “Draco was right!” were the last, unsettling words she heard.

That night, Harry skipped dinner choosing instead to wander aimlessly about the great castle. It was getting late, he was tired, and he was beginning to regret his words to Hermione. Convincing himself he would apologize, he started for the common room, but half way there it suddenly became the last place he wanted to be. He needed to be with friends and tonight Gryffindor tower was not it. Knowing he’d be scolded, and without his cloak, he plunged into the frigid night air to visit Hagrid. The latest storm had laid down half a foot a fresh snow, and as he crunched through the powder he left behind the only visible set of tacks leading the way to Hagrid’s cabin. Smoke billowed from the chimney and the candlelight flickering inside brought hope that Hagrid would still be within. He’d visited twice before during the school year, only to find the cabin empty. When he knocked this time, again there was no answer. Nothing stirred save the rumbling snores of Hagrid’s dog Fang.

Harry went around to peek in through the windows, but the frost had made that impossible. Undaunted, he decided to try the back door. The night was cold and still, and the muffled sound of his footsteps brought up a faint memory, familiar and distant, that he couldn’t quite place. Once at the back door, he pounded again, and again there was no answer. He sighed and turned to leave when he noticed the snow. Leaving the back entrance of Hagrid’s cabin were two sets of footprints that extended some twenty feet, only to disappear into the darkness. One set was clearly Hagrid’s, the other set were those of a horse. “F-Firenze?” Harry whispered as his teeth began to chatter.

Knowing he shouldn’t be out and knowing that two students had already been taken from the school grounds, Harry pulled out his wand. He glanced toward the castle which was brightly lit and glittering with ice-crystals and then he peered into the darkness that turned toward the Forbidden Forest. “Just go back,” he whispered to himself shivering, only to find his steps leading toward the darkness. Half way to the forest, it was growing increasingly difficult to follow the tracks. “Lumos,” he whispered and his wand gave off a gentle glow. Ten yards into the forest, however, the tracks disappeared. Harry searched everywhere, but could find nothing. Still, something was drawing him further into the trees. He peered into the darkness, but his senses began to take hold and he chose, hesitantly, to return to the warmth of school. After only three paces, a voice stopped him in his own tracks.

“Harry Potter! What are yeh doin’ out this time o’ night? If professor Dumbledore knew you was sneakin’ about, he’d have yer hide!” Harry turned to see Hagrid striding toward him out of the darkness, the giant’s footsteps crunching across the snow. Looking at Hagrid, Harry smiled, but no smile was returned. The half-giant grabbed him by the arm and lifted him from the ground. “Come with me,” he said sternly. Hanging in midair Harry watched as the darkness faded behind them and the lights of the castle grew nearer. But to Harry’s relief, they weren’t headed to the castle, they were headed to Hagrid’s cabin.

“This’ll do fer now,” Hagrid grumbled. Still holding Harry suspended in the air, he lifted the heavy iron latch on his back door and threw it open. Fang quickly greeted him and began to jump up as if Harry was some sort of morsel or doggie snack. “Down with yeh, dog!” Hagrid snapped. Harry had never seen Hagrid show any sign of temper, except when he was being blasted with stunners last year, and he was feeling a bit frightened. Hagrid dropped him in the large leather chair by the fire. “Sit there, while I think a bit.” Clearly agitated, he went over and put on a pot for tea. “Do yeh know what might a happened out there? Do yeh know how late it is?” He reached up into the cupboard for some tea and absentmindedly tossed down a golden ring onto the large wooden table near the stove. Unusual, Harry thought, for Hagrid to carry such a precious object. It was a fairly thin ring, about a galleon in size, and for a moment Harry wondered if it might be a wedding ring.

“That’s not a—” Harry began, but Hagrid cut him off.

“I’ll be askin’ the questions tonight Harry,” he said more calmly. “Tell me, what did yeh see?”

“Nothing, really,” Harry replied.

“I know you better than that, Harry Potter,” Hagrid answered, taking the kettle and pouring Harry a cup of tea. “Start with when yeh left the castle and tell me what yeh saw.” He walked over and grabbed a large bowl filled with biscuits. Harry was hungry enough to give one a try even if it did require a good soaking first.

“Well, I only saw tracks to the forest. Yours and… Firenze, I guess. He’s been spending a lot of time over here at night.”

“An’ what else?” Hagrid asked again.

“Well… the wedding ring,” Harry added. Hagrid just looked confused. “There, on the table,” Harry pointed. Hagrid saw the golden band and quickly snapped it back into his hands.

“Yeh shouln’t a seen tha’,” he grimaced. “Is that all?”

“Why? What’s going on? What are you and Firenze—”

“Finish yer tea, Harry, an’ I’ll walk yeh back to the castle.”

Harry took another sip and snapped off a bit of biscuit. Good and wet, they didn’t taste half bad. He wanted to press the questions, but Hagrid was clearly on guard. So, after a while, he and Hagrid began talking about other things. Somewhere in the conversation, Harry’s mind turned to Quidditch and he began to describe the last match.

“I didn’t care much about the money,” Harry said. “But it’s always better to win,” he said with a smile and Hagrid laughed. “Draco played well, that’s for sure.”

“Draco?” Hagrid asked with a tinge of irritation in his voice. “Yeh mean, Malfoy?” Harry knew at once he’d misspoke. He’d done the same during the match in front of Ron. He simply nodded, stuffing a chunk of biscuit in his mouth.

“I’ve seen yeh practicing on the pitch with tha’ new broom ‘o yours,” Hagrid interjected. “You’ve mastered the Caduceus better than Malfoy, any day.”

“It flies something wonderful,” said Harry brightly. “I know you won’t like this, but I took Cho on it over the Forest… all the way to the falls.”

“You what?” Hagrid asked raising his voice. “Do yeh know what’d happed to yeh if you’d a fallin’ off?” Harry just stayed quiet. He was hoping that, at least with Hagrid, he could just relax, but he was starting to get tense again, almost irritated. And then Hagrid said something unexpected. “Eh…what falls?”

“The great waterfall, pretty much in the center of the forest I figure,” he replied expecting Hagrid to know the spot, but the half-giant simply shook his head.

“There ain’t no waterfall in the Forbidden Forest, Harry.”

“Hagrid, I saw it,” said Harry. “The falls fell at least fifty feet through a crevice fed by a stream that wound its way out of the forest. There were a bunch of little pools, all over.” Hearing his own words, Harry paused. There was something gnawing at him, but before he could put his finger on it Hagrid answered back.

“Harry, I’ve been through every inch of the Forbidden Forest and there’s no falls.”

“Every inch?” Harry quizzed.

“Well, I haven’t been to the village of the Centaurs… Terntalag-… ah, you’ll have teh ask Firenze what they call it. They’ll only let Dumbledore visit there, but he’s never mentioned any falls and the village isn’t near the forest’s heart.” Then Hagrid uncharacteristically shuddered. “That’s as dark and cold as any place on earth.”

Harry finished with his tea and it was getting late. Still, the thought of returning to the Gryffindor common room was daunting. He looked at the frost covered window and then to the back door. “Where is Firenze, anyway?” he asked. Hagrid rose and grabbed a blanket.

“Here, put this on,” he said, ignoring Harry’s question. “I’ll walk yeh back to the castle.”

Hagrid escorted Harry to the castle doors, then took his blanket back. “Don’t worry ‘bout Firenze and me, Harry. We’re just makin’ sure there’s a backup plan, is all.”

“Backup plan?” Harry asked. “Backup plan for what?” Hagrid simply smiled and patted Harry on the head.

“Get some sleep, lad,” he said gently. “You’ll need your energy tomorrow for your tests.” Harry furrowed his brow and then remembered. His Care of Magical Creatures and Defense Against the Dark Arts exams were tomorrow morning and he’d just spent the whole evening on everything but studying.

Quickly, he said goodnight to Hagrid and ran toward Gryffindor tower. There were only a handful of students out this late, most making their way back from the library. Harry ran by one student that grabbed him by his arm and spun him around. It was Seamus Finnigan.

“Hey Harry,” he said with a smile, as the fingers in Harry’s right arm began to prickle, “what’s the rush?”

“Oh… hi, Seamus,” Harry answered looking to Seamus and then back in the direction he wanted to head. Harry was in a hurry to do what little studying he could, and his expression made it clear that he wasn’t interested in conversation. What right did Seamus have to grab his arm, anyway? Seamus had been more-or-less sequestered with the Ravenclaws for the whole term and now a chance to say a simple hello to his old dorm-mate was being thrown back in his face. He could see the irritation building on Harry’s face, and became angry.

“What?” Seamus spat. “Yeh too busy fer yer old dorm-mate? Out a sight, out a mind, eh? Yeh do know I’ll be comin’ back in a few weeks, although I don’t know why I’d want to.” Harry wasn’t much listening, nor was he thinking; the prickling sensation was working its way up his arm. What right did Seamus have to use that tone of voice? Harry’s eyes blinked. He needed to go; he didn’t have time for banter.

“Yeah, er, I think Goyle put in a request to stay with Gryffindor. Maybe you could ask to stay with Ravenclaw.” Harry patted Seamus on the shoulder. In fact, stay with Ravenclaw. I don’t care. Harry turned to walk away. “Really, Seamus, I need to go.” Harry began to run down the corridor.

He’d only taken a few strides when he heard Seamus curse something at his back and his arm burst with pain. Bending to another will not all his own, Harry dropped to one knee as a bolt of red light flashed over his head. Normally, he would turn to defend himself and perhaps expel the wand from Seamus’ hand, but not this time. This time Harry found himself suddenly consumed with rage. He turned and saw Seamus bearing down on him, wand drawn, and face flush. He was going to cast again, Harry knew that, and he would stop it; he would stop it forever. Harry pulled his wand and a stream of white light instantly struck Seamus in the chest. There was no incantation, only a thought, a thought of hatred toward this enemy, this old enemy. He continued to hold his wand straight at Seamus and the beam of white began to spread around his chest like an electric spider web. Seamus dropped his wand and grabbed for his chest. Harry’s eyes were fixed, he saw no friend, only an attacker… an old nemesis that would pay. Seamus began gasping for air.

“H-Harry… stop,” he pleaded breathlessly. “I c-can’t b-br…” But Harry heard nothing but the unwanted pleas of his enemy hissing his last breath. He stepped closer and the web of light encircled Seamus’ chest. Then, from somewhere distant, he heard another voice. It was familiar and growing louder.

“Harry! STOP!” He turned to see Hermione, staring at him with a horrified expression. “STOP! YOU’RE KILLING HIM!” He blinked and the rage ebbed away. His fog of a vision cleared before him, and he saw his friend Seamus twisted in the energy still erupting from his wand. The instant he realized what he was doing, Harry ceased the spell, and Seamus fell to the ground, lifeless. Hermione ran to his side, pulled her wand and a sparkling green light seemed to stream down onto Seamus’ face. Instantly, he gasped for air and opened his eyes. Harry started to walk forward to the two on the ground.

“I… I’m sorry,” he whispered with a dazed expression. His emotions were sloshing all over the insides of his brain. “I thought he was… I didn’t mean to…” he began. “Here, let me help,” he offered, but Seamus slid back, away from Harry’s advance. “No, Seamus… I swear, I would never—”

“Harry,” Hermione cut in crossly, “get out of here. He’s afraid of you, and I can’t say that I blame him. I’ll get him to the hospital wing.” Harry just stared, dumbfounded.

“Really, Hermione,” Harry offered again. “Let me—” he reached and Seamus recoiled again.

“I said, go!” she yelled.

Finally, it sunk in. He nodded and turned toward the common room. The handful of students who had seen what happened parted in fear to let him pass as he walked down the corridor. The thought of Draco Malfoy crawled into his mind and a cold shiver shot down his spine. What was happening to him? What was he becoming? In that moment, he knew what he must do. Hermione was right; he was a threat to anything and anyone who got too close. It was time for him to go… to leave Hogwarts forever.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 40 - The Marauder’s Eye
~~~***~~~


Hours slipped by as Harry aimlessly wandered the halls of Hogwarts, ever alert to avoid Peeves, Mr. Filtch, and his cat, Mrs. Norris. His mind floated between fear over what was happening to him, guilt over what he’d done to his friends, and anger over what his friends had done to him. He had nearly killed Seamus and, not knowing why, he was still shaking--an echo of the rage he felt when his mind was turned to destruction. If he were to see Mrs. Norris right now, her dust coloured fur would likely become just that--dust.

Since Neville and Luna’s disappearance, students were already avoiding him as if he were once again the heir of Slytherin. How much more isolated would he be, if they thought him capable of murdering his own housemate? And his friends… his friends were up to something. Hermione said that Ron didn’t know, but Harry was sure the two of them were both working for the Order behind his back. That must be it; otherwise why were they always stopping their conversation when he would come to join them? Why would they suddenly part from each other when he walked into the room? They were planning something together, completely unwilling to let him know. What was it? He went to slug the wall, but stopped himself short. Still, the stone popped and a puff of dust covered his hand. Harry clenched his fist tighter, shaking it in front of his face. Every emotion imaginable was surging through his body, and with each passing moment the need to get back to Gabriella and ensure her safety grew stronger and stronger.

Slowly, he convinced himself that it was utterly pointless to remain at Hogwarts. He had no hope of uniting the houses, even with Malfoy’s help -- an alliance with a snake that was more likely to strike with fangs as coil in friendship. Once, passing by the circular staircase to the Headmaster’s office, he considered using the password that Professor Dumbledore had given him. But, the fear of what he would find there turned him away. The Headmaster was now struggling for his life because he chose to expend his magical energy to save Harry; the young wizard’s mind played the film of his spirit being captured by the green flame. No, there was nothing left for Harry here, and everything waiting for him on Privet Drive. It was so perfectly obvious when he fully committed himself to leave Hogwarts forever.

It was well past curfew when he hastily began to outline his strategy to return home to the girl he loved. His first step would be to run for Hogsmeade. From there, he would take the Knight Bus to Diagon Alley, and from there… well he’d figure it out along the way. Harry quickly made his way to the entrance hall, and slipped through the front doors of the castle. Instantly, he realized his mistake. It was snowing once again. The small flakes gently drifted to the ground, and though there was no wind it was bitterly cold. He had no cloak or covering of any kind, but the very thought of stopping now to return to Gryffindor Tower was anathema. He could get his things later, but trying to escape Hogwarts and make his way back to Little Whinging in this cold with not but a wand was insanity. Remembering back to the Tri-Wizard tournament, he quickly ran to the bottom of the steps and held out his hand; he would fly.

“Accio C-Caduceus!” he called out shivering. On his broom he would stay warm. On his broom he would quickly return to her. Thoughts of Gabriella swept into his mind, and the sudden exhilaration that he would soon be leaving quickened his pulse. Shaking miserably in the cold, he scanned the skyline searching for his broom. He saw nothing, so reached for his wand to call for it once again. As he slipped the wand out, an object caught his eye from the north -- a darkness was approaching fast. “F-Finally,” he whispered through chattering teeth. Staring through the snow, however, he realized that the object heading his way was too big for a broom. Indeed, as it sped closer, the outline of a man-sized figure became visible. He turned facing the attacker and, hand shaking, held his wand high as the dark outline bore down on him. Harry was ready to cast a spell when, about ten feet in front of him, the broom stopped short and through the snow the figure came into view.

“Well, that’s twice I’ve had your wand in my face. It’s starting to get a bit annoying really.” In a heavy black cloak untouched by the falling snow because he was flying on Harry’s Caduceus sat Remus Lupin. “You know, Harry, if I had enough galleons, I think this would be my next major purchase.” Remus patted the broom’s shaft. “That, or a nice set of robes. Maybe you’d give me a turn to fly her on my own sometime.”

Harry furled his eyes looking for someone else. He scanned the skyline for a hint that this was some sore of ambush, but only the sprinkling snow could be seen, and only the sound of Harry’s teeth and Lupin’s voice could be heard.

“Your father, of course, was the famous Chaser of Gryffindor, but I wasn’t half bad on a broom… for a werewolf.” Remus swung his left leg off the broom and landed both feet into the soft snow. Still holding tight to the broom with his hand, he waited.

Harry, at first, was relieved. His mind had any number of horrible creatures plummeting toward him out of the darkness, but for some reason he continued to hold his wand up high. Still, Remus continued to smile completely unconcerned about his clearly disadvantaged position.

“But, how?” Harry asked. “There’s no way—”

“Oh, I think there is, Harry,” said Remus, stepping ever so slightly closer. “Seamus has been in hospital for hours now, and when you didn’t show up in the common room, I figured you’d try to run.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” Harry snapped. “He shot at me first!”

“Hold on, Harry. Take a breath,” said Remus calmly. “Nobody’s saying you did anything wrong. Well, not too wrong. Seamus is going to be fine. Try to relax.”

“Then w-why are you here?” asked Harry, suddenly realizing he was frightfully cold.

“Like I said, I figured you’d bolt, and the best way for you to do that is right here in my hand.”

“Excellent j-job, Sh-Sherlock!” Harry stammered, slipping his wand back into his sleeve. “N-Now, let me have my b-broom, and I’ll be on my way!” This time, Harry took a step forward. In less time than a blink, Remus effortlessly slipped out his wand and held it on Harry.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Harry,” he said, continuing to maintain an affable smile. “Sorry for this,” he nodded at his wand, “but I can’t have you waving your hand at me and knocking me away, now, can I?” Harry’s eyes narrowed, and a sense of rage began to build inside once again. “Yes, that’s exactly the look, Harry,” said Remus, the smile flickering from his face, “and that look doesn’t belong to you. It’s Voldemort’s I believe and I thought we might have a go and try to remove it.” Harry was confused, and angry, but he wasn’t yet foolish enough to raise a finger let alone a wand, not on Remus.

“You’re c-crazy!” Harry cried. “Voldemort has n-nothing to do with this! Now LET GO!” Harry stepped closer, reaching for his broom, and in the same instant Remus flicked his wand. Instantly, Harry’s feet froze into place as if they were stuck to the ground with glue.

“Sorry about that,” Remus said calmly. “You do look cold, Harry, and your broom here is keeping me quite warm with just my touch. I’ll tell you what, let’s make a deal. If you promise no funny business, you can touch your broom and we can talk out here, or we can go back into the castle.”

Harry hesitated. There was no way he’d return to the castle. “Wait for an opportunity,” he thought to himself, and he nodded his head in agreement. “I p-promise,” he stammered. Remus stepped closer and let Harry take hold of the broom’s tip. Immediately, Harry was filled with warmth and the droplets of ice on his glasses began to melt. “Thanks,” he whispered reluctantly.

“Sorry, no hot chocolate, but I have something better,” Remus began to grin again. “I’ve been looking for you all day, Harry. There’s someone who wants to talk to you, but I’m not sure that, in the state you’re in, you can be civil.” Harry glanced around the bottom of the steps. He still couldn’t move his feet and an uneasy feeling began to gurgle within his stomach. He glanced once again to the sky. Remus had just mentioned Voldemort, and the thought brought Harry’s hand close to his wand.

“Harry,” Remus chided, “please, put your hand down.” Unwillingly, Harry obliged. “You’re in no danger, Harry, but I do need to know you’re in the right frame of mind. Just take a moment and clear your thoughts.” Remus’ voice was calm and even, and Harry’s pulse began to slow. If someone, or something were trying to penetrate his mind, Remus was right, Occlumency would wipe it clean. But to do that, Harry would have to clear his mind of the here and now. He would forget the moment, exposing himself completely to attack.

“How do I know you’re Remus?” he asked.

“Because I know about the scar on your forearm. I know what you saw above the pitch as Dumbledore spent himself to bring your life-force back. I know… I know that if I were to drop my wand right now, you’d take this broom and fly home to Gabriella.”

Hearing her name, Harry smiled and a warmth swept away the chill in his bones. And then, without saying another word, he closed his eyes and let each thought drift away. The argument with Hermione, the fight with Seamus, the thought of Dumbledore dying in his study, the fear of Remus standing before him, everything slipped from his mind into nothingness. His eyes still closed, he heard Remus’ voice as if in a distant dream. “Okay, you can show yourself.”

Slowly, Harry opened his eyes, and awoke anew -- the fear, guilt and anger had washed away. Then he saw, sitting sidesaddle on the Caduceus, a familiar face -- Dobby. His eyes were wide and worried, glancing from side-to-side, searching to see if someone or something might be coming through the whiteness of the snow.

“Dobby!” cried Harry with a sudden burst of joy. He tried to take a step and realized, too late, his feet wouldn’t move and toppled over. Releasing the broom, a cold blast of air sent shivers down his spine. He dusted off the snow and tried to stand. When he couldn’t, Remus released the spell without saying a word, but still kept his wand at the ready. Harry stood, took the broom’s tip, and the warmth returned.

“Harry Potter, sir,” Dobby said eagerly bowing on the broom as best he could. “It is good to see the great Harry Potter still… alive.” The house elf’s face was sallow and his body thin, perhaps not worse than when Harry had seen him last, but certainly no better. On his right arm was a filthy wrap -- a bandage of some sort. Again, Dobby bent his head low. “Dobby has failed, sir.”

“Remus, we need to get him inside,” Harry pleaded with concern. “He needs—”

“He needs to talk to you, Harry,” Remus cut in, “and you need to listen.” As Dobby had done, Remus glanced into the falling snow where visibility was only a few feet. “But you’re right; this is no place for discussion. We need shelter, and I think I know just the place.” Remus threw his leg over the broom. “Jump on, then.” Harry hesitated. “No, Harry, I won’t take you back; I promise.”

Finally, Harry mounted the broom behind Remus and the three were flying toward the castle tower. Harry remembered meeting Ron’s brother, Charlie, at the tower top, handing him Norbert, Hagrid’s pet dragon. But the three didn’t fly to the castle top. Instead, they stopped against the tower’s wall some fifteen feet down from the top. There were no windows, only stone. Remus glared intently through the snow. Before Harry could ask what he was doing, Remus called out.

“There it is!” he said excitedly.

Remus pointed at a small red stone, no larger than a galleon, hidden among the large, gray, rough hewn block of the castle walls. He pulled his wand and whispered. “It’s well past midnight, we swear it’s true. Open up and let us through.” The red stone began to grow larger, as were the large rocks surrounding it. The castle was becoming enormous! Then, Harry realized that the stones weren’t growing… they were shrinking. Soon a large, red cavern was before them.

“You might want to close your eyes for this,” suggested Remus with a grin. The broom plunged forward and it felt as if they were passing though the center of a large watermelon. There was a tearing, slurping sensation, and they emerged on the other side into a large circular room. Pillows in Gryffindor colours scattered the floor interspersed with dusty glass bottles that Harry was sure were meant to hold something stronger than butterbeer. On the walls hung old posters of Quidditch teams. There were four chairs facing a large open area. Against the wall was a desk strewn with parchment and to the far side two cots, one bare and the other covered with a torn red and gold comforter.

The three dismounted the broom. For a moment Harry gawked as Remus set the broom to the side of what now looked like a large red curtain. Instinctively, Dobby began picking up the pillows and vanishing the empty bottles.

“Where are we?” Harry asked. Remus smiled looking around the room.

“1977,” he breathed, “in the Marauder’s Eye. We’d sneak up here after midnight to watch replays of Monday’s Quidditch matches. From here we watched the Cannons lose to the Magpies, the Kestrels lose to… well, everybody. Pettigrew was the Cannons fan.”

“Don’t tell Ron,” said Harry sourly, looking at an old poster of the Broadmoor brothers flying for the Falcons. “Now I know why Scabbers always sat in Ron’s lap when he’d read about the Cannons.”

Remus walked over to the four chairs and tapped his wand on a short black pillar. In the open area, appeared an exact replica of a Quidditch match. The Tornados were playing the Wanderers. Harry had never seen anything quite like this before. It was as if they were actually sitting in the stands. One of the Tornado Chasers scored and the entire room exploded with cheers rumbling the very floor.

“That game was last week,” Harry gawked. Remus tapped the pillar again. A different match appeared: Terrence Tellman was flying for the Montrose Magpies. “That was today!” Harry exclaimed. Tellman spun his broom in a loop that Harry had never seen before. “Damn, he’s brilliant,” admired Harry.

“You can watch the games live too, but they’re usually over by this time of night.” Remus looked at Dobby who was now straightening the papers on the desk. “Dobby, please stop and rest. We have much to talk about.” Remus tapped the pillar and the figures disappeared. Harry turned to get Dobby when a photo in a gold frame caught his eye. A young woman with brilliant green eyes and wearing red robes smiled back. Behind her were two kids with scruffy hair that Harry remembered seeing from his visit into Snape’s memory. He picked the photograph from off the desk and stared not saying a word. Slowly, still holding the frame, he sat down upon one of the pillows lying on the floor. Remus sat down beside him.

“Merlin, we were young,” Remus whispered. “Peter took this picture on one of our Hogsmeade outings. It was the first time Lilly said “Yes” to James, and he was beside himself on what to do. You’ll never find another picture of him wearing a tie.” The two wizards laughed. “It was the only time I ever saw James nervous about anything, except when you were born.” Remus smiled broadly and ruffled Harry’s hair. “But that’s another story,” he said with a grin. “Dobby, it’s time you tell Harry what you told me.” The house elf turned the stack of papers so that its edge aligned perfectly with the edge of the desk. When he turned to look at Harry and Remus side-by-side on the floor, his eyes were full of apprehension. Slowly, he approached Harry, not looking at him, but around him. Then, he stopped and bowed low.

“Dobby has failed, Harry Potter, sir,” he spoke in a high, soft voice. “There is no cure.” Dobby reached out his hand and held it just off of Harry’s shoulder and then he shuddered. “Yes, Professor Lupin, sir, it has grown stronger.”

“I don’t understand,” Harry said, exasperated. “You look at me like I’m going to die. It’s a protection charm. How can that be bad?” Dobby looked up as if to speak, but then burst out crying, grabbing a pillow and blowing his nose.

“Yes, Harry,” Remus said in a level voice, “it is a protection charm, but there are two things at work here. First, the charm was not meant for you; from what Dobby has told me, it was meant for a Muggle.”

“But why would wizards cast protection charms on Muggles?” Harry asked.

“Not for the altruistic reasons you might think, Harry,” Remus sighed. “During the Middle Ages, many of the kings of the time were wizards, or had wizards as their councilors. When they would go into battle, the wizard would place a charm on his troops hoping that they might live to fight another day. Countless soldiers of the Ottoman Empire were given the charm and plunged into battle believing they were invincible. More often than not, they lost their lives in attempts at misguided valor. Their Wizengamot at the time decided that such spells violated their code of ethics and banned the charms in the early thirteenth century. Other Wizengamots around the world soon adopted similar restrictions. Of course, the use of such spells went underground, often being placed on Muggle assassins by various dark wizards through the ages. They were also used on Muggle bodyguards to act as a first, expendable, line of defense to protect valuables or family members.” Still seated at Harry’s side, Remus paused, considering his words carefully.

“Harry, on wizards or witches these dark charms don’t work properly. They become confused about what they want to protect, about what is valuable to them, and soon see threats everywhere. Often, they cause the wizard to believe that all living things are adversaries… attackers that must be slain. Inappropriately charmed wizards were known to turn on their own troops in battle, slaughtering thousands.”

“Seamus,” Harry whispered.

“It’s possible that last year Voldemort placed the charm on you hoping that you would turn on your own friends at Hogwarts, or perhaps even Professor Dumbledore. Which brings me to the second bit of magic at play: the charm is getting stronger. I believe it grows so with each visit you have with Voldemort. Until now, your own positive energy has fought off its effects, but the darkness of Voldemort’s soul is somehow seeping in and making you more vulnerable. He knows this Harry... he must.” Remus tried to speak with confidence, but his words were mixed with uncertainty, an uncertainty that did not pass Harry’s notice. Harry turned his wrist over and examined the soft skin of his forearm. His pulse began to quicken and he shook his head. Somehow, this didn’t make sense. He stood and backed away from Remus and Dobby.

“So you think I’m mad and going to kill everybody at Hogwarts?” said Harry growing angry again. “Is that it? Well? IS IT? It’s… it’s not me that’s mad, Remus. You are!” Remus stood shaking his own head.

“Harry, you don’t understand,” he said calmly, walking closer to Harry.

“Stay away from me!” Harry shouted, holding up his hand. A faint blue light shot from his palm and struck Remus in the chest, knocking him to the ground.

“Stop, Harry Potter, sir! Stop!” Dobby cried out. “You mustn’t harm your friends!” Remus rose to one knee and took in a deep breath.

“Harry,” he breathed again, “your new powers, they might be part of it. I don’t know, but we need to find out. We need to see if we can have it removed.” At his words Dobby looked away and Harry caught the glance. His eyes narrowed.

“You can’t! Dobby already said there’s no cure. You can’t remove the charm, can you Remus?”

“We have to try, Harry. Before… before we lose you.” At these words Harry began to tremble again. He had been ready to die, but not like this, not mad… locked up in St. Mungo’s with Gilderoy Lockhart. Still holding his hand toward Remus, Harry turned to the house elf.

“Dobby, who did this to me!” Harry yelled, but the house elf simply dropped his head and sighed. “DOBBY!”

“Dobby has been many places,” the house elf began with a weak and dejected voice. “Dobby has spoken to many friends and many enemies,” he said, glancing down at the bandage on his right arm. “All who heard of the great Harry Potter spoke freely.” Dobby walked toward Harry, again looking all about the young wizard as if examining something just inches from his skin. Holding out his hand he narrowed his eyes. “Dobby was right, Harry Potter, sir. This charm is a dark charm and it is from far away. Dobby listens and now Dobby knows. The great dark lord Pravus taught it from his castle west of the Caspian Sea centuries ago. Those who followed the ways of Pravus were killed in the Great Purge, the same time the Great Wizard Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald. The handful of remaining survivors are scattered across the globe. Dobby has failed Harry Potter. All Dobby knows is that no wand can cast the spell. The wizard must be touched to make the mark.”

“That information might be enough to help us remove it, Dobby,” Remus declared excitedly, but then his face fell, “if Dumbledore were well.”

“I won’t be sent to the mental ward!” Harry yelled. “I’m going home! Accio Caduceus!” The broom flew into Harry’s hand. “I’m going… home,” he whispered.

“Are you really that selfish, Harry?” Remus said flatly, but Harry ignored him and mounted his broom. “I thought you loved her.” At these words Harry stopped and glared at Remus. “You nearly killed Seamus tonight, Harry. What happens when she grabs your arm and you’re not suspecting it? What happens if she laughingly surprises you around a corner? Seamus lived because he’s a wizard, Harry. A Muggle girl wouldn’t have a chance.” Harry began to breathe rapidly, glancing at the red curtain leading to escape. When he reached up and adjusted his glasses, Remus seemed to relax and sat back to the floor.

“What…” Harry searched for the words, “what about Malfoy? I gave him the mark and I think it’s working the same way.”

“I know, Harry,” Remus replied coldly, his voice a bit tight. “We’re watching him.” Harry furled his brow.

“Watching him?” he asked.

“Bit of a twist, don’t you think?” Remus said grimly and the look turned Harry’s stomach. “Voldemort curses you in hopes that you’ll attack your own, only to find the son of one of his own Death Eaters cursed with the same magic.” Remus’ face turned dark. “With luck, little Master Malfoy will meet up with his father and the two will play a visit to Auntie Bellatrix. It is Christmas after all. I don’t suppose it much matters who wins.” Remus stood looking at the photo on the table. “For the last couple days, we’ve had a house elf following him, just to make sure no accidents occur on school grounds.”

“Remus, you can’t!” Harry exclaimed. “Professor Dumbledore would never—”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Harry, Dumbledore is a bit indisposed,” Remus interrupted as he took to his feet. “You, of all people, know what kind of wizards the Malfoy’s are. Ginny, Hermione, and countless others would be dead if their dark hearts had their way.” His voice was cool, almost icy. “Cedric is dead. Sirius is dead. How many more need to die?”

“Draco didn’t have anything to do with that! It was his father.”

“I think we both know better. Don’t you?”

Harry’s mind began to race. It was all too much to take in at one time. One thing was certain; he wouldn’t put Gabriella’s life at risk again. He jumped off his broom and looked at the eyes staring back at him… werewolf eyes. He needed time to think, but not here, not now. For the first time, he felt that it was all beyond him somehow, spinning out of control, threads of thoughts he couldn’t bring together. He needed… he needed Hermione. The last person, Harry thought, he would ever be willing to talk to, and the last person who would be willing to talk to him. Still, he had to try.

“I’ll go to hospital tonight for a check, but that’s ALL, no removal. I have exams in the morning. If you can have a house elf following Malfoy, you can have one follow me,” Harry said calmly. Remus looked at Dobby and then to Harry. “There’s no point trying to remove something that can’t be removed. If I’m destined to go mad, so be it.” Remus shook his head, no.

“Harry we can’t take the risk. We have to—” Harry jumped back on his broom and pointed toward the red curtain. “Okay!” Remus yelled. “But Dobby can’t follow you; he needs to rest.”

“No, not Dobby,” Harry agreed.

Quietly, the three made their way to the hospital wing where, not surprisingly, Madame Pomfrey was waiting. Seamus was sleeping in the bed by the door and the healer ushered Harry down to the far end of the room, pulling a curtain around him. Once Harry was in bed, Remus turned to leave.

“Harry,” he said, “you should know that Hermione wants to tell you everything about her recent… activities. But, I’ve asked her not to. Your link to Voldemort is too strong and there are some things better left unknown. Don’t blame your friends, Harry, blame me. Come on Dobby, we need to have you looked at as well.” Remus slipped out behind the curtain.

Alone, Harry simply looked up at the ceiling. The room was quiet and warm as he listened to their steps fade off into nothingness. If it was Voldemort behind this curse, Harry wasn’t going to give him a second chance. He shut his eyes and began to empty his mind -- soon he was asleep.

When he awoke, the curtains had been pulled open. The room was bright and standing at his bedside was Hermione Granger. Her brown hair hung about her shoulders and she wore an insecure smile.

“Hello sleepyhead,” she whispered and reached down to hold Harry’s hand. “How are you feeling?” Harry blinked his eyes adjusting to the light and he tried to smile back.

“Fine. What are you smiling about?”

“When you didn’t return last night, I thought for sure you’d left. I should have known you would come here to see what was wrong. If I’d have stayed with Seamus longer, I would have seen you, but I wanted to get back to Gryffindor to see if you were okay.”

“Seamus,” Harry said excitedly, “how is he?”

“Passed me Defense Against The Dark Arts exam, I did. Shame yeh missed it.” Standing from a seat at the foot of Harry’s bed, Seamus walked over to Harry’s side. “Doesn’t look too cursed if yeh ask me, Hermione.” Harry wasn’t sure what to say.

“Remus thought we should know about your… problem,” Hermione said tentatively. “And yes, you’ve slept through till lunch. He said he was passing you on merit and that it would be best if you could rest.” Harry sat up, picked his glasses from off the table and slipped them on.

“Seamus, I… I…”

“That’s the mark then?” Seamus interrupted with a bit of excitement in his voice. Harry, in a hospital gown, looked down at his exposed arm. There on his forearm was the snake and sword, raised and red.

“Madame Pomfrey’s tried everything to remove it,” Hermione said. “I’m afraid… well… it’s just gotten worse.”

“I told them…” said Harry through gritted teeth, but then he took a deep breath. “Yes, Seamus,” Harry answered with a solid voice. “That’s the mark. I doubt most folks would understand.”

“Dean says it’s Tibetan,” Seamus replied, not really paying much attention to what Harry was saying. Harry started to speak, but Seamus interrupted. “Look Harry, we had a pretty bad go of it last year, and this year wasn’t much better. But I’ll be damned if I let Voldemort decide who’s me friend and who isn’t.” Seamus held out his hand smiling, and Harry took it. Seamus started for the door whistling a Muggle tune Harry remembered from the summer.

“The Steel Chords?” Harry asked.

“Yeah,” Seamus answered with a bit of surprise. “Saw ‘em in Dublin over the summer; even got the T-shirt.” Then he shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Me da insisted he come. It was still great, until someone let off a bomb at a nearby Muggle police station.” He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, and walked through the door.

“I hate bombs,” said Harry, putting his head back down on his pillow. There was an uncomfortable moment of silence as Hermione stood at Harry’s bedside.

“Listen,” the two spoke simultaneously.

“You go.” Harry smiled.

“No, you,” Hermione answered.

“If you want to tell me to bugger off, I’ll understand,” began Harry, looking down at his hands. Hermione said nothing. “But I… well, I need you. I can’t do this by myself. If what they say is right, if I start to go mad… I… Gabriella….” He lost his voice and his eyes began to glisten.

“Shhh,” Hermione whispered, taking his hand. “We need each other, Harry.” She cast a glance at the door and bit her lower lip. “Harry, you said no secrets and I’ve kept the truth from you for far too long. I can’t do it anymore. It’s time you knew that I’ve been—”

“No, Hermione,” Harry interrupted. “I don’t want to know. I don’t think Remus is right, but if he is… if Voldemort’s reading my thoughts, I can’t know.” Hermione tried to speak again, but Harry held up his hand, and she nodded. “You know I’d trust you with my life, right?” he asked, and she smiled back, but Harry’s face turned grim and he looked to the ceiling. “I would have killed him, Hermione. I wanted to kill him. If it happens again, you’ve got to take me down.”

“Well, we’ve taken some steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

“A house elf?” asked Harry, casting his eyes around the room. “A house elf won’t stop me anymore; you know that.”

“Better,” Hermione answered. “Madame Pomfrey couldn’t remove the charm, but she’s placed a blocking spell that will help. If your mind turns to rage, you’ll start whistling.”

“Like Seamus?” Harry asked.

“No,” Hermione laughed, “he whistles much better than you ever could.” Just then Ron entered the room.

“Hey, mate,” he said with a bright smile. “Heard you might be up for lunch.” Grinning the whole way, he walked over to Harry’s side, then glanced to Hermione. “Has he started whistling, yet?”

“No,” said Hermione, smiling back. “Not yet.”

“What? Does everybody know?” Harry exclaimed.

“Well,” said Ron, “by lunch they will. Sort of a Hogwarts early warning system, Remus figures. You start whistling and we all duck for cover.” At first Harry was exasperated, but then a sly smile began to cross his face.

“This could be fun,” he said, looking at Ron over the top of his glasses and whistling a few notes.

“That would not be appropriate, Harry Potter,” Hermione scowled. Ron just rolled his eyes. “Besides, it’s lunchtime. You need to eat and then take your Charms exam, so there isn’t much time.”

“Charms?” Harry gulped.

“We also, I think, have a few things we need to discuss,” said Ron as he gathered Harry’s clothes.

“Yes,” Harry agreed. “It’s time we pulled our heads together. I know he’s only looking out for me and all, but I think Remus is wrong. I’d know if this was Voldemort, at least I think I would.” Harry sat up on the edge of his bed. “I need your help.”

“That’s what we’re here for, mate,” Ron said with a smile. “That’s what we’re here for.”

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