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Introduction:

harry potter
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 41 - A Reason to Be
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Harry set his quill down on the desk next to the parchment. His hand was cramped, his back ached, and he was so tired he considered laying his head down and going to sleep. Still, it was as if a great weight had been taken from his shoulders. The sky was blue and the sun bright as it streamed into the classroom. An odd contradiction to the subject matter he’d just finished describing--astronomy. He had completed his last end of term exam and was sure that he’d passed. A smile creased his lips as Professor Sinistra summoned the papers to her desk. As everyone started to leave she raised her hand and asked for silence. Harry glanced over at Dean who deliberately ignored him as he put his things into his pack. The smile left Harry’s face.

“I know this has been a tremendously difficult term for you all this year,” Professor Sinistra began. Her voice was steady, but sad. “Particularly for you sixth years. You have lost two dear friends to the hands of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Know this, however, as you begin your winter vacation. They are, at this very moment, reaching out for you. Keep them in your hearts and think of them at every turn. As are the heavens, so too are we all bound together, no matter the distance. Your thoughts may provide them the sustenance they need to survive.” She straightened the papers on her desk for a second time, sighed, and mustered a smile. “Dismissed… and Merry Christmas.”

Harry gathered his things and made his way back to Gryffindor tower. A day, an hour, hadn’t gone by that he didn’t think of Neville and Luna. They were suffering under Voldemort’s hand because of Harry, and the Dark Lord’s words, “We’re all waiting for you… coward,” echoed in Harry’s mind day and night. But the Order was handling it, Tonks was still chasing them down and there was little to nothing Harry could do. Still, despite Remus’ warnings, Harry continued to work with Ron and Hermione to try and determine how students were being captured and where they were being hidden. Hermione was convinced that a professor had something to do with the disappearances, and Ron was certain that, somehow, Draco Malfoy was to blame.

Above the din of thoughts of Dark Lords and Dementors, a tiny ray of light shone through. Tomorrow he would travel the Hogwarts Express, newly repaired, back to London, and from there catch the bus home. Thoughts of Gabriella swirled in his mind as he passed through the portrait of the Fat Lady. When he climbed the staircase to his dorm room, he found Ron and Goyle packing for the holiday. Goyle, however, was packing everything. In January he would return to Slytherin; there was a true sadness in his demeanor that Harry had not seen before.

“You know, Greg,” Ron said, chewing gum and packing his bags for tomorrow’s departure, “you’ve got top marks in Dark Arts. I’ll bet Flitwick would let you have another go of it for the Charms N.E.W.T.” Goyle shook his head.

“Nah,” he replied dismissively, “I already told you, Ron. My ticket outta hear is Quidditch, not this.” He tapped his head with his wand.

“Er, Ron,” Harry interrupted. “I think they’re about ready downstairs.” Ron looked at Harry and nodded. Goyle looked confused.

“Ready for what?” he asked looking at Ron. The redhead sat down next to Goyle and slapped his ham-like leg.

“When you go back to your old chums, you’ll have quite a few choices to make,” Ron answered. “Do you want to be a Slytherin leader in Dumbledore’s Army, or Malfoy’s lap hound again? You’ve learned a lot of Gryffindor secrets and some of us around here don’t think you should take them with you. It’ll take true courage to hold tight to what you’ve learned here. Some don’t think you have what it takes, but there’s a couple that do. Come on, let’s go.” Behind Goyle’s back Ron winked at Harry, who smiled back. The three made their way down to the common room and found it packed with every Gryffindor student at Hogwarts. The faces staring at Goyle were dark and sour. The scene was reminiscent of his first night as a Gryffindor, and a look of apprehension began to spread across his face as he looked at those he had come to call friends.

Lloyd Wade and Barbara McNulty, the Gryffindor Head Boy and Head Girl, stepped forward. Barbara carried a small mahogany box in front of her and the gathering of Gryffindors parted as they approached Goyle who was now standing at the fireplace.

“When you came to Gryffindor,” Lloyd began, his voice deep and stoic, “we asked you remove the Slytherin signet ring from your finger. Now that you return from whence you came, it is yours to wear again.” Ron dropped the ring in Lloyd’s hand and he in turn handed it to Goyle. Goyle looked at the silver snake and emerald eyes glaring back at him and hesitated. “There’s no denying that the Sorting Hat placed you in Slytherin. Place it on your finger.” Slowly, Goyle slipped the ring on. Barbara stepped forward, the mahogany box still in her hands.

“You have shown us a side of Slytherin,” she began, “we would never have thought possible: the use of cunning, the application of strength and power, and a love for magic. In Gryffindor we prize, of course, bravery, but perhaps most of all loyalty.” As she opened the box, the lid blocked Goyle’s view of what was inside. “We would never presume that you wear the signet ring of Gryffindor, though many here called for it.” Smiles began to seep into the faces across the room. “Instead, we offer you this.” She pulled from the box a golden chain and as she lifted further she revealed a ruby encrusted pendent, the signet of Gryffindor. “We ask that you wear this where it matters most, close to your heart. For that is where you will remain for all of us here. If ever you are in need, know that a Gryffindor will answer your call.” The room exploded in cheers and applause. Goyle took the pendent and placed it about his neck. For a moment he couldn’t catch his breath, but as the room quieted he began to speak.

“Three months,” he breathed, and then gathering strength to his voice, “the greatest time of my life. I will wear this where it matters.” And he slipped the pendant inside his shirt, patting it against his heart. “I’ll never forget this time. I know I’m going back to Slytherin, but I hope we can maintain our friendships.” He cast a glance at Parvati who blushed ever so slightly. “Know too, that if ever a Gryffindor calls for help, Gregory Goyle will come to their aid.” He smiled broadly. “Even Harry!” The room broke out in laughter and slowly everyone came to shake Goyle’s hand and then start back on their packing. When the room finally cleared, Ron and Goyle began to make their way back up to the boys’ dormitory.

“What do you say we go for one last spin out on the pitch?” Harry asked. At first, Ron’s eager face looked like it would say yes, but then his face fell, or at least he looked uncomfortable.

“Well, erm…” the redhead began in a lurch. “Hermione and I were going to, er…”

“I’ll go Harry,” Goyle said, smiling.

“Great!” Harry grinned back. “We’ll catch you at dinner Ron!”

Before you could say Snitch, Goyle and Harry were out on the pitch tossing the Quaffle back and forth, making occasional shots at the rings.

“You know I’ll take your head off when Slytherin plays Gryffindor this spring!” Goyle shouted out.

“I’ll be lucky to still have my head this spring!” Harry yelled back, firing a shot through the center ring. Goyle dove down to retrieve it, but Harry tilted on the Caduceus and grabbed it first. “Think you can keep up?” challenged Harry, and in a flash he was heading down to the far end of the pitch, Goyle in hot pursuit. Harry quickly swerved to the right and was headed straight for the stands, Goyle in tow. At the last instant, Harry pulled up, but Goyle’s broom, coupled with his mass, could not negotiate the turn and he rammed straight into the wooden banister on the side of the stands. Harry was quickly at Goyle’s side and as he regrouped and gathered his balance they both noticed a good sized gash on Goyle’s right shoulder.

“You’re hurt!” Harry called out.

“Not as hurt as you’re gonna be when I catch you!” Goyle yelled, a devilish smile across his face. Quickly he shot toward Harry, who responded instantly. Happily zooming through the air, they were leaving the pitch as Harry tried, only half-heartedly, to lose Goyle. Without paying too much attention, they found themselves over the Forbidden Forest, Harry skimming the treetops and occasionally diving into open spaces. Still, Goyle was undaunted and followed Harry as if he were on a string. Suddenly, the forest opened up into a large clearing. The waterfall that Harry had seen with Cho was below, plummeting from between a crevice into a crystal blue pool of water.

“It’s here!” Harry yelled out, stopping. “I knew it!” An instant later Goyle popped him on the back nearly launching him off his broom.

“Gotcha!” he called, spinning to face Harry. His sleeve was red with blood, but his face was all smiles. “Have you ever seen so many trees, Harry? Do they ever end?”

“What do you make of that?” Harry said pointing to the pools below.

“What?” Goyle asked turning to look. Suddenly a creature shot past Harry’s shoulder heading straight for Goyle. It was a large Threstral.

“Look out!” Harry yelled, but too late. The creature careened into Goyle knocking him from his broom. Harry instantly dove to stop Goyle’s fall. He was wrapping himself around Harry’s broom when another Threstral appeared from the forest. Harry summoned Goyle’s broom and handed it back to him.

“Merlin!” Goyle cried out. “What are they?” The fall had made his wound open and blood began to flow more freely.

“It’s your cut,” Harry answered hurriedly. “We need to get out of here. They think you’re dinner!” Quickly the two shot back toward the castle some eight or ten Threstrals following behind. When they crossed onto Hogwarts grounds, however, the pursuit stopped, and the Threstrals climbed and turned back toward the forest. At the steps to the castle, breathing heavily they both dismounted their brooms.

“Let me see that,” Harry said a bit heatedly. He held out his wand and blue light quickly healed the wound on Goyle’s shoulder. “I’ve never seen them attack a human before. I don’t suppose they’d eat you, but you do look sort of like a side of beef.”

“What were those things?” Goyle asked.

“Well, if you hadn’t been such a prig in Hagrid’s class last year, you’d know.” Then Harry’s eyes narrowed. “Didn’t you see them on the coaches at the start of term? One ran you down, as I recall.”

“One of those?” Goyle exclaimed. “Never seen one ‘till now.”

“But you only see them if you’ve seen death,” Harry said, almost asking the question with his words. At this, Goyle turned pale and took a deep breath.

“I saw you die, Harry,” he whispered. “We all saw it; only I was the one that killed you.” Harry silently nodded, and without saying another word the two returned to the castle.

The hallways were filled with students laughing, popping off crackers, and generally releasing the tension of the last few weeks. It was almost time for dinner and students were making their way down to the Great Hall. Harry and Goyle began to climb the steps to Gryffindor tower when an oily voice called from behind.

“Well, well, don’t you two make the perfect couple.” Malfoy’s steel eyes were glaring at them both as he leaned against a pillar obviously, at least to Harry, waiting for them to return. “I thought,” Malfoy drawled, “you would be dashing back to Slytherin tonight, Goyle. But instead you’re out playing tag on a broomstick… with a madman no less.” The words raised the hair on the back of Harry’s neck, but it was Goyle that stepped in front of Harry and toward Malfoy.

After his attack of Seamus, ‘Madman’ was the phrase Harry was labeled with as he walked the halls on his way to meals, or class, or anywhere. While the words were more painful than most knew, things might have been much worse if Seamus hadn’t come down to the Great Hall the morning after. In front of the whole school, he started laughing with Harry, patting him on the back. It was deliberate and loud on Seamus’ part, for which Harry was extremely grateful. Still, there were a few, particularly in Slytherin, who hissed Harry’s new moniker whenever they had the chance.

“The only madman I see,” Goyle said, glaring menacingly, “is you, Draco.” Unphased, Draco, simply smiled and began to clap in a slow rhythmic beat.

“Very good, very good,” Malfoy sneered. “Potter, I’m impressed. You’ve trained him well.” Goyle began to lunge toward Malfoy, but Harry grabbed his shirt.

“Hang on, Greg,” Harry said calmly. “Look, let me take care of this. Go on back and clean up. I’ll meet you and the guys later in the Great Hall for dinner.” Goyle stood frozen, fire pouring from his eyes. “Really, Greg, go on.” After a moment, Goyle finally began to walk away, and then looked back over his shoulder.

“If you’re not there in twenty minutes, Harry…”

“I’ll be fine,” Harry answered, pulling his wand. At that, Goyle seemed satisfied and strode off toward Gryffindor tower. Then Harry turned to Malfoy. “Why must you be such an ass? Is it genetic or something?”

“This won’t work, Harry,” Malfoy sneered quietly, if people think we’re…”

Harry held up his hand stopping Malfoy in mid-sentence. He shook his head and looked around, then motioned to Malfoy to follow him toward a classroom. Cracking the door he shoved Malfoy through then slipped in himself and then locked the door.

“Can house elves go through walls?” Harry asked.

“Yes,” Malfoy answered, a bit befuddled.

“Damn,” Harry hissed, his eyes darting around the room. Malfoy began to understand and pulled his wand.

“Tego,” he whispered. A white light burst from his wand in an ever-expanding ball. When the light hit the walls, it lingered and for a moment the walls glowed. When the light faded, Malfoy spoke again. “Father would send Dobby to my room to spy on me, and report back. The spell lasts only a few minutes, but it was long enough for Dobby to decide it was more important to start cleaning. You’re being followed for attacking Seamus, aren’t you?” he asked. Harry searched the room once again looking for the slightest movement. On a desk was a text -- Runes of the East. On its cover were three runes, one that looked identical to the crossed lightning bolts on Harry’s forearm.

“Come on, Harry,” Malfoy called out. “We only have a few more minutes.”

“Viswa Vajra,” Harry whispered, touching the picture on the book’s cover.

“What?”

“Draco, you said you were being protected somehow. Do you think it’s the mark on your face?”

“Hardly a mark, Potter,” Malfoy replied rubbing the red scar that ran from the corner of his eye. “But yes, twice, maybe three times I’ve avoided spells or enchanted items I didn’t know were coming. If it’s not this bloody scar, I don’t know what it is. Now get on with it!” Harry turned to look at Malfoy.

“You’re being followed, Draco, not me. I’ve been hexed with a protection charm meant for Muggles, not wizards. They believe I’ve passed the same hex on to you.”

“So what?” Draco asked flatly. “You’re protected and I am too. How can that be bad?”

“Because this Muggle hex, or whatever it is I’ve passed on to you, drives wizards mad. They come to believe that they’re being attacked at the slightest provocation. The protection kicks in and they kill all who threaten them.”

“That’s why you attacked Finnigan?” asked Malfoy, a hint of concern flushing his face.

“Yes… maybe. He’s not the first I’ve wanted to… to hurt. They say I’m going crazy, Draco. They say I’ve become, or am becoming a madman because of the mark. At least they think I am, and they believe… they hope… you’ll be one too.”

“Hope? What are you talking about? Who’s they? Why would—”

“Let’s say you are, Draco, infected that is. Let’s say that in, oh, I don’t know, a day or two you decide to attack someone that taps you on the shoulder. Tell me, what happens if little Mr. Malfoy goes home for Christmas and gets in an argument with daddy? What happens if Auntie Bellatrix tells you to leave the room and you don’t want to? Boom! That’s what happens.”

“That’s madness! Dumbledore would never—”

“Dumbledore’s dying!” Harry shot back. “What was it you said, Malfoy? The Ministry’s growing concerned about that tottering old fool of a Headmaster. Dumbledore’s not running Hogwarts and Lupin has his own plans filled with hate for those that killed Sirius.” Harry clenched his fists and kicked over a chair; he could feel the anger roiling inside him again. “Me, they put a hex on so that if I get angry, I whistle. The house elf follows you and makes sure the madness doesn’t consume you here at Hogwarts, but when you go home, they don’t care! Worse, we can’t discuss our plans with a house elf running about, waiting for an opportunity to chatter back to Lupin.”

“You are insane, Potter!” Draco cried out with a bit of a tremor in his voice. The oh-so-smug veneer was stripping away. “We leave tomorrow! And you’re telling me I’m a freaking, walking, time-bomb! If it’s true, you won’t see me again. They’ll see to that.” Malfoy began to tremble, breathing heavily and leaning against the wall. “You’ve… you’ve seen them! You know what they’ll do. They’ll kill me if I so much as look like I’ll raise my wand the wrong way, Potter.”

Harry had seen Malfoy scared before, running in the Forbidden Forest, or hiding behind Crabbe and Goyle. But he’d never seen him like this. The last time they met in a classroom, Malfoy revealed there was humanity buried beneath the surface and now… vulnerability. Harry walked over and put his hand on Malfoy’s shoulder.

“Nobody’s going to die, Draco,” Harry said calmly. “They’re wrong. He’s wrong… I hope. I… er, have a theory.” Harry glanced over at the book on the desk.

“A theory?” Malfoy cried. “A theory?”

Harry turned Malfoy’s shoulders and sat him in a chair. Then lowering himself on one knee, he pulled back his right hand and punched Malfoy square in the face knocking both the blonde and the chair backwards onto the floor. Harry winced as a shot of pain exploded from where he had been skewered by Goyle’s broom. The injury had still not completely healed. Still, his blow landed true. Malfoy crumpled off the chair, shook his head to clear it, and instantly pulled his wand pointing it at Harry.

“Relash…” Malfoy tried to call out, but before the spell could leave his lips, his face burst into pain. “Argh!” he cried, holding his hands to his left cheek and dropping his wand. At the same time, Harry’s arm flared and he doubled over to the floor.

“You felt that,” Harry spat through clenched teeth. “Don’t you see? We’re linked, you and me, but what was placed on me is not the same as what was placed on you. Look!” Harry pulled up his sleeve revealing the scar blazing on his forearm. “Do you see?” Malfoy stumbled over to Harry’s side and sat on the floor. He grabbed Harry’s arm and held it, staring at the scar. His finger traced the blade down to the wrist where it stopped. There Malfoy tapped twice on the two lightning bolts that crossed at the tip of the sword. “Exactly,” Harry said.

“Viswa Vajra,” Malfoy muttered.

“Geese!” Harry cried with exasperation. “How is it everyone knows what the symbol is but me?” Sitting back, Malfoy smiled.

“Elementary school, Harry,” chided Malfoy. “Elementary school.” Harry simply rolled his eyes, and shook his head. Malfoy’s smile had contorted the scar on his face, which was now a deep scarlet. Harry held his hand to it.

“I’m sorry for this, Draco. If I had to do it over…”

“I know… you would have blasted me out the window,” said Malfoy smugly. Harry shoved him on the shoulder.

“The point is it’s not the same protection. I meant it for you, a wizard, and somehow it protects you against magical attacks, not Muggle ones. You won’t threaten your Death Eater friends. You won’t go mad… just me.” Harry pulled down his sleeve and stood, but Malfoy’s eyes clearly doubted his words. “Hermione checked!” Harry lied.

At this, Malfoy seemed satisfied and Harry took his hand and helped him stand. There was a rustling at the door and the two students knew they were now no longer alone. Malfoy looked at Harry.

“My father always taught me to turn disadvantages to advantages, Potter. Deficits to attributes. I will deal with this,” he shot a glance to the door, “in the same way.”

“You’d better have that face of yours looked at, Malfoy.” Harry sneered, trying to act angry. “Although most people are used to you having a swollen head.”

Harry started for the door with Malfoy close behind. For an instant, as they passed into the corridor, their knuckles touched in a silent, secret handshake and then they split apart, each heading in opposite directions.

When Harry arrived at the Great Hall for dinner, it was bursting with energy and laughter. Students were eating, and talking, and every now and then a cracker or sparkler would light off. Seamus was having his last dinner with the Ravenclaws and at the Gryffindor table Goyle sat next to Ron, Hermione, and to his surprise Parvati.

“I didn’t see that,” Harry whispered to himself with a smile. Hermione waved him over.

He passed by the Ravenclaw table when someone grabbed his arm. He almost pulled his wand, before he realized it was Cho.

“Hi,” she said, smiling.

Looking down at her eyes, Harry’s heart skipped. “Hi,” he said, smiling back.

“I wanted to thank you for watching over James. He idolizes you, you know.” She ran her hand through her black hair and smiled broader. “Are you going home for Christmas?”

“Erm, yeah,” Harry muttered, “to see the family and all.”

“No,” Cho’s eyes narrowed, “to see her.” Harry blushed, and said nothing. “There are things witches can do, Harry, that a Muggle girl could never even dream of, let alone a wizard boy. You do know that don’t you?” Harry suddenly became aware that Marietta was listening intently, as were three other girls sitting around Cho at the Ravenclaw table.

“Things?” Harry's voice cracked, and they all broke out in laughter.

“You’ll see… sooner than you think, Harry Potter,” Cho answered slyly. “I promise.” Marietta and the other girls howled, but Cho’s eyes were frozen with confidence. “Merry Christmas, Harry,” she said, standing on her own two feet and kissing Harry gently on the cheek. A blast of tingling frost seemed to spread across his face. “Have I got a surprise for you,” she breathed into his ear and a cold shiver ran down the back of his neck, although he was sure his face was flaming.

“M-Merry Christmas,” Harry stammered, and then turned and continued to the Gryffindor table. Sitting between Ron and Parvati he just looked into space for a moment rubbing his face.

“What was that about?” Ron asked. When Harry told them, Ron shook his head in agreement. “Well, she’s right on that point, Harry. Why, just the other day… ouch!” Ron reached down to his shin and looked across the table at Hermione whose eyes were flaming sparks in his direction. “Yeah, er, well… want some turkey?”

The group ate and shared plans for their vacation. Ron was returning to Grimmauld place, where Charlie and even Percy were going to be home for Christmas dinner. Hermione was going home with her parents, but planned to spend time at Grimmauld for the New Year. It also appeared that Goyle and Parvati were trying to figure out a way they could meet over the holiday. Everyone was coupling off and for no reason, Ron’s face fell. He looked down at Ginny who was sitting next to Dean. She’d been crying earlier in the morning just thinking about how she’d be away from him for two weeks. But Dean had insisted he was not going to the Weasley home without everyone’s approval, and everyone meant Ron.

“Dean!” Ron called out. “Can you rip yourself away from my sister for a sec?” Dean just glared back. “Come on,” Ron beckoned. Ginny tilted her head for Dean to see what it was about, and Dean walked over and sat between Harry and Ron.

“Potter,” Dean said shortly toward Harry, and then he turned to look at Ron. “What is it Weasley?” Ron shifted his weight and took a deep breath.

“I think you should know that I’ve been an arse, and I’m sorry. I think you… no, I… I insist that you come to our house over the holidays.” There was an awkward silence. “Maybe a day or two. It’s a big place and I think we can place enough protection charms to keep you from accidentally sleepwalking into Ginny’s room at night.” At this Dean smiled and slowly began to nod his head in agreement.

“Okay,” Dean said, shaking Ron’s hand. “I, er, well… thank you, Ron.”

“Don’t thank me, thank Harry,” said Ron. “It’s his place. I’d never invite you to stay at the Burrow. It’s too small. You and Ginny would be cramped up next to each other all day.” Dean looked at Harry who was looking kindly back.

“Thanks, Harry.” Then he turned back to Ron. “How do I get there?”

“Ah, yes,” Ron stammered. “Well, that’s a bit tricky really. We need to ask Professor Lupin, but I’m sure he’ll say it’s okay.” Hearing these words, a rolling thunderhead loomed dark across Harry’s eyes.

“What!” he exclaimed. “You’ll have to ask who?” Ron lowered his head shooting glances up and down the table. “It’s my bloody house!”

“It’s normally Dumbledore’s job,” Ron whispered. “You remember, Harry?” The words spun Harry back in time to when he first met the Order of the Phoenix… a simple piece of paper with narrow handwriting, stating where the Order might be found -- number twelve, Grimmauld Place. Sirius offered up his home to help fight Voldemort, a home now left to Harry, and with Dumbledore ill, or worse, Harry felt a deepening sense of remorse and anger welling up inside him, and it was all targeted at Remus Lupin.

“What do you mean? Who put Remus in charge?” With each passing moment, the anger and guilt swirled with his already unsteady emotions, growing more intense, almost beyond his control. It was all he could do to keep his voice low when he grabbed Ron by the robes and pulled him close behind Dean’s back. “Is he… is Lupin also in charge of the Order?” Harry snapped. Ron reluctantly nodded.

“Until Dumbledore gets better, Harry.”

“But why didn’t he say?” Harry shot back. “Why didn’t he tell me? It’s… it’s my house, right? And… and why is it you know, and I don’t?” Dean, sitting between the two, was caught in a ping-pong match of words that was more ping than pong. “Is it my bloody house, or isn’t it?” Now everyone around was looking at Harry and a few were looking concerned. Ron sheepishly nodded.

“Dean,” Harry spat, standing from the bench, “you’re coming for the holiday! I don’t give a damn what Remus Lupin says.” Harry stormed up to the head table where Remus was eating and leaned in to the Professor’s ear.

“You want him to die, don’t you?” Harry hissed. “You’re waiting for the old buzzard to croak, so you can have it all! Is that it Remus?” cried Harry, feeling the rage swell within him. “Kill ‘em all, eh, werewolf?” Professor Lupin furled his eyebrows in either anger or concern. “Don’t play dumb with me!” Harry shouted at the top of his lungs pulling his wand and all heads turned in the Great Hall to the front table in a great gasp. “I know what…” suddenly Harry’s stomach lurched and an insatiable urge to whistle took over. In the next instant he was whistling to all of Hogwarts a tune he’d heard over the summer. A few bars in to the song, the room broke out in laughter and applause. Harry, unable to stop, felt the anger fade to embarrassment and returned to the Gryffindor table, where Hermione took him gently by the arm.

“Breathe, Harry,” she said calmly, “deep breaths.” Harry sat back on the bench and a moment later regained control. Seeing Harry a bit disoriented, Hermione smiled nervously. “Well, I guess we know that works.”

“I won’t w-wet him do w-it…” Harry sputtered in a half-whistle. Dean shook his head in confusion and walked over to Ginny telling her the news that he’d be seeing her over the holiday and she grabbed Dean and squeezed him tight.

“Really, Ron?” she yelled out. When Ron nodded, she rushed over and kissed him on the cheek, causing his face to match his hair. “You’re the greatest, you know that don’t you?” She kissed his other cheek and ran back to Dean racing on about all that they would do in London.

“I’m tired,” Harry said flatly, finally gathering his composure. “I’m going to bed.”

“But they’re having a dance after dinner, Harry,” Hermione said, trying to encourage him to stay. “It might lift your spirits.” Harry spread a false toothy smile across his face.

“Yeah, right, so everyone can stare at the madman, Harry Potter.” He took one last look at the head table, and while his eyes blazed at Remus, his heart felt nothing but contempt. “You’re not Dumbledore,” he breathed.

When Harry passed through the portrait of the Fat Lady into the common room, he found it nearly deserted. Most everyone had decided to stay at the dance and only a few first years were scattered about chatting. One, a boy with blonde hair Harry had seen but didn’t know, stood staring out the window. Not really knowing why, Harry walked over and looked out with him. It was snowing again and the castle grounds were lit by the waxing moon. Icicles fell off the eves and plummeted to the ground shattering in a spectacular flash of coloured light.

“Excited about getting back home?” Harry asked. “Chance to tell your parents about your first term at Hogwarts?” There was a moment of silence before the young boy spoke.

“No,” he sighed, “I’m stayin’ at Hogwarts this Christmas.”

“But what about your family?” Harry questioned, turning to face the ten year old.

“Me ma an’ da died in a car crash last year.” There was a long pause as Harry tried to understand, but couldn’t. The young boy was used to the expression hanging on Harry’s face, much as Harry had come to expect the stares at his forehead. “They were Muggles,” the boy replied to Harry’s questioning eyes. “I walked away from it.” The boy held his hand to the glass and then tilted his forehead till it too met the pane, and looked blankly out into the night. “Just, walked away. If I’d a known what I could do then, maybe I could a saved ‘em.” The boy shuddered and Harry heard the splash of tears on the floor.

“What’s your name?” Harry asked quietly.

“Patrick… Patrick O’Riley,” he sniffed, his head still against the glass. Harry nodded and stood there looking out the window at his side.

“I spent the last five years of Christmases here at Hogwarts. It’s great, you’ll see.” There was a long pause. “I… I don’t know if you heard, but I lost my parents too.” Patrick wiped his eyes with his sleeve and looked up at Harry.

“When I heard I was teh be in Gryffindor… in the same house as Harry Potter… someone who might know… know what it felt teh…” he burst out crying and put his arms around Harry who held him tight. Holding Patrick, sobbing in his arms, Harry looked out at the beauty of the falling snow and the occasional bursts of colour shattering in the night. Once again, his mind turned to Luna and Neville, lost somewhere out there in the darkness and as the moon rose in the sky, a tear tumbled down his own cheek.

From the day he first walked into the Wizarding world, he had endured the stares at his scar, the gawks, and hushed whispers. How many times had he been praised or jeered as The Famous Harry Potter? He loathed his name; he detested his scar; he despised his history. And yet, here, for the first time in his life, on a chance meeting with a kid he’d never thought of twice… his name meant something... something of value. Harry let go and lifted Patrick’s chin with his hand.

“It gets better,” he said smiling, “you’ll see; friends make all the difference.” Harry held out his hand, opened his palm, and conjured a handkerchief. Patrick’s eyes grew wide. “Here.” Harry grinned and handed the handkerchief to Patrick. “How ‘bout I make you a deal… I’ll watch your back, if you watch mine. What do you say? We orphans… we’ve got to stick together, eh?” Harry held out his hand and Patrick, with the slightest of smiles, shook it. Harry took in a deep breath.

“You know,” Harry said, “there’s no point in sulking around this dull place. I hear there’s a dance tonight in the Great Hall; how about we go check it out?” Wiping his eyes with the handkerchief, Patrick smiled fully.

“Sounds great,” he said with a much lighter voice. “James told me there might be a live band.”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” said Harry, putting his arm around Patrick and heading to the door. “Let’s go see.” Together, the two orphans passed through the portrait of the Fat Lady, leaving their troubles for tomorrow.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 42 - Out of Love, True Power
~~~***~~~


The sound of merriment filled the Gryffindor common room as Harry and his friends made their way back from the dance. Harry had just told them the story of how he’d somehow made a chocolate-mint ice-cream cone attack Malcolm Smelt at the pool last summer and Dean couldn’t help but double over with laughter.

Harry had spent much of the dance talking to people who were, instead of calling him a madman, encouraging him to fight on. Just days earlier, Harry nearly left Hogwarts ignorant of the depth of support he had from both his friends and the students, like Patrick, who he barely knew at all. But more importantly, the past two hours spent talking and laughing at the dance had cleared the air between Harry and his dorm mates. Discovering that Harry had a girlfriend in Little Whinging, Dean let go of his jealously of Harry, and Ron apologized to Dean for being an arse all school year. It wasn’t long before Dean, Harry and Ron began discussing their plans for Dean’s Christmas visit to Grimmauld Place. The plans were getting so complex and time consuming that Ginny was wondering if Dean would have any time for her.

“I think I liked it better when you three weren’t talking to each other,” she whispered in Harry’s ear at the dance. “I’m not sure I want to share Dean when he visits.”

Harry smiled as he looked across the sea of students. He began to see glimmers of Dumbledore’s dream for Hogwarts. Students from different houses who had come to know each other during DA meetings were mixing and mingling. He was most surprised seeing students from Ravenclaw and Slytherin dancing with each other. Patrick found James Chang by the snack buffet and the two spent most of their time with two first year girls from Hufflepuff. “Interesting,” thought Harry. “If it hadn’t been for Patrick….”

Back in the common room, the fifth years seemed to cluster about the fireplace. Even though they were all exhausted, nobody wanted to go to sleep. Finally, Goyle announced he was heading upstairs. He had taken a couple steps up to the boys’ dorm when Parvati ran over and whispered something in his ear. They then hugged and she kissed his cheek. Nobody said a word when she returned to stand at the mantelpiece.

“He’s quite nice you know,” she said, trying to justify her attraction and the slight scarlet tinge in her cheeks. “I mean… for a Slytherin.”

“Slytherin has nothing to do with it, Parvati,” Harry said. “He’s just plain Greg Goyle and you’d be hard pressed to find a better bloke in Hogwarts.” A grand smile spread across Parvati’s face as those gathered around the fireplace nodded their assent. Harry yawned, blinking blankly at the fire. Finally, shaking the cobwebs from his mind, he announced, “I’m off to bed too. Goodnight.”

When Harry got upstairs he found Goyle already in bed and, to Harry’s surprise, reading. Harry undressed and sat at the side of his own bed. “I thought you were tired,” he said, his mind cluttered and groggy.

“I saw Flitwick this evening, and Ron was right,” Goyle answered over his book. “I can retest for Charms after the holiday.”

“That’s excellent, Greg!”

“Don’t tell anybody. Okay, Harry? I don’t need the pressure if this falls through. And anybody includes Ron.”

“No problem,” said Harry smiling back. He looked up to see Goyle looking, not at him, but past him over his shoulder. “What?” he asked, turning to see what Goyle was looking at. He had tossed his shirt on his desk where the dragonhead sat next to a burning candle. Goyle looked down at his text and then back up at the desk. “What is it Goyle?” Harry asked again.

“The ball… it’s cinnabar, right?” he asked looking back at his text.

“I don’t know,” Harry answered. “You’re the one that told me it might be a baby Bludger, or something.”

“What about the stone of life?” Goyle asked. Harry just looked at him blankly. He was far too tired for textbook conversations. He sighed, shook his head and put his head to pillow.

“Goodnight, Greg,” he answered blearily, exhausted. But Goyle was undaunted, and he began to read out loud, albeit slowly.

“Extremely rare, only a few have been found east of the Caucassus Mountains. Always small and highly polished, they are made of cinnabar or serpentine. The largest known vivificus stone was The Heart of Asha. Last seen in the Great Purge, it was used by Pravus to restore himself. Its theft from the Iscadian vault is deemed, by some, to be the turning point of the war.” Goyle looked up from his book and looked into the skeptical eyes of his dorm mate. “Harry, there’s a painting,” he said tapping the pages. Rolling his eyes toward the ceiling and exhaling a large huff, Harry reluctantly slid out of bed to look at the picture. The painting was of a spherical red stone supported by three sharp silver spikes thrusting upward from an ornate gold stand.

“What? That thing?” Harry sneered. “For all I can tell, that could be a tiny marble or a bowling ball.” Just then, a hand reached down and grabbed the object putting its size into perspective. A black onyx ring on one finger, the hand was sickeningly translucent. “Pravus,” Harry thought. A spike skewered one of the sickly fingers and light flashed from the ball between the finger’s companions until the scene went dazzling white and then returned to what Harry first saw. He walked over to his desk and picked up the stone from the dragonhead. Holding it next to the page as Goyle held open the text, the two watched the scene repeat.

“It’s the same,” Goyle whispered.

“No it’s not,” Harry said dismissively. “That… that stone there… it’s… it’s too red. That’s what it is… too red.” Goyle shut the text and levitated it over to his desk.

“Uh huh. Sure,” he said with a tinge of sarcasm, extinguishing the candles above his bed leaving only the candle on Harry’s desk flickering. “Goodnight.”

“I mean,” Harry said pacing the floor with the stone in his hands. “My cousin gave me this stone. That’s all it is… a polished chunk of rock!” But the book’s painting was as vivid as any in Hogwarts and it clearly showed the same polished surface, the same dark grain and glint of ember. And perhaps more importantly, the two stones were identical in size. “Rubbish!” Harry hissed at himself. “Damn Ron for trying to get you into Charms and damn you for listening! You’ve got me all worked up over nothing. It’s just a rock!” He dropped it into the teeth of the dragonhead and threw himself onto his bed. “I’m going to sleep.”

“I said goodnight already,” answered Goyle grinning. Except for Harry tossing from one side of the bed to the other, there was a long period of silence in their dorm. From downstairs, there was an occasional burst of laughter, faint and distant. The wind was picking up outside and it began to whistle against the windows. Finally, Harry could bear it no more.

“What’s a vivificus stone?” he asked sheepishly. Goyle tried not to laugh.

“You’re the one in the N.E.W.T. not me,” Goyle chided. Harry sat upright and scowled. Menacingly he pointed his right hand at Goyle, narrowed his eyes, and presented the best evil grin he could muster. “Okay, okay,” Goyle said holding his hands in the air. “No need to get all uppity. It’s the ‘life stone’, Harry. They say you can bring people back from death, near death, anyway. In History, Professor Binns has been talking about how Pravus used it to stave off the many killing curses he endured.”

“But how do they work?” Harry asked, looking back at the stone on his desk.

“That’s probably why you don’t remember studying about them. It’s one of the great mysteries, Harry. Nobody knows.” Goyle shrugged his shoulders. “I guess you’re right, eh? If you don’t know how it works, it is just a rock.” Harry looked hard at the stone considering the possibilities and then the pieces of the puzzle that had been floating in his mind began to come together.

“Such a simple spell,” he whispered, echoing Dumbledore’s words. “But I’ve yet to realize its full potential.” He cast a glance at the staircase leading down to the common room. They were still chatting and laughing.

“Watch the door,” he whispered to Goyle as he stood back up and walked over to his desk. Goyle got out of bed and guarded the door as Harry slid the dragonhead and stone to the edge of his desk. He pulled his wand and pointed it at the ball of cinnabar, but then lowered his hand. “This is stupid. Gabriella will kill me if I tell her I melted…” Harry paused, then under his breath he whispered, “Out of bravery, fire.” He raised his wand back to the stone, touching it with the wand’s holly tip. “And, no, Hermione,” he whispered to the air, his lips pressed tight against his teeth, “I haven’t thought this through.” Harry focused all his being to the center of the cinnabar.

“Incendio!” he called out. A blast of fire erupted, pushing him a step backward, but the connection had been made. Instead of spreading out across the table, the flames seemed to be sucked into the ball. A great whirlwind of flame plummeted into the tiny red ball. When the flames stopped, the ball glowed bright, casting a fiery orange brilliance across the entire room. Even Goyle had to shield his eyes. Then, Harry reached out his hand to grab it.

“Stop!” Goyle yelled. “You’ll burn yourself!” But Harry’s mind was transfixed on the glowing orb before him and the memory of the textbook painting he’d just seen.

“Out of wisdom, blood,” he whispered. He clutched the ball, his mind trying to adjust to the fact that it felt like grabbing a piece of ice. With the stone still in the dragonhead, he turned it, slicing his fingers on the sharp teeth holding it in place. Blood flowed freely from his hand, but was absorbed by the ball like a thirsty sponge. In that instant, all went white, as Harry found himself being pulled, as if by Portkey, into the ball. He tried to let out a scream, but all was silent. Indeed, there was no sound, no motion, no vision, no sensation of any kind. He was in a vast expanse of whiteness… a blank canvass waiting for his next command.

“Like Pravus, can I cure myself?” Harry’s thoughts seemed to radiate from deep within his mind, and somehow he knew the answer was yes. “I can remove the curse… remove the madness.” For a moment his thoughts bent on the cure and the white began to mix with a swirl of black in his mind.

“Stop!” his mind rang out. “Out of love, true power.” The swirling stopped and the mixing black began to fade to gray and then to whiteness. “Where’s the love in curing oneself?” his thoughts called out to the open nothingness. For a long time, Harry’s mind turned the options that lay before it. Finally, his thoughts struck gold.

“Dumbledore!” he breathed, and in that instant he brought to bear his mind, his body, his soul to the healing of the Headmaster. Colours exploded in the whiteness and coalesced before Harry into a vision of the great wizard prone in his bed. It was a snapshot, frozen in time. The wizard was pale and gaunt, a mere skeleton of himself. The moment stood there before Harry’s eyes and somehow he knew he was being asked to continue. “Yes,” his mind called out. “YES!”

There was an explosion of light ripping from Harry’s very core and the colours of the snapshot before him came to life, swirling with vivid green flames into the chest of Dumbledore. The old wizard’s face awoke with astonishment and in that flash of brilliance his eyes and his mind met with Harry’s, and the look of astonishment became one of knowing gratitude. A smile passed across his face, but then the image began to race away, disappearing down a tunnel of darkness. There was a whoosh, as if a great wind extinguished a fire, and all went black.

“Harry!” Goyle called out. For a moment, Harry didn’t know where he was. He opened his eyes to see Goyle kneeling at his side. Harry found himself on his back, underneath his desk, the red stone still clutched tightly in his hand. A bit dizzy, he sat up and looked down as he opened his hand. There was no blood, no cut, no mark of any kind.

“What happened?” he asked groggily. “How long have I been out?” He once again heard the distant laughter from the common room below.

“Out?” Goyle asked. “You touched the stone and just fell to the floor. What’s that… three seconds?”

“That’s not possible,” Harry answered back, suddenly realizing he was very tired. Goyle helped him back to his bed. “I was in there for at least twenty minutes, maybe an hour.”

“In where?” Goyle asked, perplexed.

“In the… the…” A wave of exhaustion broke over Harry, and he faded to sleep.

Harry woke to a flurry of activity in the dormitory. The sun blazed through the window as bags were zipping and trunks slamming. Everyone was getting ready to leave for the holiday.

“Finally,” Dean said with a smile tossing a large duffle onto his bed. “Hey, Ron, he’s awake!” Harry looked over to Ron who was trying to stuff another pair of socks into his already overfilled bag.

“You know,” said Harry, scratching his head and wondering what Ron was doing, “you are going home and you do have clothes there.” Ron turned around almost trying to use his body to hide the bag behind him.

“Yeah, well, I, er… you never know what you’re going to need to wear, right?” He tossed his jacket over the bag and walked over to Harry, who was now sitting up rubbing his face. “Rough day, yesterday. Good to see you got some sleep.” Harry thought back to the evening before. Was it all a dream? He looked over to Goyle’s bed, but everything had been cleared out. Ron looked over too.

“He’s gone,” Ron said, a bit of sadness tingeing his words. “Told us to look out after you, though. What’d he say Dean?” Dean zipped his bag and set it on his bed.

“Let’s see,” Dean began, flopping down on his own bed. “‘Harry had a bit of a fall last night. Make sure he wakes up himself in the morning.’ It’s a bit mysterious if you ask me, but Goyle always was a little melodramatic, don’t you think?” Ron nodded in agreement as Harry stood.

“Well, I’m me,” Harry said. “And my stomach is telling me it’s time for breakfast. I’ll take a quick shower and be back. Can you two wait?” In unison, both Dean and Ron rolled their eyes with impatience, but then nodded their heads.

“Sure,” they answered reluctantly. “Ten minutes! That’s it!”

When the three finally made it to the Great Hall, they found it buzzing with conversation. Daily Prophets were spread everywhere and everyone was pointing and talking with wild expressions.

“Something’s happened,” Ron whispered as they stepped in. They were making their way over to the Gryffindor table when Hermione looked up from her paper. There was a throng of students looking over her shoulder, but when she saw Harry and Ron, she folded the paper, pushed the crowd aside and walked over to them.

“She caught two,” Hermione said above the din. “Tonks caught two.” She grabbed Harry by the arm, pulling him toward the large entrance doors of the Great Hall. Ron followed as Dean chose instead to sit down next to Ginny to get the news.

“Can’t we eat first?” Ron called out, but Hermione ignored him, briskly walking out of the Great Hall and into the corridor where they could have more privacy. “I’ve read it three times, but something’s bothering me,” she said opening the paper and displaying the front-page news.


Two key Death Eaters were apprehended last night during a midnight raid in a small farmhouse outside of Newcastle. The raid was led by Nymphadora Tonks, a junior Auror at the Ministry of Magic, currently on leave to teach at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Several Ministry members descended on the farmhouse shortly after midnight, based on a tip received by Auror Tonks earlier in the week. None were hurt in the skillful attack that captured Andrew Wythe and Terrence Pendleton, active recruiters for the ever-growing numbers of Death Eaters.

“We’ve been tracking these two down for some time now,” Auror Tonks said. “The wizards of Britain can rest easier now that the two are headed to Azkaban.”

When asked about any information concerning the location of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, or the missing Hogwarts students, Auror Tonks had no comment.


“It goes on,” Hermione said, but that’s the gist of it. “I don’t know what it is, but—”

“Wythe & Pendleton?” Harry asked, taking the paper from Hermione’s hands. Reading a few lines he spoke under his breath. “He said they’d be punished.” He looked out across the empty corridor. “They tried to serve him, and he’s sent them to Azkaban. If Draco doesn’t…”

“What are you talking about, Harry?” Ron asked.

“Voldemort!” Harry snapped making the redhead cringe. “Don’t you remember?” Harrys asked, recalling the many time the three had examined his connections with the Dark Lord. “These were the two that had Luna.” Harry searched his memory. “They brought her to me… him, I mean. He said they’d pay.”

“I remember,” said Hermione softly. “But why would he give them up willingly?” she asked.

“I don’t know, Hermione,” Harry answered in frustration. “They were afraid of him; I think he takes some sick pleasure in punishing people for no real reason. How… why anyone would follow such a madman…” The word reverberated in Harry’s mind like a peal of thunder. He staggered backward and crumpled against the wall. Hermione knelt down and took his shoulder.

“You’ll be fine, Harry,” she said with a gentle voice. “We’ll find a way to—”

Suddenly the Great Hall erupted into cheers. The sound, even out in the corridor, was deafening. The three friends walked to the entrance to see Tonks striding in to sit at the head table. Dressed in dark purple robes, she was exuberant. There was a radiance that Harry had never really seen before. She stood at an empty chair next to Remus, waved just briefly, and sat down. The clapping quieted and a handful of students went up to the head table to shake her hand.

“Let’s eat,” Ron said emphatically. “I’m starving.”

“Don’t you want to welcome her back?” Hermione asked. Ron looked at the long line of students and then at the food on the table and chose to sit down at an open space near a large plate of sausages. Hermione sighed. “Well, I guess that answers that.”

Halfway through breakfast, Professor McGonagall stood up from her chair and addressed the students gathered. “I needn’t remind you that the Hogwarts Express departs Hogsmeade at ten o’clock. The carriages will leave the school at nine-thirty. Please have all your belongings with you and be ready to go by then.” She paused looking at the empty chair beside her and bit her lip. “I am sure Professor Dumbledore would wish you all well on your travels. I warn you, however, that you must be exceptionally careful while away from the school.”

“The Headmaster would agree, Professor McGonagall,” a familiar voice resonated from the entrance to the Great Hall. “And be sure to take plenty of socks!” All eyes swung toward the front doors. There was a collective gasp as all saw Professor Dumbledore standing in the archway. Even Professor McGonagall gave out a shudder wondering if, perhaps, she was watching a ghost. With steady steps, and a strong deliberate stride, Professor Dumbledore walked between the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables on his way to the front of the Great Hall. He smiled and patted students on the way. As students began to realize that this was no vision, no ghost, but the man himself smiles spread like wildfire across the room. One by one they began to pound the tables in a rhythmic beat. Soon his name was attached to the rhythm.

“Dum-ble-dore! Dum-ble-dore! Dum-ble-dore!”

Professor McGonagall was alabaster white as the Headmaster turned the corner of the head table. As he made the turn, he took his first glance over at the Gryffindor students where Harry now stood cheering his name with the others. There he found a look of joy on Harry’s face that had not been present all year. The old wizard smiled broadly and winked at Harry. When he came to stand before Professor McGonagall she was shaking and, unable to withhold her emotions, wrapped her arms around him in a grand hug. The school exploded with deafening cheers. Only a handful of Slytherins sat with their arms crossed. One of them was Draco Malfoy, but Greg Goyle standing at his left continued to howl. Dumbledore shook hands with a few of the other professors and then raised his hands to try to quiet the school down. It was several minutes before he could gain control and even he was taken aback by the outpouring of emotion.

“It has been over a month since I last joined you for breakfast. Forgive me, today, for being a bit late. The staff tells me that the fried toast is particularly good this morning, but I thought perhaps something a bit more festive.” Dumbledore clapped his hands and instantly the room was transformed into a holiday postcard. Christmas décor spanned the walls and ceiling, while the tables began to fill with candy, lots of candy. “The peppermint sticks are a personal favorite of mine, although I’m not sure how they taste with sausage.”

Without saying another word, Professor Dumbledore sat down next to Professor McGonagall and unwrapped a large peppermint stick. Again, the room cheered. The attention that had minutes earlier been focused on Professor Tonks was now completely transferred to the Headmaster.

“You can quit squeezing my leg now, Hermione,” Ron called out in agony.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Ron,” Hermione squealed. “I… I can’t believe it! I just can’t believe it! They said he… Oh, it’s a miracle!”

“I thought you said he was getting better, Hermione,” Ron answered back rubbing his leg. “What’s the surprise?” At this, Hermione’s eyes began to find something else to look at, and Harry realized he wasn’t the only one she was hiding something from.

“He was almost dead, wasn’t he?” Harry asked. The words were direct and to Harry’s surprise Hermione gave a direct answer.

“Yes,” she replied, anticipating a rebuke that never came. “Professor McGonagall didn’t think he’d see Christmas.” With this success, Harry considered a follow-up question but remembered that it was he who asked not to be told.

“Well, he’s better now,” said Harry, his heart lighter than it had been since the summer with Gabriella. He wasn’t about to tell anybody about last night. He’d sound like a conceited slob. No, that would be his and Goyle’s secret, at least until he was sure it wasn’t all a dream. Harry looked over at the Slytherin table to find Malfoy talking heatedly with Pansy Parkinson, but Goyle looking over his way. The Slytherin wore a broad smile then turned to scoop up some more eggs.

Harry, Ron and Hermione finished breakfast and began the trek back up the Gryffindor tower. Many were already making their way down the moving staircases to the carriages waiting in front of the castle. The three had just climbed to the top of the second staircase and were waiting for it to slide into place, when a voice called from the landing on the far side.

“Wotcher, Harry!” It was Tonks, the colour of her hair lighter than it had been downstairs. She called to Hermione and Ron, “Do you two mind if I speak with him for a moment? Just a few pointers before I’m off for the holiday.”

“Actually, Professor Tonks,” said Hermione, “we’re running pretty late. Maybe later you could…”

“It’s okay,” interrupted Harry. “I’ve got a couple minutes.” Hermione gave Harry a look that held more irritation than seemed reasonable. “Only a minute,” Harry answered her expression. Hermione hesitated, clearly wanting to say something. She bit her lip, and then she and Ron stepped off the staircase and Harry rode it as it swung around toward the landing where Tonks was waiting. His friends continued to ascend to Gryffindor tower as Harry began to walk down the empty corridor toward Tonks’ classroom.

“How are you?” he asked. “We were starting to worry.” Tonks smiled and put her arm around Harry.

“It’s good to see you too!” she said. “I guess I’m more an Auror than a Professor. I knew we had them on the run and I couldn’t let go -- not when we were so close.” She stopped and turned Harry toward her looking him up and down. “And, how are you? Have you made any more contacts with You-Know-Who?” Surprised by the sudden question, Harry shook his head.

“I’ve tried to concentrate on school. It’s been a bit tough with both you and Snape gone.”

“Professor Snape,” she said with a smile. “He’s fine, Harry. I saw him not two days ago, doing what he does best.” It was odd, Harry thought. Her eyes seemed to look through him rather than at him. An eerie feeling crawled up his spine, as she took a few paces to his left, staring at him all the while. “It’s not truly appropriate for Professors to give their students any gifts of consequence during the school year. But, I’ve reviewed the rules and believe this would be appropriate.” She handed Harry a small red package with a green bow. Harry began to open it, but Tonks stopped him. “No. Not here. At Christmas Harry,” she said quietly. “Wait until Christmas.”

“Er, thanks, Tonks. Sorry, but I didn’t…”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. There was an awkward moment of silence.

“Well, I better get going,” said Harry, turning toward the door. “They’ll be leaving soon.” Tonks grabbed his arm.

“Wait,” she said, still smiling -- a bit too broadly, Harry thought. “I just wanted to know if you’ll be staying here for the holiday. Or are you heading off to Grimmauld Place? Maybe Privet Drive and Gabriella?”

“I know I’ve never been home for the holidays before, but...” He looked back down the empty corridor. It looked, somehow, darker. Something didn’t feel right, but Harry didn’t know why. “Really, Tonks, I need to go.”

“Sure thing, Harry,” she said, continuing to smile broadly. “I’ll check with Hermione. You’ll let her know won’t you?” Harry started back to the staircases leaving Tonks standing in the corridor alone.

“Hermione knows everything, Tonks!” he called back, and started jogging to catch up with his companions.

While they packed, he mentioned his conversation with Tonks to Ron and Hermione. Hermione furled her brow, but then a sly smile crossed her face.

“I’ll give Tonks the information she needs,” said Hermione with satisfaction.

Harry was oblivious to anything she said. The thought of returning to Little Whinging quickened his pulse. What would happen while he was there? Even Harry was unclear. There was a lot to talk about with Gabriella. Zipping his travel case, his innards lurched at the prospect of telling her the truth, wondering what her reaction might be. The feeling stayed with him as the three friends loaded up their gear in one of the Threstral driven carriages. With his hand, Ron stroked the flank of one of the creatures he couldn’t see.

“I can’t believe I rode one of these things to London,” he whispered. “I hope it’s a long time before I can ever see one,” he said grimly. Just then Hagrid called out, instructing all the students to hop in the carriages. He stepped over to Harry and ruffled his hair.

“You take care, now, eh?” he said with a hint of concern. “I’ll be thinking of yeh. Yer Christmas present is already waitin’ fer yeh when yeh get there. I’m not much at wrappin’ presents and all, but it’s got a nice bow.” He smiled and hugged Harry. “Be careful, and be happy.”

When they arrived at the train station there was, once again, an awkward moment as Ron and Hermione had to go to the prefect’s carriage.

“Go on,” Harry said, looking up and down the length of the train. “Catch up with me when you can.” Hermione and Ron jumped onto the train, but Harry hesitated. Something felt wrong, but he wasn’t sure why. His left thumb made its way to his right forearm and rubbed it gently, a habit that he’d found hard to break, especially lately. Somehow he felt as if he was being watched.

“Worried, Potter?” a voice drawled from behind him. Harry spun to see Malfoy flanked by Crabbe and Goyle. The three approached Harry, each carrying their bags over their shoulders. “Here Crabbe,” Malfoy ordered. “Take my bag in… and make sure I have a seat by the window.” Crabbe nodded taking Malfoy’s pack, but Goyle remained. Malfoy just rolled his eyes. “Oh, please, Goyle,” the blonde sneered. “Don’t tell me -- you think you need to protect me from Potter. Go on with Crabbe, I’ll follow in a minute.” Goyle stood firm and Malfoy sighed. “You think I’m going to attack, Potter?” An evil grin crossed Malfoy’s face as he glanced about, noting the absence of any professors in the immediate vicinity. “Well, now that you mention it… it’s not such a bad idea.”

“Go on Greg,” said Harry, drawing his wand. “I think Malfoy here is ready to give me an apology.”

“You wish,” Malfoy sneered. Nonetheless, Goyle climbed the steps of the carriage and Harry walked with Malfoy toward the front of the train. “I knew Gryffindor would ruin him, Potter,” Malfoy said rolling his eyes, “but I didn’t realize how much. Merlin, Parvati Patil? How could you let it happen?” Harry just laughed.

“It’s love, Draco,” Harry said as the glint in his eyes turned to a glare.

“And you think I don’t know what it means to love, right Harry?” Malfoy asked, his words dripping with sarcasm. “Well… maybe you’re right. But if you’re such an expert at it, Harry, tell me… what is love?” For a moment, Harry actually pondered the question as the last students mounted the train.

“An unconditional commitment for the betterment of others. It means sacrifice, Draco, more sacrifice than you’d ever be capable of giving of yourself.”

“Very… Ministerial of you, Harry. At least, that’s how it reads in the Daily Prophet. But all life’s real action takes place in the dark corners of this world, Harry -- the exchange of Galleons for favors. Wizards all talk of self-sacrifice and then they all line their pockets with gold when no one’s looking.”

“Look, you didn’t bring me out here to—”

“The two Death Eaters were caught near Newcastle,” Malfoy cut in with a lowered voice. “Newcastle’s just south of here.”

“I know where Newcastle is, Draco.”

“They’ve been waiting for you to come to him, Harry. The Death Eaters haven’t been anywhere near Hogwarts. Those two were meant to be caught, or…” Malfoy dropped his voice even lower, “they were spies; an advanced guard scouting a way to come and take you, Harry. Do you understand?”

“But, how do you—”

“Gentlemen.” They both turned to find Professor Dumbledore, but a few paces behind them.

“Sir,” they said in unison surprised by the sight.

“Mr. Malfoy, I was wondering if I might have a word with Mr. Potter.”

“Yes, sir,” Malfoy said, “Merry Christmas, sir.” Harry heard the emphasis on the word ‘Christmas’, but had no idea what it meant.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Malfoy,” Dumbledore said kindly as Malfoy walked back to the train’s entrance. “Extraordinary, Harry,” he whispered watching Malfoy climb the stairs.

“Really, sir, we were just—” Harry began, but Dumbledore raised his hand to stop him.

The whistle blew on the train announcing last call. Dumbledore walked Harry back to the train’s entrance. The old wizard began a story, as he put it, “about a truly remarkable Muggle.”

“When Michelangelo Buonarroti painted the Sistine Chapel, he built a scaffold that took him up to the ceiling. He climbed to the top and would paint one small square at a time. Finishing one patch of paint, he would climb down, move the scaffolding and begin again. If you were to climb to the top with him, you’d look at his work and say ‘My you’ve painted a wonderful ear,’ or admire perhaps the mixture of colour in and eye, but no more. Not until you returned to the floor and saw the complete fresco would you truly understand his genius. Not until you took on the entire ceiling would you understand the breadth of what he had accomplished.” They paused at the steps into the train. “You’re too close, I think, to see your own work, Harry. When I fell ill, Cho Chang was struggling to regain her strength. With your help she walks unassisted onto the very train that nearly cost her her life. Her brother James would have killed Mr. Malfoy were it not for you, and yet today I see James playing wizard chess with a first year from Slytherin; and now Draco exchanging pleasantries with you. Mr. Goyle was well on his way to dropping out of school, a path that would have surely meant his destruction. And yet, I hear he’ll be testing for the Charms N.E.W.T. with high expectations of passing. Small miracles in their own right, Harry. But the mural you’re creating is quite astounding.” There was a slight pause. “Please come back and finish it.”

“If I can Professor,” Harry said solemnly. “Depending on my… mental state and all.” Professor Dumbledore took Harry by the arm and looked at him closely.

“As you might imagine, I’ve only just learned of this new difficulty, Harry. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine, son. I promise you that.” His blue eyes were fixed, strong and earnest. In those eyes, Harry saw confidence and his anxiety softened. The train started to pull away and Harry jumped on the first step. “Harry!” the wizard called him back. Harry turned to see what Dumbledore wanted. “Thank you.” The whistle blew and the train began to puff its way forward. Closing the glass door, Harry watched as Dumbledore, and then the town of Hogsmeade faded from sight.

Suddenly two hands gently wrapped around Harry’s eyes. “Come on Cho, I think I’d know—” but then a familiar scent drifted to fill his nostrils. His heart began to race as perspiration instantly flashed across his whole body. Reaching for the hands he spun around. “Gabriella!”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 43 - Holiday Surprise
~~~***~~~


All the students had found their way to their carriages, leaving the corridor leading down the train empty; they were alone. Harry saw her there before him and for an instant he lost all sense of purpose and direction. Her face wore the familiar smile that always melted his heart and her eyes were dancing with a twinkle that could only be Gabriella’s. How long had he waited to be with her again? How many hours had he stayed up at night thinking only of this moment? Suddenly, he realized he was utterly and completely exposing himself to attack. Still holding her wrists, his hands tightened and his eyes narrowed. He looked hard trying to see through the veneer.

“The eyes,” he thought to himself. He gazed intently at the black pools beckoning him forward. They were true, but still he questioned his senses.

“What magic is this?” his voice quavered. “Who are you?”

“Harry, it’s me, Gabriella.”

“Liar!” he screamed out. He let go of one of her wrists and withdrew his wand. “Tell me your name! Show your self!”

“My true self?” she said mischievously. Harry stood frozen, every fiber ready to bring this imposter down. “Don’t be silly,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. In that instant, Harry relaxed.

“Gabriella?” he asked softly.

In a blur she spun, her wrist easily breaking free of Harry’s grasp. Before he could respond, she turned and threw her leg high into the air, her foot striking Harry’s wand and sending it flying down the corridor. Without hesitation Harry raised his right hand and a blast of white light struck the girl in the chest sending her into the wall. She crumpled to the ground coughing.

“I haven’t seen that one,” she gasped, rubbing her collar bone. “Mama said you were special.”

“Gabriella?” In a flash it became clear. There was only one person in this world Harry knew capable of removing his wand by hand and she’d done it without harming him in any way. Immediately he fell to her side, regretting every word that had come from his mouth. “I’m sorry… I’m so, so sorry… Are you okay?”

“Harry,” she gasped, bringing him closer. Then she whispered seductively into his ear, “when you bend over like this… you put yourself… at the disadvantage.” In an instant, she had his shoulder with her hand, her thumb driving forward and striking a nerve, sending waves of pain into Harry’s body. She swung her leg around his waist and pushed him down against the floor. He was unable to move his arm… completely helpless. She let go and pressed her entire body against his kissing him hard. “God, I’ve missed you,” she said breathlessly. Immediately, he responded wrapping his arms tight around her waist and pulling her close.

“Uh-hum,” a voice coughed from the corridor. “Could you two bring that in here?” It was Cho Chang, a knowing grin on her face. She was standing at the door of the nearest carriage, beckoning them inside.

“Cho?” Harry questioned from the floor, his back against the wall. Gabriella took to her feet and pulled Harry up by his shirt with both her hands.

“Some wizard you are, Potter,” said Cho. “Taken down by a girl no less. Here, you may need this later.” She handed him his wand as both he and Gabriella entered the empty carriage. “I have to get back to the prefect’s meeting so I only have a few minutes.” She sat down across from Harry and Gabriella. Harry was completely dumbfounded, a perplexed expression on his face. “You know Harry, you don’t look well,” she snickered. Harry looked at Cho, and then to Gabriella, and back again. He was speechless. Finally, Cho explained.

“One night, a few weeks ago, I sent an owl off with a post. I addressed it to Harry’s Gabriella.” Cho looked at Harry and patted his leg. “I was being stupid, Harry. I know that now.”

“Well, imagine my surprise when it came to me,” said Gabriella. A look of fear spread across Harry’s eyes. “You are an incurable criminal,” she said, pinching his arm hard. “Still, I wrote her back…”

“… and we’ve been writing ever since,” added Cho. She shifted in her seat, stood, and then gave Gabriella a hug. “I wondered what sort of Muggle would capture my Harry’s heart so completely. Hah!” Cho laughed, winking at Gabriella and stepping out into the corridor. “I’ve placed a locking charm on the outside of your door that not even Hermione Granger could open. You’d best keep an eye out for the trolley when it comes time to eat. But until then, you two are all alone.” Cho winked and waived her fingers, closing the door behind her. The second the door closed, Gabriella wrapped her arms around Harry’s neck and squeezed him tight.

“Thank goodness you’re okay,” she whispered. “Let me see.” She reached for his shirt.

“See what?” Harry asked, still completely lost and totally un-centered.

“Where it pierced you,” she answered, but still he was flummoxed. “The broom!” she said exasperated as she unbuttoned his shirt revealing his bare chest and abdomen. “Cho said you almost died and you didn’t say a word!”

“I couldn’t say, Gab. How could I? Pierced by a broom. What would you think? I tripped sweeping the floor?” She pulled his shirt back exposing the thin, red outline of the six-inch scar that still had not quite healed completely. Gabriella let out a gasp, holding one hand to her mouth while the other touched the scar.

“This should be healed by now!” she exclaimed, a bit of an over reaction in Harry’s mind. After all, it was nearly healed.

“Well,” he began, “I need to go back next summer and…”

“Next summer!” she cut in with even more concern. “What type of Healers do you have at that school of yours, anyway?” Her eyes flashed with anger and her lips went thin. The expression only lasted for a moment.

“Well, it wasn’t healed at the school, really. They worked on me at…”

“I’ve been a fool. I can’t do this any longer,” she said quietly. She kissed his neck, and then his chest, and then her lips touched the remnants of the scar. Harry squirmed a bit, trying to keep his right leg from twitching. She whispered something Harry couldn’t hear, then placed both her hands where Harry had been skewered. At first the sensation was warm and Harry began to relax. Slowly the warmth turned cold, uncomfortably cold. Harry tried to move, but Gabriella wouldn’t let him. It felt as if his flesh was turning to ice and it was spreading from her fingers out across his entire body. He was about to forcibly push her away, when she let go. The warmth rushed back and Harry looked down. The scar was gone.

“There, that’s better,” she said with a look of satisfaction on her face, and then her lips curled down. “But there’s something else wrong with your liver.” Her eyes flickered with fear as she held his hands. “Oh, Harry, Cho was right. You almost died.”

Harry’s eyes grew wide. He looked to the door, contemplating Cho’s last words, trying to put these new pieces together.

“You… you’re…” he stammered. “Are you?” he breathed. Gabriella smiled and wrapped her arms around him again.

“Don’t be silly,” she whispered. “Would Cho bring me here if I weren’t?” Hearing these words, Harry pulled back.

“Why… why didn’t you tell me?” he snapped.

“And why didn’t you tell me?” she fired back. “If you had died…” Her eyes were angry, and then sorrowful. She folded her arms, crossed her legs, and sat in the corner looking out the window. Outside, the sun blared bright against the white of the snow covering the earth. As Harry gazed at Gabriella’s silhouette against the lighted window, her face radiated with a brilliance and beauty that melted his heart. He moved over, sat at her side, and placed his hand on her arm.

“I missed you, too,” he whispered tilting his head gently against hers. A thin smile moved across Gabriella’s face as she unfolded her arms. Harry smiled back, reaching down to button up his shirt. Gabriella stopped the motion, taking his hand in hers.

“Don’t be silly,” she said, a twinkle flashing in her black eyes. She leaned over and kissed his lips. “We have things to do.” Harry’s heart began to pound as he pulled her tight.

Over two hours had passed before the trolley came by, offering food for the passengers. In that time, Harry had done his best to tell her everything. He spoke of his birth and of Voldemort, of how he came to live with the Dursleys, and finally of how he first learned that he was a wizard and came to Hogwarts. He had never spoken of the prophecy with anyone, although Ron and Hermione may have guessed it, and he would not share that with Gabriella. He did warn her, however, that she was in danger by being his girlfriend.

“Is that what I am, Harry?” she asked, taking a bite of sandwich and wiping the edge of her mouth with a white napkin. “Because I don’t remember you asking me.” There was the faintest hint of a smile on her face as she looked at him from the corner of her eye. Harry felt his tongue disappear somewhere down his throat as he tried to croak a response.

“Well, I assumed that…”

“Oh that’s classic!” she snapped, seeming to enjoy the moment. “I assumed,” she mocked in her best Potter voice. “Let’s get something straight right now. My name is Gabriella Arasha Darbinyan and no boy assumes anything where I am concerned. If you have plans for me in your life, Mr. Potter, you’d best ask straight away.” She set her hands together in her lap, her legs crossed, waiting for an answer. For the smallest of moments, Harry hesitated and then a smile crossed his face. Setting his sandwich down, he reached out and took her hand.

“Ms. Darbinyan,” he said, mustering his best formal voice. “Would you do me the honor of being my girlfriend?”

“Do you know what it means if I say yes?” she asked coyly. “You won’t be running around gallivanting with every girl in that school of yours. And that includes the likes of Cho Chang! I don’t care how wonderful she is.”

“I know.”

“Do you?” she asked sternly.

“I do.”

“Then… yes,” answered Gabriella. “I will be your girlfriend and we are officially a couple.” She kissed him gently, then paused. “By the way, I invited Cho over for the holiday.”

“You what?” Harry called out. There was a knock on the door and Harry held his finger up to his lips to silence Gabriella.

“Alohomora!” It was Hermione trying to open the door, but it would not move. “Patefacio!” she called out using a spell Harry had not heard before. Still the door remained firm.

“Bloody hell!” Ron yelled out. “That’s the last carriage. He’s been taken, Hermione! I know it. We’ve got to tell…” Shirtless, Harry slid open the door, only poking his head out. Looking down the corridor he saw two students pass into a carriage leaving the corridor empty except for Ron and Hermione.

“Looking for something?” Harry asked, a grin on his face.

“Harry!” Ron called out heading for the door to push it open. “What have you been… Hey, open the door.” Harry just smiled.

“’Bit busy, Ron,” Harry said, holding the door tight. “Maybe you two could stop by later. Don’t you have some sort of prefect thingy to do?”

“What happened to your hair?” Hermione asked. Harry’s head was a mess even on the best of days, but now it was a dreadful disaster. “And what’s this?” she asked pointing to a red-blue bruise on his neck. She tried to peak about the door and her eyes narrowed. “Harry Potter… you.… Do you know what would happen if a professor found out?”

“And are you going to track one down?” Harry asked with a tinge of rancor in his voice. Hermione just scowled.

“Come on Ron. Let’s go.”

Ron was confused, and crushingly curious to see behind the door. “But…”

“Come on. Can’t you see he’s busy?” Hermione grabbed Ron’s arm and yanked him from the door.

“Busy doin’ what?” Ron asked walking backwards down the corridor. Harry had to laugh as he closed the door and turned to see Gabriella looking out the window. The sun was now low on the horizon and began to stream into the carriage. He stood there, transfixed at the girl who had captured his soul. He pulled on his shirt and ran his fingers through his hair. When she turned to face him, her eyes were red, and tears were falling down her cheeks. Still, she smiled, and spoke without the slightest waver in her voice.

“Ron and Hermione… your friends... your best friends. Cho told me that the three of you are inseparable. It was Ron that I met in London, right?” she asked. Harry nodded his head and sat down next to her.

“Only you’re wrong on one account, Gabriella. You are my best friend,” he said with a sense of satisfaction in his phrasing. But, Gabriella did not respond as he expected.

“Do you think, Harry?” she asked looking at the sun skimming through the trees, flashing light and dark into their carriage. “Cho says you’ve all known each other since you arrived at Hogwarts over five years ago. That’s a long time to stay friends. A test of time.” She wiped the tears from her face. “Each day you’re away from me, I feel I’m going to lose you.”

“But you don’t have to stay away! Come with me to Hogwarts!” said Harry, setting on his own vision of the future. “You’d be a Gryffindor, I know you would!” Gabriella smiled and shook her head.

“That will never happen, Harry.” She took a deep breath as if steeling herself for a great effort. Mustering courage from deep within, she turned and looked at her boyfriend’s green eyes. “For an hour we spoke of your family… your history. You think you know mine? Joy at the ocean, dreaming of the sunsets on the Mediterranean?” Not knowing what to say, Harry simply shrugged and nodded. “When I look at the sunset and cry, it is not that I am homesick. It is that I miss my brother.” Tears began to well up in her eyes again and she turned to look out the carriage window. The lowering sun flickered through the trees like an old film flashing across her eyes.

“You’re brother?” Harry asked; she had never mentioned having a brother before. Gabriella took another deep breath and tried to gather herself, but her hand began to tremble and Harry took it into his own.

“Harry,” she breathed. “When I tell you… please, don’t make excuses. Just… just go to join your friends. I’ll understand.”

“Tell me what?” Harry asked, his voice pitching higher. She kissed his hand and tried to muster a smile, but it failed miserably.

“My father is a wizard,” she began, trying to steady her voice. “Quite accomplished as an Astronomer and in the Healing Charms, he has lectured around the world. In my country wizards and witches start their instruction earlier than here, often before the age of six depending on when the child begins to show signs of their skill. There is a small school outside of Tripoli, not the University of Balamand, but Al Bsahri, where my father was a professor and where wizards were taught the art and science of magic. Wizards, that is, but not witches. In Lebanon, witches are denied access to wands and formal training and forced to learn their skills at home. Fortunately for me, my mother was quite gifted in certain ways, although she is not what my people would call a witch.” There was a brief flicker of a smile on Gabriella’s face that quickly faded. “Mama comes from a different line.” Her breathing began to quicken and her body tensed.

“My brother, Antreas, was three years my elder, but he showed no magical ability at all. When he was eleven, it became clear that he was a… a…” she searched for the translation.

“A Squib.”

“Yes, a Squib,” Gabriella continued, a distaste for the word apparent on her face. “It was a great disappointment to my father, although he loved us all dearly. Antreas continued to attend school with Muggles, but when I was nine I started showing strong signs of the gift. My father insisted that the rules be changed at Al Bsahri, that I might attend, but I refused to leave my brother. If my mother was content without such training, then so too would I. I would follow my mother’s path. But when my brother graduated, my father convinced the professors and me to join him at Al Bsahri and, to my eternal regret, I did. For years I had practiced the martial arts and I found the movement and flicks of a wand quite similar. I picked the skills up quickly and was soon surpassing many of my male classmates. I endured endless jeers for being the only girl at the school, accused of receiving special treatment because my father was close friends with the Headmaster. They were all so smug, so superior. Often, I would think to leave, but when I would see my father… so proud…. At night he would beam and go on about all that I had accomplished, while my brother, who still lived with us, would sit silently enduring the occasional snipes that Papa would send his way.”

“Each day, Antreas would go to work at the docks. ‘Soon, I’ll have enough money to buy my own house,’ he would say. ‘A grand villa by the ocean! You’ll come to dinner, and together we will watch the sun cool its fires in the sea.’” Gabriella stopped and forced herself to draw in a deep breath. “When he returned home, instead of listening to his dreams, my father would continue to gush stories of me from school.” Her entire body started trembling and Harry pulled her close to his. “I… I began to think myself special… superior to Muggles… better than my brother and before I realized it, I began to laugh when my father would pull Antreas down. I would join the jokes and jeers. Soon our dinners ended with Mama calling, ‘Enough!’ and leaving the table.” Tears were flowing freely down her face, but her voice remained steady and strong. Clearly enduring a great pain, she continued.

“One day… my birthday… Papa took me to buy my first broom. I had grown to love Quidditch, but had never flown before. ‘That’s no excuse,’ Papa said. ‘You’ll be Al Bsahri’s Chaser by year’s end; wait and see. You have all the ingredients Gabriella: focus, determination and a willingness to attack all the challenges before you.’” Imitating her father’s voice, her eyes brightened for a moment, but then they fell as she looked down at her hands.

“We were away shopping at a magical village outside Tripoli, when Antreas thought to bring me his gift in person. He came to visit the school alone for the first time. What he found was an abomination. When Papa would leave the school to lecture, one of the professors, the Headmaster, my father’s friend would hold secret meetings. He had begun teaching select students the Dark Arts… the Unforgivable Curses, and the secrets of immortality.

On this day, in Papa’s absence, he had gathered many of the students for a special ceremonial sacrifice. Antreas knew nothing of my whereabouts and searched the school until he unwittingly stumbled across the assembled brethren. He watched in horror as they tied an old woman to an altar for their dark ends. As they drew their knives, Antreas screamed for them to stop. They thought he was a Muggle that had somehow passed through their magical shields and one of the young wizards jeered at him for being where he should not. He turned to run, but they pulled him back with their magic. He tried to scream for help, but they silenced him with their wands. They floated him high above their altar and teased him mercilessly. Finally, they lashed him next to the old woman, and on that stone table they plunged their daggers into them both.”

Gabriella’s jaw was set firm, her eyes awash in a mist of tears, and her breath shallow and rhythmic. For a moment Harry thought of Cedric and how he died suddenly without reason. How much more horrifying was this? How much more cruel?

“I understand,” he whispered. In a flash, Gabriella spun and held his face in her right hand looking into his eyes, her own on fire. The look was frightening.

“You understand nothing!” she hissed. Realizing her own movement, she dropped her hand, crumpled into his arms, and began to sob. Some moments passed before she could speak again, the sound of the train rumbling over the tracks and the setting sun their only company.

“I have two special gifts, Harry. One handed down through the generations of my father’s line -- an ability to heal. I see signs, strong signs, of the same gift in you, Harry.” She tried to muster a smile as she kissed Harry on the cheek. “I have seen it… in here.” She placed her hands over his heart, and then let out a long, slow breath. “My other gift was handed down through the generations of my mother’s line -- an ability to sense the thoughts of others. Both my parents are far more gifted than me. I can heal simple wounds without the use of a wand, and so far have learned to sense the feelings of others. I can, for example, tell when someone is lying to me.” She straightened on the bench, taking another deep breath, and wiped her face dry.

“They tried to make it look as if he’d been attacked by Muggles. Antreas’ body was found on the roadside, his money gone. The papers said it was roadside bandits and Papa cursed Muggles everywhere. He bemoaned that Antreas was unable to protect himself with magic and swore to avenge his death. The happiness that imbued my father’s soul was supplanted by hatred. On that day, when we returned to find Antreas dead, I not only lost my brother… I lost my father.” The colour of Gabriella’s dark brown skin began to fade and her face seemed almost ghostlike. She suddenly looked very ill.

“At school I heard the whisperings and some days later overheard a student mention my brother’s name. I got him alone in a classroom and questioned him. He lied, of course, but his thoughts betrayed him. One-by-one, I learned their names and what they had each done. I learned the truth of their evil meeting and how each had a hand in killing my brother.” Gabriella began to squeeze Harry’s hand as she looked into nothingness across the carriage. “I cursed their magic; I cursed wizards of any kind.”

“Honestly, Gabriella,” said Harry, trying to reassure her that he understood her hatred of dark wizards and that he would always stay at her side, “I understand. I’m not going anywhere.” She stared at him blankly shaking her head at his ignorance and stroking his face with her trembling hand.

“When I discovered that my father’s best friend, the Headmaster, was their leader… when I discovered that he had brought the old woman to Al Bsahri for the ceremony… when I discovered that it was he who gave the word that my brother’s blood should be spilt at the altar…” Gabriella began to squeeze Harry’s arm. Her voice became low, speaking in barely more than a whisper, “I… I went to him, to his office surrounded by evil magic to protect him from his enemies. And though I was there to kill, he thought I was there to cry.” Her dead eyes looked up at Harry. “After all, that’s what girls do, isn’t it?” Harry said nothing.

“The beast called my name as I passed through his door, and he opened his arms wide pulling me into a hug I had once loved and now despised. He had the nerve to apologize… to apologize for what the Muggles had done. He was my father’s friend!” she screamed with hatred. “All his evil magic protected him from hexes and spells, but not these.” She held out her hands and squeezed. “He tried to utter a spell, but I crushed his voice box before he had the chance. I watched his eyes roll up in his head as the fear roiled out of his mind in a final plea for mercy. ‘What mercy did you show Antreas?’ I spat in his face.” Gabriella spat across the room, her hands in fists, white and shaking as if reliving the moment. Cold shivers plummeted down Harry’s spine.

“A dark plague fell on Al Bsahri the next day, sweeping through the school. One-by-one, as the moon waned, the fifteen students that revealed their secrets to me fell dead for no reason.” She swallowed hard, her face absent of expression, her breathing shallow and quick. “It wasn’t me, Harry, though I wish even now it had been. Perhaps I willed them dead, or perhaps….” She sat straight, pulling herself away from Harry. “No matter… it was for Antreas.”

For a moment Harry stood in horror, not sure what to do. He glanced to the door, back to Gabriella, to the door, and Gabriella. Her hands were still shaking violently. There was an overwhelming urge to leave, but a more overwhelming urge to stay. Last year, at the Ministry, he would have killed Bellatrix if he’d had it in him. Harry reached out and took her fists, bringing them down to her lap. He held her tight. There were no tears left in her eyes now and, as he held her close, the quickness of her breaths began to slow. Soon, she relaxed in his arms. Her head against his chest, she finished her story.

“Nobody knows what I did, Harry. Except maybe Mama, who seems to know everything; but she has never said a word to me. After the deaths, they closed the school. Papa wanted me to attend Beauxbatons, but I swore I’d never raise a wand again, never use my gifts again. Finally, the job at Pensley College came available and, for me, Papa put his own wand away and brought us to Little Whinging to be safe… to live as Muggles, and leave the Wizarding world behind forever. I never dreamed… why did you have to be a wizard?” She squeezed him in her arms, but then let go. Without saying a word, she kissed him gently on the cheek and turned to look out the window. There, she waited for him to leave.

Harry’s mind began to spin. Did she want him to leave? He was a wizard after all and she just said she hated wizards. But then, why come here? Why now? His urge to hold her in his arms was strong, but a vigilante, a murderer? He thought of Bellatrix Lestrange and how he wished he’d been able to accomplish what Gabriella had. She had done something Harry was incapable of. But was that a good thing? Draco would think it a sign of strength, but Dumbledore would see it as a weakness. It would be a dark shadow that followed them everywhere.

Harry’s mind turned to the attacks led by Voldemort. Even now, she was at risk by being with him. Once again he looked at the door, only this time he stood, his back toward Gabriella. He held the door’s handle in his hand and turned to look at her one last time. Her dark black hair flowed down to her waist. “The eyes,” he whispered to himself. He walked over to her, knelt on one knee and gently touched her shoulder. “Gabriella, please look at me,” he asked.

She turned from the window and faced Harry. A deep sadness was set upon her face. Harry had never seen her look so weak and vulnerable. For a long while he gazed into her black eyes not saying a word and then a gentle smile broke upon his face. He had never felt her presence in his mind, but now the time had come. “Use your gift, Gabriella,” he whispered. Her eyes looked into each of his, one then the other, back and forth, hesitant to proceed. “Go on,” he said gently. “What does my heart say?” She took her hands in his and he felt his mind opening up. Memories flashed across his consciousness as he beckoned her forward, deeper into the emotions of his soul. There she saw it and, almost in disbelief, she dwelt. He was patient, letting her hold it in her own thoughts, in her own soul, and then she let go of his mind and looked into his eyes, a smile spreading across her own face. “I love you,” he whispered. “I always have.”

She reached out, wrapped her arms about his neck, and together they fell to the floor. “I love you too,” she breathed, looking down on him, a glow of happiness in her very being. “I knew you were the one,” she whispered.

“The one?” Harry asked. There was a thud at the door.

“Leave him alone, Ron!” Hermione said in a subdued voice from outside in the corridor.

“Something’s wrong,” Ron shot back. “I know it!” Hermione huffed, but Ron was undaunted. Pounding on the door, he called out, “Harry! Open this door!” Gabriella and Harry gathered themselves as Ron continued to pound. They both stood and Harry slid open the door from the inside, again only sticking his head through. There was a bit of a crowd that had gathered to see what all the yelling was about.

“Are you two done prefecting?” asked Harry sarcastically.

“Harry, I tried…” Hermione began.

“What’s going on, Harry?” Ron shot off trying to see past him into the carriage. “Potter, I’m not leaving until you…” Harry slid open the door.

“We’ve been waiting for you guys to stop by,” Harry chided. “Where have you been?” Cautiously, Ron entered the carriage followed by Hermione. “I believe you two have met already,” he said to Ron. “Gabriella, you remember Ron, don’t you?” Gabriella smiled taking Ron’s hand gently in her own.

“Yes. You know, you look very much like your brothers, Fred and George. Fred’s a bit sweet and sour though, isn’t he? Where’s your sister, Ginny?” Ron was dumbstruck.

“She’s, er… up at the, erm…”

“Hermione,” Harry cut in, “this is my girlfriend, Gabriella. I think you two will find you have a lot in common.” Hermione smiled as she shook Gabriella’s hand.

“I’m so glad we’ve finally had a chance to meet,” Hermione began. “I’d like to say Harry’s told us so much about you, but he’s been absolutely dreadful. All we know is that you’re the only person who can make him smile at school, and you’re not even there.” Hermione motioned to Ron to put his wand away. “Have you and Harry had enough time to talk?”

“Yes,” said Gabriella, her eyes twinkling, “we’ve told each other quite a lot over the past few hours.”

“Told him what?” Ron asked, still completely flummoxed.

“Gabriella isn’t a Muggle, Ron,” Harry answered. Ron seemed to take this in with a knowing expression.

“Well, that makes it a bit easier then. Don’t it, mate?” Ron asked as if he’d single handedly put the whole thing together in his mind. “I mean, no more secrets and all.”

“No more secrets,” Harry whispered, taking Gabriella’s hand in his, a gentle smile on his face. There was the briefest silence as Gabriella looked into Harry’s eyes.

“So,” Hermione began, “Harry did say you’ve just come from Lebanon. It sounds fantastic! What’s it like there?” Before long, Gabriella was talking about all the good things in her home country -- the history and architecture, the markets and people, the customs and way of life. It was a tapestry of colour and joy that was her childhood, and she was eager to share it with others. After some time, the subject of the conversation became Harry. Hermione and Gabriella started laughing, sharing stories of his less memorable exploits. The laughter became a little much and Harry excused himself to go use the restroom.

Passing a carriage with an open door he found Patrick O’Riley sitting with James Chang and his sister Cho. Harry stopped and looked in.

“Hey, Harry!” said James happily. “Have a Merry Christmas!”

“Thanks, James. Erm, you too.” Harry’s brow furrowed as he looked at Patrick. Seeing the quizzical look, Patrick answered.

“James asked me to spend the holiday at their house,” said Pat with a shining smile, and Harry smiled back.

“An amazing family, the Changs,” said Harry warmly. “Truly amazing.” He motioned his finger to Cho, beckoning her to join him out in the corridor. As she left the carriage, he slid the door shut and kissed her on the cheek. “And you’re the most amazing of all. Thank you.” Cho held Harry’s shoulders, then gave him a hug.

“Everybody needs Harry Potter,” she said kindly. “But does anybody ever ask what Harry needs?” She took him by the hand. “I saw it in your eyes and read it in her letter. What does anybody ever really need, Harry?” She ran her fingers through his hair and took hold of the silver earring hidden behind his locks. “She wears the same glint of silver.” Reaching up to kiss his cheek, she whispered, “Merry Christmas, Harry.”

Returning to her carriage, Cho slid the door shut behind her, and Harry started back down the corridor. They would be at King’s Cross soon and his life had just taken a dramatic turn. For the first time in months the fear of what was to come had ebbed away. He could hear Ron, Hermione and Gabriella laughing as he drew near.

“Perhaps,” he thought, “love might be enough.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 44 - The Green Flame
~~~***~~~


If this were heaven, he would gladly let Voldemort take him right now. The air was filled with the smell of fresh baked bread, cookies, and cakes. Cinnamon and nutmeg filled Harry’s senses with hints of garlic and onion from his earlier breakfast. He had already stuffed himself with fried eggs, honey dipped ham, and scallioned potatocakes smothered in a cheese sauce made by the gods, when Soseh pushed half a loaf of sliced banana bread in front of him. It was toasted and spread with whipped honey butter. He couldn’t ever remember eating this much, certainly not during the last few months at Hogwarts.

“Go on, Harry,” Soseh coaxed, “one more bite. Gabriella was right, you’re wasting away!” She set a jar of homemade preserves and handed him a spoon.

It was true that Soseh’s mind seemed a bit spotty. When he came through the door this morning she had forgotten his name and, as he passed through the entryway, she neglected to close the front door. Her cooking skills, however, were dead on, and she was still as kind and gentle as she ever was. Her eyes glowed brightly and Harry couldn’t help but take the jar of preserves, scoop a large dollop, and spread another slice of banana bread.

“Good… good!” she beamed. “We’ll have you among the living in no time! Walking with the dead is no fun at all; is it, Harry?” The words were out of place and he looked at Gabriella whose eyes showed a pang of sorrow. He wondered what perception or memory Soseh was sensing.

After Harry ate to the point of bursting, the couple bundled up and took to Privet Drive for a walk. The streets were free from snow, though a few drifts still remained in shady areas. It was a crystal clear morning, cool and crisp, and their breaths billowed as they spoke. Across the street, the empty Dursley home stood barren of decoration. They were all asleep when Harry arrived home last night and they left before the sun rose in the morning. He heard their hushed whispers until they finally drove away. The only sign that they left behind was a small red envelope that Dudley had slipped under his door. “Merry Christmas, Harry” was scribbled on the outside, and inside was a gift certificate -- twenty pounds towards a purchase at Sunshine Sports. Harry smiled wondering how Dudley would like the box of chocolate frogs he slipped into his suitcase. Then his thoughts slipped back to his summer job and their walk’s destination; he definitely wanted to see how Duncan and Emma were doing.

“I’m sorry Papa couldn’t be here to greet you, Harry,” said Gabriella, breaking Harry’s train of thought as they walked along. “He had a conference this weekend, but promised to be back Monday.” She slipped her arm in Harry’s as they walked toward the park.

“I, er…” Harry began trying to think of what to say. He was glad Grigor was gone, but he couldn’t tell Gabriella that; after all, he had sworn not to say. “That’s okay… erm, anyway, I don’t think your father likes me much.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Gabriella shot back. “He’s constantly asking about you.”

“And what do you tell him?” Harry asked, wondering if Grigor was trying to keep track on Harry to make sure he kept away from his daughter. The question made Gabriella think of Harry’s wizardry and she stopped to look at a large ice sickle dangling from the eve of a nearby roof.

“I swore in front of him that I would never pick up a wand again, Harry. It was I that demanded… begged we live as Muggles. He left everything he was… to please me,” she ended with a sigh. “I never dreamed the boy next door would sweep me off my feet and turn out to be a… wizard,” she said, whispering the last word. “He knows I still write you,” she laughed, “but not how.” Gabriella held Harry’s arm, leaning her head against his shoulder, and they began to walk again. “I don’t think he’s been in my room since we arrived here. I still keep some of my brother’s things and I believe he feels guilty for not being there when it happened.” She stopped and looked into Harry’s green eyes. “He still thinks you’re a Muggle. All he knows is that you’re away at that dreadful school of yours, and… well, he must know that I still love you. It’s written all over my face, Mama says.” Her eyes twinkled, and Harry couldn’t help but kiss her. “Swear to me you won’t say a word to him.”

“But if he knows I’m a wizard, then maybe…”

“Not yet, not know,” she said, and then asked again, “Please swear.”

“I swear,” he said solemnly, wondering if Grigor might better accept him as a wizard. Perhaps things would be worse, considering the Darbinyan history.

Just then a car turned the corner, its tires hitting a puddle of water where they walked. Instinctively Harry held out his hand, but then stopped as the splash came raining down on the two of them. “Stupid rules,” he muttered. They were both splattered in mud and the cold weather forced them to return to change clothes.

“You were going to stop that without a wand, weren’t you?” she asked as they walked back home, and Harry nodded. “On the train, you stunned me without a wand as well. A lot of magic for such a young boy,” she teased.

“Not so young!” said Harry, gently pinching her side. “I can drive you know.” A look of shock spread across Gabriella’s face.

“Asha!” she exclaimed. “I nearly forgot.” She grabbed him by the hand and began to run. “Come on, come on!” They quickly returned to her house, but instead of going inside they slipped into the garage. There, lit by a bare bulb that hung from the ceiling, was Sirius’ bike. Hagrid had completely refurbished it and even in the dim light the chrome seemed to magically glow. Harry swallowed hard, but instead of stepping forward, he stepped back.

“Harry, what’s wrong?” Gabriella asked, confused. She wasn’t the only one. All the emotions Harry felt from last summer suddenly came rushing in. His heart began to race and beads of perspiration dotted his forehead. He was going to take her away on that bike, to leave the Wizarding world behind. It was the bike that almost killed her. It was the bike on which he rode leaving her dead body behind. He began to shake and Gabriella pulled him close. “It’s only a bike, Harry, nothing more.” But Harry shook his head.

“No, baby… it’s much more,” he whispered as his mind began to spin thinking about what had happened over the last few weeks. Then it stopped, fixing on an idea. “We could still do it,” he said in a low voice. “Would it be so bad to live as Muggles?” he asked. In an instant she knew where his thoughts were leading and smiled gently.

“And get splashed by mud everyday, when you know you could stop it with the wave of your hand? To sit and read the paper about things you could take a hand in helping? No, Harry, that’s not for you; it’s written on your heart. You may not have chosen it originally, but you now freely follow the path that leads to Voldemort’s defeat.” He turned to look into her eyes.

“What about us?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said with a sigh, “I know.” She dropped her eyes and then brought them back up to meet Harry’s. There was a heaviness in her look that carried with it wisdom, and for a moment Harry thought he was looking at Soseh. “I think I knew about you from the first day. What sort of Muggle hangs nearly naked out a window swatting at owls? Then, when your ear was pierced, and the glass shattered, I was certain. My first thought was to tell Mama and Papa. But, I didn’t; I didn’t need to. I’m sure Mama knows, but Papa… well his head is in the stars and always has been. I had sworn away my gifts on the memory of my dead brother. Was I to deny my oath for a wizard boy I had only known a few weeks?” Her words seemed to rock Harry, but her black eyes still conveyed warmth and love. “So I waited to see where we were going, you and I. At your birthday, I knew you were not an ordinary wizard, but someone with a special heart… a loving heart of all you touched. I think Mama, at least, knew that all along. It was her idea to ensure a special gift made its way to your hand.”

“The stone,” Harry whispered.

“A very special stone, Harry,” Gabriella corrected. “Dudley swore he’d keep its source secret. The women in my family have been its guardians for generations and yet Mama insisted -- the stone was to be yours. Not even Papa knew. By Muggle or wizard, it may be used in similar ways, but only those pure of heart might… no, it’s your riddle to solve,” she said, stopping herself.

“I… I solved it,” Harry said simply. “At least, I think I have.” She looked into his eyes with a mixture of exhilaration and disbelief. Then she seemed to gather in her excitement and put her hand firmly to Harry’s face with a very serious look on her own.

“Listen carefully,” she said. “Where? How? Who? Why?” she asked in an almost rhythmic canter. Was it another riddle or a simple series of questions? Looking at her intense stare, he was sure he couldn’t ask for clarification. Unsure of what to say, he opted to answer each directly. He had solved the riddle in his dorm at Hogwarts. Inspired by Goyle’s book, he used a fire spell to heat the ball, then holding it in his hand he pricked his finger.

“Were the dragon teeth your idea?” Harry asked with a smile, but her demeanor remained unchanged, her eyes set waiting for the rest of his answer, and so he continued.

He first thought to heal himself, to remove a problem he had, but then chose the Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. When he got to her last question, “Why?” he paused. There were any number of people he could have chosen… Ron, Draco, Tonks, Lupin, but only one was near death. Harry wondered if Dumbledore had not been ill, would he have chosen similarly. Finally he said, “Because I was about to lose the only family that I know… a grandfather of sorts that I love dearly.”

“And what happened?” she asked, her eyes still intense.

“He joined us for breakfast the next morning, as healthy as I’ve ever seen him,” Harry shrugged. The twinkle flashed in Gabriella’s eyes and a smile crossed her face. She reached up and kissed Harry on the neck, hugging him close.

“She sees what others cannot,” Gabriella beamed. “I thought it might be the beginning of her problems, but perhaps Mama was right.”

“Right about what?” Harry asked. “What is that thing?”

“We are the world all around, Harry,” she said slipping his wand from his Jeans’ pocket. He reached to take it back, but she playfully held him at bay. “This piece of wood must fit its owner to work properly.” She pointed it at a helmet lying on the motorbike’s seat. “Al salah!” she commanded, and a silver beam of light struck the helmet and it rose into the air. But a moment later it fell to the floor. “I am useless with your wand,” she grimaced, handing him the piece of holly. “A vivificus stone is not a healing stone, Harry. Unlike the wand, it transforms itself, mutating to the will of he who commands it. It reflects the soul of the individual and yields to his will. Before, I could not say what that thing was for you, but now I have an idea. Mama said we were kindred souls, you and I.”

It was odd seeing the girl he’d spent the whole summer with performing magic. She had healed his scar, however small, with her touch, and now this. Harry wondered if he knew all there was to know about the young woman now before him. “We’re not allowed to use magic out of school,” he said with a tinge of rancor.

“Nor should I… ever,” she scolded herself. She looked at Sirius’ bike and then back to Harry. “Damn the mud, let’s go see Duncan at the shop. He’s waiting for you and it’s almost lunch.”

“But we just ate!”

“Don’t be silly,” she said grinning, and her eyes twinkling. “I promised Mama we’d put ten pounds on you in ten days and I don’t want to lose the momentum we’ve started!” She reached down and picked up the helmet. “Let’s go!”

Harry couldn’t help but throw his leg over Sirius’ bike. Gabriella sat behind wrapping her arms tight around his waist. For a long moment he stared at the key in the ignition.

“It’s just a bike,” she whispered, pulling him still closer. “Let go of its spirits.”

Harry turned the key and they were off. It was good to have her close again, her body offering warmth against the cold. Riding through the neighborhood he found himself, for the first time, happy to return to Little Whinging. When they passed the park, kids were still having snowball fights with what little powder remained. Driving up to the sports shop the memories of summer rushed back into his mind, only this time they were happy memories, and he grinned from ear to ear.

They entered the store, the bell by the door ringing loudly, but Duncan was nowhere to be seen. Near the front was an old man with heavy woolen pants and a large purple parka. Harry reached over and held out his hand. “Hello, Mr. Tonks,” he said, a glint of mischief in his eye. Contrary to being surprised, the man simply smiled knowingly and took Harry’s hand.

“My pleasure, Mr. Potter, Merry Christmas” and then to Gabriella, “Miss Darbinyan,” he nodded politely, and then looked out the window at the bright day and smiled. “Another warm day and I might have a chance to play another round of golf.” Then the smile fell. “But I hear on the wireless that the weather will be changing. Too bad… another white Christmas.” He patted Harry on the shoulder and said, “Be safe, my lad,” then turned and left the store.

“Who was that?” Gabriella asked.

“A regular,” answered Harry just as he spotted Duncan emerge from a rack in the hunting section. “Duncan Fentley!” Harry yelled in the best imitation of the owner, Mr. Fettle, he could muster. “This place is a disaster! You’re fired!” Startled, Duncan looked up to see Harry and Gabriella, and instantly burst into a sprint to the front door. He grabbed Harry in his arms and squeezed so tight, Harry thought he might pass out.

“Potter!” he growled. “Damn you! You left and the whole place has gone to hell!” He held Harry out with his hands scanning him up and down. “How are you? Damn, you’re as thin as a rail; do they feed you at that school of yours?” Harry looked back at Duncan to find tears welling in the blonde’s eyes. He grabbed Harry in his thick arms again and squeezed tight. “Christ, Harry, when Gabriella told us about the accident and I saw the bike, I thought we lost you for good. I’m glad you’re back.” Then Duncan turned to the back of the store wiping his face.

“Bartlet!” he called and a thin kid with a white shirt and black tie stepped out from the shoe section. “You’ve got the register! I’m out to lunch.” The three walked over to Bentley’s and ordered up some fish & chips. Sitting at the window-table watching people walk by with gifts in their arms, Harry felt like he’d never left.

“Sorry Emma ain’t here to see you,” started Duncan, taking a sip of soda. “Some bloody track competition in Nice. They’ll be runnin’ on the Côte D’Azur this weekend, and she flies back from Paris on Christmas Eve.” He looked around the shop and then reached into his jacket pocket pulling out a small black box. “I have a bit of a surprise for her on Christmas,” he beamed. Opening the box he revealed a diamond engagement ring. The band was gold, engraved with a pattern of thorns, and in its center rose a modestly sized marquise-cut diamond that sparkled brilliantly in the light.

“Oh, Duncan!” Gabriella gasped, holding her hand to her mouth. “It’s… it’s beautiful.” Her eyes grew wet as she reached over the table hugging his neck.

“Hey!” Harry pulled her back grinning. “It’s not for you.” Gabriella slapped his shoulder.

“My word, Duncan,” she said, misty eyed, “she’ll love it!” Duncan eyed the ring for a moment then closed the box and slipped it into his pocket.

“Yeah,” he whispered deep in thought, a bit of concern on his face. “But will she say ‘yes’?”

“You know she will, Duncan!” Harry said, reaching over and slapping him on the shoulder. “Who else is gonna get her track shoes at half price?” The wisecrack wiped the concern off Duncan’s face in an instant.

“That’s only clearance, mind you,” he said, pointing his finger at Harry, and the two laughed out loud. The waitress brought their food to the table and Duncan held up his cup of soda. “To good… no… to priceless friends.” They each tapped cups and began to eat.

On their way back from lunch, Duncan stopped about a block from the shop. “Gabriella, could you walk ahead for a bit? I need to talk to Harry for just a minute.”

“No problem, Duncan. Harry, I’ll see you back at the store.” She kissed him on the cheek and started on her way.

“That’s a fine woman you have there, Harry,” Duncan said as they both watched her walk down the street to the store. “She got my butt through the first term, when I was lookin’ for any excuse to quit.” He chuckled to himself. “Now I think I might join Emma at the University next year. Mr. Fettle thinks I have a head for business and wants me to work part time and go to school part time. He’s gonna pay, and that means I don’t need to lean on Mum and Dad, anymore.”

“That’s great, Duncan!” Harry encouraged, but he was still curious why that needed to be kept secret from Gabriella. “I know you and your folks never really, well…”

“Yeah,” Duncan bristled, pulling his jacket up around his neck. “They’re in South Africa now.” Duncan stared down the street, a sullen look hung on his face when he turned back to his friend. “Listen, Harry… I was wonderin’ if… well, if maybe you’d be my best man. I know you’ll probably have other things to do and all, but if…” Harry grabbed Duncan by the shoulders and shook him to stop talking.

“Other things to do?” Harry squinted at his friend. “You’re kidding, right? It’d be like saying ‘no’ to Charles and Lady Di.” Harry held out his hand. “I’d be honored, Mr. Fentley.” Duncan grabbed his hand and pulled him back into a bear hug, and then started talking very rapidly discussing plans, and times, and who else might be there, as they went to join Gabriella at the shop.

They invited Duncan for dinner at Gabriella’s house and said their goodbyes. Then she and Harry decided to do a little shopping. It was growing dark as they made their way back home on Sirius’ motorcycle, the waxing moon looming large above the rooftops. Gabriella held their purchases in one hand and held Harry in the other. It had been so long since he last was home for Christmas, Harry had forgotten about all the lights. After arriving on the Hogwarts Express last night, he found the lights in London a gaudy spectacle, but here in town there was a warmth that Harry had never before recognized. The trees in the park were lit up with sparkling white lights and the homes were sprinkled in dazzling arrays of colour. On Privet Drive, nearly all the homes, except the Dursleys’, were adorned in some fashion. But the most stunning of all was the Darbinyan household. The roof was set with strings of green and blue. The front trees were wound in red and white. Lighted candy canes lined the walk to the front door and each bush sparkled with a colour of the rainbow. Finally, in the center of it all was a nativity scene with figures that were carved of stone and hand painted. In the twinkling lights, Mary and Joseph looked as if they might walk off the front lawn.

“Brilliant!” Harry whispered, his eyes agog at the sight before him. Not wanting to offend Grigor should he return early, he decided to park the bike in the Dursley garage. As he rode up into the driveway he noticed, too late, Mrs. Figg out of the corner of his eye. It all happened in an instant. He heard Mrs. Figg scream and point at the sidewalk, as Gabriella yelled in his ear, and then the sickening thud as his bike struck something beneath the wheel. Quickly, Harry stopped the bike and both he and Gabriella climbed off to find one of Mrs. Figg’s cats stretched out on the Dursley lawn, its breaths shallow and rapid.

“Sebastian!” Mrs. Figg screamed, running over with two other cats following in tow. Harry knelt close to the cat, his own heart pounding in he ears.

“No, not again,” he thought to himself. Gabriella laid her hand on Harry’s shoulder as Mrs. Figg fell to her own knees and began to weep, stroking the cat on the grass. It meowed in pain at the touch, sending shivers through them all.

“It’s over,” Gabriella said quietly. “It wasn’t your fault, Harry. It was an accident.” Harry shook his head in disbelief. How often would he hear those words? The lights from the Darbinyan home cast an eerie shadow on the lawn. Their flickering colours seemed to be playing tricks with Harry’s eyes. Or were they? He could see the light before him, and it wasn’t the sparkle of Christmas.

He knelt down and picked the dying cat up into his arms. It moaned in pain and Mrs. Figg put her hand up to stop him, but he ignored it. Holding the cat close, his eyes began to focus on something he’d never seen before. There in his arms was not only the flesh and fur of a gray tabby, but the flickering light of its now waning life force. Harry blinked his eyes in disbelief. Concentrating hard on what was glowing before him, the vision to his sides began to fade; Mrs. Figg, Gabriella, the damp grass, and the other cats circling about grew faint as Harry found himself slipping into another place.

It was the same feeling he had when he was being pulled into the vivificus stone, only he and the cat were floating together into the nothingness and, as they did so, the cat’s form faded leaving only the flicker of its life force. Instinctively, Harry reached for the faint glimmer of light. He put his hands forward, but the light seemed just out of reach. He grasped deeper, further into the darkness. Still, it seemed just outside his grasp. “Accio!” his mind called out, his body straining to the very fingertips. The twinkle of light seemed to float back, and he stretched with all his might until he felt its warmth touch his fingers.

Gently curling his hand around the energy, he pulled back from the darkness, he pulled out from the depths of the beyond. He felt his own life force coursing from his arms and into his hands, and watched as the cat’s light grew bright. As his surroundings came back into view, he saw the cat’s new light blending with its flesh and bone. Suddenly, he found himself in the here and now. He looked down to see the warm cat purring in his hands, but when he turned to speak with Gabriella, the world tilted and everything began to spin. The last thing he remembered was her calling his name and then all went dark.


“Come with me!” a girl’s voice beckoned playfully in the darkness. She laughed and giggled. “Come on… it won’t hurt.”

“I won’t go!” he cried out with a child’s voice.

“Are you afraid?” she jeered.

“I’m not afraid of anything!” he yelled back, the echoes of his voice fading into nothingness. “I am lord over all!”

“Maybe over the monkey-bars,” she teased. “Come on Tom! It’s just water!” Harry heard a great splash.

“Get it off!” he screamed out. “Get it off!”


“Get it off!” Harry yelled, flailing at his face only to realize he was in the middle of the Dursleys’ living room with Gabriella and Mrs. Figg looking down at him.

“It’s okay, Harry,” Gabriella said softly, “you’re safe.” She held out a wet washcloth to Harry’s face and he recoiled. “It’s just water,” she said. “You’re a bit feverish.” The cobwebs refused to clear from Harry’s brain as he looked around the pristine living room.

“I’m not afraid of the water,” he said, his head still shaky, “you are!” He pulled off his shoes and socks and dropped them on the floor. “Come on, let’s go swimming.”

“Snap out of it, darling,” Mrs. Figg said in a curt voice, and then she slapped him hard on the side of the face. Gabriella looked at her in horror. “Well, it works in the movies.” Harry blinked his eyes.

“What… what happened?” he asked, slowly sitting up on the couch. “How’d I get here?”

“Well, darling,” Mrs. Figg said in a very matter-of-fact voice, “you smashed my Sebastian with your motorbike, and then you healed her with some sort of green light.”

“What?” Harry asked, incredulous. He reached back in his mind, trying to replay what had happened, but his memory failed.

“The Green Flame,” Gabriella corrected. “Mrs. Figg saw the Green Flame.” Harry rubbed his face with his hands. His skin was clammy and he felt weak and dizzy. Confused by what she said, he looked at her blankly, but she would say no more. It took a moment for him to realize that Gabriella was holding back because of the presence of Mrs. Figg.

“It’s okay,” he said rubbing his temples. “Mrs. Figg, here… well, she’s a Squib. I’m not too sure about her cats though.” She had brought all three cats into the Dursley home with her, and the gray tabby swept its tail around Harry’s leg. Gabriella seemed surprised, but only for a moment. She had sensed something in Mrs. Figg during their conversations on the street and now it seemed to all make sense. She dabbed his forehead with the wet washcloth and this time he remained still.

“Harry…” she began to think out loud, a tinge of excitement in her voice, “the stone takes on the characteristics its master. Your heart searched for good and healed your Headmaster. But the link with a vivificus stone is not just one way. The cinnabar will resonate its energy back into the master, amplifying the very characteristic he bestowed upon the stone. Skills that were once dormant or hidden can be brought to the fore. The ability to heal is not rare, but the ability to bring back a life-force is extraordinary. Your eyes flamed green, Harry, and returned the dead cat to life.”

“That’s impossible, darling,” Mrs. Figg said in a disbelieving voice. “No one can…”

“Dumbledore can,” Harry interrupted. “He brought me back from the dead; it was green flame.”

“The dead?” asked Gabriella, her voice quivering. “Then it’s true?” Harry simply nodded and closed his eyes in hopes the room would stop spinning. Instead of pressing further, she simply took the cloth and again wet his brow. “Harry, it is a flash of green light that wizards use to steal the life force of others. It is the Green Flame by which it may be returned. The ability has always been yours; the vivificus stone just let you see it and gave you the power to exercise it.”

“You two are both touched, if you ask me,” said Mrs. Figg, shaking her head.

“The killing curses are used all too often in my country, Mrs. Figg,” Gabriella answered her lips thinning, a hint of steel in her voice. “The green flash has created many widows in Lebanon; this I have seen with my own eyes.” She then took Harry’s hand. “I have but heard tales of those able to wield the Green Flame, not just healing the injured, but returning those past death to life. Tonight, I have finally seen.”

“Avada…” Harry began to think out loud, but Gabriella pressed his lips with her fingers and hushed him. There was a ripping sound and he turned to see a black cat clawing on Uncle Vernon’s favorite chair. Aunt Petunia’s chair was already in tatters. “Mrs. Figg, I’m okay, really, but I think you’d best take your cats home.”

“Certainly, Harry,” she nodded and stood. She clicked her tongue and the cats swarmed to her legs as she walked to the door. “And, Harry, please be careful with that two-wheeled machine of yours. Dumbledore wants you back in one piece, I’m sure.” Harry grinned back as she left the door, then slumped back down on the couch.

“I feel like I’ve been run over by a train,” Harry moaned, taking a deep breath.

“The stone’s resonant energy is not permanent, Harry. Think of it as a great clockworks that needs winding. The more energy you can give it by tapping into the energy around us, the greater your strength becomes and the longer it will last. But if you draw more energy than the stone carries, you must ultimately draw it from yourself--your own life force.”

“And anybody can use the stone? Muggle or wizard?” Harry asked, and Gabriella nodded.

“Muggles have heated such stones in fires, then used their power to help heal the sick.”

“But it can also be used for evil, can’t it?”

“Almost always, Harry,” she answered dejectedly. “With such power few can resist the temptation to turn the stone to serve their own greed. At such times, it must be… retrieved by its caretakers.” As he lay with his head on the end of the couch, she too reclined placing her head on his chest. “It takes a special heart to turn the stone for good.” She reached out and took Harry’s hand in her own brushing it softly with her lips. She listened to the rhythm of his beating heart against her ear and smiled.

“And it would give tremendous power to those who would turn it to evil?” asked Harry, his voice pitching higher. His heart began to quicken and its beating grew louder in her ear.

“Yes,” she whispered with concern.

“Why would you give me such a thing without telling me?” he cried. “It could have fallen into the wrong hands!”

“Harry,” she answered calmly, “there is no safer place on earth than at Hogwarts. Even I have heard of your Headmaster, Dumbledore; the enchantments around his castle are legendary.” She sat up and found the look of concern on Harry’s face. “Besides, only your fellow Gryffindor, Goyle, knows of the stone. Surely he would not betray his housemate’s confidence.” A wave of nausea washed over Harry and he quickly sat up then leaned over placing his head between his knees. “Harry, what is it?”

“The cinnabar… it sits in the mouth of the dragonhead you gave me. It’s out for all to see on my desk at Hogwarts. What if… what if…” Panicking, he began to hyperventilate. What if Goyle had been a Slytherin spy the whole time? How easy it would have been to simply renounce his father, earning Gryffindor’s good graces. He’d seen him talking with Crabbe in the Great Hall. If Goyle spoke of the stone to his old friend, then Voldemort would know by now. And if Voldemort knew, then Hogwarts was in danger. Harry took in another deep breath. What if Dumbledore was not well? Sure, he looked healthy, but the graying wizard had hidden his illness early in the year. He might have done it again. Harry gulped for more air.

“Harry… you’re breathing too fast!” Gabriella said, her own voice rising as she began to take on Harry’s panic. But it was too late. The panic washed up from Harry’s innards, and he wretched over Aunt Petunia’s oak coffee table. “Oh, no,” Gabriella said softly. The expulsion of fluid in Harry’s stomach seemed to take with it the fear and his breaths slowed. He needed to get control of himself and whimpering in the Dursley living room wasn’t the way to do it. Gabriella ran to the kitchen and brought him a glass of warm water.

“Drink this,” she offered. Taking the glass, Harry swallowed a healthy gulp and regained his composure. His mind quickly scanned the possibilities. In his heart he knew that Goyle was no traitor, but he remembered his promise to himself that he would not be fooled. Post by owl would take too long and he needed to speak with the Order now. He stared intently at the wall in the Dursley living room.

“Gabriella,” he said, looking at her with determined eyes, “I must speak with someone, right away.” He stood and so too did she. “Do you have an axe?”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 45 - Red Light at Morning
~~~***~~~


The cats had spread flecks of fur all over Aunt Petunia’s living room. They had scratched at her sofa, torn her chairs, and a distinct odour caused Harry to wonder if they hadn’t left something more behind. That, mixed with his own vomit now dripping down the sides of the coffee table, freed Harry’s conscience to throw caution to the wind.

“I said I need an axe! Do you have one?” he asked again, trying to remember if perhaps Vernon kept one in the garage. Gabriella stood, a bit confused, unable to see where he was going with his thoughts.

“We have a small hatchet at home,” she offered.

A few minutes later Harry was hacking away at the living room wall. Splinters of wood fell like hail to the floor. Gabriella stood back, her face holding a look that was somewhere between horror and amusement. She had no idea what he was up to, but she enjoyed watching Harry exert himself physically. Before long, his face was red with exhaustion as he cracked the larger boards away.

“This would be so much easier you know if…” he said, looking to Gabriella for magical assistance. But she simply shook her head and flashed him a sly smile.

“You know,” she reprimanded, “if you’d eat better at that school of yours, this wouldn’t be so difficult.” Harry pursed his lips, then simply glared at her with a smirk. “And, have you ever thought of lifting weights? It would improve your Quidditch stamina; although from what Ron told me on the train, even as thin as you are you still make a passable Seeker.”

“Passable!” Harry squealed, ripping another board off the wall with a large crack. He turned to look at the black eyes twinkling with delight before him. He was huffing deeply, his arms taking a much needed rest at his sides. “I’ll have you know that I’m the best Seeker at Hogwarts, maybe in all of England!”

“I can see that.” She grinned, staring at him nearly ready to crumple to the floor. “Well, is that what you’re looking for?” She pointed at the wall behind Harry. The removal of the last board revealed a façade of brick… the mantle of the fireplace hidden behind.

“Finally,” he breathed. This time Gabriella stood and helped him pull the remaining boards away to expose the fireplace that Mr. Weasley had used to visit him in his fourth year. “Ron’s dad said it was set-up after the motorcycle accident. I hope it’s still connected to the network.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that’s what you were going to do?”

“Would you have helped?” Harry panted.

“No. But at least I wouldn’t have thought you had gone mad.”

The last word caused Harry to look at her twice, and he knew she’d sensed the change in his emotions. For a moment, he thought about telling her of the curse, but now was not the time. He pointed at a piece of splintered wood.

“Please, hand me that,” he said, and together they tossed in some of the broken boards and began a fire. Then, Harry dashed up the stairs.

He shot into his room and pulled back the loose floorboards. The small space was filled with all sorts of things he’d collected from his trips to Diagon Alley, or received as gifts from Ron and Hermione. He slipped out a small pouch of floo powder and started to put the boards back when a golden wrapper caught his eyes. He grabbed it, and ran down stairs.

Gabriella was stoking the fire when he knelt at her side and offered her the chocolate frog from Honeyduke’s. “What’s this?” she asked, opening the package only to leap back as the frog hopped onto her shoulder. With lightning reflexes she had it in her hand and the look of surprise washed into a smile. “A chocolate frog?” She took a bite and a look of pure pleasure filled her eyes.

“I’m going to see Mr. Weasley; I’ll be back in a flash,” he said with a wink. “Just wait here.”

“You’d better! Duncan will be by soon, and I still haven’t told Mama we’re having guests for dinner.”

“Really, this’ll only take a moment. I swear,” said Harry, kissing her gently. “Less, if it doesn’t work properly. You might want to keep that glass of water handy.” He sprinkled the powder and in a flash he was at Grimmauld Place.

The first thing he noticed was the smell of peppermint in the air. He heard Christmas music playing upstairs and then the squeak of the opening kitchen door. Mrs. Weasley was carrying a platter of cookies, and when she saw Harry her jaw dropped and the platter fell to the ground.

“Harry!” she said, running to him and wrapping him in a large hug. Stepping back, however, she realized he was covered in sawdust and ash, and his face had a sallow pallor to it. “Merlin! What’s happened to you?” The commotion got the attention of everyone in the house. Ron and Ginny came out of the kitchen, Fred appeared on the landing up the stairs, and Mr. Weasley walked out of the study. Everyone seemed to say his name at once and instantly converged to see what the matter was. After repeating for the fifth time that he was fine and that he was only here to visit, he finally got close enough to whisper in Mr. Weasley’s ear.

“I need to speak with you, sir.”

“Okay everyone!” Mr. Weasley called out. “Give him some room. Come with me Harry. I need to speak with you for a minute, and then you can visit with the family.” Only Ron seemed to know something was wrong as Mr. Weasley took Harry by the shoulder and walked him into the study closing the door behind. “Alright, Harry,” he said, “let’s hear it.” Harry couldn’t help but notice that the man before him seemed more aged than ever. Clearly his work with the Ministry was taking its toll.

“Where’s Remus… and George?” Harry asked, realizing he’d missed them in the front.

“George is minding the store,” Mr. Weasley said smiling. “They’re pulling in a lot of money this time of year, and I understand you are a major stock holder. It should make for a tidy New Year’s bonus.” Harry shrugged, not wanting to appear too pleased, but inside he was excited that Fred and George’s dream had come to fruition. “As for Remus…,” Mr. Weasley sighed, “he should be resting, but instead he’s still out searching for the students. I hope he gets back soon… three more nights until… well, you know.”

“Sir,” began Harry tentatively, “how are things at Hogwarts? Is Professor Dumbledore still well?” Mr. Weasley smiled and leaned forward in his chair.

“The man is amazing, Harry. We thought he was on his last breaths and only today he was arguing for the rights of Centaurs at the Ministry. He thinks they’ll turn the tide in our war against the darkness. Tonks keeps trying to have him go to St. Mungo’s just for a check-up, but he’s a stubborn old man -- says he’s too busy. “I don’t see why; there are only a handful of students at the school.” Then Mr. Weasley narrowed his eyes at Harry. “Why? What’s the matter?” Harry bit his lip trying to put together what he should say. If Dumbledore was well, then the school was safe, and so too the stone. But now wasn’t the time for secrets.

“There’s a special object in my possession,” Harry said, choosing his words carefully. “It’s now in my room at Hogwarts and I have reason to believe that Vold…” Mr. Weasley winced, “that You-Know-Who might want it.”

“What object?”

“I… I’d rather not say, sir.” At Harry’s words, Mr. Weasley nodded his head, willing to let the question remain unanswered. He leaned back in his chair and put his hands together.

“Very well, Harry. I’ll have two Ministry representatives watch the school while you’re on vacation. If they sniff the smallest problem, I’ll have them signal at once. Then, when you get back from holiday, you can secure it as you best see fit.” Satisfied, Harry nodded. He was, as usual, overreacting and Mr. Weasley was probably being more than kind offering two Ministry members when they could otherwise be out looking for Luna and Neville.

“Thank you, sir,” Harry said, rising from his chair. “I’d better go.”

“You’re not staying?” asked Mr. Weasley.

“I’ve got to get back. Gabriella’s waiting for me,” Harry answered with a slight blush in his cheeks.

“I see,” said Mr. Weasley, smiling as he rose from his chair to escort Harry out of the study. “She’s a fine girl, Harry… a fine girl.” Just as they reached the door, Harry stopped and turned to look into Mr. Weasley’s eyes.

“She’s a witch,” he said simply, wondering what the response would be. The corners of Mr. Weasley’s smile widened a bit.

“Ron mentioned your holiday surprise on the train. Yes, Harry, she is a witch, and a fine one from what I’ve heard, considering her circumstance,” he said gently. “Her father could have taught at Hogwarts.”

“How long have you known?” asked Harry a bit surprised at the answer. Mr. Weasley leaned against the door thumbing his fingers.

“Well, the Ministry has known since the Darbinyans moved to England. They had to register, of course.” Seeing the look on Harry’s face, he tried to explain. “As you might imagine, we’ve been watching them like hawks, but they seem harmless enough and they are entitled to their own privacy if they choose. I’m sorry that we couldn’t tell you, Harry. There are countless magical families who wish to join the great majority of our society, and say what you might, Muggles are the majority. And, as you found out last summer, Muggles can live enjoyable lives. The Darbinyans are not unique in that regard. Of course, like most they cannot always resist the temptation. We’ve been watching Privet Drive closely and there has been some sporadic magic across the street from Number four -- no doubt to dust or some such thing. I’ve tried to get Molly to try going Muggle-style for just a week, but we never seem to make it through a single day. There’s got to be a better way to do dishes.” Mr. Weasley laughed.

“I wish I had a pence for every dish I washed for my Aunt Petunia. I’d be as rich as…” Harry stopped, realizing that he already was rich. Indeed, if what Remus said was true, he was among the richest sixteen year olds in England. For the first time in a long while, his mind flashed to the Ministry where Sirius fell through the curtain. Mr. Weasley noticed the expression at once.

“It’s the walls, Harry,” he consoled, moving the wisps of hair that concealed Harry’s scar from off his face. “Molly can scrub them shiny, but they still speak to us every night. Speaking of scrubbing… you are a bit ripe.” He pulled out his wand and tapped Harry on the forehead. The ash and dust vanished from Harry’s face and hair, and his clothes looked like they’d just come from the cleaners. Mr. Weasley put his arm around Harry’s shoulder and opened the door. “You’d best be getting on before she starts to wonder if you’re coming back at all.”

“Who?” asked Ron. He was standing outside the door, still waiting to see what was the matter. “What’s going on, Harry?”

“Oh… nothing, Ron,” Harry said, feeling much better. “I guess I was worried about Hogwarts is all.” Ron tried to follow-up his questions, but Harry stopped him before he could start. “Listen, now that I know we’re still on the network, I’ll stop by Christmas.”

“Wonderful, Harry,” said Mr. Weasley. “I’ll make sure we keep the fire burning.”

“But why would you…” Ron stammered, but too late. The fire flashed and Harry was back at Privet Drive. Stepping from the embers, he brushed a bit of ash from his sleeves, and found himself alone in the living room. His concern heightened when he heard Gabriella at the door arguing.

“I said you had to wait!” she yelled.

“But it’s bloody cold out here, woman!” The voice was Duncan’s.

“Let him in!” Harry called out. Peeking back to see that Harry had returned, Gabriella let the blonde through the front door. When his eyes saw the devastation of the living room they nearly burst from his head.

“What the bloody hell happened?” He gawked at the splintered wood and ash scattered everywhere. “I’d say you’d been on a drinking binge, if I didn’t know you were more sober than an alter boy just a few hours ago. He stepped into the living room only to feel the squish of a cat dropping beneath his foot. Slowly, he lowered his gaze to see what was on the bottom of his shoe and groaned. “For the love of…”

“Look,” Gabriella interrupted, “I’m sure Mama’s started dinner by now. Let’s go over to my place and we can deal with this mess later -- much later.”

“Brilliant idea, Gabriella!” Harry commended. And before long Gabriella was in the kitchen with Soseh, while Harry and Duncan sat at the table, their shoes outside, discussing football.

“I tell you, Harry,” said Duncan his voice revving with excitement, “Chelsea is the best there is this year.” Harry was a bit surprised, really. The last he’d read before he left for school was that Newcastle was the team to beat. The glint of disbelief in Harry’s eyes made Duncan bristle in defense. “You don’t believe me? They beat Newcastle 4-0, Arsenal 3-1, Exeter 5-1…”

“Okay! Okay!” Harry surrendered. Soseh placed a large plate of lamb in the center of the table and the conversation instantly gave way to hunger. Soon the table was filled with a variety of dishes, and Harry couldn’t help but keep an eye on the mince pie cooking in the oven.

“I don’t understand, Harry,” Soseh said with glowing eyes. “You eat twice as much as Duncan and yet he looks as if he could break you like a toothpick.” She slid some dolmades over in front of him, and he graciously took two more stuffed grape leaves.

“Then I guess I’ll have to eat three times as much!” he said with a smile popping one in his mouth. Soseh beamed with joy and for a moment they held each others gaze, dark brown and emerald green. It was as if she was filling him with happiness, and he leaned over and kissed her cheek. “This will be the best Christmas ever.” A tear slipped down from Soseh’s eye and she seemed to struggle for the words to say.

“It’s okay, Mama,” said Gabriella quietly, taking her mother’s hand in her own. Still, Soseh stared at Harry, her lip trembling. “Mama… it’s okay.” The alarm went off signaling that the pie was ready, breaking the trance holding Soseh’s mind. She took a deep breath and rose to take the pie from the oven.

Desert and coffee finished, Harry and Duncan bundled up for their short walks home. They thanked Mrs. Darbinyan profusely, but she was not to be outdone. Since Duncan was alone, she invited him to spend as much of the holidays at the Darbinyan home as he was able. His belly full, Duncan accepted Soseh’s gracious invitation almost before she got the words out. Soseh hugged his waist and said, “A home lives or dies from the laughter it hears, and these walls have had a grand time tonight.”

And so it was that Duncan came for dinner on the night Harry had dreaded since his arrival on Privet Drive. When they were in the park playing football with friends earlier that day, Harry told Duncan about Grigor’s request that he keep his path separate from Gabriella’s. Duncan tried to be supportive, saying that Grigor was just being protective of his daughter in a new country. Still, on this evening, as Harry and Duncan walked to the Darbinyan door to ring the bell, Harry felt the perspiration break out on the palms of his hands. His mouth felt like cotton.

Gabriella opened the door, and the two boys stepped in. The room was filled with pipe smoke, and through the thin haze Harry saw Grigor seated in his leather chair. He was smoking while another gentleman, seated on the couch next to him, read the paper. Harry took a deep breath and entered the living room, bolstered by the fact that Duncan was at his side in his moment of need.

“Hey… erm, Gab,” stuttered Duncan. “Can I use your watercloset?”

“Sure, just down…”

“Yeah, I know,” he cut in, and disappeared down the hall.

Harry felt like following after when Grigor stood from his chair waiting for Harry to walk to him. Harry obliged with Gabriella at his side. The man at the couch continued to read the paper seemingly oblivious to the new arrivals.

“Papa,” said Gabriella brightly, “you remember Harry from last summer?”

“Certainly, my dear,” said Grigor, still holding the pipe between his teeth. “How could I forget.” He slipped the pipe out of his mouth with his left hand, and held out his right. “She never stops talking about you, boy. How have you been?” Ignoring Grigor’s added emphasis on the word boy, Harry held out his clammy hand and shook Grigor’s as firmly as he dared.

“Never better, sir,” said Harry, swallowing hard. He’d rather be standing before Voldemort right now.

“Good… good,” Grigor nodded. There was a happiness on Grigor’s face that seemed to make Gabriella’s glow and she put her arm around Harry. But, Harry noted something more hidden in Grigor’s black eyes. He’d seen such a look of happiness before. “Mr. Barghouti, I’d like you to meet a close friend of my daughter’s, Harry Dursley.” The two words struck like a discordant arpeggio in Harry’s brain. He started to correct Grigor when Gabriella pinched his side hard. Mr. Barghouti stood as Harry extended his hand and the two shook.

“Pleasure, Harry,” said Mr. Barghouti with a thick accent and a deep scratchy voice. He stood taller than Harry, and his hands were callused and rough. His skin was an earthen brown and his hair black. Harry guessed he might be Greek, or Turkish.

“Mr. Barghouti is a visiting professor at the school, Harry.”

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” Harry said politely. The two men sat back down, and Harry and Gabriella walked over to the hall just off the kitchen where Soseh was busy preparing the meal.

“What was that about?” Harry hissed under his breath. “You know I’m not…”

“Do you have a clue what the last name Potter means in the Wizarding world?” Gabriella asked. She reached up and flicked at Harry’s hair with her fingers brushing it down so that it more heavily covered his scar. “He thinks you’re a Muggle; let’s keep it that way. Your father’s brother is Vernon Dursley, so that makes you Harry Dursley, okay?” The thought of pretending to be a Dursley was almost too much to bear. Still, seeing the smile in her eyes, he nodded his head in agreement.

“Did I miss anything, mate?” Duncan asked sauntering down the hall and tucking in his shirt. Harry thought he might punch him in the gut, but simply rolled his eyes and groaned. “What? What happened?”

Before long they were all sitting around the table having another wonderful meal. Before they sat, Harry tried to put Duncan between himself and Grigor, but Duncan, seemingly oblivious, took Harry’s chair leaving Harry to sit next to Grigor. “More like Ron every day,” Harry thought as he pulled out the chair at Grigor’s side. The food was fabulous and the conversation light. Indeed, all was well until Grigor mentioned that he wouldn’t be home for Christmas Eve.

“What do you mean?” shot Soseh, clearly agitated. “You’re never home and now you tell me you won’t be here on one of the most important days of the year!”

“That would be Christmas, Soseh,” said Grigor calmly. “And I will be home to take you all to church. But Christmas Eve is too important for me to miss. I have students coming in from all over to use the telescope.”

“The full moon,” Harry said, recalling his conversation with Mr. Weasley.

“Precisely!” Grigor exclaimed. “See, dear, even Harry knows.” And then he turned to Harry with an excitement in his eyes that Harry had never seen before. “But it is not just a full moon, Harry. Mars rises in conjunction! My only wish is that the clouds part long enough for us to have a clear view. The red planet is as bright as it has been in centuries, and just after midnight tomorrow it will appear to pierce the glowing moon. Even with the full moon ready to swallow Mars, its red light will be bright enough to see with your naked eye! But with the school’s telescope, the view will be breathtaking. Perhaps you’d like to come see it for yourself?” The words made Soseh breathe out in disgust and walk away from the table. The idea was intriguing and Harry almost took him up on the offer, but Gabriella shot eyes at him from across the table that clearly indicated what his answer should be.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Harry apologized. “I promised Duncan and Gabriella we’d go caroling tomorrow night as soon as his friend Emma gets in.”

“From Paris,” said Grigor sharply, as he stabbed at his plate with his fork. For an instant he seemed angry, or viciously pleased with himself.

“Yes, sir,” replied Harry. “But how did you know…”

“Caroling?” asked Duncan and he started choking on a small piece of fish. Grigor stood and slapped him on the back, dislodging the fish. The distraction was enough everyone forgot their train of thought.

“Well, if you change your minds, you’re all welcome to come,” said Grigor, raising his voice and pointing it purposefully at Soseh who was now adjusting plates in the kitchen. He put his hand on Harry’s shoulder and winked with a smile. “She’s still a goddess,” Grigor whispered. “Don’t you think?” Harry smiled back, and the two returned to the meal before them, discussing mythological reasons why Mars might be so bright.

When Gabriella walked with Harry back across the street, he felt like he was walking on air. Not only did dinner not go bad, it went astoundingly well. He spent much of the evening talking with Grigor about various astronomical events now taking place in the skies above. Grigor was particularly keen on what he thought might be a new star. Well after the meal had ended, Mr. Darbinyan pulled down an old bottle of brandy and poured out four glasses for the four men. They toasted for clear skies tomorrow night; they toasted for the health of family abroad; they toasted for Emma’s safe return; and they toasted for peace throughout the world. Harry missed the first step leading to the Dursley front door, but Gabriella caught his fall.

“I think you’ve had a little too much brandy, Harry,” Gabriella chided as she helped him into the house. Harry flopped onto the couch sending a cloud of dust into the air.

“You are going to clean this place before the Dursley’s get back, aren’t you?” she asked.

“I swear!” said Harry raising his hand in the air, and then letting it flop down at his side. “You could help you know,” Harry winked in an exaggerated manner and slipping out his wand from inside his jacket pocket. She flopped down next to him sending another cloud into the air, ignoring his gesture.

“I think that went rather well, don’t you?” she asked, taking the wand and slipping it back in Harry’s jacket.

“Yeah, except now I’m a Dursley,” Harry grimaced. “I feel like I should take a shower.”

“That might be nice,” she said. Her lips smiled and her eyes twinkled as she took his hand. As the two reached the top floor, Harry stopped and kissed her gently on the lips.

“Yes, this is going to be the best Christmas ever!”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 46 - And So It Begins
~~~***~~~


The wind whistled against the window of Harry’s room as he rolled over in his bed. The weatherman had said a disturbance was moving in, promising to dump a blanket of snow across the whole of Great Britain. It would be a white Christmas, thought Harry as he pulled the covers up over his head trying to get another few minutes of rest. She would be pounding on the door if he slept much longer, but the darkening clouds made it seem earlier than it was, and the wind made him feel cold.

They were going to have breakfast with Duncan this morning, before he started on his way to Heathrow Airport to pick up Emma who wasn’t leaving Paris until later in the afternoon. Ridiculously early as far as Harry was concerned, but Duncan was insistent that he have plenty of time should something happen on the way. The wind howled again and Harry shivered, curled up into a ball and drifted back to sleep.

In what seemed like less than a moment later, Harry found himself jarred awake. He had heard something, a knock? Then, there was another banging sound from downstairs and the curse of what was unmistakably a male’s voice. Or was it two? Yes, there were two men downstairs and they were arguing in hushed whispers. Instantly, Harry grabbed his glasses and picked his wand from off his dresser. Slowly, quietly, he slid to the corner of the room, providing a better attack position, but no ability for escape. They were definitely moving up the stairs now.

“He’s in there,” came a whisper from beyond the door.

“I know that, stupid!” was the hushed reply. “Don’t wake the whole bloody house!”

The handle began to turn and the door slowly opened. Noting that the best defense was a strong offense, Harry began his spell. “Stupef…f-f-f,” he stalled. If they would have had hair of any color other than red, they’d be splattered on the far wall already.

“Hello, Harry!” whispered Ron, staring curiously at his best friend who looked like a spider hunched in the corner waiting for its next victim. His brother Fred was at his side, wearing a scowl and obviously in a foul mood. It took Harry a second to realize that they must have come through the fireplace. Slowly, he uncoiled himself from the wall and walked over to the two Weasley brothers.

“Hey, Ron. Hey, Fred,” said Harry slipping his wand away. “What happened to you?” he pointed at Fred who looked nearly as bad as Harry did the night before. Fred narrowed his eyes and stepped closer to Harry looking down menacingly on the younger Gryffindor.

“Mum thought it would be a smashing idea for Ron’s big brother to watch out for him on his first trip alone to Harry’s. Need to make sure the fireplace is safe for my baby brother, don’t I? So I go first to find the Potter living room in a disaster. I draw my wand and yell for him to wait, but no. Two seconds and he’s falling down on top of me pushing me into a mixed pile of ash and semi-dried vomit. And this!” Fred held up his wand, splintered into two pieces. I am never coming to this dragon pit again.”

The dragon insult prickled the hairs on the back of Harry’s neck and he didn’t know why. Comparing the Dursleys to dragons was an insult to dragons everywhere. As far as he was concerned, the Dursley home was a—

“I told you not to come,” Ron shot back a bit miffed. “I don’t need you, or George, watching my every move.”

“If this wasn’t shattered I’d—”

“You’d what?” Ron challenged stepping nose to nose with his older brother. Harry never really realized that Ron had grown so much over the last year. There was silence as Ron and Fred glared into each other’s eyes, their faces only inches apart. Seconds ticked by; neither speaking, neither blinking, then Ron cracked a smile, and the two began to laugh.

“Got you, little brother,” Fred quipped victoriously. “Harry, keep an eye on the little boy, will you? He’s been a right mope waiting for…” Ron poked Fred in the side to silence him. “Yeah, yeah, okay. Look, Ron’s due back about ten tonight and I don’t want to have to come get him.” He turned to go then stopped in the hallway. “Er, Harry, could you start the fire?” he asked, holding the shards of his wand in his hand.

Harry had just lit some paper with matches when there was a familiar knock on the front door. Without waiting, the door opened and in walked Gabriella.

“Fred! Ron!” she said brightly, walking over and giving them both hugs. “Merry Christmas!” She took her hand and dusted Fred’s sleeves. “What happened to you?”

“I hope Olivander’s is still open,” muttered Fred. He reached into his pocket for floo powder and a look of realization filled his eyes. “Oops! Almost forgot, Harry.” He reached into his other pocket and pulled out a small box. “It’s too much to be hauling around.” Harry took the box as Fred turned to his girlfriend. “Gabriella, you’re as stunning as ever and when you come to your senses about Harry… I’ll be waiting!” This time he took the floo powder into his hand. “Remember, little brother, ten tonight!” He called for Diagon Alley and vaporized in a puff of purple flame.

“Ron, Harry didn’t mention you’d be by today.”

“Thought I’d surprise him,” replied Ron. “Things back home are a bit… dull.” Hearing his words and seeing the look on his face, Gabriella knowingly smiled. Harry, however, paid little attention as he unwrapped the small box. Inside was a key, a Gringotts key. “They’ve started you an account, Harry. We know you don’t like the thought of spending Sirius’ money. This here is for your share of the shop’s profits, money you should be happy to spend.” Harry held the key up and turned it in his fingers. He had helped create something that was bringing happiness during these dark times and a smile crossed his face.

“Tell Fred and George thanks, when you get back tonight, okay?” Ron nodded as Harry started to tuck the key into his pants, and then realized he wasn’t wearing any.

“Yes, Harry, you need to get dressed,” said Gabriella briskly, slapping her hands together. “We only have about fifteen minutes, so get going!” Ron had to smile as Harry hopped up the stairs without saying a word. “You are going to clean this place up today, right?” she yelled as he disappeared into the hallway.

“Er, yeah. I swear!” Harry called back.

Harry drove Gabriella’s car to the breakfast shop where they found Duncan standing on the curb waiting. He had a great grin on his face as he saw Harry at the wheel pulling up to the curb.

“Not a bad parking job, mate,” said Duncan with a grin, “for an incurable criminal.” Harry shook his hand and made quick introductions as Duncan was eager to get breakfast over with and be on his way.

“You know, Dunc,” said Harry. “You’ve got plenty of time.”

“Sure, if I don’t get a flat tire or, run into some other problem. The weather’s supposed to take a turn. I don’t want Emma waitin’ at the gate wonderin’ where I am.” Duncan’s hand was in his jacket pocket and Harry figured he was thumbing the little box that held the band of gold that would be around Emma’s finger tomorrow morning.

“Is that where you got the idea?” Ron asked Harry, pointing to Duncan’s earring of thorns. Harry shrugged stroking the now worn silver lighting bolt.

“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “Well, it was really her idea.” Gabriella smiled, and then stroked the side of Harry’s nose.

“You know, we could add one right here.” She tapped his nose with a grin and Harry shook his head taking her hand in his.

“I think I’d do it,” Ron said pensively, “but she doesn’t want me to.” He held his own ear. “Maybe a diamond er something.”

“Or a ruby!” said Gabriella excited. “With your hair, it would be…”

“She?” Harry asked, putting his fork down on his plate. Ron glanced out the window, and took another gulp of juice. “Your Mum?”

“Don’t be silly,” Gabriella said, poking at Harry’s ribs. “Hermione of course.”

“Hermione?” Harry stammered. It was as if he was picking up a box that was too large. It wasn’t that it was too heavy, he just couldn’t seem to get his hands around it.

“Certainly, Ron, you’ve told him that you and—” she stopped herself sensing the emotions roiling out from Ron as he just continued to look through the window, his ears reddening. “Oh, dear….”

“Who’s this, Herminny, eh?” Duncan asked taking a last sip of coffee. “Certainly she’s got nothin’ on our Gabriella here.” Ron turned, almost defensive.

“Duncan, let me walk you to your car,” said Gabriella slyly. “We don’t want Emma waiting now, do we?”

“No, no we don’t!” he said slapping the table and standing. “Ron, damn good to meet you. Always great to see the kind of criminals Harry here hangs with.” Ron shook Duncan’s hand as the blonde ruffled Harry’s hair with the other. “See you guys tonight, and we can compare the ladies.” He winked and walked with Gabriella out of the shop. Ron turned to Harry. It seemed like the first time all year they had a moment alone together.

Harry was still in a trance. “Hermione?” he asked in a weak whisper. In his mind, the box was becoming a bit more manageable.

“Well, we… we tried to tell you, Harry,” Ron said apologetically. “Well, more me than her. I was hoping you’d figured it out at Hogwarts, but she didn’t want to press it. I thought if I told her about Gabriella she’d change her mind. But she was still worried you’d get mad, or lose focus. I guess… the scar and all….” There was a long silence as Harry said nothing. “Maybe she was right,” Ron muttered pushing his plate forward. But then a warm smile broke out on Harry’s face and his eyes lit bright.

“Brilliant,” he whispered. “Since when?” he asked. But then, “No, wait… Germany.” His smile grew broader. He could tell by Ron’s reddening face he was right. “Watching whales, eh? You went to be together in Germany… to be together.” Harry shook his head. “Nitwit, Potter,” said Harry, and he had to laugh at himself. He pushed his chair back and stood from the table saying, “Come on, stand up.” Hesitantly, Ron obliged. Harry wrapped him in his arms. “It’s perfect, Ron, absolutely perfect.” The redhead grinned himself as a great weight had just evaporated into the ether.

“I told her you’d understand,” he said as they both returned to their chairs, “but nooo, I have to tiptoe all year long just to…” he stopped himself short. Ron had been aching to talk to Harry about Hermione since last summer and now that they’d broken the ice he still wasn’t sure how far he should go.

“So,” Harry stepped in, thirsty for more information from his friend, “is she a good kisser?” Ron instantly reddened and then a sly glint crossed his eyes.

“Is Gabriella a good kisser?” Harry leaned in close. “She’s a goddess, Ron. The things she can do with her fingers! Just last night… AYE!” Ron had been watching as Gabriella stepped up behind Harry.

“I can do this with my fingers,” she said between her teeth as she briefly clenched a nerve in Harry’s neck that sent spasms down the right side of his body, “to little braggarts who can’t keep their mouths shut!” Ron burst out laughing, as Harry crumpled in his chair.

“She’s a goddess of war, Harry!” joked Ron. “You better watch yourself.” Harry stood, rubbing his neck and apologized, a deed for which he received a kiss. Ron turned toward the window. “Wow, look at it come down!” Outside the snow was starting to fall heavily.

“We’d better get back,” said Gabriella handing Harry his jacket. “Maybe Duncan was right to leave early. I hope they make it back okay.”

As the sky darkened, the three made their way back to Gabriella’s driveway, the snow already clinging in the street. Harry no sooner stepped out of the car than a majestic owl swooped down in front of him. Harry watched it turn for another pass and this time it dropped a parchment directly in Harry’s hands. The great owl then climbed until it disappeared into the falling snow. Harry looked down to find a wax seal bearing the Malfoy crest.

“Who’s it from, Harry,” asked Ron, holding his jacket tight around his neck.

“Malfoy,” Harry responded before thinking. They were under the eves of Gabriella’s house, the snow now over an inch deep on the front lawn.

“Malfoy!” exclaimed Gabriella as she brushed the snow from her coat. “Draco Malfoy?” Harry looked at her in surprise. How could she possibly… “Isn’t that the boy that nearly killed Cho?”

“He’s an evil git is what he is,” Ron jumped in. “He’s got the mind of a snake and the heart of a… well, he doesn’t have one of those. Don’t open it, Harry! I’ll bet you a galleon to a knut it’s probably hexed.”

Harry looked at the scroll carefully. He knew it wasn’t hexed. There was red and green trim on the edges and Harry’s name was in rather elegant gold-leaf script. Harry thought it a Christmas card, but he wasn’t going to open that in front of Ron. “Er, yeah, probably,” he agreed with Ron. “Hang on.” He ran across the street into number four and tossed the scroll on the living room table. He’d read it later. Then, looking at the mess, he made a mental note that he’d definitely get to that tomorrow too.

They entered the Darbinyan household and found Soseh tinkering with an ornament on the Christmas tree. Gabriella called her name, but she seemed entranced with the shiny red orb of glass that hung at the side of the tree. “Asha,” Soseh muttered under her breath, and then something else Harry now understood to be Armenian, but still couldn’t translate.

“What’s she saying?” Harry whispered to Gabriella. She shook her head and slipped off her coat hanging it from a hook near the door. Ron and Harry followed suit, wiping their feet on the mat by the door.

“She thinks she sees my brother, Antreas,” Gabriella said sadly, “wrapped in a chain of thorns.” Gabriella sighed and walked over to her mother.

“Mama?” Gabriella said softly as if gently waking a baby from its slumber. “Mama? Antreas is fine; he’s safe with God now. Come on, I’m home. Sorry we took so long.” Slowly, Soseh seemed to realize they were in the room. “Have you seen the snow, Mama? We’ll have a white Christmas, just like you dreamed of!” A large smile spread across Soseh’s face as Gabriella walked her to the window.

“A white Christmas!” Soseh beamed, looking out onto the front yard. And then, as if nothing had ever been wrong, she turned to Harry. “This is your friend, Harry, is it not?” She strode over to Ron pinching his cheek. “Yes! Perhaps you can teach our Harry here how to eat! What’s your name my child?”

“Ron… Ron Weasley, ma’am.” He reached out his hand to shake, but Soseh wrapped him in her arms, and then patted his stomach.

“Have you had lunch?” she asked. “No… no, of course, I forgot, you just had breakfast with Duncan. A fine boy like yourself, Ron! Perhaps just a snack then.” Soseh went into the kitchen and started preparing a plate for the three teenagers. Ron followed her to the kitchen and began suggesting items she might add. The gesture seemed to fill Soseh with pure joy.

“Gab… is she okay?” Harry asked. It was the first time he’d really seen Soseh so unresponsive and it was a bit frightening.

“Another bout of senility,” Gabriella sighed. “I was hoping by now….” She looked at Ron working with her mother in the kitchen and tried to smile, but instead shuddered as she covered her face. Harry took her in his arms and she wept for only a moment on his shoulder. Holding her in his arms it suddenly occurred to him.

“Gabriella, what if… when I get back to Hogwarts… you know… I could use the stone.” She pulled back looking at him blinking. She looked so tired and Harry wanted nothing more than to make her better… to make Soseh better. The vivificus stone was a tool for good, and he’d start as soon as he returned. Happiness wiped the tears from her eyes and she held him tight in her arms.

“I’m sorry, Harry, but—”

“What’s this?” Ron asked, pointing to a television in the living room. Gabriella turned and flicked it on to reveal a parade in South Benton that was being covered by the local station. “A picture frame?” he asked.

“A television, Ron,” answered Harry. “It shows pictures of what’s going on around the world.” Ron’s eyes lit up.

“My dad’s always wanted to see one of these!” he exclaimed. “Can you make it look wherever you want?”

“No. There’s a guy like Colin taking pictures at the other end. He gets to pick what you watch.” Ron shook his head in disappointment taking a slice of cheese from the platter Soseh had prepared. They were all watching the tube, when Gabriella burst out.

“It’s Emma’s team!” The University track team was wearing heavy jackets in the snow, walking in a loose formation and waving at the crowd. She turned up the volume.

“Yes John,” a woman’s voice announced, “the team was extremely successful at the European Championship. Nearly a dozen members were selected to attend; three men and four women earned medals this year, including the first gold in the women’s 100 meter dash by Emma Slate.” Gabriella squealed. “They should return from Paris this afternoon, if Heathrow stays open.”

“Yes indeed, Mary,” a male voice answered back, as the team passed from view followed by a marching band. “Most airports around Great Britain are announcing delays. For more on the weather we turn to…” Gabriella turned down the volume.

“Did you hear that?” she radiated. “A gold medal!” Soseh stood with her hands twisting the back of the couch tightly as she stared at the television. Only Harry noticed, and his heart filled with sadness. He was sure he heard her mutter her son’s name.

Finally, they all migrated to the platter of food at the kitchen table and before long all four were assembling a puzzle of Big Ben. They were nearly done when for no reason Soseh stood up, walked over to the silent television that was now showing a commercial, and gripped the back of the couch once more.

“It can’t end like this?” Soseh questioned the television. “My sweet… can it?”

“Mama?” Gabriella asked standing and moving to join her. No sooner had she reached Soseh’s side, the television flashed SPECIAL REPORT. Harry and Ron both came over to see what was up. Gabriella turned up the volume.

“… your regular broadcast to bring you this special report. At approximately 4 pm, GMT, multiple explosions rocked the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. The airport was packed with holiday travelers and early reports have many dead and countless injured. Officials refuse to comment if this was another terrorist attack. Here is the first footage of the scene.”

The picture, taken from a helicopter flying overhead, showed three large pillars of smoke rising into the evening air. A tremendous blaze roared up from one location and the camera zoomed in. “What you’re seeing there, Bill, is, or was, Terminal 2D. Air France, Brit Air and Luxair all used that terminal for…” There was another huge explosion, the camera frame flashing white. “My god! Did you get that? It’s gone… it’s all gone.” The camera pulled back to show the entire length of the terminal engulfed in flames.

“Emma!” Gabriella breathed, squeezing Harry’s hand. “What airline was she flying, Harry?”

“I don’t know,” he replied dumbstruck. “Duncan never said.” The scene on the television changed to the front of the airport where rescue workers were carrying the injured out of the building. In the same picture, policemen armed with rifles stormed into the building. It was utter chaos.

“I’ve got to call her mother!” She ran to the phone and quickly dialed. “Damn! It’s busy!” Gabriella began to tremble and Harry went to console her.

“I’m sure she’s fine, baby. She should have left there over an hour ago.”

“Didn’t you hear? They said delays! What if… what if…”

“She’s fine. She’s probably on the phone right now with her mum, that’s all.” Tears began to stream down Gabriella’s eyes. She was having none of it.

“Don’t you see, Harry?” she quietly moaned in anguish burying her head in Harry’s neck. “She’s never wrong. Mama’s never wrong.” Soseh, seemingly oblivious, returned to the kitchen and began washing some plates.

Ron, however, was transfixed with the television. His mind watching every detail, looking for any clue. “Why? Why would he do this?” he whispered. “They’re innocents, for Merlin’s sake.” He turned to see Harry still holding Gabriella in his arms. “We need to go,” he said with a tint of urgency in his voice. Harry looked at Ron as if he were a madman.

“You can’t be serious?” he said, glaring through his glasses. Gabriella, however, heard something in the tone of Ron’s words, wiped her tears from her face and walked over to the couch.

“Why, Ron?” she sniffed. “What is it?”

“The opening move, Gabriella,” he explained turning back to the television. “King’s Cross was the warm-up. This… this is his flashy, bloody murderous, opening move.” Harry stood behind Gabriella and listened trying to follow Ron’s thinking.

“Who’s he?” Gabriella asked. Ron shot Harry a glance, and Harry shook his head. Ron continued.

“The point is that he’s waiting for our counter move, and when we—” There was a knock on the door.

“That’s probably Emma and Duncan right now,” said Harry with hope in his voice as he went to answer the door. He pulled it open to find Fred standing on the stoop. For a moment, Harry just gaped, unable to say a word. “Er… come in, Fred.” The redhead stepped in through the door. There was no humor in his eyes. Instead, his face wore a look of worry and his hand remained in his pocket, where Harry knew his new wand lay.

Fred’s eyes surveyed the room before he fully entered. Ron seemed unsurprised. Gabriella looked to Harry for an explanation. Soseh, hummed quietly to herself as she continued to clean the kitchen. Ron narrowed his eyes at his brother, reading his thoughts, and then opened them wide.

“The Ministry!” Ron exclaimed. “Where’s dad?”

“I told you not to—”

“Where’s dad?” Ron yelled.

“He and Percy went to France. Half the Ministry’s there.”

“A feint,” said Ron, still trying to assemble the strategy in his mind. “Draw them to Paris, and attack the Ministry.” He grabbed his coat and slipped it on. “How many?”

“About three dozen rogue goblins,” Fred answered. “When I left, they’d already broken through the first defenses. Seems they brought a couple giants with them.”

“Goblins?” Harry asked. “What about…” he looked over his shoulder, but Soseh seemed oblivious as she arranged food in the icebox. “What about Death Eaters?” he whispered.

“Oh, no.” Ron breathed not waiting for the answer. “Where’s Dumbledore?” he asked excitedly.

“That’s why I’m here.” Fred turned to Harry as Gabriella reached for his arm. “Tonks finally convinced him to go to the hospital. He was admitted this afternoon for a check-up exam at St. Mungo’s. It takes twelve hours to complete, and the Healer there says the test can’t be interrupted. Something about a measure of his life force; stopping now could kill him.” He stepped closer to Harry. “Before Dad left to France, he told me to come get you if there was any change.”

“Change in what?” Harry asked.

“Change at Hogwarts,” replied Fred. “Dumbledore’s gone and now the two Aurors Dad had watching Hogwarts are fighting at the Ministry.” Ron, hearing these words, assembled the moves and planned two ahead as if playing a game of wizard’s chess.

“They’re at Hogwarts, Harry,” he said, seeing the strategy for what it was. “No students, only a handful of professors, and Dumbledore is gone. They want the school.”

“The stone,” said Gabriella in a clear voice. “Harry, do you think…?”

“We’ve got to find out,” Harry said, reaching for his jacket. But Ron, the better chess player, grabbed his hand.

“Don’t you think that’s what he wants you to do? Come save the school? Harry, it’s another trap.” Harry shook his head.

“No, Ron, he wants something of mine, and he’s gone to Hogwarts to take it from me.” He grabbed his coat, and hastily put it on. He turned to Gabriella who was still trying to figure out who he was. “Baby, I’ve got to go find out if the stone is safe. I’ll be back as soon…” Harry swallowed, losing the words in his throat. “I… I love you.” They kissed as Gabriella stroked his face, her hand shaking. He began to follow Fred and Ron out the door, then turned back. It was odd he thought. They were to be eating a grand meal this evening, and Soseh hadn’t even started cooking. Did she know? He took a deep breath. “Emma will be fine. I know she will.” He offered as best a smile as he could muster and closed the door behind him.

The snow had stopped falling, leaving behind about six inches of fresh powder. Harry looked to the darkening sky and found it still spotty with clouds. Already, Fred and Ron were calling for him to hurry; Ron insisted that the Death Eaters wanted Harry, not some stupid stone. When they entered the Dursley living room, Harry looked down to see Draco’s scroll. Christmas greetings would have to wait, he thought. Right now they needed to go. The three stood at the hearth.

“Well,” Ron began, “we can start at the new shop in Hogsmeade first, maybe fly from there, or we can try to jump straight to Hogwarts into Tonks’ office.”

“Hogsmeade,” Harry answered without hesitation. “We need to know what we’re walking into.”

“Agreed,” Ron nodded. “Hopefully nothing but Christmas cheer.”

Brandishing his new wand, Fred started the fire and was first to go… “Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes of Hogsmeade!” Ron followed close behind. Harry, however, hesitated. He scanned the room regretting that he’d never taken the time to clean it. He felt as if, somehow, he was saying goodbye. For no reason, he grabbed Draco’s scroll, shoved it in his jacket, and disappeared into a swirling flash of fire, only to reappear in Fred and George’s new shop. Emerging from the ashes, he swiped the dust from off his coat sleeves.

“That’s far enough, Mr. Potter,” sneered a male’s voice to Harry’s right. He turned to find George out cold on the floor, Ron and Fred bound and gagged sitting next to him, and a cloaked figure pointing a wand straight at Harry. “And they said this would be difficult. Now… slowly… hand me your wand. We wouldn’t want an accident now, would we?”

“Mahogany?” Harry said coolly. “It didn’t serve you well when we met last in the Ministry, Mr. Nott.” The Death Eater recoiled at his name. “Taken down by a fifteen year-old witch. Tsk. Tsk,” Harry clucked his tongue.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, Potter,” smirked Nott with a scratchy voice, raising his wand. Harry made no attempt to reach for his own. Instead he watched and waited. He remembered Tonks’ words earlier in the year. So he let his vision look for the smallest hint of what was to come. Nott seemed to be enjoying his upper hand, dropping his defenses ever so slightly. And then Harry heard the breath, a distinct inhale. Instantly, he reached for his wand at the pivot point of Nott’s concentration.

“Stupefy!”

“Protego!”

A beam of red light ricocheted straight back at the caster, and Nott flew backwards into the wall.

“Expelliarmus!” Harry called out, and Nott’s wand flew out of his hand. “Incarcerous.” Moments later, it was Nott who lay bound, while Ron and Fred were free. Rubbing his own right arm, Harry went to George’s aid just as he was coming to.

“George, you okay?” Harry asked. George reached and grabbed Harry’s jacket, and pulled himself up to a sitting position. His eyes seemed to float about in their sockets, and he was unable to clear his mind.

“Harry?” His voice was unsteady. “Nott, he’s—”

“Tied up at the moment, brother,” Fred cut in, handing George a green candy. “Go on, eat it.” George popped it in his mouth and immediately his eyes began to clear. Fred looked at Harry. “It’s the counter-candy to our new line of knock-out nougats.”

“Harry,” George said more clearly, getting to his feet. “They’re all over town waiting for you. They’ve got every fireplace covered.”

“Waiting for him?” Ron asked. “Harry, if they had wanted something from Hogwarts, they wouldn’t be waiting in ambush for you to arrive. They’d grab it and run. Let’s go.”

“Maybe,” Harry said looking out the front window of the shop. “We still have to be sure.”

“It’s a trap, Harry!” said Ron sternly. “There’s nothing at Hogwarts that’s worth…”

“I said we have to be sure!” snapped Harry. He wasn’t going to hide here and wait for Voldemort to take the stone. And if it was a trap, perhaps it was time for that too. He was ready to be done with it. “Fred, I need a broom.”

“You mean we need brooms,” corrected George. “Honestly, Harry, if you’re going to ruin the Queen’s English, you might just as well ship off to America.”

It wasn’t long before the four Gryffindors found themselves in the air above the frozen lake heading toward Hogwarts. The snow was deeper here, and as Harry looked up, he could see stars breaking through the clouds and Mars looming large, a brilliant bright red as it approached the full moon. Perhaps, tonight, Grigor would get his wish after all.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 47 - Lycanthropic Liberation
~~~***~~~


“Where is it?”

“I don’t know. We should see it by now.”

The three Weasley boys and Harry were flying fast and furious across the lake toward Hogwarts. Normally, the castle lights filled the skyline with a glow visible from even Hogsmeade. At Christmas the colour was yet more spectacular, drawing wizards and witches from around the country to take photographs. Now, halfway across the lake, the full moon and the brilliant red of the planet Mars covered with clouds, there was no sign of a castle.

“This is bad,” cried out Fred above the roar of the wind. “You can’t bloody vanish a whole castle… can you?”

“There’s Hagrid’s!” yelled Ron. The pinprick of light from the half-giant’s cabin set their bearings. They crossed, as near as they could tell, the lake’s edge. “That means the castle is over…” He immediately slowed his broom, and the others did likewise. Where the castle should be, there was darkness. The air had been cold, but suddenly it had turned frigid. Harry knew this feeling all too well.

“Dementors,” he hissed, as they each landed on the ground. “Wands ready!”

“It’s bad enough they ruined business for weeks after school started,” growled Fred, “but now they have to go and ruin my Christmas!” Slowly they walked toward the emptiness they could not see, but felt in their bones. George pointed slightly to their left.

“The castle has to be —” For a moment, the clouds opened, and the night’s full moon shone down like a giant spotlight from the heavens. “Merlin!” he gasped. Every flame was out on the castle and no light shone from within. Hovering about the castle walls and over its ramparts were Dementors, hundreds of Dementors, like flies searching for food. The boys scanned the windows, the parapets, the towers, and the castle grounds with the light available, but not another living thing stirred.

“The cabin,” Ron offered. “There’s light there.” Harry nodded and they dashed down the hill. The windows were frosted over and inside nothing stirred. Without saying a word, Harry motioned to George to watch his back as he reached for the handle on the front door. Quickly, he pulled and it opened freely; the two plunged inside followed by Ron and Fred.

“Empty,” said Ron. “They’ve taken him.”

“Fang’s gone,” said Harry, looking behind the large couch. “They wouldn’t take Fang; the dog’s worthless, and Hagrid wouldn’t take him to protect the castle.” He shook his head. “This doesn’t make sense.”

“The Dementors may have come here first,” answered Fred bleakly.

“Listen Harry,” said George concerned and somehow feeling the responsible one, “I know we can all conjure a Patronus, and I know you’re better at it than anybody in all England, but there are too many. We have to get help.” Harry started to complain, but George held up his hand. “I’ll fly back to Hogsmeade and Apparate to the Ministry. I don’t know how many Death Eaters they have in Hogsmeade, but I’m sure it’s enough to watch the likely floos. If we’re lucky, someone’s already gone for help. It’ll only be ten, maybe twenty minutes; just stay here and we can do this together. Fred, make sure they stay put.”

No one said another word as they watched George push off from Hagrid’s stoop. He was flying low to the ground, speeding toward the lake’s edge when a dark image seemed to sense his presence. Soon, a dozen or more Dementors were giving chase. There was a large flash of bright white light, and a Patronus in the shape of an enormous falcon burst forth from George’s wand. The Dementors scattered and none continued the chase as he made his way over the lake toward Hogsmeade. Ron whooped a cheer. Harry grabbed Ron’s mouth with his hand to silence him, but too late. The Dementors had sensed the joy and headed their way. Quickly, they ran back into Hagrid’s cabin and locked both doors. An instant later, there was a thud at the window, and another on the back door. The room was growing cold, as the very foundation of the cabin began to shake and Fred seemed to grow pail. Harry stoked the fire, his arm still aching from his duel with Nott.

“Ron!” Harry yelled out. “The cupboard, Hagrid keeps his chocolate in there!” Ron ran and got the chocolate, feeding it to all three. The cabin was affording them more protection than Harry thought it should. He heard no screams in his mind, no echoes of the past. Still, the roof rumbled violently, showering them in dust and debris.

“There’s got to be dozens of them out there!” yelled Ron over the rumbling, showing a hint of fear for the first time. “This cabin can’t hold out forever.” Harry looked at the front door, considering a frontal attack.

“No, Ron,” he breathed, “no it can’t, and we can’t wait for more. Grab the door!” Hesitantly, Ron nodded, drew his wand, and put his hand on the handle. Fred grabbed him by the arm.

“It’s suicide! The second we leave the building the whole lot of ‘em will be in our heads. We might get a few shots off, but that’ll be it.”

“In our heads…” whispered Harry quizzically, lowering his wand; an idea was forming. “Ron, can you —” Just then there was a loud howl that seemed to come from the back door. It was long and mournful, and the second it finished it was followed by another, this time higher in pitch and more from the front of Hagrid’s cabin.

“Oh, no! Not werewolves!” pleaded Ron to the air. He ran to the window and tried to wipe the frost from the inside pane. He was scraping away the ice with his coat sleeve when he recoiled in horror. Large red eyes glared back at him and then disappeared into the darkness. The air soon filled with howls, and the cabin gave a giant shudder, only to fall still. “I guess after the Dementors suck our souls out, we’ll make for a nice midnight snack!”

There was a long, low growl at the back door, and then a sudden large crash against the wood. If the cabin hadn’t been built for a half-giant, the wood would have splintered in two. In the distance, there was the sound of fighting as if two werewolves were tearing into something, or someone. Then again at the back door, they heard a yelp, and the door crashed but did not yield.

“It won’t take too many more hits like that,” said Fred coolly. He raised his wand and a broad blast of white light infused itself in the wood. “That will help, but not forever.” At the front another werewolf howled, this time low and in an almost commanding tone.

“Ron,” Harry called, “can you see?”

“I can’t see a bloody thing,” Ron replied, looking out the frosted window again.

“No, I mean can you see with your mind? I think… Just focus to the front! Is anybody there?”

Ron walked to the front door, just as another large crash hit the back. He closed his eyes and reached for thoughts out beyond the wall. “Merlin!” he gasped. “Anger… they’re mad… no, he’s mad.” Still closing his eyes he called out loudly, as another rumble shook the cabin. “It’s like two minds, Harry! Wait, there’s another —” A high howl pierced their ears from just beyond the door. “That’s a woman! She’s calling to attack.” Ron turned and slumped to the floor, his back against the door, he said dejectedly, “Finish them off at the cabin!”

The front window shattered, and a pale, dead-looking hand wrapped in shreds of black cloth reached through. Instantly, the room filled with the horrid stench of death and decay. Harry raised his wand, readying it to get a better shot should the creature fully enter. “Not us…” Ron muttered, still slouched at the door. The Dementor placed its hooded head through the window, and drew in a sucking wind that turned the room cold. Harry summoned a happy thought and began his incantation just as the Dementor let out a piercing guttural scream. There was an enormous ripping sound, and black liquid flew from within the creature’s hood onto the cabin floor. It slumped across the sill, and was dragged away to the sound of more tearing flesh and growls.

A moment later, another shriek came from the back of the cabin, and then another from the side. “They’re feeding,” said Ron, staring blankly at Fred still standing guard at the back door. Soon the air was filled with shrieks the three boys now knew to be the rattling death cries of the Dementors. Gathering his strength and his bravery, Ron stood and placed his forehead against the front door. They waited and watched as the screams seemed to emanate further from the cabin. The rattling and crashing at the doors had stopped. “I count eight at least,” said Ron, deep in concentration. Suddenly he turned to look at Harry, his eyes wide. “One’s wondering why you’re not using the Patronus it taught you!”

“Remus!” Harry exclaimed. “I’d know that howl anywhere.” Even with a broken window, the air in the cabin had grown warmer. Harry stood on the couch to look out the window, realizing too late as he soaked his hand in the black ooze now on the sill. “Yehk,” he spat. The clouds had covered the moon again, and all was dark. Another howl erupted from the momentary silence, followed quickly by multiple shrieks in the direction of the castle. Harry came back to his friends, wiping his hands with a large towel by the sink. “We need to get inside the castle!”

“Okay, I know he’s Remus and all,” cautioned Fred, “but a werewolf will slice open the guts of his own family and have them for breakfast as soon as not. He may want your Patronus, Harry, but that might be just to get more Dementors for snacks. I doubt the beasts are going to just let us stroll up to the front doors while they chomp on some more black robes.”

“Maybe,” said Ron, narrowing his eyes. “Maybe, if I could get close enough.”

“Close enough!” shot Fred. “For what? Are you mad?”

“The walls here,” Ron said keenly, “they’re different somehow. If I can get outside, and move in close to one of the werewolves —”

“What?” yelled Fred. “Oh, I can see it now. Sorry, Mum, but it seemed like a smashing idea… little Ronnie sneaking up to talk to the cute little werewolves. Imagine my surprise when THEY ATE HIM!”

“I’m telling you he spoke to me!” Ron yelled back at Fred, and then turned to Harry for support. “At least I think he did.” Harry looked back at Ron hard. He knew, better than anyone, how adept Ron had become at probing the mind. They had shared each other’s thoughts, and Harry at least entertained the possibility, however remote, that Ron was capable of speaking to Remus the werewolf.

“How close?” he asked. Fred couldn’t believe his ears.

“Harry, you aren’t actually —”

“HOW CLOSE?”

Ron thought for a moment, rolling it over in his mind. He’d read the minds of humans from more than fifty feet away. “Twenty feet,” he confidently replied. The clouds broke open once again and the moon shone bright on the castle grounds. Harry walked over to the broken window. The castle still swarmed with Dementors, while the howls and fighting moved towards the west side, near the Quidditch pitch.

“They’re not going in,” Harry whispered. “They seem to be looking for a way, but can’t find it.” Seeing that Harry was actually considering the possibility, Fred walked over and took his arm.

“I’m not going to let my brother —”

“That’s not your decision, Fred,” Ron cut in, “and it’s not Harry’s. I have no intention of going out to be an appetizer. I’ll need the help of the best Beater in Hogwarts’ history though. If we do this right, we can pull them away from the front doors and give Harry a chance to get into the castle.”

“Ron —” Fred began.

“Listen!” Ron interrupted. “We can use our brooms. Last time I checked, werewolves can’t fly. We can hover over the top and see if I can get in to Remus’ mind and let him know what’s going on. When George arrives with help, we can’t have two allies attacking each other. Thing is, that’s just the first move. The Dementors are out in the thick of it with ‘em, and I’ll need you to keep them off me long enough to connect.” Fred was hesitant, not so much for his own safety as his brother’s.

“Why the hell did you have to go and become a Legilimens for anyway,” Fred cursed defeated. “If we do this, we do it my way, and that means we leave when I say leave. Is that clear?”

“Yes, big brother,” said Ron, his lips hinting at a smile. He drew his wand and slowly opened the front door. Except for the screams in the distance, all was silent. The two Weasleys mounted their brooms as Harry sat low at the stoop of Hagrid’s cabin. Ron turned to his brother to reassure him about something Harry knew all along. “Don’t worry, Fred,” he said with eyes of steel. “I can do this.” Fred nodded, gripping Ron’s shoulder tight.

“Be quick, Harry,” he said. “If we can, we’ll retreat back to the cabin. And here,” he said, tossing Harry a blue-wrapped candy. “Nitro nougat,” he grinned. “You can chew ‘em for hours, but spit ‘em out and they explode. Won’t kill anybody, but it will knock ‘em off their feet.” For an instant, Ron and Harry held each other’s gaze. They’d been near death together before, but somehow this was different. They gave each other a slight nod, and in a flash the two Weasleys disappeared into the eerie glow of a reddened moonlight toward the pitch.

Harry sat down and closed his eyes. Pulling the thoughts from his mind, he cleared it from all happiness, all sadness, all pain, and all joy. If the Dementors needed to feed, they would not sense it in his overwrought emotions. When he refocused on the front castle doors, his mind was imbued with the single purpose of retrieving the vivificus stone. Slowly, he made his way up from Hagrid’s cabin. In the distance there was a loud howl, followed closely by a brilliant flash of white light that filled the sky. The Dementors swarming the castle seemed to migrate toward the commotion. It was as if a giant black scarf was slowly slipping off the castle to the west. There was another flash of light, and then a panoply of howls and screeches. Harry looked up toward the moon, and nearly had to shield his eyes. As they adjusted, he saw Mars glaring defiantly down on him as if Voldemort were a red-eyed Cyclops. It was, for a planetary star, enormous. Grigor was right, the sight was astronomically spectacular. He wished he could be out on the front lawn of Pensley College this evening. It would not be long until Mars would appear to crash into the moon, only to reappear on the other side an hour after that.

The Dementors had, for now at least, vanished to the far side of the castle. It was now or never. He tried to blow warmth in his hands, took another breath, and then sprinted to the front doors. Expecting to find them locked, he found them open and he slipped in as quietly as he could manage only to find the front entranceway deserted. He ran to the Great Hall, assuming the students would gather there under the professors’ protection, but it too was deserted. There was nothing, not a student or professor, not a ghost or even a cat. He had never seen the castle this quiet. Only the flicker of an occasional candle suggested that there was life of any sort. Then, in the silence, he heard a distant voice. It was calling out from the towers. Immediately, he ran to climb the staircases.

The moving steps rumbled under his feet as he ascended. Soon, it became clear that the sound was coming from the Gryffindor tower. There was a great blast, like the sound of a tremendous electric discharge that lasted for a few seconds then fell silent. Quickly, he ran down a corridor toward Gryffindor. The voice called out again, and though Harry was nearer its strength, the voice was weaker; so too was the sound of lightning that filled the air. He turned the final corner toward the portrait of the Fat Lady, and into a corridor of darkness and stench.

“Lumos!” he called out, gasping for breath. The ground was littered with the empty black cloaks of Dementors. Slowly, he moved forward toward the entrance. Again, the voice weakly hissed out to the darkness an incantation that Harry could not hear. There was a faint white discharge that lit up the end of the corridor. It was enough to let Harry see, and the picture it imprinted on his mind filled him with horror.

Dozens of black robes were piled all around as black ooze covered the floor. Sitting in the muck, her back to the portrait of the Fat Lady, was Professor McGonagall. Harry could see in her eyes a mixture of fear and defiance. Her hand, clutched around her wand, reminded Harry of Neville clutching a small paintbrush dripping with green paint. Surrounding her were a dozen more Dementors, closing in. They were stooping close to her, but she had no more magic left to fight. Harry did not hesitate.

“Expecto Patronum!” he called high into the air. A stag erupted from his wand in a brilliant flash of white. It charged the Dementors, pushing them away from Professor McGonagall and into a corner of the corridor against the wall. They were trapped. Harry continued to focus his wand, and a continual stream of light kept him connected to the stag. The glowing white creature lowered its rack of antlers and plunged into the Dementors. They screamed as if being seared by a white hot poker. Harry repeated the spell. Another stag erupted to join its twin. It too lowered its head and plunged into the creatures. Professor McGonagall moved along the floor in the black slime toward Harry, but he paid her no heed. His mind was single focused. He recast the spell, just as one Dementor seemed to vanish through the wall in a withering cry, leaving behind nothing but a black cloak that fell into a puddle of black ooze on the floor. Another cried out and passed into nothingness. Again and again he summoned his Patronus, not to protect, but to kill. Soon, the room was as filled with screams as his heart was with rage. “Die!” his mind yelled out, but instead of screaming the word, his lips pursed and he blew a whistle. “No! Not now!” he thought, whistling the Hogwarts school song.

Two Dementors were trapped against the wall as the last Patronus crushed one into nothingness, leaving the other free. Harry tried to cast a spell, but only music left his lips. The remaining creature hesitated at first, and then swiftly moved toward Harry as he whistled. He began to feel cold and nauseous. He felt the rage being sucked from his body, and the whistling stopped. A new kind of scream began to fill his ears, and helpless, he fell to his knees, dropping his wand into the black goo. The Dementor leaned close, its rattling breath fogging Harry’s glasses. It reached its decaying hands to Harry’s face and pulled him closer. In that instant, a fire lit his fingertips and spread upward through his arm and into his mind.

“Don’t - touch me - you bloody beast!” He took his right hand and plunged it into the darkness of the Dementor’s hood, and grabbed hold of its coldness. The Dementor screeched, but Harry continued. “Siad Adumai!” he cried, uttering a spell he had never studied nor read before. The coldness in his fingers grew warm, then hot, as the Dementor’s body glowed red, then white, lifting off the ground and exploding like a Filibuster Firework releasing all of the light the creature had sucked out of the world, and leaving nothing behind but glowing embers that floated to the blackened floor.

Shaking, Harry knelt on the floor and stared into the darkness. A groan at his side broke the trance. Searching the slime with his hand, he found his wand and lit the candles in the corridor. There, prone on top of a pile of black rags from the Dementors she herself had destroyed, Professor McGonagall lay pale and gaunt, but still alive. Harry reached down to help her up, but she recoiled, brandishing her wand.

“Professor, it’s me,” he offered kindly, “Harry Potter.”

“Harry,” she whispered as if waking from a deep slumber. “You shouldn’t… it’s not safe. The others… they’re…” She fainted to the floor. Harry looked up to the portrait of the Fat Lady still flecked with splatters of black blood. She, like the portraits about her, bore expressions of panic mixed with relief.

“Mumosum Splenda,” said Harry, repeating the password he last knew.

“That is n-not the p-p-password,” stammered the Fat Lady frightened. Harry reached down and scooped up a handful of black ooze, preparing to finger-paint if need be.

“Open… the… door!” he commanded, jaws clenched. The portrait opened.

Crying for help, Harry carried Professor McGonagall into the Gryffindor common room and set her on the couch by the fire. It was warm here, but still nobody answered his call. He scanned about for any sign of struggle, but save for the eerie absence of people, all seemed normal. He ran over to the cupboard and pulled down some chocolate candies, but Professor McGonagall still lay unconscious. He placed a small bit of chocolate in her mouth to let it dissolve, but she was tired, far too drained to even swallow. He remembered the stone and dashed up the staircase to the boys’ dormitory.

Entering his room, he found that nothing had changed. On his desk was the stone of cinnabar resting in the mouth of the dragonhead just as he had left it. But, where was everyone? Quickly he ran to his trunk, grabbed his bag, and started filling it with his most precious items. When he came to the Marauder’s Map, he opened it, swore his oath, and looked to see who might still be in the castle. There, in Gryffindor tower, were the names of Professor McGonagall and Harry Potter, but no others appeared. Gone were the clusters of names that always gathered in the four houses, the library and the Great Hall. Harry re-centered the map to outside the castle walls on the pitch and found to his relief Fred, Ron, Remus and other names he didn’t recognize. “Werewolves,” Harry thought to himself. If not for the Dementors swarming the castle and attacking the entrance to Gryffindor, he would have thought the school closed. It didn’t make sense, but he didn’t have time to figure it out.

He tossed the map in his bag, stood up and reached for the stone. He hesitated. There wasn’t time, but he had to. “Hang on, Ron,” he whispered. Pulling his wand he sent a blast of fire into the stone and pricked his finger letting his blood enter the Heart of Asha. Again, all went blank, as Harry found himself being pulled into the ball. The white expanse waited for his next command. “Professor McGonagall,” he concentrated. There was a whirl of colour and he found himself downstairs, looking at her on the couch in the common room, the fire’s flame frozen in time. “Heal her,” his mind echoed to the scene before him. The colours swirled and a blast of light plunged into McGonagall’s chest, but not nearly as dramatically as it had with Dumbledore. For an instant, her eyes opened, then closed, and with them the scene went black.

This time when Harry came to, he was still standing, the ball in his hand hanging at his side. He was a bit dizzy, but the nausea quickly faded. He put the dragonhead and ball in his bag and ran downstairs. He had expected to see her up walking around. Instead, she was still prone on the couch. He knelt at her side and held her hand. It was warm. The colour in her face had returned, and she looked as if she was in a deep and pleasant sleep.

“Professor,” he whispered, trying to wake her. But she wouldn’t rouse. After a few more attempts, he decided it best to let her rest.

As he stepped out the portrait of the Fat Lady, his foot slipped on a slimy black rag. “Filch is going to have a fit,” he grimaced, looking at the death and destruction around him. He moved as quickly as he dared down the staircases, trying to sense the possible approach of more Dementors, but none came. Except for Professor McGonagall in the Gryffindor common room, he was sure the castle was dark and deserted. He wondered how long his time with the stone had taken, hoping that time had passed as it had when Goyle was watching. When he finally made it to the entranceway, he paused trying to catch his breath. He stood close to the front doors and attempted to sense the cold of the Dementors that might have returned, but again he felt nothing. Perhaps Ron and Fred had been victorious, or perhaps they were having their souls sucked dry at this very moment. Unwilling to take chances, Harry held his wand high, preparing to fight the Dementors outside as he pushed open the great front doors.

Slowly, the doors creaked opened, pushing against the now drifting snow. The night was filled with an eerie reddish glow making the snow seem bloodlike. As the door fully opened, his heart sank seeing them there waiting--at least a dozen black figures only yards away.

“Expecto Patronum!” he commanded, and the giant stag once again appeared blasting into the cloaked gathering. But instead of scattering them, it slipped through them only to charge off into the distance. In the silence, there were a couple of stilted claps.

“Expelliarmus!”

Harry’s wand flew from his hand. He squinted into the darkness trying to make out his foe, and realized too late… Death Eaters.

“Very good, Mr. Potter,” came an all too familiar drawl from behind the black hood of the Death Eater standing to the fore. At his side was another cloaked figure with a black cloak, but wearing a blood-red hood. He stood no taller than Harry and was half a step behind the lead Death Eater. Scattered behind them was another dozen Death Eaters, a few of smaller stature and wearing red hoods. “Did you use the stag to rid the castle of the Dementors? I thought we’d summoned more. Pity, really.” He stepped forward. “We thought we would have to break inside and retrieve you ourselves, and the castle was being very uncooperative. Only a few of our friends slipped in before it sealed itself tight. Interestingly, even one of your classmates was unable to open the doors.” He turned to the short Death Eater at his side. “My associates were ready to give up, and here you are. Just as the Dark Lord predicted!” The last sentence was particularly stern and menacing, clearly directed at those whose courage was failing.

The gathering of black cloaks began to form a half ring around Harry, blocking his escape in any direction. The thought of returning back through the doors crossed his mind when the lead Death Eater shot a beam of blue light, sealing them. He took another step forward with a small black box in his hand.

“Now, Mr. Potter,” he sneered, “if you will give me your hand. As much as I would like to take your life, here and now, I’ve been asked to save that special pleasure for another.” Harry stepped back, running into the closed door behind him. The scene caused a cacophony of laughter from the Death Eaters behind their leader.

“Not so brave now! Is he, Lucius?” a dim-witted voice called from the back of the crowd. A voice, Harry thought, could only be Mr. Crabbe.

“Fool!” Malfoy spat, sending a shot of red light and knocking his fellow Death Eater on his back. Menacingly he turned back to Harry. “Now, Mr. Potter, give me your hand.” His words were dripping with hatred. Then, a voice cackled out from Harry’s left, catching him off guard.

“You’re the fool, Malfoy,” she screeched. “Quit playing the secret aristocrat, grab the boy’s arm, and be done with it!”

“Bellatrix!” Harry seared through clenched teeth. From deep within, a rolling hatred welled up inside him. Like volcanic lava erupting from his soul, his mind exploded in anger. His hands began to shake, as the rage consumed him. He’d destroyed the Dementors and now, he was prepared to destroy again. There would be no caring heart tonight. She would finally die. He held out his right hand, ready to kill. And… began to whistle.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 48 - Demonstration in Kind
~~~***~~~


It was a strange scene, really. Harry, filled with fury, at the front stoop of Hogwarts Castle, snow billowing onto the tops of his boots, a faint red hue cast by the fiery planet Mars above. There was no other light save for the great spotlight of the full moon. The air was bitterly cold and, as Harry whistled a tune he didn’t even know, a blast of steam shot from his lips. The tune disappeared with the vapors into an odd silence, and his audience, a dozen Death Eaters and their red-hooded apprentices, burst into laughter, some even applauding. Harry looked to the sky just as Mars appeared to crash into the moon in a grand celestial optical illusion. He half expected it to explode as he nonchalantly slipped his hand into the pocket of his jacket.

“Very pleasant, Mr. Potter,” Lucius snickered. “Wagner, I believe?” The red hue of the grounds grew bright then faded to white, and everyone seemed to follow Harry’s glance instinctively looking to the sky. In that instant Harry quickly pulled a candy from his pocket, popped it in his mouth, and started to chew.

“Enough of this rot!” spat Lestrange. Quickly she strode up to Harry. “Give me your arm, boy!” She grabbed him by the left elbow. Harry had wanted nothing more than to see her die, but when she took his arm all he could do was muster another whistle. The movement of his lips, however, was quite natural and instead of blowing a note, he blew the candy directly at the black mask in front of him.

The explosion knocked Harry backward against the door, and shot Bellatrix head over heals down the steps, bowling over a half-dozen fellow Death Eaters in her path. Those nearest the pair had been blasted backwards and the others seemed dazed. Harry didn’t hesitate as his hate gave way to necessity.

“Accio wand!” It snapped into his fingers. “Attonitu!” he called forcefully, using a spell he’d heard Goyle incant at DA meetings to blast a stunner at a group of adversaries all at once. It worked. Not as focused and lasting as a single beam, the enormous blast of red light blew all that were left standing to the ground. He ran down the castle steps three at a time, tumbling as he reached the bottom. Searing pain shot through his arm and he instinctively jumped to the right as a blast of red light shot over his left shoulder. He could hear their footsteps behind as he ran steadfast toward Hagrid’s cabin. There was another blast, and this one hit him square. His legs gave out below him. He tried to stand, but was unable. He countered the Jelly-Legs jinx and stood to one knee just as a Death Eater took him by the arm.

“I’ve got him!” he called with a grin that Harry couldn’t see, and one he’d never use again. For Harry, using a move that Gabriella had taught him, plunged his right elbow backward into the Death Eater’s mask cracking tooth and bone. The man screamed reaching for his face. Harry turned to escape, only to realize the delay had cost him his advantage--he was surrounded again. Exhausted, he fell to his knees. Suddenly, there was a sparkle of blue light from behind one of the smaller red-hooded Death Eaters. In the cluster of cloaks, barely noticeable, a house elf had just materialized.

“The elves stand silently no more!” he cried out. A few hoods turned in his direction.

“Caesar?” Harry whispered, remembering the house elf he’d met in the kitchens while searching for Dobby. No sooner had the words left his lips than another sparkle appeared to his right, and then another directly in front of him. Soon some thirty to forty house elves had appeared from nowhere. Collectively, the Death Eaters began to disperse and back away. All but one.

“This is ridiculous!” she cried out. “They’re ruddy house elves! Kill them! Kill them all!” She cast a beam of green light directly at the house elf in front of Harry. But he vanished and the light struck the ground leaving a large crater where he once stood. In return, Caesar threw a ball of white light at Bellatrix, which she easily parried with her wand. But then there was another, and another. Soon the air was filled with white balls of lightning flying at black cloaks, the occasional blast striking true. It was evident that the Death Eaters had a fight on their hands, a fight they hadn’t prepared for. Caesar hurried to Harry’s side.

“Run, Harry Potter, sir! The magic of the elves is strong, but will not last. Run!” A house elf was hit and flew through the air landing at Harry’s feet, its eyes open and blank.

“Run!” cried Caesar again.

But instead of running, Harry placed his hands on the house elf and closed his eyes. He’d just charged the stone and could still sense the power of the Heart of Asha within him. The sounds of the battle raging around him slipped into silence, as he saw the flickering light of the house elf’s soul begin to wane. With his mind, Harry reached out toward the ball of energy and took it in his grasp. He could feel the energy flow out of him as the flickering light grew bright. Harry fell backward into the snow, the house elf beside him heaving in a new born breath. Caesar stared in amazement. An instant later, Caesar’s wide eyes narrowed as he turned to his opponents with an unimaginable fury. He cried out as the air filled with a tremendous blast of light. Harry heard a number of Death Eaters scream in pain, one of the screams was familiar.

“Draco?” Harry whispered, turning toward the sound.

“Run!” Caesar commanded. This time Harry looked up at the sky, the full moon staring down on him. The stars seemed to spin on a giant turntable, but for the first time in a long time there was no red eye threatening him from above. Taking in a deep breath he flipped to balance on all fours, a wave of dizziness passing over him. He took to knee, and then foot, and soon he was running toward Hagrid’s cabin.

“Don’t let him get away!” Bellatrix cackled from behind. “Lucius! Don’t —” Another blast filled the air cutting her words short. Harry was only fifty yards from the cabin when he knew. A deepening cold filled him from the inside. The Dementors had returned. They swarmed the battlefield like buzzards, blocking out the moon. He was already weak and he stumbled into a pile of snow, his face cold and wet. He turned onto his back and, his hand shaking, held his wand into the air.

“Expect-to… Expecto P-P-P…” he fumbled. His hand dropped in the snow. He needed help. He couldn’t do this on his own. He struggled to bring his head up, only to see that the house elves were beginning to lose the battle at the castle steps. “I’ve failed,” he whispered.

A hideous black figure swooped down close, and once again echoes of long forgotten screams began to fill Harry’s mind. Screams? Or… howls? The creature’s decaying hand reached for Harry’s face, so close Harry could smell the stench of decay, and then with a thud it vanished in a flash of fur. A large light-brown werewolf had pounced, pinning the Dementor in the snow and tearing at its flesh. There was another howl directly behind Harry. He turned to see an even larger werewolf, white with stained jowls, walking toward Harry as if he were the next snack. Then in the air some thirty feet off the ground he saw Ron hovering. The white werewolf pounced toward Harry and then bounded by in a sprint to the castle steps.

“Run to the forest!” yelled Ron, his voice pitched high. He looked exhausted, but his face shone with determination.

“Where’s Fred?” Harry yelled back, but Ron was gone, tracking the white werewolf toward the castle. In the glow of the moon, Harry saw some seven werewolves follow Remus and the white werewolf toward the castle. Not wishing to take a chance that Ron would lose control, Harry began as best he could to run. Racing, falling, racing to the forest, he had just passed Hagrid’s cabin when a voice from high over his left shoulder called out.

“Harry!” He knew instantly it was Hermione.

Spinning around he looked up to see her flying on a broom, holding on to George’s waist. Behind them were another dozen or so brooms. The sense of hope instantly filled Harry’s heart. Flying in lead was Mr. Weasley, and on his right was Mr. Fudge. To Harry’s surprise there was a mix of adults and students including Gryffindor’s head boy, Lloyd Wade. Other than Mr. Weasley, he saw no members of the Order that he knew. What seemed most odd was the sight of Colin Creevey. He was riding an old Comet with one hand and holding his camera in the other. As the group passed over Hagrid’s cabin, they pivoted toward the castle. Harry had never seen Mr. Weasley fly a broom, but as he turned toward the raging battle he moved with a grace worthy of any Chaser. While most of the formation moved to the battle, Hermione, George and Colin landed next to Harry.

“We’ve got to get you to the forest!” George called out, just as Colin’s camera flashed in Harry’s face. “Where are Ron and Fred?” A blast of red light erupted at the steps sending a werewolf flying through the air and landing with a yelp.

“I don’t know where Fred is,” Harry answered trying to regain some semblance of cogent thought. “Ron… Ron’s leading the werewolves.” He pointed to a small figure hovering over the fray. In the same instant, beams of red showered down from the wizards riding brooms.

“Is he mad?” George screamed remounting his broom. “Hermione, get Harry to the caverns. He’s the one they’re after. You know the way.” George was about to push off when Colin grabbed his arm.

“I’m going with you,” he said with a calm and commanding voice. It was a tone, Harry had never really heard in the younger Gryffindor. He seemed so much older than Harry remembered. George rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“We’ve been over this, Colin. You’re not to —”

“I’ve got to record this, George,” interrupted Colin. “We need to have proof, and I intend to get it.”

“Then you better take your bloody pictures fast, because I’m not waiting around to see if they say cheese.” Colin mounted his broom, camera in hand, and together with George flew to the battle. Harry suddenly felt the urge to join and stepped toward the steps, but Hermione held him back.

“That’s just what they’re after, Harry. Merlin, look at you! A stiff wind would knock you over. Come on, you’ve got to follow me. It’s not too far in.” She began to run toward the Forbidden Forest, and Harry followed at her side.

“Where… are we… going?” asked Harry, gasping for air. His body was reaching its limits. It wouldn’t be long before he could go no further. There was a swoosh from behind, and Harry turned brandishing his wand only to see Ron nearly fly him over as he dashed into some lower hanging branches in the thickening forest. If Harry was near the end of his rope, Ron had fallen off. He landed hard on the ground, his face white, and his hands still tightly clutching his broom. Even in the darkness, Harry noticed a thickening extension of the scar that wound its way about Ron’s ear.

“Ron!” Hermione cried. She ran to his side and sat him up. His eyes wore a glassy gaze as Hermione held him in her arms and stroked his hair. “Baby, are you all right?” The haze seemed to lift from Ron’s eyes as he looked back at her. Realizing who was in front of him, he quickly wrapped his arms around her kissing her neck.

“Tired is all,” he whispered weakly, with the faintest smile. Their foreheads touched and then they gently kissed -- clearly not their first.

It was odd seeing his two best friends embrace each other with a passion he had never seen. He couldn’t ever remember Ron so much as touching Hermione, and yet it seemed so perfect. Another howl filled the night air, followed by a scream not of a Dementor, but of a human. The baleful note seemed far closer than it should have been.

“Er… this is beautiful and all, but, Hermione…” Harry beckoned. Hermione, still holding tight to Ron, looked up. Even in the filtered moonlight striking the forest floor Harry could tell she was embarrassed.

“Oh, yeah, right. Erm…” she said standing and brushing the snow from her knees. It was as if she’d left the planet for a moment, oblivious to what was happening around them and had just returned. Harry reached down and helped Ron to his feet. “We were just —”

“I know,” said Harry, saving her the explanation. “Ron told me. I think it’s brilliant,” he said with a smile, and with his acceptance a tremendous relief passed over Hermione who returned the smile. Then, suddenly realizing their predicament, she grabbed Ron’s hand.

“Come on! This way!” She darted deeper into the forest, Ron and Harry in tow.

“Ron, where’s Fred?” asked Harry, barely able to keep up the pace.

“He should be here already,” said Ron over his shoulder.

“Where’s here?”

“Here is here,” Hermione answered coming to a stop. The forest had thickened, and they were standing at a large outcropping of rocks some thirty feet high that extended as far as he could see in any direction. Harry had traveled this path into the forest before and he didn’t remember such a wall. Looking at the manner in which Hermione was surveying the craggy face, he thought she was going to have them climb over it. Instead, she pulled her wand and pointed it at one of the stones.

“Norbert,” said Hermione, and the rock wall began to rumble. A small fissure appeared on the wall’s face into which Hermione stepped and disappeared. Ron went next, then Harry. It was just barely large enough for him to squeeze through, the frames of his glasses scraping against rock. He was nearly in when he felt his hand catch on something from the outside.

“Ouch!” he yelped jerking his hand inward, losing his balance and falling to the earthen ground of the cavern.

“What is it?” Hermione asked, brandishing her wand, and distracted by his cry. Harry looked down at his left hand which was now dripping blood. By the light of torches evenly spaced about the cavern wall, he could see his index finger was gashed.

“Must have caught it on the rock,” he winced as the crevice closed behind him. Hermione knelt down and bathed it in blue light, and the wound slowly sealed.

“That was pretty bad, Harry,” she said helping him to his feet. “You’d better let Madame Guérir have a look when we get in.” When Harry stood, he finally had a chance to take in his surroundings.

They were in a great stone tunnel, if it could be called that. Spanning at least fifteen feet across it was some twelve feet high. The torches revealed the passageway gradually sloping down and turning to the right. Harry touched the damp walls, and found them stone. The floor was rock as well, but had been layered with dirt and debris like the entryway of a Hagrid’s cabin. Harry also noticed snow, tracks of snow that seemed to be recent. More than a few had been this way in the last few hours.

“Come on,” said Hermione, with a voice that had noticeably lightened now that they were safe. “Follow me.”

“You like saying that, don’t you?” Ron poked.

“I don’t often get the chance,” she said, grinning. “And when I do, you don’t often listen.”

“Like I didn’t follow you all around Hogsmeade looking for ‘just the perfect blouse,” Ron whined mimicking her voice. He was trying to start a fight, but his heart, or energy, just wasn’t in it.

The path turned left, when Hermione suddenly stopped. She pulled her wand pointing it at the empty tunnel ahead. “Selectra!” Where once had been emptiness, a giant spinning tumbler appeared before them. Hermione dialed in a number to the left, then right, then left again, and the tunnel flashed bright blue, and seemed to spin. When it stopped they were in a grand cavern some fifty feet high and one hundred feet wide. It was as if they’d been moved by some magical elevator. More tunnels shot off in multiple directions, but they stepped into the grand cavern. There was furniture here, and in the far corner the Wireless Wizarding Network was broadcasting information about the attack on the Ministry and at De Gaul Airport in France, only no one was watching.

“What is this place?” Harry whispered in amazement. The words had just left his lips when he noticed movement about the entrance of one of the tunnels. He began to raise his wand when Hermione held his arm. There, hiding behind a barricade, was a group of about a dozen students, wands at the ready. When the hiding students realized who it was and that it was safe, relief spread over all their faces. Anthony Goldstein was first to emerge.

“Well, I figured you to be a soulless zombie by now,” Anthony shouted out to Harry. The other students followed Anthony, who was smiling broadly, across the cavern chamber to meet the three newcomers. But as he came close to Harry the grand look of confidence left his face and was replaced with a look of concern. He leaned toward Harry’s ear. “When Fred came and told us you’d gone into the castle, I thought for sure…” his voice trailed off as he shook his head. Harry held out his hand, and Anthony took it pulling him close. “Thank Merlin you’re okay. The first years are pretty scared.” Anthony took a deep breath and turned wearing a broad smile again. “See!” he called. “I told you he’d be fine.” All their moods seemed to brighten.

“Fred,” asked Ron, “where’s Fred?” At the question, Anthony’s face turned a bit ashen.

“He’s with Madame Guérir down at the medical ward.” There was something more, but Anthony did not say what it was. Ron, however, heard what Anthony was thinking.

“That’s not possible!” he yelled. Ron spun, frantically looking at his options. “Hermione, which way?” She pointed to a tunnel leading to the right and he began to run. At this point, Harry didn’t feel much like running. He’d been looking lustfully at one of the couches in the great antechamber. His body ached, his head was numb, but he ran knowing Ron would do the same for him.

Thankfully, the stone passageway to the medical ward was short. After only a minute they arrived at a large white door emblazoned with a red staff and serpent--the Caduceus. Ron pushed in first. The ward, to Harry’s surprise, was large, larger in fact than the hospital wing at Hogwarts. There was row after row of empty beds, except for one in the distant back. There stood Madame Guérir speaking with Professor Flitwick, their faces grim. On the bed next to them sat Fred. His shirt was off, and except for looking a bit pale, he seemed fine. When they came closer, Harry could see that Fred’s left arm was bandaged. Ron was at his side in an instant.

“Hello little brother!” said Fred with a smile. “Harry! I told them you’d make it,” he said, pointing at Madame Guérir and Professor Flitwick with his good hand. The two adults seemed caught between shock and amazement. “Ron, I think I’m done here. Hand me my shirt.” He pointed at a blue button down shirt set out on the back of a chair. It was stained in blood, the left arm shredded.

“Tell me it’s not true!” Ron yelled almost in tears. Fred’s smile flickered for an instant then came back full. Harry and Hermione stood confused. Clearly, they had missed something. Fred put his hand on Ron’s shoulder.

“It’s not so bad, Ronnie. Although, I’m not sure how George is going to take it. Being the most handsome, I’ve always been sort of the face man for the store. He likes working the numbers and coming up with the great ideas. In fact —”

“This isn’t about the bloody store!” interrupted Ron. “It’s about you! You were right. It was bloody insane. How could I have been so stupid?” Ron buckled over onto the bed and began pounding it with his fist. Fred stood up and grabbed his brother.

“Hold it right there!” he snapped. “It was a bloody brilliant idea, and don’t you ever… EVER blame yourself for this.” He held up his right arm. “We’re all here, and we’re all alive.” He turned to Harry. “Did you get it?” Harry patted the pack hanging from his shoulder and nodded. “There, you see! Success!”

Ron wiped tears from his face and then wrapped Fred in his arms. Suddenly, Hermione gasped, the blood draining from her face as she held her hand to her mouth.

“You were bitten,” she whispered through her fingers. Fred grabbed his shredded shirt and held it up in the light.

“Tore up, more like it.” He waved his wand, muttered a spell, and the shirt was like new. Even Professor Flitwick was surprised by the display of magic, but instead of speaking to Fred, he turned to Harry.

“Mr. Potter,” he interjected, trying to find a way into their difficult conversation with an even more difficult question. “You were in the castle?” Harry nodded. “Professor McGonagall… she was just leaving the castle into the catacombs when we had the cave-in. An errant blast from my wand I’m afraid.” He paused. “Did you… see her?”

“Her and about a hundred Dementors,” Harry answered excitedly. Everyone’s eyes widened at the tale Harry told, not too unlike the real story. “She was brilliant! She took them all out at the entrance to Gryffindor tower. A hundred black guts splayed out on the floor. Now I know why she’s the House Mistress of Gryffindor! She was sleeping in the common room when I left.”

“Sleeping!” exclaimed Professor Flitwick almost scandalized. “We’re in the midst of one of the greatest battles of our time, and she’s sleeping!”

“Well, she was pretty tired,” said Harry almost smirking. “A hundred Dementors and all.” Professor Flitwick considered this for a moment, and nodded his head in satisfaction.

“At least she’s safe,” Professor Flitwick muttered turning again to Fred, now dressed and brandishing his wand.

“I’m going back out there,” said Fred earnestly. Ron and Madame Guérir began to object simultaneously and Fred held up his hand to silence them. “It’s my last night to see a full moon and remember it as something beautiful to behold. Besides, Merlin only knows what sort of trouble George has gotten himself into again.”

“Then I’m going with you!” exclaimed Ron.

“No you’re not!” Hermione shot back emphatically. “You can barely walk, Ron. And your… your…” she simply stared at the deep red scar now winding its way about Ron’s ear. It seemed to have thickened since Harry first noticed. “You’re not going anywhere!” Harry was glad that Hermione had taken a stand. The room was starting to spin a little, and he didn’t think he could say no if Ron asked him to go along. Instead Ron, somewhere between fatigue and exhaustion, gave in.

“Be careful,” he said to his brother, who flashed him a smile. Fred patted his younger brother on the cheek, and left the hospital ward.

Harry suddenly felt the floor give out from under his feet, and everything went black. What felt like a moment later, he opened his eyes and found himself in one of the ward’s beds. Lying in the bed next to him, Ron was asleep on his stomach. His shirt was off, and Madame Guérir stood over him with her wand bathing his back in an orange light. The scars that had been diminishing over the last many weeks were once again raised and red.

“Is he going to be okay?” Harry asked.

“I don’t know,” said Madame Guérir simply. “Madame Pomfrey has been treating these scars and she is away for the holiday. This…” she pointed at the twisted, branching scars that spread out across Ron’s back, “this is new to me.”

Harry sat up, his head much clearer. He expected to see Hermione sitting nearby, but except for its two patients and the healer, the ward was empty. “Where’s Hermione?” he asked.

“She and Professor Flitwick went to help clear the cave-in,” she said, shaking her head. “A nasty mess that’s going to be. And to trust it to a giant.” Madame Guérir sighed heavily.

Harry sat up and rubbed his face. His head didn’t ache, and he seemed to feel much better. Picking up his glasses he stood on the floor.

“No, no, no,” Madame Guérir chided. “Back in bed.”

“Where’s the cave-in?”

“Mr. Potter, you will get back in your —”

“People are dying above our heads because of me!” Harry yelled. “WHERE’S THE CAVE-IN?” Madame Guérir looked deeply into Harry’s green eyes. She found anger, and fear, and sadness. But she also saw bravery, and determination, and loyalty. The corners of her lips turned upward into the faintest hint of a smile.

“Go to the antechamber and look for the largest tunnel.”

Harry nodded and started for the door. “Madame Guérir, take care of him, okay? He saved my life tonight.” She gave Harry a wink, and turned back to her patient.

Harry wound his way down the tunnel to the antechamber. When he arrived he found most the students had gathered around the Wireless. Anthony saw Harry walk in and beckoned him over.

“They’re talking about Hogwarts, and they’ve got pictures,” he said in a very concerned voice. The Wireless projected the images in the air, much like the three-dimensional projection Harry has seen in the Marauder’s Eye. “How, in Merlin’s name, did they get pictures?” Anthony asked to the air.

“Colin,” Harry whispered to himself, staring at the sight before them. There were two images being sent over the Wireless. Both were taken about the castle steps. One showed a great white werewolf pinning a Dementor down to the ground, tearing at its throat. The site was grisly and many of the younger students screamed. The second shot was of a Death Eater, a bolt of green emanating from his wand. The curse was aimed at a wizard on a broom, but no one could tell who. What the students did see was that the spell hit its target. The wizard, whoever he was, fell from his broom and out of the frame of the photo. A shiver ran down Harry’s spine, and he suddenly felt very cold. He turned away looking for the tunnel leading to Hermione.

“They’ve sent more wizards from France,” said Anthony encouragingly. “They’ll have the Death Eaters cleared out before long.”

“But at what price?” Harry asked. He put his hands in the pockets and realized he still had Draco’s parchment. “Bloody traitor,” Harry whispered to himself, his fingers curling around the paper and crushing it. Then he turned to Anthony. “Is that the way to the cave-in?” He pointed at the largest tunnel opening into the antechamber. Anthony nodded.

“It’s a few hundred yards down, Harry. Stay to the left, and stay away from the giant.”

“Giant?” Harry asked.

“You’ll see,” Anthony answered, rolling his eyes in his head. Suddenly one of the first years called out.

“We’ve won! They’re fleeing!”

Both Harry and Anthony turned back to the Wireless. A reporter was declaring victory at Hogwarts. All Dementors had been killed, fled, or been captured, and nearly a dozen Death Eaters, or their apprentices, had been apprehended. “A record outing for Arthur Weasley,” asserted the reporter. The news then turned to activities at the Ministry, and Harry’s attention waned. It sounded as if the goblins too had been taken care of.

“It’s over,” Anthony breathed in a sigh of relief. Harry nodded, relaxing somewhat, but the chill in his bones remained.

Slowly, Harry made his way toward the cave-in. The tunnel entrance was much larger than the others, but it narrowed a bit as it wound its way toward the castle. Nonetheless, even at its narrowest the ceiling was some eighteen feet from the floor. For some reason there were fewer torches here lighting the walls and, feeling uneasy, he reached for his wand instead grabbing Draco’s parchment. Seething, he pulled the crushed paper from his pocket. “How could you, Draco?” he hissed under his breath. He glared at the outside of the parchment, and fell against the stone wall. “I trusted you. I thought…” He made to rip the parchment to shreds, but stopped. Breaking the wax seal of the Malfoy crest, Harry opened the parchment. It was no holiday greeting.

---
King Potter,

I know spending another Christmas at Gryffindor brightens your miserable life, but I thought it time for another demonstration. When Christmas Eve arrives and you feel the need to join me for a smoke under our favorite tree, don’t. The pieces are in motion; Weasles will understand.

DM
---

“A warning,” Harry whispered. The Death Eaters thought Harry was staying at Hogwarts again for Christmas, or had Draco told them that? If the note in Harry’s hand had been intercepted, they might have read it as a warning too. It could have meant Draco’s life. Harry held the parchment up to one of the torches and watched it burn and turn to ashes. Harry shook his head. Once again, he had made a royal mess of things. He looked up at the stone ceiling. How many had died because he was too stupid to realize that Draco would never send him a note unless it was important. How many times had Draco reiterated their need to maintain the charade of their animosity? And then he sends a Christmas card?

Harry was cursing himself when he heard rumblings from further down the tunnel and the earth shook beneath his feet. Dust fell from the ceiling covering Harry’s glasses with a thin film. He pulled them off to wipe them with the tale of his shirt, when his mind turned to giants. He wondered if maybe —

Suddenly, the fingers of his right hand clenched in a fist about his glasses, bending the frame as a searing pain shot up his shoulder and into his neck. He spun to look behind when he saw them appear from nowhere. In a blurred haze stood a tall man in a black cloak, his hood shredded away to reveal his long white hair. Next to him was a shorter figure, his left hand grasping at the red hood on his head. This time Harry was ready. He dropped his crumpled glasses to the floor, and in a sweeping motion pulled his wand as Lucius Malfoy began his spell.

“Expelliarmus!”

“Protego!” Harry called out, and the spell ricocheted back and struck Lucius, his wand flying backward. The figure in the red hood sent a shot of red light, missing Harry wide to the right and striking the wall in a loud explosion. Deliberate, Harry thought, just as the shards of rock struck him from behind. The pain was unexpected, and he lost concentration long enough for Malfoy to regain his wand. The quarters were tight, tighter than Malfoy was comfortable with.

“Let’s not bring the rocks down on top of us, Potter,” said Lucius mustering his kindest drawl possible. “The Dark Lord is not going to kill you. He just wants to… talk.” They began to circle each other like wrestlers in the ring, the smaller wizard two steps behind Malfoy. “Frankly, I don’t see what he sees in you, and I don’t care.” There was a tinge of anger mixed with frustration in Malfoy’s words. It was clear that Lucius Malfoy had the same thoughts as Severus Snape in this regard.

“Oh, we’ve already spoken,” lied Harry flatly. “Didn’t he tell you? You are his left-hand man, aren’t you? He wants me to be his second in command instead, and I said no.” The words raised an eyebrow, but nothing more. Lucius was far too experienced to show his cards with his face.

“Then I guess I’ll have to persuade you to come along civilly,” he said smoothly. In a blink, a blast of red was streaming toward Harry’s chest. But, just as quickly, he parried it sending the energy into the wall, and showering them in another blast of stone. A gash appeared on Lucius’ face. Even without his glasses Harry could see the dripping red against Malfoy’s pale white skin. He could also see the anger in his eyes as he roughly wiped the blood with his sleeve. The smaller wizard in the blood-red cloak, still followed Lucius like a shadow, and said nothing.

Lucius sent out another stunner, and again Harry deflected it. What he wasn’t ready for was the blast of white light streaming from the other wizard’s wand. It hit Harry squarely in the chest and sent him flying off his feet. “Excellent, boy!” Lucius exclaimed. In seconds, Harry’s legs were bound and his wand was in Malfoy’s hand. “The famous Harry Potter,” Malfoy sneered. “Time to meet your maker.”

“Hello?” a voice called from down the tunnel; it was Hermione. Harry made to speak, but Lucius silenced him before he had the chance. Harry tried to break free by working magic without a wand, but with his hands bound he was unable.

“Firenze? Harry?” the voice called out again, echoing down the tunnel. Hermione appeared around the corner carrying a torch in one hand. She was completely unprepared when she saw the Death Eater. Lucius began his incantation.

“Avada Ked—” but the blast of white light from the smaller wizard came first. As with Harry, it hit Hermione squarely in the chest, and dropped her instantly. It was he who bound and gagged her, but not until she let out one cry for help that reverberated down the chamber. Another spell and she was out cold, but alive.

“She’s seen me!” Lucius spat, coming up to her with his wand. The younger wizard grabbed his arm and pulled him close whispering something in his ear. Lucius nodded. “True,” he said, and then he began to chuckle to himself. “Very true.” There was a rumble in the tunnel, and then another and another. It was as if someone was pounding on a great drum, and the great percussion grew louder and quicker with every beat.

“Come on,” Lucius hissed. “Grab the cloak and let’s go.” He cast a locomotor spell on Harry raising him some three feet off the ground. The pounding continued growing louder, dust and rocks falling from the ceiling. The younger wizard retreated a few yards down the tunnel toward the antechamber when the noise stopped. Locomoting Harry, Lucius had taken only a few steps after him when a loud, almost childlike voice stopped him cold.

“Hermy?” Harry couldn’t move to see. He didn’t need to. “Hermy!” This time the voice had a tinge of anger in it. The ground shuddered again. “You hurt Hermy!”

Lucius broke the spell on Harry which sent him falling helplessly to the ground. Still holding Harry’s wand in his left hand, Lucius cast a stunner with his right. It bounced off Grawp like a dried out spitball.

Using both wands, Lucius cast stunner after stunner, but the giant only grimaced in pain. Finally, he thought to use the killing curse, but it was too late. Grawp reached out and grabbed Lucius by the left arm near the shoulder and held him up, dangling like a rag doll. The younger wizard in the red hood began casting spell after spell, but none had an effect on the giant. Grawp stared intently at the wands in Lucius’ hands and seemed to realize that these were the cause of the stinging red light. He grabbed Lucius’ right arm and, still holding his left, slowly began to pull.

“Stop it!” the younger wizard pleaded. “Stop it!” Again, he blasted and blasted, but then, exhausted, fell to his knees. By now, Lucius was screaming. It was a sight Harry wanted to turn away from, but his eyes denied it. There was a sickeningly loud pop, and then a ripping sound as Grawp pulled Malfoy’s left arm from out of its socket, and threw it to the floor. Blood began to stream down Malfoy’s side and onto the stone floor. Seemingly satisfied with his work, Grawp dropped his unconscious adversary and turned back to check on Hermione.

The apprentice was at Malfoy’s side, bathing the wound in blue light, but the flow of blood continued unabated. His hands began to shake. Harry, watching the hazy macabre scene, felt his voice return.

“Let me loose so I can help.” The younger wizard rose to his feet, and quickly stepped toward Harry pointing his wand, hands shaking, directly at Harry’s head.

“You idiot!” he spat through his blood-red hood.

“I can help,” Harry said coolly. “Hurry!”

The cloaked wizard raised his wand high to cast a spell in fury, then dropped his wand at his side. He flicked his wrist and freed Harry from his bonds. Harry ran to Lucius and held his hands over his shoulder, blood seeping through his fingers. He closed his eyes and focused past the wound and into the Death Eater’s source of energy. In Harry’s mind he could see the light was still strong but seeping away. Reaching with his hands, Harry took hold of the light. Energy flowed from Harry’s body, and a flash of green filled the tunnel. He felt himself return and found the blood drying around his fingers, the wound healing, and Lucius sleeping. A great sigh fluttered the red hood of the young apprentice at Harry’s side. Weak, Harry slumped to the floor on one elbow. He breathed in hard trying not to pass out.

The sound of footsteps reverberated about the chamber. Others were coming from all directions. In defeat, the young wizard reached up and pulled the hood from off his head. It was Draco Malfoy. His face was alabaster and the scar on his cheek shone red in the torchlight. His hair, drenched with perspiration, hung limp about his shoulders. His conquered gray eyes looked down the tunnel toward the footsteps of his impending doom.

“Why did you come?” Draco asked, overcome with exhaustion and almost in tears. “Why?”

The room seemed to darken as Harry collapsed to his side. He looked up at Draco who knelt down at his father’s side. He had been right, Harry was an idiot. Draco had risked everything, and now he’d be hauled off to Azkaban with his father. The footsteps grew closer. But now it was Harry’s turn.

“Run,” he breathed. Draco sat frozen. “I said run.”

“I can’t,” said Draco, shaking his head. “I —”

“Damn it! Run before it’s too late!” Draco looked down at Harry, and for a moment the two boys held each other’s gaze. Then, Draco nodded and a small grin cracked his lips.

“Oil and water, eh?” said the blonde. He pulled back his cloak, reached into an inner pocket, and unfurled a large, shimmering cloth. In an instant, he had vanished. Harry rested his head against the stone floor as the footsteps arrived, and all went dark.

A moment later, he woke to a shriek from Hermione. She was standing next to Professor Flitwick, staring in horror at the severed arm lying in a pool of blood on the tunnel floor. Grawp was nowhere to be seen.

“Harry!” Hagrid cried out, scooping Harry up in his arms. “Are yeh alright?”

Drained, Harry looked down at the tunnel floor. Not only was Draco gone, but so too was his father, Lucius. With Harry’s help, the man willing to kill his best friend had once again escaped.

“Who did this? Where did they go?” Hagrid asked.

So many questions, Harry thought. So many questions, and none with any meaning. The real question was burning its way into Harry’s mind. A question he couldn’t ask out loud, and was too afraid to answer even to his own conscience. What had he just done? An instant later, all was black.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 49 - Voices from the Past
~~~***~~~


Harry bent low upon his knees gazing intently at the water flowing quickly through the rift in the rough hewn stones. The sun was warm upon his bare back and the green grass soft beneath his bare feet. The stones were rumbling again, speaking a low deep voice that only Harry understood. “Love harbors no enemies,” they reverberated in Harry’s mind. He was surrounded by dense trees, but in this place there were no singing birds. Sound seemed not to exist save for the gurgling babble of the brook before him. “The sword defends, it does not attack.” It… he… they were calling. Somehow, Harry knew in his heart what he must do. “Embrace the world, and you will be welcomed.” He bent low to the water, balancing precipitously on the bank’s edge. “Champion these precepts, enter, and be cleansed.”

Freely, Harry fell forward into the rushing water and plunged into darkness. A scorching pain erupted in his forehead, as if a hot poker was driving its way not into but out of his brain. He screamed in agony.

— “Potter!”—

“Harry!”

“Stand back you two.”

“It’s his scar! It must be —”

“Shhhh.”

“Sit up now, Mr. Potter,” said Madam Guérir kindly as Harry blinked against the lights shining in his face, his head pounding. Placing an extra pillow behind him, she handed him a cup. “Here, drink this.” He took a sip of the green liquid. It looked revolting, but instantly he began to feel better. The fog in his eyes started to clear and the pounding of his forehead subsided. Voldemort was angry, he thought to himself, but it wasn’t all about Voldemort; there was something more, something important.

“Thank you,” he said weakly. He took in a deep breath, and reached for his glasses at the tableside. He found them, crumpled and bent.

“Here,” said Hermione, brandishing her wand. “Oculus Reparo.”

“Thanks,” said Harry, slipping the glasses over his ears, everything coming into focus. He was in a bed at the cavern entrance to the hospital ward. Ron was seated against the wall next to a table. His red hair ruffled, he looked as if he’d been sleeping. The dozens of beds that earlier laid empty were now more than half full. Madame Guérir was not the only healer present. Madame Pomfrey had arrived, as well as a few others. There were also a number of wizards and witches wearing cobalt blue robes. Harry gawked in curiosity.

“Aurors from the Ministry, Harry,” Hermione whispered under her breath. “We have quite a few Death Eaters that need patching up before they’re jailed to await trial.”

“More than they’d show any of us,” Ron spat. “They should let ‘em all rot!” His words turned a few heads, but most were too busy or too of like mind to do anything about it.

Still feeling weak, Harry sat more upright for a better look, and quickly realized he was naked. Pulling his sheet more tightly around his waist, he looked at Ron. “Where are my clothes?”

“The tunnel leading to the castle has been cleared, but we’re waiting for the all-safe signal to go back in. As soon as it sounds, I’ll get your clothes,” he said blearily. “What you were wearing was bloody awful; Dementor blood just doesn’t smell right, Harry. I figure it’ll take about a year to clean them proper.”

“This is stupid,” Harry complained, a bit dizzy. “I wasn’t hurt. I need to get out of here! You can surely find me a robe or something.” Aching in his joints, he swung his legs to move out of the bed with the sheet around him. “You’re treating me like —”

“Harry, stop!” said Hermione stiffly. Her voice was loud and sharp, and froze him in place. She walked over and stood in front of him as he sat on the edge of his bed. One of the Aurors further down the ward noticed the commotion and began to walk their way. “We have two problems, Harry. Neither one you’ll like. But don’t snap at me like it’s my fault, okay?” She glanced back over her shoulder.

“I would never snap at you, Hermione,” said Harry, trying to smile but finding the motion painful. Hermione just glowered and shook her head.

“First, you can’t leave because you’re wanted for questioning.”

“What?” Harry snapped. “You can’t —” Hermione pointed her finger at his face and he settled back down.

“You were the last to see Lucius Malfoy and the other Death Eater. They think you know the —”

“The ‘I’ll stab you in the back’ MALcontent Slytherin, you mean,” interjected Ron. Hermione swung on him.

“We don’t know that, Ron. All I know is that the voice casting the spell seemed like his.” She turned back to Harry. “They want to know what you know, Harry. That’s all.” Harry swallowed hard, as the Auror in blue came closer. Hermione took a deep breath, trying to muster some extra courage for the next part.

“Secondly…” she began trying to muster the courage, but faltered. Finally, she huffed and waved her wand in the air in circles in front of Harry. The air began to glisten until it turned into a silvery mirror. Harry looked up to see his reflection, and recoiled at the sight. Slowly, he looked again, holding his hands to his face, trying to convince himself it was true.

His hair, hanging down straight about his shoulders, had turned white. His face was ashen, emaciated, and looked like a dried fruit revealing the bone structure of his scull beneath. It was as if he’d been sucked dry by a vampire. In fact, Harry looked to his neck to see if he’d been bitten.

“No, Harry,” Hermione said softly. “It’s not that. They’re not sure what it is. Although Madame Pomfrey says —”

“Is there a problem here?” The Auror had arrived behind Hermione, and she quickly vanished the mirror. He was tall, with dark brown eyes, and golden hair. A thin scar ran across his face from the bridge of his nose, below his eye, and then dropped down and vanished at his neckline. Harry wondered if that was how Mad-Eye started as an Auror. “Mr. Potter, how are you feeling?”

“I… I… er… Ohhhh,” Harry groaned falling back into bed.

“Quick!” Hermione excitedly told the Auror. “Get Madame Guérir!” He turned and walked briskly to retrieve the healer. Harry opened one eye and peaked. “He’s gone,” she whispered. “You can’t avoid them forever, Harry.” She pulled the sheet up to his neck. “Still, I have to agree; it’s better now that you get your rest.”

Before long, Madame Guérir had Harry on his stomach and was bathing his back with a greenish light from her wand, much like she had with Ron. It seemed somehow refreshing, like drinking a tall glass of iced lemonade on a hot day. A bell chimed three times, and subdued cheers sprang up from around the ward.

“That’s it, mate,” said Ron, wearily taking to his feet. “All clear. I’ll go get your clothes.” Harry’s mind had been so steeped in thought he’d forgot to ask.

“Ron, how’s Fred?”

“Fred? After the battle, he didn’t return to the catacombs. He left with George, and… and went to Grimmauld place.” His voice started to break. “He’s… they’re… going to tell Mum.” Hermione stepped over next to Ron and put her arm around his waist, gently resting her head on his shoulder. He turned and kissed her forehead.

“Your dad? What about your dad?” Harry asked cautiously. Ron held up a hand and pointed toward the back of the ward. Harry leaned up on his elbows just long enough to get a glimpse of Mr. Weasley’s red hair before Madame Guérir pushed him back down. Mr. Weasley was seated in a chair with an Auror standing at either side. “What is it Ron? What’s wrong?”

“It’s Fudge,” said Ron in a sorrowful tone. “He flew in front of a shot meant for Dad. They don’t think…” He sighed heavily, slowly shaking his head, and swallowed hard as Madame Guérir pulled the covers back over Harry’s back.

“That’ll do for now, Mr. Potter. Keep drinking this potion. I want it all gone before I come back and I won’t be long.” She slipped her wand away, wiped her brow, and started toward the back of the ward. As she passed Madame Pomfrey she whispered something in her ear. Madame Pomfrey shook her head, and for an instant they both looked back at Harry, but then quickly continued with their work.

“Go on, Ron,” Hermione said softly. “Get his clothes. I’ll tell him.” He nodded, and she kissed him on the cheek before he left the room. When she turned she found Harry working at a smile. “What?” she asked. She could see the good humor in his eyes, even as she forced herself to look at the skeletal masque before her.

“Why didn’t you two tell me?” he asked. “All year I’ve been thinking you’ve been doing secret missions together for the Order, and you’ve just been off snogging? How rich!”

“We haven’t been off snogging!” she said, affronted.

“You know Ron can’t keep a secret, any more than Neville can remember a password. Now that I know the couple of you are a… er, a couple, I’ll break him, you’ll see.” Struggling for a little more air, Harry breathed in deeply. The very act of smiling seemed to exhaust him, and he leaned back into his pillow. He was suddenly feeling tired. “He told me about Germany, at least that you were mugged.”

“Yes,” she said, her voice troubled. “He shouldn’t have taken it out on Dean like that. Sometimes I wonder who’s more the hothead -- you, or him. Dean was supposed to stop by Grimmauld Place for New Years, and I hoped they’d continue mending their relationship. Now, with all this, I don’t know.” She sighed, and for the first time Harry saw fatigue creep into Hermione’s eyes.

“What about Fudge?” he asked. Hermione pulled her chair over to Harry’s bedside and sat.

“He’s dying, Harry. They don’t think he’ll make it to dawn, and that’s only an hour away.”

“Dying?” Harry asked in disbelief. “Who else? What about Colin? Remus?” Hermione reached over and took Harry’s hand.

“Two house elves, Trelin and Eurasus, died in front of the castle. Samantha Blanchester, a werewolf, was killed near Hagrid’s hut. No one knows about Remus, and the others. They disappeared into the forest, and haven’t been seen. Colin was a bit scorched. He’s behind that screen over there; he’ll be fine.” Tired, she rubbed her eyes. “There were some deaths at the Ministry, mostly goblins missing wizards and hitting their own. Feniscule Benzdrac of the Britain Goblin Alliance says that they didn’t have anything to do with the attack. He called them a bunch of crazed goblins under You-Know-Who’s control. I think the attack there was just a distraction for the main assault here.”

“Everyone here, including the Death Eaters, are going to recover. Everyone’s going to be fine, but Minister Fudge, and… and you.” She gently squeezed Harry’s bony hand in her own. “Harry, I won’t lie to you. You’ve been in here for three hours, and you’re getting worse, not better. They don’t know what to do. Madame Pomfrey has spoken twice to a specialist in London, and… and nothing.” She wiped her eyes trying hard not to cry. “What happened down there, Harry? It’s like your life is draining away. Who did this to you?”

Harry held his hand to his face. It had become thinner since last he looked. The skin was translucent, and he could see the veins running down his fingers. “This?” he asked, recalling the flow of energy from himself to Lucius. “This… I did to myself.” His mind turned to Minister Fudge. “If there’s anything left, I… I won’t let him die because of me.” Harry forced himself up in bed, and looked for his wand. It was on a table against the wall where Ron had been sitting. Next to it was his bag with the items he’d rescued from his room. “They didn’t even know the stone was there,” he whispered to himself. “Ron was right: another trap and I walked right into it.” He held up his right arm. “Accio Wand!” he summoned, but nothing happened. “Accio Wand!” he called again, still the wand remained on the table. Breathing heavily he turned to Hermione. “Hand me the damn thing.”

“Harry, you —” His glare stopped her short. She walked over and handed Harry his wand. He pointed it at his bag.

“Accio pack!” An extremely faint light blinked from his wand and then faded away. It was all he could do, but Harry sat up on the edge of the bed. “I’ll get the bloody thing myself,” he wheezed.

“At least take another drink.” She held up the potion in her hand. He took the cup and drank it down in one gulp, anxious to be on with his work. What he hadn’t noticed was the sleeping draught Hermione had slipped in with the potion. Immediately, his eyes began to droop.

“You don’t understand,” he muttered as sleep began to overtake him. “I need to…” He fell to his pillow, his hand falling in front of his face. If anything, it looked more like bone than flesh. The last thing he remembered was Hermione covering him with the sheet.

“We can’t afford to lose both of you, Harry,” she said with a sigh, leaning down and kissing his head.

“He’s gone,” a voice called from the other side of the cavern, before all was darkness.


The water gurgled in his ears. “Purge yourself of anger. Relinquish your pride to the depths.” He felt as if someone was reaching into his skull and ripping something out through his scar. Bubbles swirled around; he realized he could breathe, but he also knew he was being pulled down deeper into the water. Harry’s head was on fire. He tried to scream, to swim away, but couldn’t. “Here Hogwarts was born, and here, at the birth of light, it will be reborn again and the darkness will at last be vanquished.”


In a swirl of colour, the vision was interrupted. Harry found himself very much awake in the ward at the hospital, or was he? There was no sound. No one moved. Not even Hermione, seated at Harry’s bedside rustled; her finger frozen in the process of turning a page in her book. It was a snapshot in time. Suddenly, there was a burst of fire filling Harry’s chest, filling all of Harry. But who? How? The colours spun again, the air filled with a great whooshing sound, and then the bustle of the ward filled Harry’s ears. His lids grew heavy and he was asleep.

Little time passed before he woke to wailing in the ward. A number of witches and wizards had gathered at the far end. Everyone was sobbing and hugging. Harry didn’t need to ask, he knew, Minister Fudge had died. Two beds down, a wizard Harry didn’t recognize began to chortle.

“That’s just a taste of what the Dark Lord has planned for you all!” he cried out with a French accent. “Especially YOU, Potter!” An Auror struck him with a spell and his voice was silenced. He looked prepared to do more, when Madame Pomfrey pushed him aside and started tending to the patient.

The crowd began to filter out past Harry’s bed. Professor Dumbledore was holding the hand of a short elderly witch with graying hair. She wore black and her eyes were red.

“He gave his life to save another, Melanie,” offered Professor Dumbledore in a warm and gentle voice. “There can be no greater sacrifice.” He walked her to the entrance of the hospital ward and stopped. “Minerva, would you take Melanie up to my office. We can start the arrangements there.” Outside the door, stood Professor McGonagall in fine purple robes.

“Certainly, Professor.” She took Mrs. Fudge gently by the arm. “Come with me Mel; there’s nothing we can do here.” Mrs. Fudge blew her nose with a handkerchief and turned back for only a moment to catch Harry’s eyes. He’d never seen so much sadness, so much loss, but he had felt it. Crying, she walked out of the ward and the door closed behind her leaving Professor Dumbledore at the foot of Harry’s bed.

“Not a very Merry Christmas, I’m afraid,” Professor Dumbledore said bleakly. “Fortunately, you’re looking much better.” Harry held up his hand, it was nearly normal. He sat up looking at his chest, thin but not emaciated.

“Professor, did you…?”

“Harry, the important thing is that you’re better. It was a brave thing you did at the portrait to Gryffindor. Professor McGonagall tells me you saved her.”

“But it’s all my fault, Professor,” argued Harry, shaking his head in disagreement. “If I hadn’t —” Professor Dumbledore held up his hand.

“Let me finish, please, Mr. Potter.” He waved his wand and slid the chair Ron had sat in next to Harry’s bed. “They came to find you at Hogwarts, but you were gone. We have been preparing for such an attack for some time, particularly while I was ill. That is why Hagrid and Firenze built these caverns. The cave-in was unfortunate, and left Professor McGonagall behind. As she puts it, she would have lost her soul if it were not for you.” Professor Dumbledore leaned back in the small chair. “But, knowing your desire to battle, why would you come here when the attacks were just outside your own back door at the Ministry in London?” Harry remained silent, but a knowing glint of blue flashed through the spectacles of the Headmaster.

“Harry, when I left for the hospital to meet Professor Tonks, I warned all present to be ready for a hasty retreat to the caverns. I thought they would be safe here. I’m curious how a Death Eater found his way in, when only students with the proper password are allowed to enter the passage from the forest. As I understand it, there were young witches and wizards among the group of Death Eaters.”

Harry looked down at his hand and remembered the gash on his finger as he had squeezed through the stone entrance. Had Draco slashed his finger trying to alert him that he was being followed? Had he ignored that warning too?

“Hermione told us she saw Lucius Malfoy in the passage leading to Hogwarts. Indeed, I removed your wand from the hand of the arm he left behind before Professor Tonks took it away. There was another with him, Harry, a young wizard. Do you know who it was?” Dumbledore’s blue eyes gleamed with kindness, but were unblinking.

Harry looked away. Draco’s words came back to haunt him: “I need your word… your word you’re in it all the way.”

“No, sir,” Harry lied, knowing that his own eyes told the truth.

“I see.” Dumbledore nodded. He stood, straightening his robes, and moved the chair to the side of the wall with his wand. “I will inform the Aurors that you are free to go. I suggest you return home this afternoon to Little Whinging. Someone there needs you very deeply, and may require your special talents. I believe Mr. Weasley—” Just then Ron opened the door to the ward carrying a handful of clothes.

“Hey, mate, Professor,” he said lightly, then stopped to take a second look. “Harry, here are your cl—” He gaped in amazement. He seemed stunned by Harry’s sudden improvement. “Your hair... it’s not white.” Dumbledore smiled and walked to the door. Ron instantly started in on Harry asking how he had improved so quickly. The two were well into their conversation when the Headmaster interrupted with a question.

“Harry, are you sure you healed Lucius completely?” Without thinking, Harry looked up from Ron.

“Yes, sir. I’m…,” he swallowed, “…sure.” Harry bit his tongue. Dumbledore knowingly nodded and left the room.

“You what?” cried Ron. “Why would you possibly do anything to save the likes of that rat? So he and his boy prince can leave you for dead?”

“You don’t know that, Ron,” Harry shot back, trying to stay calm. “You heard Hermione, it could have been anybody.”

“Was it?” asked Ron sharply. Harry paused, and in that instant he felt Ron try to enter his mind. They’d practiced so often before that Harry had come to know the sensation.

“Reducto!” Harry cried out, sending his clothes and Ron sailing into the wall. The Aurors immediately converged. Harry stood naked, reaching down and grabbing his garments as everyone watched. Ron lay splayed out on the floor beneath him. “Don’t you ever, EVER, try that again!”

“Or what?” Ron sneered. “You’ll whistle?”

A torrent of anger began to swell up in Harry, when a voice whispered in the back of his mind, “Purge yourself.” Harry closed his eyes, and breathed deep. He stepped back from Ron, and set his clothes on the bed. He pulled on his trousers and his shirt, and began to lace up his trainers while Ron simply sat on the floor glaring up at him. Seemingly satisfied, the Aurors went back to watch their prisoners. Silent, Harry briskly slipped his wand in his pocket, walked over by Ron and grabbed his pack swinging it over his shoulder. He was about to leave when Ron spoke.

“Sorry,” the redhead muttered. Harry stopped, paused for a moment and held out his hand.

“I know,” he said, pulling Ron to his feet. Together, the two made their way back to the castle. For a long while they said nothing and then they came to the spot where Grawp had torn off Lucius’ arm. Harry stopped, playing the scene out in his mind.

“It was here,” Harry whispered. “He bound her in ropes, and then Grawp came around the corner.”

“I don’t care who it was, Harry,” Ron said seething. “If I find out who struck down Hermione like that, I’ll have Grawp skin him alive.” Harry replayed the blast of white light in his mind.

“Ron, Lucius was going to kill her. Whoever knocked Hermione off her feet… he saved her life.” Ron looked into Harry’s eyes in disbelief. But Harry’s eyes stayed true. “He saved her, Ron.”

“You know who it was, don’t you? Was it Greg? I’ll bet it was Greg.” Harry took Ron by the arm.

“I need some time to sort things out. I swear, I’ll tell you all I know, when I can. Okay?” Harry asked solemnly, and Ron nodded in agreement.

When they finally emerged from the caverns, Harry thought they’d exited into the Forbidden Forest. They were surrounded by shrubs and trees, and a soft layer of snow covered the ground. It wasn’t until he followed Ron a few more feet that he realized they were in Firenze’s Divination classroom. The room looked empty, but then they heard the Centaur’s voice.

“Hello Ronald Weasley, Harry Potter.” He bowed his head. “It is good to see you both alive. But then… it was foretold. Last night belonged to the moon, not the warrior.”

“Good to see you too, Firenze.” Harry bowed his head. “The catacombs, they’re brilliant.” Firenze shook his head with disappointment.

“Professor McGonagall was left behind because of me. I should have planned for greater spells cast at the entrance.”

“Easy enough to take care of isn’t it?” said Harry with a smile. “And besides, she’s fine. I just saw her downstairs.”

“Yes,” said Firenze in a very serious tone. “And for that, I am in your debt.”

“Nonsense,” said Ron emphatically. “You and Hagrid saved the entire school. At least those that were here. If there’s anybody that needs thanking, it’s the two of you.”

“You are very kind, Ronald Weasley. I see why Hagrid speaks so highly of you.” Ron seemed to take Firenze’s words as quite the compliment. “Still, Harry Potter, know I am pledged to your service by oath. Your star is rising in the heavens. Take heart; I have consulted Orion, and you should survive the Cleansing.” Harry bowed once more before he and Ron left the classroom.

“Merry Christmas, Firenze,” they said together as the door shut behind them. In the corridor, Harry turned to Ron.

“Are they cleaning the school or something?” Harry asked. “Do you have any idea what that meant?”

“No, do you?” asked Ron back, but Harry shook his head. “Bloody Divination.”

“Harry! Why are you out of —” Hermione stopped her own sentence, astonished at Harry’s recovery. “I… I was just coming down to see you. They said that Fudge had died, but nobody knew about you, and I was sure…” She leapt at Harry and wrapped her arms around his neck. Pulling back she wiped her face with her sleeve. “So help me if you try to die on us again, I’ll kill you.”

Together, they walked toward Gryffindor tower. As the three passed the entrance hall they saw Professor McGonagall saying goodbye to Mrs. Fudge. Their Head of House shut the doors and turned to find them looking at her.

“Well, this is fortunate,” she called out, seemingly unchanged by the night’s events. “It’s Christmas Day, and neither one of you are where you need to be. Follow me.” Her hair pulled back tightly in a bun, she walked briskly toward her office as if nothing was the least bit out of the ordinary. They passed through her office doors, and she opened a cabinet behind her desk with a flick of her wand. Reaching to the top shelf she pulled out three small boxes. “Professor Dumbledore has arranged for each of you to return home by Portkey.”

“But —”

“Yes, I’m sure you three have much scheming to attend to, but today is a time to be with family. Miss Granger, your parents have been told you were NOT spending the night at your grandmother’s house. They know you are well, but I suggest you try a dose of truth.” Ron and Harry looked shocked as Professor McGonagall held up one of the boxes to Hermione. “They’re waiting for you now.” Hermione sheepishly looked at Ron and Harry.

“Merry Christmas,” she said with a smile. She kissed Ron lightly on the lips, and then took hold of the silver sphere within the box and disappeared.

“Mr. Weasley, I believe you know what conversation is being held with your mother at this time.” She held up a box for him. “Your father will arrive by floo shortly. Please let you brother know that my thoughts are with him.”

“Thank you, Professor,” Ron replied. “Merry Christmas. Harry, stop by if you can. It’ll mean a lot for Mum.”

“I will,” said Harry quietly. Ron took the orb and vanished. Professor McGonagall reached up and adjusted her glasses. She set the last box down on her desk and turned to Harry.

“The rumor rounding the school is that I saved your life, single handedly destroying one hundred Dementors, and then I took a nap to rest by the fire.” Harry began to grin. “Professor Flitwick is still fit to be tied. Every time he sees me, he curses himself for worrying so much.”

“Well,” said Harry, “it was nearly a hundred.” But then the smile washed away as the memory flashed across his eyes. “I… I just took care of the last few.” A cool shiver spread out across his back, and he began to tremble. He turned, ashamed, trying to focus his attention on one of the books in her office. Professor McGonagall pulled him around and hugged him in her arms.

“I think you were meant to return to the castle while the Headmaster was away, Harry,” she whispered. “Somehow he always knows.” She pulled back and wiped the tears from her face with her hands. “I wish you were returning to more happiness, Harry, but I’m afraid that’s not the case.” She reached in her pocket and pulled out a golden chain. “This has been in my family for many years.” She held it up to reveal a gold charm in the shape of a lion and baring two ruby red eyes. “The house signet was based on this design,” she reflected as she placed it around Harry’s neck. “When times seem bleak, let it bring you strength, let it bring you courage.” Harry was dumbstruck, unsure what to say.

“Th-Thank you, Professor,” he stuttered.

“Thank you, Harry,” she replied. Her eyes were sad as she held up the box. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter.”

“Merry Christmas,” he answered, not sure what to think of her expression. He took the silver ball in his hand and felt his navel being snatched from within. He was swirling wildly, and just when he was thankful he hadn’t had breakfast, he stopped, landing feet first in the middle of the Dursley living room.

He dropped his pack and, seeing Uncle Vernon’s chair, flopped down and let out a long, long exhale. It felt as if, for the moment at least, the world had been lifted from his shoulders. He thought about going to see Gabriella, but the comfort of the chair convinced him to close his eyes and rest for just a moment. He was about ready to nod off, when a car door slammed shut from outside. Curious, he stood to see what it was.

He peaked through the front blinds, and found Privet Drive lined with cars. On the grass, stepping to the front door of Gabriella’s house was Wes Tucker. He had his arm around a girl in a long black coat. She was crying. Someone Harry vaguely remembered answered the door and let the two inside. Within a minute, Harry was across the street knocking himself. The same person answered. He was short with black hair, and very blue eyes. Harry remembered him from Duncan’s birthday party… Todd something.

“Gabriella?” Harry asked. “Where’s Gabriella?”

“You’re, Harry, right?” Todd asked.

“Yeah.” Harry stepped inside. The house was crowded and many were crying. “Where’s…” He saw her sitting next to her mother and holding Duncan’s hand. She looked up and saw him and instantly sprang to her feet, rushing toward him and squeezing him tight.

“Thank, God. Thank, God.” She was shaking in his arms. “We’ve been up all night, and then Cho sent an owl this morning that said Hogwarts had been attacked, and that people had died, and that you were there, and I thought…” She squeezed tighter.

“I’m fine,” Harry whispered. “Everything’s going to be fine.” She sniffed and, still shaking, buried her head tight against Harry’s chest.

“Oh, Harry. I would have died if I had lost you too.” Harry looked around and suddenly realized that Grigor was nowhere to be seen. Thinking her father might have died and how exactly that might have happened, the blood began to drain from his face. He held her close.

“Why, Gabriella? What’s happened?” His heartbeat quickened. She began to break down and cry in heaving sobs. “What’s happened?” As Gabriella continued to cry, Todd walked up behind Harry and put his hand on his shoulder.

“It’s Emma, Harry. We found out a few hours ago. She was killed in Paris.”


________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 50 - A Time to Grieve
~~~***~~~


Todd was the last one to leave. For the past ten years he’d been classmates with Duncan. Two summers ago, the two had a falling out, and only really started talking again after Duncan’s birthday party. Tonight, however, Todd had been as true a friend as there could ever be. He’d just finished hugging Gabriella and now had his arms around Harry. “Goodnight. I’ll come by tomorrow after work.” Then he whispered in Harry’s ear, “Don’t leave him alone tonight, Harry, not in that house. It has too many ghosts.”

“Sure,” Harry whispered back, “I… er… understand.”

“Thanks, Todd,” Gabriella said, kissing his cheek one last time. “You’ve been great.” Harry had to push back a sudden pang of jealousy that diminished when Todd turned to Duncan and held him in his arms.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, mate. When Emma’s folks get back we’ll see them together, okay?” Duncan nodded without saying a word. “You know I love you, don’t you? We all love you. If you need anything… anything at all…”

“I know,” said Duncan hoarsely. Todd squeezed his shoulders and left, Gabriella closing the door behind him.

“He’s a great friend, Duncan,” she said with a warm smile and turning back into the room. “Nearly everyone who knew you or Emma was here tonight. I’m amazed at how he got the word out so quickly.”

“That’s Todd.” Duncan nodded. “Mr. Amazing.” His words landed somewhere between admiration and resentment. He let out yet another long sigh and looked at the chair in the living-room. He thought about sitting back down, but instead turned and reached for his jacket. “Look, I better go too.”

It was well past midnight; Grigor, who had been in his study going over photographs of the night before when Harry arrived, and Soseh whose emotions swung between tears and concern, had already gone to bed for the evening. Duncan looked exhausted. All day he had shared stories with friends about Emma. All day people had been sobbing on his shoulder. And yet he weathered each hour without shedding a tear. Gabriella was worried, and so was Harry. Duncan’s heart had hardened and nothing they could do would soften it.

“Why don’t you stay here tonight,” Gabriella offered. “You heard what Mama said. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”

“No, I need to—”

“I don’t like the idea of you going home to that big house of yours all alone.”

“I’ll be fine, really.” He grabbed his jacket and folded it over his arm, pausing to look at the large Christmas tree filled with lights in the Darbinyan living room. The packages around the bottom had gone unopened. He gazed at the tree and scanned the room for a long time as if imagining what Christmas Day should have been like. Then he reached up and slipped the earring of thorns out of his ear, holding it out to Gabriella. “Here,” he whispered. “Somethin’ to remember her by.”

“Oh, no, Duncan,” she said, taking a step back. “I couldn’t.”

“Take it,” he said firmly, thrusting it into Gabriella’s hand. And then the tone of his voice softened. “I know she’d want you to have it. You… you were practically sisters.” He was trying hard to maintain control.

“Thank you,” she said, another tear falling down her cheek. Duncan began to open the door and a blast of frigid air swept into the room; Harry closed it.

“Harry,” said Duncan, irritated, “I’m goin’ home.”

“I know we are,” Harry said brightly. He reached over and grabbed Grigor’s overcoat. “Babe, tell your dad I’ll have this back first thing in the morning.” He kissed Gabriella and gave her a look with open eyes. She nodded in agreement. Duncan was in no state to be left alone tonight, and giving such a personal gift was a sign of someone planning to terminate things. “See you in the morning?”

“I’ll see you both for breakfast. Todd says Emma’s mum should be home by noon, her father a bit later. Are you still okay with us going over together, Duncan? Duncan?”

“Er… right,” he said, as if waking from a dream. “Tomorrow.”

When the two walked outside, Harry slipped on Grigor’s overcoat, but Duncan held his jacket folded over his arm. It was cold and the sky was threatening snow. Harry was surprised to find Grigor’s jacket fit so well. The sleeves were a bit long, but that was the style.

“Look, Harry, you don’t need to hold my hand. I’m fine. Go back to your girlfriend and let me be.”

“So, I guess that means I have to sleep on the couch?”

Duncan walked over to his car. “I’m goin’… alone!” He only unlocked the driver side door and climbed inside.

“Come on, Duncan. Let me in.”

Duncan turned the key in the ignition. “Alohomora,” Harry whispered, holding the handle of the door with his right hand. It opened and he sat in the passenger seat. “Thanks,” he said. Dumbledore had told Harry someone needed his help in Little Whinging. He hoped this was it. Duncan just glared for a moment and then shoved the gears, grinding it into reverse.

“You know,” he spat, backing on to Privet Drive and throwing the car into drive, “I don’t need you, Harry. I’ve been doin’ just fine for the last ten years all… by… myself…” His breaths were growing quick and shallow. “I don’t need my parents. I don’t need friends. I don’t need you. I don’t need… I don’t need…” He slammed on the brakes, stopping the car in the middle of the empty street. He gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands, and then dropped his forehead down bursting into tears. “Oh, God, Harry,” he heaved. “What am I gonna do without her?” In that moment, Duncan’s heart broke open fully, and the tears streamed in torrents down his face. “What am I gonna do?” Harry had no answers; he didn’t need to. He was there, and that’s what mattered most.

For over thirty minutes Duncan heaved great sobs as the car idled in the middle of the street. Harry didn’t say a word. Occasionally, he placed his hand on Duncan’s shoulder or arm, just to let Duncan know he wasn’t alone. Finally with a shudder, Duncan pulled in a chest-full of air, broadly stroking his face with his sleeve. “I can’t… I can’t do this. I won’t do this anymore.” He shoved the car back into drive, and drove to his house, pulling into the driveway. Turning the ignition off, he took out the keys and handed them to Harry.

“Look, the front door’s open so I don’t need these. Take the car back home. I’m fine, really.” Sniffing hard, he wiped another tear from his face and stepped out of the car. So too did Harry. “Damn it, Harry. Let me alone!” Duncan ran to the front door, entered and locked it before Harry could catch him. Harry walked up to the door, opened the lock, and stepped inside. Duncan was headed upstairs when Harry came in.

“How’d you get in?” he cried out. Harry simply held up the keys and jangled them in the air.

“Magic,” he said with a smile. He took off his overcoat and hung it on the hook by the door. The home interior was, as always, immaculate. Not in an Aunt Petunia sort of way. No, Duncan’s parents never lifted a finger to clean it; they were never there. They hired a maid service to come in regularly. Harry knew Duncan had parents, but they were never seen in Little Whinging, at least not very often. Harry entered the main entryway and watched as Duncan’s face grew stoic, and then his voice turned to ice.

“What? You came to watch? Is that what it is?” Duncan yelled, jumping up the stairs. Harry hurried after him.

“Come on, Dunc,” Harry pleaded. “I just want to talk.” But, before Harry made it to the top of the stairs, Duncan had emerged with a large silver revolver in his hand. Harry stopped cold. Duncan’s hand was shaking and his eyes were wide.

“You’ve seen these Harry, haven’t you?” he said, pointing the gun’s muzzle directly at Harry’s face. Harry took a step backwards down the stairs, as Duncan pressed him. “Well, have you seen ‘em or not?” Duncan yelled.

Harry nodded at the question, and continued to back away.

“Of course you have; very good,” Duncan said in a disparaging tone. “We sell them in the shop. Tell, me, Harry, what’s it called?” He held the gun in profile, and slipped it back into his fingers. “Beauty don’t you think? WHAT IS IT CALLED?” he screamed, taking a step down the stairs towards Harry.

“357,” Harry whispered.

“Right again, mate. But not just any 357, Harry.” Duncan’s eyes had grown more wild, but his hand steadied as he took another step down backing Harry onto the bottom floor. “Go on, Harry, I know you know. You were the best bloody shopkeep that store’s ever seen, but you… you left me, didn’t you?”

“It’s a Smith and Wesson 357 Magnum,” Harry answered.

“Yes, go on; give me the bloody pitch!” yelled Duncan, consumed with forcing Harry to pretend he was talking to a customer at the store.

“It has a satin stainless finish and an Ahrens wood Cocobolo grip.”

“The best gun we sell, eh mate?” said Duncan admiring the revolver in his hand. The great room’s recessed lights flashed off the silver metal and speckled his face with false freckles.

“Come on, Duncan. Put the gun down.” But Duncan wasn’t putting anything down. He’d seen his end and Emma wasn’t part of it. His life was forfeit. He began to hold the gun up and pulled back the hammer -- click… click. “Duncan…” Harry pleaded, holding up his hand, and then Duncan pointed it more directly at Harry.

“You know,” he said clenching his jaw, “if you… if you would have stayed at the shop with me, we would have been in South Benton. I would have had you watch the store while I went with Emma to France.”

“Then you’d both be dead,” swallowed Harry. Duncan’s hand began to shake violently.

“Exactly!” he cried out, his heart in agony. In that instant, Duncan turned the gun away from Harry and held the muzzle to his head. Harry had no choice.

“Expelliarmus!” he called, raising his right hand. The shot rang out, just as the revolver flew from Duncan’s hand. It was as if everything was happening in slow motion. Harry heard the echo of splintering wood from the ceiling and looked up to see a small hole where the bullet had penetrated, dropping tiny shards of plaster down onto the floor. He watched the dust cascade through the air, and then saw Duncan, his eyes wide, as they rolled up into his head. A small stream of blood ran down the side of his face. He rocked backwards and then fell forwards down the stairs, landing in Harry’s arms and knocking them both to the floor, Harry’s head whipping onto the carpet.

The stars cleared from Harry’s head as he rolled Duncan on to his back and looked at the wound. The bullet had split the skin open behind his right temple, but nothing more. He lay unconscious on the floor, the blood trickling in a slow steady stream passed his ear. Harry pulled his wand and held it over the wound, but he stopped short of sealing it completely. He pulled Duncan to the couch in the living room and hoisted him onto it. He put a pillow under Duncan’s head, and went to retrieve the pistol from the steps. The smell of gunpowder hung in the air and for a moment Harry felt as if he would be sick. Quickly, he emptied the bullets into the trash, stuffed the gun in the pocket of Grigor’s overcoat, and cleaned the spot of blood on the floor, but left the ceiling like it was. He sat on the recliner next to the stereo, turned on some music, slipped off his trainers, took a deep breath, and waited.

Harry was about to fall asleep when there was scratching at the door. He pulled his wand and slowly opened it only to find an owl carrying a parchment. Harry took the note and sent the bird on its way. It was an official notice from the Ministry.


Notice to recipient,

At 0130, the 26th of December 1997, a Muggle of your acquaintance witnessed your magical spell. Because of recent events, the Ministry is unable to dispatch appropriate mind erasure members at this time.

Please note the name of the Muggle and send it to the Ministry within three days of receipt of this notice. In the meantime, take all necessary precautions in silencing the Muggle in question. Failure to do so may result in fine or imprisonment.

Cedil Perkins
Director, Muggle Relations Office


“Unbelievable,” Harry whispered to himself, rubbing his eyes, and stuffing the note into his pocket. He was about to sit back down when Duncan began to stir.

“Don’t look at me like that, Em!” Duncan yelled out from the couch. He was still on his back, his eyes closed, and he held his hands up in front of him as if trying to stop an attacker. “No! I won’t let you hurt him! Stay away from—” Harry walked over to him and held his hands. The touch was enough to wake him, but not completely. He sat up and started hitting Harry who fell to his knees. Suddenly, Duncan realized what he was doing.

“Harry?” he asked weakly. He grabbed Harry’s face in his hands. “Harry? Thank God! I thought I had shot you!” He began to tremble and then wrapped Harry in both his arms, and pulled him close. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He whispered over and over again. Finally, the whispers gave way to tears, and Duncan, still holding Harry, fell to the floor on his knees and wept. He began to shake as Harry held him in his arms. He would hold Duncan for however long it took. It was much easier than looking down the barrel of a 357 Magnum.

When Duncan finally let go, he grabbed a pillow, clutched it in his arms, dropped down on his side, and curled up in a ball. The sun was just beginning to break the light of day, and Harry leaned back against the foot of the couch.

“I’m so bloody pitiful,” whispered Duncan into the pillow.

“No you’re not,” said Harry warmly.

“I can’t even shoot straight from one inch away.”

“Thank God for that.”

“Hmm. God and I have a few things we need to discuss.”

“Let’s just put off the face-to-face for awhile,” Harry tried to say lightly. Duncan did not reply. Instead he looked up at the stairs and held his hand to his wound. Then he looked up at the hole in the ceiling.

“I don’t know what I was doin’, Harry. What I said… I didn’t mean it. I can’t believe I pointed the gun at you like that. It’s like I was possessed,” Duncan said, turning the night’s events over in his mind. “Your scream saved my life, Harry… for what it’s worth.”

“For what it’s worth?” Harry asked. “Do you know how many lives you’ve touched in Little Whinging? Those people showed up yesterday at Gabriella’s to give you back just a small portion of what you’ve given them over the years. Your friends would walk through fire for you, Duncan.” Harry started thinking about his own words. “You don’t see it because you’re too close. You think about Tom Spinner, and only remember how you helped hook him up with Wes to get a deal on fixing his car. Or maybe old Ms. Sword down by the park who couldn’t afford to have her house painted, but you got the paint free and a bunch of guys from the neighborhood took care of her place in one weekend. And when the Boy’s Club caught fire last year, who’s sports shop was it that donated a dozen gaming tables for the new building? I know how hard you pushed Mr. Fettle to make that happen.” Duncan sat up on the floor, looking down at his hands and shaking his head.

“Duncan, it’s… it’s like a patchwork quilt. Maybe you see each patch you’ve made, and maybe you don’t. But the rest of us see the quilt that has helped keep the town of Little Whinging warm since any of us can remember.” Duncan looked up at Harry, tears welling in his eyes once again. “Let your friends be here for you. Let us help you get through this, okay?” For a long time he looked at Harry, his eyes glistening and then, finally, Duncan nodded with a sniff, the first hint of a smile on his face. Harry stood up, reached his hand down and pulled Duncan to his feet. “Let’s get cleaned up. Soseh will be angry if we’re late for breakfast.”

Harry waited as Duncan showered, shaved, and dressed. He had combed his blonde hair back and was wearing a pair of dark dress slacks, with a burgundy shirt and a black tie. Harry shivered thinking about how he would have to buy some nice clothes for Emma’s funeral. The mark on the side of Duncan’s head had bruised a little over the night, but the cut was covered with a single bandage. No thorns hung from his ear.

“Let’s do this,” Duncan breathed. The two took Duncan’s car back to the Darbinyan’s and stepped out. It was a quiet ride, but already he could tell that Duncan was beginning to feel again. A light snow was falling that, with the warming day, would soon turn to rain. Harry decided to walk Duncan to Gabriella’s door before going home to change himself. It was Soseh that answered their knock.

“Grigor?” she questioned blankly, looking at Harry. He realized he was still wearing Grigor’s overcoat.

“Oh, no, Soseh,” he corrected. “It’s me, Harry.”

“Harry?” she asked again blankly. It was clearly one of her ‘bad’ mornings.

He sighed, slipping his cold fingers into the pockets, and discovered with one hand that Duncan’s pistol was still there, and with the other he felt the thin roundness of what was most certainly a wand. His eyes widened.

“You know Harry, Soseh,” Duncan said brightly, stepping forward. “Harry Potter.”

“Potter?” Soseh questioned again, her eyes flashing with sparks of recognition. “Yes… yes, I know Harry Potter. Quite famous you know.” Suddenly Grigor came bursting through the door.

“There you are!” he yelled. “Give me that, boy.” He nearly tore the jacket from Harry’s back.

“Sir, wait!” Harry pleaded, but it was too late. Grigor was already to his car.

“I may not be back for dinner, Soseh,” he called back to his wife at the door. “Don’t wait up.”

“But…” Harry tried again. Grigor ignored him and left. “Aye,” Harry grimaced, biting his knuckle.

“What is it, Harry?” Duncan asked.

“Your, er…” he looked at Soseh and then back to Duncan, “Cocobolo grip was in Grigor’s pocket.” Still on the front step, they watched as the car drove off down Privet Drive, and disappeared around the corner.

“Good,” Duncan whispered, taking Soseh by the arm and helping her back inside. “Watch your step, Mrs. Darbinyan. Whatever you’ve got cookin’ certainly smells wonderful.”

“Look, I’ll be back after I clean up,” said Harry as Duncan disappeared into the Darbinyan’s. Duncan stuck his head out the door.

“Sure thing, Mr. Potter. We’ll wait. You’re famous you know? Hah!” Duncan snickered, closing the door. Harry hoped Soseh would simply forget, and turned to walk back home.

He entered the Dursley’s and once again found the living room was still a disaster. For a while, Harry started to pile some of the splintered wood next to the now opened fireplace, but realized it would take far too long, and his stomach was grumbling a bit with hunger. “It can wait till tonight,” he shrugged to himself.

Before long, he had showered and dressed, and was lacing up his old battered trainers (his new ones having been soaked in Dementor blood) when he noticed the small red package that Tonks had given him lying on his dresser. She had asked that Harry wait for Christmas and today was the day after. He picked up the small box and took a glance out his window at the house across the street. How had it gotten so complicated? He couldn’t help but think that somehow he was responsible for Mr. Fudge’s death, but what about Emma’s? It was his blood that had brought Voldemort back to corporeal life. For the thinnest of moments, his mind wondered if the murders would stop if he gave himself over to the Dark Lord. But of course, they wouldn’t. He sat next to the window and watched the skyline as the morning snow turned into rain.

Rolling the package in his hands a few times, he slipped off the green bow and opened it. Out fell a thin golden rod about eight inches long. Hollow on one end and about the width of a straw, its other end was capped with something akin to a skull-like gargoyle head. There were no inscriptions, no other markings. Harry held it in his hand for quite some time, staring intently at the masque that looked mockingly back at him. He didn’t understand why Tonks would give him such a gift, and then noticed two folded slips of paper tucked into the box. He pulled them out and examined both carefully. They had been torn from the pages of books… old books. The first page was small, and bordered with the image of the same figure that capped the golden rod still in his hand.


The key to futures past and present
Depends on wit and wile
Blend the three and turn the key
Use wisdom for the dial

Select the mark to throw them hence
Select the mark to keep them
Select the mark to bring them whence
the darkness now doth steep them


The next page was larger, and older. Indeed, it had a stale, moldy smell to it that reminded Harry of the Restricted Section of the Hogwarts library. It was stained with small, dark spots… blood, Harry thought.


Liquid of life that springs eternal
From birth of light to death infernal
Welled from source of endless magic
To bring back those whose loss was tragic

Liquid of life that courses pure
Split in spite without a cure
Yet saved from death by hated foe
Who stopped the ebb and staved the flow

Liquid of life in molten state
Cast to let its brethren mate
Spin the lock and turn the key
To let our captured allies free


Then to the side, written by hand in fresh ink were the lines


Set the mark before the brew
to slay the ignorance once thought true.
Then as the three mix into one,
and breathe the mist through which they’ll come,
spirit, soul, and purity,
protect yourself from enmity.


Harry read each poem through a few times, trying to get his mind around why Tonks would send him such a thing. “I hate riddles,” he whispered to himself. Part of him wanted to toss the papers aside and wait to ask her when he returned, but there was something intriguing about the words, and he continued to focus his mind.

“Lucius?” he wondered out loud. He took out his own quill, about to jot down some thoughts, when he heard a car come to a stop across the street. He looked out the window and watched as Todd, dressed in a black suit, stepped out of his bright blue sports car and walked up to the Darbinyan front door.

Gabriella met him, giving him a hug and kissing his cheek. Without good reason, Harry’s face flushed with anger, and in an instant he was down at Gabriella’s door. He opened it not bothering to knock, ready to pound Todd into a bloody pulp, to hex him into oblivion. But, when he entered, he found Gabriella helping her mother in the kitchen and Todd holding Duncan in his arms. Duncan was crying. When Todd saw Harry enter, he turned to face him, still holding an arm about Duncan as he wiped his face with a white handkerchief. Todd’s face was nearly as white, and his eyes uncharacteristically frightened. He gestured to Harry to come closer.

“Jesus Christ, Harry!” he hissed under his breath. “Where’s the gun?” At Todd’s words, Duncan sniggered. “What? This isn’t funny,” said Todd reproachfully.

“I borrowed Grigor’s overcoat last night,” Harry swallowed. “When I came back this morning, he grabbed it off my back and left.” There was a long pause, just as Gabriella looked up to see that Harry had arrived. A gentle smile broke across her face, as she and Soseh set the food on the table. “It’s… it’s in his pocket.” Again, Duncan laughed under his breath.

“Bloody hell,” Todd hissed again rolling his eyes, then he looked at Harry’s side. “What’s that?” In Harry’s hand was the tube with the gargoyle head on it.

“Oh this? Er, nothing.” He quickly slid the tube in his back pocket next to his wand. Todd watched the gold intently until Harry slipped it away, and then he moved to set Duncan down.

“Well… well maybe he won’t look,” Todd said hopefully. But Harry knew that when Grigor reached to make sure his wand was there, he would most certainly find the heavy chunk of metal in the other pocket.

“He’ll find it,” Harry muttered darkly.

“Find what?” Gabriella asked walking over to the three young men now huddled so conspiratorially.

“Find this.”

They all turned to the front door to find Grigor dangling the Smith & Wesson by the trigger guard with his left index finger. Gabriella looked confused, while the boys simply stood frozen. Grigor stepped briskly up to the young man with green eyes.

“Papa?” Gabriella asked, but he ignored her.

“Harry, a word if you please.” It was not a request, and Harry followed Grigor to his study.

“Mr. Darbinyan,” Duncan called out, “it’s my—”

“This is not your concern, Duncan,” Grigor said sternly as he opened the study door. Harry walked through and Grigor followed.

“But—”

Grigor shut the door firmly.

“Mr. Darbinyan—”

“Please sit,” Grigor interrupted as he walked behind his desk. Again, Harry found himself sitting in the leather chair, looking up at the father of his true love, who looked back at him with eyes of pure hate. He would have much rather been in this room talking to Grigor about the various instruments that were scattered about like so many toys in a child’s playroom. Instead, he was looking into fire and brimstone and he could feel himself noticeably begin to perspire. “My daughter is very precious to me,” Grigor began.

“She’s precious to me, too.” The words fell uncontrollably out of Harry’s mouth. Grigor’s face reddened as he cocked his neck, and then his fingertips began to explore the wood grain of his desk.

“I told you… to stay away from my daughter!” he breathed quietly. His face seemed almost calm, but his eyes were on fire. “And now, you bring a gun into my house? I will not have her life placed at risk at the whim of some… some…” Harry knew he wanted to say Muggle -- an incurable criminal. Inside, now more than ever, Harry wanted to scream out that he wasn’t, but he had given his word to Gabriella. Instead, he tried another truth. A truth he needed to discuss with an adult.

“Duncan tried to kill himself last night,” he said simply. Grigor’s glaring eyes blinked. “I took the gun away from him. I was going to take it to my house and put it away before I entered your home, sir, but you took the coat before I could.” Grigor’s right index finger began to quickly tap the top of his desk. He was rolling over Harry’s words in his mind. The fire flashing in his eyes abated. For a moment, he looked at the door and Harry could have sworn he heard it click. Then, Grigor sat down in his own chair, pulled open a desk drawer and dropped the gun inside. Before he closed it, he retrieved a pipe and tobacco and a moment later, still not having said a word, he was blowing plumes of smoke about the room, pacing to and fro. Harry remained silent while, for some time, Grigor examined one of his more antique looking telescopes. Finally, he turned to look toward Harry and blew a grand billowing gray cloud.

“Suicide?” he whispered, as if he only now comprehended. Harry nodded slowly. “Stand up, boy,” he commanded. The tone suddenly made Harry feel angry. It reminded him of his uncle, and he didn’t like it. He stood knowing there was an expression on his face that bore the look of insolence, but there was nothing he could do. Grigor walked over and stood close, then looked him up and down. He was only a few inches taller than Harry, but much more stout. Very stout for an astronomy professor, Harry thought. And then Grigor caught Harry’s eyes and looked transfixed. Harry couldn’t help but think he saw tears begin to well up just as Grigor turned away.

“I know that look of insolence too well, child. How old are you, Harry, sixteen?”

“Yes, sir,” Harry replied, still standing as Grigor looked out the large pane window of his office. It overlooked the Darbinyan’s large backyard, and even from Harry’s perspective one could tell it had fallen into disrepair since his visits with Gabriella over the summer.

“I won’t lose my daughter, Harry.” His words were quiet, and intense. “Not to a mere boy incapable of—”

“I love her, sir. And I know she loves me,” Harry interrupted. “Our paths have come together, and they won’t fork.” Grigor spun on Harry’s words.

“Do you think love is enough?” he spat, the fire returning to his eyes. “Do you think love is enough to hold on to someone? Don’t think for an instant that love will prevent Gabriella from being torn from your very grasp, and crushed to pieces like dried bread on a summer’s day. Don’t think that love will keep those you hold dear from harm, Harry, because it won’t! Love clouds the eyes, and dulls the senses. It robs you of your ability to truly protect those most precious. And when it’s too late, when all has been lost, it flees from your heart leaving nothing but despair, and then flitters about trying to tempt you to love again.

“On my daughter’s birthday, my only son, a son I loved more than anything on earth, was killed by ignorance, and greed. I turned to my best friend, my colleague, for solace only to have him murdered days later. In a few short weeks everything I loved was taken from me… everything, but my wife and daughter, and I won’t have them put in danger again.”

Grigor returned to the window, stretched out an arm, and leaned against the frame. “Tell me young Mr. Dursley, if it were in your power, what would you give to bring back the loved ones you’ve lost?” The question filled the room and swirled about with the lingering smoke. For a moment Harry considered an answer, but said nothing. “I don’t want you to love my daughter, but I will sleep knowing that you do your best to keep her safe. That’s your only value to me.” The words were hollow and dark and when he turned back to look at Harry his face had turned ashen, and his hands began to tremble. “This too… for now, keep her happy. She has seen so much death, it is not fair that she should suffer more, and yet it is so once again.” Grigor looked back out the window. “If only she could know the truth,” he said with a sigh. “Would that I could set things right,” he whispered. Another moment passed, and he took a deep breath and walked back over to Harry.

“Go… eat… be with your friends, and grieve. I’m afraid Mars has had the better of me today, and it is not yet noon.” Grigor tried to muster a smile and reached for Harry’s hand. “On my honor, I will see what I can do to help your friend Duncan.” Harry reached for Grigor’s hand, when Grigor slid his hand higher and pressed it firmly about Harry’s forearm. Harry did likewise. Snapshots of Harry’s first visit with Grigor in this study flashed in front of Harry. He was trying to remember something, as if his mind was culling through his memories, tossing pages of thoughts all about the room, when it hit him: it was the handshake… a very foreign handshake.

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