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The Bottom of the Lake by Gabilian

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 35
Word Count: 151,255

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Mild Language, Strong Violence, Scenes of a Mild Sexual Nature

Genres: Romance, Action/Adventure, Angst
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Snape, Pettigrew, Voldemort, Cho, Scrimgeour, OC
Pairings: Harry/Hermione, Ron/Hermione, OC/OC

First Published: 02/22/2007
Last Chapter: 07/20/2007
Last Updated: 05/16/2010


Caught between the Ministry and Voldemort, Harry searches for horcruxes while on the run.  He learns that Voldemort's attempt to kill him had unexpected consequences.  Scrimgeour has his ideas on how to combat Lord Voldemort, while Voldemort realizes that he must safeguard the remaining horcruxes.  Easier said than done, and Harry and Voldemort are destined to meet at the bottom of the lake.  96,000 reads; COMPLETED

Chapter 1: Mine Not to Reason Why
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Chapter 1

Mine Not to Reason Why

"He’s Dumbledore’s man?"

Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour nodded his head to the question posed by Jeremiah Harrison, his long-time friend and informal advisor. The two men swished fine muggle whiskey in their glasses, and each took a sip.

"He will not cooperate; that much is clear," concluded Scrimgeour, "We need to proceed based on that assumption." The Minister’s lined face evinced the disappointment over the recent course of events, and his lion-like hair displayed increased flecks of grey. The problems which already confronted him only intensified following the unexpected and unwelcome death of Albus Dumbledore a couple of weeks earlier.

Certainly Dumbledore could not be counted among Scrimgeour’s friends or supporters, and the Minister did not personally suffer the old man’s untimely demise. Nevertheless, noone would deny the power and authority of Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot. His mere existence provided a check on the activities of the dark lord, Voldemort. With Dumbledore out of the way, Voldemort figured to increase his efforts to exert authority over the magical community in Britain, and in the process, attempt to kill Scrimgeour.

Jeremiah Harrison set his glass on the beautifully polished low table in the Minister of Magic’s office, and ran his fingers through his thin brown hair, neatly trimmed and much shorter than the typical wizard’s. A half blood who made a fortune in the import-export business, Harrison bankrolled Scrimgeour’s rise in the political world. The Minister rarely took any important action before consulting with his old friend.

"Potter is more popular than ever, Rufus. Whatever you do, you must act delicately. One wrong step and your career will be over."

"I am fully aware of that, Jeremiah, but he is too much of a wild card. He seems to believe this ‘Chosen One’ rubbish planted in his head by Dumbledore. We cannot base our strategy against You Know Who on a boy with no special talent. Yet the public believes that somehow Potter is their savior. Potter may believe it himself." Scrimgeour sipped his whiskey again and set his glass on the mahogany table, leaning back in his deep brown armchair. "We must take steps to neutralize the boy before he causes irreparable damage. Had he chosen to cooperate, we could have used him to our advantage. Unfortunately . . . ."

Harrison eyed his drinking companion warily.

"You are not intending to . . . ."

"No, no. I don’t want the boy dead, just out of our way for a while. I have nothing against him personally, but we need to remove him from the scene. I have instructed a top auror to bring him in, in due time. Discreetly." Harrison nodded his head, but his eyes betrayed his worry.

"Just be careful, Rufus. This could backfire on you."


Harry Potter stormed up the stairs of 4 Privet Drive while from below his red-faced uncle, Vernon Dursley, yelled just as loudly.


Harry chose not to respond, bursting into his bedroom and closing the door abruptly behind him. He leaned back against the door and breathed deeply, trying to calm himself, his messy black hair as agitated as his temper. This time he meant it, every word of it. Blood protection or not, he intended to leave this prison this day, never to return.

Two and a half weeks had passed since the funeral of Albus Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor. His portly uncle tore into Harry from the moment he returned to the house. After attempting to deflect or ignore Vernon Dursley’s attacks, Harry began to respond in kind, which merely caused the confrontations to intensify. To avoid his uncle, Harry left the house for hours each day to roam the streets of his home town, Little Whinging.

For the past week, however, his hours away from the house increasingly disturbed him. At first he tried to brush off the strange feelings, but eventually he began to trust his instincts. Someone was following him, and not his minder from the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore’s secret society working independently of the Ministry. Harry felt eyes on him for several days, and when he looked in that direction, more than once he saw the tiniest puff of dust along the ground. Someone had to be hiding under an invisibility cloak. Perhaps he imagined it, but Harry did not think so.

Who would be tracking him in this manner? Certainly not Voldemort. Not his style at all, and in any event the blood protection resulting from the sacrifice of his mother should prevent it. The Order always kept a distant watch on him, Harry knew, but this person approached much closer, sometimes within a few yards. It had to be the Ministry of Magic, he realized, keeping an eye on him. He would put an end to that, while at the same time ridding himself once and for all of his odious aunt and uncle. Two birds with one stone.

Grabbing his rucksack, Harry stuffed as many clothes into it as he could. He would leave his trunk in the house for now, maybe sending someone else to fetch it some time in the future. He had few clothes anyway, and most of them fit in the bag which with foresight he enlarged magically before he left Hogwarts two weeks before. Finally, he removed the loose floorboards in his room, under which he hid his money. In his last trip to Gringott’s Bank, he converted wizarding galleons into British Pounds, just in case he might have need of them. He hoped the two thousand Pounds would last him awhile, though he truly had little idea how much things cost in the muggle world.

Finally, he placed two sacks of wizarding money into the rucksack and zipped it shut. Harry previously mulled over his options, and leaving unannounced struck him as the most appealing. This time he had been pushed too far, both by his relatives and the Ministry. He discovered that his owl, Hedwig, had been intercepted more than once, as Hedwig acted extremely oddly when she arrived, and the letters Harry received from his friends seemed to have been unfolded and refolded.

Maybe I’m being paranoid
, he thought to himself more than once, but when he added it all up, he convinced himself otherwise. His uncle’s ranting may have moved up his departure a day or two, but abandoning 4 Privet Drive could not be considered a spur-of-the-moment decision, and Harry already had an escape plan in mind. He needed to be sure not to be followed.

Throwing his pack on his back, he lastly grabbed his father’s old invisibility cloak and made sure he had his wand. Not bothering to reminisce one last time at his bedroom, he purposefully strode out the door and down the stairs, hoping that he would not bump into his uncle.

Fate granted him this wish, but he neglected to think about his Aunt Petunia, his mother's sister.  Agitated and upset, Petunia waited for Harry by the front door, intent on intercepting him before the boy could leave.

"You don’t have to leave, Harry," the tall middle-aged woman explained nervously, "Your birthday is only a couple of weeks away. You can stay until then. That’s always been the plan."

Harry eyed his aunt suspiciously, knowing that she wanted to be rid of him almost as much as her husband. She had not treated Harry badly this summer, mostly avoiding her nephew. Harry noted an unusually subdued demeanor from his aunt, compared to his past memories of her. Whatever had changed her, Harry did not know, nor did he care.

"I’ve had enough," Harry replied as calmly as he could, "I see no reason to stay another two weeks. What does it matter? We’ll all be happier if I leave now."

Petunia pursed her lips, causing her long face to elongate further, hoping that Harry would simply turn around and climb the stairs to his room, but no such luck. She sighed and continued to shift nervously from foot to foot.

"That old man, Dumbledore," she blurted out suddenly, "he said that you need to stay until your seventeenth birthday."

"Yes, well, Professor Dumbledore is dead, so that doesn’t matter anymore." Harry stepped towards the front door.

"But it does matter," Petunia interrupted, "It does matter." She moved in front of the door, blocking Harry’s path. Harry again stared at her suspiciously.

"You’re hiding something from me, aren’t you?" he accused her, "Everybody else does it, so why shouldn’t you. What aren’t you telling me?"

Petunia hesitated before answering, "I’ve just told you. Dumbledore insisted that you stay here until your birthday. He seemed to think it very important."

Harry stared at her and mulled over his own response, "If it was that important, he could have told me himself. Dumbledore is dead, so I have to make my own decisions now." The two stared at each other for a few seconds before Harry added, "I’m leaving." He tried to move past his aunt to open the door.

"No. I have to give you something, but not now. On your birthday. It has to be on your birthday. Dumbledore made me promise, not before your seventeenth birthday."

What would Dumbledore want to give him? And why on his birthday? None of it made any sense, and Harry did not intend to worry about it. He had more serious matters to attend to.

"Look, Aunt Petunia, I’m leaving. Whatever it is, give it to me now. I won’t open it until my birthday."

"I can’t do that, Harry. Dumbledore’s instructions specifically stated that I must give it to you on your birthday. He made me promise. For some reason he thought it was important. It’s only two more weeks. Just stay until then, and I’ll take care of Vernon." She sighed softly, displeased at having to suffer through this conversation. Harry frowned at the unexpected complication to his plans.

"No! I’m leaving, but I’ll come back on my birthday to get it. I’ll try to call you to let you know when I’ll be here. It should only take a minute," Harry instructed her, "Also, I’ve left some things in my trunk upstairs. Sooner or later someone will come by for it. I’m not sure when."

Petunia Dursley nodded her understanding and stepped aside. Harry glanced at her one last time, and reached forward to turn the doorknob. He could not think of any appropriate parting words.

"I’ll see you, then," he muttered as he stepped outside, closing the door behind him. 

Half an hour before Harry left 4 Privet Drive, Evan Harrington apparated back to the Ministry to complete his daily report and call it a day. For the past week, he followed Harry Potter on his daily meanderings, trying to learn as much as he could about the boy. Sooner or later he would have to bring him in, but as of this moment, he had not received the order. Apparently his superiors believed that nothing needed to be done until shortly before Potter’s birthday on July 31st, and they did not wish to act before absolutely necessary.

A complete waste of time, in Evan’s opinion. Potter did nothing special or unusual, and bringing him in should pose no difficulty. He could not help but wonder why the Ministry chose him to undertake such a simple mission. Surely a younger, less experienced auror could have been designated for this assignment. Something about the whole situation smelled.

Evan found this job simple but unpleasant. He knew Lily Potter, back when she was still Lily Evans. He considered her a friend, though perhaps that overstated their relationship at Hogwarts. They did not belong to the same house or year, did not take any classes together, and never socialized. Nevertheless, Lily helped him several times in the potions dungeon, when she happened to be working there at the same time as he. Evan needed to improve his potion-making if he wanted to qualify for auror training, and Lily had a special ability in that field. The seventh-year girl treated him nicely, and he liked her.

From time to time he would run into her in the hallways, and they always greeted each other, even stopping to chat occasionally. He met James Potter during these brief encounters, and the Gryffindor hero treated him well enough. The Slytherins hated Potter, but Evan’s fellow Ravenclaws thought him a harmless clown. And a terrific quidditch player.

Back then, Evan stood a mere five feet six inches, thin as a rail. Now in his mid thirties, he had grown to five feet eleven, and through the combination of maturity and exercise, his body had filled out. He kept a young face with a full head of sandy hair, and he could easily pass for a man in his late twenties.

When he learned that Lord Voldemort killed Lily and James on that Halloween night so many years ago, Evan felt an emptiness in his stomach. In his second year of auror training at the time, the news shocked everyone. Yet in truth, their murders made Evan’s life much easier. Instead of entering the auror forces in the depths of the war with Voldemort’s followers, by the time he graduated, the magical world had entered a period of calm. Now as he tracked Lily and James’ son around muggle Little Whinging, he could not help but ponder the fact that Evan may very well be dead today if Lily and James had not been murdered. And if this boy had not inadvertantly eliminated Voldemort, even if only temporarily.

By now, more than fifteen years later, Evan Harrington firmly established his reputation as a top auror, with many commendations and awards. Normally mild mannered with an occasionally explosive temper, he maintained the ability to think clearly in the most stressful situations. He had killed more than one man, and incapacitated many others. His assignments always included a certain amount of danger, until this one. His superiors assured him of the importance of this mission, even though they would not provide any further explanation. He could not help but feel that perhaps he had fallen out of favor, perhaps being punished for some reason.

"Mine not to reason why," he whispered to himself, scratching the final words to his report with his quill. Little did he know that at that moment the subject of his assignment walked invisibly down the street away from 4 Privet Drive.

Peter Pettigrew quietly placed the thick black cloak over the shoulders of Lord Voldemort, tying the cords into a knot. Thankfully, Pettigrew’s master did not awake in a talkative mood, instead brooding over the events of the past weeks. Other mornings, Voldemort enjoyed verbally abusing Peter, who nevertheless served the dark lord as his de facto manservant. 

Though Voldemort managed to return to his body and could cast spells and perform magic with tremendous skill and power, he lacked the ability to perform simple acts of daily life. His fingers could not tie a knot and the simple task of dressing and undressing required the assistance of a death eater. For reasons not understood by Voldemort’s more capable followers, their master insisted that Peter Pettigrew perform these services.

"Do you require anything further, master?" Pettigrew asked servilely while straightening the cloak. Voldemort always felt cold, even in the warm weather of this July morning.

"I must speak with Snape," his master replied softly, "Bring him to the sitting room."

Pettigrew, short and increasingly plump, shuffled out of the enormous bed chamber of Sarazen Place, a mansion located in eastern Wales, just a few miles from the boarder with England. Decades earlier, Voldemort used this residence as a base for a few months, but he never liked to stay in one place much longer than that. Nevertheless, he regarded the ancient stone structure fondly, such that he placed a number of spells and wards over the house and its extensive grounds. Muggles could not see the buildings or enter the property surrounding them, and few wizards knew of Sarazen Place’s existence.

Given the events of the past weeks, and the volatile reaction of the public, Voldemort thought it wise to return to the mansion for a few weeks to determine his next course of action. While everyone believed that the death of his long-time nemesis, Albus Dumbledore, would be cause for great celebration by Voldemort and his followers, in fact, the dark lord considered it to be a compete disaster. All of his plans ruined.

His plans depended on access to Hogwarts Castle, which had finally been achieved through the efforts of Draco Malfoy. Voldemort had no intention to kill Dumbledore yet. The ancient wizard clearly possessed great power and skill, but Voldemort believed that Dumbledore acted too predictably. Moreover, his spy, Severus Snape, provided invaluable information regarding the actions of Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix. With Dumbledore’s death, at Snape’s hand, Voldemort lost that valuable resource.

Voldemort also now found himself facing an enraged public. The Daily Prophet published dozens of irate letters urging the Ministry to take forceful action, and many letters advocated fighting fire with fire. His forces still small in number, Voldemort knew that he could not yet bring down the government, so he decided on a strategic retreat to allow the smoke to blow over. He noted with some satisfaction that the Prophet published all of the letters to the editor anonymously.

Power combined with fear. Nothing could stop that combination, and though recent events temporarily derailed his plans, in the end he could not be defeated.

"My Lord wished to speak with me?" Severus Snape asked emotionlessly as he slowly strode into the sitting room. The expansive area received abundant morning light, and Snape could not help but again muse over the strangeness in seeing the dark lord in such a setting. The bright atmosphere did nothing to cheer the disposition of his master, however, who though past the ranting and raving stage, still fumed at the destruction of his plans.

"Hsssssssss," Voldemort apparently responded in Parseltongue, but in reality he spoke to Nagini, his serpent companion. The huge snake had curled up next to a window to soak in the sunlight. In response to the hissing, Nagini hissed in return. Neither Snape nor Voldemort reacted to the hissing, and Voldemort saw no need to explain the brief conversation with his follower.

"Soon we will be leaving this location, Severus, though I admit that I have enjoyed its luxuries. The shock of Dumbledore’s death is beginning to wane, and we will be able to move more freely."

Snape nodded his head an inch but knew not to respond. He, like all death eaters, did not converse with the dark lord. Voldemort spoke, Snape listened, and when asked a question, he replied. Snape’s master had never regained any semblance of physical well-being since his rebirth in the graveyard in Little Hangleton. He shuffled about with a limp, ate little, and as a result appeared almost emaciated. His followers rarely saw the few wisps of grey hair on his head, as the hood of his cloak normally covered it. In the bright light, Snape could barely see the red between the slits of the master’s eyes, which at night slightly glowed.

"I have considered our options carefully, and soon I shall reveal my plans. However, I have a question for you, Severus, which I need you to answer to the best of your ability. If you do not know, you must admit it. I require accurate information. Do you understand me?"

"Of course, My Lord," Snape responded in a low monotone. Despite the warmth of the morning sun, a huge fire sparked in the fireplace in the never-ending attempt to combat Voldemort’s poor circulation.

"What will Potter do? Will he return to Hogwarts? Or will he seek me out?"

Snape raised an eyebrow at the unexpected inquiry. Certainly he knew Potter, but he would not consider himself an expert on the boy’s inner thoughts.

"I can provide my opinions, My Lord, but I cannot guarantee their validity. Perhaps the Malfoy boy could be of more assistance. Though Potter and he hate each other, they seem to understand one another better than they care to admit."

"Yessss," Voldemort interjected in his slightly reptilian voice, "That may be wise. Nevertheless, I would like to know your opinion too, Severus. You have had considerable contact with Potter."

Snape’s long black hair hung loosely over his ears and over the back of his robe, which he had opened as much as he could due to the excessive warmth of the sitting room. As usual, he dressed completely in black, right down to his shoes and socks. He paused several seconds, his normal habit, to compose a careful response.

"Potter is arrogant, and Dumbledore merely fed the boy’s natural tendencies. He believes that he must kill you, and I believe that Dumbledore is responsible for this. As you know, Dumbledore did not inform me of the contents of his many meetings with Potter. As far as I know, only the two of them know the purpose of those sessions." Snape paused to breathe and again chose his next words carefully. "I do not believe he will return to Hogwarts, though I may be mistaken. If he does return, he likely will leave the castle before the end of the term. He acts rashly and without discipline, and he lacks basic skills. He is magically powerful, of that there can be no doubt, but his technique and creativity are minimal. Of course, he also contains a full measure of the typical Gryffindor tendency to act before he thinks." Snape’s comments dripped with disdain both for the boy and Gryffindor house.

Voldemort remained seated in a large leather chair placed close to the fire. None of the other few dozen death eaters in the mansion dared sit in that seat, even when Voldemort left the room. He considered Snape’s words, but did not comment immediately. Of course, Snape lacked knowledge of one extremely important fact: the horcruxes. Voldemort never disclosed the division of his soul into various objects, not to Snape or anyone else. However, after having time to rethink all that had occurred since his rebirth two years earlier, he came to an inescapable conclusion.

Dumbledore knew about the horcruxes. The old man did not kill him at their duel at the Ministry, even though he had the perfect opportunity. Even Dumbledore would have killed if it would have ended Voldemort’s reign. He killed before, as everyone knew, in his battles with Grindelwald’s followers, so killing was not beneath the man when necessary. Voldemort recalled that moment intensely. Dumbledore stared at him and quite intentionally pulled back his wand, allowing Voldemort to escape. There could be only one reason.

He knew. And he must have told Potter. That changed everything. 

Harry Potter closed the front door behind him and took a step forward, still hidden from the street. He looked left and right and saw nobody, so he quickly flung the invisibility cloak over him, disappearing from view. Quickly he shuffled down the sidewalk, intending to walk the mile or so to the train station. He planned to use muggle means of travel for the time being in order to avoid being tracked. Once well away from Little Whinging, he may be able to apparate, now that he knew that the Ministry could not easily track him. He apparated with Dumbledore just a few weeks before, apparently unnoticed by the government. Nevertheless, he would avoid magic to the extent possible.

Gradually the consequences of his action began to set in. He had no place to stay. Nobody (hopefully) knew where he was. He had become invisible to the wizarding world, and he intended to keep it that way.

Once he turned a few corners and walked half way to the station, Harry ducked into an alley and again checked all around him. Carefully he pulled Hedwig out of his pocket, and attached a brief letter to its leg. Harry wrote the letter days before, waiting for this moment. 

Gently stroking the snow-white owl’s feathers, Harry quietly instructed it, "Take this to Hermione. Stay with her until I get there. Don’t take any mail anywhere, just stay with her." The owl did not react to Harry’s words, but Harry knew Hedwig well enough by now to know that it understood. "Go on now," he breathed softly, lifting the owl into the air. Sadly, he watched her fly away for a minute before he again wrapped the invisibility cloak around himself.  Now he felt truly alone.

A/N (Updated Dec. 10, 2009)  I'm glad you have found my story.   It is different from JKR's finale, of course, but you will find a few similarities.  In any event, I'd love to know what you think about it, so please review.  Even though two years have passed since I finished the story, I still appreciate your comments, and I respond to all of my reviews, so don't be bashful.  Below is the note I wrote when I first began posting this story in February 2007.  Enjoy!  G.

A/N  (Feb. 27, 2007) Finally I have fulfilled my promise of a new story. For those of you who read A Serpent’s Sacrifice, I hope you enjoy this story as well. However, please set aside any preconceptions from my earlier story. The Bottom of the Lake will be quite different, and is not related to Serpent at all.  Let me know what you think as you make your way through the story.  I hope you enjoy The Bottom of the Lake.  G.

Chapter 2: One Way to Liverpool
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Chapter 2

One Way to Liverpool

Hermione Granger happily conversed with three of her muggle girlfriends in a restaurant not far from her parents’ home in southern Essex. Despite her constant worry over the state of the magical world and the well-being of her best friends, Ronald Weasley and Harry Potter, she could not avoid enjoying a taste of her former life as a muggle. She realized how much she missed in her years away, and felt slightly ashamed when she did not recognize the names of the famous singers and actors that her friends gushed over.

Happily participating in the conversation, the seventeen-year-old witch suddenly informed her friends that she needed to leave. Despite their protestations, she quickly gave her regrets and rushed outside to briskly walk the half mile home. From her seat in the restaurant, she noticed a snow-white owl perched on a wire outside of the window, staring directly at her. Hedwig had never done anything like that before, and Hermione could not help but feel that the owl appeared out of sorts. She rushed home so that she could open the letter attached to Hedwig’s leg.

"Hello, Hedwig," Hermione softly greeted the owl, carrying it to a table in the backyard. Now past nine in the evening, the July sun had set but darkness had not yet completely fallen. Hedwig indeed acted nervously, and Hermione’s heart began to race. Something must have happened to Harry.

"There you go, girl," she comforted the anxious bird, placing a plate of water before it. Her heart still pounding, she sat at the table and in the receding light read Harry’s brief note.

Dear Hermione:

I just left home, and I’m not going back. The Ministry is watching me, and I need to leave before it tries to do anything. I’ll be OK. I have money and can get by for awhile. When I have the chance, I’ll call you. Please take care of Hedwig for me. Be careful. Once the Ministry knows I’m gone, they may want to follow you. Don’t worry about me. I have a lot of thinking to do, and this will give me some time.

Wish me luck,


"Harry!" she whispered to herself, exasperated. Unknowingly she stood and began pacing around the table, her mind attempting to read between the lines of her friend's letter, for she knew that Harry would not disclose everything to her. In fact, the note disclosed precious little. His previous letter, which he sent a few days before, seemed more distant than normal, and now she knew why. Harry believed that his mail had been intercepted by the Ministry.

On occasion in the past, Hedwig stayed overnight with Hermione, so she carried the owl to the corner of her dresser that she reserved for it. After assuring its comfort, she sat on her bed, quickly reread Harry’s note, and started thinking.

Where would Harry go? She knew that he lived in Surrey, south of London, and certainly London would be the easiest city for a wizard to melt into the muggle world. Most wizard families, such as the Weasleys, preferred to live in rural areas, all the easier to hide from the muggle authorities. Thus, while a fair number of wizards did live in London, especially half-bloods or muggle-borns already familiar with the muggle world, the chance of running into one would be minuscule. Moreover, the Ministry preferred not to take action in London, if possible, due to the sheer volume of muggles. Only so many minds that can be modified at one time.

London seemed the obvious choice, but Hermione knew instinctively that Harry would not go there.

Hermione’s home in southern Essex also was situated not far from London, only an hour or so to the northeast of the giant metropolis. Unfortunately, Harry did not have her address, and could not come on his own. In any event, he would not come, as he quite correctly anticipated that her home would be watched by the Ministry as soon as his disappearance became known. He did have her phone number, however, so she could only hope that he would call.

She sat on the edge of her bed, and stared at herself in the mirror above her dresser. This was the big time now. No more Dumbledore directing the show. No more hiding behind the wards of Hogwarts Castle. No more pretending that the future would never arrive. On top of everything, it seemed Harry had to fend off the Ministry while at the same time trying to locate and destroy the remaining horcruxes. When and if he accomplished that enormous task, then the final confrontation with Lord Voldemort awaited.

Impossible. It all sounded impossible, yet this is what faced her great friend, and indirectly Ron and Hermione too. They had faced much in their six years of friendship - trolls, basilisks, hippogriffs, and more. The option of letting Harry face this alone did not exist. The three of them would either triumph together or fail together. But what should she do next?

Harry remained under his invisibility cloak for several minutes after he arrived at the small, outdoor train station in Little Whinging. Only rarely had he ever ridden on a train, other than the Hogwarts Express, and he did not know exactly how one goes about it. After eavesdropping on a few customers requesting tickets, he realized that he did not need to be a genius to figure it out.

Originally, Harry intended to take the short trip from Surrey to nearby London, but on his walk to the station, he reconsidered. As of this moment, in the darkening evening, his Ministry companion presumably did not know that Harry departed 4 Privet Drive. No doubt they assumed that he would come out for his typical midday meanderings the next day, and when he did not, the Ministry employee would wonder why. Surely some time would pass before they determined with certainty that Harry left Little Whinging for good. Probably he would have at least until the next afternoon before this would occur, or so he hoped.

London seemed the logical destination. The largest city in all of Britain, he theoretically could hide there if he took some basic precautions. Nevertheless, Harry felt uncomfortable that he would be so close to the Ministry itself, and doubtlessly, the Ministry would figure that London would be his natural destination. Why not take a longer journey? After all, if his reckoning could be trusted, he had all night to travel.

Stepping out of view, he removed the invisibility cloak and placed it into his already overstuffed rucksack. As unobtrusively as he could, he walked into the station and glanced at the board next to the ticket windows. Major cities lined one half of the board with fares to the right. Harry never even heard of a few of the cities, and he considered returning to his original plan of London, until he read "Liverpool."

"One way to Liverpool," he instructed the ticket seller. Harry did not have the foggiest idea why he chose Liverpool as his destination. It simply functioned as a random large city in which he could disappear for a few weeks. Besides, they had a good football team, as he recalled from his years as a muggle, and even he knew about the Beatles.

After a nervous forty-five minute wait for the correct train, during which time he tried to stay out of sight, he finally boarded and found an empty compartment. Darkness had fallen, and the sparsely filled train inched forward, allowing Harry to breathe a sigh of relief. He escaped.

"I would like to speak with Harry Potter, please," stated Evan Harrington politely to the tall, middle-aged woman who answered the door of 4 Privet Drive.

"You must be mistaken," she answered coldly, "nobody by that name lives here." She moved to close the door when Evan decided to quit the pretenses. He pulled his wand from its holster. Petunia Dursley froze.

"I’m coming in one way or the other," Evan informed her calmly, "I’d prefer not to have to cause a mess." Petunia instinctively knew that she should not cross this person, so reluctantly she pulled the door back and allowed the stranger to enter.

Evan stepped through and quickly glanced around the spotless and typical middle-class English home. By now, he strongly suspected that Harry Potter no longer resided in this house. The previous day, Evan roamed all of the places where Potter normally passed the time, but the boy never appeared. The auror did not return to his office at the normal time, instead viewing the window of Potter’s bedroom as night fell. The light never turned on.

Having passed this information on to his superiors, a frantic series of meetings ensued, and Evan returned the next day with orders to bring Potter in immediately, if in fact the boy could be found. Evan waited all morning, just in case the young wizard might have been away for one night. Highly doubtful, Evan knew, as Potter did not appear to have any friends in the area. After Potter did not show by lunch, Evan knocked on the door.

"Where is Potter?" Evan asked simply but with a tone that informed Petunia not to play games.

"Why should I tell you?" she replied nervously, "Where Harry goes is none of your business."

"That is where you are mistaken, Mrs. Dursley. It is my business." Evan stared at her intently, but did not lose his temper. He mused silently that she looked nothing like her sister, Lily Evans. "I am an auror with the Ministry of Magic. My advice is that you cooperate with me. I have no quarrel with you, and I have no desire to resort to more distasteful methods." Petunia paled at the words, and her momentary resolve dissolved.

"Harry’s gone. He left, night before last. I do not expect him to return." She stared down and away from the auror, somewhat ashamed that she caved in so easily.

"Exactly what I thought," Evan replied evenly, "Where did he go?"

"I don’t know. My husband and he argued, like they always do, but this time Harry said he had enough. He packed a few things and left. All I know is that he walked out the door night before last. He did not tell me where he intended to go. I doubt he even knew; it seemed like a spur-of-the-moment decision."

"What time did he leave?" the auror asked. Petunia glanced upwards as she tried to remember.

"It was after dinner. That’s when the argument started. They went at it for ten or fifteen minutes. Neither one of them would listen to me. Harry went up to his room for half an hour or so to pack his things. He must have left around eight o’clock, though I’m not sure. It could have been a bit later."

"Thank you, Mrs. Dursley. I believe you are telling me the truth. I’ll just check his room, and I’ll leave you in peace. I apologize for the intrusion." Evan did not ask for permission to climb the stairs to Harry’s bedroom.

Once inside, he grimaced when he noted that Mrs. Dursley had already cleaned the room, probably figuring that Harry would never return. Any clues which he may have gleaned vanished with Mrs. Dursley’s cleaning rags. She had pushed Harry’s trunk into the corner of the room, and Evan took a few moments to examine it as well as the closet. A few clothes remained in the trunk, as well as other personal items, but the closet had already been emptied by Mrs. Dursley. Evan learned nothing.

He did not bother modifying Petunia Dursley’s memory, as she would not gossip about something like this. Excusing his intrusion again, he left and returned to his office, leaning back in his stiff wooden chair. At the moment, the other auror with whom he shared the small office was away on assignment, and Evan had the room to himself. A few sheets of parchment and quills sat on the small desk, but he never let it become too messy, not like the overflowing work space of his roommate.

A thin smile unconsciously appeared on his lips. Maybe this mission would be more challenging than he first thought. Potter obviously noticed him. On a few occasions, Evan realized that Potter sensed something strange, but Evan knew that the boy could not see him. Somehow, Potter figured it out. Maybe Evan did not act carefully enough, but he knew that a typical wizard would not have noticed anything. Quite clearly, Harry Potter was not a typical wizard.

Evan thought back to Lily Evans and James Potter. Somehow, Harry’s disappearance did not bother him much, certainly not as much as his frantic superiors. In fact, he almost felt happy about it. Nevertheless, his quarry’s disappearance left Evan in a tight spot since the boy had a day and a half head start. Following protocol, Evan verified that no apparations had been registered in the Privet Drive area, or even in Little Whinging. Potter knew better. He left by muggle means, probably by train. He could be anywhere by now.

Two days passed before Harry felt settled enough to consider fully the problems that faced him. The train trip passed without incident, and he roamed up and down the Mersey River and other parts of Liverpool, gradually orienting himself. Trying to blend in, he bought a red Liverpool Football club hat, which also allowed him to hide his scar. Of course, he did not blend in, for his manner of speech immediately informed any local that this boy came from the London region. In fact, Harry at times had to ask people to repeat themselves due to their thick Liverpudlian accent.

He rented a room at the Riverside Hotel, a small complex which in fact did not sit beside the Mersey but rather some six blocks to the east of it. The excitement Harry felt those first two days prevented any rational consideration of his situation. For once, he decided on his own the best course of action to take. He felt both exhilarated and astonished, but after the passage of two days, reality started to sink in.

Yes, he succeeded in escaping, but in no way had he improved his situation in general. Dumbledore could no longer help him, and only Harry could complete the work that the old man had begun. The young wizard needed to find and destroy the remaining four horcruxes presumably created by Lord Voldemort, after which he would have the privilege of trying to kill the dark lord himself.

Simple enough, he laughed to himself. Of course, he did not know where any of the other horcruxes were located, and in fact he only knew for sure what form two of them took - Hufflepuff’s Cup and Slytherin’s Locket. Dumbledore believed that Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, might be another one, but Harry could not know that for sure. And the last horcrux? It could be anything. And anywhere.

Where should he start? Liverpool did not seem to be the most logical site, and Harry second-guessed himself about coming to the port city, yet despite these problems, he felt more calm than he had in weeks. For the moment, he needed to lie low in Liverpool, staying out of sight to keep the Ministry off his trail. He would think some more, but his next important moment would be meeting with his aunt on his birthday to receive the mysterious object left by Dumbledore. That left him almost two weeks to enjoy his new surroundings.

Evan Harrington met Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour on a few brief occasions over the years, but never had he participated in a high level meeting with him. Seated in his ornate office, the Minister grilled the auror for half an hour about Harry Potter’s disappearance, and the distress and anger in Scrimgeour’s voice could not be completely suppressed. For whatever reason, Evan understood that Potter’s disappearance constituted an emergency of the highest level.

"As I explained, sir, we have no idea to where Potter fled. London seems an obvious choice. It’s close to Little Whinging, it’s close to the home of his best friend, Hermione Granger, and it is so large as to allow him to disappear into the muggle world. Potter grew up as a muggle and presumably knows well enough how to operate there." To do something with his hands, Evan opened the Potter file and scanned a document. "We are making inquiries in London, but we have no assurance that Potter is there. Of course, Granger will be watched as well. But for all we know, the boy could be in France by now."

"Potter will not go to France," Scrimgeour declared, "He believes he has business in Britain."

Evan nodded, "I agree, sir. The point I am making is that he could be anywhere, in a large city, small town, the country, with a friend, by himself. At the moment, we simply have no idea. We are checking any unusual magical events everywhere, such as apparations, but so far nothing appears to have anything to do with the boy. My guess is that he’ll try to limit the use of magic as much as possible. As you know, we cannot identify a magical event with any specific wizard, so it is largely searching for the needle in the haystack."

Minister Scrimgeour grimaced at Evan’s report, but he did not appear to be surprised. Scrimgeour had been around the block a few times in his life and did not lose his composure when events conspired against him. Nevertheless, Evan easily sensed the disquiet in the Minister’s countenance, the tightened eyebrows and squinted eyes. For reasons Evan did not fully understand and which still had not been explained to him, the Ministry considered Potter’s disappearance a major crisis. It did not make sense to the seasoned auror, but he knew better than to voice his opinions.

"Thank you for your report, Harrington. You have already been informed of the importance of finding Mr. Potter. I realize the difficulty, but you must devote all of your efforts to finding him and bringing him in. It is as much for his protection as for the protection of the magical world." The Minister stared intently at the auror. "I’ll inform your superiors to remove all other responsibilities from your agenda until Potter is found. Your reports will reach me, rest assured."

"Your imbecility is exceeded only by your carelessness, Wormtail," Lord Voldemort sneered at his servant, Peter Pettigrew. The death eater’s sin, according to his master, involved dropping and temporarily breaking a vase in Voldmort’s sleeping chamber. Pettigrew repaired the vase with the reparo spell within seconds, yet Voldemort missed no opportunity to demean him.

"I am sorry, master. You are correct as always. I will attempt to take more care in the future," responded Pettigrew fearfully, though he had experienced similar rebukes dozens of times in the past. By the time he finished speaking, Voldemort had already forgotten about it.

"We will soon be leaving this most comfortable house, Wormtail. I believe we will stay two more days. Have everything prepared for our departure."

"Certainly master."

"Now, bring me the Malfoy boy. I wish to speak with him before I retire to my bed."

Voldemort and his death eaters preferred the dark for their activities, and though the large grandfather clock opposite the bed displayed 3:30 am, few if any death eaters slept. Voldemort generally slept at 4 am for only four or five hours, not requiring more. Of course, he expected Pettigrew to be ready when he awoke, which resulted in Pettigrew’s constant sleep deprivation. The short and pudgy death eater bowed slightly and shuffled out of the room.

A few minutes later, Pettigrew led the thin blond teenager into the room, then taking his leave. Draco Malfoy tried to prepare himself as best he could for the conversation. Only seventeen years of age, the trials of his sixth year at Hogwarts combined with a few weeks living with jaded death eaters aged Draco noticeably. His blue eyes dulled to a slate grey, displaying deep weariness, and his thin blond hair hung limply to his shoulders. In his younger years, he believed the life of a death eater to be glamorous, but he quickly discovered his error.

"My Lord wished to speak with me?" he spoke with a slight bow, trying his best to sound submissive, yet the echo of the elitist Malfoy drawl could not be completely disguised. Having met the dark lord more than once these past weeks, Draco knew not to speak further until prompted.

Voldemort eyed the young wizard for a moment, but Draco could not determine his mood. Of course, he had never seen the dark lord in a good mood and doubted that he ever would.

"Sit Draco!" Voldemort hissed softly, apparently in an attempt to make the boy feel comfortable. Draco’s level of discomfort only increased, but he took a high-backed chair across from Voldemort’s and waited for the dark lord to speak again.

"I realize, Draco, that you are not a friend of the Potter boy, nor would I expect you to be. He is far beneath your level. Nevertheless, I understand that you know him well, in your own way."

Draco hardly expected to be questioned about his worst enemy, and he had to suppress the sneer that his lips tried to form. Better to show no emotion.

"I do know him well, My Lord, though as you say he is quite the opposite of a friend. Of course, we were in different houses at Hogwarts, so I did not see him often outside of classes and such." Draco’s eyes focused on Voldemort’s feet, which appeared to be swollen.

"What do you think of his talents, Draco?" Voldemort asked ambiguously, immediately noting the sneer on Malfoy’s face, "Do not let your hatred for him skew your answer. I need your best judgment, for better and worse. I need to understand Potter better than I have in the past."

Draco immediately removed the involuntary sneer from his face and considered his answer. Though he hated Harry Potter with all his might, he still could not avoid a certain discomfort in being asked to tattle on a schoolmate. Nevertheless, the thought of not answering never entered his mind.

"Overall, Potter is quite mediocre; however, he is a talented flier and always does well in Defense Against the Dark Arts. He’s pitiful at potions, and I understand that he is only average at charms and transfigurations. Perhaps his greatest ‘talent’ is that mudblood friend of his, Granger."

"Tell me about his friends, Draco. I have heard of this Granger mudblood."

"Hermione Granger is her name. Muggle-born, obviously, but even still, she is quite intelligent. Not especially talented with spells and such, but she is an insufferable know-it-all. Reads endlessly. Then there is Weasley, Ronald Weasley, Potter’s best mate."

"I am well acquainted with the Weasley family," Voldemort interrupted softly, "Blood traitors, but more dangerous to our cause than many of my advisors believe. Your father has always underestimated Arthur Weasley. Tell me about the boy, Ronald."

Draco intended to disparage the Weasley name as had his father dozens of times in the past, but Voldemort’s comment saved him from that embarrassment. He decided to moderate his opinions.

"Weasley is not especially bright, just gets by with his scores. I hear that he is an excellent chess player, but that is the only area in which he excels. Potter and he are great mates, though they’ve had their rows. The girls tell me that he is fond of Granger, though I couldn’t say myself." Draco lifted his eyes slightly to gauge his master’s reaction, but noting none, he continued, "Of course, Potter is fond of Weasley’s younger sister, Ginny. I don’t know much about her, except that she flies well. A fine chaser. Potter and she were together, I’m told, at the end of the term, though I was working so much on my project that I saw little of them myself." Draco paused before concluding, "Is there anything specific that you would like to know, My Lord?"

Voldemort leaned forward slightly, and Draco’s skin crawled as he felt the dark lord’s gaze penetrate his skin. Neither spoke for nearly a minute, and Draco began to wonder whether he should quietly leave.

Finally Voldemort breathed in deeply, asserting, "You underestimate Potter, Draco, but for that I cannot blame you, for I have committed the same error. It is an error I must not repeat in the future." The dark lord flicked his wand at the fireplace to increase the fire, for as usual he felt chilled. "Leave me now; tell Wormtail to return."

"Yes, My Lord," Draco responded obediently, backing away two steps before he turned for the door.

Chapter 3: What Have I Done
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Chapter 3

What Have I Done

After several more days in Liverpool, Harry felt more comfortable with the city and grew to appreciate it. He enjoyed sitting in various sites to watch normal people live their daily lives. Businessmen in suits rushing up stairs into multistory buildings; young couples walking hand in hand; mothers pushing their babies in prams; teenagers not much older than he strutting along, trying in vain to impress their elders. Perhaps the city had seen better days, Harry mused, but he preferred it that way. Harry realized how much of real life he missed by being alternately holed up in Hogwarts and 4 Privet Drive.

He developed a routine of sorts. In the morning, he breakfasted in one of two restaurants near his room. Lunch would normally be purchased from a street vendor, and for supper, Harry found a different restaurant every evening. The Dursleys almost never included Harry in their infrequent excursions to restaurants, so Harry found eating in muggle eateries to be something of a cultural experience. He enjoyed his meals immensely.

Trying his best to blend in, and to hide his scar, he always wore his Liverpool FC hat, and on a lark even bought one of the football club’s red jerseys. He figured he would appear to be nothing more than a football crazy teenager, of whom millions exist throughout Britain.

The remainder of his days passed less enjoyably. Mostly he roamed the streets and parks of the metropolis, observing Liverpudlians and mulling over his predicament. He reviewed all that he knew from his "lessons" with Professor Dumbledore, only to conclude that he still understood pitifully little. He hoped to devise a plan of attack, but so far the only item on his agenda remained his upcoming meeting with his aunt in a week’s time.

Loneliness replaced the initial exhilaration of his escape. More and more he thought about Ron, Ginny and Hermione, his closest friends in the world. With so much time on his hands, he mulled over his decision to break up with Ginny following Dumbledore’s funeral. He did not want her to be involved in the mess his life had become, but he realized the futility of his gesture.

The fact of the matter became crystal clear. Being a friend of Harry Potter meant placing one’s life in peril. Ginny and he made no effort to disguise their brief courtship at Hogwarts, walking hand-in-hand openly, even kissing in public on occasion. Everyone at Hogwarts knew, even the Slytherins. Probably even Malfoy, though he had not been around much during those weeks. By now, Voldemort would know about all of his friends, Ginny included.

He desperately wished to call Hermione, but he resisted the temptation. Who knew what measures the Ministry possessed? Perhaps they had some magical means to listen to her phone, and Harry assumed that her house would be watched in the belief that he would try to meet with her. The thought of sending her an owl occurred to him, but he realized that he had no owl to send, and no idea where to find one in Liverpool. Besides, he resolved to avoid all things magical, at least for a couple of weeks. Still, he needed Hermione’s advice, and he felt lost without her.

All of these thoughts and more filled Harry’s head during his supper late in the evening, when a strange feeling snapped him out of his trance. He felt the eyes of somebody watching him, and immediately tensed. Could the Ministry have found him? Could an auror be hidden under an invisibility cloak? Slowly and casually, Harry lifted his head and glanced around the sparsely populated restaurant. In a moment he determined the source of his disquiet.

A pretty girl of about Harry’s age appeared to be staring at him. Their eyes briefly met, and Harry thought that she seemed familiar, but he broke off the contact immediately. His initial tension lessened, but he wished the girl would quit looking at him. Over the next several minutes, Harry briefly glanced in her direction, pretending not to notice her, but she continued to focus on him. He started to eat the remainder of his sandwich and chips quickly so that he could leave.

From the corner of his eye, he saw the girl stand and move towards him. Harry instinctively reached his hand down to touch his wand, just in case, but he tried to ignore her presence. Perhaps she actually had been looking elsewhere, Harry thought, and he only imagined that she stared at him. In a few seconds, he knew otherwise, for she stopped directly in front of Harry’s table.

"You’re Harry Potter, aren’t you?" she asked abruptly, though in a friendly manner. Harry looked up and for the first time had a good look at the teenage girl. Of average height, she had beautiful long wavy brown hair, almost black, which set off the lighter skin of her face. She dressed as a typical muggle teenage girl, jeans and a tank top on the warm day, over which she wore a light unzippered sweatshirt due to the temperature’s drop in the evening. In the one second it took Harry to look her over, he concluded that before him stood a very pretty girl.

Harry did not want to answer her question, so instead he asked his own, "Do I know you? You seem familiar." He tried to smile but could not be sure how it appeared to the girl.

"If you are Harry Potter from Little Whinging, then you do. Or you did." She stared pointedly at Harry’s scar, which from close up she could see more clearly through Harry’s tangle of black hair (he had removed his hat inside the restaurant). "You ARE Harry Potter. I recognize your scar."

I know this person,
Harry told himself, and he knew it to be true the more he examined her, but a name did not come to him.

Suddenly he blurted out, "We went to school together, didn’t we? I’m trying to remember your name." She opened her mouth, causing Harry to lift a hand. "Don’t tell me. Let me try to remember." The girl smiled broadly, and Harry returned a less enthusiastic grin while he racked his brain.

"MELISSA," he suddenly blurted out in a half yell, then lowering his voice, "Your name is Melissa, right? But I don’t remember your last name, I’m afraid. It’s been a long time since I attended school in Little Whinging."

"You’re right. My name is Melissa. Melissa Montgomery," she confirmed with another smile, and Harry nodded his head upon hearing her surname, "I haven’t attended school in Little Whinging for a long time either. If I recall, you left school the year before my family moved to Liverpool."

The two former classmates stared at each other for a few seconds, neither sure exactly what to do next, now that the mystery had been solved.

To break the silence, Melissa shook her head and commented, "I can’t believe we ran into each other like this. What are the odds?"

"Well, as they say, it’s a small world," Harry replied, then remembering his manners, "Why don’t you sit down?"

"OK, but just for a few minutes," she agreed, "My friends will be waiting for me." Harry glanced over to her table to see two other girls, both of whom carefully witnessed the meeting between Melissa and the stranger. His old schoolmate sat in the chair across from Harry. "You’ve changed quite a lot since I last saw you. If it wasn’t for your scar and your hair, I wouldn’t have recognized you."

"Yeah, well, the scar does set me off a bit. Always has." He tried to remember back to his muggle school days, but found that six years as a wizard at Hogwarts had largely erased those memories. He only vaguely recalled Melissa Montgomery, and surprised himself that he even knew her name.

"What are you doing here in Liverpool? You don’t live here, do you?" Melissa inquired. She sensed Harry’s unease and considered cutting their chance meeting short, but something about him peaked her curiosity. She remembered his vibrant green eyes from their younger days, but those eyes seemed to have a depth to them that she would not expect from a boy of her own age. There seemed to be nothing frivolous about him.

Harry never considered the need to invent an alibi for his presence in this city, and he tried his best to evade the question.

"Oh, I’m just here for a few days. Had a little extra time, and I always wanted to see Liverpool, the Mersey, the Beatles, and all that." He decided the best way to deflect her inquiry would be to change the subject. "I never knew that you moved to Liverpool. When did you do that?"

Their intended short conversation lasted two hours. Harry gradually fashioned a way to tell his life story in a way that did not exactly include lies. He informed her that his aunt and uncle sent him to a boarding school in Scotland, and that he preferred the school to living with his relatives. Melissa informed him that due to her father’s employment, her family moved to Liverpool from Little Whinging the year after Harry left school. Seemingly she lived a happy and normal life in her new home, and Harry could not help but notice that she adopted the Liverpudlian accent, though less pronouncedly than natives of the region.

All the while that they conversed, Harry silently scolded himself. He should not be talking with her this long. They were becoming too friendly, and he was enjoying this conversation far too much. His life did not allow for friendships with muggle girls, yet he continued to talk, enjoying every minute. Melissa seemed to be a genuinely happy person, laughing easily, but also showing genuine interest in Harry and his life. And the more Harry looked at her, the more he liked what he saw.

Melissa’s friends had long since left, and as the hour approached eleven in the evening, she informed Harry that she needed to return to her home before her parents worried. Harry nodded his understanding, and after paying for his meal and the extra drinks they consumed during their conversation, he walked her out the door to the street.

"I really enjoyed seeing you again, Harry. If you’re going to be here a few days, let’s get together. I’m on break, so I can show you around the city. It would be fun." Melissa’s mouth twitched slightly from nerves, not sure of Harry’s response, and not sure that she should be offering such a proposal to a boy she truly did not know. Sure she knew him years ago when they both attended primary school, but they had never been close friends in school, and she had no way of knowing what kind of person he had become. 

Yet she liked him and found him handsome in a funny way. Certainly Harry had grown over the years, now approaching six feet tall, but he had not filled out much, leaving him perhaps not scrawny but hardly well-built. Yet she loved his messy black hair and his penetrating green eyes. More than that, however, she felt that this boy had something inside of him that the boys she knew in Liverpool did not, that he had experienced more of life than they.

If she only knew!

Harry immediately knew that he must turn down her offer. They passed a wonderful evening together, and Harry truly appreciated the interruption to his loneliness, but he could not allow himself to become close to her. It made no sense. He would stay in Liverpool only another few days, with no intention to return. Why should he set themselves up for inevitable heartache? And he had to take great care in all of his actions. Surely the Ministry was tracking him, and maybe Voldemort too for all Harry knew. He could not put Melissa into that kind of danger. 

But he liked her. Would it be so bad to have her show him around one day? He may as well have a little fun while in town. It did not take much to convince himself to do what he wanted to do from the beginning.

"That would be wonderful," Harry responded after a brief pause, "If it’s OK with your parents, of course. I mean, you barely know me. For all you know, I could be a dangerous criminal." Melissa laughed.

"I’ll take my chances, Harry. How about tomorrow? I’m free."

Harry walked back to his room after they made arrangements to meet at noon the next day, shaking his head, all the while thinking, What have I done? What am I doing?

emus Lupin shook his head at the news. One more complication in a complicated world.

"When did he leave?" Harry’s former professor asked Arthur Weasley, the newly designated head of the Order of the Phoenix. Professor Minerva McGonagall, newly designated headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardly, also attended the meeting. Though Arthur officially led the secret organization, in reality the three of them jointly assumed leadership.

"Kingsley believes about a week ago, but he’s not part of the team trying to locate Harry, so his information is spotty," Arthur clarified, "What we do know is that Scrimgeour wants them to bring Harry in, and sooner rather than later. His disappearance has created quite a lot of turmoil." Arthur stood and moved next to the fireplace in the sitting room of the Burrow. With age, his formerly bright red hair had dulled to a reddish brown, and in recent years, his hairline began to recede. Combined with the effects of the stresses on his life on his face, Arthur appeared a decade older than his true age.

"Any theories as to why Harry would leave?" McGonagall asked dryly, showing a little irritation, "The blood protection on the house in Little Whinging would have lasted until his birthday at the end of the month. It seems strange that he would disappear in the middle of July."

Arthur shook his head, explaining, "Obviously, only Harry knows for sure. We have our theories. Harry knew that the Order had a watch on him, but we always gave him his space. Possibly he discovered that the Ministry was tracking him. The blood magic would not prevent the Ministry from acting, as we discovered with the dementor incident a couple of years back. It’s the only idea that makes any sense."

"Who was on watch for the Order? How did Harry escape his notice?" Remus asked, also with a hint of irritation. More than once Harry’s minders had failed in their duty.

"You mean ‘her notice,’" Arthur responded with a similar tone of voice, "Tonks. Can’t really blame her though. Harry had returned to the house for the evening, and she had no reason to believe that he would leave. He apparently left under his invisibility cloak."

McGonagall, dressed in her black dress and robe as usual, pursed her lips, deep in thought. Other than an extra line or two around her eyes, she appeared to be holding up well following the death of Headmaster Dumbledore.

"Why does Scrimgeour find this situation to be of such importance? " she asked, "You’d think he has bigger fish to fry."

"That we don’t know," Arthur replied, "We know that Harry and the Minister have met at least twice, once right here at the Burrow and once after Dumbledore’s funeral. We don’t know what they said, but quite clearly the meetings did not go well. Ron told me that Harry and Scrimgeour do not get along, but we don’t know more."

"Have we questioned Ron and Hermione yet?" Remus suggested, "Harry might have contacted them."

"Not yet," Arthur explained with a frown, "We only found out ourselves a couple of days ago, and I haven’t wanted to worry them, but that’s the next item on our agenda. One thing is for sure. We need to find Harry before the Ministry does."

A pudgy rat paced erratically about the bedroom of Peter Pettigrew at Sarazen Manor. He dared not let his human brain think the thoughts currently caroming about. Long before, Peter learned that Voldemort could sense his anger when he thought in his human form. But when the animagus transformed into a rat, he discovered that he could express all of his frustrations without the dark lord sensing it later.

All of the death eaters in the Manor felt frustrated at their inactivity. Voldemort informed them daily that soon they would take their leave of the mansion, yet every day nothing happened. Beyond knowing glances among them, no death eater would dream of expressing their frustration openly, and in fact they tried their best not even to think such thoughts.

Peter’s frustrations, however, derived from yet another insult-laden tongue lashing administered by his master, who for reasons unknown saved his worst tirades for Peter. The unfairness of it ate away at Peter day after day and month after month. After all, who found the dark lord’s spirit in the forests of Albania? Who performed the spells to allow his spirit to regain a physical form? Who cared for that disgusting being? Who found Bertha Jorkins? Who cut off his OWN HAND to allow the master to regain his body? Yet how did the master repay him? By treating him like dirt.

In his rat form, he fumed to his heart’s content, and barely kept his sanity. But he increasingly asked himself how much longer he could stand it.

Hermione appeared out of thin air near the River Otter, about half a mile south of Ottery St. Catchpole. More than a week passed since she received Harry’s note, yet not a word from him. Each day her anxiety level increased, but she refrained from informing anyone else about his disappearance. Surely the Ministry knew by now, and the Order of the Phoenix normally followed him too, according to what Harry told her previously. Finally her resolve broke, and she decided to confer with Ron.

She walked up the country path from the river to the Weasley residence, The Burrow. The ramshackle house had not changed a bit, in Hermione’s estimation, but she had other matters on her mind and did not give it a second thought.

From the kitchen, Molly Weasley spotted Hermione walking across the unkempt lawn, and the older witch quickly removed her apron and rushed to the side door to greet her unexpected guest.

"Hermione dear," she gushed, "What a pleasant surprise. Come in, come in." The two witches hugged briefly.

"Thank you, Mrs. Weasley," Hermione responded with a grin, "I’ve been a bit lonely, so I thought I’d visit with Ron and Ginny."

"Of course, dear," Molly reassured, "I think they are on their brooms on the quidditch pitch. Go ahead and walk on back."

Hermione felt the stiff breeze, and found it refreshing in the warm weather. After a minute she rounded the house and saw Ron and Ginny lazily throwing a quaffle back and forth, sometimes a little to the left or right or above or below. They easily maneuvered their brooms to receive the quaffle. Ginny first noticed the figure walking towards them and immediately recognized Hermione’s gait. The two Weasleys promptly tilted their brooms towards the ground, and moments later they greeted their friend.

Almost immediately, Ron and Ginny sensed that something was bothering Hermione, and she admitted as much.

"Let’s go somewhere that nobody can see or hear us. I have something to show you," she requested ominously. Ron led them to the edge of the forest, and the three entered several yards until they could no longer be seen. Hermione pulled Harry’s letter from the pocket of her robe and handed it to her red-headed friends.

Ginny opened the letter, and Ron and she read it silently. They looked up at Hermione without the expression of surprise that she expected.

"We already knew," Ron explained in response to Hermione’s confusion, "Dad told us yesterday. He asked if we knew anything about it, if we knew where Harry might be. Of course, we told him that we didn’t, which is the truth."

"Has he called you on the tellyphone?" asked Ginny hopefully. Hermione shook her head, ignoring her pure-blood friend’s mispronunciation.

"The letter doesn’t tell us anything," Ron concluded after rereading it quickly, "Harry could be anywhere."

"I know," Hermione fretted, "I thought I should tell you. I didn’t know that you already knew. If your father asked you about it, that means the Order is after Harry too. The Ministry, the Order and Voldemort. This is not good."

Harry’s three friends stared at each other silently for several seconds, as Hermione’s statement pretty much summed it up. They heard the leaves about them rustling in the breeze.

"What can we do?" asked Ginny in little more than a whisper while pulling a few hairs from her eyes, "Do you have any idea where Harry went?"

"No, I don’t," Hermione admitted, "I’ve tried to read Harry’s mind, so to speak, but there’s no way to know. I don’t think he would have gone to London; that would be too predictable and too close to the Ministry. Probably he took the train to another large city, but it could be anywhere in England or Scotland, or even Wales. I’ve been thinking and thinking, all the time, what can I do? It’s so frustrating, but all we can do it wait until we hear from him."

"And hope the Ministry doesn’t find him first," added Ron, to which Ginny and Hermione nodded their heads dejectedly.

The three walked back to the house a short time later to discover the presence of Arthur Weasley, summoned by Molly so that he could speak with Hermione. Arthur smiled genuinely at his favorite muggle-born witch from whom he had learned so much about muggle culture. After brief greetings, Hermione decided to get to the point.

"I don’t know where Harry is, Mr. Weasley," she informed him sadly, "Ron and Ginny told me that you know that he left his house. He sent me a short note about a week ago, and I haven’t heard from him since." She saw no reason to hide Harry’s short letter, so she handed it to Arthur, who took a few seconds to read it before handing it back.

"Well, that doesn’t help much," he sighed, "but I truly did not expect you to know. Harry is smarter than that."

"What can you tell us about this, Mr. Weasley?" Hermione asked, hoping to glean whatever information she could, "Why would the Ministry want to follow Harry?"

Arthur paused before answering, not sure how much he should reveal to Hermione and his children, but in the end he saw no harm in filling them in, since the Order knew so little in the first place.

"All we know is that Scrimgeour wants to bring Harry in. Arrest him and hold him. We don’t know why exactly, but you know that Harry and the Minister are not on friendly terms." Hermione had never seen Arthur more serious than at that moment, and he stared at the three teenagers for a few seconds. "The Order is trying to find him, but we have no leads, few resources, and limited information from the Ministry. An auror by the name of Harrington is in charge of locating Harry. He’s experienced and talented. Relentless. But he’s also fair and careful. We don’t think he’d hurt Harry unless he had to, but we can’t let the Ministry find him first. Once he’s under its control, there won’t be anything the Order can do."

Ron, Ginny and Hermione gazed back at Arthur with similarly serious expressions, and the four of them shared the same feeling of helplessness.

Chapter 4: Another Mess I've Created
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Chapter 4

Another Mess I’ve Created

Evan Harrington knew his way around the muggle world better than a typical pure-blood wizard. Of course, elite pure bloods would not consider Evan one of them, even though one could argue that he met the technical definition, the child of a witch and wizard. Both of his parents were half bloods, however, diminishing the purity of his blood to those that cared about such things. Evan, on the other hand, enjoyed having muggle relatives on both sides of the family. To his benefit, he developed close relationships with his muggle cousins, visiting them often in his childhood. sometimes spending as long as a month living with them.

He knew how to take a train, and having run into dead ends with his other inquiries, he returned to the Little Whinging depot. Days earlier, he discreetly questioned two employees, hoping against hope that they may remember seeing a boy meeting Potter’s description. Evan had developed special skill in suggestive spells, which generally worked wonders on unsuspecting muggles. As usual, the two female employees spoke openly in response to Evan’s questions, but as expected, they retained no memory of a boy resembling Potter. They dealt with hundreds of passengers each day, and quite reasonably they could not remember each one.

The auror returned to the station with the intention to board the train for London in order to gauge the amount of time involved and the stations in which Harry may have disembarked. Mostly Evan hoped that something would turn up, that luck would smile on him. He stepped to the ticket window and purchased a one-way passage to London. The employee punched various buttons, took Evan’s money, and a ticket emerged from a slot in the counter. Like magic, Evan chuckled to himself.

A thought occurred to him. Certainly the train company had to keep a record of the tickets sold. The employee grabbed the ticket, tore off a stub, and placed it in a small basket to the side. The basket contained a pile of similar stubs. Evan opened his eyes wide as he realized the significance of this procedure.

Casually he asked the employee, "What do you do with all those ticket stubs? There must be thousands of them." Silently, he cast a suggestive spell, which served to encourage the employee to answer openly.

"Oh yes," she responded happily, "We organize them by date and time, bind them with bands, and then place them in envelopes. Keep them in the back room over there. Every couple of weeks, someone from London collects them. We are just a small station, not as modern as the stations in London or the big cities. They do everything by computers, don’t you know. We’re still in the stone ages here in Little Whinging."

Evan thanked the woman and felt a rush of energy though his veins. After days of frustration, he finally found a lead. Changing his plans, Evan wandered away from the small ticket booth and stepped into the men’s room. Seeing nobody, he quickly donned his invisibility cloak and returned to the station, moving carefully to the back door of the small building.

"Alohomora," he whispered, and after the lock clicked, he quietly opened the door and slipped inside. From his location, he could see the back of the woman at the counter, and to his right the door to the back room. He quietly opened the door after placing a silencing spell on it in case it might squeak. All standard procedure.

The small windowless storage room contained only a small table and two filing cabinets. Evan opened various drawers, finding some of them empty and others containing envelopes. Quickly he determined that the envelopes contained the ticket stubs, each labeled by date.

"Please still be here!" he whispered to himself, hoping that the main office had not already collected the envelope from the day Harry escaped. He sighed with relief when he found the correct one and slipped it into his pocket, stealthily making his way out.

Rushing back to his office at the Ministry, Evan spread the tickets out. Fortunately for him, each stub contained the time of day, the destination, and whether it was a one-way or return ticket. He concentrated on the tickets from 7:30 pm to 10:00 pm, the time in which Harry must have arrived at the station.

What would I do in Potter’s position?
he asked himself. Quickly he determined that he would probably buy a one-way ticket. Of course a more seasoned criminal might know better, but Potter was not a criminal but merely a boy, not yet seventeen years of age. Evan pulled out the one-way tickets, finding only half a dozen from that time period. Five of them listed London as their destination. The sixth listed Liverpool.

About two dozen death eaters lined the sofas and walls of the sitting room of Sarazen Manor, their dark countenances clashing with the relative brightness of the room. Some of them had to conjure chairs, the more talented among them creating comfortably padded armchairs while others could only manage stiff wooden seats. They had just finished their suppers when unexpectedly called to the sitting room by Peter Pettigrew, on the orders of the dark lord.

The fire in the fireplace blazed, and the death eaters found the room almost stifling, but they knew of their leader’s need for warmth. They spoke little to each other, all anxious to receive direction from the great one himself, whom they seemed to see less frequently in recent weeks.

Peter led the way, opening the door from a side room and holding it while Lord Voldemort awkwardly shuffled through. The slits of his eyes shone more brightly than previously, and it seemed that the master had regained some of his energy. He flicked his wand at his leather armchair, which of course had been left unoccupied, and turned it to face his small force. The room fell silent.

"You are restless," he began abruptly, "You wish to take action. I understand your impatience, and soon you shall have your wish. After the unfortunate events of Hogwarts, I have had to rethink my strategy. We are a small group; we cannot act rashly, for we cannot afford great losses, not until our numbers increase." The soft hissing of his voice caused the skin to crawl on even the most hardened death eater.

"The death of the muggle-loving fool ruined my carefully laid plans," Voldemort continued from his chair, eyeing those responsible malevolently, "Yet I cannot deny that his absence does open possibilities that before did not exist. The public has calmed since his death and their temporary bravado is fading. Soon they will succumb to our will."

The gathered death eaters murmured their approval, thankful that finally their leader had regained his energy. They had been chomping at the bit for weeks.

"Remember our ultimate goal! Not evil, not pleasure, not revenge. Our goal is power. Through power we can mold the world to our liking, ridding it of the unworthy. Power is gained through respect, and respect is gained through fear. Wizards and witches will learn to fear Lord Voldemort again!"

Cheers of evil glee filled the chamber as his followers loudly voiced their desire to start. Perhaps Voldemort desired power, but they would enjoy their evil, pleasure and revenge along the way.

With a casual lifting of his hand, the room silenced, and Voldemort continued in the same controlled hiss, "We must remain patient, however. Our numbers are small, as I have refrained from recruitment. My previous plans did not require it, but soon we shall need a larger force. Do not expect the Ministry to lie down. Scrimgeour can be a ruthless man, one of his many admirable qualities; in fact he would have been an excellent death eater. He will be a more formidable opponent than past Ministers."

Voldemort’s audience gazed silently at his critique of the Minister of Magic, surprised at their leader’s words of praise for Rufus Scrimgeour. The old Voldemort NEVER praised anyone but himself, yet he implicitly recognized the talents of Albus Dumbledore and explicitly lauded their primary enemy.

"We have much to do," Voldemort continued, apparently not noticing the confusion on their faces, "Some of my orders will be readily understood; others will make little sense to you. Rest assured, however, that Lord Voldemort knows what he is doing. I demand and expect unwavering obedience." He paused dramatically, surveying the entire room.


"YES, MY LORD," shouted the death eaters, who all stood and bowed to their leader. Minutes later, however, their expressions of confusion returned as they left the sitting room.

"This is the Cavern Club where the Beatles first played when they were barely older than we are," Melissa Montgomery explained to Harry, who must have wondered why they bothered walking to such an ordinary looking building. She explained that the club had been torn down only to be rebuilt on the same site years later. Frankly, Harry did not care a whit about the Beatles or the Cavern Club, even though he found posters and likenesses of the Fab Four everywhere he looked. Liverpool certainly showed its pride for its favorite sons.

Yet Harry paid great attention to every word Melissa spoke over the several hours they spent walking around the Waterfront and other sections of Liverpool. He saw more examples of this type of architecture and that, none of which interested him in the least. In fact the most interesting architecture that he viewed were Melissa’s two legs emerging from her short denim skirt, a view Harry found delightfully distracting. The two teenagers managed to fill an entire afternoon and half of the evening passing the time, and Harry could not believe that they had spent nine hours together when they realized the hour and Melissa’s need to return home.

They had already finished their evening meal at a favorite restaurant of Melissa’s which overlooked the Mersey, and Harry enjoyed learning about her life in Liverpool. A perfectly normal muggle life, filled with school, friendships, conflicts and dreams. Melissa tried to draw Harry out too, but he managed to answer all of her questions about his life with ambiguous generalities.

All through the day, Harry’s nerves flared. He really liked Melissa. He REALLY liked her, and he knew that he could not allow this to proceed. She had no idea. How could he possibly consider involving her in the mess that his life had become? He had to end this today.

But he REALLY liked her. And he felt sure that she liked him too.

Across the restaurant table, Melissa studied the tension in Harry’s face and sensed his nerves. She felt nervous herself, for she definitely felt an attraction to this boy, a boy like none she had ever known before. He seemed so gentle, yet she could feel an aggression emanating from him, just below the surface. Almost dangerous. There was more to Harry Potter than met the eye, and she wanted to discover it. Yet he fended off all of her attempts to learn more about him.

"I had a wonderful day, Harry. Too bad it has to end so quickly." She smiled and moved her head so that her long brown hair shimmered in the soft lighting of the restaurant. Harry thought he had never seen anything more beautiful in his life. His stomach churned.

"You’re right. This is the most fun I’ve had in longer than you can imagine. I can’t thank you enough for showing me around." He desperately wanted to ask if they could meet again, but he remained silent. Melissa instinctively understood, but would not leave it at that.

"You’re going to be in Liverpool a few more days, right? Why don’t we get together again tomorrow? You could meet some of my friends." Melissa smiled nervously. Never had she acted in such a forward manner with a boy. In fact, though talkative and friendly, she had always acted shyly around the opposite sex. She carefully studied Harry’s reaction. His face tensed and his eyes widened in sadness.

"I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Melissa," he forced himself to answer, though he could manage little more than a whisper, "I mean I’d love to, but . . . we’re just going to make it harder. I have to leave soon, and . . . ." He could not figure out how to finish the thought and looked out over the darkening Mersey. Melissa stared at him for several seconds.

"You’re not telling me something, aren’t you?" she reasoned, "You’ve run away from home, haven’t you? You’re in trouble somehow." Her voice did not contain any element of accusation, only a desire to know Harry better.

"I guess you can say that," Harry ambiguously agreed, "I wish I could explain it all to you, but I can’t. Let’s just say that my life is extremely complicated right now. I can’t . . . I can’t allow myself to start liking a girl, and . . . I think that’s what’s happening to me right now." He turned his head a few degrees to the left and looked down at the empty glass in front of him. "It wouldn’t be fair to you, Melissa. I shouldn’t have gone with you today. It’s too dangerous, but I just couldn’t help it. You’re a very nice girl."

He could see that Melissa’s eyes glistened with unshed tears, and the brick in Harry’s stomach grew larger. Why did everything he touch turn to mud? Why could he not do at least one normal thing in his life, such as meeting a nice girl and actually going out with her? Maybe even becoming her boyfriend? Instead he worried that any girl he befriended would be used as bait by Lord Voldemort, to be tortured and killed by him and his followers. He worried terribly for Ginny and Hermione, already well known as his closest female friends. Nothing could be done to change that, but at least he could protect Melissa. He had to remain strong.

Melissa’s eyes watered when she listened to Harry’s quavering voice, and she did not want to accept that this relationship would end before it even started. In her short life, she had little luck with boys, and now that she found one that she actually liked, the door was about to slam in her face. She reached her hand across the table, and like a magnet Harry’s hand wrapped around hers, despite his best effort not to. It felt wonderfully soft and warm.

"I thought maybe we could have something, Harry," she cried softly, "but I’m not going to beg. If you can’t, then you can’t. I’m just so sorry . . . ." Tears prevented further words.

"I’m so sorry too, Melissa," Harry whispered, and he realized that tears silently streaked down his cheeks as well. Another mess I’ve created, he thought.

He had no idea that Evan Harrington stood not even ten feet away from him under his invisibility cloak, listening to every word of the heartbreaking conversation. A jaded auror he may have been, but he could not prevent a pang of sadness for the boy. Evan never had a way with women, and the few relationships in his life ended badly. It seemed Harry suffered from the same malady.

Evan arrived in Liverpool that morning, roaming the city in hopes that he might spy his quarry. Having followed Potter for several days in Little Whinging, he knew his manner of walking and his messy black hair. Finally after roaming all day, he glimpsed that messy head of hair from a distance. He managed to keep track of it, and finally neared the boy, who walked casually through the city with a pretty young girl. With so many muggles about, Evan dared not take any action yet. He decided to track Harry patiently until he returned to his room. The muggle girl seemed nice enough. No reason to mix her up in this mess.

The two sad teenagers reluctantly departed the restaurant and walked as slowly as they could to the bus stop where Melissa would board the bus back to her home. Harry felt like his head had been placed in a guillotine and that the blade would drop any second. He wanted to hold her hand, but forced both of his into his pockets, because he knew that his will already wavered. Before meeting Melissa, his loneliness had been bearable, but now the thought of returning alone to his hotel room sucked the air out of him. Melissa seemed to think similar thoughts, and the two walked silently.

Evan Harrington followed about a block behind them, now visible since he had to take off the invisibility cloak among so many people on the streets. Still, he did not worry that Potter would notice him. The boy seemed to have other problems on his mind. Poor bloke.

Finally at the bus stop, the two teens faced each other, and for the first and only time embraced, each crying freely but silently. The bus arrived, and Melissa boarded without speaking, for which Harry gave thanks, since he could not have uttered a word through his choked throat. She turned and waved. Harry returned the wave, and then the bus rolled away.

Harry stared vacantly at the rear of the bus until he could not longer track it, and he turned to look in the other direction. He had no desire to return to his hotel room, and seeing an empty bench near the bus stop, he sat down heavily. For half an hour he blankly watched cars and busses speed by and pedestrians move up and down the busy avenue.

I did the right thing,
he argued to himself. It would have only become harder had he seen her again. Accept it. I can never have a girlfriend, not until it’s over. Not until the prophecy is fulfilled, one way or the other. Once again, it all came down to Voldemort, horcruxes, the prophecy. He laughed harshly to himself when he realized that in reality, his situation had not changed a bit in the last two days. Meeting Melissa Montgomery did not have anything to do with all of that.

So why do I feel so much worse now than I did before I met her?

Eventually he stood, stretched his back, and slowly inched his way back to his room, his legs feeling like tree trunks and his stomach a vacuum. Absorbed in his sadness and self-pity, he never noticed the man following a block behind him.

"Harrington left London. We don’t know where yet, but we’re trying to find out," Arthur Weasley whispered anxiously to Kingsley Shacklebolt in a busy hall at the Ministry of Magic where both worked. Though an auror, Kingsley’s known connections with Albus Dumbledore put him on the black list in Rufus Scrimgeour’s administration, which removed him from his post with the muggle Prime Minister, and instead sentenced the auror to routine desk work.

Kingsley glanced in both directions before responding, "I’ll see what I can find out. It’s hard now. Nobody wants to talk to me anymore. They treat me like I’m a virus."

"See what you can do, Kingsley," Arthur requested, "If Harrington finds Harry first, it could be a disaster. I’ll see what I can dig up." The two men parted before their conversation would draw attention.

Arthur returned to his small office, where he handled more and more mundane matters. Clearly he had ended up on the same list as Shacklebolt, since Arthur also never hid his close relationship with Dumbledore. They needed a new source within the Ministry, someone close to the highest levels, or at least someone high up in the defense ministry where they could keep track of auror activity.

He crushed a sheet of parchment with his hand and threw it into the trash, frustration getting the better of him. Dumbledore’s death hit everyone hard, but especially Arthur, upon whom the leadership of the Order of the Phoenix fell, by nearly unanimous consent. Yet he felt so inferior. How could anyone replace Albus Dumbledore? Even with the help of Minerva and Remus, Arthur felt that he could never succeed. He wished that he could resign, but that option did not exist. One way or the other, he was in charge.

And then he had Harry Potter to complicate matters further. For one thing, he loved the boy, almost as much as his own sons, and Molly and he suffered for his safety. They also knew that in some way, Harry would be the key to defeating He Who Must Not Be Named. Dumbledore made it clear to them in virtually all of their secret meetings, emphasizing that Harry must be protected, at least until he reached the age of majority, age 17. Only a week away, and now the Order lost him. 

Once again, he muttered to himself, "We have to find Harry before Harrington does." Unfortunately, he did not like the Order’s chances.

Chapter 5: Keep Moving, Harry
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Chapter 5

Keep Moving, Harry

Harrington to Liverpool. Believes Potter there. Will bring him in if he finds him. Can’t let him escape again! Determine suitable incarceration.

Cho Chang stared incredulously at the handwritten notes of Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour. Of course, as a humble filing clerk, Cho should not have been reading anything more than necessary to file official documents, but she never could control her curiosity. A page of sloppy notes attracted her attention, and she immediately realized that the sheet of parchment accidentally made its way into the stack of documents that she needed to file.

The word "Potter" jumped off the page and caused her to review the notes more carefully. "Potter," of course, could only refer to her former boyfriend, Harry Potter. She had not thought of Harry often since she graduated from Hogwarts a few weeks earlier, and she enjoyed her internship with the Ministry, considering herself fortunate to be assigned to the Minister of Magic’s office. Of course, she had the advantage of influential parents who knew Scrimgeour personally, and she met him socially on more than one occasion during her life.

She intensely disliked the Minister. Something about him turned her stomach, and she considered him an entirely untrustworthy character. Of course, as an eighteen-year-old intern, her opinions did not matter, and Scrimgeour assumed that she would not be a security risk, having known her all of her life.

Why would Harry be in Liverpool?,
she asked herself, knowing that Harry grew up in Surrey and spent his summers there. She quickly scanned the sheet for any other information, but found nothing more related to him. Why would the Minister care? And why does he want to "bring him in?" What does "suitable incarceration" mean? Cho instinctively distrusted the Minister’s motives, and her long black hair swished as she quickly glanced side to side to make sure nobody saw her stuff the sheet of parchment into the pocket of her robe.

Evan Harrington watched Harry Potter slowly walk across the parking lot of his hotel, pull a key out of his pocket, and open the door to his room on the first floor of the two story structure. He glanced at his watch, noting the time - 11:20 pm. A light flickered from beneath the drapes covering the window of Harry’s room.

The auror did not rush to action. Instead, he surveyed the hotel and quickly devised a plan. Firstly, he needed to prevent Harry’s escape by apparation, so Evan moved to a dark area of the parking lot and carefully removed his wand from its holster, making sure that nobody saw him. He placed an anti-apparation spell on the building, and then moved towards the hotel. Instead of walking directly to Harry’s room, he took five minutes to walk around the entire building, checking the back side of Harry’s room to determine if the boy had a means of escape . Only a small window from the loo, not large enough for even a slender man to fit through.

Finally Evan decided that he could act. He knew that he needed to take great care when he entered the room. Potter would have only one means to avoid capture - violence. If half of the stories he had read about Potter could be believed, Evan could not underestimate him. The auror passed several other rooms before finally approaching Harry’s.

While Harrington prepared, Harry lay quietly on his bed, his wand in his hand. Often times at night he liked to twirl the wand in his fingers, usually absentmindedly. The initial depression of his parting with Melissa eased slightly, but he continued to feel a full measure of sadness, and even anger. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard a click from the lock on his door, and he saw the deadbolt turn open by itself.

Instantaneously, Harry recognized the alohomora spell, and instinctively he rolled off his bed away from the door. Harrington threw open the door and rushed into the room, wand thrust in front of him, intending to stun Harry.

He saw Harry’s back rolling off of the bed away from him, and Evan calmly said, "Stupefy," but at the same time, Harry excitedly shouted, "Protego." The stunner would have hit Harry’s shoulder, but the shield blocked it. Half a second later, Harry dropped out of sight behind the bed. Evan jumped to his left and into a deep crouch, wand still outstretched. Several seconds of motionless silence ensued.

"I have orders to bring you to the Ministry, Mr. Potter. I am an auror. Please believe me when I say I have no desire to do you harm. It will be better for both of us if you come in quietly."

Unseen by Harrington, Harry’s lips sneered, exposing his teeth. He remembered Dumbledore’s words to the aurors trying to arrest him in his office and decided to paraphrase.

"I have no intention to come quietly," he snarled, "The Ministry has no right to arrest me. I have committed no crime."

"You cannot apparate from here, Mr. Potter, I have seen to that. You cannot escape through the loo; the window is far too small. Please recognize the hopelessness of your position." Evan moved a foot to the side and paused a few seconds to allow the information to be absorbed. "I accuse you of nothing, Mr. Potter. That is not my role in this process. My duty is to follow orders, and my orders are to bring you in, preferably unharmed."

"I understand your position, sir," Harry answered rapidly, "but you must understand mine. I cannot allow myself to be captured. There is too much that I have to do. The fate of our world depends on it. Scrimgeour just wants me out of his way."

Harry heart pounded in his chest, and his mind raced in an attempt to devise an escape. Unfortunately, he found himself on all fours next to the bed, hardly in a position to make a move. Somehow he had to maneuver into a better position without allowing the auror a shot at him. Harrington’s heart beat faster too, though not as hard as Harry’s, due to the surprise that his initial attack failed. This would not be as easy as he hoped, and for the moment he found himself exposed.

In a matter of seconds, a thousand thoughts passed through Harry’s mind. His hopeless position reminded him of crouching behind the gravestone in the cemetery after Voldemort regained his body. Somehow he came out of that predicament, and he intended to succeed again. He could NOT allow himself to be captured. Anger mixed with fear mixed with adrenalin, and Harry rapidly devised an audacious plan. In this instance, he decided, a good offense made the best defense. He crawled silently to the foot of the bed, thankful that the auror could not see him.

Evan moved slightly too, mindful not to remain in one place, and he felt indecisive. He would rather be dealing with a seasoned death eater than a teenage boy, whose tactics would be less predictable.

Suddenly he saw the boy spring from behind the bed shouting, "Stupefy, stupefy," sending two jets of light towards him. Evan instinctively flicked his wand to a silent "Protego" spell, and the shield appeared just in time to block the two powerful stunners, knocking the auror back a step. The second it took Evan to recover prevented him from avoiding the young wizard’s next move.

Harry never paused, running straight at the auror and diving into him with all of his might. Evan reacted late and could not avoid Harry’s shoulder smashing into his abdomen, knocking him into the wall behind him. For an instant he could not breathe, and Harry pressed his advantage by throwing the larger man to the carpet and falling on top of him, trying to pry the wand out of the auror’s hand. The two struggled on the floor, each trying to control the wand of the other.

Harry’s anger and audacity caught the auror by surprise, but he quickly responded and managed to use his superior strength to push Harry off of him. The effort prevented him from casting a spell, however, and Harry rolled to his left with his wand free in his right hand.

In mid roll, Harry yelled, "Stupefy," and at such close range he could not miss his target. He saw the unknown auror’s body relax and his hand release his wand. Not trusting that he had actually succeeded in stunning the man, as soon as Harry touched the carpet, he lurched forward to grab the loose wand, whisking it to the wall. The man did not move.

The entire confrontation only took ten seconds, but Harry huffed as if he had just sprinted a mile. He gasped in a couple of deep breaths, and then tried to calm himself. He noticed that the door to his room remained open, though fortunately nobody appeared to have seen the fight. Harry quickly stood to close the door, and then slid the deadbolt shut.

Now I’ve done it!,
he thought to himself, realizing that he had just attacked and stunned an employee of the Ministry. Not just an employee, but an auror. No doubt the Ministry would consider that to be a crime, and he could be legally arrested.  What should I do now?

Obviously he needed to leave Liverpool, but for the moment he merely stared at the body slumped on the carpet next to his bed. Not sure exactly how long his stunner would last, Harry levitated the body onto the bed and with his hands straightened the man’s legs, placing his hands on his stomach.

"Incarcerous." Ropes flew out of Harry’s wand and wrapped around the wrists and ankle of the auror. Satisfied that he no longer faced any immediate danger, Harry sat for a moment in the one chair in the small hotel room, and tried to absorb all that had happened.

In the last month, he accompanied Professor Dumbledore to the cave by the coast, returned to Hogwarts only to watch helplessly as Professor Snape blasted the headmaster out of the North Tower, attended Dumbledore’s funeral, broke up with Ginny, spent a couple of argumentative weeks with the Dursleys while being followed by someone from the Ministry, left Little Whinging for Liverpool, met a muggle girl that he liked more than he cared to admit, and then stunned a Ministry auror. A rather eventful four weeks, but he felt frustrated that all of this prevented him from making any progress in his ultimate goal - destruction of Voldemort and his horcruxes.

He needed a new plan, but that would have to wait. Instead he grabbed his rucksack and started to stuff his clothes into it. First item on the new agenda was to escape again, this time more carefully. Somehow this auror managed to find him, and Harry determined that he would not make it so easy. Five minutes later, he placed the packed rucksack on the chair by the front door, glancing back at the man lying on the bed. The man began to stir, and Harry realized that soon he would wake.

Taking his wand, Harry intended to stun the auror again, but instead he waited, watching the man gradually regain consciousness. Harry decided that he would mine some information out of him while holding the upper hand.

Evan opened his eyes a few seconds later, with a terrific headache and completely disoriented. Several seconds passed before he understood why he lay on a bed in an unfamiliar room with his hands and legs bound. As his memory returned, he closed his eyes tightly and moaned.

"Sorry I had to stun you, sir," Harry apologized , shocking the auror who assumed that Harry would be long gone by now. Evan quickly regained his composure and turned his head towards the teenager. "I don’t blame you," Harry continued, "You’re just doing your job, but I have a job to do too. I can’t let Scrimgeour or anyone else stop me."

"What is it that you must do?" asked Evan from the bed. His eyes scanned as much of the room as he could in an attempt to locate his wand until he noticed Harry picking it up from the dresser.

"I’ll hold on to this for the moment," Harry informed Evan, "and what I have to do will remain my business. The real question is why is the Ministry after me? What have I done that you’ve been following me around Little Whinging and somehow found me in Liverpool? Am I really that important?"

"Apparently you are, Mr. Potter," Harrington answered from the bed. Harry had not tied him up so much that he could not sit up if he wanted, but with Harry’s wand pointed at his chest, Evan remained on his back. "I figured that you would have a better explanation than I, because as far as I’m concerned, I’ve been wasting my time for the past weeks."

"Who are you?" Harry asked, realizing that he did not even know the auror’s name, "Is anybody else after me?"

"My name is Evan Harrington, and I don’t think I need answer your second question. I’ve been an auror for over fifteen years, though you may not believe it based on my performance tonight. Quite embarrassing, if you want to know the truth."

"Pure luck," Harry responded, "I’ve had my share of it over the years, though I can’t say my luck lately has been the best."

"I saw the girl today, once I finally spotted you. She seems quite nice, very pretty," Evan commented. The two men seemingly held no animosity towards each other, feeling more like participants after a tennis match, one the victor and one the vanquished, but aware that they would face each other again.

"She is nice," Harry agreed wistfully, "but I won’t be seeing her any longer. You’re not going after her, are you?" The thought suddenly hit Harry like a brick to his head. He could not allow Melissa to become involved in his problems.

"Don’t worry, Mr. Potter," Evan assured him, "I heard enough to know that she is a muggle who doesn’t know anything about your life. No reason to waste my time. I’ll be working hard enough trying to track you down, since I assume you will be leaving soon."

Harry could not help but release a chuckle. A game. Nothing more than a game. They were playing a glorified version of hide-and-seek. He relaxed a little, believing Harrington’s statement that he would leave Melissa alone.

"There’s really no reason. She knows nothing, not even that I’m a wizard," Harry added, wanting to be extra sure that the girl would be left out of the game. Neither spoke for a few moments, and Harry decided that the time to leave had arrived. "You know that I’ll have to stun you again. I’m sorry. I’ll untie you afterwards."

Evan nodded, "I understand. At least I’ll be comfortable here. Leave your key on the dresser, and I’ll turn it in for you. I may as well get a good night sleep while I’m here. You’ll be long gone by the time I wake up." Harry continued to point his wand at Evan, but he did not appear ready to cast the spell. Evan added, "I knew your parents at Hogwarts, you know, especially your mother. I liked her. She always treated me nicely."

Harry understood what the auror meant to convey. No hard feelings. They each would do what they had to do, but not out of hatred.

"Maybe we’ll meet again under more pleasant circumstances," Harry replied kindly, for he truly could not bring himself to dislike the man. A moment later, he lifted his wand. "Stupefy."

"As we’ve discussed, we need a better source in the Ministry," explained Arthur Weasley to a special meeting of the Order of the Phoenix, "I’m out of the loop now, and so is Kingsley, though he still manages to provide some valuable information. Our main goal is to penetrate the Minister’s office itself. All of our sources during Fudge’s administration have been removed when Scrimgeour cleaned house."

Arthur’s wife, Molly Weasley passed out sheets of parchment to the dozen participants before returning to her seat. The members glanced at the list of names.

"Molly just handed you a list of all employees assigned to the Minister of Magic’s office, right down to cleaning crew and interns. We need to identify potential sources." Arthur pushed back his seat and took his sheet to the wall. "Engorgio." The list expanded ten-fold, and he stuck it to the wall so that they could all see the names. "Let’s go down the list."

Hours passed as they parsed each name, discussing the possibilities of recruitment to their cause. One by one, they crossed off almost every name as unsuitable, and they realized that Scrimgeour had carefully chosen his staff, filling it with loyalists. Only two names remained in tact, with only the six interns left to discuss.

"What exactly do interns do?" asked Molly, suffering from a terrific headache.

"Filing, mostly," Arthur explained, "and odds and ends. They would not be in a position to overhear the Minister, but they do see a lot of documents. And they are almost invisible. Nobody takes notice of them. An intern’s usefulness would be limited, but still helpful. At this point, we can’t be too choosy."

"What about Chang?" asked Lazarus Lovegood, a recently admitted member of the Order, "I know about her. Was in Luna’s house at Hogwarts. Wasn’t she Harry Potter’s girlfriend for a short time? I recall Luna saying something about that. She wouldn’t let me publish it in the Quibbler, though I wanted to."

"Yes she was," Molly replied. She considered herself the expert of the group on Harry, and certainly kept tract of his love life as best she could. In fact, her own daughter currently suffered from the effects of her recent break up from Harry. "She was Harry’s first girlfriend, though it did not last long, and I gather ended rather unpleasantly."

Kingsley Shacklebolt, a tall, bald black man, paced along the wall to stretch his legs. He knew the Chang family well, and had known Cho all of her life.

"The Changs have known Scrimgeour for many years, though I know that in private, their opinion of him is not high. Cho dislikes him. I’ve run into her a few times these last couple of weeks. She might be worth looking into. Smart girl when she wants to be, though she can be emotional."

"OK," decided Arthur, "We have to start somewhere."

I determined that Potter had in fact taken the muggle train to Liverpool upon leaving his home in Privet Drive. After my investigation, I discovered the hotel in which he stayed. Unfortunately, he left before I arrived. His destination is unknown.

Evan Harrington reviewed his brief report to his superior, knowing that the report would make its way to the Minister himself. He saw no reason to go into the details of his embarrassment in Liverpool. The fact of the matter was that Potter left that city, current location unknown. They did not need to know more.

The knowing omission of his failure certainly protected him from punishment, but he also intended to protect Potter. If he reported that the boy attacked a Ministry auror, Potter could be formally arrested and legitimately prosecuted and imprisoned. Evan did not want that. The boy had done nothing to deserve such treatment, and Evan had no intention to facilitate it.

As he folded the parchment and slipped it into an envelope, he felt strange. Never had this occurred before in his career. He did not want to succeed in this mission.

"Keep moving, Harry," he whispered under his breath, "Keep a step ahead of me."

"It’s not especially interesting work, but I am learning a lot. The Minister’s office is an extremely busy place."

Cho Chang sipped her iced tea and began to eat her lunch in the Ministry cafeteria. Across from her sat Kingsley Shacklebolt, a long-time friend of her family. She had known Kingsley her entire life; nevertheless, his invitation to meet her for lunch surprised her. Perhaps, she surmised, her parents asked him to check up on her, always being the over-protective types.

"I’m sure it will be a good experience for you, Cho," the tall, bald auror assured her, "We all have to start somewhere. My first assignment after I received my auror certification was to organize two hundred years of old files that nobody had looked at for decades. Not exactly the glamorous mission I expected. Took me a good three months."

Kingsley examined the young woman sitting across from him, newly turned eighteen years of age and a recent graduate of Hogwarts. Certainly he had a fondness for her, having held her as a baby, yet he never felt that he truly knew her. She could be overly emotional one minute and coldly calculating the next. Her beauty could not be denied. Long shimmering black hair fell down her back, perfectly framing the narrow eyes and thin nose of her face. Always concerned with her appearance, she dressed in the latest fashions, but only if they suited her. She had impeccable taste in her clothing.

"Did my parents ask you to check up on me?" Cho asked, digging into her salad, "Your invitation surprised me."

"I did promise them that I’d keep an eye on you," Kingsley admitted in his deep baritone, "but I would have done that anyway. They have a right to be worried, given the state of our world at the moment."

Cho nodded. Dumbledore’s death, seen as a great victory for Lord Voldemort, shook the magical world to its core. Everyone held their collective breaths, waiting for Voldemort’s next move. Sooner or later, the hammer would fall, and who knew what havoc would result?

"Do you see the Minister much?" asked Kingsley, innocently glancing around the crowded cafeteria to check for eavesdroppers.

"A couple of times, but not often. He usually enters the back way, and I think he has a special floo in his office." Cho also looked about the large room nervously. When she received Kingsley’s invitation, just a day after stuffing Scrimgeour’s handwritten notes into her pocket, she thought it must be fate. Who better to show it to than Kingsley, who everyone knew to be an opponent of Minister Scrimgeour. He would never turn her in for her impropriety.

"You’ve always disliked him. Do you still feel the same way?" asked Kingsley, trying to edge his way into the true purpose of this lunch.

"Dislike is not a strong enough word for it," Cho responded firmly, "I know mum and dad have known him for years, but I don’t like him at all. I don’t trust him." She shook her head in disgust, the light shimmering off of her sleek black hair.

"Neither do I," whispered Kingsley. He could not think of a subtle way to broach the subject, so he decided to dive right in. "Cho, you know that I oppose Scrimgeour, right?" The young woman nodded, and they both glanced about the cafeteria again. Kingsley spoke even softer, "Would you be willing to help us, Cho. I belong to a group which opposes Scrimgeour’s approach to the upcoming war. We have our own plans to fight You Know Who, but we need a source in his office. Our previous sources have been reassigned, and we have to know what the Ministry is up to."

Cho’s narrow eyes widened in surprise, but she did not respond. Kingsley took that to mean that he should proceed.

"We know that you can’t give us a lot of information, and we don’t want you to take a lot of risks. All we would want is for you to glance at any documents that come your way for anything that may be of interest to us. We would give you instructions of what to look for."

Cho remained silent for several seconds, and Kingsley allowed her the time to consider his request. She began to nod her head slightly, and smiled.

"I’ll do it," she declared, "and I can give you one document right now. It’s in my pocket, and I think you’ll be interested in it." She lowered her already low voice. "It’s about Harry Potter. Scrimgeour wants to arrest him."

Chapter 6: Just Walk, Don't Talk
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Chapter 6

Just Walk, Don’t Talk

Harry stepped off of the muggle train in Coventry, not having any intention of staying in the city, of which he knew nothing. Coventry merely joined the list of cities that he briefly visited in his determined effort to throw off the Ministry. He bought train tickets to random cities, but disembarked at other random towns en route. By this point, he had tired of the rails, and decided that he would take a walk in Coventry, eat a meal, and pass a few hours before continuing his flight.

Just in case, he noted an alley about a block from the train depot, and picked a spot to which he could apparate in an emergency. Walking slowly around the streets near the station, Harry’s eyes darted back and forth, expecting trouble around every corner. Every time he noticed an unusually dressed local, he wondered whether the person could possibly be a witch or wizard attempting unsuccessfully to dress like a typical muggle. More than once he imagined that he saw the tip of a wand emerging from a man’s pocket or a woman’s purse.

Two and a half days later, Harry lay on the bed of a hotel room in Sheffield, exhausted from three days of flight. Finally he sensed that the Ministry lost his trail, though he could never be certain, and despite his exhaustion, he could not sleep easily even at two in the morning. The memory of that auror bursting through his door in Liverpool remained fresh, and he half expected it to happen again at any moment.  Nevertheless, he relaxed as much as he could and considered his plight.

I can’t run from the Ministry forever. Sooner or later they’ll bump into me, and I have to find the horcruxes. Not that I have any idea where they might be, but I’ll worry about that later. Somehow I have to get Scrimgeour off my back.

He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, allowing his muscles to relax slightly more, and he could not help but see the beautiful face of Melissa Montgomery appear in his mind’s eye, her dark brown hair falling down to her shoulders.

How did I allow that to happen? I almost ruined everything just because of a girl with nice legs and a pretty face. I have to be more careful from now on.

Melissa’s face gradually transformed, her hair turning red and her face melting into that of Ginny Weasley. Harry realized that he never even thought of Ginny during his intoxicating afternoon with Melissa. He rationalized the propriety of his actions.

I did break up with Ginny. It’s not like I cheated on her.

While he accepted this, the fact that he could fall for another girl on the heels of breaking up with Ginny surprised him. Suddenly his relationship with Ginny seemed a more distant memory, and he discovered that the initial longing he felt for her after Dumbledore’s funeral had diminished.

I guess the best way to get over one girl is to fall for another and then lose her too. One mind can take only so much. Whatever you do, don’t fall for another girl! Not until it’s over.

Harry turned onto his left side and finally allowed his exhaustion to claim him. He would wake early and continue his flight, but he knew that he could not run forever. He needed a new plan.

"Liverpool!" exclaimed Arthur Weasley, "Why Liverpool?"

"One city would be as good as another," replied Minerva McGonagall. Arthur and Kingsley sat in her office at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, of which McGonagall presided as interim headmistress. Her time had been so consumed with the affairs of the school that she could only briefly devote herself to matters of the Order of the Phoenix.

"We have someone on it already," Arthur informed them, "but Scrimgeour wrote the note at least two or three days ago, so who knows what has happened. Harrington must have gone to Liverpool, but we have no further information. We are looking for him too." He shook his head from frustration. "We’re too far behind. At least we have one source in the Minister’s office, even if Chang is not privy to top secrets. It’s a start."

"Chang and Potter were romantically involved for a short time," Minerva mentioned, "I understand that it ended rather abruptly, and not on good terms."

"That’s my understanding as well," Kingsley confirmed, "but she seemed genuinely concerned for him. She goes out with the Corner boy now, and Harry of course hooked up with Ginny. I think they’ve both moved on. Cho admires him, even if she has mixed feelings."

"Let’s hope Harry’s luck holds up," sighed Arthur, "We need more time, and I don’t know if we have it."

On the afternoon of July 29th, Hermione Granger grabbed the three large plastic bags holding her purchases. She spent most of the day buying clothes, as she had grown an inch or so since her last shopping spree, and some of her clothes no longer fit well. Besides, her wardrobe needed updating.

Since she did not possess a driver’s license, she either had to walk home or to her parents’ dental office. Normally she would have walked the mile and a half to her house, but with her bundles, she decided to walk the several blocks to the office. Her parents would be closing before long, and she could ride home with them.

"I wish I could just apparate," she muttered under her breath, but she knew that someone from the Ministry may be watching her, and she determined not to do anything that would arouse suspicion. She walked a couple of blocks when suddenly her heart nearly jumped out of her throat.

"Don’t turn around, Hermione. It’s me. Don’t say anything. Just stop to rearrange your bags."

Hermione would have recognized the voice of Harry Potter anywhere, and she immediately realized that he stood next to her under his invisibility cloak. She took a step to the side of the sidewalk, setting the bags down. To all the world, it appeared that she stopped to rearrange the contents of the bags in order to carry them more comfortably.

"Don’t say anything," Harry whispered. He stood only two feet away from her, and he wished that he could embrace her for a full minute, but he had learned to act with great caution. "You’re being followed by the Ministry. Meet me tonight at eight o’clock. I know where your house is. Walk to the hotel on Oxford Street and call for a taxi. Hesitate for a moment before you get in. I’ll get in first. Take us someplace where we won’t be seen. You decide. I’ll see you then. Don’t say anything, and don’t turn around."

Hermione felt Harry leave, and despite her pounding heart, she finished repacking the shopping bags and continued on her walk to her parents’ office. After a few steps, she could not help but allow a thin smile to crease her lips. Harry had eluded capture. She could not wait for eight o’clock to arrive.

"Two dead in the first attack. One escaped. One dead in the second attack. Three escaped. The mother illegally taught the boy to apparate even though he is underage. It saved his life."

Minister Scrimgeour received the report from the Minister of Defense regarding the first attacks by Voldemort’s death eaters since Dumbledore’s funeral. In Scotland, they killed a muggle-born wizard and his elderly muggle mother, who lived with him. The wizard’s wife managed to apparate away just in time. In Wales, a pure-blood wizard died while defending his muggle-born wife and two children. The witch saved herself and her young daughter by side-along apparating, and her thirteen-year-old son managed to apparate on his own. Illegally, but of course the Ministry would not press charges. Quite the opposite.

"This proves my point, Minister," another adviser chimed in, "We need to encourage all childen to learn how to apparate. Most children over ten can learn. In case of emergency, apparation is often the only option, even if at times it may be imperfectly performed."

"I agree," Scrimgeour informed his gathered advisers, "Draft a proposal. I want it on my desk tomorrow morning." His grim expression conveyed his concern over these latest events. Voldemort left his calling card, and they could expect more. But Scrimgeour already had a response in mind to the inevitable first foray by the dark lord.

"We will not lie down in the face of this aggression," he informed the half dozen advisors in the room, his eyes hardening. "Kill three death eaters held in Azkaban. Make sure one of them is Lucius Malfoy."

Hermione opened the door to the back seat of the taxi and "accidentally" dropped her purse. A few items fell out, and she took a few seconds to collect them, keeping clear of the open door. Hoping that she waited long enough, she slid into the seat, informing the driver to take her to the train station.

After the taxi pulled out, Hermione casually reached her left hand along the seat, and she breathed a sigh of relief when she felt something there. From under the cloak, Harry slid his hand out, knowing that the driver could not see that low. Hermione grabbed it, and the two squeezed an emotional greeting, and she felt his hand tremble slightly. They did not let go until they arrived at the train depot, where again Hermione left the door open while she paid the driver, long enough for Harry to exit.

After the taxi left, she whispered, "Follow me, Harry." She walked away from the station about half a block, then slipping down an alley. Once sure that nobody could see her, she quietly asked, "Where are you?"


Hermione reached out and in a moment found Harry’s arm.

"Follow me. My parent’s office is just a couple of blocks from here." she whispered excitedly, "This is a short cut. We shouldn’t apparate because they might track it. I don’t know what the Ministry can do."

"Just walk, Hermione," the invisible Harry answered sharply, "Don’t talk."

She let go of his arm and strode forward. The alley crossed a couple of side streets before Hermione turned to the right for a block. She opened the back door, passed one room and then turned into a windowless back room of her parents’ dental office, which at 8:30 in the evening had been closed for several hours.

"Ok, Harry. We’re safe here. Take off your cloak." Harry hesitated for a moment.

"All right, but be prepared. You’re in for a shock." He slid the cape off, revealing himself, and Hermione gasped. Before her stood a tall boy with short bleached-blond hair. Only the tell-tale scar disclosed his identity.

"Harry!" she cried, a large smile on her face, and the two friends embraced fully.

"Merlin, I’m glad to see you, Hermione!" Harry exclaimed, "You’re the first familiar face I’ve seen in two weeks." He smiled as broadly as his friend, but he still trembled.

"Look at you," laughed Hermione, "I’d never recognize you except for your scar. How do you cover it?" From his belt, Harry pulled his Liverpool F.C. hat which he purchased and placed it onto his head. The two friends laughed together.

"I have a couple of hats, just in case I’m not in Liverpool country," he joked. Hermione smiled for several more moments, feeling a tremendous relief at seeing her great friend.

"We’ve been so worried for you, not knowing where you went. How are you doing?" the young witch asked, pulling Harry over to a sofa where they both sat down. Harry’s smile gradually faded, and his eyes drooped.

"It’s been tough. And lonely." He stared at Hermione, and she could feel his turmoil. "I don’t know where to start."

Harry briefly described his initial flight to Liverpool, but mentioned nothing about Melissa Montgomery. He paced the room as he recounted his brief confrontation with Evan Harrington.

"I realized how stupid I’d been, just hanging around Liverpool without even changing my appearance. So I decided this time I wouldn’t make it so easy on them. From the hotel, I walked a few blocks, then I apparated to Kings Cross in London. I traveled by train for most of the next two days. First I bought a ticket to Birmingham, but I got off in a little village, and eventually I ended up in Coventry, where I took another train to Leeds. But then I got off in Sheffield, and stayed there one night." Harry sat down again next to Hermione, who looked on sympathetically.

"To make a long story short, I’ve been bouncing around different cities and towns all over England. I can’t even remember them all now. In Sheffield, or was it Nottingham, I decided to change my appearance." He smiled as Hermione looked him over again. "I told the lady that I lost a bet and had to bleach my hair and cut it short." Hermione smiled again.

"Well, you’re here now," she concluded happily, understanding that Harry probably did not want to relive his difficult weeks in any greater detail, "but how did you find me? And why did you come here?"

"I knew what city you lived in, so I finally decided to come. I can’t hop around England forever. It wasn’t hard to find your parent’s dental office in the phone book. I needed to find your home address, but I didn’t know how. Then I thought, what would Hermione do? Go to the library, of course, so I went to the public library and found a city directory. Luckily your parents are listed. I’ve been following you around yesterday and today. That’s how I know you’ve been followed. A young woman, in her twenties. It’s been hot, so a few times she’s removed her invisibility cloak when you are out of sight. She doesn’t know that I’ve been following you too."

Hermione nodded, "I assumed that someone would be following me, even though I never saw anyone. A few times I felt like someone was watching me, if you know what I mean. I’ve been careful not to do anything suspicious." The two friends paused for a few moments, having been brought up to date. Hermione could not help but notice Harry’s nervousness and exhaustion.

"Why did I come here?" Harry repeated Hermione’s question, "Because I’ve had a LOT of time to think, and I realized that I can’t hide forever. And I’m not getting anything accomplished. I have to find and destroy the horcruxes, and I haven’t been able to do anything. I have enough problems without having to worry about the Ministry. It’s all a disaster. I don’t know what to do." His voice shook while speaking the final words.

Suddenly the enormity of the situation hit Harry like a sledge hammer, and he leaned forward, elbows on his knees and head in his hands. Hermione ran a comforting hand down his back. Harry shook his head a few times, holding back tears.

"I’m scared, Hermione. I don’t know what to do. I’m going to fail."

"You were smart to find me, Harry," Hermione reassured him while rubbing his back, "I know things appear bleak right now, but you’ve done well. It may seem like you’ve wasted your time, but you did what you had to do. We can’t let the Ministry find you. I can’t believe that you escaped that auror in Liverpool." Harry breathed deeply, regaining his composure.

"Luck, mostly. He wasn’t expecting a rugby tackle; not very wizard-like of me, I suppose. Actually Harrington is a decent bloke. Just following orders. We had a nice chat afterwards, when I had him tied up on the bed. He knew my mother at Hogwarts." Harry paused again, reliving that day in his mind. "That was one of the strangest days of my life." Hermione saw her friend reflect, and knew that something else must have happened.

"What are you thinking about, Harry?" she asked after a long pause, "There’s something else, isn’t there."

He glanced at Hermione, sad embarrassment in his eyes, and again held his head in his hands, shaking it slightly from side to side.

"I met a girl."

He left it at that and did not appear to intend to say more. Hermione wavered. Should she ask about the mystery woman, or let it be? She decided to pose one question, and if Harry did not wish to expound, she would drop it.

"Was she a muggle?" Harry nodded as best he could while still holding his head. Abruptly he stood and paced around the small room.

"I was so stupid!" he chastised himself, "I knew I couldn’t . . .  She was an old schoolmate of mine from Little Whinging. Moved to Liverpool a few years ago. I didn’t even recognize her, but she saw my scar." He moved to the corner of the room, looking at himself in a mirror, reliving that day with Melissa. "We spent the whole day together, the day Harrington found me. We liked each other right off, but I knew I couldn’t see her again, so we said goodbye that night, just an hour or so before Harrington tried to arrest me." He bowed his head. "It was hard."

"What was she like?" Hermione asked softly, "If you like her, maybe you could find her again some day. It shouldn’t be that hard, if you really like her."

Harry’s eyes glazed for a few seconds before he explained, "She’s nice. A normal, happy muggle. Very pretty. But I don’t think I can ever look for her again. Not with my life. Not with what I am." Bitterness escaped through his voice.

Hermione sensed that Harry must have truly liked this girl for him to suffer from it still. His admission surprised her, since just a few weeks earlier he had a girlfriend, Ginny Weasley. Though Hermione knew that he broke up with her after Dumbledore’s funeral, she considered that to be temporary, just until Harry’s business with Voldemort could be resolved. Harry still liked Ginny, she assumed. Doesn’t he? The fact that he so quickly found himself smitten by another girl just did not seem to fit Hermione’s assumptions regarding Harry and Ginny’s relationship. Could her assumptions be wrong?

Right or wrong, Hermione realized that Harry now more than ever needed her friendship and sympathy. She stood and moved over to her friend, grabbing his arm and turning him towards her.

"I’m so sorry, Harry. On top of everything else, that must have been terribly sad." She hugged her friend, and Harry hugged her back, and the display of friendship by Hermione almost proved too much for him. All of the stress of the past two weeks crashed down on him. The arguments with his Uncle Vernon, the escape to Liverpool, meeting and leaving Melissa, the confrontation with Evan Harrington, the week on the run all over England, the loneliness. He fought back tears, but one or two escaped and ran down his cheeks.

Hermione held him even tighter, and let her friend release his pent-up emotions. She could only imagine how difficult these past weeks had been for Harry, but she gave thanks that he came through it in one piece.

"I’m sorry, Hermione," an embarrassed Harry muttered once he regained his composure, "It’s just been so hard. I’ve been scared and lonely and confused." He released her and moved back to the leather sofa, throwing himself onto it.

"Don’t be embarrassed," Hermione comforted him, "You’ve been through a lot. It’s good to get it out." She sat down next to him, and they remained silent for a minute.

"I’m tired of running, Hermione," Harry finally expressed, breaking the silence, "There’s too much to do. We have to think of a different plan. Somehow I need to get the Ministry off my back so that I can do what I have to do, even though I don’t know what that is yet." Despairingly, he shook his head again.

"Harrington lost his trail," a relieved Arthur Weasley informed his wife after returning home after work. Though he regretted the menial work he suffered on the job, at least he returned home at more regular hours these days. All the better since he needed to devote most of his spare time to his responsibilities as head of the Order of the Phoenix. "They’re back to square one," he smiled, "Harry definitely did go to Liverpool but he left before Harrington arrived. He found his hotel, but Harry apparently left the day before. His luck is still holding up."

Ron and Ginny also sat at the dinner table and breathed a sigh of relief. They felt so helpless, knowing of Harry’s predicament and being powerless to help him.

"That’s wonderful news," Molly gushed as she ladled more stew onto Arthur’s plate, "but I’m still terribly worried. He’s out there with all of those muggles. Does he know how to deal with them?"

"Mum, Harry grew up as a muggle," Ron interjected, "and he’s had to go back home every summer. He knows well enough how to manage. What will the Order do if it can find him first? Harry needs a safe house, but we can’t use Grimmauld Place anymore."

"We’ve thought about that, Ron. You’re right about Grimmauld, with Snape’s defection and Dumbledore’s death. It’s useless to us now. But we have a few other sites that can serve the same purpose, once the necessary spells are performed. The main point now is to find Harry. Do you have any idea where he’d go?"

"No," Ginny replied. As Harry’s most recent girlfriend, presumably she would know him better than anyone, but she truly had little idea. "I think he’d try to contact Hermione before anyone else. Can’t very well come here; we already know that the Ministry has the Burrow watched day and night."

"The Ministry almost certainly is tailing Hermione too," Arthur commented, "but you may be right. We’ve told Hermione how to contact us if Harry contacts her. Muggles have invented this great contraption called a facsimile machine, or a ‘fax’ for short. You can put a letter into one of the machines, dial a number on the tellyphone, and the letter comes out on a machine on the other end. Not the actual letter, of course, but an exact copy. Apparently these machines are extremely common. Hermione told us that her parents have one in their dental office, and one of our muggle-born members put one in her house. The Ministry has no way to intercept such a message." Arthur took a gulp of his mead, shaking his head in admiration. "The things muggles can do without magic. Their ‘technology,’ as they call it, is often more magical than our magic."

"I just hope Harry stays a step ahead of this Harrington fellow," Molly worried, "They say he is an especially determined auror."

Chapter 7: I Will Not Waver
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Chapter 7

I Will Not Waver

For the first time in nearly a week, Evan Harrington relaxed on the sofa of his own home, an old farm house that he turned into a comfortable residence for a bachelor. Of course, as his status grew, his assignments took him away from home more and more, and he now almost considered the house a vacation home.

He spent the past week apparating around the United Kingdom following up on leads to the current whereabouts of Harry Potter. Each lead led nowhere, and quite clearly Potter took much greater care in his disappearance this time around. No doubt he would have traveled by train to a number of different cities, zig zagging around the country in no particular pattern. Perhaps the boy would even think to change his appearance in some way.

At this point, Harrington could not think of anything further to do. He determined that Potter apparated from Liverpool shortly after stunning him for the second time, and Harrington noted that an apparation registered at King’s Cross in London at virtually the same time. Though the Ministry could not track apparations down to a particular person nor the path of the wizard, it could determine where an apparation occurred, and Harrington assumed that the boy wisely transported himself to one of the largest train stations in Britain. Trying to track down his travel after that proved impossible.

Sooner or later, Harrington knew, Potter would either make a mistake or try to contact a friend. Already the Ministry kept tabs on the Weasleys, the Granger girl, the werewolf Lupin (though he proved difficult to track), the Longbottom boy, and other of Harry’s friends. So far nothing.

This did not disappoint Harrington in the least, but he certainly did not appreciate the pressure on him from his superiors, and indirectly from the Minister of Magic himself. The more Evan considered it, the more the whole mess made less sense. What did it matter that the Daily Prophet referred to the boy as "The Chosen One?" What danger did Potter pose to Scrimgeour personally? What did the boy mean when he said, "I have a job to do too. I can’t let Scrimgeour or anyone else stop me."?

The auror sipped on a beer, a muggle practice he learned to enjoy from his muggle cousins, and flipped the Daily Prophet onto the table in front of him. The Prophet had not reported it, but Evan heard the rumor that Scrimgeour ordered the execution of three death eaters held in Azkaban, possibly including Lucius Malfoy. If true, this constituted an extra-legal act whose only justification could be as an exercise of emergency war-time powers. A flimsy legal argument, Evan knew, and if proved true, it could cost Scrimgeour his job. Or it could make him a hero to a public eager for vengeance.

Either way, Evan knew that he better enjoy the calm while he could, because the storm would arrive soon. He wanted to find Potter, not to "bring him in," but to find out more. The boy impressed him, both in their one meeting and in his presumed actions in avoiding detection. He had that most precious ability - survival.

"Your orders have been carried out, Minister. Lucius Malfoy and two others."

Scrimgeour nodded his grey-streaked head but otherwise did not display any emotion. His Minister of Defense awaited further instructions.

"Put the word out on Knockturn Alley. As a rumor only; I don’t want them to know for sure. Let’s plant an element of uncertainty in them. They won’t know whether to believe it or not. If we bounce it around Knockturn, the news will make its way to You Know Who." Scrimgeour swivelled his chair around and stared out the enchanted window, not acknowledging the man standing on the other side of his ornately carved desk.

"Yes, Minister. I’ll take care of it." He turned around to leave, when Scrimgeour interrupted him.

"Any word on Potter?"

"None, Minister."

Scrimgeour did not reply, and the Defense Minister departed.

Harry and Hermione arranged to meet again the following evening, the night before Harry’s birthday. They decided that since the Ministry did not know Harry’s current location, Harry could give the invisibility cloak to Hermione, who could then leave her house unseen by her Ministry escort. Still under the invisibility cloak, she softly knocked on the door of Harry’s room in the small hotel where he stayed.

The door opened and closed within a second, and Hermione whipped off the cloak with a smile on her face. They briefly embraced, and Harry again appreciated the sight of a familiar face.

Prior to her arrival, Harry bought a pizza, and the two happily consumed it, and Harry commented that he had not shared a meal with anyone since his ill-fated date with Melissa Montgomery.

"Well, that was probably more enjoyable than sharing pizza with me in an hotel room," Hermione responded, "but I’ll just have to do. I’m sure she was prettier than I am."

Harry laughed and retorted, "Beggars can’t be choosers." Hermione tried her best to appear offended, but they both ended up laughing again. After a few moments, they calmed down, and Harry replied more seriously, "The truth is that I really missed you. And Ron and Ginny and everyone. I know what it’s like to feel lonely, but I never felt more lonely than last week. I feel like I just woke up from a nightmare. Oh, and you’re just as pretty as Melissa." Hermione chuckled at Harry’s last remark, which she did not believe for a moment, but she appreciated his good manners.

"I missed you too, Harry. It’s such a relief to know you’re OK," Hermione admitted, "But we need to decide what you’re going to do next. Have you thought about what I told you yesterday, about the Order."

The young wizard nodded. Hermione informed him that she could fax Arthur Weasley so that the Order would arrange a safe house for him. Harry wavered back and forth as he considered the matter during the day.

"I’m not sure about it. Maybe that would be the best, but I’m not going to submit to the Order’s control. I’m seventeen tomorrow, so nobody can tell me what to do anymore, and I have to be able to move about freely. But if they have a place where I can be safe, like Grimmauld Place was, that would be helpful." The two friends each took another bite of their meal and considered their dilemma.

"We don’t have to agree to anything yet," Hermione commented, "We can put some conditions, set our own ground rules. I know that Mr. Weasley really worried about the Ministry finding your first. I think they’ll have to agree to just about any conditions we put." Harry nodded again.

"Anyway, I can’t do anything until after tomorrow. I have to go back to Little Whinging."

"Why?" Hermione asked with a start. She assumed that Harry would never return to Little Whinging for as long as he lived. Harry informed her about having to receive the item that Dumbledore left.

"Won’t it be dangerous? Won’t they see you?"

"I doubt anybody is watching the house, but I’m not going to meet her there anyway. I’ll call her from the train station. There’s a little restaurant a block from there where she can meet me. As soon as I have it, I’ll take the next train back here. Come back tomorrow, and we can see what it is."

"Do you think this rumor is true, My Lord?" asked Severus Snape coldly. His fellow death eaters elected him to inform the dark lord of the news from the gutters of Knockturn Alley alleging that Lucius Malfoy and two other unnamed death eaters had been executed in the prison on Azkaban island.

Lord Voldemort showed no outward reaction to the news, but he failed to respond to Snape for an abnormally long time. Snape, however, long before became accustomed  to the dark lord’s unusual concept of time, and the death eater stood motionless for several minutes.

"Scrimgeour is capable of such an act," Voldemort finally opined, "but whether he actually ordered the executions is impossible to determine. He wants to shake me, to create confusion, to cause me to waver. But I will not waver, Severus; you may inform my servants as much. As you know I hope to free my servants from Azkaban, but we are not yet in a position to accomplish this. Despite the absence of dementors, Dumbledore assisted with the placement of powerful protective spells, as you are well aware. To overcome these spells would require the sacrifice of a large portion of my forces, and given their small numbers, I cannot afford such a loss."

Voldemort pulled his cape around his shoulders and remained silent for a short time, but Snape did not sense that the dark lord sought his counsel. He stood impassively and motionless. Peter Pettigrew stood silently in the corner, completely ignored.

"If Scrimgeour kills all of them in Azkaban, so be it. I shall not waver from my plans. Our next attacks shall commence tomorrow as I have already ordered. Let them know, Severus. You may leave."

Snape inclined his head forward a few inches and silently exited. Despite the outward bluster of the dark lord’s words, he sensed a hint of uncertainty and surprise in the master’s voice. Arching an eyebrow, he left to inform his fellow death eaters of their leader’s reaction to the rumor.

As he left the room, he heard the dark lord lash out at Pettigrew, "I’m cold, Wormtail, you worthless rat. Why can you not keep this room warm." Snape arched his eyebrow again.

Petunia Dursley jumped when she heard the phone ring shortly after noon on July 31st. Her nerves had been on edge all week, wondering if her nephew would in fact return on his birthday to collect the small envelope given to her by Albus Dumbledore some fifteen years earlier. Why should I care? she asked herself, It’s not my problem if Harry doesn’t show up. But she did care, feeling that her ties to the boy would not end until she handed over that envelope. Then she would be free.

About a month after Harry first arrived on her doorstep, Dumbledore briefly and secretly met with her, and insisted that she promise to give Harry the brown envelope made of parchment on his seventeenth birthday, and not a day before. Petunia wished to complete this final promise, after which she could permanently wash her hands of her sister’s son. She fulfilled her duty to raise Harry, yet despite her best efforts, she could never warm to the boy. During those first years, she reflected, she tried to treat him as her own, but something about the boy always irritated her. After a while, she gave up trying.

He was thin, Dudley was not. He was fairly handsome, Dudley was not. He was intelligent, Dudley was not. He was so much that Dudley was not, and Petunia did not allow herself to believe that the son of her wayward sister and that no-good husband of hers would ultimately turn out more successfully than her own son. Yet even she could deny it no longer. Dudley’s clashes with the law increased, and twice that summer Vernon had to bail him out of the local jail. Petunia knew that her beloved son smoked, drank and liked to raise hell, though she would never dream of admitting it out loud, and she could only imagine how else Dudley and his worthless friends amused themselves during his many hours away from home. His delinquency strained her already unhappy marriage and turned her life into a grueling marathon. She felt trapped.

Despite all of the love and excessive attention she showered on her son, Dudley turned out to be a ruffian with few redeeming qualities. Harry, on the other hand, had become a responsible young man, respectful to adults not named Vernon Dursley, and apparently successful in that deviant school of his. Dudley had been expelled from his school for his many misbehaviors, and would now attend the local secondary school until he managed to wear out his welcome there.

She hated Harry even more for turning out well, exposing her failure with her own son. Now she desired closure, to be rid of her nephew once and for all, and in a way, to be rid of Lily once and for all. She could finally close an especially long and tragic chapter of her life. The phone continued to ring until Petunia finally forced herself to answer it.


"It’s Harry. Do you have the thing you need to give me?" He spoke with a gruffness that Petunia had never heard before, and she blanched.

"Yes. Come to the house to collect it," she instructed him, trying to sound just as unpleasant.

"I can’t come to the house, Aunt Petunia. I can’t explain. Too complicated, but it’s for your own good that I don’t show up at the house. Bring it to me. I’m at the train station right now. Meet me at Tony’s. It should only take a minute, then I have to take the next train out."

Petunia could not see why she should have to leave the comfort of her home, but she wanted to finish her ordeal.

"OK, I’ll be there in twenty minutes."

Harry hung up the receiver on the phone and warily surveyed the rustic Little Whinging train depot again. He had no reason to believe that anyone from the Ministry would be watching him, yet his nerves flared the moment he set foot in his home town. Though he only left about two weeks earlier, he felt as if he had not returned home for years.

More than that, however, he woke up in a terrible mood that morning, the morning of his seventeenth birthday. All day little things irritated him that normally mattered little. At the train station in Essex, he shifted angrily while waiting in a lengthy line to purchase his ticket. He had to calm himself on the train when a couple of attention-seeking teenaged boys harassed passengers, and Harry had an almost irresistible urge to perform a little wand-work on the two punks. Must just be the stress of the past weeks, he rationalized, plus irritation at the need to return to Little Whinging at all when his aunt could have handed the item to him two weeks ago. The whole day seemed a monumental waste of time.

Great way to spend my seventeenth birthday!

He walked up to Tony’s, an Italian deli a block from the station, and ordered a sandwich and a drink. Tony’s made delicious sandwiches, which occasionally Harry would eat during his summer meanderings. Since he realized that this may be the last time he would have the opportunity to eat one, he did not pass up the chance. A small birthday present, he thought, perhaps his only one. His aunt arrived just as he finished off the last bite of his pastrami on wheat. Harry saw her step through the door but noted her confusion when she saw him. He took off his hat to reveal his scar, and Petunia recognized him despite his short blond hair.

"Why did you dye your hair, Harry?" she asked accusatorially, as if he should have asked her for permission. She wore a typical blue and white summer dress with a floppy white hat. Harry thought she looked utterly ridiculous, and he worked hard to suppress a few biting remarks.

"Lost a bet," he answered sharply, his irritation rising, "Do you have it?"

Petunia nodded, taken aback by Harry’s tone of voice. She pulled the brown envelope from her large white handbag. At least her purse matches her hat. The keys to her car remained in her hand, and clearly she did not intend to stay long. She handed the envelope to her nephew. Harry examined it briefly, recognizing the small handwriting of Professor Dumbledore.

For Harry Potter. To be opened on his seventeenth birthday.

"Thank you," Harry muttered emotionlessly to his aunt, as he concentrated on the thin envelope. He would not open it at Tony’s, but rather return to the hotel in Essex, to open it with Hermione. Harry looked up at his aunt and wondered if he would ever see her again. He hoped not.

"You’re welcome," she replied automatically, and eyed the boy’s ridiculous hair. She would not miss him for one second. "Your trunk is still in your room. Send someone for it soon. It takes up a lot of space." Harry nodded but scrunched his eyes at his aunt, clearly communicating his anger with her. Petunia flinched for a moment before twirling around and heading back to her car. He watched her for a few seconds before she passed out of sight.

Harry felt the envelope again, disappointed that he came all this way for something so thin. Finally he shrugged and made his way back to the station.

From underneath his invisibility cloak, Evan Harrington watched the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Granger, waiting for the appearance of their only daughter, Hermione. The young female auror who had been following the teenaged witch reported that Miss Granger acted strangely over the past couple of days, taking a taxi when she had not done so before and apparently not leaving her home the previous evening. According to the report, she generally went out every night, either with her parents or with her muggle friends. Since her friends could drive, often times one of them would swing by to pick her up, or she would walk the few blocks to one of her girlfriends. Perhaps it all meant nothing, but the report raised enough questions to cause Evan to make the trek to Essex. He had no other leads.

The various reports in the Potter file all agreed that Potter and Granger enjoyed an unusually close friendship, though the reports varied as to whether any romantic feelings between the two existed. Earlier published reports alleged as much, but clearly Potter and the Weasley girl openly linked up during the latter part of the previous term at Hogwarts, and as far as Evan knew, the two remained together. Nevertheless, some recent reports insisted that the relationship between Potter and Granger surpassed that of a mere friendship. When push came to shove, the analysts argued, Potter would seek out Granger rather than Weasley.

While much of this remained subject to interpretation, all of the analysts agreed that Granger was an extremely intelligent and talented witch, probably the brightest in Hogwarts and likely to be named as Head Girl if Hogwarts succeeded in opening its doors for the new term. Quite possibly Granger knew that she may be followed and managed to evade the inexperienced young auror tracking her. But why would she do such a thing?

Evan knew that he could not simply watch from afar. He needed to stay close to the girl to make sure that she did not have a secret means of leaving her home without being seen. The auror stealthily entered the back yard to the house and found a large sliding glass door which provided him with a view of the sitting room and dining room, as well as the landing of the stairs to the second floor. He sat on the ground, crossing his legs, making sure that the invisibility cloak covered him completely. Now he would wait. And think.

Thank Merlin that they don’t have a dog

He had not yet decided what he would do if he ever succeeded in finding Potter. Would his professional side ultimately prevail? Would he suppress his misgivings, perform his duty, and bring the boy in? Or would he do something else? Evan already had an idea what that "something else" might be, but he tried his best not to think about it. Did he really wish to give up all that he had worked for over the years? Would he risk everything? Would he throw it all away?

Movement inside the house rescued him from his musings, and he noticed a pretty teenaged girl with bushy, shoulder length brown hair emerge from the stairs, walk through the dining room, and then out of his view, probably into the kitchen. A minute later she returned to the dining room, taking a seat with a plate of food that Evan could not make out. Apparently she had not yet changed out of her bedclothes, loose shorts and an old white t-shirt, and Evan could not recall ever having seen hair more bushy than Miss Granger’s. She spread out a newspaper in front of her; in fact, it appeared to be the latest Daily Prophet. Evan repositioned himself, and waited.

Chapter 8: The Worst Birthday of My Life
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Chapter 8

The Worst Birthday of My Life

"We cannot allow You Know Who to prevent Hogwarts from opening this term," a dour Minerva McGonagall emphasized to Minister of Magic Scrimgeour, "The Board of Governors agrees, and we are placing numerous protections on the castle and grounds. While many of the wards created by Professor Dumbledore no longer exist, due to his unfortunate passing, we are quite confident that the new measures, many of which Dumbledore designed, will keep the castle as safe as anywhere else in Britain."

The Minister, flanked by four of his aides, sat at one end of a huge brightly polished conference table, while Headmistress McGonagall and several supportive members of the Board of Governors occupied the other. The meeting, which by chance had been scheduled for the day of Harry Potter’s birthday, allowed the Ministry to keep tabs on the transition of Hogwarts from the leadership of Dumbledore to the new headmistress. It also allowed the Minister to evaluate McGonagall, whom he knew only in passing.

McGonagall did not like to chit chat, he discovered, and never once did she smile, not even upon shaking the Minister’s hand. Her reputation for toughness preceded her, and he could certainly understand why. But he had earned the same reputation.

"Daily we receive owls from nervous parents, Headmistress, expressing deep concern for the safety of the castle and their children. While we respect the autonomy of Hogwarts, the Ministry also bears the obligation to ensure the public of its safety. Thus, our request to review the safety measures is quite reasonable. In the past, we trusted in the power and knowledge of Professor Dumbledore, but with his passing, the Ministry must assume a more active role."

McGonagall read between the lines of the Minister’s seemingly reasonable words. The Ministry would move to assert greater authority over Hogwarts, a desire doggedly denied by Dumbledore over the years, with brief interruptions. The image of Dolores Umbridge appeared in the headmistress’ mind, which provided more than enough incentive for her to resist. Yet she knew that she must act responsibly and with great skill. This no doubt would be the first of many skirmishes to come.

"Certainly we understand, Minister, and we will be more than willing to provide the Ministry with sufficient information. Of course, this serves our interests as well, as we need the support of the Ministry to encourage students to return. We expect a drop in enrolment, but we believe that with your cooperation, most students can be convinced to return."

The two leaders eyed each other with poorly-concealed concern, but neither pushed the matter for the moment. McGonagall and the Governors briefed the Minister and his aides on the measures they had taken. As the meeting neared its conclusion, Scrimgeour could not resist the urge to inquire about Hogwarts’ most famous student.

"I’ve been informed that today is the birthday of Harry Potter. Have you heard from him, Headmistress? He is well, I trust."

McGonagall anticipated this thinly disguised probe for information, and had rehearsed her response.

"Mr. Potter is not among my intimate circle of friends, Minister. I trust that he is well, but I have not seen him since the end of term."

"Of course," Scrimgeour replied innocently, "Well, give him my kindest regards if you see him."

This has to be the worst birthday of my life, and I’ve had some lousy ones!

Harry’s trip back to southern Essex provided him with additional sources of irritation. As if crowded cars and maintenance delays did not irk him enough, he felt a slight nausea in his gut. Must be a reaction to his quickly-consumed pastrami sandwich at Tony’s, he assumed, yet the nausea felt different from other instances in his life. Physically he did not feel ill, but he did not feel right either.

His mind wandered during the hours on the train, reflecting on obscure moments of his life. He remembered being picked on by Dudley and his gang at their primary school, and how powerless he felt. I wouldn’t be so powerless now, he sneered. He thought of a few good hexes that would have put an end to that, and involuntarily his lips curled into a smile at the vision of his cousin doubled over in pain. The git would have deserved it!

When he realized how violent his thoughts turned, Harry tried to refocus his mind on more appropriate topics. Inevitably, he mused on the women in his life, Ginny, Hermione and most recently Melissa Montgomery. Probably he would never again see Melissa, yet his brief encounter with her shook up his world more than he realized. Despite his break up with Ginny after Dumbledore’s funeral, deep down Harry figured that he would return to her one day, if he survived. Now he did not know what to think. He never would have believed that he could fall for another girl so quickly, but now he could not deny it.

And what about Hermione? Having seen her again after a few weeks, he realized how close he felt to her. True, they had their differences during sixth year, but Dumbledore’s death shocked all of them, and Ron, Hermione and he came together once again. During his weeks on the run, Harry found himself thinking more about Hermione than Ginny, realizing that he needed her advice and assistance. He had rarely felt happier than when he whipped off his invisibility cloak at her parents’ dental office.

As the train finally approached his destination, Harry simply wanted to escape from all of these people and return to the calm of his room where he could open Dumbledore’s envelope with Hermione.

Evan Harrington spied Hermione from outside the glass door of her backyard. She moved into and out of his view, sometimes stepping into the kitchen, other times up the stairs, but she did not leave the house all that day. The auror’s stomach growled at times as he skipped lunch and dinner, and he hoped that something would happen before long. An auror’s life consisted of hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.

Her parents arrived home from work, and he watched the three Grangers enjoy their evening meal together, conversing animatedly, laughing often. Evan could not help but think back to his childhood when he enjoyed such meals with his family. Never having married, and unlikely to at this point in his life, he felt a pang of regret that he missed out on so much of what makes life worth living. All so that he could crouch under an invisibility cloak on a hot day, observing a young witch who would hopefully lead him to a young wizard whom Evan would attempt to arrest for no discernable reason. An auror should never ask why, he learned during auror training, but he could not help himself.

Hermione would be going out in the evening, he determined, by her change of clothes prior to supper. Occasionally she passed close to the window, and he had a good look at her. Quite a pretty girl, in his opinion, not a magazine model perhaps, but attractive in her blue jeans and sleeveless white blouse. Once she fixed her bushy hair, it lay down to her shoulders quite nicely and tended to bounce harmoniously with her head. Probably would named be Head Girl, too. This girl had everything going for her.

Evan observed Hermione speaking with her mother, a taller woman with darker and straighter hair. The girl apparently took after her father. Shortly thereafter, at about 7:30 in the evening, Hermione emerged from the stairwell with her purse over her shoulder and a garment of some kind over her left arm. A moment later Evan uttered an oath as he recognized the silky sheen of an invisibility cloak.

Quickly but carefully he stood and moved towards the side door where he figured she would leave. Evan needed to position himself into a clear view of her to place the spell that would allow him to track her even under the cloak. The spell could not be cast through the glass, and he needed to act quickly to be able to perform it as soon as she put on the cloak.

The auror knew that the success of the day’s endeavor depended on his ability to cast the spell successfully without the girl seeing him. Hopefully she would wait to put on the cloak until she stepped into the side yard because the spell had to hit the cloak while on her, meaning that he needed to cast the spell as soon as she put it on; otherwise, he would not know where she stood. He grasped his wand tightly, and all of the senses of his body tensed.

Hermione in fact opened the side door, looking behind her to be sure her parents did not see her. Closing the door, she readjusted the purse on her shoulder, but then paused. Evan knew that she sensed him, as he stood only twenty feet away. She looked around suspiciously but saw nothing. Finally she turned away from Evan, opening up the cloak and in one graceful motion swished it around her shoulders and over her head.

Instantly, Evan lifted his cloak just enough to allow his wand to emerge into the open while facing Hermione’s back. Aparentum ropus, he thought silently, and a thin, barely visible white line left his wand and lightly struck the invisibility cloak. Hermione felt nothing and had no idea that the spell allowed the caster to see a shadowy image of the person under the cloak, like a faded ghost. Evan retracted his wand immediately, and felt sure that Hermione knew nothing. The young witch arranged the cloak over her and strode forward towards the street, where she assumed that her Ministry escort would be watching for her. Her real escort, however, followed her from behind, allowing Hermione to walk ahead one hundred feet or so. He could see her well enough to track her at that distance, and did not wish for her to sense him again.

In the past, Hermione had worn the invisibility cloak on a few occasions at Hogwarts, but she discovered the difficulty in maneuvering in an urban area while invisible. At all times, she needed to have an "out" where she could step to avoid other pedestrians without having to jump into the street. For an experienced auror such as Evan Harrington, this became second nature, but Hermione found the process nerve-wracking.

Fifteen minutes later, he rushed to close the gap between them as Hermione approached a small hotel, not unlike the hotel in Liverpool, Evan noted. This time he would not have the luxury to inspect the building before acting. He planned to strike immediately, when the two friends greeted each other and would have their guards down.

The hotel consisted of one long two-story building, with rooms on both sides, some facing the avenue, the others facing the opposite direction. Potter’s room apparently faced away from the street, as Hermione walked around the end of the building, stepping aside from time to time to allow unsuspecting muggles to pass by.

Hermione glanced from side to side, trying to determine if anyone followed her, but she did not appear to sense Evan at all. His nerves began to flare.

Hermione walked past five rooms, stopping at the sixth. Through the cloak, she softly rapped on the door, waiting for Harry to answer. Evan rushed into the parking lot to find a spot on the other side where he would have a clean shot at Harry when he opened the door. Two quick stupefies should do the job, and he would clean up later. Quickly checking, he spotted no muggles anywhere. Perfect.

Except that nobody opened the door. Hermione knocked again, slightly harder, but again no answer. Apparently Potter had not yet returned. Evan muttered under his breath. Now what should he do?

The shadowy figure under the invisibility cloak looked left and right and then briefly opened her purse, removing what appeared to be a key. Potter must have asked for two keys, the auror figured, giving the extra to his friend. Should he stun her as soon as she opened the door? Then he could rapidly move her inside and wait for Potter there. However, he knew that such an action would upset Potter tremendously, and he desired to avoid that if possible. By the time he finished his consideration of the situation, Hermione had already stepped through the door, closing it behind her. Evan decided to move to the other side of the parking lot, next to the back wall, to await the arrival of Harry Potter.

The auror had just situated himself when he noted a young man walking quickly around the other end of the building, as if late for an appointment. A hat pulled over his forehead prevented the auror from seeing the scar, but by now Evan recognized the gait of Harry Potter perfectly.

Harry knew that he arrived much later than expected, due to the unforeseen delays on the train, and that Hermione probably had already arrived. His abnormal irritation continued during the fifteen minute walk from the depot, but the thought of greeting his friend again and finally reading Dumbledore’s letter buoyed his spirits. He strode determinedly towards his room when from the corner of his eye he noted movement on the other side of the parking lot.

He turned to look and saw a shadowy figure crouched down by the back wall, just to the right of a parked car. Never had Harry seen such a sight. At first he believed it to be a ghost, but it seemed more substantial than that. The figure froze at Harry’s gaze. He stared even harder, and recognized the outline of a man under something. Fire ignited in his stomach.

Evan realized to his shock that Harry must have sensed him, even though he thought that he positioned himself far enough away to prevent such an occurrence. He immediately tensed. Nothing with Potter ever seemed to go as planned, and Evan’s mind worked furiously, attempting to develop a new plan.

The auror did not realize, however, that Harry could see him. As Harry approached, he slowly understood what must be happening. The man, whom he could not see clearly, had to be under an invisibility cloak, and for some unknown reason, Harry could see him, or at least the shadowy outline. With the realization came uncontrolled fury.

Harry yanked his wand from his pocket and yelled, "STUPEFY." The shocked auror automatically thought protego and dove behind the front end of the car, just avoiding the spell. A cloud of dust arose from the spot when the spell hit the thin slice of dirt between the asphalt and the wall.

"WHO ARE YOU?" Harry yelled, beside himself with rage, not caring if one hundred muggles heard him, "TAKE THAT CLOAK OFF! STUPEFY." Evan’s shock remained, but he instinctively maintained his crouch and shuffled further away from Harry, still blocked by the car.

Barely maintaining control of his emotions, Harry charged around the car while yelling, "YOU’VE GONE TOO FAR. THIS IS GOING TO STOP!"

Hermione heard Harry’s voice and rushed out of the room, wand outstretched. Harry did not notice her, and she remained mute for a moment, thinking her friend had lost his mind. Why was he yelling? And at whom?

Evan considered apparating away, but he did not like backing down from a fight, and one way or the other, he intended to end the chase today. If he fled, Potter no doubt would hit the road again, and Evan would return to square one. He scooted further along the side of the car, but he could hear Harry footsteps charging around the back of the car. Once again he placed a shield charm over himself.

The shield blocked another stunner cast by Harry, but the force of the spell knocked him off his feet. Rarely had Evan felt a spell of such power, but he had no time to dwell on the fact. He rolled to his left, away from the car, confused as to how the boy could see him. The confusion caused his feet to protrude for a moment from under the cloak so that Hermione could see them. She rushed towards the two combatants.

Harry threw another spell, which Evan avoided. Finally on his feet, he turned to return fire on Harry, casting a silent petrificus totalus in an attempt to freeze Harry so that Evan could talk to him. Instinctively sensing the spell, Harry flicked his wand to the thought of protego, and the shield blocked the spell easily.

Never had Harry cast an unspoken spell so easily, but he took no time to congratulate himself. The auror jumped over the hood of another car, avoiding the enraged young wizard’s next spell, and crouched on the other side.

"WAIT HARRY!" he finally yelled, "LET’S TALK. ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS TALK." Harry recognized the voice of Evan Harrington.

"People who want to talk don’t hide under invisibility cloaks," Harry growled, his wand pointed at the car. He considered blasting it aside with a reducto spell.

Two muggles opened the doors to their rooms to view the ruckus, and Hermione immediately understood the danger of allowing so many muggles to observe the spell casting. She quickly cast confundus charms to cause the two onlookers to turn serenely back to their rooms, no longer noticing the activities in the parking lot.

"I waited under the cloak because I didn’t think you’d be too happy to see me. But you attacked me. I didn’t attack you," Evan countered, trying to maintain his calm. "Let’s go in your room and discuss this. I want to hear you out."

"You have a job and you have a wand," Harry retorted with a sneer, "You’re just going to wait for your chance to stun me. Well, now is your chance. Come out and duel like a man!" His green eyes blazed and his arm twitched with excitement, and he desired nothing more than to have it out with the auror. The fact that Evan Harrington possessed years of auror training and experience did not bother Harry a bit.

"Be careful, Harry!" Hermione yelled, recognizing the danger that her friend did not, "Get behind a car. Take cover."

But Harry would not listen to such sound advice, remaining unprotected in the open parking lot, just as he observed Dumbledore act when dueling Voldemort at the Ministry atrium. He barely heard Hermione’s words, his anger preventing rational thought.

"Get out from behind that car or I’m going to blast it out of here," he threatened coldly, and Evan knew that he meant it.

"Wait! Listen to me," the auror demanded, "I don’t want to fight. Look, if I throw my wand out will you talk to me?" Evan shook his head as he realized what he had just offered.

The offer surprised Harry just as much and shook him out of his angry trance. Would an auror actually do that? Abandon his wand?

"Throw it out and then stand up slowly. No cloak. Come here, Hermione."

The witch approached Harry with her wand stretched towards the car behind which Evan hid. The auror still wondered why he made the offer, but somehow he knew these two teenagers would not harm him if he no longer presented a threat. And he felt determined to learn Potter’s story.

"OK, here it comes." Evan flipped the wand over the car, and it bounced a few feet to Harry’s left.

Hermione immediately muttered, "Accio wand," and Evan’s wand flew into her hand. Harry nodded his appreciation but did not take his eyes off the car. Evan grabbed the cloak, which had already fallen off of him and held it in the air. Slowly he stood, his body gradually emerging from behind the car. Both Harry and Hermione trained their wands at him. Evan held his arms outstretched, showing that he had nothing in his hands but the cloak.

Nobody made a sound, and the man stepped carefully around the car and into the open. Harry tilted his head towards his room, and Evan quickened his pace. Harry and Hermione followed behind.

She noticed another muggle who apparently had been watching, and she quickly pointed her wand at him to the word, "Obliviate." The muggle turned away not remembering why he had come around to this side of the hotel.

The two wizards and witch entered Harry’s room, and he closed the door behind him. Evan flipped the invisibility cloak onto the bed and turned around to face his captors.

Also on Harry’s birthday, Lord Voldemort side-along apparated Peter Pettigrew to a rocky ledge one hundred feet above the crashing waves of the sea. Clouds hung low over the rugged coastline, merging with the grey water such that Peter could not determine where the ocean stopped and the clouds began. His master provided him with no explanation as to why they came to this remote and dangerous place.

Instead, Voldemort withdrew his wand and calmly tapped the jagged rock wall in an intricate pattern, much as Hagrid did when he opened the wall to Diagon Alley for Harry years earlier. Similarly, the apparently solid rock suddenly opened, revealing a narrow alternate entrance to the cave that Dumbledore and Harry visited little over a month before. Peter helped his master shuffle inside, after which the rock reappeared, cloaking them in pitch darkness.

"Lumos," Voldemort muttered, pointing the light from his wand into the water before him. After a few moments he found a specific spot. "Wormtail, throw some gravel here."

Shivering from the damp cold and the eeriness of the dark cave, Peter lit his own wand and dug his silver hand into the coarse sand along the edge of the perfectly still body of water. He then underhanded the gravel along the portion of water illuminated by Voldemort’s wand. As soon as it made contact with the water, a solid wooden walkway appeared out of nowhere, leading into the center of the lake.

"Lead me." Peter helped Voldemort step up to the pier, and supported his elbow as they slowly walked the hundred yards to the small island that Harry knew so well. From the light of the two wands, Peter caught glimpses of objects in the water, and though he refused to look into the water more closely, he had a good idea what those objects might be. He recalled his master’s former fascination with inferi.

Upon reaching the island, Peter again assisted the frail Voldemort onto the uneven rocks. Several yards to their right and slightly above them stood the vessel from which Dumbledore drank the green potion only weeks before.

"Wormtail, go there. You must drink the potion, all of it.. It is the only way to gain access to the item which the potion hides and which I must reacquire. An ingenious spell of my own invention, but even I cannot undo it. You must drink all of it, though you will not want to. Rest assured that I will reward you for your loyalty." Voldemort’s voice almost contained an ounce of pity. He waved his wand briefly and conjured a silver mug, which he gave to Pettigrew.

Peter shook with fear, for he understood all too well what his master meant by the words, "You will not want to." This would be a most unpleasant experience, yet he had no means by which to avoid the task, and no death eater would ever express unwillingness to serve the dark lord. Peter climbed up towards the vessel.

"It’s empty, Master," he called back to him, the slightly raised voice echoing in the chamber. His voice could not hide his relief.

"What?" cried Voldemort, clearly surprised. Despite his physical disability, he clambered up the rocks until Peter stepped down to grab his arm. Voldemort inspected the empty container for himself. No potion. No horcrux.

"Dumbledore!" he hissed with more hatred than he had ever felt in a life filled with it. Even in death, the old fool continued to haunt him. After a few moments of thought, Voldemort understood what must have happened. How Dumbledore found the cave, he could not be sure, but his death eaters who witnessed Dumbledore’s death at the hand of Snape reported that the old man seemed in great pain, sickly, and slightly confused. Dumbledore drank the potion and took the horcrux, Slytherin’s locket. But how could he have escaped the cave and the inferi, given the effects of the potion? Even Dumbledore would have suffered them.

He had help. Potter. The boy managed to help Dumbledore out. Which led to one inescapable conclusion. Potter had the horcrux.

What about the others?

Chapter 9: Killing Begets Killing
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Chapter 9

Killing Begets Killing

"He’s dead, Draco."

"But how can you be sure? It’s just a rumor."

"I know," replied Narcissa Malfoy, "I still have some contacts within the Ministry. Scrimgeour ordered it as retribution for the dark lord’s attack. Scrimgeour will kill all of the death eaters at Azkaban if the dark lord continues." The tall blond woman did not appear especially upset by the news that her husband had been summarily executed by the Ministry, but her hands shook slightly as she spoke with her only son for the first time in months.

Voldemort allowed the meeting at Narcissa’s request, but she knew that she could not stay long. The dark lord and his followers had abandoned Sarazen Manor and now moved every few days to new locations. Voldemort had a network of safe houses and hideouts throughout Britain. On this day, they stayed in an abandoned farmhouse in southern Scotland. The dark lord and Pettigrew left for unexplained reasons, and Narcissa took the opportunity to speak frankly with her son.

"Then I will avenge his death," Draco blustered, trying to hide the pain in his heart. Though he despised his father, he also worshiped him and strove to follow in his footsteps. Yet Draco knew that he lacked his father’s intellect and abilities. The young wizard took after his mother, tough on the outside but full of nerves and indecision inside.

"You will avenge nothing!" snarled Narcissa, dressed in an expensive black silk robe, "This is not your concern. You have chosen your path, as did your father and I. It’s too late to back out. Once in the service of the dark lord, you cannot change your mind. If I had to do it over again, . . ." She dared not finish the thought.

"Why would they kill him?" Draco asked, his voice betraying his sorrow and sounding like that of a younger boy, "They already had him locked up. The Ministry didn’t have to kill him."

"Just as the dark lord does not have to do the things that he does," his mother replied coldly. "Understand your situation, Draco. I hoped to save you from it, but now I realize that I cannot. Violence begets violence, and killing begets killing." Mrs. Malfoy’s eyes widened slightly as she worked to master her emotions. After the events of Hogwarts in June, Draco’s future could not be changed. He would have to serve the dark lord, for better or worse. Probably worse. Previously she hoped that somehow Draco could avoid direct service to the dark lord, somehow stay to the periphery of Voldemort’s followers, but in her heart she knew this to be impossible. Her son faced an uncertain future. If the dark lord prevailed, hopefully Draco could establish himself in the new order. In the event of failure, the best she could hope for her son would be a life sentence in Azkaban.

Draco’s eyes narrowed as he read between the lines of his mother’s statement.

"Then I will have to lie in the bed that I’ve made. If killing begets killing, so be it!" He tried to sound as tough as the veteran death eaters with whom he spent his days, but his mother could see through the act. She frowned at the statement, but could not contradict him.

"Is he the same auror from Liverpool?"

Harry stared warily at the man while answering Hermione’s question, "Yes. Evan Harrington. Knew my parents at Hogwarts. Nice bloke, I thought. Now I’m not so sure."

"I did know your parents," Evan confirmed as he stood next to the hotel bed, "but I never claimed to be a nice bloke. Generally speaking, we aurors are not." The tall, sandy-haired auror stood erect and confidently before the younger wizard and witch, not at all acting like a captive.

Harry nodded, appreciating Evan’s forthrightness. He motioned him to sit on the armless chair next to a small round table near the drape-covered window. Evan accepted the offer, and Harry pulled out the other chair, moving it several feet away. He wanted to keep some space between them, and his wand remained in his right hand. Left with no seat, Hermione leaned against the edge of the bed, still holding Evan’s wand as well as her own. Nobody spoke for an uncomfortable period of time, until finally Harrington broke the silence.

"How could you see me?" Hermione nodded her head an inch at the question, having wondered the same thing.

"I’m just full of surprises," Harry responded flippantly, seeing no reason why he should explain anything to the auror. Besides, he did not know. "Why do you want to talk to me? What difference does it make what I tell you?" Harry still wore the jeans and black t-shirt he put on before traveling to Little Whinging. He had flung his rucksack next to the small dresser across from the bed.

Evan looked upwards for a few seconds, realizing that he truly did not have a good answer.

"I don’t know what’s going on. None of it makes any sense, and I feel like I’m being used. I can’t trust Scrimgeour, and I can see no legitimate reason why you should be confined without charge, which is what he intends to do." He paused again, realizing that his scattershot explanation did not explain himself how he wished. "Look, Harry," he continued, "I’ve broken about a dozen canons of auror ethics over the past weeks. I’ve come too far now to turn back. If they knew that I sat here today talking to you, my career would be over. I don’t want that. I like my job, but there is only so much I can accept without question."

"What do you want to know?" asked Hermione warily, "You’ve read the Daily Prophet. You know Harry’s story. Everyone does." She leaned forward slightly, eyeing the auror appraisingly.

"No, I don’t know his story," Evan disagreed, turning towards her, "Not the real story. The Prophet prints half truths at best, and I think you’re intelligent enough to know that, if what they tell me about you is correct." Evan gazed a few more seconds at Hermione before redirecting his eyes to Harry. "Let me be plain about this, Harry. I’m trying to decide whether I should help you. Whether I should abandon my oath as an auror and disobey the orders of my superiors, including the Minister of Magic himself. You don’t know me, but let me tell you, that is not an easy thing for me to consider. But I wouldn’t be here right now if I had not moved in that direction already. If you convince me, I think I can be a tremendous help to you."

"Didn’t you read my interview in the Quibbler?" an irritated Harry asked, "All of it was true. What more do you need to know?"

"I want to know why Scrimgeour wants you so badly. And I want to know why Voldemort wants you dead. There’s a lot more to the story than what’s appeared in print, " Evan surmised, "Something happened to link you and Voldemort, either back when he killed your parents or some other time. I want to know what."

"We’re connected, all right," Harry spat, pointing to his scar, "Right here. He’s made my life a living hell, and I intend to return the favor."

Hermione shivered from the venom in Harry’s voice, a tone she had never heard before. She had seen all of his moods, including his angriest moments, but never had she heard him speak like this. She sensed a difference in him from the moment they entered the hotel room, but given the stress of the moment, she could not dwell on it. With Harry’s words, she knew that something had happened to change her friend. He seemed much more aggressive now, having attacked the auror ruthlessly outside and now verbally attacking his great nemesis. Never had she heard him speak of Voldemort in such terms, as if he wanted this fight.

"So you’ve taken it upon yourself to rid the world of Lord Voldemort," commented Evan derisively, "All by yourself, too. How admirable."

"He’s NOT by himself," Hermione interrupted angrily, "and you’re right, you don’t know what the situation is." She stepped forward quickly and turned towards her friend. "I’m not sure we should tell him. This could be a trick, Harry."

But Evan’s caustic response actually encouraged Harry, who also appreciated the auror’s willingness to speak the dark lord’s name. Here sat a man not afraid to express his opinion, to tell Harry to his face how stupid he could be. Harry liked that. He had enough of everyone trying to comfort, placate and protect him.  I’m seventeen years old now. A man.

"They call me ‘The Chosen One,’ and they are right, in a sense. Voldemort chose me. We are linked, whether we like it or not, and until one of us dies, we will remain linked. That is what I’m facing, Harrington. Death or murder. Do you really want to involve yourself in that?"

Again, Harry’s tone gave Hermione shivers. She gazed at him questioningly, but he ignored her, staring intently at Evan Harrington. For his part, the auror liked what he heard and smiled.

"Death or murder? Sounds like something right up my alley," he responded casually, "but what is this link you talk about? Why should you, a seventeen-year old boy, have this responsibility?"

"You don’t have to tell him anything," Hermione interrupted sharply, taking another step forward, "Why should we trust him?" Harry looked back and forth between the two.

"I do trust him, Hermione. I’m not sure why. Look at what he’s done. Threw out his wand; put himself at our mercy. And he didn’t hassle me when I was with Melissa. I think he is a decent bloke, even if he won’t admit it."

"I don’t know, Harry. This could be a big mistake."

"Wouldn’t be the first one I’ve made," Harry retorted, his mind made up. "Make yourself comfortable, Mr. Harrington, this could take awhile."

"Three more attacks today, Minister," reported Scrimgeour’s aide, "At least people seem to be more prepared after our recent campaign regarding protective measures. The death eaters managed only one death."

Scrimgeour quickly scanned the parchment before flipping it onto his desk. The dark lord’s followers appeared to be increasing their attacks, but had not yet removed all of the stops. So far, they only attempted safe raids, apparently designed as much to prevent losses as to create terror. Yet he could not deny their success. Each day the Daily Prophet’s reports increased in hysteria, and the mail arriving to the Ministry every morning reflected it. So far, his administration had been completely unable to respond with any good news of its own. You Know Who seemed to stay two or three steps ahead of them.

"We need to strike back," the Minister growled, "Killing death eaters in Azkaban is not enough." He needed a new plan, he realized, something that would truly make a difference in the struggle. As he commonly did, he swung his chair around to stare at the snow-covered mountains outside the enchanted window, allowing the aide to leave silently.

He sat motionless for several minutes when finally his lips curled up slightly into a smile.

Ron Weasley closed the door of the shed after returning Ginny and his brooms following their daily workout on the quidditch pitch. Past nine in the evening, the brightness of the day had just begun to dim. Every day passed more or less identically, and the brother and sister never experienced a more boring summer.

In past years, the Weasley family took trips, visited relatives, entertained friends, and enjoyed shopping excursions. This summer they enjoyed none of those things, afraid to leave the perceived safety of the Burrow and the nearby town of Ottery St. Catchpole. With all of their older siblings gone, Ron and Ginny ended up spending much of their time together, whether they liked it or not.

Intertwined with their boredom, worry over the state of their best friend, Harry Potter, always existed just below the surface. Though they spoke of it little, whenever their father returned home from work at the Ministry, they asked for any news. Every day he informed them that no news was good news, and that Harry seemed to have eluded Evan Harrington for the moment. Unfortunately, the Order of the Phoenix had no idea of Harry’s location either.

Returning to the tottering house after tossing a couple of gnomes, Ron and Ginny carried a pitcher of pumpkin juice and a new bottle of olives, the muggle kind, up to Ron’s room for a mid-evening snack. Mr. Weasley years before developed a love of muggle olives, and soon his family followed suit. He purchased several bottles just a few days before.

"I’m so bored, I could eat my shoe," Ginny grumbled, "I wouldn’t even mind cleaning Grimmauld Place again. At least we were doing something, and Harry and Hermione were there. No offense intended." She began to run a brush through her wind-blown red hair.

"No offense taken," Ron replied after draining a glass of juice, "and I know what you mean. I never thought I’d miss going to that grimy old mansion. We did have some fun there, and there are a lot of interesting things lying around." He made no effort to fix his tangled hair.

Ginny grabbed the bottle of olives and tried to open it unsuccessfully. She kept trying, but the seal on the bottle proved too strong for her to break with her hands.

"Some of those things are a little too interesting, if you ask me," Ginny remarked while straining to open the bottle. Finally she gave up. "Can you open this for me, Ron?"

"Sure," he replied, taking the bottle from her. "Grimmauld Place used to have a lot of activity, what with all of the Order meetings, and people coming and going all the time - Tonks, Dumbledore, Lupin, even Hagrid. And of course Fred and George always livened things up. I wish they could come around here more often." Ron’s large hands gripped the bottle of olives, but the especially tight seal could not be broken by brute force. After he grunted a few times, he decided to resort to magic.

"Those muggles sure know how to seal a bottle," Ron commented as he stood up to retrieve his wand from the top of his dresser, "It’s almost as bad as that locket we couldn’t open at Grimmauld Place a couple of years ago. Remember?"

"I remember," Ginny responded as she threw herself onto the spare bed in Ron’s room, the bed in which Harry slept when staying at the Burrow, "That's one of those ‘too-interesting’ items I mentioned. What’s wrong?"

Ron seemed not to have heard a word his sister spoke as he stood frozen next to the dresser, his wand hanging limply from his hand, the bottle of olives forgotten. This is huge, he thought, Why didn’t we think about that before?

"What is it?" Ginny asked again, slightly concerned about her brother, "What’s so strange about the bottle of olives?"

"I have to talk to Harry," Ron muttered urgently to himself, "and Hermione." He turned towards his door as if he meant to leave right at that moment until he realized that he did not know where to find his friends.

Ginny scrunched her eyes in confusion, commenting sarcastically, "I’d like to talk to Harry too, but if you haven’t noticed, he’s been missing for the last two weeks. Today’s his birthday, you know. Who knows what he’s doing or where he is?"

"I know, I know," Ron sputtered, his frustration showing, "but this is important. I just thought of it, and he needs to know right away." The tall red head turned towards the window of his room as if that would somehow direct him to Harry’s whereabouts.

"You can send an owl to Hermione," Ginny offered helpfully, noting the changed demeanor in her brother. Rarely did he display such urgency.

"But she doesn’t want any owls, remember? The Ministry is probably watching her just like it’s watching us. It may be intercepting her mail. I don’t know what to do."

"She gave me the number for her telephone and told me how to do it. Really it’s quite simple. If it’s that important, we could use the telephone in town," Ginny suggested. She had taken quite an interest in Ron’s sudden change, the first interesting thing to have happened in days. A walk into town to make a telephone call to Hermione seemed like a lot of fun compared to their recent days.

Ron did not need to be told twice. They told their mother of their plan to walk into town, as they did from time to time to relieve their boredom, but Molly would not allow it so late in the evening. They would have to wait for tomorrow.

"Dumbledore!" hissed Lord Voldemort, causing Peter Pettigrew to shiver. "That fool has caused me enough problems. Perhaps his death truly was for the best."

Pettigrew had assisted his master to the ruins of an old cabin not far from Little Hangleton. Voldemort waived his wand a number of times, apparently removing various wards from the site, but Peter noted with trepidation the concern in the dark lord’s manner. Rarely had he seen him in such an agitated state of mind.

Once he completed removal of the wards, Voldemort rushed forward as quickly as he could, but already he noted that the site had been disturbed from that day decades before when he hid the ring of Marvolo Gaunt, after having converted it into a horcrux. No ring could be found, and he knew only one man could have overcome the wards.

Dumbledore had the ring, which meant that the meddling old fool must have destroyed it. Voldemort distractedly shuffled around the wreckage of the old cabin, ignorant of the presence of his servant. Pettigrew for his part knew to hold his tongue and remained on the margins of the cabin site.

Voldemort already knew that Potter unwittingly destroyed the diary that he, then known as Tom Riddle, created while still a student at Hogwarts. Lucius Malfoy informed him of the events in the Chamber of Secrets, and though Malfoy did not know all of the facts, he knew enough for Voldemort to deduce that one horcrux had been destroyed. All the more reason for him to have created six. Voldemort assumed, however, that the other five horcruxes remained in tact.

Now he knew differently. Somehow Albus Dumbledore managed to locate the ring and the locket. Presumably, the old man destroyed one or both of them, leaving only three horcruxes remaining. Voldemort could only hope that Dumbledore had not yet discovered these, and the dark lord realized that his highest priority must now be to recover these items and to place them under new protections. He gazed into the distance, recognizing the difficulty of this task. No longer could he avoid the wards and protections of Hogwarts Castle.

"Come, Wormtail," he finally ordered decisively, "We have much work ahead of us."

Evan Harrington’s shoes lay a foot next to Harry’s, after both men removed them during the course of their long conversation. The auror learned all of the important events of Harry’s life, from destruction of the Philosopher’s Stone to discovery of the horcruxes. As each element of the story complicated the situation, a more comfortable Harrington often stood to pace the small hotel room. Ever vigilant and still not completely trusting the man, Hermione made sure to keep her distance from him and to guard his wand. Even Hermione, however, began to trust the auror as the hours passed. He asked intelligent and strategic questions.

Hermione realized that she needed to return home soon in order not to worry her parents, but she did not feel comfortable in leaving Harry alone with a stranger from the Ministry.

"How much does Voldemort know about this?" the auror asked after satisfying himself that he had a good understanding of the facts. He had returned to his seat, but Harry replaced him in pacing the beige carpet.

"What do you mean? About what?"

"To begin with, the horcruxes."

Harry and Hermione had never discussed this point in any depth, but they could see that Harrington considered it to be of utmost importance.

"Well, he must know about the diary," Harry opined, "because I gave the ruined book back to Lucius Malfoy with a sock around it." In response to Evan’s confused expression, Harry briefly described his spur-of-the-moment ploy to free the house elf, Dobby.

"OK, I agree with you. We must assume that Voldemort is aware of the diary. What of the others?"

"I don’t know," Harry admitted, "as far as I know, only Dumbledore and I knew about them, and Ron and Hermione after I told them." He paused for a moment before adding quietly, "And I told Ginny." He looked away from Hermione, as he knew that she thought Ginny did not know.

Hermione felt taken aback by Harry’s admission. Of course, she should not have found it strange that Harry would confide such things with his girlfriend, yet she could not suppress a twinge of irritation that Harry clued Ginny in on the prophecy and the horcruxes without consulting with Ron and her first.

Of course, sixth year had not been their closest term at Hogwarts, the blame for which lay largely at her feet. Ron and she had not taken Harry’s accusations against Draco Malfoy seriously, and she felt ashamed how she allowed her feud with Ron to reach such ridiculously petty levels. In a sense, they had driven Harry away from them, and naturally he would gravitate towards Ginny.

But Ginny had not participated in their greatest adventures, except for the debacle at the Ministry. She had not saved Sirius Black’s life, rescued the Philosopher’s Stone, helped Harry survive the tasks of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Why should some late-comer like Ginny be allowed access to such vital and secret information? Hermione squinted her eyes at Harry’s back, and Evan Harrington noticed the reactions of the two friends. Of course, the relationship between the two teens remained none of his business, and he refrained from comment.

"Let’s think this through," he instructed, "The strangest thing that I heard tonight was Dumbledore not killing Voldemort when he had the chance at the Ministry. You’re sure he could have killed him?"

"One hundred percent," Harry asserted, "Dumbledore whipped Voldemort’s tail and had him dead to rights. Then he lifted up his wand, quite intentionally. I couldn’t understand it at the time, but of course now we know about the horcruxes. Dumbledore knew he couldn’t kill him, and he knew that it is my destiny."

Evan paced, deep in thought, before he spun around and exclaimed, "Of course, of course. You just said it. We know about the horcruxes, but Voldemort knows too. Don’t you think he’ll wonder why Dumbledore didn’t finish him off when he had the chance? It’s not like Dumbledore has never killed before; he killed several wizards when he fought Grindelwald. I don’t pretend to know Dumbledore well, but I think it’s fair to say that he would have killed Voldemort if that would have put an end to him." He walked nervously as the consequences of his logic became clear.

Harry and Hermione still felt uncomfortable from his admission about Ginny, and they fell a couple of steps behind Evan’s thought process.

"What are you trying to say?" asked Hermione, "Voldemort probably thinks Dumbledore is just a weak old man who doesn’t want to kill anymore."

But Harry suddenly understood the auror’s point. In fact, he not only understood it, he felt it; he knew it to be true.

"Voldemort knows," he muttered under his breath, then spoke it more loudly, "Voldemort knows. He knows that Dumbledore knew about the horcruxes." He paused a moment to allow the next deduction to form in his mind. "He’ll check on them, and then he’ll discover that the ring and the locket are gone."

Hermione’s eyes widened as she listened, for she knew that Evan and Harry almost certainly deduced correctly.

"Voldemort will try to safeguard the other three horcruxes," she concluded, "He’ll want to protect them."

Evan nodded and added, "He’ll think that all three are destroyed. He doesn’t know about the fake locket."

Harry and Hermione turned towards each other, the awkwardness of the mention of Ginny momentarily forgotten. Their eyes conveyed unspoken understanding at the ramifications of their logic. Harry’s destiny had just become much harder.

Forgotten in his rucksack rested the unread letter of Albus Dumbledore.

Chapter 10: A New Direction
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Chapter 10

A New Direction

"RON! What a surprise! Ginny must have told you how to use the telephone. . . . . . I can hear you fine. You don’t have to speak any louder. . . . . . Well, I think it’s brilliant that you called. What did you need to tell me?. . . . . Well, I don’t think I can go to the Burrow today. Is it really that important?. . . . . No, you’re right, if it’s that important, you shouldn’t tell me over the phone. Look, I’ll see what I can do. If I can’t go today, I’ll make it tomorrow morning for sure. Early. OK? . . . . . Great. We’ll talk soon then. I need to leave now; I’m meeting . . . a friend in a few minutes. Say ‘hi’ to Ginny for me."

Harry discovered one huge benefit of his rash decision to trust Evan Harrington - he no longer needed to take such care in hiding from the Ministry. Evan informed him that no other aurors could be spared for this English county, and that Evan operated alone. Thus Harry would be able to walk around town freely and could meet with Hermione openly. The auror apparated back to his house late the previous evening, and Hermione apparated back to her home, anxious that her parents would be worried.

In the stress of the evening, Harry noted, she had not even wished him a happy birthday, but he could not blame her; he had forgotten about it himself. Once left alone in his room, he quickly showered and fell onto his bed, exhausted from his trip to Little Whinging and the confrontation with Evan Harrington. He slept better than he had in weeks.

Understandably, he failed to respond immediately to the rapping on the door to his room. When the knocking resumed, he rolled his head on his pillow and kick a bare foot from under the sheet. Still the fact that somebody stood outside his door did not register.

"Harry!" called a familiar female voice, "Let me in!"

The sound of Hermione’s voice finally roused his consciousness enough to cause him to roll over.

"Wake up, Harry," his friend repeated, knocking on the door again, "It’s nearly nine o’clock."

"Ah’ righ’, wait a secon’," he finally managed to croak, and he swung his legs over the side of the bed, pausing a moment to stretch his arms before stepping to the door.

"Good morning," Hermione greeted him brightly, and she intended to greet him with a hug, but she froze when she took a look at Harry. He slept only in a pair of old black shorts, exposing his thin white torso and long legs covered with a thin layer of black hair. Hermione had never glimpsed Harry in such a state of undress, and her cheeks involuntarily reddened. After Harry opened the door further, she had to step through, and she could only imagine what her parents would think if they knew that their only daughter had just entered a hotel room with a handsome seventeen-year-old boy clad only in a pair of shorts.

"Sorry I didn’t answer, Hermione," Harry apologized while stretching his neck, "I haven’t slept that well in a month at least." He returned to the edge of his bed, leaning against it while rubbing both hands over his face.

"No, I’m sorry, Harry," his friend countered, "I should have waited another hour, but I thought you’d be up, and I realized that I didn’t even wish you happy birthday last night. When I went to bed, it dawned on me, and I couldn’t sleep for an hour. I hope you’ll forgive me."

Hermione’s apology struck Harry as the funniest thing he had heard in ages, that with all of the problems facing him, he might actually feel offended by her neglect of his birthday. He smiled broadly, and Hermione could not help but laugh at how goofy he looked, seated in his shorts on the edge of the bed, his uncombed short blond hair pointing in a thousand directions.

Her laughter immediately ceased, however, when Harry stood and stepped towards her, his arms opened. Before she could react, Harry had his arms around her in a friendly embrace. Automatically, Hermione wrapped her arms around his back and found her face pressed against the bare skin of Harry’s shoulder.

If Harry felt uncomfortable by his display of skin, he did not show it, and in fact over the past weeks he had spent hours dressed in exactly the same manner while passing time alone watching television in various cheap, non-air conditioned hotel rooms around Britain. He released Hermione from the embrace, the broad smile still on his face.

"Did you really think I’d care about that? After everything that happened yesterday?"

Hermione averted her eyes and returned an embarrassed smile, answering, "No, I didn’t think you’d mind, but I felt badly about it anyway. You should have had a huge party for your seventeenth birthday, and then I didn’t even say, ‘Happy Birthday.’ " She turned away from her nearly naked friend. "Why don’t you get dressed, and I’ll take you out for breakfast. And then I’m going to buy you something for your birthday. Now that Mr. Harrington is not following us, we can actually walk around town together."

Harry expressed his agreement, and he moved to the white dresser to pull out a t-shirt, then turning around to look for a pair of pants, which he had thrown haphazardly over a white padded armchair to the left of his bed, just next to the bathroom door. While he gathered his clothing, Hermione could not help but stare at the body of the young man. To the best of her recollection, she had only seen Harry shirtless once, briefly at the Tri-Wizard Tournament a couple of years before, when he emerged from the frigid waters of the lake next to Hogwarts Castle. But immediately tournament officials wrapped a towel around him, and in any event, her worry over his well-being prevented her from taking much notice.

This time fate afforded her a full minute to study Harry’s damaged torso, marked with scars visible on his back, side and stomach. She wondered what caused them all, and she almost asked, finally deciding that she should not. Of course, the dragon gashed him; that would be one. And the basilisk. Pettigrew stabbed him in the graveyard. And how many quidditch injuries had he suffered? Mercifully, Harry stepped into the loo, closing the door behind him, allowing Hermione to relax.

She half made Harry’s bed so that it would not look so messy when the maid cleaned the room and then sat down to wait. Strange, she thought. Harry did not seem to care in the least about his state of undress. Certainly in the past, he would have slipped on a shirt before answering the door, or at least covered up right away thereafter. Then again, she could not know for sure, having never faced the situation before. Still, she believed that she knew Harry as well as anyone, and his behavior yesterday and today just did not seem consistent with her best friend of six years, with whom she spent thousands of hours. Could she really have misunderstood Harry so fundamentally?

The door to the loo opened, and Harry emerged fully dressed, to Hermione’s relief. His arrival snapped her out of her musings, and moments later they left the hotel room to eat their breakfast.

"Keep quiet! Last time you caused such a racket, they apparated away. We need victims this time, understand?"

Draco Malfoy nodded mutely as he followed behind the masked Bellatrix Lestrange and next to another death eater by the name of Alexander, a tall, lean man whose surname Draco never learned. The tiny patrol in Voldemort’s small army crept towards a farmhouse in rural northern England, their target a family of four. The blood-traitor witch married a muggle, producing two tainted offspring. According to the philosophy of the dark lord, none of them deserved to live.

"Remember, attack the woman first. The man is a muggle and cannot apparate or protect his children. Kill the woman immediately. We can have some fun with the muggle." Excited by the thrill of the kill, Bellatrix spewed out the instructions. She lived for this.

The three death eaters, clad entirely in black and virtually invisible in the darkness of the night, approached the old wooden structure from the rear. No light could be seen through the windows.

Alexander removed his wand and whispered, "Alohomora," pointing at the lock on the back door. Suddenly the three intruders flew through the air backwards, blasted unsuspectedly by a hidden jinx. The house never existed; it disappeared, and in its place an old abandoned shack appeared. Someone previously performed some highly advanced magic on the hovel, causing it to take on the appearance of an old farm house, and jinxing it to react to any form of magic performed on it.

Through a stroke of good fortune, Draco crashed to the earth between two trees, partially padded by matted leaves. Even still, he badly bruised his left shoulder and ribs, and he instantly curled up in pain, moaning. A minute passed before he gathered enough composure to seek out his companions. He realized that he lay on the ground in complete silence.

He sat up and took stock of his physical condition, shaking from fear. How did this happen? Were not death eaters always successful? Obviously not, for this counted as his second consecutive failure. The dark lord most certainly expressed his displeasure the previous evening. How would he react this time? Draco shook even harder. He touched his hand to the left side of his face, and realized for the first time that cuts and scratches covered it.

To his right he glimpsed the slumped outline of the man, Alexander, either unconscious or dead. Draco searched for his aunt, Bellatrix, but did not immediately locate her. He crawled forward a few feet and to his right barely saw what appeared to be a boot. Sure enough, he found her foot and moved his way to her head. Again, either unconscious or dead; Draco could not be sure in the dark, but he refrained from lighting his wand, unsure of other potential dangers in the woods.

Still in considerable pain, he dragged himself to the tree next to his aunt, and leaned against it, staring back at the dark outline of the shack. This should not be happening, he argued to himself, people should fear us. They should not be fighting back like this. Yet every day, the death eaters returned from their terrorist missions with mixed success. The Ministry’s efforts to educate the public in means of protection had shown results. Many households designated secret keepers for their homes, meaning that the death eaters could not locate their targets. Other houses had been protected by various forms of protective wards, or in this case, jinxes. Draco’s short life as a death eater so far had been a huge disappointment.

What should I do now?,
he considered, as he glanced back at his unconscious (perhaps deceased) partners. He came to realize that for the first, and perhaps only time, he had the opportunity to escape. Why should he remain with the dark lord? All of them agreed that the master had been acting erratically lately, completely distracted by something that he would not relate to his followers. Every night, the death eaters attempted to create terror throughout the country, setting off the dark mark whenever possible, yet it all seemed rather pointless. The dark lord appeared to have no goal in mind, no overall strategy to defeat the Ministry and to assume control of Britain. After all, that should be what they all desired so that they could then rid the magical world of the impure.

I never wanted to be a part of this. I never had a choice.
But he remembered his mother’s words: You have chosen your path, as did your father and I. It’s too late to back out. Once in the service of the dark lord, you cannot change your mind.

Should he return, or should he flee? Draco pushed himself up with difficulty, but managed to stand, one arm leaning on the trunk of a tree. One way or the other, he had to decide. Now.

"Ron called you?" Harry asked incredulously, "by telephone?"

"Yep, and he didn’t even shout. At Hogwarts, I explained to Ginny how to place a call and told her she didn’t have to scream," Hermione explained as the two friends enjoyed a late breakfast at a small restaurant not far from Harry’s hotel.

"What did he say?"

"He wanted me to apparate to the Burrow today. Says it’s something important. He sounded a little strange. It’s hard to explain, but he seemed extra excited for some reason."

Harry munched on his toast, commenting flippantly, "He probably wants to declare his undying love for you." He took another bite, not finding anything unusual about his statement.

Hermione’s insides, however, nearly jumped right out of her. Did Harry say what she thought he did? Did he break an unspoken but inviolate rule among the three great friends? Never did they speak of romantic feelings that might exist among them. Why would Harry say such a thing? Did he not realize how bringing this into the open might permanently damage the special friendship that the three of them enjoyed? Apparently not, for Harry merely took a sip of orange juice, and continued to dig into his scrambled eggs.

"What did you say?" she asked disbelievingly, allowing Harry the opportunity to explain away his comment.

"Hmmm?" he responded distractedly, "Oh, that Ron may want to declare his undying love for you. You heard me the first time." He smirked, finding his comment humorous. Mostly he remained focused on devouring the food on his plate.

His friend, on the other hand, suddenly forgot her breakfast, and stared wide-eyed at the boy across the restaurant table.

"Why would you say that, Harry?" she sputtered nervously, "Ron and I don’t have anything going."

"Right!" he laughed, "Except of course minor things such as cheating at quidditch tryouts (though I’m glad you did), Ron’s little tryst with Lavender, attack birds. Right, you two don’t have anything going. Why would anyone think that? Hah!" His fork shoveled another portion into his mouth.

Hermione’s mouth gaped at Harry’s blunt assessment of their sixth year, but Harry did not seem to notice. When did he become such an insensitive git? Finally, she could not contain herself.

"What’s gotten into you, Harry? You’ve been acting awfully strange lately."

"Me? Strange?" he asked jokingly, "When has anyone thought I was strange? Doesn’t everyone have a lightning-bolt-shaped scar on their forehead? And a dark lord trying to kill them? And the Ministry trying to arrest them without charge?" Within five seconds, Harry’s mood changed from amused to irate. His eyes suddenly glared at his friend. "I thought everyone had those little problems," he spat, "Of course, who doesn’t have to find and destroy a few horcruxes? I’m about as normal as a person can be. Why do you think I’m strange?" Just like the previous evening, Hermione shuddered involuntarily at Harry’s sudden and inexplicable mood change. Moments before, he seemed in such good humor, and now he appeared ready to hex the next person to walk by.

"You just haven’t been yourself," she replied defensively, trying not to anger Harry further, "I mean, I know you have these problems, but that’s not new. You just don’t seem like yourself. I mean, talking about Ron and me that way. That’s not like you." Despite Harry being her best friend, she could not help but experience a new sensation in his presence. Fear.

Harry paused for a few seconds to consider her opinion, and forced himself to calm down. He had been a little snippy lately, he conceded, but she could cut him a little slack, in his opinion. She had not been forced to cris-cross the county for two weeks, staying one step ahead of the Ministry. Why shouldn’t I be a little snippy?

"Well, I guess this is the new me," he declared defiantly, though with less rancor in his voice, "so everyone can get used to it." As soon as the words left his mouth, he wished he could retract them, and he cringed when he saw his best friend’s hurt reaction. Quickly he apologized, "I didn’t mean that, Hermione, not the way it came out. Just . . . , try to be patient with me for awhile. I don’t know what I am anymore. With everything that’s been happening, I feel like I’m in a room with all the walls moving towards me, about to press me into a pancake." He set his fork down, and leaned back in his chair.

Hermione’s facial muscles relaxed, and her mouth formed a sympathetic smile. Finally the Harry Potter that she considered her best friend made an appearance, and a sense of relief passed through her. Perhaps all of her concerns would prove to be groundless, merely a byproduct of the undeniable stress of the past weeks.

"All right, Harry. I’ll be patient; I’m just not used to this side of you." The two friends smiled at each other and took a few more bites of their breakfasts before Hermione added, "Anyway, I don’t think that’s what Ron wants to talk to me about."

"Why not? I mean, he does like you. You know it just as well as I."

"Maybe," Hermione responded noncommitally, "but remember, I’m a girl, and girls have better instincts about these things than boys do, or need I remind you of your little escapade with Cho Chang." Harry flinched.

"Don’t remind me!" They both laughed at what now seemed like ancient history. As quickly as he had fallen into a state of base anger, Harry snapped out of it and once again seemed in a playful mood.

Hermione continued, "No, it’s nothing to do with that, but Ron’s worked up about something. He made it sound important. I’ll have to go out there, but it can wait until tomorrow morning. Today we’re celebrating your birthday, a day late, and I’m not letting anything get in the way. We have all day until Mr. Harrington returns this evening."

Kingsley Shacklebolt greeted Cho Chang warmly as they passed each other in the Ministry, the two briefly hugging each other. Nobody noticed the small envelop that Cho slipped into the tall black auror’s pocket. After a few gracious words, they parted.

Shacklebolt returned to his cramped office, intending to create a dent in the mountain of paperwork on his desk. First, however, he pulled out the envelop and opened it silently, always vigilant of passersby. A brief note from Cho emerged.

The Minister is planning a new strategy against You Know Who. I don’t know what it is, but the office has been especially busy. I saw a document about Harry. They think he may be in Essex, where his friend, Hermione Granger, lives. An auror, Harrington, is after him. If they capture Harry, they plan to hold him prisoner, without charge. We have to help Harry!

Kingsley read the note three times before tapping it with his wand. The note vanished in a puff of smoke.

While walking about Hermione’s home town with her, Harry could not help but reflect back on the last time he spent a day walking with a pretty girl: Melissa Montgomery in Liverpool, just two weeks earlier. Walking with Hermione felt different, more comfortable and less tense, but also less exciting. She had dressed up a little, he noticed, wearing a denim skirt and white blouse, and her bushy brown hair fell to her shoulders tamely. Though the skirt may not have been as short as the one worn by Melissa in Liverpool, nor her legs quite as shapely, Harry approved nonetheless. The two friends enjoyed themselves fully, and Hermione insisted on buying him a birthday present. Harry needed clothes, so they ended up buying a few shirts. Hermione preferred to purchase something more exciting and less utilitarian, but given Harry’s current status as a vagabond, clothes made the most sense.

In the afternoon, Harry insisted on buying lunch, sandwiches and drinks from a deli, which they carried with them to a local park. Seated on a bench amid mature magnolias, they unwrapped their sandwiches and began to eat. During their silence, Hermione recalled the events of the previous evening.

"Harry, why did you tell Ginny?" she asked suddenly, and Harry could sense an accusatory irritation in her voice. Hermione did not elaborate; she knew Harry understood her question.

In truth, Harry did not know. At times he wished that he had not, but when Ginny and he walked together at Hogwarts, holding hands, hugging, he seemingly could confide anything to her.

"It just happened; I never planned it," he explained quietly, setting his sandwich on its paper wrapping, "I shouldn’t have, but . . . . I felt like I was in love. I’d never felt that way before, and it seemed like I should tell her everything." Hermione’s eyes softened, and she gazed sympathetically at her friend, recalling the sudden romance between Harry and Ginny.

"Do you still love her?" asked Hermione before she could catch herself. They looked at each other for several uncomfortable moments, and Hermione wondered if she should retract the question. But she remained silent.

The question hit Harry like a reducto spell to the stomach, practically knocking the wind out of him. It forced him to confront the issue that he studiously avoided since his brief moments with Melissa Montgomery, so soon after breaking-up with his girlfriend following Dumbledore’s funeral. Did he love Ginny Weasley? The answer could be avoided no longer, and he knew it immediately.

"No, I don’t," he answered in a sad whisper, "I know it now. She’ll always be special to me, but I don’t love her." He bowed his head a few inches, his sandwich momentarily forgotten, but he offered no further explanation.

The answer surprised Hermione, as much for its tone as its content. Harry stated it firmly, completely sure of his answer. She assumed that he would have more ambiguous feelings.

"I think she still loves you. That might make things difficult."

Harry nodded his head but otherwise did not respond, his eyes and face tightening. After a few seconds, he took another bite of his sandwich, and Hermione knew that this topic of conversation had been completed. For now.

"I have come to a decision as to how we must confront this situation."

Rufus Scrimgeour faced six of his top ministers in a top-secret meeting, already thick with tension. Rumors bounced around the Ministry as news of a "New Direction," as the Minister of Magic referred to it, spread rapidly. Many theories emerged, but Scrimgeour himself remained mute, even to his closest advisors. He shut himself in his office and living quarters trying to consider all angles of his new plan. On August first, he decided the time had arrived to announce his plan.

"Let me say first that I have analyzed this new direction from all sides, and I am well aware of the controversy it will create. I remain convinced, however, that the measures which I am about to announce are necessary and appropriate. Extraordinary times call for an extraordinary response."

The Minister of Magic paused to allow his words to sink in. In general, he did not prefer half measures or subtlety, and his new plan contained neither.

"We shall declare Martial Law. All authority shall reside with the Ministry of Magic. The Wizengamot shall be disbanded until such time as He Who Must Not Be Named is defeated. The Ministry shall order all wizarding publications to cease operations. The Daily Prophet shall remain in operation under the sole control of the Ministry."

Scrimgeour anticipated the widened eyes of his advisors, astonished by the audacity of the Minister’s decision. Even during the first war some twenty years earlier, when the situation had reached levels far more dire, the Ministry had not attempted such a sweeping consolidation of power, and many measures that had been ordered created vociferous opposition. Would the wizarding population agree to Martial Law? Would the employees of the Ministry, especially the aurors, agree to implement it? The Minister could order the moon to turn red, but that did not mean that the Ministry could cause it to happen.

However, the ministers had not heard anything yet. Scrimgeour intended to issue a completely unprecedented order.

"The main problem we face, as we have discussed at great length, is our inability to protect the wizarding population in their homes. We have no means to determine when or where the death eaters will next attack. While measures to protect our homes have in fact yielded some successes, every day brings new reports of murders, new reports of the dark mark. And every time we arrive too late. Thus I have reached the conclusion that we cannot pretend that these reactive measures can ultimately lead to final victory. No! Such measures will merely prolong the agony of our defeat."

The six ministers listened intently in their expensive black robes, not sure where the Minister intended to lead them. The Minister paused again, knowing how controversial and difficult the next part of his "new direction" would be.

"Thus we must remove the prey from the predators, hide the sheep from the wolves. I intend to order that all wizarding families in Britain shall forthwith abandon their homes and move to several designated sites where they can be protected by the Ministry. We must quickly determine these details. Certainly Hogwarts Castle will serve as one site, as hundreds of families can be comfortably housed there. Other castles and mansions can also be pressed into service. Our numbers are not so great that we cannot house all of the magical population into four or five locations. No doubt many families will opt to flee the country, which serves our purpose just as well."

He paused again, and this time the widened eyes of his ministers betrayed panic as well as concern. Did the Minister understand the consequences of his plan? Did he understand the incredible logistical difficulties involved in involuntarily moving several thousand citizens spread throughout England, Wales and Scotland to four or five sites?

"I see from your expressions that you have serious concerns, and I understand. However, I see no other viable options. We are NOT here to drag out this struggle. I intend to take this war to You Know Who. This plan serves several purposes. Of course, it provides for the protection of our citizens, but it also prevents You Know Who from his source of recruits. We have reports that death eaters are renewing their efforts to build the size of their forces. Our intelligence, which admittedly is spotty, does indicate that You Know Who’s forces are still quite limited in number. If we can dry up his source of potential recruits, then we have a true chance to defeat him once and for all. Moreover, with the ability to protect our population with fewer resources, we free up our forces to fight You Know Who and his minions head on. THAT IS MY INTENTION! I INTEND TO FIGHT!"

Silence greeted Scrimgeour’s pronouncement. The six ministers, four wizards and two witches, knew that argument against the plan would be futile. For better or worse, the Minister had spoken. But his orders created so many issues to be discussed and resolved. It would take weeks to put together even the semblance of a workable plan. Finally one minister spoke.

"This will require a tremendous amount of planning, Minister," softly commented Catherine Mosley, the Minister of Muggle Relations. A plump and efficient half blood who largely grew up in the muggle world, Mosley immediately recognized the difficulties she would face in disguising the movement of thousands of wizards and witches, many of whom no doubt would not act cooperatively. "We’ll need time."

"How much time?" asked Scrimgeour in a tone of voice informing her that the amount had better not be excessive.

"A month, at least," commented the Minister of Defense, "The ramifications of your plan are numerous and enormous, Minister. Even one month is hardly enough time to accomplish such a huge undertaking."

Scrimgeour narrowed his eyes and stared at each of the six ministers one by one while considering.

"Two weeks," he responded firmly, "I will make the announcement in two weeks."

Chapter 11: Tell Me He's Wrong
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Chapter 11

Tell Me He’s Wrong

Harry and Hermione rushed back to his hotel room shortly after their lunch in the park. The sandwich he ate reminded him of the pastrami sandwich at Tony’s the previous day in Little Whinging, which reminded him of the reason he traveled to his home town in the first place. Dumbledore’s letter. After they both expressed amazement that they could have forgotten about it, they raced back to the hotel.

By the time they arrived, about half past four in the afternoon, the room had been cleaned and the bed made, but neither of them noticed or cared. Harry quickly pulled the brown parchment envelope from his rucksack and examined it one last time. Hermione stood next to him, anxiously waiting. Lacking a letter opener, Harry used the room key to tear open the envelope. He pulled out two long sheets of parchment, covered with the familiar scrawl of the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.

"Are you sure you want me here, Harry?" Hermione asked for the third time, "This could be very personal."

"Stay," Harry responded abruptly, sounding a little rude. He realized and softened his answer, "I mean, I’d like you to stay. We can’t have any secrets, not about things like this." He sat nervously on the edge of the bed, and Hermione did likewise, their arms barely touching. When it came right down to it, he dreaded reading the letter. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that the letter would not contain good news. Why would Dumbledore hide good news for fifteen years? Suddenly he thrust the sheets of parchment in front of Hermione.

"Read it out loud, Hermione. Please." Momentarily surprised, she took the sheets which he offered her and held them a little to her side so that Harry could follow along.

Dear Harry: 

I have written more letters than I can count in my excessively long life, but never one such as this. At this moment, one month after the tragic events which claimed the lives of your parents, I must provide you with some information of great importance, yet I write this lacking knowledge of what will have happened in your life by the time you reach this date, your seventeenth birthday.

As I write this, I have had the pleasure to know you as a baby, and I deeply regret that I will not be able to share in your early childhood. Your parents were dear friends of mine, despite the difference in age among us, and I have suffered their loss. Your suffering, however, will dwarf mine, and I can only hope that your aunt and uncle will raise you as their own.

I am an old man, Harry, and I cannot be certain that I will live to meet you again after your eleventh birthday and admission to Hogwarts. Though I am not a great believer in the pronouncements of seers, I do respect the predictions of centaurs, who in fact do possess skill in the field of Divination, though even centaurs’ predictions can be fallible. I consulted with the centaurs of the Forbidden Forest, and they have assured me that I will live to meet you again, a prediction that I most dearly wish to be proven true. They also indicate that I will not live to celebrate your seventeenth birthday, and if the centaurs prove correct, I hope that I have had the opportunity to know you and, with luck, to guide you on the difficult path which fate has dealt you.

By now, you will know the circumstances behind the scar on your forehead. You will already have deduced that your scar in some unknown manner links you with the dark lord, Voldemort. In the month since your parents’ deaths, I have investigated the meaning of the events of that fateful night, and the ramifications for the future, both your future and the future of the magical world. Both are intertwined.

You will also know the contents of the prophecy concerning Voldemort and you, for if I do not inform you myself, I have made arrangements for you to be informed upon my death. What is the "power he knows not?" At this moment, I do not know, but I trust that the answer will present itself in due time. Of course, Voldemort currently has been banished by you into oblivion, and with any luck, he will remain there on your seventeenth birthday. I fear not, however, and though I have little ability in Divination, I can predict that Lord Voldemort will in some manner or form return prior to this date.

Though the words entered Harry’s ears through Hermione’s mouth, he could hear the deep and friendly voice of Professor Dumbledore perfectly, and he sat almost trance-like, unblinking. Hermione paused for a moment to look at him but then returned to the letter, reading it slowly and carefully.

I wonder what form your personality will take. From the little that I know you as a baby, I sense that you are more like your mother than your father, though physically you resemble James. Lily had a inner strength that I have rarely encountered in my long life. Though muggle-born and thrown into a cauldron of difficult times, including blatant discrimination against her kind at Hogwarts, she met every challenge with determination. Certainly she possessed an admirable temper, but always her heart desired to do right, and I never witnessed her refuse to face a challenge. I believe you have that same determination and pureness of heart.

This makes what I must explain to you now even more difficult. My research all leads to the same conclusion. Age seventeen is the age of majority in the wizarding world for a reason, Harry. Certain changes occur to all wizards and witches on that date. For most of us, these changes are almost imperceptible. A magical maturity occurs which allows us to perform certain spells more easily, for example enhancing our ability to perform unspoken spells, and allows us to sense the presence of magic more readily. Often times, minor changes to our personalities occur.

In your case, I strongly suspect that your personality will change much more markedly than for others. Until now, you have been protected by the blood magic resulting from the sacrifice of your mother, and that protection also greatly reduced the ill effects of Lord Voldemort’s failed attempt on your life. On your seventeenth birthday, the blood protection ends. The essence of Lord Voldemort which somehow transferred to you will now become more noticeable. In what manner this occurs, I can only submit an educated guess. Voldemort’s strongest characteristics are pride, self-confidence, creativity, audacity, and surprisingly, patience. These characteristics are neither good nor evil in and of themselves, but have been utilized for evil purposes by him.

Understand, Harry, that this does not mean that you will suddenly turn into a evil wizard or a new dark lord. On the contrary, you will retain all of your basic personality traits. But you may begin to think and act differently, and for that reason I am writing you this most unpleasant letter rather than informing you beforehand, and even if I survive to develop a close relationship with you, I am determined not to divulge this information prior to this date. I can conceive of no manner to prepare for this eventuality, thus I see no benefit to informing you of it beforehand. Prior knowledge would merely cause you unnecessary emotional turmoil. 

You must be aware of the new presence within you, and you must endeavor to control it. Not only must you control it, but you must learn how to channel it for your own purposes. Though Voldemort became the personification of evil, fate does not dictate that you will too. On the contrary, it is our choices that make us. Tom Riddle made the decision early on to follow the path of darkness. You must make your own decision, Harry, and that decision must be to oppose Voldemort and his followers.

I realize that this information may initially cause you pain, but you must be aware of what faces you. Now you are a young man, and I suspect that soon you will face your nemesis. The fate of both your life and the wizarding world will rest with you; however, you will have the strength to prevail. I am sure you will have friends to help you, and you must accept their assistance, but ultimately you alone must assume the responsibility to face Voldemort. Do not do so until you feel the time is right; you will know when that time has arrived.

There is so much more I could write, Harry, but I believe that this is not the time or place. Hopefully we will have known each other during your Hogwarts years, and these words will make sense to you. This letter is not meant to cause you despair but to provide you with the information needed to prevail. In my heart, I know that you will.

With fondest regards,

Albus Dumbledore

Hermione tensed while reading the letter as the ramifications of it became clear. She felt Harry’s muscles gradually stiffen, and half way through the letter, he completely froze, not moving a muscle until Hermione finished. Both remained silent and motionless for a full minute, trying to absorb Professor Dumbledore’s message. Hermione gained control of her mental faculties first, but she could think of nothing to say. Finally Harry stood abruptly and stepped forward a few steps towards the door to the loo, only to stop, his back to her.

"He’s wrong! Tell me he’s wrong!" he pleaded. His voice betrayed his fear and broke Hermione’s heart, but she knew that now more than ever Harry needed her, and she needed to remain calm.

She also knew that Dumbledore had not been mistaken. Harry’s personality most definitely had changed, and now that she reflected back, the change occurred exactly on his birthday. Everything that concerned her during the past two days now made sense in the context of Dumbledore’s information. Harry’s aggressiveness in the parking lot, his manner of speaking to Harrington, not caring about his nakedness that morning, his attitude at breakfast, his wild mood swings. All of it seemed strange and out of character. She now realized that Harry unwittingly spoke the truth that morning. 

I guess this is the new me, so everyone can get used to it.

Hermione did not immediately respond to Harry’s request, and he turned around, his green eyes emitting fear and anger. He walked past her, around the foot of the bed, and paced towards the door of his room.

"Dumbledore’s been wrong before," he argued as much with himself as with Hermione, "Why couldn’t he be wrong this time? He himself told me that nobody really understands what happened back then. Sure we have a connection, but that doesn’t mean I have to become like him." He threw himself into one of the chairs by the draped window, elbows on his knees and head in his hands.

"He’s not saying you have to become like Voldemort, Harry. Dumbledore’s saying the exact opposite, that you can control it. You are still you, and you always will be. You’re strong enough to control it." Hermione moved around the bed to approach her friend, and she pulled the other chair forward so that they sat only a foot apart.

"So you agree with him then," Harry snarled in a tone accusing her of treason, and the hairs on Hermione’s arms stood up at his tone. He stood abruptly and turned his back to her. "I guess I’ll be too dangerous now. You’ll have to stay away from me."

"Don’t be stupid, Harry," Hermione retorted as strongly as she could, her own irritation showing. She stood as well, rounding about Harry so that she faced him, her back near the door of Harry’s small hotel room. "You are the best person I know! This does not change that basic fact. Yes, I do think Dumbledore is right. I’ve seen it yesterday and today. You’ve acted strangely, but you haven’t become evil. Your personality has just changed a little, that’s all. Now that you know why, you’ll be able to deal with it. We can all deal with it."

Harry laughed harshly, "Right! Piece of cake! Shouldn’t be a problem." He turned away from his friend again, not wanting to face her. Inside, he felt a jumble of emotions, fear of the unknown, anger that Hermione agreed with Dumbledore, and utter confusion. What did this mean? What would he become?

At that moment, they heard a knock on the door, causing both of them to jump. They completely forgot that Evan Harrington planned to return to continue their discussion of the previous evening. After flinching, Harry returned to his chair, so Hermione moved to the door, peering through the eye hole to confirm that in fact Harrington stood outside. She allowed him to enter.

The auror smiled thinly at the two teens in greeting, but the smile immediately vanished. Something had happened, he sensed, something bad. He first thought that the two adolescents had an argument, perhaps a lovers’ spat. But the mood in the small hotel room seemed darker than a mere domestic dispute.

"What’s happened?" he asked simply, after automatically placing a silencing spell on the room.

Harry again stood up abruptly and sarcastically responded, "Nothing, if you believe Hermione. Turning into another Lord Voldemort doesn’t seem to bother her a bit." He gestured with a wave of his hand at the witch, and Evan could barely believe the expression of rancor in his eyes.

Evan turned his confused eyes to an exasperated Hermione, wordlessly requesting an explanation. She still held the sheets of parchment in her hand, and Evan saw the hurt in her eyes from Harry’s harsh comments.

"Here," she sighed, handing him the letter, "This will answer your questions." She sat down in one of the chairs, looking away from Harry, who in turn stared at the wall on the other side of the room, his back turned to the others.

Evan glanced at the two sheets of parchment, noting the signature of Albus Dumbledore at the bottom of the second. He remained standing while he read the letter, and other than the shuffling of the pages, none of them made a sound. Harry sat on the bed, awaiting the auror’s opinion.

"Who can we send to Essex?" asked Arthur Weasley in a soft voice, meeting with Kingsley Shacklebolt in Arthur’s cramped office in the Ministry. Kingsley had just passed on the information he received from Cho Chang. "If Harry’s met with Hermione, he may have asked her not to inform us. You know as well as I that Hermione would never betray his trust."

Kingsley responded in his deep baritone, also speaking in little more than a whisper, "We should send a muggle-born, or someone comfortable in the muggle world. How about Michelle Goldsmith?"

Arthur scrunched his eyes. A young muggle-born, Goldsmith only recently joined the Order of the Phoenix, and she remained an unknown quantity. In Harry, Ron and Hermione’s first year at Hogwarts, Michelle attended her seventh year in Hufflepuff. Reasonably bright and hard working, she obtained a job with the Daily Prophet, which made her a prize catch for the Order. Nevertheless, so far her only contribution had been transmitting bits and pieces of information gleaned on the job, none of which proved especially important. She had no experience in the field.

"Do you think she’s up to it, Kingsley?" Arthur whispered, "She’d be no match for Harrington or any auror. We could send Remus."

"But Harry and Hermione know Remus too well. It seems likely that Harry does not want anyone to find him, neither the Ministry nor the Order. They don’t know Michelle, but he won’t feel threatened by her. We wouldn’t be asking her to take on Harrington. If there’s any problem, she should apparate away." Kingsley’s voice began to rise with his argument until he realized it and returned to a whisper. "Michelle grew up as a muggle and still spends a lot of time with her parents. For the moment, we just need to find Harry, make contact with him. We’re not going to kidnap him."

Arthur glared nervously at Kingsley, still not convinced. Unfortunately, he could not devise a better plan. Dumbledore would have done better, he thought, demeaning his abilities.

"OK, Kingsley. Can you talk to her?" The tall auror nodded as he stood to leave Arthur’s office.

After Evan finished reading Dumbledore’s letter, he handed it back to Hermione, but remained silent. Harry sat back in his chair staring at the sandy-haired auror, awaiting his verdict. Much to his surprise, Evan smiled broadly.

"I don’t think Voldemort would be too happy about this, Harry. Looks like he has a battle on his hands."

Hermione stood up at Evan’s words, upset that he appeared to contradict what she had just argued to Harry, that he would not turn into another Voldemort.

"What do you mean?" she asked sharply, "This is not that important. Harry will always be Harry; he just needs to be aware of these small changes to his personality. He’s a strong person, and he can control it."

"You misunderstand me, Hermione," responded Evan with a smile, attempting to calm her, "Of course Harry will never turn into another Voldemort, but apparently he may acquire some of his characteristics. That is excellent!" The two teens stared at the older wizard as if he had lost his mind. He observed the confusion on the faces of the young witch and wizard.

"Dumbledore touched on it himself," he continued to explain, "Voldemort is evil because he has chosen to be, but he is an enormously talented wizard, and he possesses tremendous magical power. He also is a formidable person, in many ways. Few individuals combine the creativity, audacity, leadership and sheer determination of Lord Voldemort. Unfortunately he applies these positive character traits in the pursuit of absolute power. But if you have these same qualities, Harry, you can just as easily apply them in the pursuit of justice. Do you understand? You can use this against him. It seems to me that the playing field has leveled a bit." Evan smiled again and seemed perfectly at ease with the news.

His easy acceptance of Harry’s changed personality allowed Harry to relax a little, but he still could not greet the news with such enthusiasm. Harrington did not face the prospect of changing from the known to the unknown. Maybe he would become the type of person that he would never wish to be. Perhaps he would become such an irritating person that his friends would no longer wish to associate with him. So many ideas popped into and out of his mind that he could not keep track of them all.

Evan realized that perhaps he acted too nonchalantly about the news, and he moved closer to Harry.

"You’ll adapt, Harry. You’ll have to," the auror asserted, now entirely serious, "but we don’t have time to let you wallow in self-pity. Things are heating up at the Ministry. We have a lot to discuss tonight. Decisions need to be made, and we don’t have much time. I have an idea."

A/N This chapter is a little short because I moved the original beginning of the chapter (the Scrimgeour scene) to end of chapter 10, where I thought it made more sense and had more of an impact. Please take the time to review and let me know how you like the story so far. G.

Chapter 12: What Could Have Been
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                                                            Chapter 12

                                                   What Could Have Been


"That’s what I thought when I realized. A horcrux sitting right under our noses!"

Hermione’s eyes widened saucer-like as Ron explained his revelation about the locket at Grimmauld Place. She arrived at the Burrow early in the morning, intending to return home soon enough to meet Harry for breakfast again. Seated in Ron’s room, Hermione and Ginny, still in her bathrobe with her hair only half brushed, occupied Ron’s bed, while the tall and thin boy paced excitedly near the window. Previously, Ginny informed Ron that she knew about the horcruxes, Harry having confided in her during the Spring. This news did not set well with her older brother, but he realized that if she knew, she may as well learn about the locket too.

Ginny turned to her friend and added, "Hopefully Mundungus didn’t grab it when he stole the silver. He might have sold it by now. That would be a disaster."

Up until this moment, Hermione did not mention the fact that she spent the previous two evenings with Harry, not certain whether she should reveal his location even to them. Given this new piece of information, however, she decided she needed to clue them in.

"You put the silencing charm, right?" she asked, continuing in a whisper even after Ron nodded his head, "Listen, Harry is with me. He found me a couple of days ago, and he’s hiding in a hotel not far from my house." Ginny jumped off the bed at the news, completely astounded.

"Is he alright?" she asked quickly, "I mean, has anything happened to him?"

"A LOT has happened to him," Hermione replied, "but he’s OK. Look, you have to promise me that you won’t tell anyone about this, not even your mum and dad. We don’t want the Order to know yet." Ron and Ginny immediately agreed, and Hermione informed them of almost all that occurred over the past days. Almost. She omitted mention of Melissa Montgomery.

Harry slept restlessly that night and abandoned his bed shortly after six in the morning. In the coolness of the early morning, he donned jeans and a sweatshirt and quietly left his room for a walk, pulling a hat over his scar.

He could not accept the intensified presence of Voldemort inside of him as easily as Harrington did. Of course, as Hermione and Evan continuously reminded him, only Voldemort’s personality traits would become more noticeable. They insisted that this could be an advantage for Harry if he learned how to harness it, but all Harry could think was, That’s easy for them to say.

Passing by a bakery, he purchased a muffin to satisfy his stomach until Hermione arrived later in the morning. Right now, he realized, she probably sat with Ron and Ginny at the Burrow, discussing whatever Ron deemed to be of such importance that he placed a muggle telephone call. Fleetingly, Harry wished that he could be with them, but a moment later he gave thanks that he could have some time alone.

With the information from Dumbledore, Harry suddenly began to doubt everything he did and felt. When he became upset at times the previous evening, he inevitably wondered, Was that me or Voldemort? Would he ever truly feel like Harry Potter again?

Yet he knew that he had no time to adjust; he would have to do so on the fly, because soon the storm would arrive. If Evan’s information proved true, all hell was about to break loose, which would only be intensified by Evan’s plan, to which Harry and Hermione reluctantly agreed. As he paced the streets, however, the auror’s plan began to make more sense, and in fact Harry almost looked forward to it. If the plan worked, Scrimgeour would have to back off, and Harry would have some space to move. If it did not work? Well, Harry would resume his life on the run.

Tonight he would go public.

"Many of the old wards have fallen, my lord. As you suspected, they were tied directly to Dumbledore and died with him."

Lord Voldemort sat impassively while receiving the report of three death eaters, whom he had designated to check the protections of Hogwarts Castle.

"However, new protections have been installed, and they prevented us from entering the grounds or approaching the lake. As you requested, we attempted to approach the lake from various sites, but in each instance we were blocked. We believe that the lake could be reached from Hogsmeade, but we cannot be sure whether we could approach Hogwarts from that direction. Presumably the wards would prevent anyone from approaching the castle in that manner as well."

"Yesss," Voldemort responded after the death eater finished his explanation, "This is to be expected, but these new protections can be overcome. Nobody at Hogwarts has the power or skill to erect wards such as those devised by Dumbledore." Voldemort stood slowly and faced the leader of the group of three. "Your mission is to identify these new protections and to overcome them. We must have access to that lake."

His three followers exited, leaving Voldemort alone with Peter Pettigrew in the dark sitting room of a large and ancient farm house in Scotland. Peter sensed the disquiet of his master since their recent travels to the abandoned cabin near Little Hangleton and the cave high above the rugged English coast. Voldemort did not pace or otherwise display nervousness, but Peter knew his master’s moods better than anyone, having spent so many hours of each day with him. They remained silent for a long time, Peter standing near the door, almost unnoticeable but available to Voldemort’s call.

Finally Voldemort softly asked his servant, "Any word on Malfoy?"

Peter stepped forward and answered, "No, master. He still has not returned. Alexander remains comatose and beyond help. He will probably die. We have no way to determine if Draco was captured or fled." Peter did not repeat the news of Bellatrix’s death, her neck broken against a tree trunk.

Suspicious and untrusting by nature, Voldemort from the beginning believed that Draco Malfoy betrayed him. No doubt he had nothing to do with the injuries to the other two death eaters, but when he survived and the others lay unconscious, Draco must have decided to flee. Voldemort wanted to track him down immediately in order to mete out his merciless punishment. At the moment, however, he could not spare anyone, and now he found his forces further depleted.

Voldemort had other means available to him, but he immediately decided against implementing them for someone as unimportant as Draco Malfoy. These means could only be applied in dire circumstances; this situation did not qualify as such.

Patience, he reminded himself. He would live forever, so he had forever to accomplish his goals. Death eaters would come and go, live and die, and he must not bury himself in such unimportant details. Draco would receive his sentence in due time. Of greatest immediate importance, Voldemort knew that he must focus on safeguarding his remaining horcruxes. This posed a number of problems, however, for two of the horcruxes currently rested in locations beyond his reach. He needed to determine how to overcome the new wards at Hogwarts.

Hermione checked her watch, noting that she needed to leave the Burrow so that she could meet with Harry by nine o’clock. Given the news from Ron, she wanted to speak with Harry as soon as possible, and preferred to do so alone, outside the presence of Evan Harrington.

Just as she began to say her goodbyes, three owls flew threw the open window of the kitchen, dropping off envelopes for Ron, Ginny and Hermione. In all the bustle of the past days, Hermione completely forgot about her Hogwarts letter, which in past years she anxiously awaited. Instead of excitement upon receipt of the thick envelope, she felt dread. Given Harry’s situation, how could she possibly return to Hogwarts.

Adding to her nerves, she discovered that the large brown barn owl delivering her letter also carried a second envelope, addressed to Harry Potter. Below his name, Professor McGonagall wrote a brief note of explanation: 

Miss Granger: As Mr. Potter currently is not available to receive post, please accept his letter and deliver it to him if he should contact you.

Ron and Ginny must have felt the same way, given their muted response to their letters. The three held the envelopes silently for a few moments before finally Ginny ripped hers open. Ron and then Hermione followed suit. To noone’s surprise, Hermione pulled out the Head Girl’s badge, and she quickly read McGonagall’s congratulatory note. Ginny noticed the badge and quickly hugged her friend.

"We knew it would be you, Hermione. Congratulations."

Ron also embraced his friend and appeared genuinely happy for her, but when their eyes met, they both understood. The badge meant nothing. The letters meant nothing. Hogwarts now represented their past, not their future.

"I have to get back," Hermione finally muttered softly, checking left and right to assure that Mrs. Weasley could not overhear them, "Harry and I have a lot to discuss. I’ll let you know what’s going on as soon as I can."

William Oglesby, Editor in Chief

Daily Prophet

Dear Mr. Oglesby

Harry Potter is willing to grant an interview to the Daily Prophet. I believe you will be extremely interested in what he has to say. Meet Mr. Potter tonight at 6:00 pm. Come alone. Directions are enclosed.

After reading the anonymous note for the fourth time, the editor in chief of the Daily Prophet decided that he would keep the appointment, despite the dangers involved in responding to such an invitation. The potential reward justified the risk.

As Hermione entered Harry’s hotel room, she showed Harry his Hogwarts letter. He took one brief look at it and flipped it on top of the dresser. Unopened. While Harry finished brushing his teeth, she held his letter in her hand.

"Do you mind if I open your letter, Harry?" she called out to him.

"Go ahead."

Surprising herself, Hermione felt more nervous opening Harry’s letter than she did her own. Against all odds, she held out the hope that McGonagall may have designated Harry as Head Boy rather than the more likely choice of Ernie McMillan. Why should I care? she asked herself, since Harry would not be returning to Hogwarts anyway. Yet for some reason, just the idea that the two of them could have been Head Boy and Head Girl together moved her.

She recalled feeling similarly on that day in Grimmauld Place when they received their letters before fifth year. When she learned to her shock that Ron had been designated prefect rather than Harry, she could not hide her disappointment. Harry should have been named, in her opinion, and she never understood Dumbledore’s reasoning. As much as she liked Ron, she often wondered how anyone in his right mind could name Ronald Weasley as prefect over Harry Potter?

Pulling out the various sheets of parchment from the envelope, she found no Head Boy badge. Of course not, she chided herself. The badge would only be awarded to a prefect and a top student, and clearly Harry did not meet either criterion. Moreover, McGonagall knew of Harry’s current predicament. Despite all of this, Hermione could not avoid a sinking feeling in her stomach.

"What’s the matter?" asked Harry upon returning to the main room, noting her long face, "Something in the letter?"

"Oh, nothing," Hermione responded quickly, "Nothing important."

Intrigued, Harry persisted, "OK, something unimportant then. What?"

His friend turned away and stuffed the sheets of parchment back into the envelope.

"Really, it’s nothing. I just thought it would have been nice if you had been named Head Boy, but of course, . . . ., it doesn’t really matter." She stepped away from Harry, her back to him so that he could not see her face.

"I couldn’t be Head Boy," Harry mused matter-of-factly, never having once considered the possibility, "I didn’t even make prefect. Best thing Dumbledore ever did for me, not naming me prefect. Wouldn’t want to be Head Boy either, even without everything that we are facing."

"I know, Harry," Hermione agreed, "Still. I guess I’m wishing for something that could never be. I’m just being silly." Despite her best effort to disguise her disappointment, Harry noted her demeanor, and frankly found it strange.

"You’re Head Girl, right?" he asked, moving a couple of steps toward his friend.

Hermione still faced away from Harry but nodded. Harry swiftly reached her and softly placed his hand on her shoulder, turning her towards him. He smiled at her warmly, and gently wrapped his arms around her.

"That’s brilliant, Hermione." he whispered in her ear, "You deserve it. I’m really proud of you."

Harry spoke the words warmly, but unexpectedly he felt Hermione wrap her arms around him more tightly, burying her face into his shoulder. At first Harry did not understand his friend’s actions, but in a moment he felt her chest heave slightly. A soft whimper escaped her lips, and Harry realized that she was crying. He had no idea why, but he pulled her an inch closer to him and rubbed his hand up and down her back.

After perhaps half a minute, he finally asked, "What’s bothering you, Hermione? You should be proud to be named Head Girl. It’s a tremendous honor, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving."

Hermione’s brief tears ended and she regained her composure. Releasing Harry from her grasp, she sat on the side of the bed, not responding right away. Harry sat down next to her, but remained silent.

"I don’t know what’s wrong, Harry. I’m as surprised as you are that I’m crying. Of course I’m happy to be named Head Girl, but I guess it just makes even more clear what we are facing. We can’t go back to Hogwarts, of course, so I’ll have to turn it down. Maybe I’m just thinking about what could have been, what should be."

Harry nodded his head and considered Hermione’s remarks. He realized that he had passed that stage months ago, even years. What could have been, what should be. Not worth thinking about.

"I wouldn’t know what that is anymore - ‘what should be,’" he softly commented, "I understand what you mean, but I’ve never lived ‘what should be.’ I wouldn’t know it if I saw it."

Hermione lowered her head, ashamed to have cried in front of Harry. Harry of all people! If anyone did not need to have to deal with an emotional friend, Harry would be the one. He had so much on his mind now, especially today, when he would meet with the Daily Prophet editor. How could she have lost control and wept into his shoulder?

"I’m sorry, Harry," she whispered hoarsely, "None of this is important. I just have to come to terms with our situation. The Hogwarts letter triggered something inside of me. Don’t worry about me. OK?"

Harry smiled and wrapped his right arm across her back and pulled her towards him.

"OK. I believe in you, Hermione. I can’t do what I have to do without you; if I could, I would." He held her for a few more moments, but then released her, grabbed her hand and helped her to her feet. "I’m hungry. Let’s get something to eat."

"TOO MANY RUMORS ARE CIRCULATING!" growled Minister of Magic Scrimgeour, "We do not have as much time as I hoped. The first steps of our plan must be implemented immediately."

"But sir, with all due respect," replied the Minister of Defense, "We are nowhere near being able to take action. And there simply is no way to prevent leaks of information, not with the sheer number of people who must be involved." His exasperation filled his office, where Scrimgeour arrived unannounced.

"Exactly! That is my point," Scrimgeour emphasized, "I realize we cannot do everything at once, but we must control the flow of information. Thus we need to control the press as soon as possible. How long do you need to shut down all publications and to take control of the Daily Prophet?"

The Minister of Defense resisted the urge to shake his head and briefly calculated the manpower and planning involved in such a mission.

"A week, perhaps. Maybe five days if we set other matters aside."

Scrimgeour hardened his eyes and placed both of his hands on the edge of the desk, leaning over it.

"Two days! Make your plans today and tomorrow. The day after, we strike." He abruptly turned around and stormed out of the office, preventing further argument by his Minister of Defense.

Peter Pettigrew lay on his bed in a room of a new base of operations, this time an ancient mansion not far from the coast of northeastern England. How Voldemort knew of all of these locations, Peter never learned, but in years past the dark lord apparently developed a network of such sites. Not given to explanations, Voldemort merely gave the order to move, and they moved. No questions asked.

Happily, this nameless mansion provided more comforts than their previous hiding spots, and even better, Voldemort sent Peter away, wishing to be alone with his thoughts. Never had Peter witnessed the dark lord so perturbed, and now obsessed with breaching the wards around Hogwarts, and especially gaining access to Hogwarts’ lake. Of course, no explanation.

Though no death eater would admit it freely, recent events caused doubts to arise regarding the dark lord’s sanity, or at least his competence. Why the delay in taking any serious action? Why continue with these meaningless random attacks? What happened to the dark lord’s master plan? Spending more time with Voldemort than the others, Peter did not feel that the dark lord had lost his mind, but clearly some event distracted him from the long-term plans.

Peter lay on his bed, hoping to fall asleep for a short nap, which at least partially would relieve his constant sleep deprivation. But the image of Draco Malfoy emerged in his mind. Despite what Peter reported to Voldemort, everyone assumed that Draco defected. Had he been captured, Voldemort’s sources in the Ministry most certainly would have heard and passed on the information. Peter could only shake his head.

Draco, a Slytherin, apparently possessed sufficient courage to abandon the dark lord. Peter, a Gryffindor, lacked such courage, despite the fact that the sorting hat assigns only the brave to Gryffindor House. Draco never struck Peter as an especially brave person, yet he seized the opportunity to escape.

What would I have done?
Peter mused, though he knew that almost certainly, he would not have abandoned the dark lord. Draco’s courageous act only served to embarrass Peter. All death eaters knew that the dark lord did not accept resignations. The only escape from servitude was death, and that now most sure would be Draco’s ultimate fate. Draco knew that but acted anyway.

THAT is bravery, Peter considered. He wondered if perhaps deep down he possessed such bravery as well.

William Oglesby briskly entered the Leaky Cauldron, searching rapidly for Arthur Weasley. Unexpectedly, the tall Scot received an owl from Weasley half an hour before, urgently requesting the meeting. Oglesby had met Arthur casually a few times over the years but never socialized with him and did not consider him a friend.

The Daily Prophet’s Editor’s first inclination was to ignore the requested meeting due to his much more important appointment with Harry Potter, scheduled just one hour after the time designated by Weasley. Ultimately, Oglesby determined that time allowed a brief meeting with Arthur while still leaving enough time to arrive punctually for Potter.

The innkeeper, Tom, noted Oglesby’s arrival, and with his eyes directed the newspaperman to a private room to the left. Oglesby nodded briefly and turned in that direction. Upon entering the room, he noted that Arthur Weasley had not taken a seat, and the three tables in the room had not even been prepared for dining. Clearly, Weasley did not expect this to be a lengthy meeting either. The two men shook hands.

"I’ll get right to the point," Arthur declared after briefly thanking Oglesby for agreeing to the meeting. "You did not hear it from me, but in two days, the Ministry will shut down the Daily Prophet and all other wizarding publications. Scrimgeour intends to impose Martial Law, and this is the first step - control of the press."

Oglesby’s eyes widened to their largest possible circumference, and he could not utter a word.

"You understand the ramifications of this, correct?" Arthur inquired, "I felt that you needed to know. You can decide how best to react, but whatever you do, you must act quickly. The Ministry will act the day after tomorrow, according to the rumors. I don’t know at what time."

"Thank you, Arthur. I don’t know what to say. What should I do?"

"I don’t know, Will. But we need the Prophet to stay independent." Arthur and William stood silently for a few moments, and Arthur decided that the meeting had lasted long enough.

"Good luck, Will," he concluded, shaking the stunned man’s hand again, "I’ll leave by the side door. You can go out the way you came in." And with that, Arthur Weasley turned and walked away, leaving Oglesby standing mutely alone.

A thousand thoughts ran through the head of the Prophet’s Editor-in-Chief. If Weasley’s information proved correct, and he had no reason to believe that it would not, he had tremendously difficult decisions to make. After a few seconds, he turned around and rushed out of The Leaky Cauldron, running back to the Daily Prophet’s headquarters at the other end of Diagon Alley.

Bursting through the front door, he ordered his personal assistant to gather his four deputy editors immediately. When the assistant did not move quickly enough, he yelled at her, something the normally mild-mannered man had never done in the past. Within five minutes, the two witches and two wizards arrived at Oglesby’s office.

"Put out the word. Everyone must stay tonight. Everyone. All night. I have an important interview in half an hour, after which I will return. We will be working all night. I’ll explain when I come back." The four editors stared at Oglesby as if he lost his mind, but he did not care. When they remained standing, he raised his voice, "GO!" The four editors scurried away.

Oglesby turned and looked out of his third-story window overlooking bustling shoppers on Diagon Alley. He recognized that the decisions he made this night would have ramifications far beyond the existence of a mere newspaper. His action or inaction would directly affect the course of history of the magical world.

First, however, he intended to keep his appointment with Harry Potter.

Chapter 13: We're Bugging Out
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Chapter 13

We’re Bugging Out

Michelle Goldsmith gritted her teeth at the order being frantically disseminated throughout the offices of the Daily Prophet. Her robe hung on a hook on the wall behind her, and she sat at her small desk, ignoring the various photographs and sheets of parchment before her. Just a few hours before, Kingsley Shacklebolt managed to contact her, instructing her on her first true "mission" for the Order of the Phoenix. So far, she felt that she had been a member of the Order in name only, not having provided any especially useful service or information. Excited by Shacklebolt’s instructions, she intended to make plans that evening. In fact she hoped to use a couple of her vacation days to devote to her Order duties. But now she discovered that all Prophet employees had been ordered to remain in the building, and to plan to work all night.

In most respects, Michelle varied little from the norm. Perhaps an inch or two on the short side, she would be considered an attractive if not beautiful young woman. Without a doubt her best feature was her thick brown hair, not as dark as Melissa Montgomery’s but not as light as Hermione Granger’s. It hung a few inches below her neck, with just the hint of a wave. All natural, she barely had to do a thing to it. A likeable and friendly person, she earned many friendships and enjoyed an active social life, until recently when the re-emergence of Lord Voldemort put a damper on everyone’s activities.

Of course, she remembered Harry Potter. No doubt Harry Potter would have no memory of her, she recognized, but everyone knew him. While she sat in her cubicle waiting for Mr. Oglesby to return, she recalled her seventh year at Hogwarts, Harry’s first. Normally a seventh-year Hufflepuff girl would not take any notice of a first-year Gryffindor boy, but Harry Potter most certainly was not a normal first year.

For one thing, everybody knew the name, Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived. But he could also fly. What a performance he displayed on the Quidditch pitch that year. And then, of course, Dumbledore specifically singled him out at the closing feast for his bravery. At the time, the student body did not understand exactly what Harry had done to deserve such praise, but now she knew that he rescued the Philosopher’s Stone from You Know Who.

"Voldemort," she forced herself to whisper. Since Dumbledore’s death, she resolved to say the dark lord’s name, just as the great headmaster did. Michelle admired Albus Dumbledore more than any witch or wizard who ever lived, and when she heard of his death, she promised to do whatever she could to be more like him, even if she could only hope to accomplish one percent of what the great man had. Only twice had she spoken with the headmaster in a one-on-one conversation, but on both occasions, she left amazed that the great man dedicated all of his concentration to her, as if she were the most important person in the world. Ultimately, Dumbledore’s example caused her to agree to join the Order of the Phoenix, after first ignoring the feelers from the secret organization.

Now that she could finally contribute to the cause, she had to wait. Who knew when she would be able to find time to search for him? Perhaps not until the weekend, three days away. She almost pounded her fist on her desk to release her frustration, but with so many people around she refrained. Instead, she gritted her teeth even harder.

All day long, Harry noticed that Hermione acted unusually. At first he determined that she probably continued to suffer the aftereffects of her release of emotions that morning, when she opened his Hogwarts letter. Yet as they passed the day together, awaiting Harry’s appointment with William Oglesby, he could not help but sense that his best friend wanted to tell him something but refrained from doing so.

For her part, Hermione abruptly changed her plan to inform Harry immediately of Ron’s deduction about Slytherin’s locket. Harry needed to concentrate on his interview with the Daily Prophet, and Hermione knew that if she mentioned the locket, he would understandably focus all of his attention in that direction. Thus she managed to fend off Harry’s inquiries about her visit with Ron and Ginny, informing Harry only that the two red heads merely worried about Harry and wanted to know if she knew anything. She admitted that she informed them about what had occurred over the past few days, and she breathed a sigh of relief that Harry did not appear bothered.

Finally, as arranged, Evan Harrington apparated into Harry’s hotel room late in the afternoon. Harry had showered and groomed himself as best he could, and he wore a blue long-sleeve shirt, one of the new shirts that Hermione gave him for his birthday.. Evan quickly assessed the young wizard. Though Harry and Hermione at first resisted the auror’s proposal to go public, once Harry had been convinced, he appeared to relish the opportunity. Evan noted the same spirit a day later, and in fact Hermione displayed more nerves than Harry.

"How do I look?" Harry asked lightly, holding his arms out and making a quarter turn.

"As ugly as usual," replied Evan with a chuckle, earning a grin from Harry but a glare from Hermione.

"You look fine, Harry," she declared, putting an end to that topic. "Are we still sure about this? Is this the right time? Maybe we should wait and think this through."

"Not possible. It’s now or never," Evan insisted, no longer smiling, "We have new information. Word is the Ministry may move to close down the Prophet soon, within a day or two. I can’t confirm that, but we can’t take the chance. We have to do this now"

"We’re doing it," Harry assured him, for he did not harbor any second thoughts, "I’m ready. When do we go?"

Evan smiled again. He liked this Potter kid, and the girl too, though she could be a bit of a worrywort. Despite the seriousness of the actions they needed to take, Evan found that he enjoyed this. Their youthful energy infected him.

"Soon," he answered, "Let’s go over it one more time."

"I am well aware of the risks involved, Severus"

"Of course, My Lord, I did not mean to suggest otherwise," Snape quickly agreed in his silky monotone, "I will, of course, serve you to the best of my abilities."

Snape’s words mollified Lord Voldemort sufficiently to avoid punishment. Though Voldemort hated to admit it, he needed Severus Snape more than any other death eater. Lucius Malfoy also possessed intelligence and magical power, but he always had his own agenda, his own need for glory and recognition. In any event, Scrimgeour made certain that Lucius would never serve Voldemort again. Snape did not seek the limelight, preferring to remain in the murky background. Other death eaters questioned his loyalties, Voldemort knew, especially the recently deceased Bellatrix Lestrange, who often urged Voldemort not to trust his spy. Yet Voldemort did trust him, and he trusted him still.

"Naturally you must take proper precautions, Severus," he assured him, "but the others are incapable of understanding and overcoming these new wards. I realize that many of you wonder why I am focusing on Hogwarts, but I am not in the habit of explaining myself. What I do expect is loyalty, from you and from all of my followers."

"I understand, My Lord," Snape responded with a slight bow, "I will do my best to solve this puzzle. It may take some time."

Voldemort nodded his agreement, but cautioned, "Not too much time, Severus. Determine what you can and report back to me in no more than two days. I will remain here until your return."

William Oglesby shuddered as he walked up to the door of the hotel room in Liverpool where he had been instructed to arrive. Quite obviously, this could be a trap, and as he knocked three times on the door, he realized that within moments he could be a prisoner of the Ministry or even of He Who Must Not Be Named. He held his wand nervously, ready to apparate away in an instant if he sensed anything unusual. Thoughts of his wife and three children, now all grown and with families of their own, passed through his mind.

After a short delay, a teenaged boy opened the door. Surprising Oglesby, this boy had bleached-blond short hair, but instantly Oglesby’s eyes shifted from the hair to the unmistakable lightning-shaped scar on the boy’s forehead.

"Thank you for coming, Mr. Oglesby," Harry greeted the tall man, now in his late fifties. Harry had no idea what a newspaperman should look like, but Oglesby fit the bill. The older man’s grey hair and lean, lined face indicated a life of hard work. The two men shook hands, and Harry closed the door behind his guest.

In the corner of the same hotel room where Harry fought Evan Harrington just two weeks before, the auror crouched under his invisibility cloak. Evan anonymously made all the arrangements, contacting Oglesby, renting the same room so that Harry could apparate directly there, and instructing Harry about what he should and should not disclose in the interview. The auror insisted on hiding in the room as a precaution. He did not believe that Oglesby would inform the Ministry of the interview, but he could not ignore the possibility.

"Let’s sit over here," Harry suggested, motioning to a small table around which two chairs had already been placed. They sat down, and Harry waited for Oglesby to initiate the interview. Oglesby remained silent, not sure if Harry intended to make any preliminary remarks. When the boy did not speak, Oglesby waved his wand to produced several sheets of parchment and a quill. He set the quill upright and tapped it with his wand. When he removed his hand, the quill remained standing at a slight angle, ready to write down every word of the interview.

Normally, Oglesby may have begun the interview slowly, easing his way into it, but on this occasion he lacked the time. He needed to conclude his work here in order to return to the Prophet’s offices as soon as possible. Thus he moved right to the point.

"Why do you want this interview, Mr. Potter? You have gone though a lot of trouble to arrange for our meeting." The quill began to scratch on the parchment.

"I want the public to know what the Ministry has been doing. I want the Ministry to stop chasing me."

The two men stared at each other for several moments. Oglesby knew that Potter intended to use him for his own purposes, but that came with the territory. In this case, Oglesby did not care about being exploited, because this time what benefitted Potter would also benefit the Daily Prophet.

"OK, let’s get started then," Oglesby requested, and the interview lasted over ninety minutes.

Two hours later, William Oglesby burst into the reception area of the Daily Prophet, yelling at the top of his voice, "STOP EVERYTHING! I WANT ALL WORK ON TOMORROW’S EDITION STOPPED!" His assistant ran down the hall transmitting the order, and in moments the offices bustled with noise and activity. Oglesby passed by another underling and bruskly instructed him, "Send an owl to my wife. I won’t be home tonight. Tell her to pack as much as she can. We’ll be on the move in the morning."

Oglesby rarely drank, but in this instance, he opened a little used cabinet in his office and poured a measure of Ogden’s Firewhisky, plus a little extra, into a glass. He downed it in three gulps, and turned around to find his personal assistant and his four deputy editors rushing in. All of their eyes requested an explanation for his odd behavior.

"This will be a long night, ladies and gentlemen," he informed them softly, "First we’re going to prepare an edition that will knock the socks off of our dear friends at the Ministry. Then we’re bugging out." The five employees glanced back and forth at each other in confusion, unfamiliar with the muggle military term.

"Bugging out, Will?" asked the most senior of the editors, a long-time colleague of Oglesby and the only one comfortable addressing him by his given name. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that we’re moving. Everything. We have to relocate to a secret location before the Ministry shuts us down." His eyes bore a hole through the five onlookers, who had never witnessed the mild-mannered Chief Editor in such a state. He tried to relax a little and took a deep breath. "Look, I’ll explain as we go, but first off, we need to write this up. We can pull out some file photos and add a little filler. We can’t do more than that, I’m afraid." He pulled out several sheets of parchment and handed them to his assistant.

"Harry Potter?" she asked breathlessly, "How did you . . .?"

"No time for questions. Let’s get to work. I already have the headline: MINISTRY CHASES THE CHOSEN ONE.

Hermione mindlessly kept changing the channels of the television in Harry’s room, anxiously awaiting his return from the interview. Her sandals lay on the carpet while she curled up on the bed, her back braced by both pillows. She worried about Harry’s return, having second thoughts about not revealing the information about the locket before. Would Harry be angry with her?

After waiting impatiently for almost two hours, Harry materialized next to the bed with a deafening crack which echoed in the small hotel room. Naturally, they had placed a silencing charm on the room days before so that no sound could be heard by other guests. Just a few seconds after Harry arrived, another crack announced the arrival of Evan Harrington, though he did not appear for a moment until he whirled the invisibility cloak from over him. He wore a satisfied expression.

"Well done, Harry," he softly assured him, "I can’t wait to see tomorrow’s Prophet. This will change everything. Scrimgeour will have a heart attack."

The image of the Minister of Magic falling to the ground clutching his chest appeared in Harry’s mind, and he could not help but chuckle.

By now, Hermione had moved off of the bed and stood next to Harry.

"So how did it go?"

"OK, I guess," Harry replied, "We won’t know for sure until the article comes out tomorrow." Turning towards Harrington, Harry commented, "Didn’t Oglesby seem awfully tense? Something seemed to be on his mind distracting him."

Evan nodded, "You’re right, and if I’m not mistaken, there’s been a leak from the Ministry about Scrimgeour’s plans to control the press. The Ministry is leaking like a sieve right now because Scrimgeour’s created a lot of enemies. But he has a lot of supporters too. It’s not a good situation. We need to unite in the face of Voldemort, and I’m afraid that we’re going to be tearing ourselves apart."

Hermione glanced between the two men, not sure if she should bring up the revelation about the locket with Harrington present. Somehow, though she now mostly trusted the auror, this piece of information seemed too personal to be divulged to anyone else. Fortunately for her, Evan made the decision for her.

"What do we do next?" Harry asked while Hermione mused.

"Nothing for the moment," Evan decided, "There’s nothing to do until the article comes out tomorrow. Tonight you can relax and enjoy yourselves. But I’ve no time to discuss it now. I need to return to the Ministry right away. They’ll be expecting me, and with so much happening, I need to keep tabs on it. I’ll be back tomorrow night." He grabbed his invisibility cloak and stuffed it into a small valise that he had left in the room, ready to apparate away. He paused for a moment, and gazed at the young wizard and witch, who by now stood next to each other. A handsome couple, he thought.

"Be careful tomorrow. If you go out, take care. Cover your scar." He peered at them with great severity, and Harry and Hermione knew that he worried over the events of the coming days. "I’ll be by again tomorrow night," he concluded rapidly, and a moment later he disappeared.

The two friends stood silently for a moment, and Hermione knew that the time had come to reveal the information about the locket.

"Harry," she began softly, "I have something to tell you, but I couldn’t . . ."

"Tell me later," Harry interrupted brightly, "Right now I feel like a walk, and I’ll buy you a slice of pie. How’s that sound?" He grabbed her hand, not waiting for an answer, and Hermione followed along involuntarily, surprised at the upbeat tone of his voice. Harry seemed to be in great spirits.

He pulled her playfully out the door, closing it behind them. Hermione expected Harry to release her hand once outdoors, but again to her surprise, he instead repositioned her hand in his so that they fit together more comfortably, and they walked hand-in-hand past the doors of the other hotel rooms.

What did this mean? Hermione made no effort to remove her hand, and in fact found it pleasurable. Through the contact of the skin on their hands, Hermione tried to decipher Harry’s mood. He seemed playful rather than amorous, and again Hermione could not reconcile this Harry with her best friend of six years. The Harry she knew would never walk hand-in-hand with a girl unless that girl most definitely was his official girlfriend, but on this evening, they walked together as if he felt it to be the most natural thing in the world.

Hermione, however, could not walk in such a relaxed manner. Firstly, she needed to tell her friend about the locket, but she could not find an opportunity. Secondly, she could not help but wonder what Ron would think if she could see them like this, holding hands for all the world like a couple. Though she refused to admit Harry’s assertion from the previous day, she knew good and well that Ron liked her, and she assumed that if she walked hand-in-hand with a boy, that boy would be Ronald Weasley, not Harry Potter.

She liked Ron too. Sure, he could be lazy, jealous and argumentative, and he would never be a great wizard like Harry, but he also could be a wonderfully funny and loyal friend. It all seemed almost preordained. Harry would be with Ginny, and Ron would be with Hermione, once they ever surpassed the posturing stage of the last year. But over the past few days, Hermione discovered, this self-evident truth had been shot to bits. Harry fell for a girl in Liverpool, admitted that he did not love Ginny Weasley, and now held Hermione’s hand while walking down the street of her home town. None of it made any sense.

After a pleasant fifteen minute walk in the darkening evening, Hermione finally concentrated her thoughts enough to determine that she HAD to tell Harry about the horcrux. Realizing that they approached the same restaurant where Hedwig found her just a few days earlier, she seized the opportunity. Her free hand pointed ahead.

"How about that pie you offered, Harry? You haven’t forgotten already, have you?" she asked coyly, "That restaurant will do, and then I can tell you what I wanted to before."

Harry smiled broadly, seemingly enjoying a wonderful evening. He pulled her hand playfully towards the restaurant.

Chapter 14: Harry Is Different Now
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Chapter 14

Harry Is Different Now

Two death eaters stood a few feet behind Severus Snape, who muttered continuously as he waved his wand in front of him. Standing deep within the Forbidden Forest, the three determined exactly where the wards around Hogwarts Castle extended. Just a few feet in front of them, an invisible barrier prevented them from proceeding forward. When they tried, they found themselves suddenly walking in the opposite direction, almost imperceptibly.

Snape spent at least half an hour trying spell after spell on the wards, apparently attempting both to determine exactly what type of wards had been utilized and how to overcome them. In reality, however, he primarily intended to lull his "comrades" into a bored stupor. His opportunity had arrived, and he could not count on another.

"How much longer, Snape?" asked one of the pair sharply, a bearded young Irishman who weighed nearly three hundred pounds. He leaned against the trunk of a large tree, hands behind his head.

"Silence!" Snape snarled, as he so often did, "I must concentrate." He continued to face away from the pair, his black robe and hair fluttering in a soft breeze.

The portly death eater glanced as his partner, an older wizard with long greying hair, and the two rolled their eyes. Snape always exaggerated his importance in the dark lord’s hierarchy, at least in their opinion, but they also recognized his talents. The second death eater finally found a patch of grass, and sat down, leaning back on his two hands. Snape continued muttering.

Suddenly the two men slumped to the ground in unconsciousness. Snape lowered his wand, having just whirled around to cast two silent stupefy spells to knock out his companions. He caught the pair completely unawares. Stepping forward, he prodded each man with his foot to assure the effectiveness of the spells.

Now he needed to think. Waving his wand casually, he conjured a wooden chair, and sat down. At last he could escape from service to Voldemort, but he could not merely turn himself in to the Ministry or even the Order of the Phoenix. To them, he remained a traitor to be arrested on sight, and if it turned out that deadly force would be required to subdue him, nobody would shed a tear.

He recognized his only chance - Potter. And Weasley and Granger. If he could contact them, he might be able to explain. Maybe. Of course, Potter might also attempt to blast him into orbit, but that was a risk he would have to run. His primary problem for the moment would be how to evade both the dark lord and the Ministry until he could find Potter. The dark lord may not have concerned himself with the defection of a lowly soldier such as Draco Malfoy, but Snape knew that his betrayal would not be overlooked. He still had a day to make himself scarce, and to hope that the dark lord did not have any means to locate him. Snape knew much about the former Tom Riddle, but he also knew that the dark lord retained many secrets.

First things first, however. Snape glared at the two death eaters strewn before him. He could not allow them to report back to the dark lord, for he needed as much time as possible to escape. For a moment, he thought back to his mentor, Albus Dumbledore, and considered what the headmaster would do in this situation. Probably he would just leave them there, allowing them to return to Voldemort’s side, not worrying about it for a second. But of course there was one huge difference between Dumbledore and Snape. Albus Dumbledore did not fear Lord Voldemort.

I am not Albus Dumbledore,
Snape thought. Sneering at the fallen pair, he lifted his wand again and twice uttered the same spell.


"Are you sure you want to go through with this, Will? It’s now or never."

Now well past midnight, the proof copy of the next morning’s Daily Prophet lay before William Oglesby and his old colleague on top of a cluttered work table. Around them, a beehive of workers scurried about packing up equipment and tools, shouting instructions back and forth. Oglesby heard none of it. Instead he focused on every word of his interview with Harry Potter. If he approved it, the presses would start cranking out copies immediately. The owls would leave in the early morning hours, delivering copies to subscribers. He knew that Minister Scrimgeour counted among that group and would suffer a nasty surprise over his morning orange juice. After that, who knew?

After he finished the last word, he lifted his head and stared at the ceiling. Should he or should he not? We’ve come too far, he thought. Slowly he lowered his head and turned towards his senior editor.

"Go with it."

His old friend smirked and patted William on the back, chuckling as he commented, "That’s what I wanted to hear, Will." The editor grabbed the proof copy and rushed out of the room, yelling at the top of his voice, "WE’RE GOING WITH IT!"

Harry Potter did not always look a person in the eye, but at certain times, Hermione learned over the years, he could stare into a person’s eyes for minutes at a time. The two friends experienced several such moments over the years of their friendship - before Harry entered the room with the Philosopher’s Stone, before saving Sirius, before he confronted the dragon during the Tri-wizard Tournament. Once again, they experienced another such moment.

Hermione almost felt guilty about bringing up the subject of the locket. Rarely had she seen Harry in such a jovial mood, stepping lightly along the streets of her home town. She felt his light-heartedness through his hand, which continued to hold hers until they finally reached the restaurant that she had previously indicated. Optimism almost. Apparently, the interview with the editor of the Daily Prophet somehow energized Harry, and Hermione hated to bring him back to earth.

At first, as the waitress showed them to their table, she could not. She figured it could wait until they had enjoyed their pie and tea. While waiting, Harry calmed down, and managed to fill Hermione in on the interview. He detailed much of his wanderings while on the run from the Ministry, even a fictionalized version of his escape from Evan Harrington in Liverpool. The interview finished with some biting comments about the Minister of Magic. If Scrimgeour had not considered Harry to be an enemy before, this interview would seal the deal.

The two friends quieted when their pies arrived, cherry for Hermione, French apple for Harry, and they contemplated the effect of the upcoming article. Finally a subdued Harry broke the silence.

"Everything’s going to be different after tomorrow. It may be time for me to go, but I’m not sure where."

"I know where," answered Hermione, thankful to be given such a segue, "Grimmauld Place, at least for awhile." Harry’s head jerked at the mention of his home, inherited by him from his godfather just a year earlier. Number 12 Grimmauld Place would be the last place he would want to go. Everyone agreed that the mansion could no longer be considered safe.

Hermione commenced her explanation of Ron’s revelation about the locket that would not open. Harry remembered the incident well, and half way through Hermione’s monologue, he understood. It had to be a horcrux. RAB, the initials on the note with the fake locket, had to refer to Regulus Black, he quickly deduced. They could verify his middle initial later, if necessary, but it simply HAD to be. It all made sense.

He allowed Hermione to finish the story without interruption, but little by little, his eyes focused on hers, as they had done in the past when the two of them faced critical moments. The discovery of a horcrux met the criteria. When after nearly five minutes Hermione stopped talking, Harry did not immediately respond, merely allowing his eyes to bore into Hermione’s.

Despite the severity of the moment, Hermione could not help but marvel at the intense green of her friend’s eyes, seemingly more intense than ever before. Hermione often looked into people’s eyes, but after a minute of gazing into Harry’s, she finally had to avert them. When she broke the connection, Harry moved his head as well, as if it had been stuck before.

"It’s so obvious," he finally muttered softly, "Why didn’t we think about it before?" Hermione nodded but did not answer. She could see his eyes darting back and forth, reflecting the feverous activity of his brain. "Ron will want to be there," he finally concluded, "Ginny too. Since he figured it out, and she helped, we should all be there. We’ll go tomorrow." Hermione nodded, and the two friends made plans.

As normal, Rufus Scrimgeour rose at half past five the next morning, pulling on a plain brown morning robe. Now a widower, he lived alone in the family home, a large but unpretentious single story structure. Though comfortably situated, riches never interested the Minister of Magic, and he shunned the magnificently ostentatious mansions of the Malfoys and their ilk.

Making his way towards the ample kitchen, he nodded to his house elf, Oscar, busily preparing breakfast. Oscar, an elderly elf which had served the Scrimgeour family for as long as anyone could remember, already placed the morning Daily Prophet before the Minister’s chair, right next to his morning mug of coffee and glass of orange juice. Scrimgeour briefly placed the mug to his lips, and set it back down, grabbing the paper and flicking it open.

A file photograph of Harry Potter greeted him, taken at Dumbledore’s funeral. Potter apparently did not realize that his picture was being taken, and he looked off to the left, a serious and determined expression on his face. To his right, a portion of two heads could be seen, a boy with red hair and a girl with bushy brown hair, but their faces did not appear.

Scrimgeour slowly stood as he read the headline and quickly scanned the article.


Editor in Chief

For the past fortnight, the Ministry of Magic has attempted to arrest Harry Potter, the "Boy Who Lived," apparently without charge, resulting in a nationwide chase for the seventeen-year-old wizard. Such is the story related by Harry Potter himself, described to this reporter in a lengthy interview conducted yesterday evening.

"I noticed that I was being followed by someone when I was staying with my aunt and uncle in Surrey, and eventually I determined that it had to be someone from the Ministry," claimed Mr. Potter, in the interview conducted at a secret location in Liverpool. Finally convincing himself of the danger in allowing himself to be arrested, and completely confused as to why the Ministry would seek to do such a thing, Mr. Potter decided to abandon his home approximately two weeks before his seventeenth birthday of July 31.

He traveled by muggle means, boarding a train in Little Whinging and making his first stop in Liverpool, where he hid for several days. Believing that he slipped the watchful eye of the Ministry, he discovered to his horror that a man from the Ministry, apparently an auror, somehow tracked him to the port city. Mr. Potter still is not sure whether the auror spotted him or not, but the young wizard hastily retreated to his hotel room, gathered his belongings, and apparated away.
Chastened by the close call, Mr. Potter took greater care over the next days, traveling often and only by muggle transportation. He often purchased train tickets for a specific destination, only to abandon the train at an intermediary city. He changed his appearance and has managed to avoid the Ministry thus far.

Mr. Potter suspected that even his friends were being watched in the belief that he would attempt to contact them. This in fact turned out to be true, as Mr. Potter eventually made his way to Essex in an attempt to contact one of his best friends. Taking great care, he determined that the house of his friend was being watched. Eventually he surreptitiously contacted his friend, but at some point the Ministry must have spotted him, despite his disguise, for once again, Mr. Potter beat a hasty retreat when he realized that a different auror followed him.

Finally he decided to go public with his strange tale, secretly making contact with the Daily Prophet. Mr. Potter briefly returned to Liverpool for the interview, but informed this reporter that he would be leaving the city immediately thereafter.

"I just want this to end," Mr. Potter explained, "I don’t know what I have done to deserve this. I can only guess that Minister Scrimgeour is behind this. Twice he has asked me to be the ‘poster boy’ for the Ministry, but twice I refused. This is the type of man the Minister is, willing to break the law if it serves his purpose. Instead of trying to defeat (You Know Who), he’s wasting time and manpower trying to arrest me, who hasn’t done anything. I’m going public in the hope that the Ministry will stop this insane chase. I just want to go back to being a normal person."

Scrimgeour did not bother reading the last paragraphs of the article. He threw the paper on the table and rushed to his bedroom to throw on his clothes and robe. Hastily returning to the kitchen, he stuffed the newspaper into the pocket of his robe.

"I must leave early today," he tersely informed Oscar, who stared serenely at his master. The elderly house elf had often seen Scrimgeour rush out of the house early, so he did not betray any surprise. Moments later the Minister stepped into a fireplace to floo to the secured fireplace of the Minister of Magic’s office.

Immediately he yelled for someone to come in, but soon he realized that at six in the morning, nobody had yet arrived. Glancing once again at the Prophet article, he audibly growled and grabbed a handful of floo powder, thinking that he would call on his ministers himself. Before tossing the grains into the fire, however, he wavered. Maybe he should think this through before issuing orders. He threw the powder into the fireplace.

"Harrison Manor," he spoke quietly, allowing a second to pass before thrusting his head into the flames. A moment later, his eyes viewed the elegant sitting room of the mansion of his old friend and informal advisor, Jeremiah Harrison. The Minister expected to shout to attract the attention of one of Harrison’s staff of house elves, as he usually did, only to find that his friend sat serenely on the sofa facing the fireplace. Harrison had already dressed, despite the early hour, holding the morning Prophet in his hand. Clearly he expected a visit from his old friend.

"Hello, Rufus," he greeted the Minister, "I’ll come right along." He stood and stepped towards the fireplace.

"Thank you, Jeremiah, just wait a few seconds."

Scrimgeour pulled himself out of the fireplace and back into his office. Quickly standing, he waved his wand at the flames, silently casting the password which would allow Jeremiah Harrison to floo directly to the office. Seconds later, Harrison stepped gracefully out of the fireplace, flicking a few ashes off of his robe.

"I thought you would call, Rufus, as soon as I saw it." He flipped his Daily Prophet onto the low mahogany table positioned near the fireplace. "I’ve feared that word about Potter would leak, but I never imagined that Potter himself would perform the task. It’s a brilliant move. Especially when Oglesby asks the wizarding world to react."

"He what?" Rufus grunted, "I didn’t read . . ." Harrison knew his friend well, and already had the newspaper opened to the final paragraphs of Oglesby’s article. Scrimgeour always lacked the patience to read an article all the way through, a habit Harrison had often noted and criticized over the years. Scrimgeour grabbed the paper and quickly read the paragraph to which Harrison pointed.

The reader may well ask, if the Minister of Magic is capable of arresting a mere boy, just turned seventeen years of age, without charge or apparent justification, of what more may the Minister be capable? Rumors already abound of the Minister’s intentions to limit our freedoms. Freedom of the Press. Freedom of Speech. What other freedoms are we willing to cede in times of strife? Use your owls wisely, wizards and witches, and let the Minister know your opinions

Scrimgeour blanched and gently set the newspaper down. No doubt the owls would begin to arrive shortly, full of outrage and venom. Today would be the worst day of his reign as Minister of Magic, and it may very well be his last if he did not deal with this crisis forcefully and decisively.

"What do you propose, Jeremiah?

His old friend stood and paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, carefully composing a response.

"I see two options. You can deny Potter’s story. No evidence can be produced to prove it; it’s all based on his word. If you forcefully deny it, many will not believe you, but you may create enough doubt to save your job. Of course, you will have no choice but to leave the boy alone." Which is what you should have done in the first place, he refrained from adding.

Scrimgeour scowled at this option. How could Jeremiah expect him to surrender so completely?

"The second option is to proceed with all haste with your plan. Taking control of the press, declaring Martial Law, forcibly moving all wizards and witches to defensible locations. This story, however, will make implementation of your plans exponentially more difficult."

The Minister quickly calculated all of the ramification of this second option, which he greatly preferred on a gut level. One does not rule with one’s gut, however, and he immediately realized that embracing the second option would only lead to further disaster. Currently he enjoyed the support of a significant portion of the public, and for his plan to work, he needed to retain that base. Potter, however, frankly enjoyed much greater popularity, and taking option two would in essence verify the boy’s story. Scrimgeour’s popularity would vanish, and he could not hope to accomplish his plan. He likely would be deposed by either legal or illegal means. Both were known to have occurred over the centuries.

"I have to deny it. It’s my only hope."

Harrison expelled a sigh of relief, releasing the worry that his stubborn friend would fail to see the writing on the wall. This situation called for a strategic retreat.

"You still have your wits about you, Rufus. I thought you might not be willing to swallow your pride. Potter has won this round, but the game is far from finished." Scrimgeour frowned but nodded his agreement. This would be a most unpleasant day, but he resolved that he would live to fight another.

"Bloody Hell!"

"Arthur!" admonished Molly Weasley, "Really!"

"Sorry, Molly," Arthur Weasley quickly apologized for his uncharacteristic outburst, "but it’s Harry. He’s on the front page of the Prophet. Look!"

Molly tossed a dish towel on the counter and rushed from the kitchen to the table where Arthur had just seated himself for his normal early breakfast. The two silently and rapidly read William Oglesby’s account of the interview with Harry. When Arthur finally reached the end, he shook his head and a smile formed on his face.

"Brilliant," he opined, "Absolutely brilliant. Harry couldn’t have possibly come up with a better plan. The owls are probably already arriving. Scrimgeour will have no choice. He’ll have to back off. If he doesn’t, he’ll lose what support his has. Brilliant!"

Arthur generally saw the bright side of things, but Molly suffered from perpetual pessimism, always worrying for the safety of her children and those that she loved.

"I don’t know, Arthur. Scrimgeour’s going to be terribly upset by this. He’ll want to arrest Harry more than ever." Molly slowly sat as she continued to examine Harry’s picture, as if she might discover a clue in it.

"Not if he wants to keep his job," Arthur responded confidently, "and believe me, Scrimgeour wants to keep his job. There’s nothing more important to him. Sure, he’ll be mad as an offended hippogriff, but he’ll have to leave Harry alone, at least for awhile."

Molly and Arthur jumped when out of the blue they heard a knock on the side door just a few feet away. Both automatically grasped their wands and stood.

"It’s me, Hermione," they heard from outside, "I just saw the Daily Prophet, and I had to come over."

Molly rushed to open the door and greeted Hermione with a typical bear hug, and finally she saw the bright side of the Prophet article.

"Yes, Harry’s OK. At least we know he’s OK. It’s such a relief." Molly breathed in deeply, finally allowing that basic fact to sink in.

"That’s what I thought too," Hermione agreed, "Are Ron and Ginny up yet? I know I’m terribly early."

"I’m up," a groggy Ginny announced as she appeared from the stairwell tying her red and blue bath robe, her bare legs visible below, "What is everyone talking about? Why are you here, Hermione?" Molly handed the newspaper to her, and Ginny’s eyes quickly scanned down the article.

"Thank Merlin, they haven’t caught him, and he’s OK," she whispered, reflecting the sentiment of her mother and friend.

"Ron should know too. Can you wake him, Ginny?" Hermione suggested. The true reason for her visit, of course, had nothing to do with the Daily Prophet article.

Ten minutes later, Hermione and Ginny sat quietly in Ron’s room while Ron, still in his pajamas, finished reading the article. When he arrived at the end, his lips formed a smile.

"Wicked!" he exclaimed, "Scrimgeour’s going to be scratching pixie bites after this."

Hermione paused for a second, never having heard that particular wizarding phrase, but she ignored it, pushing ahead. Already she placed a silencing charm on the door.

"Look, that’s not why I’m here," she explained, "It was just a good excuse. I told Harry about the locket. We are going to Grimmauld today." Ron and Ginny looked at each other, not exactly understanding who would be included. Did the "we" refer to them as well. Hermione sensed their confusion. "Harry wants you there too. That’s why I’m here, to make arrangements. When and where should we meet."

After they set a time and place and agreed upon other details, Hermione moved towards the door, intending to return to her home and then to meet Harry. She paused however, finishing an internal debate. Since she returned to her home the previous evening after leaving Harry, she argued with herself. Should she tell Ginny or not? If so, how much should she disclose? Finally she decided.

"Ginny, can I talk to you in your room for a minute. Sorry, Ron, but it’s girl talk."

Ron and Ginny both found Hermione’s request odd. This hardly seemed the time for "girl talk," but Ron knew he had no right to object.

"You can stay here if you want. I’m going downstairs for breakfast." He felt slightly put out by being asked to leave, but he slid his feet into slippers and made his way out, closing the door behind him. Hermione reapplied the silencing spell to the door. Ginny stared at her nervously, wondering what may have happened to Harry that would cause the need for a private chat.

For her part, Hermione fretted over her decision to disclose even partial information to Ginny. After all, Harry and Ginny’s relationship belonged to them, and she should not interfere, but ultimately she determined that it would be better that Ginny have some idea of what had happened over the past weeks, to help her prepare and adjust. She bit her bottom lip, hoping she made the right decision.

"Ginny, I just thought you should know something that happened to Harry," Hermione ambiguously began, pausing ominously. Ginny did not reply but gave her friend her undivided attention. Hermione could think of no delicate way to explain.

"Harry met a girl," she sighed, "In Liverpool."

Ginny did not react outwardly, but inside her stomach suddenly churned. She remained silent.

"She was a muggle, an old school mate from Little Whinging. They just happened to bump into each other, completely unexpected, and they spent a day or so together. I don’t really know what happened; I just know that Harry knew that he couldn’t start anything serious with her, for obvious reasons, but I think he would have liked to." She glanced again at Ginny for any reaction, but she remained stone-faced. "It sounds like he was pretty broken up about it, but I think he’s more or less over it, with everything else that’s been happening. I don’t want to interfere with whatever is going on between Harry and you, but I thought you should know."

The news hit Ginny like a troll’s club, and Hermione could sense that the younger witch exerted great effort to control her expression. Of all the things that Hermione could have told her, this had to hurt the most. True, Harry had broken up with her after Dumbledore’s funeral, but Ginny did not consider that to be a true termination of their relationship, but a temporary hiatus until Harry completed his destiny. Certainly Ginny would not have hooked up with a boy just a month afterwards. What did this mean?

Ginny knew she needed to respond, so quietly she murmured, "Thanks for telling me, Hermione. What was her name?"

"Melissa. I don’t know her last name or anything else about her. Harry hasn’t said much about it, and I haven’t pried. She’s pretty, I guess"

"I’m sure she is," Ginny commented absently, "What do you think I should do?" For the first time, Hermione could hear a quavering in Ginny’s voice.

"Nothing right now, Ginny. Maybe I should have waited to tell you, but we’re going after a horcrux today. That has to be the most important thing. You’re going to be seeing Harry soon, for the first time since June, and I thought you should be aware. You need to be prepared. Harry is different now; everything is different.. But don’t tell Harry that I told you. His mood is pretty volatile right now. He goes from one extreme to another in a matter of seconds. He can be a little scary sometimes."

Neither girl spoke for several moments, and Hermione knew that she needed to leave. She felt satisfied that she disclosed only the minimum required to put Ginny on notice. Certainly, she had no right to relate Harry’s comment that he no longer loved Ginny, and she saw no reason to mention the hand-holding of the previous evening. After all, that merely resulted from the change in his personality on his seventeenth birthday.

"I’m sorry, Ginny; I wish I didn’t have to tell you. I need to get back. We’ll see you soon." Ginny nodded, and the two girls briefly embraced before Hermione turned away to leave.

After a restless night, Evan Harrington anxiously awaited his Daily Prophet, and he nodded his head approvingly as he perused the article. He might have changed a few items and maybe added a few more barbs directed at the Minister of Magic, but all in all, the article should do the trick.

Theoretically, he remained assigned to the task of locating and arresting Harry Potter, but for the past couple of days he invented reports out of whole cloth. His information placed Harry in several cities throughout Britain, now possibly in Manchester. As far as anyone at the office knew, Evan stayed the night in Manchester or some other city, when in reality he enjoyed a night in his own bed. Any time now, he expected to receive an owl from the Ministry ordering him back, and a series of frantic meetings would follow. He held out little doubt that by the end of the day, he would be reassigned to a different mission.

Then he would have to make some decisions.

Chapter 15: Smash It, Harry
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Chapter 15

Smash It, Harry

Unlike Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Evan Harrington, Draco Malfoy did not have the slightest idea how to survive in the muggle world. As the sole heir to the Malfoy name and as pure of blood as a wizard can be, Draco never mingled with muggles. He recalled that on a very few occasions in his younger years, his mother took him to a muggle shopping center, just to look. Much as a muggle mother might take her young child to the zoo.

His attempt lasted one day. From the pitch black forest where he abandoned his aunt and the other death eater, Draco first apparated to the outskirts of Hogsmeade, simply because he could think of no other place under the stress of the moment. Obviously, he could not return to Malfoy Manor, and in any event, he knew the mansion sat vacant.

His mother resided in a secured location with other death eaters’ wives and children, but at the dark lord’s order, the exact location of the safe house remained secret, not disclosed to any but a few death eaters. One death eater checked on the spouses on a daily basis, assuring that their needs were met. The system ensured the loyalty of those spouses who knew that their husbands would be punished severely for any misconduct. Of course, this system worked the other way too, ensuring the loyalty of the death eaters to avoid the punishment of their wives and children.

Draco arrived at the edge of Hogsmeade, just fifty yards from the Shrieking Shack. Late at night, he guessed and hoped that the area would be clear of the village’s inhabitants. His father often told Draco that the stories about the haunted nature of the Shrieking Shack were hogwash, and Draco hoped that he told the truth. With Lucius Malfoy, one could never be certain.

Finding himself alone, Draco in fact entered the shack and found it apparently normal, so far as he could tell. He transfigured the torn and shredded mattress on the old bed into a more comfortable version, and lay himself down. He had no intention to sleep, and could not have anyway, given the pounding of his heart in his chest. By abandoning the dark lord, he knew that he wrote his death sentence.

Yet he also felt a huge sense of relief. For the first time in his life, he made a decision for himself. Perhaps a fatally stupid decision, but a decision nonetheless. His only hope for the moment rested in his lack of importance. Clearly the name of Draco Malfoy would be added to the dark lord’s hit list, but certainly the dark lord must have more pressing matters on the agenda.

Staring up at the bare wooden ceiling, which he could barely see in the darkness, Draco knew that he could not stay long. He needed to melt away for the time being, and that meant immersing himself in the muggle world of which he knew virtually nothing. Never had he stayed in a muggle hotel. Never had he ordered a meal in a muggle restaurant. He did not even know how to use muggle money, not that he had any. His decision appeared worse the more he thought about it, but he knew he could not change his mind now. Even if he returned to the fold, the dark lord could sense betrayal and use legilimency to read his mind. No, Draco would simply have to adapt and hope for the best.

Finally after two or three hours of paralyzed thought, Draco stood and pointed his wand, releasing the transfiguration spell so that the mattress would return to its previous worn and torn state. He intended to leave no tracks. He could think of only one muggle site where he could apparate - the phone booth entrance to the Ministry. Naturally, he no more desired capture by the Ministry than by the dark lord, but he knew that the Ministry knew nothing of his whereabouts and cared little about Draco Malfoy. Though risky, he disappeared and reappeared a few yards from the booth in central London.

Draco thankfully found the dimly lit asphalt lot around the phone booth deserted. Knowing that the seat of the magical government, which would like nothing better than to throw him into Azkaban, rested just a few yards below him, Draco immediately walked down the streets of London, not stopping for an hour and not having the slightest idea where he was.

That day, he tried. He tried not to feel like he walked among filth, for that is how he considered the muggles whose shoulders he rubbed. I’m a pure blood wizard, he argued to himself, Malfoys do not live among muggles. He would not stoop to that level, and by the end of the day, he apparated away, back to the Shrieking Shack, both to sleep and to determine his next move. One thing for sure, however; he would NOT live like a muggle!

"Not bad."

Hermione waited for Harry to expound on his opinion of William Oglesby’s article, which Harry just finished reading. She could have waited all day, for Harry flipped the Daily Prophet on his unmade bed, and apparently gave the matter no further thought.

Unlike the previous evening, this morning Harry remained quiet and detached, only engaging in minimal conversation with his best friend. Hermione still had not accustomed herself to Harry’s wild mood swings, so unlike him in the past. Sure, the "real" Harry, as she considered him, could lose his temper, but most of the time he remained pretty level. The "new" Harry could be laughter and silliness one moment, surly and reclusive moments later. Last night he held her hand as they playfully ambled around town; this morning, he barely noticed her presence. Despite her knowledge of all that had occurred to him, she could not help but feel hurt by his distant attitude.

After a lengthy silence, which Hermione felt loathe to break, Harry finally stood and turned towards her.


She nodded her head, pausing only a moment to stuff the Daily Prophet into her purse, not wanting the muggle maid to find it. Moments later, the two of them disappeared.

Ron and Ginny walked nervously near the river outside of Ottery St. Catchpole, heading towards town. Ginny, of course, remained deeply confused by Hermione’s revelation a few hours earlier about Harry’s short-lived romantic liaison of the summer, and she almost wished that Hermione had not told her. On the other hand, she did not wish to be deceived or to live a lie. For the moment, however, she knew that she could not confront Harry or otherwise reveal her feelings. The horcrux mattered much more than the love life of a sixteen year-old girl.

Presumably their Ministry minder followed them under an invisibility cloak or disillusionment charm, but they pretended not to notice or care. A few hundred yards before reaching the edge of town, they navigated a hair-pin turn in a wooded area. They knew that if someone followed them from a distance, he or she would temporarily lose sight of them at this point. The brother and sister stopped, and Ron took a deep breath to calm himself. Though a few weeks earlier he passed his test and now possessed an apparation licence, he apparated without great confidence, and certainly he had never side-along apparated anyone. He nodded at Ginny, who also took a deep breath, and Ron reached out to hold her upper arm. Crack!

They each let out a sigh of relief when they arrived in tact at the apparation area of King’s Cross in London. Immediately they pivoted on their feet looking for Harry and Hermione. Standing to their right next to a red brick wall stood Hermione and a fairly tall teenaged boy wearing blue jeans and a red Liverpool F.C. hat and jersey with a large number 10 on it. Ron and Ginny would not have recognized Harry had they not known that he would be awaiting them. Other wizards and witches appeared out of nowhere, while others walked in planning to apparate home.

Following their plan, Hermione approached and hugged both Weasleys while Harry hung back a step, as if he did not know them.

"Ron, Ginny," she announced loudly for all to hear, "I’d like you to meet my friend, Jonathon." Harry stepped forward and reached out a hand.

"Nice to meet you," he responded appropriately, taking Ron’s hand, and then Ginny’s. They responded in similar fashion, and soon the four friends reached the street to hail a taxi.

Hermione and Harry determined that in order to avoid any chance of the Ministry tracking them, they would arrive at Grimmauld Place by muggle taxi. By apparating to King’s Cross, one of the most heavily utilized apparation sites in all of Britain, the Ministry would never be able to track their movements. The four piled into the back seat a large cab.

Intentionally or not, Harry ended up sitting next to Hermione, and Ginny could not help but read significance into that act. Certainly, she believed, if Harry retained feelings for her, he would have arranged to sit next to her in the taxi, even if they intended to continue their little act until reaching the house. Despite all of the efforts to control her emotions, her stomach twisted itself into knots.

Hermione and Ron did most of the talking in the taxi, and in fact Harry did not utter a word during the twenty-minute drive to Grimmauld Place. He kept his red Liverpool hat on the entire trip, pulled down low over his scar. Finally they arrived, and as they approached, the two houses in front of them incredibly shifted noiselessly to the side to permit the emergence of the huge medieval mansion known as Number 12 Grimmauld Place. The two wizards and two witches, however, did not pay the astonishing occurrence a second thought, having witnessed it numerous times in the past. Once they closed the door behind them, Harry removed his hat to reveal his short blond hair, causing deep laughter from his best mate, Ron, and a mild chuckle from Hermione. Ginny’s expression did not change.

"Quite clearly, Mr. Potter has misinterpreted the intention of the Ministry. While it is true that the Ministry of Defense placed a watch on Mr. Potter during the month of July, no sinister motive for such action existed. Given recent events, the Ministry quite reasonably determined that Mr. Potter could be a target for the forces of You Know Who, and we intended both to do our best to protect Mr. Potter while at the same time possibly capturing one or more death eaters. In fact, I have been informed today that nothing unusual occurred until Mr. Potter’s sudden and unexpected disappearance a little over two weeks ago."

Minister of Magic Scrimgeour tried his best to force a benevolent frustration into his voice and expression, only partially succeeding. Standing before some two dozen reporters, quills scratching, he attempted to act like a grandfather complaining about "those darned youngsters these days."

"Naturally, we were extremely concerned when Mr. Potter disappeared, and in fact we allocated the limited resources at our disposal to attempt to determine his fate, and I along with the rest of the wizarding population rejoice that Mr. Potter is safe and sound, and that his departure resulted from a mere misunderstanding. As I have expressed to Mr. Potter directly in the past, I would be more than willing to meet with him and to be of service in any way that I can."

The dour faces of the assembled press did not appear to be convinced, but Scrimgeour knew that like it or not, they would have to report his words. Of course, the reporters desired the opportunity to question the Minister, but Scrimgeour would have none of that.

"Now I must take my leave, as I have an extremely busy schedule today and could only carve out but a few short minutes to deal with this misunderstanding. Thank you for your attention." And with that the Minister strode forcefully out of the press briefing room, ignoring the shouted questions.

Once behind closed doors, the four friends could finally greet each other properly, though doing so half an hour after meeting caused the hugs to feel out of place. Nevertheless, Harry did embrace Ginny briefly, just as Ron embraced Hermione. Ginny forced a smile.

Don’t think about it,
she instructed herself, Now is not the time.

The dark gloom of the foyer of the ancient mansion placed a further damper on the greetings. As far as they could tell, the house had not been lit in months. The smell of dust and must enveloped them, and they turned up their noses.

"Let’s find it," Harry declared abruptly, "We can talk later."

Quietly they passed the portrait of Mrs. Black, which remained covered by a thick grimy drape, and they climbed the stairs to the drawing room, where they all agreed the locket that would not open had last been seen.

Ron glanced at Hermione and then nodded his head towards Harry, who led the way. He immediately noted changes in his best friend, some obvious but others that he felt more than understood. Hermione also nodded her head an inch, indicating her understanding and that she had warned them. When she visited Ron and Ginny the first time after Harry’s birthday, she informed them of Dumbledore’s letter, and earlier this same morning, she warned them again. Harry was still Harry, but he had become completely unpredictable.

The vacant mansion emitted an almost wild feeling, as if the four of them hiked through a jungle. Ron, Hermione and Ginny walked slowly and warily, but Harry moved ahead with determination, seemingly ignorant of the deteriorating state of the house, which after all belonged to him. He opened the door to the drawing room without hesitation, striding through and waiving his wand to ignite the lamps on the wall.

Even with the lamps lighted, the large room remained dim. Spiders had woven complicated webs, some of them covering the lamps, and soon they could smell the webs smouldering. Hermione sniffed twice and then waved her wand several times to remove the webs.

"I hope Mundungus didn’t steal it," Ron mentioned, as he knocked some dust off of a chair. A small-time thief, Mundungus Fletcher "liberated" a number of items of silver from the Black mansion, but nobody ever inventoried the missing items.

"Where did we put it?" asked Ginny, trying her best to be helpful but still feeling out of place, "Wasn’t it in that bureau?"

"No, I think we put it back in the drawer of that desk," Hermione answered, pointing at a dusty old three legged table with two small drawers. The three of them began to look around while Harry remained in the middle of the room, eyes closed.

He felt something. The sensation both attracted him and repelled him, and seemed both familiar and strange. To his right he heard a rattling in a drawer and vaguely realized that a boggart must have reclaimed the room as its home.

"Mundungus must have nicked it," Hermione concluded after a ten-minute search yielded no results. All the while, Harry remained motionless, often with his eyes closed.

"Why don’t you help us, Harry?" Ginny asked, a little perturbed that he let the three of them do all the work. If Harry heard her, he gave no indication.

Instead after a few more seconds, he walked resolutely to the corner of the room, moving a chair our of the way. The other three followed him but saw nothing, as no piece of furniture had been placed there. The outside stone wall of the house met the interior wall, covered with a paneling of some sort, though they could not exactly describe it in the dim, grimy atmosphere.

"It’s there," Harry informed them, as if any fool could see. He stooped down and noted a panel that protruded slightly from the rest of the wall, Reaching out his hand, he pulled it back, and sure enough it had been pried open some time ago. Harry lifted it up and out about a foot.

Pulling out his wand, he muttered, "Lumos," using his wand like a flash light. His friends crouched down next to him, and Ron and Hermione added their wand light. The combined light reflected off of a dozen or so items that had been stashed in the wall.

"Kreacher!" Harry sneered. They knew that the Black family’s last house elf, inherited by Harry, had protected numerous family heirlooms by spiriting them away to hiding places. Apparently, the elf created more such nooks than they realized. Carefully, Harry reached in and began to remove a few items at a time, narrowing avoiding a bite by an ancient gold watch infused with dark magic. Finally he removed the item that he knew beyond doubt would be there, Slytherin’s locket.

The other retrieved items, mostly made of silver, had tarnished by the months or years of neglect, but the heavy gold locket shone brilliantly as if just newly polished. The intricate serpentine S spread across the frontal piece and did not reveal any sign of wear. Harry lifted up the locket by its thick golden chain for all of them to see. The four friends stared mutely.

Previously, when Harry lay in his bed the night before, he tried to deduce how to destroy the horcrux. Only two points of reference existed. Harry himself destroyed the diary in the Chamber of Secrets during his second year. The diary must have been the first horcrux created by Tom Riddle, then Head Boy at Hogwarts. Though Harry knew nothing of horcruxes at the time, he recalled vividly the urge he felt to destroy it, stabbing it over and over again with the basilisk fang. Nothing subtle about it.

Dumbledore destroyed Marvolo Gaunt’s ring, though he never provided Harry with an explanation. The headmaster’s effort left his arm withered and the black stone of the ring cracked down the middle. That did not strike Harry as especially subtle either. But why did Dumbledore suffer physical damage when Harry remained unaffected? He could not create a hypothesis to explain this, except for one that he preferred not to consider.

"What should we do with it?" Hermione whispered, as if her raised voice might inadvertently release the imprisoned soul. Ron and Ginny observed mutely, not having the slightest idea.

"I need a hammer," Harry informed them.

"What?" Hermione asked with a shudder, "A hammer? Why?"

"Why do you think?" Harry responded sarcastically, then asking more politely, "Could you conjure or transfigure one?" They all knew that Hermione possessed the greatest ability at such magic.

Hermione paused. She felt that they should discuss this, not act so rashly. Smashing the locket did not appear to her to be a likely method to destroy a horcrux, though truthfully she had no more likely solution. On the other hand, she could sense that Harry’s mood had swung to an extreme, and frankly she preferred not to annoy him. She decided that transfiguring a dagger from one of the many coats of armor in the mansion would be most effective.

"Ron, can you bring me a dagger from one of the suits of armor?"

Ron nodded and left for a few moments. Harry, Hermione and Ginny continued to stare at the heavy locket.

"Try opening it, Harry," suggested Ginny, and Harry attempted to release the lid of the locket. Again, it would not budge. Ron returned with a thick foot-long blade and handed it to Hermione. She placed it on the table, waved her wand in an intricate fashion, and the dagger transformed into a beautifully polished hammer.

Harry did not appear impressed by Hermione’s wand-work, because he desired something with a little more oomph to it. Hermione’s hammer, though admirable, had a head designed for pounding nails, not demolishing a large, sturdy locket. Harry had something more destructive in mind.

"Bigger, a lot bigger," Harry ordered.

"I’ll do it," Ron declared, wand in hand, for he knew what Harry had in mind. After he waved his wand in a similar manner to Hermione, the beautiful hammer designed by Hermione turned into a less aesthetically pleasing but more functional sledge hammer. The foot-long wooden handle felt rough and unfinished, but the head measured three inches across and must have weighed close to ten pounds. Harry grabbed it.

"Wait a minute, Harry," pleaded Hermione, "Let’s think about this first. Do we know what we’re doing?"

But Harry did not respond. He moved through the three others to the center of the room, placing Slytherin’s locket on the hard tile.

"Move away," he instructed them, and the three took two steps back. Harry fell to his knees, never taking his eyes off of the S on top of the locket. He inhaled deeply.

Ginny jumped a foot into the air as Harry suddenly raised the hammer and pulled it down with all his strength, right on top of the locket. Hermione’s heart skipped a beat too, and the two girls instinctively moved towards each other.

Harry stopped to inspect the locket, which did not display even a scratch. This infuriated him, and with a sneer, he raised the hammer again and let it fall. And then again.

His face contorted in between a grimace and a snarl, and already sweat beaded on his forehead. Ginny froze at the sight of him, a person she knew so well suddenly behaving in a completely unknown manner.

"Harry," yelled Hermione, "Stop! Think what you are doing." Harry responded with another blow.

Ron, on the other hand, felt a fire ignite inside him which burned more strongly with each blow by his best mate. A sneer gradually formed on his face, and he wished he had a hammer himself to join in.

"Smash it, Harry!" he yelled, "Smash the bloody thing into a thousand pieces!"

Harry kept at it, and after a dozen blows, he inspected the locket again. This time he saw damage, a couple of dents and a hairline crack. Immediately he knew that he could destroy it, and he raised the sledge hammer again and again, viciously pounding the locket.

Ginny had never seen anything like the raw aggression from her former boyfriend, and fear filled her. What had happened to him?

After four more blows, they all heard a muted crack from the locket, and Harry lifted the hammer again and with a guttural growl let go one last mighty sortie. The crack this time echoed throughout the drawing room, and the locket split all the way though. Exhausted, Harry staggered to his feet and grabbed his wand. He knew something would happen now that the locket had been destroyed.

Ron and Hermione immediately followed suit, pointing their wands towards the locket, and a moment later, Ginny’s pointed as well. None of them spoke a word for half a minute, and just when they thought that perhaps nothing would happen, they saw the locket emit a mist which gradually formed into a cloud a few feet above. The cloud coalesced slowly and then revolved around itself until it slowly began to assume a form.

Moving next to Harry, Ron whispered, "What is it doing?"

Harry merely answered, "We’re about to find out."

Chapter 16: I Am Whatever I Am
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Chapter 16

I Am Whatever I Am

 "Severus Snape has not returned, My Lord."

Lord Voldemort dismissed the young death eater who had been elected by his peers to inform the dark lord. The young man spun around and left as quickly as he could, thankful that he escaped without punishment. Though he had committed no wrongdoing, so far as he knew, the dark lord needed no justification to administer the Cruciatus Curse.

I gave him until tomorrow,
Voldemort mused. Despite this fact, he expected Snape to return by now, and found it odd that he had not. This could have several different meanings. Perhaps Snape made progress with his work on overcoming the new wards around Hogwarts, and he simply did not wish to take the time to return. Or could the Ministry have somehow captured him? Though Voldemort would never publically admit it, he knew this would be a severe blow to him.

With the permanent elimination of his followers in Azkaban, all of whom reportedly had been executed on the orders of Minister of Magic Scrimgeour, Voldemort’s army, if one could refer to it in that manner, lacked experience and leadership. The death of Bellatrix Lestrange only exacerbated this situation, with the result that Snape’s place in the hierarchy had risen substantially.

In the back of Voldemort’s mind, he knew that another possibility existed explaining Snape’s absence, but he banished the thought from his mind. He had given Snape until the next day, and he fully expected him to return. If he did not, . . .

Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny silently witnessed the mist emerging from the destroyed locket twirl round and round until it slowly began to assume the form of a human being. At first, they could not determine the sex or appearance of the person, but gradually they could determine that the figure would be male, and after another half a minute, the unmistakable features (at least to Harry) of Tom Riddle emerged. All four teens pointed their wands at the translucent form which only measured about three feet tall. At last the rate of the spinning decreased and the released horcrux came to life.

Only Harry and Ginny had seen Tom Riddle, and only Harry Lord Voldemort, so he recognized the features of the horcrux immediately. Quite clearly, this version of Tom Riddle occurred many years after the Tom Riddle of the diary. His face had contorted from the various magical experiments conducted upon himself, and perhaps also from the act of creating multiple horcruxes. This being bore little resemblance to the handsome Head Boy last seen in the Chamber of Secrets. Nevertheless, he had not yet completed his transformation into the Lord Voldemort that regained his body in the graveyard a couple of years previous.

"Welcome to my home, Tom Riddle," Harry hissed in a low growl, "Are you ready to die?"

The horcrux turned its gaze to the young man, and the typical Voldemort sneer formed on his lips.

"You have released me," he stated in a stronger voice than that of the later version of Voldemort that Harry knew, "You do not know what you have done. You have opened Pandora’s Box."

The floating Tom Riddle quickly turned, eyeing each of the four young wizards and witches in the room, wishing to choose a host quickly. He would enter the weakest of the four so that he could immediately overcome his or her defenses. Within seconds, the horcrux focused its eyes on Ginny and moved quickly in her direction. Ginny froze, completely immobilized by fear.

"NO!" yelled Hermione, understanding that the horcrux meant to possess Ginny, but the older witch could not react quickly enough to prevent it.

Harry thrust his wand at the translucent figure and yelled, "ACCIO." Riddle’s progress slowed and then halted just as it made contact with Ginny’s mid-section. Hermione immediately grabbed Ginny by her shoulders and pulled her away. Riddle turned his gaze on Harry.

"How dare you interfere, boy," it growled, "You shall pay for your impertinence."

"No!" Harry responded in similar fashion, "You will not choose." The accio spell remained in effect, and Harry concentrated on pulling the horcrux towards him. He knew that it would possess one of them, and he likewise knew that that person must be himself. Slowly the figure of Tom Riddle moved towards Harry, slowly but inexorably.

"Why should I possess you?" the voice of Tom Riddle asked, "I shall make that decision."

"You will come to me!" Harry snarled in a voice only partially recognizable by the others, "You will come here, because I am you, and you are me. We have no choice. What will be, will be."

Ron, Hermione and Ginny only vaguely understood what he meant, and they stood statue-like as the floating figure of Tom Riddle neared Harry Potter. Hermione continued to hold onto Ginny, though she no longer needed protection. Harry clearly possessed a power over the horcrux, which unwillingly glided across the drawing room.

"You cannot hope to destroy me," the voice of Tom Riddle blustered, but he could not disguise the worry in his voice, for he recognized that the boy had taken control. The horcrux could only brace itself for the battle to come.

But no "battle" occurred. Instead as the horcrux neared Harry’s body, it sensed something familiar inside, and it suddenly dematerialized back into the mist that first emerged from the smashed locket. Almost magnetically, the mist shot into Harry torso, causing him to stiffen and squeeze his eyes shut. His three friends observed these events in a silent stupor, having no idea whether they had just witnessed a positive or negative development.

Harry felt a fire in his stomach when the horcrux mist entered his body, but within moments, he felt the fire disperse throughout all of the cells of his being, and the momentary pain ceased. He knew that he absorbed the horcrux, that it now constituted a part of him. How this would affect him, he did not know. Finally he inhaled deeply and opened his eyes.

His three friends gasped. Unmistakably, his green eyes shone brightly for three or four seconds, as if small light bulbs behind his pupils had been lit. The light faded away, and Harry’s eyes returned nearly to normal, but Hermione and Ginny both could see the difference.

Taking a page out of the book of Barty Crouch, Jr., Severus Snape transfigured the bodies of his two colleagues, whom he had just murdered, into bones, which he buried. Snape took his time, knowing that the dark lord allowed him two days to work on overcoming the wards at Hogwarts, allowing him a full day at least to manage his disappearance. True, the dark lord probably expected him to return earlier, but Snape felt confident that no death eaters would be sent to track him down for another day.

First he apparated to his small house at Spinner’s End. Dingy even at its best, after months of disuse, the small residence appeared as bland as a black-and-white movie, practically devoid of color. Calmly, Snape climbed the steep stairs to the bedroom, where he opened the closet. Inside he pulled out a small traveling case into which he carefully packed several changes of clothing and other personal items which he kept in the house exactly for this moment. The moment he left Lord Voldemort for good.

He well knew that with his defection, his chances of a long life diminished nearly to zero. The dark lord may wait to track down Draco Malfoy, but once convinced of Snape’s treason, he would not exhibit such patience. He would stop at nothing to realize his revenge, which left Snape with but one hope, that the dark lord could be defeated before killing him. And that hope, according to Albus Dumbledore, lay with one man, Harry Potter.

If, of course, Albus Dumbledore had not made a tremendous mistake. The headmaster foresaw his own death, and in fact arranged for it to a large extent. The two men argued about it for months. Dumbledore inferred that Draco had been given the order to kill him, which could only mean one thing. The dark lord meant to sacrifice Draco, who could not hope to complete the murder. Yet Dumbledore insisted that the killing must take place, that in some manner Draco’s failure formed an indispensable element of the dark lord’s plan.

Snape argued this point time and again, one of the few times he flatly disagreed with the wise old wizard. How could Dumbledore’s death not advance the dark lord’s cause? How could the death of the only wizard the dark lord feared bring the wizarding world closer to victory? Though he conceded that normal logic supported Snape’s position, Dumbledore would not explain his certainty as to why illogic in this case would prove true. He only asserted that the dark lord’s plans depended on Dumbledore acting in a predictable way, such as resisting an attempt to kill him.

"Lord Voldemort cannot understand how a person can willingly sacrifice himself for a cause," Dumbledore’s words echoed in Snape’s mind, "Tom quite willingly sacrifices others for his cause, but his cause is himself. His plans assume that I will easily repel Draco’s murder attempt, that Draco will be arrested in the effort, and that he will cooperate with the authorities, or in any event divulge what little knowledge he possesses under the influence of veritaserum. No doubt, Voldemort has implanted information in the boy meant to mislead, or worse, draw us into a trap. I fear that another essential element of the plan is Voldemort’s certainty that I will act in a specific manner. My death, I am convinced, is therefore essential to disrupt this plan."

As much as Snape respected the man, and Dumbledore would count as the only person that Snape truly respected, the black-haired wizard could not understand, and only after intense insistence by Dumbledore did he finally agree to finish the job assigned to Draco Malfoy. Both Dumbledore and Snape knew that Snape would be left with no option but to return to the protection of the dark lord for a period of time, until an opportunity presented itself. The opportunity arrived sooner that he expected.

Dumbledore assured him that steps had been taken to prove Snape’s innocence, in the long run, but he would have to survive on his wits until then.

Returning to the kitchen, he opened a cabinet door and removed a dozen bottles of mead and wine, placing them into the magically altered travel bag. He could easily have packed triple the amount that in fact had been placed inside, but Snape had little need for other luxuries. For the next week at least, he would stay out of view, allowing him plenty of time to savor his favorite beverages.

"Well, that went about as well as we could hope, I suppose," commented William Oglesby’s old friend, the assistant editor. The two men each swished the Ogden’s Firewhisky in their glasses, both exhausted from the effort of transferring the entire operation of Daily Prophet Publications from its Diagon Alley headquarters to a country residence just a few miles north of the Scotland-England border.

Of course, in the wizarding world, no distinction existed between Scotland and England for purposes of governance. The large structure simply served as a viable location in which to hide from the Ministry while still managing to publish a daily newspaper. The process had to be choreographed perfectly.

First the Fidelius Charm needed to be placed on the large nameless house so that when employees inevitably would be questioned by Ministry officials, they would be incapable of revealing the location. When employees began the process of moving, a few stood aside, placing additional complicated wards and protections on the building. Oglesby hoped that this might protect them for a couple of weeks. Already, he had a scout searching for a replacement location if they had to bug out again.

The Prophet’s fleet of hundreds of owls could not be housed in the same location, for the Ministry could easily track the owls back to the temporary headquarters. Thus, their handlers split the flock into several smaller groups, housing them in various sites throughout Great Britain. This and a hundred other details needed to be ironed out during the day, all while trying to publish the semblance of a newspaper for the next morning.

Fortunately, the news from the Ministry appeared to be promising. Scrimgeour’s conciliatory words towards Harry Potter could only mean one thing. The Minister had to pull back from his plans, at least temporarily. Oglesby’s sources in the Ministry reported chaos following the blockbuster interview with The Boy Who Lived. He could not have hoped for more.

"We escaped; that’s all," he commented to his old friend, taking a sip of his whiskey, "but we’ve only scored a goal. The snitch is still out there, and the game is far from over. We’ve bought some time, but Scrimgeour doesn’t give up easily."

Harry took stock of himself. The horcrux which for decades had been locked up in Slytherin’s locket entered his body, but he could feel nothing different, once the initial fire in his stomach subsided. But he knew that Tom Riddle’s partial soul did not simply vanish into nothingness. He absorbed it. After completing his self-examination, he could barely believe it. He felt great.

Hermione released Ginny, and the two girls carefully approached Harry. Ron, who had only stood a few feet away from Harry, also stepped gingerly towards his friend, and examined his face.

"Are you OK, Harry?" Ron asked uncertainly, not clear what had happened to his best mate. Harry looked at him and then at the girls, and shocking all three of them, his lips broke into a huge grin.

"I feel brilliant," he informed them simply.

Ginny eyed him suspiciously and asked what all of them wondered, "What happened?"

"He’s part of me now," Harry answered briefly, "For better or worse." Amazingly, he did not appear especially concerned.

"But what do you mean, Harry?" Hermione inquired quietly, "The horcrux is dead, isn’t it?" She noticed that the green of Harry’s eyes definitely appeared more vibrant than before, even in the dim light of the drawing room.

"Dead?" Harry asked in return, "I suppose it depends on what you mean by dead. Yes and no."

"Come on, Harry," Ron admonished him nervously, "Stop talking in riddles. Just tell us what happened."

"You saw it," Harry explained as if he absorbed horcruxes on a daily basis, "What’s there to tell. It’s part of me now. I absorbed it."

"So it’s gone, then, right?" an anxious and frightened Ginny asked, "I mean it can’t hurt anyone now?"

"IT can’t hurt anyone," Harry replied ominously, "but I can."

Uncharacteristically, Hermione remained silent. Feverously, her brain attempted to assimilate and interpret what her eyes witnessed and what Harry explained. Finally she thought that she understood.

"Can you control it?" she asked quietly.

Harry stared at her, realizing that she comprehended what happened. Her question, he knew, did not only refer to this horcrux, but also to those that remained. His extraordinarily vibrant green eyes nearly hypnotized her.

"It’s not a matter of controlling it," he murmured just above a whisper, "It’s part of me now. I am whatever I am. I will be whatever I will be. There’s no turning back."

"Here are more letters, Minister. More owls are arriving every minute."

"Thank you, Cho," Minister Scrimgeour replied absently, "put them by the others."

Cho Chang nodded silently and quickly placed the new two-foot high stack of parchment next to three other piles already on a long, narrow highly-polished table lining the wall of the Minister’s office, opposite the fireplace. She could deduce that the Minister or his aides had perused at least some of the angry missives from an irate public, reacting to the interview with Harry Potter distributed in the Daily Prophet that morning. The previous piles no longer sat in perfect order but had been replaced haphazardly. Cho took a few seconds to straighten them out before silently leaving the opulent office, but not before glancing quickly at the Minister. His stoic face could not obscure the worry in his eyes. Cho turned away so that he could not see her lips curl up ever so slightly.

An unscientific review of the previous letters showed that the public favored Potter by a ratio of about twenty to one. A few letters, probably by former Slytherins, expressed support, but the vast majority contained statements ranging from outrage to mere disappointment.

"We need to wait until tomorrow, Minister," advised an aide soothingly, "The public has yet to read your comments. I’m sure many of them will come around"

Scrimgeour ran a hand through his thick greying hair, not bothering to comment. He wished to speak again with his old friend.

"Leave me now. There’s nothing more we can do for the moment."

Ten minutes later, he brushed the floo powder off of his black silk robe as he stepped into the vast sitting room of Jeremiah Harrison. Again, his friend appeared to be expecting him, for he awaited the Minister in a large dark brown leather chair. The two men shook hands, and within seconds, two house elves delivered two brilliantly polished silver platters, one carrying an equally polished teapot with two blue and white china cups and a creamer (the elves knew that the Minister did not use sugar), the second bringing a plate of scones. Scrimgeour had barely eaten all day, and he quickly devoured a couple.

"Long day at the office?" Jeremiah asked with a smirk. Only an old and trusted friend could have asked such a tongue-in-cheek question. Despite the unrelenting negativity of the day, Scrimgeour managed a tight smile.

"Let’s just say I’ve had better," Scrimgeour replied, wildy understating the difficult day. He sipped his tea and reached for another scone.

"Should I have the elves prepare dinner for you? It would only take a few minutes." Scrimgeour shook his head, declining the offer.

"I can’t stay long." Harrison remained silent, waiting for his friend to initiate the true conversation. Finally the Minister leaned back in his chair, opining, "I’ll be lucky to survive this, Jeremiah. The letters. Worse than I expected, and I expected them to be bad enough."

He spent the next ten minutes recounting the events of the day, Jeremiah asking a question here and there. After bringing his closet adviser up to speed, he awaited his verdict.

"You will survive, Rufus. The public wants to blow off some steam, but nothing more. Your statement today will put some water on the fire. The fire may not be snuffed out entirely, but it will be manageable."

Scrimgeour nodded, agreeing with his old friend. His political instincts reached the same conclusion, but he wanted to hear it from Jeremiah.

Harrison continued, "You must now focus on your next steps. The boy is off limits; you know that, don’t you, Rufus?" Scrimgeour grimaced, almost in pain, but he nodded his head anyway. He’d have to leave Potter alone. Now that the whole messy affair reached the eyes and ears of the public, he had no choice. Upon his return to the Ministry, he would call off the dogs.

"You were right from the beginning, Jeremiah. I should have listened to you."

Harrison received no pleasure from Scrimgeour’s admission, though from the start he worried about the Minister’s fixation on Harry Potter.

"Let the boy do what he wants, Rufus. If he succeeds, we all benefit. If he fails, then you are free to act. Right now, you simply must ride out the storm."

Of the four friends, Harry surprisingly seemed the least concerned with the aftermath of the destruction of Slytherin’s locket. He informed the other three that he wanted to eat, so Harry and Hermione side-along apparated Ron and Ginny to Harry’s hotel room in Hermione’s home town. From there they walked to a nearby restaurant.

While the two girls mostly played with their food, and even Ron ate less enthusiastically than usual, Harry wolfed down his sandwich and chips and then finished the leftovers from the girls’ meals. To top it off, he ordered a slice of pie for Ron and himself, since the girls declined. He seemed to be in an excellent mood, which only caused his friends to worry more. The Harry they knew would not act like this.

Who was this Harry?

In the restaurant they avoided discussion of the horcrux, Harry instead giving Ron and Ginny a rundown of his week on the road. Finally in the late afternoon, the four returned to Harry’s room, where Ron and Ginny intended to apparate back to the Burrow before Molly worried too much. They told her that they intended to spend the day in Ottery St. Catchpole and would return for supper.

Ron, at least, relaxed a little during the afternoon, and despite his misgivings, he enjoyed being back with his best mate. Spending every day with his younger sister bored him to the bone (of course, Ginny felt the same). He patted Harry on the shoulder, causing his friend to smile broadly. It felt great to be back together.

"So what do we do next, Harry? How are we going to find the next horcrux? We have no idea where they might be."

Harry stared at his friend for several seconds, and then looked off to the side, his eyes glazed, deep in thought. After an extended pause, his bright eyes moved back to Ron, and he smiled.

"Actually, I know where they all are. One is with Voldemort. One is at Hogwarts. And one is at the bottom of a lake."

Chapter 17: Put Harry Back in Charge
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Chapter 17

Put Harry Back in Charge

"How long will you be staying, Mr. . . . . , Chalmers?" The attendant at the front desk of the small Swiss mountain resort had to turn the thick registry around to read the name.

"A week, I believe," replied Severus Snape smoothly, "Perhaps a few days longer. I need some extended rest. For health purposes."

"Of course, Mr. Chalmers," the young Swiss woman with long blond hair replied in a tone of practiced civility, "Many of our guests come for just that purpose. You’ll have plenty of time to relax here. The mountains are beautiful, we have a variety of hiking paths, from easy to challenging, and the lounge is open until midnight. I’m sure you’ll feel like a new man by the time you leave." Even Snape had to admit that she had a charming smile, and she spoke English perfectly, with the merest hint of an accent.

He tried his best to sound friendly in return, only succeeding in a slight modification to his naturally cold voice, "I am sure I shall. Thank you for your assistance."

Years earlier, Dumbledore and Snape designated this small resort as the perfect location for Snape to hide when the time came to leave Voldemort’s service. Dumbledore considered this site to be his little secret, and during his summers, he often spent a few days here. He never informed anyone of the resort’s location except Snape. He even side-along apparated Snape to the site so that he would be able to apparate himself in an emergency. That time had arrived.

He breathed in the sparklingly clear mountain air, and gazed for the first time at the Alps surrounding the high valley. Snow still covered the peaks but had long since melted in the area of the resort. Off in the distance, he heard cow bells echoing. Though he felt out of place in such beauty, he could certainly think of worse places to disappear for a few days. His footsteps crunched on the rocky soil between the front office and his small cabin.

Though Ron and Ginny had been mere seconds away from apparating back to Ottery St. Catchpole, they could hardly leave after Harry’s bombshell.

"How do you know?" Harry’s three friends asked simultaneously, responding to Harry’s assertion that he knew the location of the remaining three horcruxes.

"I just know," he responded, "The horcrux. Somehow the horcrux knew, and now I know." They all paused for several seconds, trying to comprehend this turn of events. Little by little, Harry thought he understood. "The locket was the final horcrux. I think that it brings with it knowledge of any previous horcruxes. I know what they all are and where they were placed, though I can’t be certain that they are still there."

"What are they?" Hermione asked excitedly.

Harry’s eyes angled up towards the ceiling, as he tried to visualize the three items in his mind. Somehow he knew without a doubt the description of each horcrux and where they each had been initially hidden, but he needed to concentrate to pull the information from his mind, as if that knowledge resided in a separate location, needed to be transferred to his brain, and then interpreted.

"Nagini is one. Dumbledore was right about that. Then there’s the trophy at Hogwarts. Remember? The one in the trophy case. We’ve seen it a few times. It’s a horcrux. Been right under Dumbledore’s nose for decades." He paused as he thought how upset the headmaster would feel if he knew that for all those years, a horcrux sat right before him in Hogwarts Castle, his own home. His mind wandered, and he neglected to mention the final horcrux.

"What about the last one?" asked Ron, after they waited for Harry to finish his list. Harry returned from his musings, and turned towards his best friend.

"Hufflepuff’s cup. The one he stole from the old lady in Dumbledore’s pensieve." He stared at them gravely. "It’s at the bottom of the lake by Hogwarts."

His three friends stared at him just as gravely. Somehow, knowing the nature and location of the remaining horcruxes on the heels of eliminating one brought the gravity of the situation to them. What they thought might take months or even years, could now possibly be dealt with in days or weeks. None of them felt ready.

Ron checked his watch again, and his heart filled with frustration. He knew that Ginny and he had to return. Already they stayed too long and their mother would be worried. The four friends said goodbye, and Ron and Harry embraced briefly. Ginny stood nervously next to her brother, and she knew that she should embrace Harry as well.

Harry turned to her, and before she knew what happened, he wrapped his arms around her briefly. Her arms reacted automatically to complete the embrace, but as soon as it happened, Harry released her.

At that very moment, she knew it was over. Harry and Ginny. No more. With the information revealed that morning by Hermione, the distance he showed her during the day, and finally through the brief contact of the embrace, she knew that Harry no longer considered her his girlfriend. He no longer loved her.

Ginny instinctively turned her eyes to Hermione, who observed the interaction carefully. She saw the pain in the younger witch’s eyes, and she knew that Ginny knew. The two girls embraced, holding each other several seconds longer than normal, Hermione wordlessly imparting her sympathy. Ginny turned away so that Harry would not see her face and stepped next to Ron. A moment later Ron and she disappeared, reappearing by the river outside of Ottery St. Catchpole, a mere ten minute walk from the Burrow. They walked silently, Ginny several paces in front of her brother. Ron sensed that his sister did not desire conversation.

When the two entered their home, Molly eyed them severely, but she did not yell at them. Another half hour and she might have, but even though they stayed away longer than she preferred, she could not truthfully claim that her son and daughter arrived late. Ginny walked right by her, up the stairs and into her room.

She threw herself onto her bed and wept the rest of the evening.

Harry kicked off his shoes and threw himself onto his bed as well, but he had already forgotten about Ginny, completely unaware of his former girlfriend’s anguish. Instead he closed his eyes and reflected on the destruction of the locket and absorption of another part of Tom Riddle’s soul. Hermione watched him from near the wall, and wondered if Harry even remembered that she remained in the room.

"It’s weird," Harry spoke out of the blue, proving that he did in fact recall her presence, "I shouldn’t be feeling like I am. I have another piece of his soul, but it doesn’t really bother me. In fact, I feel better than I have in a long time. We’ve finally done something, made progress. What do you think?"

Hermione sat on the edge of the bed, and gazed appraisingly at her friend. His eyes remained closed, and she tried to discern how he may have changed from the events of the day. He looked exactly the same.

"I don’t know what to think?" she responded to his question. She paused a few seconds before admitting, "I have to be honest, Harry, I’m afraid."

"Of what?"

Hermione did not want to answer, but she could not avoid it. The two words left her mouth before she could retrieve them.

"Of you."

Her honesty caused Harry to open his eyes, and the two friends looked at each other briefly before Hermione turned away, embarrassed by her admission. Harry’s face for the first time displayed worry, not for himself but for Hermione and his other friends. Of course they fear me. They should fear me.

"I’m sorry, Hermione," he consoled her softly, "I can’t blame you. We’ve just entered the great unknown, but it’s too late to turn back. I can only go forward."

"But there are three more horcruxes. Are you going to absorb them too? What will that do to you?" Hermione’s voice could not conceal her tremendous anxiety.

"I have to absorb them," Harry responded with determination, "We’ll just have to find out. I don’t know who I’ll be by the time I’m done. Hopefully I’ll be someone you still want to be friends with. But if not, I’ll understand. At least now I understand. I don’t know what I’ll think later."

Hermione shivered at Harry’s statement. For years she understood, if not accepted, that Harry faced an extremely dangerous future, and that a real possibility existed that he would not succeed. Though she attempted not to think about it, the reality could not be changed. Harry might die. But never had she considered that Harry and her friendship might not survive. In a strange way, that thought struck her as more terrible than his possible death. If he died, or if she died (another distinct possibility), they would pass away with their friendship intact. But how could they possibly both survive without being friends? Even during the past school term, when they butted heads more than a few times, their friendship never wavered. She needed to disabuse Harry of this notion immediately.

"I’ll always be your friend, Harry, no matter what happens. Nothing could change that!"

Her voice trembled slightly, and Harry could not help but feel affected. His lips formed a thin smile.

"Thanks, Hermione. That means a lot to me," he responded quietly, and the two friends turned away from each other, a little embarrassed by their outward display of friendship. After an awkward silence, Harry added, "A lot is about to happen. It’s all coming much faster than I ever thought. I have to absorb the other horcruxes, and each time I’m going to change. I may be a complete pain in the neck by the time I’m through."

"So how would that be different from now?" she asked in feigned seriousness, deciding the time had come to lighten the mood.

Harry paused at her statement, as if he did not completely understand it. Then his face broke into a wide grin, and he laughed.

"You told a joke, Hermione! You! Hermione Granger told a joke." He laughed even harder.

Now Hermione felt a touch offended. True, she would not consider herself a champion comedian, but she did possess a sense of humor. At least in her mind. Of course, she knew that others would disagree with her, and despite her irritation, she could not blame Harry for finding her feeble attempt at humor to be more humorous than the joke itself. After a few seconds, she broke into a smile as well.

"I do have a sense of humor, Harry," she averred defensively.

"So you do!" Harry agreed, "A pretty good one too. You should show it more often." The levity of the moment relaxed the two of them. Harry looked at his watch. "Let’s get something to eat."

"We just ate a couple of hours ago. Are you hungry again? You’ve been eating like Ron lately."

"Well, horcrux absorption is hard work," he joked jovially, "It’s a well-known fact that absorbing a horcrux causes the absorber to develop an insatiable appetite. Surely you’ve read that in one of your books." He tried to sound appalled that his supposedly brainy friend did not know such a basic fact of life. Hermione laughed and gave up.

"Fine. Let’s go. Maybe you’ll finally put some meat on your bones if you keep eating like this."

"Are you sure, sir?" Evan Harrington asked his supervisor, "I’m sure we can bring him in. We’ve had some leads, and Potter’s sure to lose his patience. He’ll make a mistake if WE remain patient."

The supervisor, a beefy man whose appearance reminded many of the Minister of Magic himself, shook his head.

"The decision’s been made. We’re backing off. Call everyone on the case back here. We’ll have new assignments by tomorrow." Harrington nodded and waited to be dismissed. His supervisor, however, stared at his subordinate for several moments before commenting, "To tell you the truth, I’m relieved. This was a bad idea from the beginning."

Harrington merely nodded his head, but he did not sense that the supervisor sought his opinion. He continued to wait for further instructions.

"After you call back your team, take the rest of the day off, Evan. You deserve it. Tomorrow we’ll have a new assignment for you."

"Thank you, sir," Evan replied briefly, "I could use a little down time. I’ll be in tomorrow morning." As he left the office, he could not prevent a smile from forming on his lips, but a moment later, it disappeared.

"OK, Miss Goldsmith. Fortunately, things are calmer than we anticipated. If your mother is ill, you may leave. Take tomorrow off if you need to."

"Thank you, Mr. Oglesby," Michelle replied graciously to her employer. Normally Mr. Oglesby would not be involved in such a routine staffing matter, but these were not normal times. She considered herself extremely lucky to be granted the time, and as she departed from his office, she suppressed her guilty conscience for the bald-faced lie. Her mother, thank Merlin, enjoyed perfect health.

Excitement replaced guilt. Soon she would conduct her first mission for the Order of the Phoenix. Fear mixed with excitement.

"What are we going to do now, Harry?"

After Hermione and Harry finished eating, they walked slowly back towards his room, taking a circuitous route. This time they did not hold hands, and in fact Harry’s earlier expansive mood had dramatically changed, and for the last half hour, he shifted into introspection and sullenness.

"I guess we’re going to Hogwarts," he surmised after a brief pause, "We can’t go after Nagini, so we may as well try for the other two."

All logical enough, Hermione agreed, but everything seemed to be happening too quickly. She needed time to adjust to the recent turn of events. Of course, Harry would not want to wait; she knew him too well.

"When do you want to go?" she asked, already anticipating the answer.

Harry breathed in the early evening air before admitting, "Tomorrow, I suppose. Not much point in waiting."

"Ron will want to be there. So do I. I’ll have to tell my parents something. We need to make arrangements," Hermione opined, "Besides, we can’t just show up at Hogwarts during the summer. We’ll need to contact McGonagall for permission. The castle is practically empty this time of year."

"All the more reason to go sooner rather than later."

Hermione could not rebut Harry’s reasoning in that regard, so she returned to her stronger arguments.

"We still need to contact McGonagall. We can send Hedwig tomorrow morning. She’s still at my house. Maybe you can come over tomorrow morning to see her, and we can write the letter there. I’m sure she’ll allow us to come. But I have to talk with my parents. This will be a shock to them, because they think I’m staying through the end of the month. Do you think we could wait an extra day?"

"OK," Harry agreed simply, and that put an end to the discussion. They walked silently for the final two minutes to Harry’s room, arriving about eight in the evening. When they opened the door, they found Evan Harrington patiently waiting for them, watching the television. He immediately turned it off as the two teens entered.

"Good news, Harry. Scrimgeour’s giving in, at least for now. I’ve been called back and so has everyone else on your case. You’re a free man." Evan gave Harry a satisfied smile, but he then squinted his eyes at Harry’s lack of reaction. Certainly, one would expect Harry to breathe a sigh of relief that his nearly three-week odyssey finally would come to an end, but Harry barely reacted.

"That is good news," he agreed with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

"What did you two do today? Has something happened?" asked Evan. He thought that perhaps the two friends may have fought. Supposedly they were not "together" in a romantic sense, but he could not help but feel that something more existed in their relationship than mere friendship.

"What did I do today?" echoed Harry in a suddenly sarcastic tone, "Oh not much. Ate breakfast. Met my friends Ron and Ginny for the first time in over a month. Went to my house. Smashed a horcrux with a hammer and then absorbed it. Came back here. Ate lunch. Ate dinner. Took a walk. That’s about it." He threw himself onto the bed, wrapping his hands behind his head.

Evan stared at the young man, confusion in his eyes. He knew better than to follow up with Harry, so he turned to Hermione. She provided a brief recounting of the events at Grimmauld Place, finishing with the bombshell that Harry suddenly knew the identity and location of the final three horcruxes.

The auror, however, could not get past the fact that Harry and the others acted without his knowledge. He felt that they had an understanding that he would be involved in these matters from now on, provide them guidance, yet on this day they rashly acted without his contributions.

"Why didn’t you inform me of this?" he asked harshly, pacing quickly back and forth, "You should not have acted until you told me!"

Evan’s tone prodded Harry out of his lethargy, and he propped himself up on his elbows, peering intensely at the older wizard.

"I don’t answer to you, Harrington," he sneered, "You’re not my babysitter. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to go back to your cushy little job at the Ministry. You can always be Scrimgeour’s lapdog again."

Hermione stood up at Harry’s insulting comments, tension running throughout her body. She knew that the "real" Harry Potter would never speak like this, even if he felt the same way. He went out of his way to treat Evan in a degrading manner. She nervously turned her eyes towards the auror, wondering how he would react.

"This is not a game, Potter," the auror retorted hotly, "A thousand things could have gone wrong. Maybe they did go wrong, and we don’t know it yet. Why did you destroy it in the house? There was no need. You could have taken it to a safer location. You also could have considered the consequences of smashing the locket to bits in the presence of three others, needlessly placing them in danger. Right, you don’t need me."

Harry stood during Harrington’s tirade, and instinctively his fingers folded around his wand. Evan noticed and acted likewise. Hermione bit her bottom lip almost to the point of bleeding from her anxiety.

"It worked out OK," Harry growled through gritted teeth, "Don’t overestimate your value. We can get along without you."

"Right! Just like your brilliant plan to get the Ministry off your back," Evan laughed derisively, "You wouldn’t have had a clue without me. You’re full of yourself aren’t you, Potter. You don’t even know that you don’t know what you’re doing. That makes you dangerous."

"You’ve got that right!" Harry exploded, whipping his wand out and pointing it towards Evan, who reacted in similar fashion.

Anticipating their actions, Hermione jumped forward in front of Harrington all the while yelling, "STOP IT, BOTH OF YOU! Stop acting like schoolchildren!"

Harry instinctively lifted his wand, not sure what spell he almost cast. Evan for his part failed to appreciate Hermione’s intervention, feeling that the time had come for him to teach Potter a lesson.

"I don’t need your assistance, Miss Granger," he snorted angrily. He glared at Harry, only to note that his eyes seemed to glow with anger, especially at his last remark. Harry did not lift his wand again, but he walked around the bed to within a foot of Harrington’s face.

"Don’t you ever talk to Hermione like that!" he threatened in a barely audible voice, his eyes staring directly into Evan’s.

"It’s OK, Harry. He didn’t mean anything," Hermione quickly interjected, trying desperately to head off a confrontation. She moved in front of her friend and placed the palms of her hands on his chest. "This is not you, Harry," she murmured softly, "This is Voldemort. Put Harry back in charge. The real Harry."

Harry redirected his irate eyes from Evan’s to Hermione’s, and she did not avert them, instead staring pleadingly. He realized that she was correct; he almost lost control. The two friends stared at each other, eye to eye, for an extended time, and Evan realized that the girl had a special effect on Harry. The young wizard visibly calmed.

"OK," Harry whispered to her, regaining his composure, "I understand. I’m in control now." Hermione remained in front of him with her hands touching his shoulders, but Harry looked past her towards Evan. "I’m sorry, Mr. Harrington. I need to control myself, especially now."

This perhaps did not qualify as an apology for acting without his assistance, but Evan was not a sensitive person, and Harry’s change of tone satisfied him.

"It’s OK. Part of it is my fault for not discussing a plan with you, setting ground rules that we can agree to. I’m not Professor Dumbledore, Harry. I’m a normal wizard, good at some things, lousy at others. It just so happens, however, that some of the things I’m good at can be of great assistance to you."

Feeling that Harry had calmed, Hermione stepped to the side so that the two men could face each other.

Let’s forget it," Evan suggested, and he extended his right hand. Harry hesitated for a moment, but then he nodded his head. The two men shook hands.

Chapter 18: We Have to Support Harry
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Chapter 18

We Have to Support Harry

"What happened today, Ron?"

Molly tried consoling her daughter throughout the evening, yet Ginny steadfastly refused to discuss the matter, even though she could not hold back her tears. But whether the girl liked it or not, her mother understood her better than anyone, and she knew that these tears could only have one source: Harry Potter. Ginny had her eyes set on The Boy Who Lived from the first time they met, and Molly knew that her daughter’s fascination with Harry never diminished.

Arthur also faced his son, supporting his wife’s interrogation. Ron shifted nervously on the sitting room sofa, unsure how to respond. Should he deny everything? Come up with a lie that his parents would see through in a second? Would revealing that they met with Harry be a betrayal of his best friend?

Mr. Weasley sensed his son’s disquiet, and he knew as well as Molly that Ron and Ginny must have seen Harry, and probably Hermione. He decided to try to ease Ron’s concerns.

"Let me tell you something, Ron. After Harry’s interview in the Prophet, Scrimgeour is giving in. He’s issued the order calling off the search. Harry is a free man again, though he may not know it yet." Arthur stared severely at Ron before concluding, "Don’t lie to us. This is important. Not Ginny crying; that’s not important. Everyone goes through some heartache in life. But if you two met with Harry, we need to know."

Finally Ron bowed his head and answered, "We did. But I don’t know where he’s staying. Hermione told us to meet him at King’s Cross. The two of them were already there when we arrived. Harry wanted to make sure that we didn’t know where he’s hiding. We spent the afternoon with them."

Ron felt that this story came close enough to the truth not to be considered a lie, even though he knew he had to conceal the purpose of their meeting and their later hours in Hermione’s home town. His parents appeared to accept his words.

"What happened between Harry and Ginny?" asked his mother, more concerned than Arthur with the emotional state of their daughter.

"I don’t know," Ron responded honestly, "Harry seemed a little cold towards her, but he’s been through a lot these past few weeks. He acted a little coldly towards Hermione and me too, but for the most part he seemed happy to see us. Ginny and he never spoke alone; Hermione and I were with them all of the time. I don’t know what happened to set her off."

His parents again accepted his explanation, knowing that their teenage son would be too thick to note the subtleties of Harry and Ginny’s relationship. Molly quickly left the sitting room to climb back up to Ginny’s room.

"I know Harry’s been through a lot," Arthur commented to Ron once Molly left, "I don’t want to rush him, but we need to make contact. Can you talk to him for us?" Ron reluctantly nodded his head.

Early the next morning, Michelle Goldsmith apparated to London and then took a train to Hermione’s home town. Unlike most in the magical world, Michelle possessed a driver’s license, so she rented a small car. The Order knew Hermione’s address from her Hogwarts file, so she simply consulted a map, found the house, parked the car under a tree a few houses down the street, and waited. She made no further effort to conceal herself.

As she sat patiently, she wondered why she needed to act in this way, like a spy. Why shouldn’t I just knock on the door? she asked herself. She did not intend to arrest Harry Potter, and both Hermione Granger and he already knew of the Order of the Phoenix. As she mulled this over, she noted a young man walking towards her on the other side of the street. She grabbed a pad of paper and a pen, pretending to be writing in case the man looked her way.

Every few seconds, she glanced up at the young man, whom she determined to be a teenaged boy as he walked closer, and soon she knew that he must be Harry Potter. After all, she did know him, even though he had changed greatly in the past six years. He still walked in a distinctive way and had that thin, wiry body. She could not see his scar or much of his short hair, both covered by a red hat, but she would have bet one hundred galleons on it. Sure enough, the young man turned towards the Granger home and knocked on the door. Michelle could barely see the door from her vantage point, but she knew that the door opened and that the young man entered.

This seemed far too easy. Other members of the Order of the Phoenix, able wizards and witches with years of experience, failed miserably in their attempts to locate Harry Potter, yet she managed to track him down in a mere two hours. What should she do now?

Ginny slept restlessly through the night after her mother forced her to confess her discovery that Harry’s termination of their relationship in June would be permanent. Molly comforted her only daughter as best she could late that evening, knowing that the right time to discuss the matter fully had not yet arrived.

Hunger finally forced Ginny from her bedroom the next morning after Arthur already left for work and while Ron passed the time outdoors in the comfortable summer warmth. Molly kept her ears tuned to the tell-tale squeak of Ginny’s door, and by the time the young witch reached the bottom landing, Molly already placed a plate of food on the table.

"How are you feeling?" she asked gently.

"A little better," Ginny admitted grudgingly, lifting a fork to her mouth.  Since the poor girl skipped dinner the previous day, Molly allowed her to eat for a minute before resuming the conversation.

"I hope you don’t blame Harry too much, Ginny," she advised, "I doubt he could have done anything differently. We can’t help the way we feel."

Ginny did not respond, and as Molly suspected, she hit a sore spot. In fact Ginny’s mood had transformed through the evening from anguish, to despair, to hopelessness, to anger. Harry cheated on her, she convinced herself while brooding in her room. They had not truly split, in her opinion, and Harry knew it. He should not have allowed his liaison with this Melissa to have occurred. She narrowed her eyes at her mother, taken aback that she would defend Harry.

"You don’t know that I had a boyfriend once. Before your father. We were very close," Molly continued, carefully observing Ginny’s expression. Though the young witch attempted to remain stone-faced, Molly sensed that her admission peaked her daughter’s interest. "I guess I was the Harry in that relationship. I broke his heart, but I couldn’t help it."

She waited for Ginny to react, and she knew her daughter well enough to know that she would. Ginny tried her best to remain silent, but after a prolonged silence, curiosity prevailed.

"What happened?"

"I met your father," Molly explained simply, "and just like that I knew that I did not love Curtis. None of it was planned, and I felt terribly guilty about it for a long time, but would it have been any better to have remained with Curtis when I knew I didn’t love him?" Molly paused to allow Ginny the opportunity to answer the question, but when she remained silent, Molly continued, "Of course not. Deception is far worse than heartache. In the end, with many years of hindsight, I can see that splitting up with Curtis so quickly after I met your father was one of the best decisions I ever made. For both of us."

"What happened to him?" Ginny asked as she slowly finished her meal, no longer feigning disinterest.

"He met another woman, much prettier that I was; married less than a year after we did. They had three beautiful children, around Charley and Bill’s age." Molly stared out the kitchen window, and Ginny saw her mother’s eyes glisten. "I think they were happy, as far as I knew, but then they killed him. Death eaters. During the first war. It was a terrible tragedy, one of many."

Ginny stopped eating and bowed her head, staring at her plate. Molly continued to stare for a few moments, lost in her memories, until she redirected her attention towards her daughter.

"We can’t know what life has in store for us, Ginny. Now we face another war, and somehow Harry has to lead us. I don’t know why and I don’t know how, but Dumbledore made it clear. No matter what, we have to support Harry."

"I know," Ginny whispered in reply, and she realized that she knew much more about Harry’s task than her mother did. "It’s going to be hard, but I was willing to stand with him, no matter what. Now he won’t even want me there."

Molly understood. Ginny hated being left out, and after years of being the fifth wheel, she finally had become a part of the group. Now inevitably she would find herself on the outside again. Molly reached out and grabbed her daughter’s hand, squeezing it tightly.

Hedwig nipped at Harry’s fingers, apparently pleased to see him again, though owls’ expressions change little. For his part, Harry felt deeply affected, surprising himself, to see the beautiful snow-white owl. He enjoyed a great sense of relief that the two of them managed to meet again, against all odds, after he released her in Little Whinging while on his way to the train depot. Somehow, holding the owl in his hands and stroking her soft feathers instilled in him a sense of optimism. Irrational, he knew, but he felt it nonetheless.

"Looks like you’ve taken good care of her, Hermione," Harry commented as his friend sat on the bed in her bedroom, "I can’t thank you enough." Clearly a girl’s room, Harry noted, neat and tidy, with plenty of flowers on the bedspread and other spots in the room. Not too girly, however. No pinks or pastels.

Hermione smiled at Harry’s emotional reunion with his owl and assured him, "It was nothing, really. I enjoyed having her here. She’s a beautiful owl." Harry nodded his agreement.

He place Hedwig on his shoulder, and Hermione showed Harry around her house, a perfectly normal, comfortable two-story residence, he observed. Compared to his humble lodgings of the past weeks, however, it seemed like a mansion. While Harry made himself comfortable in the sitting room, Hermione poured themselves glasses of iced tea which they intended to enjoy on the patio in the backyard on the warm morning. Glancing out the window, she noticed a woman approaching her front door.

The two women’s eyes met briefly, and the stranger smiled nervously and continued towards the door. Hermione immediately grasped her wand and ran to the sitting room.

"Harry! There’s a woman at the door." she whispered excitedly, "I don’t know who she is. You should leave. Apparate back to your room."

Immediately Harry stood, wand in his hand, his eyes gleaming brightly. Hedwig jumped off of his shoulder, landing gently on the mantle over the fireplace. Hermione could sense that Harry had no intention to leave, and in fact seemed to welcome a potential confrontation.

"Just open the door and see who it is," he instructed her calmly, "I’ll stay out of sight, unless there’s a problem. Probably just trying to sell you cosmetics. Tell her that you don’t need any, you’re pretty enough as it is."

The unexpected and untimely compliment caught Hermione by surprise, but her nerves prevented her from responding. The doorbell rang. She inhaled deeply to calm herself, and then moved to the door.

"Good morning, Miss Granger," greeted a clearly nervous Michelle Goldsmith, "You probably don’t remember me. I was in seventh year at Hogwarts when you were a first year. May I come in please. I’m with the Order of the Phoenix."

Hermione hesitated but did not allow the stranger to enter. Harry peered around the corner, only seeing Hermione’s profile.

"Who are you?" Hermione asked, "Why have you come?"

"I think you know why I’ve come. My name is Michelle Goldsmith. And I’ve come to talk to Harry Potter. I know he’s here. He walked down the street half an hour ago, and I saw him come in. The Order just wants to make contact with him. I’m not trying to kidnap him or any such nonsense."

Hermione pursed her lips, unsure how to respond, when Harry removed that necessity. He quickly moved down the hall appearing suddenly next to Hermione, his wand pointed directly at Michelle, his eyes glaring intensely.

"Expelliarmus," he demanded quickly and forcefully, knocking the young woman back two steps. Michelle’s purse opened involuntarily, and her wand slid out neatly into Harry’s outstretched hand. The boy glared daggers at her.

Michelle’s heart stopped at the unexpected appearance of the famed "Boy Who Lived," and she gasped for breath after being hit by the spell. Harry sneered at her and lifted his wand a few inches threateningly. Finally Michelle snapped to her senses and stepped back towards the door trying her best not to appear scared stiff.

"Let her in," Harry ordered bruskly, backing his way into the sitting room, never taking his wand off of the woman. He directed her to take a seat on the sofa, and he stood on the other side of the room, staring at her appraisingly. "Please bring Miss Goldsmith a glass of iced tea, Hermione," he instructed her in a cold voice, "We must remember our manners."

The newspaper worker felt completely out of her element as her eyes focused on the wand pointing at her while she sat wandless and helpless on the sofa. Though she attempted to remain calm, she could not prevent her hands from shaking. After Hermione placed a glass of iced tea before her, Michelle lifted the glass to her lips to take a sip, believing that to do otherwise would somehow be insulting. Placing the glass on the table before her, she directed her eyes again to Harry Potter, whose wand remained pointed at her.

"You found me," Harry declared abruptly, "So what do you want?" His voice sounded blunt and rude.

"I’ve been sent by the Order of the Phoenix," Michelle replied nervously, still staring at the wand, "To tell you the truth, I’m amazed that I found you. I just came to Miss Granger’s house thinking that I would talk to her when I saw you walking down the street. I’m muggle-born, so the Order sent me because I know my way around the muggle world. In fact, I’m still more comfortable there, to tell the truth." The words cascaded from her mouth rapidly and uncontrollably until she realized it. She took a deep breath. "I’m sorry. I’m a little nervous. This is my first mission for the Order, and I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to do."

Hermione stepped a few paces towards Harry and turned towards the unexpected visitor.

"Don’t worry. We won’t hurt you. We’re just surprised that you knocked on the door like that. Obviously, Harry has had to be extremely careful lately."

"Of course, I understand," Michelle quickly agreed, "Everyone in the Order worried that the Ministry would find you, but it seems that you managed to avoid them."

Harry continued to stare at the young woman intently, not interested in engaging in a lengthy conversation.

"Things are different now," he finally asserted softly, "There’s no reason why I can’t talk to the Order now. I’ll talk to Remus Lupin and Arthur Weasley. Only them. What time is it, Hermione?"

Michelle turned her wrist to check her watch while Hermione turned to glance at the clock behind Harry’s head. Both women spoke at the same time

"It’s nine-fifteen."

"I’ll be at the Burrow at ten o’clock. Go there. Mrs. Weasley can arrange for them to be there. If they can’t be there at ten, then it will have to wait." Finally he lowered his wand. Michelle stood up, agreeing to do as instructed.

Hermione handed Michelle’s wand back to her, and a few moments later, the visitor disappeared with a crack. Harry and Hermione stood mutely for a few moments until Harry finally spoke.

"Let’s write that letter to McGonagall."

Seated at the small dusty table in the corner of the Shrieking Shack, Draco Malfoy waved his wand several times above a plate. He previously transfigured a piece of wood into the plate and now attempted to conjure some food.

After a few tries, a few ill-formed cookies finally appeared. Draco never could conjure food with any skill, since pure-blooded wizards of his status cared little for such unnecessary magic. He knew the cookies would taste like cardboard, but his hunger caused him to grab the first cookie anyways. He consumed it in three bites. It tasted as bad as he imagined, but he grabbed a second one.

Cookies were the only type of food he could even half conjure, and he knew that even skillfully conjured food contained little nutrition. Clearly he needed to make a decision. Unfortunately, all of his options displeased him.

Return to the dark lord? Torture and death. Turn himself in to the Ministry? Incarceration in Azkaban and probable death, given Scrimgeour’s summary execution of Draco’s father and others. Hide in the muggle world? He had no idea how to do so, lacked muggle money, and could not bear the idea of demeaning himself. Hide in the wizarding world? Likely capture by the Ministry. But at least he would have a chance with this last option. He could transfigure his clothes, change the color of this hair, alter his appearance.

The aftertaste in his mouth from the bitter cookies finally caught his attention, and he pointed his wand at his mouth, streaming water to wash away the taste. Having decided, he rapidly changed the color of his hair from blond to black, and shortened it by several inches. He found a shard of glass in the corner of the room which he transfigured into wire-rimmed glasses. Lastly he changed his black death-eater clothing to a long-sleeved red shirt and blue jeans.

Checking his pockets, he counted his money. Not much, but enough to survive for a few days. Inhaling deeply, he cracked the door open and peered out. Seeing noone, he stepped outside and walked towards Hogsmeade.

Several copies of the Daily Prophet lay haphazardly on the low table of Minister Scrimgeour’s table, as well as various other wizarding publications. The Minister and his aides read each account of his press conference of the previous day in which he tried to explain away the Ministry’s actions towards Harry Potter. For the most part, the articles served the interests of the Minstry well enough, or better said, as well as could be expected.

For more than an hour, Scrimgeour received varying advice as to how he needed to proceed. Mostly he listened silently, only occasionally interjecting a question. The more aggressive of his advisers counseled proceeding with his plans as quickly as possible, to shut down all press outlets, declare Martial Law, and arrange for the transport of all citizens to the six castles and mansions identified as suitable to house the wizarding population. Others advised caution and patience. For whatever reason, He Who Must Not Be Named had not unleashed all of the attack dogs, so the Ministry still had some time to implement Scrimgeour’s ultimate plans. To act immediately would result in chaos and widespread resistance, they asserted, quite possibly resulting in the Minister’s removal, by legal means or not.

Three interns, Cho Chang among them, carried in stacks of parchment, letters received overnight and early that morning. Scrimgeour only vaguely noticed them at first, but the shimmering long black hair of Cho caught his attention. Suddenly, he felt a desire to talk to her.

"Please leave, everyone. Thank you for your comments. I have much to consider."

His aides gathered their files and began to make their way back to their offices. Cho and the other two interns had almost reached the door.

"Cho, could you stay for a moment?" the Minister asked unexpectedly.

The young woman jerked her head towards him, her eyes betraying her astonishment. Scrimgeour had not so much as directed a word to her in the time she had worked in the Minister’s office despite the fact that he had know her all of her life as a friend of the family. The eyes of the others in the Minister’s office also exhibited surprise, but the Minister felt no reason to explain himself. After a few moments, the door closed, leaving only Cho and Scrimgeour. She walked towards his desk when he motioned for her take a seat by the low table.

"I’ve seen you come and go, Cho," he commented in a friendly tone while he took a seat across from her, "but I haven’t had an opportunity to talk to you. I’ve been wanting to know how you are faring."

Despite her personal misgivings about the man, she smiled at his comment and answered nervously, "That’s quite alright, sir. I never expected you to worry about me. You’re terribly busy. Anyway, there’s no reason to worry. I’ve been doing fine here. The work is not hard, and I am learning a lot."

Scrimgeour smiled in a grand-fatherly fashion, which Cho thought looked entirely out of character for the man. She knew him well enough to know that he had something on his mind beyond her well-being.

"I’m glad to hear that," he replied automatically, "How are your parents? I haven’t had the chance to see them lately."

Cho assured him of her parent’s well-being, and the two chatted pleasantly for another minute or two, but all the while Cho wondered what the Minister truly wanted to know. Finally she found out.

"Well, I’m in a bit of a pickle now, with this Harry Potter business. All a misunderstanding, of course, but it’s a pickle nonetheless," Scrimgeour commented with apparent good humor, "You were a friend of Harry, weren’t you?"

Cho’s eyes narrowed slightly from their normally narrow state, but she answered honestly, "Yes, we were close for a short time, but that was quite a while ago. I haven’t talked with Harry in months."

"He seems an interesting sort, from the little that I know of him. I’ve met him briefly. What do you think of him?"

The young witch smiled mechanically, but felt that the Minister had exceeded the bounds of propriety with his question. Nevertheless, when the Minister of Magic asks a questions, it must be answered.

"He is an interesting person. Harry’s had a very difficult life, and I think that’s made him tough. He’s a lot tougher than many people might think. When he sets his mind on something, nothing will stop him. You’ve never had to play quiddich against him like I have. When his eyes find the snitch, Merlin himself couldn’t beat Harry to it."

She paused for a moment, thinking about her former boyfriend. In truth, she had not examined her feelings about Harry for quite some time. The last significant contact she had with him related to his betrayal by her friend, Marietta, and Granger’s unnecessarily punitive hex on her. Their interaction during that time had not been friendly, and she could not deny that her opinion of Harry Potter contained a great deal of bitterness.

Yet she could not deny his appeal. Something inside of her would always be attracted to him, even though she no longer maintained any desire to resume a romantic relationship. Certainly she had no intention to betray him, which seemed to be the Minister’s hope, that she would divulge some damaging information about him. She needed to choose her words carefully.

"I think quite highly of Harry. He’s a talented wizard, as we all saw at the Tri-Wizard tournament. Despite his difficult upbringing, he’s turned out to be an extremely competent wizard. I wish him only the best."

None of this interested Scrimgeour, but it led him to the question that the conversation had been leading to: "Harry seems to think he has some unfinished business with You Know Who. Did he ever speak with you about that?"

"No," she quickly replied, "We never discussed that. Our friendship never reached that level. I don’t know any more about that than you do." Her answer more or less reflected the truth, though she knew a little bit more than that from her sessions with Dumbledore’s Army in her sixth year. Even if she knew everything, however, she had no intention to divulge it to Scrimgeour.

The conversation ended shortly thereafter. As Cho left the Minister’s office, she could not help but feel Scrimgeour’s desperation. He was grasping at straws.

Just a few minutes after the conclusion of Cho’s conversation with Scrimgeour, Hermione helped Harry pack his few belongings in his hotel room. Harry left the room key on the dresser while Hermione zipped his rucksack. He gazed at his reflection in the mirror, as if trying to recognize himself. Hermione observed him silently, wondering what thoughts passed through his mind.

Finally Harry turned towards her and asked, "Can you change my hair back to black? I’m tired of it like this."

"Sure," she replied with a smile. A moment later, she waived her wand while pronouncing the spell, and Harry’s short hair returned to its natural shade of black. He nodded his thanks, and the two friends stared nervously at each other for several moments.

"Ready?" Hermione finally asked as optimistically as she could. Harry continued to stare at her, seemingly unwilling to move. Finally he answered.


After his one-word response, Harry slipped the rucksack over his shoulder and disappeared. Hermione sighed deeply and followed suit a moment later.

Chapter 19: Now the Fun Begins
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Chapter 19

Now the Fun Begins

Harry appeared in the unkempt yard outside of the side door of the Burrow, causing a gnome to yelp from fright before it scurried away to its own burrow. Five seconds later, Hermione arrived thirty feet away, seeing Harry already walking towards the creaky structure. Molly, of course, heard the two apparation cracks and rushed out the door. She embraced him with all of her might, and Harry could not help but smile at the greeting.

"It’s so wonderful to see you safe and sound, Harry," she gushed, "You can’t imagine how worried we’ve been." Her face flushed with emotion.

"I know, Mrs. Weasley," Harry responded, a smile still on his face, "It’s been a long road. I’m glad it’s over now."

Molly and Hermione also hugged, and a moment later Ron and Ginny appeared. Harry briefly embraced both of them too, paying no special attention to Ginny, who said nothing. Molly told them that Arthur and Remus had both been summoned and should be arriving at any moment.

Soon they sat together in the sitting room, which Harry could see had been quickly straightened by Molly prior to his arrival. Michelle Goldsmith remained at the Burrow, awaiting the arrival of her superiors. Upon leaving Hermione’s house, she realized that she had never been to the Burrow, so following instructions, she apparated to the Ministry and discreetly send a coded note by paper airplane to her contact, Kingsley Shacklebolt. Within a few minutes, Kingsley met with her, and she received instructions on how to floo to the Weasley residence and to notify Molly of the upcoming visit of Harry and Hermione. Kingsley took care of the rest.

Michelle had the day off from the Daily Prophet, so she saw no need to rush off. Sooner of later she would have to return to Hermione’s house to collect and return the rental car, but she still had the whole day for that. Frankly, this counted as the most exciting moment of her life, and she intended to remain until somebody sent her away. Harry stared at her for a moment, and she wondered if he would insist that she leave, but he merely sat in one of the armchairs without acknowledging her.

"Your hair is black again," Ginny commented, trying her best to act normally. Hermione immediately took note of the younger witch’s puffy red eyes, but when she looked at Harry, it appeared that he did not notice. Whether he simply had other matters on his mind or was a typically clueless teenaged boy, she could not be sure, but she breathed a sigh of relief. Sooner or later, Harry would have to confront and resolve this problem, but not now.

"Hermione did it for me," he replied casually, "I was tired of being a blond." He smiled again, and despite his reluctance to return to the Burrow, now that he had arrived, he could not help but enjoy the ambiance of the ramshackle residence. Harry had no place that he truly considered home. No. 12 Grimmauld Place belonged to him, but it would never feel like home, and certainly No. 4 Privet Drive even less. The Burrow came closest, even though he had only spent a few weeks of his life there.

The four friends sat quietly, realizing that they would have to wait before having a true conversation, given the presence of Molly and Michelle. Finally they heard sparks from the fireplace, and they all turned their heads to see Remus Lupin step lightly into the sitting room. Five seconds later, a crack announced Arthur’s arrival just outside the side door.

Harry stood and shook Remus’ hand, both men smiling broadly. Harry did not realize how returning to the Burrow would cause his spirits to soar. He did not realize before how much he missed everyone during his exile, and just seeing the face of each important person in his life lifted a weight from his shoulders. When Arthur rushed through the door, he also smiled broadly and enveloped Harry in a manly embrace.

"You don’t look much worse for the wear, Harry," Arthur declared appraisingly, "It’s wonderful to see you back among us where you belong."

Though Harry could not be sure he agreed that he was back where he belonged, he thanked Mr. Weasley honestly and felt more relaxed than he had since Dumbledore’s murder some seven weeks earlier. At last he felt that his ordeal with the Ministry had ended, finally being able to meet openly with those closest to him.

"Where would you like to speak with us, Harry?" asked Arthur Weasley after the initial greetings and conversations ended. He assumed from Michelle Goldsmith’s information that Harry wished to speak with Remus and him alone.

Instead Harry changed his mind, responding, "Right here in the sitting room. Everyone here can stay. They ought to hear what I have to say, but I need to wait for one more person. I think he’ll be arriving soon."

Only Hermione knew that Harry had summoned Evan Harrington to the meeting. The previous evening, Evan supplied Harry with a two-way mirror, similar to the one given to Harry by Sirius years earlier, only about half the size. If he tapped the mirror three times with his wand, Evan’s mirror would vibrate. The auror would then move to a safe location where he could speak with Harry. The mirrors worked to perfection, and Evan and Harry both agreed that the auror should attend this meeting. Evan stated that he should be able to arrive at the Burrow by half past ten, once he finished some business at the Ministry.


Peter Pettigrew collapsed to the cold tile floor, writhing in pain under the unforgivable curse administered by an irate Lord Voldemort. Peter’s sin? He did not arrive to tend his master quickly enough, despite the fact that he rushed through the halls of the expansive residence where Voldemort and his followers currently housed themselves.

Though he had suffered under the Cruciatus Curse at least two dozen times over the years, Peter never became immune to its effects. It caused just as much pain this time as the first. Voldemort lifted the curse quickly, for in reality his ire was not directed at Pettigrew but at Severus Snape, who still had not returned. Though Voldemort recognized that Snape could arrive at any time during the day to meet the instruction to return in two days’ time, some instinct informed him that Snape would not be returning. His defection would be disastrous, unforgivable (though Voldemort rarely committed the act of forgiveness), and would require immediate vengeance. Allowing Draco Malfoy a temporary reprieve was one thing; betrayal by Severus Snape quite another.

"Your job is to attend to me, Wormtail, yet you manage to fail even in such a simple assignment," Voldemort sneered, finding solace in the abuse of his servant. Still under the aftereffects of the curse, Peter could not answer, even to apologize abjectly for his impertinence. With great effort he managed to stand, but he noted that his master no longer paid him any attention, clearly deep in thought. Peter remained standing without making a sound so as not to distract the dark lord. They remained that way for several minutes.

"Give me your arm, Wormtail."

Peter knew what this meant. Voldemort meant to summon all of his death eaters to him, even though more than half of them already were within shouting distance. The summons, of course, was intended for one death eater only, even though everyone carrying the dark mark would feel it. Peter pushed the sleeve up his good arm, exposing the mark on his forearm. Almost imperceptibly, Voldemort whipped his wand out and touched it to the mark. Pettigrew gnashed his teeth at the burning pain, which lasted for the ten seconds that Voldemort’s wand made contact. Finally, he lifted it, and Peter’s shoulders slumped forward as he inhaled deeply.

"We will meet in the sitting room, Wormtail. Dress me."

"Yes, Master," the pitiful servant replied weakly.

The crunch of his feet on the gravel of the mountain trail almost hypnotized Severus Snape as he hiked slowly along a path in the Swiss Alps. He enjoyed the pleasure of dipping his hands into a babbling creek and sipping the ice cold water. The sun shone comfortably in the sky, with only a few puffy white clouds to mar an otherwise spectacularly blue sky. As he dipped down into a valley, he admired the huge pines and firs.

Then he nearly fell to his knees in pain as he felt the searing heat in the dark mark on his left arm. Quickly he began to breathe in deeply to control his reaction to the pain. He closed his eyes, grasped his arm, and waited. Ten seconds later, the pain subsided, and with a few more deep breaths, he could think rationally again.

Now the dark lord knows,
he mused, Now the fun begins. By his failure to answer the summons, Voldemort would confirm his betrayal. Almost certainly, the dark lord already sensed it. The summons would merely convince him of what he already knew deep inside. Voldemort would go to great lengths to find him, torture him, and kill him. Not an optimistic sort to begin with, Snape assumed that his life would soon come to a painful and violent end, but hopefully not quite yet.

Theoretically, Voldemort and his followers had no means by which to locate him. Theoretically. But Snape knew that the dark lord possessed unknown powers. How often had he shook his head in shock at the dark lord’s mastery of magic? How often did Voldemort seem to know what others thought before they even thought it?

Snape had two options. He could stay put in this comfortable Swiss resort, hopeful that Voldemort in fact lacked the means by which to track him. Or he could run, changing location every night. Though the second option at first seemed prudent, he realized that constant movement would only increase the chance of an accidental sighting. Up in the Alps, such an accident seemed remote. For the moment he would stay put.

His arm continued to sting, but he stepped forward, again allowing the crunching under his feet to soothe him.

Once the conversations in the Burrow settled down, Harry stared at Ginny for the first time. Despite having spent much of the previous day with her, with so much on his mind, he barely noticed her. But now their eyes met, and they stared stoically at each other. He had half forgotten her beauty, and in fact she seemed prettier now than just six weeks ago, but he also could see pain in her eyes.

Ginny stared back intently, as if trying to send a message to Harry, or perhaps trying to decipher one from him, but she realized that she did not know these eyes. Something had changed them, and not only from absorbing the horcrux. She saw a hardness to them that did not exist during their brief romance of the spring. Finally, she had to look away.

From the corner of the sitting room, Hermione squinted her eyes and observed Harry and Ginny, wondering what silent messages had been delivered between the two. Ron observed Hermione watching Harry, noting the strange expression on her face. He scrunched his eyes, unable to interpret her thoughts.

A knock on the front door broke the uncomfortable moment. Everyone knew that whomever stood outside the door did not know that nobody ever used the front door at the Burrow. Harry jumped out of his chair and reached the door before Arthur could. Absolute silence filled the sitting room as Harry opened the door and the tall, sandy-haired auror entered.

"This is Evan Harrington," Harry informed the shocked onlookers, "He’s the auror who’s been chasing me. As you can see, we’ve come to an understanding. Mr. Harrington has been a tremendous help to me. He arranged my interview with the Prophet. I wouldn’t be here today without him."

The others in the room, except for Hermione, shared a wide-eyed, shocked expression. Certainly the last person they expected to attend this gathering would be the very auror who had been on Harry’s tail for the past several weeks. They remained mute, unsure how to react. Harrington understood their predicament.

"Harry has informed me of the Order of the Phoenix, so you do not need to hide it from me. To put it plainly, I have violated my oath as an auror to help Harry. This decision did not come easily to me and was the product of days of painful consideration. In the end, I could not obey an order to arrest a person not accused of any crime and who posed no danger to the magical population. I’ve also come to realize that Scrimgeour is not capable of leading this war."

The onlookers continued to gaze warily at him. Clearly Scrimgeour would love nothing more than to infiltrate Dumbledore’s secret society, and this could very well be a clever ruse. On the other hand, Harrington could also be the answer to their prayers, a highly placed auror privy to the kind of information to which Kingsley Shacklebolt formerly had access.

"You understand, of course," Arthur indicated with a gesture, "that we need to take great care. Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Harrington. You’ll understand if we are reticent in welcoming you into our midst."

Evan smiled knowingly, replying, "And quite rightly. I am willing to submit to veritaserum to verify my loyalties. I expect no less. Understand that there is no turning back for me now."

As a matter of routine, the Order questioned all new members under the truth serum before final initiation, and in fact over the years a few spies had been revealed in that manner. Though Harrington for the moment did not seek membership, use of the serum seemed appropriate and necessary. Arthur glanced at Remus, and both men turned their eyes towards Harry.

"I trust him," Harry answered their unspoken question, "He’s proven himself to me. Give him the veritaserum." Arthur and Remus again made eye contact, and Remus nodded his head a few inches.

"Come with us, Mr. Harrington," Arthur instructed, "We’ll go to the meeting room. The potion is there."

Three empty spaces appeared.

Lord Voldemort stared silently and venomously at his followers, all of whom apparated to their current hide-out in response to his summons. All except for three. The death eaters, hardened criminals for the most part, cringed under the glare of their master.

"We have a traitor," he finally hissed, again returning to silence for another half minute. "He has killed two of your brothers, for they would not betray me. But one. One has betrayed me."

By now even the densest death eater, of whom there were several, understood. Snape defected.

"We must deal with this treason promptly. Palmer, Nelson. Come with me. The rest of you may return to your tasks. But take note of what happens when a death eater betrays Lord Voldemort!"

An hour later, Voldemort sat alone, considering his options. He sent two experienced and trusted death eaters, Palmer and Nelson, to the Forbidden Forest to learn what they could, though Voldemort did not expect them to find any clues. Snape would be far too clever for that. He would have killed his companions, and hiding their bodies would be child’s play for a wizard of Snape’s capabilities.

Voldemort hated this distraction from his primary mission, the recovery and protection of the remaining horcruxes, but Snape’s treachery could not be ignored. Already he knew that many of his followers grumbled behind his back, and failure to act decisively at this moment of crisis could lead to more defections. No! Snape must be dealt with promptly.

If as expected Palmer and Nelson returned with no helpful information, then Voldemort would be forced to take action himself. He tried to avoid use of this special magic, unique to himself. He would have to suffer the consequences. The defection of Draco Malfoy did not merit such an extraordinary act, but for Severus Snape, no other option existed.

Hunger overcame Draco’s nerves, and he consumed his first decent meal since his decision to betray the dark lord. Though he would have preferred The Three Broomsticks, he knew that the employees at the Hogshead asked fewer questions. The old bartender looked askance at him in a curmudgeonly way, and Draco hoped the white-haired man simply disapproved of a young wizard entering such an inappropriate location. Nevertheless, as Draco hoped and expected, nobody bothered him.

As soon as he turned the corner away from the Hogshead, he apparated back to the forest behind the Shrieking Shack, desiring the minimum contact with wizards possible. He walked further among the giant trees until he found a convenient rock on which to rest and ponder. Without warning, the dark mark on his arm burned intensely, and Draco slid off the boulder to the ground, grasping his arm with the other hand. A few yelps escaped his lips, but he managed to control his reaction for the ten painful seconds.

Draco had never felt the pain of a summons by the dark lord, but he heard about it often from his fellow death eaters. Breathing in deeply, he wondered what had occurred to cause the dark lord to issue the call. Could Draco himself be the cause of it? He hoped not, but he could not discount the possibility. He leaned back against the boulder, looked up among the tree tops, and closed his eyes.

The hopelessness of his situation became increasingly apparent, and if he had to do it over again, he would have returned to the dark lord after the botched raid. But that option no longer existed. Soon he would need money, but he could not hope to withdraw galleons from Gringott’s Bank on Diagon Alley without being noticed and turned in. Even in disguise, he would have to identify himself to the goblins in charge of the bank, and Draco’s name now appeared on the known death-eater list. In fact, if he understood correctly, his account may already have been frozen by the Ministry, preventing access to his vault in any event.

Who could help him, he pondered for an extended time. His mother? Out of the question, and Draco could only hope that the dark lord would not punish her for his defection. The families of his friends at Hogwarts? All of his friends belonged to Slytherin House, and as far as he knew, all of them supported the dark lord. They would deliver him to death eaters without hesitation, hoping to be rewarded. Where else could he go? He already tried the muggle world, and knew that he could not survive there. Surrender to the Ministry no longer seemed like such a terrible option. Certainly he would be incarcerated in Azkaban, but if he cooperated with the authorities, perhaps his sentence would be reduced. If nothing else, he would be protected from the dark lord and his minions.

A couple of sharp cracks from deep in the forest snapped Draco out of his meditation. Whether evidence of apparations or simply an animal snapping a dead branch, he could not be sure, but he did not intend to find out. Jumping to his feet as his heart jumped to his throat, he ran as quietly as he could back towards the shack, trying to decide where he could apparate if necessary.

Unknown to Draco, the two cracks announced the arrival of Palmer and Nelson a few hundred yards into the forest, but fortunately for the young wizard, the two experienced death eaters had other matters on their mind, though they would have loved to bump into young Draco all the same. They arrived at the spot where Snape and the others had studied the wards, and the two veteran death eaters conducted a search for a few hours. Predictably, they found nothing, and they returned to report to Voldemort.

"Let’s go up to your room," Harry suggested to Ron and Hermione with a knowing glance indicating that the friends needed to talk. "I have some time now."

Harry could not complain about the events of the day at the Burrow. Evan passed the veritaserum test, and Arthur and Remus giddily celebrated the arrival of a new and highly placed source in the Ministry, especially someone such as Evan Harrington. Unlike Michelle Goldsmith or Cho Chang, Evan needed no training nor admonitions to be discreet. He was the complete package. Harry indicated vaguely that he had business to attend to at Hogwarts and planned to travel there in the morning, if Professor McGonagall did not object. Though Molly expressed disappointment that Harry would stay at the Burrow only one night, Arthur and Remus did not press him for more details, and all agreed that with its wards and other protections, Hogwarts would serve as a relatively safe location.

Hermione followed Ron towards the stairs with Harry behind, but Ginny remained stiffly seated, unsure whether she would be welcomed in their midst. Just yesterday, she felt a part of the group, accompanying them to Grimmauld Place, but now after realizing Harry’s changed feelings towards her, she felt like an outcast. Harry noticed that she remained seated, and he held back for a moment. The two friends made eye contact, and Harry tilted his head towards the stairs, inviting her to follow. Ginny hesitated another moment, but then nodded her head, and stood.

"It’s great to have you back here, mate," Ron joked with a smile, playfully punching his friends arm, "Ginny and I have been spending WAY too much time together." Ginny made a face, but she did not verbally disagree.

"I can think of worse people to spend time with," Harry countered, smiling at Ginny. She smiled in return, less enthusiastically, for she could see that Harry’s smile was forced, his compliment routine. Nevertheless, she appreciated his comment and the fact that he invited her to come upstairs in the first place.

Hermione and Ginny positioned themselves comfortably on "Harry’s bed" in Ron’s room, while Ron sat on his bed, and Harry pulled up the only chair in the room, turning it towards him and resting his arms over the back. Though they had occupied the same positions on many occasions in the past, this did not seem like old times. Despite the initial humor, tension immediately filled the small room.

"I’m going to Hogwarts tomorrow," Harry announced without preamble, "I’d like all of you to come too, if you can."

Ron nodded knowingly, having fully expected that Harry would be moving to Hogwarts soon, given that two of the three remaining horcruxes resided there.

"I’m going," he declared decisively, "I’ll just pack a few things. I won’t need much; we can always come back if we need anything."

Hermione readjusted her position as she explained, "I asked my parents last night. Actually, I guess I should say I informed them that I would be gone for awhile. They weren’t too happy about it, and I had to make up a story about needing special training because of my Head Girl position. I need to go back home today, but I’ll be back here tomorrow morning." She pursed her lips, clearly displeased at having to deceive her parents.

Ginny felt much more conflicted. She wanted to go, but the proximity to Harry would be painful, especially because they almost certainly would not have the opportunity to discuss their relationship. Harry had much more important matters to attend to, and she could not do anything to distract him. In the end, however, she felt the pull.

"I’m going too," she asserted less persuasively than her brother.

"We’ll have to ask your mother," Hermione noted nervously, "since you aren’t seventeen yet." She bit her bottom lip, fearing both that Mrs. Weasley would not allow Ginny to leave, and that Mrs. Weasley might in fact permit it. Which would be better? On the one hand, Ginny knew about the horcruxes, had accompanied the others to Grimmauld Place the previous day, and deserved to be with them. But Harry most definitely did not need romantic distractions, and even if Ginny gave her best effort to avoid a confrontation, it seemed almost inevitable.

"I’ll go anyway," Ginny declared defiantly, "I don’t care what . . ."

Harry sternly cut her off before she could finish, snarling, "You’ll go only if your mother allows it. I’ll talk to her." Ginny shuddered at Harry’s tone, which permitted no dissent. It was a tone of voice that any death eater would have recognized in an instant.

"You may leave," Lord Voldemort hissed under his breath, barely audibly. Palmer and Nelson quietly and quickly left the dark lord’s room. Peter Pettigrew as usual stood almost imperceptibly near the corner.

After a lengthy silence in which neither man moved an inch, Voldemort suddenly asked, "What time is it, Wormtail?"

A large grandfather clock stood at the far end of the bed chamber, easily within view of Voldemort, who despite his other infirmities enjoyed excellent eyesight. Yet he asked Peter for the time anyways, never losing a chance to treat his servant condescendingly. Peter stepped forwards a couple of steps to read the clock.

"Four ten in the afternoon, master."

"Leave me now, Wormtail. You may rest. We have a long night ahead of us. Return to my chamber at eleven fifty tonight. We will leave at midnight."

Peter involuntarily began to shake, overwhelmed with fear at what awaited him. He had no idea where they would travel or what Voldemort planned, but he knew it dealt with Severus Snape. He also knew that it would not be pretty.

Chapter 20: You Don't Know Who I Am Anymore
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Chapter 20

You Don’t Know Who I Am Anymore

While Harry Potter passed a pleasant afternoon with his friends and loved ones at the Burrow, Minister of Magic Scrimgeour hunkered down in his office, trying to decide how next to proceed. Decisiveness marked his tenure as Minister, and rarely did he require more than a few minutes to make a decision. Some found this an admirable quality; others argued that he failed to consider his decisions adequately.

This decision, however, required all of his concentration, and he simply could not reach a conclusion. His heart desired nothing more than to proceed with his plans immediately, taking control of the press, declaring Martial Law, and commencing with the transfer of his constituents to Hogwarts Castle and other similar locations. His political instincts, however, fell against such rapid action, and as his advisors argued time and again, the Ministry could not carry out such orders so quickly.

Yet he could not wait long, that much became clear. Leaks to the media occurred on a daily basis, and though the most sensitive parts of the "New Direction" had yet to be revealed, inevitably they would if he waited too long. The whole Harry Potter fiasco simply complicated an already hugely complicated scenario. For the moment, the public had turned against the Ministry, and the cooperation of wizards and witches to his orders, already a questionable assumption, could not be counted upon.

Fortunately, Scrimgeour knew that the magical population had a short memory. If he waited a few days and let Potter off the hook, the whole debacle would pass over as the next attacks by death eaters reached the headlines. Finally the Minister decided, splitting the difference between his heart and his instincts. He would wait two or three days, but after that, the first steps would be taken, beginning with the declaration of Martial Law and the closure of all media outlets.


Ron exulted over another save, easily blocking Harry’s attempted goal in the left hoop. Harry tried to feint to the right, but Ron read his friend’s eyes, held his position, and flicked the quaffle away with his left hand, just diverting it around the goal.

"Brilliant save, Ron," Harry shouted behind him, having zoomed by the keeper, and now banking to return to the pitch, "but I’m just a seeker. Ginny would have beaten you with that one."

"Just give me the ten points, then," Ginny agreed with a laugh. An hour in the air on her broom improved her mood, allowing her to repress the emotions of the past days. Harry and she played chasers, whipping the quaffle back and forth before trying to whiz it past Ron. Not a fair match, they all agreed, but Ron did not mind having a few goals scored on him. He simply enjoyed spending time with his best mate.

Hermione left the Burrow earlier in the afternoon to spend one more evening with her parents, and for the first time in weeks, Harry could have fun. Plain, simple fun. The three players by now had worked up a sweat.

"Let’s go down and have some of those olives," Ginny suggested, "I’m becoming addicted to them."

A few minutes later, they sat under the shade of a tree near the edge of the forest, each with a handful of olives and a bottle of water.

"It’s nice to see you have fun, Harry," Ginny noted as she pinned her wind-blown red hair back into place, "You look five years younger when you’re on your broom." Harry smiled.

"Well, it’s nice to be up in the air again. I’ll miss not playing Quidditch this term"

Ron gulped some water and wondered out loud, "Maybe we’ll be able to go back. Everything is happening so fast." He immediately wished he had remained silent, for suddenly the enormous task ahead of them seemed more foreboding than ever. Both Harry and Ginny’s faces turned serious.

"You’re right," Harry noted softly, "I thought I had months at least. Maybe years. Now I wonder if I have a week. I keep thinking that I should go to Hogwarts right now instead of waiting here."

"One day won’t change anything, Harry," Ron opined, "We’ll have to figure out how to destroy the trophy anyway. Do you think the hammer will work on it too?" Harry shrugged his shoulders.

"We’ll see. Probably not. That would be too easy." He moved over a couple of feet to lie back on the cool grass under the huge Sycamore tree, staring up at the light flickering through the quaking leaves. The two Weasleys looked up as well, following Harry’s eyes, and the three enjoyed an extended silence.

Out of the blue, Harry remarked in a soft monotone, "Earth is a beautiful place. Leaves on a tree. Snow-covered mountains. Sandy beaches. Pastures for sheep and cattle. It’s all beautiful. Even the run-down areas of some of the cities I saw from the train have their beauty. When I was on the run, I realized how little of the world I’ve seen. I never went anywhere with my aunt and uncle, only to my Aunt Marge’s house, which doesn’t count for anything. It’s almost like I’ve just discovered where I live. Now that I’ve found out, it may all end before I know it. I’ve been so focused on my destiny that I don’t think I ever really knew what I’ll miss when I’m gone."

Ginny and Ron glanced at each other with a "Where did that come from" expression, but Ron again directed his eyes upwards and decided to join Harry’s reflections.

"I know what you mean, though we’ve been to a few places. Even though we’ve always been poor, being wizards we could always travel a little. Egypt is beautiful. Wouldn’t it be fun just to take a year and wander around the whole world, just going wherever you felt."

Harry nodded his head, but he had closed his eyes, seemingly in deep meditation. With both her brother and Harry not paying attention to her, Ginny took the opportunity to examine Harry’s face closely. He had aged. In June at Dumbledore’s funeral, he appeared his age. Not enough time had elapsed for him to have aged so much, she mused. It had to be the pressure of the past weeks. Despite his huge appetite lately, as they joked about at lunch earlier, his face seemed thinner than ever, almost gaunt. He shaved every day, she knew, but before the skin on his face had been smooth when she ran her hand across his cheeks. No longer. Now his skin seemed taut and inelastic.

Suddenly Harry opened his eyes and stared directly at her, and Ginny screamed for a brief second before gathering herself.

"What happened?" Ron asked while jumping to his feet, but he only saw Ginny calming herself with her hand over her chest, inhaling deeply. Harry continue to look at her, and then Ron saw his mate’s eyes fade back to their normal vibrant green. They had been glowing before.

"Nothing," Ginny gasped, not wanting Harry to know what truly startled her, "Harry just surprised me. I wasn’t expecting him to open his eyes." But she had seen the eyes glow again, even brighter than at Grimmauld Place. Try as she might, she could not hide her fear.

"You’re scared of me, aren’t you?" Harry asked, still staring at the witch, "You don’t know who I am anymore. You don’t know what I’ll become. Right?"

Ginny tried to deny it, but her mouth would not open, and Harry’s probing eyes seemed to force her to tell the truth. She nodded her head. Harry lay his head back on the grass and again closed his eyes.

"Neither do I."

Back in his office at the Ministry, Arthur Weasley mindlessly completed paperwork, folding the completed sheets of parchment into airplanes, tapping them with his wand, and sending them off to other offices. All the while, his mind considered the possibilities that now existed with the "recruitment" of Evan Harrington.

he chuckled to himself, More like falling in my lap. Though a product of luck, Harrington’s appearance counted as the first piece of good luck since Arthur took charge of the Order of the Phoenix.

Suddenly a clearly excited Kingsley Shacklebolt towered over him, his bald black head reflecting the light. Though the auror attempted to maintain a passive expression, Arthur could see the excitement in his eyes.

"How are you doing, Arthur," Kingsley asked loudly, "I’m just passing by on the way to Muggle Artifacts." He glanced out the door and almost imperceptibly placed an envelope in front of Arthur. Arthur quickly read the words on the front: Read and destroy.

"Just fine, Kingsley. Keeping busy as you can see."

"That’s quite a mountain on your desk. Well, I need to be off, so I’ll leave you to it."

"Thanks, Kingsley. Maybe we can have lunch later in the week."

The tall auror left and Arthur opened the envelope while grabbing more of his work papers. He placed the note over a form and leaned back so that an onlooker would only see the reverse side of a typical form. He read the brief note twice and then tapped it with his wand to make it disappear in a puff of smoke. He did the same with the envelope.

Word from the Hogshead. Young wizard has been eating there. Nervous and out of place. Aberforth thinks we should look into it.

Arthur leaned back and closed his eyes for a brief moment of thought. They did not have the resources to follow every lead, and this note did not offer much. Nevertheless, Aberforth Dumbledore often had a sixth sense about these matters. It should not take much effort to check out the young wizard. 

I’ll talk to Remus. He can probably handle it tomorrow morning.

"Why don’t you tell us the real reason why you are returning to Hogwarts early."

"I did, Mum," Hermione replied defensively, surprise in her voice. She enjoyed a wonderful supper of lamb and yorkshire pudding with her parents, but afterwards they asked her to move to the sitting room, where her mother and father eyed her warily. She knew that an interrogation had just begun.

"Hermione, dear," her mother interrupted, "Let’s end the charade now. We know you too well. You would have told us right away after you received your badge. Certainly your Hogwarts letter would have included such details. Combine that with the fact that you have been away from home almost all of the past few days, and that you have been nervous and excited, and we can both see that something more is happening. So first, are you truly going to Hogwarts?"

"Yes, mum, I am," she confirmed, but then she could not decide what more to say. She never could lie to her parents without them knowing, and obviously her behavior of the past few days would be noticed. Her parents patiently waited for her to explain further. "I am going to Hogwarts, but you’re right, it has nothing to do with being Head Girl."

Again, her parents remained silent, which only made it more difficult for Hermione to decide what to say. Even if she tried to explain everything about Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter, they would never understand.

"I’m afraid I can’t really explain," she finally answered honestly, "I can only say that it is extremely important that I go."

"We heard from Mrs. Gaines that a boy came by this morning, and then a young lady after that." Mrs. Granger looked kindly at her daughter but with a Let’s get down to business expression. "I think we deserve an explanation, Hermione. If there’s a boy that you like, there’s no reason to hide it. You’re almost eighteen now."

Hermione bit her bottom lip at the news that their neighbor witnessed Harry and Michelle’s arrivals that morning. Why did she have Harry come to the house?!

"Yes, there is a boy in involved, but not in the way you think," she explained in an exasperated voice, "You’ve heard me talk about Harry. Harry Potter. He and Ron Weasley are my best friends at Hogwarts. Harry has some problems right now, and Ron and I are trying to help him."

"What kind of problems?" interjected Mr. Granger, speaking for the first time, "Is he in trouble with the authorities?"

"Not exactly," his daughter answered ambiguously, again biting her lip, "It’s very complicated." She stopped for a moment only to see that her parents appeared willing to wait all night for an explanation. "Harry is an unusual person in the magical world. He’s famous for something that happened when he was a baby, and because of that, a lot of strange things have happened to him." Her mind shifted into fifth gear, trying to invent a way out of this spot. "The Minister of Magic and Harry have had some disagreements, and the Minister has made life a little hard for Harry. More than a little hard. Finally, Harry gave an interview to the Daily Prophet, the wizarding newspaper, and the public supported him. Minister Scrimgeour had to back off, but we’re worried that he wants to harass Harry again, so Ron and I thought that Harry would be safest at Hogwarts. The headmistress has agreed that we can arrive early, because she is not a fan of the Minister either."

On the spur of the moment, Hermione decided that this made the most sense and at least contained a large element of the truth. She could not possibly mention Lord Voldemort or death eaters.

"But why do YOU need to go to Hogwarts?" asked Mrs. Granger, "Surely Harry can get by without you for a few weeks. We see you so rarely now, and soon you will be eighteen. This may be our last summer together." Hermione felt a lump in her throat and pangs of guilt in her stomach.

"I know, mum, but Harry needs us now. He’s been through a terrible time lately. Professor Dumbledore’s death hit him hard. He had become almost a father to him, the only father he ever knew. Harry’s parents both died when he was a baby, and he was raised by a terrible aunt and uncle in Surrey who abused him horribly. For years, they made him sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. Then out of the blue he discovered that not only is he a wizard, but he’s extremely famous." She sighed deeply, exaggerating it for effect. "He’s not doing well right now. Terribly depressed and agitated, and we’re afraid to leave him alone. Harry and I are great friends, mum. No, he’s not my boyfriend. Ron’s sister, Ginny, was his girlfriend until all of this happened, and he broke it off. I’m sorry I have to go, but we can’t let Harry down. If I can, I’ll try to visit a few times. Now that I can apparate, it’s a lot easier. Maybe I can bring Harry and Ron to meet you. I’m sure you’d like them both."

Mr. and Mrs. Granger finally relented in the face of Hermione’s impassioned explanation, though they sensed that something more existed between this Harry and her.  Hermione felt even worse when she noticed the tears escaping from her mother’s eyes.

Peter Pettigrew checked himself in the mirror of his room at quarter to midnight, and try as he might, he could not mask the fear in his eyes. Lifting his real hand to the level of his chest, he saw it shake uncontrollably. Why him? Could not the dark lord take one of his other followers? Many of them would love to participate in his games.

With one last deep breath, he extinguished the lamps in his room and walked down the hall to the master chamber. Lord Voldemort paced slowly back and forth, paying no attention to Peter’s arrival. Of course, the dark lord usually acted this way, not acknowledging the presence of others until it suited his purposes. In this case, only half a minute passed before he issued his first instruction.

"Dress me."

Peter knew without asking which garment the dark lord wished to wear, a battered old black robe which belonged to Tom Riddle while still at Hogwarts. His first murders occurred while wearing this robe, and he conserved it with special affection. Peter referred to it silently as "the killing robe."

At midnight, Voldemort dramatically grasped his wand and used it to push up the sleeve to his left arm, revealing a special dark mark, unique to him. Peter stood just a few feet away, hoping against hope that the master would allow him to stay behind. Voldemort delayed.

He did not wish to utilize this special magic. Only a few times in his life had he resorted to it, but that occurred decades earlier when he enjoyed better health and had not been sent into oblivion for a decade. Use of this magic would cost him dearly, and he knew it. But how dearly? Could there be another way?

"No," he answered himself, already having considered other options. Snape was not a normal death eater. He possessed a keenly deceptive mind, proved by his ability to hide his true loyalties for many years. If Voldemort waited and sent death eaters to attempt to locate the traitor, he would wait for years, and who knew what damage Snape could cause. No, other options did not exist. He would pay the price of vengeance.

"Hold on to my right arm, Wormtail, we have a journey ahead of us."

Peter reluctantly stepped forward and gently grasped Voldemort’s upper right arm, for the dark lord had already bent the arm towards the mark on his left forearm, his wand hovering inches above it. Once he felt his servant’s touch, Voldemort closed his eyes and visualized the face and body of Severus Snape. For several long seconds, Peter stood breathless, until suddenly Voldemort touched the wand to his own dark mark.

A howl of pain from the dark lord could be heard for just an instant before they disappeared. Peter of course had apparated thousands of times during his lifetime, and though he did not enjoy the process, it had become routine. But this "apparation," if it could be termed as such, horrified him.

He felt an unknown force pulling on his limbs and skin, as if attempting to dismember him, and the pain reached beyond anything short of the Cruciatus curse. All around him he saw blackness, but he felt flames lapping at his body. He wanted it to end, but on and on they hurtled through nothingness, a minute at least, and just when he felt that he could no longer tolerate the pressures tearing at him, they suddenly landed in a small room. Peter immediately collapsed to the hard wooded floor, writhing in pain.

Voldemort felt the same pain, but he knew that he needed to act instantly upon arrival. But even he could not remain on his feet on the landing. Severus Snape dropped the glass of wine which he had just lifted to his lips, and by the time the glass shattered on the floor, he already grasped his wand.

"AVADA KE . . . " he yelled, but a quick flick of Voldemort’s wand threw Snape against the wall, momentarily knocking the wind out of him. Both wizards took a moment to recover, but only a moment, for they both knew they needed to act before the other.

Snape knew that anything short of the killing curse would be useless against the dark lord. Even in his disabled condition, his magic remained unparalleled, only matched by Albus Dumbledore. A duel equated to suicide. His only hope would be to hit before the dark lord could recover from this unknown method of locating him. He again pointed his wand.

"Avada . . ." This time he could not even start on the second word of the killing curse, and Snape knew that his end had arrived. From the floor, Voldemort delivered an almost instantaneous petrificus totalus, freezing the traitor in mid-spell. Voldemort lowered his head and finally allowed himself to feel the excruciating pain torturing every inch of his body.

Decades earlier, Voldemort devised this means of tracking his followers. He could summon his death eaters to him merely by touching the dark mark of any one of them, and this he did often over the years. However, he also could transport himself to the location of any death eater simply by touching his own dark mark while visualizing him or her. But for reasons he could never determine, excruciating pain resulted each time he attempted it. Ultimately he abandoned the practice, and his current crop of followers knew nothing about this power.

With Snape frozen against the wall, Voldemort took his time in gathering his strength, or what was left of it. Instantly he realized the terrible price he would pay. He could barely stand, and Peter, able to function again despite residual pain, helped the master to his feet. Neither spoke a word.

Finally after another minute, Voldemort whispered a strained order, "Bring me his wand, Wormtail." While Peter stepped towards Snape, Voldemort silently placed an antiapparation ward and silencing spell on the small cabin. Now he could take his time.

"Finite," he whispered, unfreezing Snape, who almost fell. He then stood with his back against the wall, quickly trying to devise a way to kill himself quickly before the dark lord could have his way with him.

"Punch him, Wormtail, in the stomach."

Voldemort knew that Peter hated taking part in torture, a characteristic that Voldemort found both silly and repugnant. He enjoyed forcing his servant to participate.

"Again!" he hissed after Peter’s first half-hearted blow to the victim’s stomach. Peter punched him harder three more times, and even though he did not pack much of a punch, they did enough damage to cause Snape to bend over in pain.

"How is your Cruciatus Curse, Wormtail?" Voldemort asked with a sneer, anger oozing out of him, "Let’s see it."

Peter’s arms shook uncontrollably but he dared not disobey lest he be on the receiving end of the curse.

"Cr..., Cr...., CRUCIO," he finally yelled with a cry, and Snape fell to the floor screaming in agony. Peter lifted the curse after five seconds and fell to his knees. Voldemort appeared to be satisfied by this. Snape lay on the wooden floor motionless, breathing in deeply as he tried to recover his senses.

"You are aware of the fate of those who betray me, Severus. Lord Voldemort does not show mercy to traitors. We have many hours ahead of us, and tonight you shall feel my full wrath."

"You are doomed to lose, Tom Riddle," Snape finally spoke with a pained grimace, "Your vengeance will gain you nothing. Dumbledore has outfoxed you again." Severus Snape would never speak another word.

"Sectumsempra," Voldemort said quietly, using Snape’s own creation against him. Snape’s body and clothes immediately suffered gashes over almost every inch of his body, and his screams forced Peter Pettigrew to cover his ears with his hands. But the screams were music to Voldemort’s ears.

"A lovely invention of your, Severus," he finally sneered after lifting the curse, "I am thankful that you taught it to me. Of course, I am partial to some of my own inventions. CLAVITUS!"

Snape lay semi-conscious on the hard floor but with the second spell, he felt ten-inch spikes being driven into him, and the screams began again. Just when he appeared to be on the verge of unconsciousness, Voldemort lifted the spell. From years of practice, he knew just how long he could apply a curse.

For three excruciatingly long hours, Peter Pettigrew witnessed the most gruesome torture that Lord Voldemort had ever delivered, causing Peter to vomit more than once. Voldemort appeared to be on the verge of collapse himself, only pure rage allowing him to continue. Finally, after three in the morning, Snape’s body could bear the abuse no longer, and he breathed his last.

Voldemort summoned the energy to stand over the corpse while Peter stood off to the side, breathing in deeply and thankful that Snape’s suffering had ended. Though he never liked the man, he would not wish what he had just observed on anyone.

"Wormtail," Voldemort finally whispered painfully, "Take his body back and lay it in the sitting room. Let all see what happens to those who betray me."

"Yes, master," Peter whispered in return. He paced towards the body which no longer bore any resemblance to Severus Snape, disfigured from head to toe by cuts and bruises. Peter did not wish to touch the body anywhere, but finally he lifted Snape’s left hand and apparated back to their current hideout, directly into the sitting room.

Several death eaters occupied the room at the time, despite the late hour, and even they felt nauseous at the sight. Peter immediately left the body where it lay and rushed away to his room.

Lord Voldemort remained for another hour in the Swiss cabin, barely able to move. He realized that the price he paid may be much higher than what he first imagined. Already seriously disabled, he knew that he would barely be able to function now. How would he be able to retain the loyalty of his followers? How would he be able to control them with fear if he could barely walk or talk?

This called for drastic action, an action that he feared may be necessary. Now he knew.

Chapter 21: I Cannot Rest Long
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Chapter 21

I Cannot Rest Long


With the same disguise he utilized the previous day, Draco Malfoy again entered the Hogshead Inn, believing that his luck would hold out at least another day. He still could come to no conclusion as to which bad option to elect. His brain convinced him that he must surrender to the Ministry and cooperate to the extent that he could, but he realized that such a move, even viewed optimistically, meant years of confinement in Azkaban. That alone convinced the young wizard to delay at least one more day.

Remus Lupin stood against a wall of the pub seemingly in plain view, but Draco never noticed him. Aberforth Dumbledore, the barman at the Hogshead, placed a disillusionment charm on the werewolf such that he blended into the dark walnut wall. Remus knew that the young man who just entered must be the wizard that Aberforth reported the previous day, and the briefest of nods by the white-haired wizard confirmed it.

In less than a minute, Remus saw through the disguise and recognized his former student, Draco Malfoy. Though the boy changed the color of his hair and added the glasses, which Remus could easily see resulted from an amateurish attempt at transfiguration, Malfoy could not alter his gait and his bearing. For some time, Remus observed Draco, allowing him to complete most of his meal. Clearly the boy had suffered hard times and devoured his food quickly. At first Draco’s eyes flitted around the room warily, but soon he concentrated on his plate.

His heart nearly jumped out of his throat when suddenly a man sat down in a chair next to him, his wand pointing directly at Draco’s chest.

"Hello, Draco," Remus calmly greeted him, "Why don’t you give me your wand, and we’ll have a little chat."

Draco’s eyes widened to the size of galleons as he realized that his days of freedom had just ended. For five seconds he sat motionless, and Remus remained silent, understanding that the boy needed a moment to comprehend his predicament. Finally Draco slowly reached into the pocket of his robe, gently lifting his wand with the tips of two fingers, just as a gunfighter would have done in the old West when throwing down his revolver. He gently placed the wand on the table next to his plate. Remus calmly slipped it into his pocket and pulled his own wand back a foot. Draco still had not spoken a word.

"Did you leave Lord Voldemort?" Remus asked in little more than a whisper. Draco shuddered from hearing the dark lord’s name, but he nodded. "You’re lucky we found you before they did," Remus continued, "Don’t say anything." He silently flicked his wand at his captive in an intricate pattern. "Don’t try to apparate. It won’t be a pleasant experience."

Draco nodded again. Mixed with his fear, he felt a tremendous sense of relief. He did not know whether Professor Lupin worked for the Ministry or some other organization, but he knew that Lupin was an enemy of the dark lord, and for the moment, he could ask for nothing more.

"You must rest, master. Soon you will be well again. Last night required a great deal of effort."

Lord Voldemort lay in a large bed in an ornately carved wooden frame. A fire in the fireplace blazed and three thick blankets covered him, yet he still felt chilled. His eyes barely shone red, and his face almost seemed lifeless. More than once, Peter Pettigrew wondered if the dark lord in fact had died, for he remained motionless for extended lengths of time, and under the blankets, Peter could not easily determine whether he breathed or not.

How his master managed to apparate back to their current hideout, Peter never knew, but clearly use of the heretofore unknown means of locating a death eater nearly killed him. The energy needed to torture and kill Snape and to apparate back only exacerbated his condition.

"I cannot rest long," Voldemort whispered, his eyes barely opened, "I will rest today. Then I must decide what to do. Allow me to sleep now, Wormtail."

"Certainly, master. I am sure you will feel much better by this evening." Voldemort did not hear Pettigrew’s final words, already having fallen asleep. Peter gazed at him impassively for a minute before leaving the bed chamber. He knew, however, that he must return soon, for the dark lord would expect him to be nearby whenever he awoke. Deep down, he suppressed the desire that his master never wake again.

"My trunk is still in Little Whinging. I thought about apparating to my room and bringing it to the Burrow, but I couldn’t stand the thought of being in that house again, even for half a minute."

Harry removed the few items from his rucksack and placed them in drawers while Ron did the same. They automatically returned to their same dormitory and beds above the Gryffindor House common room. At first Hermione and Ginny headed for the stairs to the girls’ dormitories, but then they decided that it made no sense for them to stay so far away. Instead, they checked the other boy’s quarters and decided that they preferred the fourth years’ room best. Harry and Ron could distantly hear their voices as they unpacked.

Molly reluctantly allowed Ginny to leave with Harry, Ron and Hermione. At first she resisted, but after Harry explained and requested again, she relented. Somehow, she simply could not say no to the young wizard, almost as if he had a power over her. She clearly noticed that Harry had changed and emitted an aura that he did not possess in the past. And those eyes. Something had happened to those eyes. Harry always had been special to her, but now she could see that he was truly special. After they left in the morning, she shook her head, wondering why she could not resist a mere boy of seventeen. In any event, as Arthur assured her, Ginny would probably be safer at Hogwarts than at the Burrow.

"You could send Kreacher for it," Ron suggested while tossing a few socks in a drawer, "He is your house elf after all."

Harry frowned at the mention of his slave, whom he despised with all of his heart. Yet the use of a house elf made sense, but a different house elf.

"Dobby, could you . . ."

Before Harry could finish the summons, the diminutive house elf appeared before them, his face covered with soot from cleaning one of the many chimneys protruding from the roof of Hogwarts Castle.  Harry felt as much fondness for Dobby as he felt hatred for Kreacher, for Dobby had proven his dedication to Harry. Harry, of course, tricked Lucius Malfoy into freeing the elf after battling the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, more than four years previous, and thereby earned Dobby’s unswerving loyalty. Given the heat of the summer and the dirty work, Dobby wore only one colorful woolen hat on his head instead of the usual half dozen.

"Harry Potter is at Hogwarts," Dobby exclaimed with surprise, a huge grin on his face, "How can I help Harry Potter?"

"Hello, Dobby," Harry replied graciously, chuckling at the sight of the black-faced elf, "You look well. How have you and the other house elves been this summer?"

"Hogwarts house elves have been very busy, Harry Potter. Headmistress McGonagall gives us many projects to prepare the castle for next year. House elves are happy being busy." Indeed, Harry thought that Dobby seemed quite content.

"I’m glad to hear that. Listen, Dobby, I wondered if you could do me a favor." Harry explained about his trunk.

"Certainly, Harry Potter. Dobby will go right now." With an almost silent pop, the house elf disappeared. Harry almost hoped that his Aunt Petunia happened to be in his room when the soot-faced house elf appeared out of nowhere. She would die of a heart attack on the spot.

Ron shrugged his shoulders and commented, "That was easy." Mere moments later, Dobby reappeared with the trunk in hand and a smile on his face.

"Thank you, Dobby. You are a great friend." Dobby blushed but smiled even more broadly, but as he stared at Harry, his smile faded and a puzzled expression replaced it.

"What has happened to your eyes, Harry Potter?"

"My eyes? Oh," Harry answered, somewhat perturbed that the change in them seemed to be so noticeable, "They just became a little brighter on my seventeenth birthday. I guess it happens to some wizards."

Dobby accepted the misleading explanation, but still gazed worryingly at Harry.

"I may need your help again, Dobby, if you don’t mind."

"Of course not, Harry Potter. Dobby will be proud to work for the great Harry Potter. Just call my name when you need me." He apparated back to his work.

"Is it that noticeable?" Harry quietly asked Ron. Harry forgot his unpacking and sat on the edge of his bed, staring out the window.

Ron felt he had to answer honestly, "I’m afraid they are, mate. Normally they just seem a little brighter than before, but when they glow. . .  Well, it’s eerie."

Harry stared appraisingly at his best friend, but did not continue the discussion. Again, he stared out the window, trying not to appear overly concerned. Inside, however, he thought, I wonder what they’ll look like when I absorb the next one. 

"HOW CAN IT BE SO HARD!" yelled Minister Scrimgeour, red-faced, at several of his aides, "THE PROPHET HAS DOZENS OF EMPLOYEES. JUST FOLLOW THEM. A NEWSPAPER CAN’T HIDE." A former auror himself, the Minister could not understand why his forces could not track down the newspaper’s hideout within an hour.

"We’re doing just that, sir," one of the aides assured him, "We’re putting Harrington and Singh on it. Give it a day or two. They’ll find the new headquarters if they don’t move again. Of course, if they’re smart, they will."

"One more day," the Minister growled, "We’re moving against the press tomorrow, whether or not we know where the Prophet is. We’ll close down the rest of them. Understand?!"

"Yes, Minister," echoed the chorus of responses as Scrimgeour stormed out the door.

"Why can’t I just have a nice easy mission," Evan Harrington groused to himself, "Just give me a few death eaters to duel. I never even liked hide-and-seek as a boy."

Yet he found himself on another wild goose chase, this time attempting to locate a hidden newspaper headquarters rather than a teen-aged boy. And again, he could find no justification for his orders. This time, however, he did not anguish over his assignment, for he had no intention to fulfill his responsibilities. To the contrary, he intended to assure the mission’s failure.

The process may have been gradual, but now he could not turn back. Scrimgeour would consider him a traitor, worthy of years of incarceration in Azkaban; others would consider him a patriot, willing to risk all for his country. Evan preferred the latter interpretation, but a large part of him still agreed with Scrimgeour’s view. An auror’s vow is not granted lightly, and the decision to break that vow requires deep meditation. But that phase had ended, and Evan no longer suffered from the nerves that plagued him earlier. He had traveled too far up the road to turn around now.

His primary problem at the moment related to his partner on this mission, Veronica Singh, an auror of Indian heritage, though her family had lived in Britain for several generations. Ten years Evan’s junior, he only knew her in passing, never having worked with her in the field. By reputation, she could be brilliant but lacked decisiveness, and more than a few of Evan’s colleagues had complained about her failure to act quickly enough, at times with unfortunate consequences. Generally, her superiors assigned her to jobs where she could exercise her brain, and Evan clearly understood that he would be the muscle of this operation. Fine with him, except that he would have difficulty meeting and assisting Harry if he needed to be with Singh all the time.

He shook her hand, and the two aurors chatted amiably for a few minutes before turning to business. Veronica barely stood five feet tall, a little on the chubby side, exaggerated by her short stature. Though she proudly displayed a head of thick black hair down to her shoulder blades, all in all, she could not be considered a beauty.

Why are all the female aurors ugly?
Evan groused, but he put the thought out of his mind, and they sat down to discuss how they would approach this new problem. While they reviewed sketchy intelligence reports and brain stormed, in the back of Evan’s mind he had alternate thoughts in his mind.

I should make contact with that woman at the Prophet. What was her name? Goldsmith? I can keep her informed. When we get too close, they can move.

"It’s not where it used to be," Ron advised the others after describing the award for special services given to Tom Riddle a half century before, a curved gold shield mounted on a base. The four friends stood nervously in the trophy alcove, just off one of the main corridors of the first floor of Hogwarts Castle. Hundreds of awards, plaques, trophies, medals and other memorabilia from a thousand years of school history lined numerous trophy cases and shelves. Though the alcove could be accessed by anyone, in general students paid it no attention. Of course, Harry and Ron knew the area better than most, having "enjoyed" several detentions polishing the awards. Ron, in fact, spent a great deal of effort in his second year at Hogwarts polishing Riddle’s trophy itself.

Hermione and Ginny stepped past Ron, who continued to gaze into the case where he believed the Tom Riddle trophy sat when last they visited the alcove. The two girls shivered slightly, chilled by the coolness of the interior room of the stone castle. Up in Gryffindor Tower, the warmth of the summer afternoon heated the common room and dormitories, and they dressed lightly, in typical muggle shorts and sleeveless blouses. Now they wished that they brought a sweater.

Harry did not shiver and already tuned out his three companions. He found the locket by feel, and he figured he would find the trophy the same way. Slowly he paced forward, freeing his mind from thought.

"Well, let’s start looking then," Hermione instructed with a sigh after a brief search proved Ron right, "Let’s split up. Lumos." The others followed suit, lighting their wands in the dim room, pointing the light at anything that remotely resembled the Riddle trophy.

After about five minutes with no luck, Ginny turned her head when Harry walked past her and then jumped from shock.

"Where’d you find it Harry? Why didn’t you tell us?"

Indeed, Harry found the gold shield merely by walking between the cases and shelves, not trying to find anything. When he passed by one case, he suddenly and inexplicably knew that the trophy resided there. After lighting his wand to peer inside, he found the trophy within a few seconds. With Ginny’s exclamation, Ron and Hermione abandoned their searches, and the three of them circled Harry and the award.

"Let’s go," Harry decided, and before the others could respond, he strode ahead, back to the main corridor. Several minutes later they positioned themselves on the comfortable chairs near the unlit fireplace in the Gryffindor common room. The trophy rested on a low table among the chairs.

After a long silence, Hermione asked what was on all of their minds, "Are you going to use the hammer on this one too, Harry?" She stared at him anxiously, but the tone of her voice did not impart any disagreement with that course of action.

Harry pursed his lips and squinted in response to the question. The hammer worked well enough on the locket, but would it have worked on the diary or ring? Dumbledore never explained about the ring, of course, but the crack in it did not seem to Harry to be the result of a hammer blow. Moreover, a hammer could not have destroyed a diary. The trophy now in front of him could clearly be damaged by a hammer, but striking the horcrux would be difficult, as the curved shield provided no flat edges to smash. Certainly he could dent and mar the surface, but he did not believe that he could truly destroy it to the point of releasing the partial soul.

"I don’t think so," he finally answered, "I don’t think that will do the job."

"Why not?" asked Ron disbelievingly, "It worked well enough last time. Why not give it another try?"

"I just know, Ron," Harry retorted immediately, not in an angry voice but also indicating that he did not intend to discuss the issue further. "Each one is different."

Given Harry’s sharp response to Ron’s inquiry, the others decided to remain silent for the time being, and they watched Harry stare intently at the unassuming gold trophy, about two feet high and slightly tarnished. Ginny eyed him with a puzzled expression, as if trying to solve an especially clever riddle. Many things had happened to Harry in the past month and a half, yet she could not come to believe that she no longer knew him. Not like she thought she knew him before Dumbledore’s funeral.

She had never felt closer to anyone in her short life, and she would have sworn that she understood Harry better than she understood herself. Now, that was a distant memory. In a strange way, Harry’s transformation almost made her feel better. The old Harry, or as she often described him, the "real Harry," would not have discarded her as easily as a torn shirt. Perhaps she could come to accept that this new Harry no longer loved her, because she never loved him either. She loved the old Harry, the "real Harry."

Hermione tried to focus on the matter at hand, destruction of the new horcrux, yet she could not manage to look away from Harry either, at least not for more than a few seconds at a time. Her friend gazed serenely at Tom Riddle’s trophy, apparently not in the least perturbed at the prospect of absorbing another horcrux. She certainly did not feel the same, for the realization that Harry would have to absorb another piece of Voldemort’s soul frightened her. What would happen to him this time? After staring at the young wizard for a minute, she again forced herself to redirect her eyes.

Suddenly Harry stood, a thin smile on his face, and he scooped up the trophy with his right hand.

"I think we should talk to Hagrid," he announced to the others’ bewilderment, "He knows about destroying things. That’s right up his alley." He casually but decisively stepped towards the portrait door, obviously on his way to Hagrid’s cabin, either alone or with his friends. The decision was theirs. The three of them glanced at each other with raised eyebrows, but they quickly stood and rushed after him.

The half giant thrust his gigantic shovel into the newly turned earth some fifty yards from his cabin and briefly wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of this thin white undershirt, open at the neck. He had stripped his normal outer clothing off in the August heat, given the strenuous work of the day, but a nostalgic smile crept across his face as he saw the four students making their way down the hill. His emotions almost got the better of him, and he inhaled deeply several times to prevent the tears from falling.

At the same time, he noticed a difference in Harry Potter, at the lead of the small pack. He walked differently, carried himself with greater assurance. He had always been a talented and powerful wizard, Dumbledore assured Hagrid of the fact many times, but now the huge groundskeeper could see it for himself. Not many wizards would want to cross paths with the Harry Potter now approaching him. In fact, he remembered a classmate of his from many decades before who walked similarly: Tom Riddle. Hagrid put the thought out of his mind.

Harry waved from about one hundred yards away, and Hagrid returned the greeting. For the first time, he noted that Harry carried something in his hand.

"Harry!" he called once the boy turned the final corner, and Hagrid gave him a manly embrace which as usual nearly knocked the wind out of young wizard, "It’s good to see yeh, Harry. After all tha’s been happenin’, it’s right good t’ see yeh."

Smiling genuinely in return, Harry agreed, "It’s good to be back, Hagrid, It’s great to feel safe again." Hagrid patted Harry’s shoulder affectionately and then turned his attention to the others who arrived a few seconds later.

"Hermione, Ginny, Ron. I can’ believe my luck. Awfully lonely ‘roun’ here durin’ the summer, specially with ol’ Dumbledore gone." His eyes suddenly widened as if about to burst into tears, but he quickly gathered himself again, the immediate shock of the headmaster’s death finally behind him. "A great wizard, he was. He and I used t’ talk a lot in the summer time. Tha’s when I saw him most often." He saw the four teenagers stand awkwardly, not sure how to respond, but he made any response unnecessary. "But enough of tha’, come on t’ my cabin. I’ll wash up a bit and put on a pot o’ tea."

Harry, Ron and Hermione thoroughly enjoyed their conversation with their oversized friend, at home and at ease in his familiar cabin. Ginny never developed as close a relationship with Hagrid and as a result sat quietly most of the time, feeling slightly uncomfortable and out-of-place as she sipped her tea.

"Why’d yeh bring that trophy here, Harry? Nothin’ of Riddle’s is interestin’ t’ me."

Hagrid of course had more of a beef with Tom Riddle than most, the future Lord Voldemort having framed the half-giant decades earlier for a crime that in fact Tom committed. Harry reached over to hold the trophy in his hands, reading the inscription.

"There’s dark magic in this trophy, Hagrid. We can’t say any more than that. Somehow we need to destroy it, but we’re not sure how to go about it. What do you think?"

"What do I think?" repeated Hagrid, surprised that anyone would request his opinion. He stood and took the trophy from Harry’s hand and considered the options. "‘Course yeh can always smash it, though it’s kind o’ a funny shape. Maybe some potion, but I wouldn’ know ‘bout that. Not sure I can help here, Harry. Only thing I know is that when I have to get rid o’ something, I mean really get rid o’ it, there’s just one way. Fire."

The four-letter word slapped Harry across the face. Fire. Yes, that had to be it! He knew it.

"You’re right, Hagrid. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before." Hagrid handed the trophy back to Harry when the young wizard held out his hand. He looked at the horcrux again, and a thin smile crept across his lips. "We’ll burn it. We’ll melt it."

"Yeh’d need a mighty strong fire t’ melt that thing, Harry. Yer not gonna do that in a fireplace," Hagrid advised, pointing at his own fireplace, currently unused in the warm summer weather.

Ron stood up and moved next to Harry, examining the trophy as well, as if trying to determine how hot of a fire would be required.

"Where could we build a fire hot enough to melt a gold trophy," he asked, "I don’t think Hogwarts has a smelter."

"That’s because you’ve never read Hogwarts, A History," Hermione interjected with just a hint of her old "know-it-all" voice. Normally Harry and Ron would roll their eyes at mention of the sleep-inducing tome, but this time they turned to her with great interest. "Hogwarts has a large furnace which used to be used as a smelter to fashion iron weapons and tools. It hasn’t been used in decades, but it’s still here."

Harry set the trophy back on Hagrid’s rough-hewn wooden table and calmly returned to his chair.

"I guess we know what we’re doing tonight."

Chapter 22: The Bowels of North Tower
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Chapter 22

The Bowels of North Tower

One of the eeriest aspects of Lord Voldemort, in Peter Pettigrew’s opinion, was the fact that even with his eyes closed, the red of his pupils could barely be seen through the eyelids. Only on rare occasions had Peter seen his master asleep. For one thing, Voldemort slept only a few hours per day, and in any event, he usually woke immediately if someone entered his room. By the evening, however, the dark lord continued to sleep, having awakened only for brief moments during the day.

During those minutes of consciousness, he instructed Peter to inform his fellow death eaters that he would recover soon enough and for each of them to take a good long look at the body of Severus Snape. Unnecessary instructions, of course, for each death eater observed the battered corpse of the former Hogwarts Potions master which still lay in the sitting room for all to see. The message came through loud and clear. This is what happens to traitors.

Peter checked on his master every half an hour or so, but as far as he could determine, no improvement occurred. Finally in the early evening, Peter noticed Voldemort moving slightly in the bed. The death eater moved to the bedside.

The dim redness beneath the eyelids suddenly turned bright as Voldemort opened his eyes. Peter could see that his master remained in great distress from the stresses of the previous evening, when he tortured and murdered Snape.

Voldemort knew it as well. His condition would not improve. This was not the result of an illness that he could overcome, but the effects of powerful dark magic. Before his numerous transformations, before his banishment to oblivion by Harry Potter, before his difficult rebirth in the graveyard, Voldemort possessed the strength and stamina to withstand such magic, but obviously he could no longer manage in his weakened condition.

This left him with two options. Two terrible options. He could accept his disabled state and hope he improved enough to function. Or he could take the second option, the only way in which he could regain at least some of his health.

"Where is Nagini?" he whispered to Peter.

"He’s in the corner, master. He has been with you all day."

Voldemort closed his eyes tightly for several seconds, a pained expression clearly visible to Peter.

Without opening his eyes, the dark lord softly ordered, "Leave me, Wormtail. I must be alone." Peter nodded servilely and moved towards the door. Just as he stepped through, he heard Voldemort hissing in Parseltongue.

"What does he want to do in the lake?"

Draco shook his head in response to Remus Lupin’s inquiry, "I don’t know. None of us did. The few that would talk about it thought it was a waste of time. The dark lord doesn’t spend time on explanations. Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that he is interested in the lake, more so than Hogwarts itself."

After his capture in Hogsmeade at breakfast, Remus led Draco outside the town’s limits and then stunned him. When Draco awoke, he found himself on a simple bed in a windowless room dimly lit by two oil lamps on the barren walls. In one corner, he saw an open toilet and sink with a small white towel. He immediately patted himself to try to locate his wand, but then remembered that Remus confiscated it in Hogsmeade. The teen bowed his head as he sat on the edge of the bed, realizing that he may not touch another wand for the rest of his life. For all intents and purposes he had become what he had been taught to despise: a muggle.

How long he remained alone in the dim room, he did not know, for his watch had also been removed. Finally Remus and another man, tall, black and bald, entered the room and began to question him.

Draco told them everything he knew and made no attempt to conceal any information about the dark lord. At times he felt like a house elf disobeying a master’s orders, but he knew that his future now depended on his cooperation. One way or the other, Voldemort would kill him if ever afforded the opportunity. The best he could hope for now was that he may be released from imprisonment prior to his death. Maybe he would be granted a few years of freedom as an old man.

After an hour passed, Remus and Kingsley decided to end this session. As they prepared to leave, Draco drummed up the courage to ask of his future.

"What’s going to happen to me, Professor?" He thought using the word "professor" indicated respect and might help gain favor with him. Unfortunately, Remus’ expression did not contain an ounce of compassion.

"That remains to be seen. For now, you will remain our prisoner. Some day we will deliver you to the Ministry. Make yourself comfortable. We’ll bring you some reading material. This room is your new home." Remus did not delay further, and Kingsley shut and bolted the door. No doubt he placed a spell on it as well. Draco threw himself onto the bed and stared at the ceiling.

Evan slipped away from his new partner, Veronica Singh, and closed the door of a storage closet. After placing locking and silencing spells, he pulled out the two-way mirror. He felt Harry’s call a few minutes earlier. Tapping his mirror with his wand, the face of Harry Potter appeared, though looking away from the mirror, impatient from the wait.

"Hi, Harry," the auror greeted him, causing Harry to return his gaze to the other mirror, "I came as fast as I could."

Harry nodded and replied, "I know. Don’t worry about it. I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to destroy another horcrux. You’re welcome to enjoy the show if you want."

Evan sighed, knowing that he would be with Harry no matter what, but that slipping away from his new partner would be difficult.

"I’ll be there, Harry. Where are you?"

"At Hogwarts, like we told you. We came this morning and found Tom Riddle’s trophy. We’re going to work on it soon. I can wait a little, but not too long. When can you be here?"

The two agreed that Evan would arrive between seven and eight in the evening, leaving Harry time to work with his friends to locate the furnace that Hermione alleged still existed at Hogwarts. She had not brought her own volume of Hogwart: A History, but of course the library contained several of the heavy tomes, and she brought one back to the common room to find the passage. This ended up taking a good half hour, as the furnace only merited a brief mention, but finally she located the paragraph on page 828. She read it aloud to the others.

In centuries past, animal husbandry played a larger role in daily life at Hogwarts Castle than in more recent times. This resulted largely from the influence of muggle culture on the wizarding class, for muggles lacked the automated means of transportation that they now enjoy. When wizards visited muggle cities and towns, they needed to arrive by horse or carriage, and thus many kept the magnificent creatures at their residences. Of course, until recently, almost all wizards lived in rural areas suitable for raising horses and other domesticated animals. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, any self-respecting wizard, and indeed many witches, could ride as well as any muggle, and in addition to Quidditch, equestrian competitions also commonly took place on the castle grounds.

Of course, the maintenance of scores of animals required forging horseshoes, spurs, saddles, and similar equipment. While some items could be fashioned by magic, many wizards held to the belief that magically created equipment, especially horseshoes, did not match the quality of non-magically forged ironware. Thus the furnace located in the bowels of North Tower received continual use by skilled smiths of the time, and the more mechanically inclined students could learn the craft in addition to their regular studies. With the advent of modern transportation, use of the furnace gradually declined, and so far as anyone knows, it has not been fired since early in the twentieth century.

 "The bowels of North Tower?" Ginny asked with a shiver, "That doesn’t sound too inviting. I don’t want to go to the bowels of anyplace."

"It just means that it’s at the bottom of the tower," Hermione explained with a laugh, "Maybe even below ground level. I don’t think we’ve ever been down there."

Harry listened intently but realized that he too could not picture that section of the castle, no longer utilized by the school. The other three looked expectantly at him, awaiting a comment, but instead he silently flicked his wand towards the dormitory rooms. A few seconds later, a rolled-up parchment whooshed down the stairs and a moment later landed softly in his hands. He rolled out the Marauder’s Map on the low table among the chairs.

"Let’s see what’s on the map. I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."

The others sat still for a few seconds, stunned for a moment by the ease in which Harry summoned the map. While summoning an object would not be considered difficult for a sixth or seventh-year student, it nevertheless should take a bit more effort than what Harry displayed. While that waited, the lines on the map began to form, and a few names appeared here and there.

"Did you even think, ‘accio.’ Harry," Ron asked disbelievingly, "It looked like you just flicked your wand without thinking anything."

"I must have," Harry replied casually, "The map’s here, isn’t it?" He leaned forward, looking for North Tower. The others merely looked at each other knowingly, and hunched over the map as well. Within a few minutes, they deduced the area of the castle where the old furnace must be, though they could not pinpoint it.

"Let’s go down and see if we can find it," Ron suggested, and the four headed out the portrait door.

"All of them. The Quibbler, Witches Weekly, Magical Mister, even Quidditch Weekly. The Ministry shut down all of them. A clean sweep."

William Oglesby nodded at the report, not in the least surprised. Rumors had been leaking almost by the hour, and clearly something big had to happen. No doubt, Scrimgeour had sicced his attack dogs on the Daily Prophet, and Oglesby would need to use all of his guile to remain a step ahead.

"Write it up," he instructed his employee, "Obviously, that will be our headline. Go!"

The reporter left, and Oglesby quickly summoned his assistant.

"We need to move again. It’s too dangerous to stay here any longer. Give the order. After we finish tomorrow’s edition, we’re packing up again. Send Murphy and Patterson to place the protections on the new site."

The assistant rushed out of the make-shift office, and Oglesby ran a hand through his greying hair. The Prophet now would be the only independent voice in Britain, and the responsibility weighed on him. Now that Scrimgeour had formally given the order to shut down all press outlets, Oglesby’s resistence constituted a crime. He did not consider himself a criminal and hated breaking "the law." In this case, however, he had no choice.

The trek through "the bowels" of North Tower took the better part of an hour, as none of the four Gryffindors had ever visited this part of Hogwarts Castle. As far as they could tell, the entire section had been abandoned, not put to any use whatsoever. In fact, they did descend below ground level into a windowless wing as dark and depressing as the dungeons.

Peaking into several rooms, they deduced that in ages past, this part of the castle had been home to a number of different workshops, though the four sheltered youths knew little of such forgotten trades. An eerie quiet greeted them as they slowly meandered along, accompanied only by the sound of their footsteps and muted voices. They attempted to light the ancient lamps lining the wide stone hall, but only a third of them still functioned, shrouding them in semi-darkness.

Finally they reached the end of a hall where unexpectedly a door appeared instead of a solid stone wall. Harry as usual seemed least concerned by his surroundings and led the way, opening the door without hesitation, flicking his wand to light any lamps inside. Two of them flickered to life, and the four friends immediately recognized the large stone furnace at the opposite wall, charred black from centuries of use.

"It makes sense that it’s here," Hermione reasoned, because we must be near the edge of the castle where the furnace can be vented. She gingerly stepped towards the elevated opening where wizards of yore spent hours before intense flames. Just looking at it made her feel warmer, which she welcomed in the coolness of the stone rooms.

Ginny approached as well, never having even heard of such a thing, much less viewing one.

"How does it work?" she asked.

"I’m not exactly sure," Hermione answered, "but the fire obviously goes in here." She pointed to the opening in the stone. "Then there should be a bellows of some kind to control the amount of oxygen to the fire." They all looked around, and in fact Ron discovered a large leather bellows leaning in the corner of the room, barely visible in the dim light.

"This has seen better days," he opined, displaying the cracked and torn leather on the centuries old tool. He removed his wand and to a simple "reparo" brought the bellows back to workable, if not pristine, condition.

Harry walked around the side of the stone furnace and found the small hole into which the tip of the bellows fit. He pointed it out to the others, and then walked around the furnace appraisingly.

"Should do the job," he commented confidently, "We’ll come back when Harrington arrives. Let’s eat dinner." Without waiting for any opposing viewpoints, Harry strode swiftly out the door. Left with no option, the others followed behind.

Few teachers resided in the castle during the summer months, though they would start to trickle in before too long, as the September first opening date approached. Sybil Trelawny always remained, but she rarely emerged from her Divination classroom or nearby living quarters. Hagrid stayed, of course, but he normally preferred the outdoors and did not bother coming to the castle for meals. Thus Headmistress McGonagall saw no reason to eat in the Great Hall, and she had informed Harry as much in her letter.

"Dobby," Harry called as they discussed the dilemma on the way back to the common room. The elf appeared in a few seconds, this time clean and typically dressed with several colorfully knitted hats on his tiny head. "Do you know where we can eat, Dobby?"

The diminutive elf excitedly replied, "Dobby tells other house elves that Harry Potter and his three friends are here. Dinner is ready for Harry Potter and his friends. House elves can serve it anywhere Harry Potter wants."

After returning to the common room and stuffing themselves on a huge amount of roast beef, potatoes and freshly-baked bread, the four hardly felt up to tackling another horcrux, but Harry felt the small two-way mirror vibrate in his pocket. Evan Harrington had arrived.

After Peter Pettigrew left him, Lord Voldemort briefly spoke with Nagini, assuring himself of her presence. Then he sunk back into his pillows to consider his options one last time.

Much of his life had been invested in his immortality, not only the creation of horcruxes but also many other magical experiments on himself. Most of these experiments failed, yet he learned from each attempt, and little by little he managed to transform himself in ways that may seem horrifying to the average person. For him, however, each transformation carried him one step closer to his goals. It mattered not that he no longer resembled the handsome young Tom Riddle, nor that his appearance repulsed people.

He embarked on the creation of horcruxes almost on a lark, just as a means to safeguard his immortality until he could discover a new and better way. But he never did discover a better method, and ultimately he concentrated on the horcruxes. Nor just one or two, but six, thereby dividing his soul into seven pieces, the most significant number in magic. Certainly the process carried negative effects on his health and physical capabilities, but in no way did it affect his magical abilities. In the end, he felt is was worth the sacrifice.

Until Harry Potter ruined it. The plan never included nearly thirteen years in oblivion, stooping to the possession of vermin in order to survive. Nor did he ever expect to have to resurrect himself in the manner that he finally accomplished in the graveyard at Little Hangleton just two years earlier. All of this took a toll, though he admitted it to noone. Physically, he could barely function, and even his magic did not seem as sharp as before the incident with Potter.

Now Snape’s betrayal forced Voldemort to take the action he had intentionally avoided. It HAD to be done; Snape could not be allowed to flee, for then others may follow. Death eaters did not love Lord Voldemort, nor did he seek their love. He required only their fear and respect, and by bringing Severus Snape to justice, any death eaters contemplating a similar action would think twice. Or more.

But it would all be for naught if he could not recover some semblance of physical health. How could he rule while barely alive in his bed? Only one course of action remained, one that he hated to take. Dumbledore destroyed the ring and the locket, Voldemort believed, while Potter inadvertently destroyed the diary, leaving just three horcruxes remaining. Now Voldemort himself would have to destroy another.

"Nagini," he hissed, "Come to my bed. I must talk to you."

The large dark-green serpent, well over ten feet long and nearly a foot in diameter, silently slithered up the side of the bed and coiled itself next to Voldemort’s feet.

"What has happened to you, Master?" Nagini hissed, "Never have I seen you so ill. Cannot your wizards heal you with their spells or potions?"

Voldemort never regretted any of the numerous murders he committed during his life, and in fact enjoyed the act of killing immensely. Murder represented the ultimate exertion of power over another. This time, however, he preferred not to kill. If he cared about any creature other than himself, that creature would be Nagini.

But that mattered not. Nagini held a horcrux which Voldemort needed to reacquire, and reacquire it he would.

"You are a good and faithful servant, Nagini," Voldemort hissed, "And with your help, I shall regain my health." Just as he finished hissing, he pulled his wand from under the sheets and violently slashed it downward in Nagini’s direction. The severing charm sliced cleanly through Nagini about a foot below its head, which fell to the side, bounced twice on the bed and then rolled out of sight to the floor. For several seconds, the remainder of the serpent’s body twisted violently until finally the remnants of life left it. Blood spurted out of the severed neck, soaking the sheets and blankets.

Voldemort anxiously awaited the appearance of a piece of his soul, and once the snake’s body came to rest, the tell-tale mist emerged slowly, beginning to swirl in the air. The mist ultimately formed into a miniature version of Lord Voldemort from years past, for Nagini was the second to last horcrux to be created, when Voldemort had already largely assumed his current appearance.

"Come to me," Lord Voldemort ordered, "You are needed within me."

Without a word, the horcrux dissolved into the mist again, and shot into Voldemort’s midsection. A wave of relief passed through him, and he immediately felt improvement. Placing his head back on the pillow, he fell asleep.

Though Evan Harrington only briefly met Ron and Ginny at the Burrow the previous day, Harry did not bother with additional introductions. Instead he briefly brought the auror up to date, and the five of them again made the trek to the ancient furnace. This time, Harry carried Tom Riddle’s trophy with him.

Evan did not question the use of fire to destroy the trophy and release the horcrux. He sensed that in this area, he needed to defer to Harry, who knew much more about it than he. If Harry sensed that fire must be the method, so be it.

Though any of them could easily start a fire, they still needed something to burn, and as they scanned the bare stone room, they realized that they forgot to bring any fuel. This needed to be a true fire, not mere magical flames.

"What did they use in the furnace?" asked Ron, "Wood or coal?"

"I don’t know," Evan responded, "but it doesn’t matter. Hogwarts doesn’t use coal, so we’ll have to use wood."

Before the auror finished speaking, Harry had already pointed his wand towards the door, holding it steady and waiting. The others observed nervously for what seemed like minutes, but before long they could hear something approaching. Suddenly they ducked out of the way as log after log from Hagrid’s wood pile came flying through the door, stacking themselves neatly. Within a few seconds, half a cord of wood lined the side wall.

"Is that enough?" Harry asked quietly.

"Should be," replied Evan, already grabbing two logs to throw into the furnace. Ron followed his lead, and soon a large pile nearly filled the fire chamber. Harry moved to the opposite wall and leaned against it, allowing Evan to direct the show. Hermione and Ginny moved next to him, one on each side. With a flick of his wand, Evan started the fire, and then threw flames from his wand to intensify it. Once the fire nearly filled the furnace, he looked at Harry, who still held the trophy. Evan nodded his head an inch.

Harry slowly stepped forward and felt the heat of the fire from across the room. Something inside him felt unsettled, not convinced that this would work. Nevertheless, he tossed the trophy into the middle of the fire. Evan used a long iron rod to move it into the hottest part of the furnace. Now they would wait.

After a minute, Evan again took the lead, inserting the bellows into the side hole and pumping air into the flames, causing them to leap high up the chimney. Though much of the heat escaped outside through the vent, the room nevertheless slowly heated to nearly sauna levels, and sweat began to drip off of everyone’s faces. Evan continued to pump the bellows, occasionally instructing Ron to throw in more logs.

But the trophy remained in tact, completely unaffected. Even after ten minutes, the blazing fire did not appear to have heated the award at all, and Ron poked it with the iron rod to see if the gold may be softening. They could all hear the rod clank against the metal, hard as ever. The gold remained bright and even the smoke from the fire did not dull its finish.

This won’t work,
Harry gradually realized, Something is missing. He considered the other two horcruxes that he destroyed, the diary and the locket. One he stabbed and one he smashed with a hammer. Could fire simply not be the right medium to destroy this artifact? He paced back and forth, clearly agitated, wishing to take action himself.

When the answer dawned on him. He had to attack the horcrux himself. This needed to be a battle between him and it. He gritted his teeth, and Ginny and Hermione flinched when they saw his eyes briefly glow again.

Without warning, Harry rushed towards the furnace, wand outstretched, yelling, "INFLAMMARE!" An intense beam of fire emerged from the tip of the wand, boring through the flames of the fire and striking the side of the gold shield. His face screwed itself into an ugly grimace, as he concentrated on channeling all of his power into the flames shooting out of the wand.

Evan stopped pumping the bellows, and moved a few steps next to Ron where he could observe Harry more clearly. The two girls instinctively sought each other out, expressions of fear on their faces.

"He knows what he’s doing," Hermione whispered to Ginny, "Just trust it. Stay back when the horcrux emerges."

Within seconds, sweat began pouring off of Harry’s brow, and within a minute, his plain black t-shirt dripped moisture, completely saturated. Evan marveled at Harry’s endurance, for most wizards could hold a normal inflammare spell for no more than ten or fifteen seconds. As he mutely observed, he remembered back to auror training, when they used this same spell in training exercises. To pass the test, an auror needed to be able to maintain the flame for a minimum of thirty seconds. By now, Harry surpassed three minutes, producing a flame of an intensity Evan did not believe possible.

Evan knew that Harry Potter was not a normal wizard, and previously he accepted intellectually that the boy could defeat Lord Voldemort, the most feared dark wizard in centuries. But now, witnessing the boy attacking the horcrux in such a spectacular way, he felt it. This boy really could succeed. More than ever, he knew that he made the right decision to abandon his oath to help.

Ron and Evan also sweated profusely in the intense heat, but they maintained their positions, staring into the fire. Finally they noticed a dark brown spot forming on the side of the trophy, growing larger every second.

"It’s working, Harry," Ron yelled over the roaring fire, "Keep it up! You can do it!"

By now, sweat pour off of Harry’s body from every inch of skin, and he felt exhaustion overcoming him, yet he saw the initial damage to the horcrux too, and Ron’s shouted encouragement heartened him. The brown spot soon expanded to cover the entire trophy, and then the color deepened into a brittle black. Harry felt faint and tried to breath, but the intense heat prevented him from more than shallow gasps. I’m so close, he thought, 

Just a little more.

"YES!" screamed Ron when suddenly a crack zigzagged along the surface of the shield, "Almost, Harry. Finish it off!"

"Arrrrrrg," growled Harry, for the first time making a sound, and the fire from his wand turned nearly completely blue. Just as he collapsed to his knees, Tom Riddle’s trophy shattered, tiny pieces of brittle gold spraying inside and out of the furnace. Harry lowered his wand and fell sideways to the stone floor, then rolling onto his back. He lost consciousness.

Chapter 23: I Left Him
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Chapter 23

I Left Him


Hermione and Ginny rushed towards Harry, who lay flat on his back after collapsing from the heat and exertion required to destroy Tom Riddle’s trophy, but before they could reach him, Evan Harrington grabbed them roughly by the sleeves of their blouses and pulled them back to the far wall.

"Stay away from the fire!" he ordered them angrily, upset that he had to distract his attention from the horcrux. Not concerned that he may have offended the two witches, he spun around to look back into the flames.

Harry’s sweat-soaked body lay awkwardly, but his right hand continued to grasp his wand tightly. Ron backed away from the furnace towards his sister and friend, but he paused a moment to check on Harry. His chest rose and fell, so Ron knew that he was alive, but completely soaked with perspiration and white as a sheet, he obviously would not be waking soon.

"What should we do?" Hermione asked frantically, realizing their predicament. The plan, of course, called for Harry to summon the horcrux to him again, just as he did at Grimmauld Place with the Slytherin locket horcrux, but lying unconscious on the floor, he could hardly accomplish that feat now.

"Get out of here, all of you!" Evan commanded them, sweat dripping off his nose and chin, "We can’t let the horcrux enter any of you. I’ll take care of it."

"We’re not leaving Harry," Ron yelled, indignant that this interloper that he barely knew believed he could order them around like house elves.

They all looked back to the furnace and saw the mist emerge from the remnants of the trophy and begin to swirl in a helix.

"You can’t do anything for him," Evan tried to convince them urgently, "I’ll try to force the horcrux into his body. It has to go there. You know that as well as I. If it enters one of you, it will be a disaster. Please leave."

"What if it enters you?" Hermione asked rapidly, "Why is that any better? Let’s all help." She stood next to Ginny, both also dripping sweat in the stifling room. The fire in the furnace continued to rage.

"Look, we don’t have time," Evan urged frantically, gritting his teeth, "If we all stay, we make too many targets. I can protect myself. And if the horcrux enters my body, then you’ll have to kill me. Understand? Harry is strong enough to absorb it, but we are not. I’ll try to push it into Harry, but it will be much harder if all of you are here."

The mist began to take shape, and they knew that one way or the other, they had to decide immediately. Everything inside of Hermione told her to stay, but her brain understood that they needed to follow Evan’s advice.

"Let’s go!" she tried to yell, only managing a choked utterance. Grabbing Ginny by the arm, the two girls ran out the door before she could change her mind. They rushed down two corridors before Hermione, overcome by guilt, burst into tears and nearly collapsed to the floor.

"I left him!" she sobbed, "I left him!"

"We had to," Ginny replied anxiously, not sure herself that they did the right thing, She slid her arm under the older witch’s shoulder and prevented her from falling, and then slowly pulled her away, looking back to see if Ron followed them.

He did not. Whether this Harrington fellow was right or wrong, Ron determined that he would not abandon Harry. Evan glared angrily at the tall red head, but Ron glared back just as menacingly. They both returned their eyes to the fire where they saw that the mist had nearly transformed itself into the form of a handsome young man in dark robes and clothing. Harry remained unconscious on the floor.

With no time to argue, Evan and Ron stepped forward, their wands pointed at the miniature form of the young Tom Riddle.

Surprised to find the Minister’s office unoccupied, Cho Chang looked both ways to be sure that nobody saw her enter. Of course, she had the right to be there, as she had been instructed to set several files on the table in the office, but given her status as a "spy" for the Order of the Phoenix, she determined that she would take the opportunity to look around. She knew, however, that she could not take more than a minute.

Her long black hair shimmered from the light of the lamps on the wall as she set the files in their place and moved over to Scrimgeour’s desk, quickly rifling though the many sheets of parchment stacked into neat piles. While Cho may not have liked the man, she had to admit that the Minister kept a tidy desk. She did not have time to view each document and did not know what to look for in the first place.

But the following words from a document near the top of the third pile caught her eye: HOGWARTS OCCUPATION PLANS. Cho had no idea to what that could refer, but it sounded ominous. She pulled a blank sheet of parchment out of her robe and set it on the desk. Tapping the official document, she muttered a copying spell, and then tapped the blank parchment. Within seconds, an exact copy appeared, and she quickly folded the parchment and returned it to her pocket. After replacing the original to its place, she rushed out of the office, afraid to stay any longer.

It never occurred to her that several portraits along the walls silently witnessed the entire incident.

I guess I missed the lesson about fighting horcruxes,
Evan considered, thinking back to his auror training. He had encountered dozens of dangerous situations during his career, but nothing prepared him for this. His brain frantically attempted to devise a plan of action while the horcrux completed its formation in the still-blazing fire.

Would a spell work on a horcrux? Could it be stunned or petrified? He knew that Harry summoned the locket horcrux, but Harry’s capabilities could not be generalized to all wizards, especially in this instance where he possessed a special connection with the dark lord’s soul. If Evan tried a spell and it failed, then the horcrux may take its vengeance on him or the Weasley boy. Why did he have to stay? he growled to himself, angered by the complication.

Finally Tom Riddle’s partial soul floated out of the fire and into the large room, seemingly taking stock of events. It measured about three feet high and seemed almost solid, though in fact it was no more solid than a ghost. It noticed Harry’s body on the floor and then the two men on the far side of the room with their wands pointed at it. The horcrux sneered at them. Suddenly, Evan came up with an idea.

"Do what I say," he whispered to Ron, "Bow when I tell you."

Ron glanced momentarily at the auror but did not respond. He had no intention of bowing to Lord Voldemort, however.

"Master," Evan cried out, lowering his wand, "Master, you are here. We have worked hard to find and to free you. We are overjoyed to see your rebirth."

Evan bowed and hissed to Ron, "Bow now. Just do it." Ron hesitated. He barely knew Evan Harrington and did not know what he had up his sleeve. Harry and Hermione trusted him, however, and for the moment, that mattered more than anything. Reluctantly, he bowed.

"Who are you?" asked the smooth voice of the young Tom Riddle, appearing to be only nineteen or twenty years of age and dressed in a typically dark wizard’s robe.

"We are your disciples, Lord Voldemort, and we have worked tirelessly to recover your horcruxes in order to bring you back to us."

Riddle’s image floated towards them, temporarily ignoring the body stretched out below it. Ron had never seen the young Tom Riddle, but he could readily see that he was a handsome and impressive youth, clean-cut, athletic and engaging.

"What has happened to require my liberation?" Riddle asked smoothly, clearly appraising the two wizards.

"You accomplished great things, master," Evan explained, "and you attracted many followers, my friend and me included. But then a terrible accident happened. You needed to kill a baby who had been the subject of a prophecy, but the mother sacrificed herself for her son. This placed an ancient blood protection on the baby, and your killing curse rebounded on you, killing you. We do not know where the portion of your soul that remained in your body is, but many of your followers are trying to find it. We have been charged with locating some of your horcruxes so that you may lead us by entering another body."

Riddle continued to float left and right, remaining in the middle of the room, closer to Harry than to Evan and Ron. The horcrux appeared to be skeptical of Evan’s story.

"How many years have passed since my creation?"

"Many years, master. More than fifty. You became the most feared dark lord in history, possessing magic beyond description. You made great progress towards cleansing the world of mudbloods and half-bloods, but we met much resistance. Especially Dumbledore."

"Yes, Dumbledore. Is he still alive? He must be exceedingly old by now. Even when I attended Hogwarts, he was a pest," Tom sneered, "Surely, I would have disposed of him."

Evan nodded and forced a smile as he explained, "He just recently died, master, at the hands of your servants. With the muggle-loving fool gone, we can rid the world of the filth. But we need your direction, master. The boy there, you must enter his body."

"Who is this boy?" Riddle inquired, directing his eyes towards Harry’s motionless body, "I sense something familiar about him."

"Yes, master, of course you do. You sense yourself, for we previously freed another of your horcruxes, and it entered his body. He is young, master, but extremely powerful magically. For that reason, we chose him to receive you. With his power under your control, you will be unstoppable!" Evan spoke as enthusiastically as he could, but he worried about his performance. Acting had never been a strong suit. "Can’t you feel his power, master?"

The partial soul lowered itself, approaching Harry’s body. Evan remained silent. By now, Ron understood the auror’s plan and decided he should remain silent as well, acting as an assistant to a death eater.

"Yes, I sense it. He is magically powerful, and I can sense myself as well, though it seems strange to me."

Evan nodded fervently, "That is why we need you to enter him as well. He is a strong wizard, and while one horcrux has partially served our purposes, we have determined that we need another one to complete the transformation. When you enter him, the combined power of the two horcruxes will be enough to control him fully. Then we can reassert our power."

Tom Riddle’s horcrux floated around Harry’s body, still considering the situation. It all made sense, but he had one last concern.

"Why is the boy unconscious?"

"Because only he possessed the power to destroy the trophy. We tried, master, to do it ourselves, but we failed. The boy has tremendous power, as much as Dumbledore. Under your control, master, you can accomplish all that you desire."

"Yes, yes," the horcrux greedily agreed, "I do feel it." And without so much as a thank you to his two supposedly devoted servants, the horcrux dematerialized into a mist and slowly seeped into Harry’s stomach.

"It worked," Ron declared, his voice full of astonishment. Suddenly his respect for the auror grew.

"Now we’ll see what happens," Evan responded, and the two men approached Harry’s body. They waited for half a minute, not sure whether they should levitate his body back to his bed or try to wake him where he lay.

Harry made the decision moot, for suddenly he shook violently, and his eyes opened wide, glowing bright green for an extended time - ten, fifteen, twenty seconds. Finally they dimmed to their normal brilliant green, and Harry gasped for air in the still stifling room. He turned over and crawled to his knees, when without warning his stomach convulsed, and he vomited.

"It’s inside of you, Harry," Ron informed his friend, kneeling down beside him, "Mr. Harrington convinced it to enter you. Now you need to control it. Are you OK?"

Harry inhaled deeply several times while still on all fours, and gradually he began to improve.

"Never better," he declared sarcastically.

Evan and Ron helped him to his feet, and they each grabbed an arm and helped an extremely weak Harry walk out of the room. A moment later, Evan returned to extinguish the fire. He also vanished the mess created by Harry, and took one last look around.

Two to go,
he thought, unaware of the elimination of Nagini by Voldemort himself, and he wondered how Harry would react to this horcrux.

Edging silently into the master bedroom of their current lair, Peter decided he would check briefly on the dark lord before retiring to his own room. The horror of the previous night had only partially receded, and more than anything, Peter needed to sleep.

He gasped at the sight before him. The master killed his snake, the only creature that could remotely be considered his friend. Why? Peter stood frozen for half a minute, attempting to make sense of it all. Finally he directed his gaze at the sleeping Lord Voldemort. Immediately Peter noted the improvement in the dark lord’s appearance. He slept comfortably, breathing easily.

I don’t want to know why,
Peter told himself, realizing that Voldemort intentionally sacrificed the life closest to him for his own well-being.  He’d sacrifice me too. He’ll sacrifice all of us, if he has to.

Peter levitated Nagini’s carcass off of the bed and set it next to the wall, a couple of feet away from its head. He then noticed the blood-soaked bedding.

"Scourgify," he whispered, causing the blood to vanish. Turning a lip up at the sight of the dark lord, he silently backed out of the room and rushed back to his own. Despite his exhaustion, sleep came to him slowly.

While Ron and Evan dealt with the horcrux, Ginny managed to pull a still inconsolable Hermione into the Gryffindor common room and helped her to a sofa near the fireplace. Both girls would have been horrified to see themselves in a mirror, as their hair remained wet and matted down from the sweat in the furnace room, and their clothes remained damp from their perspiration. Hermione no longer cried but clearly remained in emotional agony, and as she dropped into the cushions, she covered her face with her hands.

"It will be OK, Hermione. Mr. Harrington knows what to do," Ginny consoled her unconvincingly. She found it strange to be comforting Hermione rather than the other way around. After all, if anyone needed comforting prior to the events of the evening, that person would have been Ginny, still trying to come to terms with Harry’s lost affection.

Hermione continued to cover her face but countered bitterly, "How do we know that? He doesn’t know Harry. He doesn’t know anything about horcruxes. I should have stayed. Ron stayed; he didn’t abandon Harry."

Ginny wondered whether Hermione noticed that Ron did not follow them, but even in her emotional turmoil, Hermione retained enough of her wits. Ron’s refusal to leave Harry’s side only deepened her despair.

The two girls sat nervously, neither speaking. Though Ginny understood Hermione’s distress, the severity of it surprised her. Hermione had always been so strong; her reaction to this situation did not match Ginny’s expectations. Clearly Hermione felt horrible that she had "abandoned" Harry, but Ginny "abandoned" him too, and though she also felt extreme concern for Harry’s well-being, she had not broken down like the older witch.

For the first time, Ginny wondered about the nature of Harry and Hermione’s relationship. Close friends, obviously, but did Hermione’s reaction signify something more. Harry spent about a week with Hermione before coming to the Burrow, spending most of their time together. Alone.  Ginny knew that she should not be thinking such thoughts while at the bottom of North Tower, Mr. Harrington, Harry and Ron battled a horcrux, but she could not avoid it. What exactly did Harry and Hermione do during all that time together? And was Hermione entirely truthful when she told her about that girl in Liverpool? Or did she have ulterior motives?

Hermione settled down in one of the padded chairs by the fireplace and sat silently, deeply depressed. She did not notice the narrowed eyes of her younger friend, focused instead entirely on her decision to heed the advice of Evan Harrington. Even now, she understood that Harrington made sense, but Harry and she had faced so much together over the years. Trolls, three-headed dogs, dementors, hippogriffs, and more. She should not have abandoned him. The guilt upset her stomach.

Then she jumped from the sofa as Ron helped Harry through the portrait door, Harry’s arm wrapped around Ron’s back. Evan stepped through behind them. All three men’s hair hung limply from sweat, and they appeared exhausted from the sauna-like heat in the bowels of North Tower.

"HARRY, ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?" Hermione shouted from her turmoil, even though he stood only a few feet away.

"I’m fine, Hermione, don’t worry. Just a little weak." He smiled weakly, and did not seem too badly off.

"He’s probably dehydrated," Evan noted, "Get him some water." In a flash, Hermione whipped out her wand and conjured a glass of water and handed it to Harry. He downed it in one gulp, and after Hermione refilled the glass, he drained it as well. She hooked her arm around Harry’s free arm and helped Ron lead him to the nearest sofa.

"What happened?" Ginny asked, worry in her voice.

Ron stretched his arms, sore from carrying Harry, but answered with a broad smile, "Mr. Harrington buttered up that horcrux, convinced it that it needed to enter Harry’s body. Riddle bought the whole story." Ron’s opinion of Evan had greatly improved after his performance, and the red-head nodded approvingly at him. "He almost had me convinced with his story."

Evan did not acknowledge Ron’s praise but instead sat on the low wooden table in front of Harry’s sofa, gazing appraisingly at the youth.

"You need to rest, Harry. Drink lots of fluids, and you should be fine by tomorrow. Just take it easy tonight. Get a good night’s sleep." Harry nodded his agreement, though he did not need to hear the advice. Given his exhaustion from the stifling heat and the tremendous energy required to shatter the trophy, he could hardly create any mischief.

"I need to get back," Evan informed the four teens, checking his watch and then turning towards Harry’s friends, "Make sure he rests tonight and tomorrow." Turning back to Harry, he instructed, "Have your mirror with you. I’ll contact you and try to come by tomorrow. I’ll have to see what I can do. I’m supposed to be tracking down the hidden location of the Daily Prophet." He chuckled.

"Thanks, Evan," Harry spoke softly, and the auror could tell that the boy truly meant it. Evan reached out, and the two men shook hands.

After Harrington left, Ron described in detail the events in the furnace room, clearly impressed by the skill, creativity and quick-thinking of the auror. After her initial reaction when Harry first arrived, Hermione remained uncommonly quiet, and once Harry relaxed and started feeling a little better, he noticed.

So far, he did not recognize any difference from the absorption of another horcrux, but of course his physical weakness probably masked any change. Hermione’s clearly troubled face concerned him much more than his own well-being. Finally, he had to ask.

"Are you OK, Hermione?" he interrupted Ron, who continued to talk excitedly about the events of the evening.

Hermione nodded extremely unconvincingly, given that Harry’s question almost moved her to tears. She said nothing.

"She’s not OK," Ginny answered for her, "She feels that she abandoned you, even though we just did what Mr. Harrington told us to. She’s been a mess ever since."

Hermione’s face briefly displayed irritation with Ginny, but a second later she exerted all of her efforts to avoid bursting into tears once again. Harry immediately understood the situation, and also knew that Hermione must be terribly embarrassed by her behavior in front of Ron and Ginny. He slowly stood.

"Come here, Hermione. Let’s talk." He reached out his hand to her. Initially surprised, Hermione hesitated before taking his hand in hers, allowing the weakened wizard to pull her up. She followed him as he moved slowly towards the stairs to the boys’ dormitories, climbing them slowly until they reached the first door on the right. They entered the large bare room with seven beds spread about. Harry closed the door behind him.

In the common room, Ron and Ginny mutely watched their friends disappear from view. Ginny especially wore a severe expression, evidently not pleased.

"What’s all that about?" Ron asked his sister, completely confused.

"I don’t know," she answered stiffly, "I truly don’t know." She turned away from her brother, silently informing him that she did not wish to discuss the matter further. Ron opened his mouth, but decided against it, instead standing and pacing by the common room windows.

"What’s wrong, Hermione?" Harry asked as he sat heavily on the nearest bed, "You did the right thing. Surely you know that." She remained standing, but took a few steps forward, and refused to look at her friend.

In response to Harry’s assertion, she shook her head, "No, I don’t know that. I left you. Ron stayed. I should have stayed too!" She sniffed audibly, and her eyes began to water.

"You were very brave, Hermione. I’m proud of you for leaving." She finally turned around sharply, with eyes that asked whether Harry had finally gone mad.

"Brave? How was that brave? I ran away. That’s cowardice, not bravery. You wouldn’t have left." Hermione again looked away, deeply disgusted with herself.

"I probably wouldn’t have," Harry nodded, "but that’s because I’m stupid and you’re brilliant." Hermione scoffed and turned her back to him. Harry merely smiled as he continued his line of thought, "Harrington was right. It never would have worked the way it did if Ginny and you had stayed. Riddle wouldn’t have believed that the two of you are death eaters. We’re lucky Ron didn’t ruin it by staying. I appreciate his intentions, but he’s as stupid as I am. I’ll have to talk to him about it. This time we got away with it; next time we may not be so lucky."

Hermione stopped her nervous pacing and considered Harry’s points. More than that, she considered his tone of voice. He truly did not seem disappointed with her, and she felt the constriction around her heart relax. Maybe she had not let him down. Maybe she did do the right thing.

"Do you really mean that, Harry?" she asked softly, turning slowly towards him, her eyes glistening, "Are you just saying that to console me? Tell me the truth."

Harry motioned for her to sit down next to him on the bed, and she reluctantly complied. He softly lifted one of her hands in his.

"I mean ever word of it, Hermione. You did the right thing, and the bravest thing. I know that you wanted to stay; that’s the Gryffindor way. You would never abandon me. You did what had to be done."

Tears again came to Hermione’s eyes, but this time the tears fell out of happiness, or better said relief, at Harry’s words. Now even more embarrassed, she blushed slightly but stood up, holding out her hand to Harry to pull him off the bed and into an embrace. She squeezed him more tightly than she ever had before.

"You don’t know what that means to me, Harry," she whispered, "Thanks."

Sitting by herself at a table in the common room, Ginny wondered what exactly may be occurring in the boy’s dormitory. Her eyes narrowed, and Ron knew that he best stay away from her. He had some questions of his own, and returned to his seat on the sofa deep in thought.

Harry and Hermione emerged from the dormitory, and Harry drank several glasses of water before showering and retiring to his bed. He slept ten hours straight and woke up the next morning feeling like a new man.

So did Lord Voldemort.

Chapter 24: I Like to Swim
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Chapter 24

I Like to Swim

Ginny and Hermione finished their ritual ministrations before retiring to their beds in the boys’ fifth-year dormitory. Earlier they tended to Harry briefly, making sure he drank plenty of water before he left for his bed relatively early in the evening. Emotionally exhausted themselves, the girls soon began their own preparations. Ginny observed Hermione closely during the process, noting that the older witch’s mood had changed from distressed to buoyant.

Finally slipping between the sheets of their beds, Ginny asked tersely, "How’d it go with Harry? Pretty well by the looks of you."

Hermione did not immediately notice Ginny’s tone of voice, still deeply relieved by Harry’s agreement with her actions. She stretched out in her bed and smiled broadly at her friend.

"Great. Harry said that I did the right thing. That he was proud of me. I can’t tell you how that removed a load from my shoulders. I feel like I’ve been walking on air ever since."

"Hmm," Ginny replied from her bed, propping her head on an elbow, "I don’t know why you felt so badly in the first place." This time Hermione noticed the lack of warmth in Ginny’s voice, and the smile left her lips.

"I shouldn’t have, I know," Hermione answered defensively, "but I just couldn’t help it. I’ve never left Harry like that. It felt wrong, but Harry convinced me that it was the right thing to do." She did not smile this time, instead turning onto her side to look at Ginny.

For her part, Ginny’s eyes narrowed, clearly perturbed. Hermione quickly tried to review what she had done during the evening that may have offended Ginny, but she could think of nothing. Both girls remained silent for an uncomfortable period of time.

For a moment, Hermione considered letting it be, but finally she could not resist the urge to ask, "Is something wrong, Ginny? You look upset."

Ginny glared at her friend. After the turmoil of the last days, she unconsciously searched for someone to blame for her misfortune, and Hermione could serve that purpose admirably.

"Yes, something’s wrong," she spat, "I don’t think you’ve been telling me everything. What exactly have Harry and you been doing together for the past week? Why did Harry take you to that room tonight? Why couldn’t he tell you in the common room?"

So, that’s what it is,
Hermione mused, She thinks I’m stealing Harry from her. She smiled weakly.

"We didn’t do anything, Ginny. Not what you’re talking about. I’m not trying to steal Harry from you, if that’s what you’re thinking. I didn’t do anything to cause him to break up with you."

Ginny continued to stare. Deep down she believed Hermione, even though part of her did not want to. Nevertheless, Hermione acted unusually today, and Ginny could not help but believe that her behavior resulted from more than mere concern for a friend.

"Then maybe you need to think about what you really feel for Harry," Ginny replied sharply before she could restrain herself, "Maybe you’ll discover something about yourself that you didn’t know. Nox." Ginny waved her wand at the lamp above her bed, extinguishing it before she rolled over, her back facing Hermione.

What’s gotten into her?
Hermione asked herself, and she also put out her lamp and made herself comfortable in the bed. In the darkness, she could not help but think about Ginny’s unexpected question, beginning a long internal dialogue. 

What DO I feel about Harry?

One by one, Lord Voldemort flexed his fingers. For the first time since he regained his body, he could flex them almost normally. He knew that he slept many hours, longer than he had in decades, but clearly reintegration of part of his soul into his body had the desired effect.

Sliding out of bed, he walked around the large chamber for a few moments and noticed that he could shuffle along much more quickly than before. No, he could not run a marathon, but the ability to move more freely energized him.

Peter rushed into the room, his sixth sense informing him that the dark lord had awakened. Voldemort turned towards him, and his lips formed what almost looked like a smile.

"As you can see, Wormtail, I have recuperated. Dress me."

Peter knew that the dark lord never explained, and he also knew not to ask. Obviously the killing of the snake, whose carcass remained by the wall, somehow facilitated this miraculous recovery, but why or how, Peter would never know.

"Yes, Master," he replied as if the events of the past days never occurred. He opened the closet.

"Today, Wormtail, we have work to attend to. I myself shall breach the wards around Hogwarts."

"You what?!" hissed Kingsley Shacklebolt, looking left and right furtively.

"I made a copy of this document from the Minister’s office," Cho repeated less enthusiastically than before, having slipped the copy of the Hogwarts Occupation Plans into the auror’s pocket.

"Cho! You don’t know what you’ve done. There are portraits in that office. You have to leave immediately. How long ago?"

Her mouth agape, Cho could not answer. In a flash, her predicament, of which she had been blissfully ignorant before, became crystal clear. She would be arrested and questioned, probably under the effects of veritaserum. She would be forced to disclose the identities of her contacts. She would be imprisoned.

"How long?" Kingsley repeated urgently, "Cho!"

"Yesterday, late afternoon," she informed him in a frightened whisper, "What am I going to do?" The normally poised teenager suddenly sounded like a frightened child.

"In here," Kingsley ordered her, opening the door of a closet. Fortunately, they met in a lightly traveled section of the Ministry, and Kingsley felt fairly confident that they had not been seen. Nevertheless, he could not risk the chance of her walking to the normal apparation area. Luck had been on their side, for Minister Scrimgeour set aside the previous afternoon and this morning for official visits to several cities throughout England and Scotland. Still, the portraits could have informed other officials. Cho’s arrest would be catastrophic. He had to resort to desperate measures.

Gazing about the tiny cluttered storage closet, into which the pair barely fit, the auror found an empty bucket next to his feet. He grabbed it by the handle and held it chest high. After waving the wand in an intricate fashion, his eyes tightly closed in concentration, he tapped the bucket with his wand.

"Portus." He took a deep breath and then stared severely at Cho. He would have like to chew her out for a good half an hour, but time did not permit it. "Look, if your arrest has not been ordered, it will be soon. We have to hide you. This bucket will take you to the living room of the Burrow. Molly Weasley will be there. Explain the situation to her. Tell her that she needs to move you to a safe location immediately. You understand that we cannot allow you to be arrested."

Realizing her blunder, Cho’s dark eyes appeared on the verge of tears, but she answered, "I understand. I ‘m so sorry. I didn’t think. . . ."

"Obviously," Kingsley interjected. He tapped the bucket again, and handed the illegal portkey to her. Fortunately, he knew how to make the portkey in a manner extremely difficult to track, a trick that Professor Dumbledore taught him years earlier. "It will take effect in ten seconds. Whatever happens, Cho, DO NOT allow yourself to be arrested. Do what you’re told."

She nodded her understanding, her face full of fear, and a moment later she disappeared.

Harry ate two full plates of food in the morning, pleasing the house elves no end, and he felt fantastic. Still not sure how this horcrux may have affected him, for the moment he could not complain. Repeatedly he informed his curious friends that he felt fine. Fully recovered. The four friends sat comfortably in the common room, allowing their breakfasts to settle before deciding on the plan for the day.

Then for the first time in their presence, his eyes began to glow again, much brighter and longer than before, more than fifteen seconds. Ginny and Hermione had been standing a few feet away from him in the common room, and they both froze at the sight. Their mouths fell open, and their eyes widened. Ron previously saw the eyes in the furnace room, but still found himself amazed. Once his eyes returned to normal, Harry could not fail to notice the astonished expressions of the two girls.

"I can’t help it," he explained, "it just happens. I can’t figure out any rhyme or reason to it. Completely random as far as I can tell." He did not seem especially concerned.

"What do you see when you’re eyes are . . . . like that?" asked Hermione in a concerned voice.

Harry’s face remained impassive, and after a pause, he turned his head away and answered, "Nothing. Nothing that you’d want to know." He seemed a little embarrassed.

"Why not?" Ginny asked, "Why wouldn’t we want to know?"

"You just wouldn’t," he replied ominously. Naturally, his answer only piqued the curiosity of the two girls to extreme levels, and for the next five minutes, they pestered Harry to tell them. He tried his best to fend them off, but finally they broke through his defenses.

"All right," he declared, raising his hands in surrender, "but remember that I didn’t want to tell you." His three friends stared at him expectantly, dying from curiosity. Harry turned his head away from the girls. "I can see you . . . ., well, . . . ., I can see you without your clothes. My eyes just see right though clothes, just while they're glowing. Then they go back to normal."

Harry looked down at his feet, avoiding any possibility of eye contact with the girls. For their part, their mouths nearly feel to their knees.

"Are you serious, Harry?" Hermione gasped, "I mean. Really?" The normally loquacious witch struggled to find the words. Ginny seemed completely incapable of speech. Harry nodded, keeping his eyes to the floor.

"I tried not to tell you," he defended himself quietly, "I’m sorry, but I can’t do anything about it."

Ron looked on with eyes wide. Suddenly the thought of trading places with Harry Potter did not seem so horrible. Sure, he had to deal with horcruxes, a prophecy, and ultimately a show down with Lord Voldemort, but that almost seemed worth it now.

"Wicked!" the red headed wizard exhaled, a lecherous smile forming on his lips. The two girls threw him angry glances, but he did not care. "Can you see me too? Without clothes, I mean, or is it only girls."

"No, I can see you too. Anyone. But you know, you’re not quite as interesting as they are, if you know what I mean. No offense." Harry continued to look between his feet.

"No offense taken," Ron laughed, "So how do they look?"

"RONALD WEASLEY!" shouted Hermione, "HOW DARE YOU!"

Her anger only caused Ron to laugh even harder, and he had to look away.

"You shouldn’t look at us when it . . . . happens," Hermione told Harry, "I mean, I didn’t see you looking away from us."

Harry kept an embarrassed face, but he stood up and turned away from the two girls, apparently too guilty to face them. Ron could see his face perfectly, however, and he saw the barest hint of a smirk. Then Harry winked at him. Ron almost lost it, but managed not to change his expression.

"I’m a seventeen-year old boy, Hermione," he answered incredulously, "What else am I going to do? Do you really expect me to look away?"

"Right!" Ron agreed instantly, "Don’t be daft. This is every teenaged boy’s dream come true."

A lengthy silence ensued, Harry still facing away from the girls, who could not think of what to say or do. Rarely had two girls remained silent for such a length of time. They did not like it, but if Harry could not help it, what could they do?

Ron and Harry made eye contact again, and Harry’s mouth involuntarily curled into a smile, which caused Ron’s to do the same. Harry’s smile turned into a toothy grin while Ron, whose face remained visible to the girls, tried hard to maintain a straight face. The muscles in his cheeks tightened. Finally the two boys could hold out no longer.

First a soft chuckle. Then louder. Then the first true laugh. As the two best mates looked at each other, they egged each other on, and in a few seconds, they both laughed from the belly.

"This is NOT funny," a clearly irritated Ginny yelled, "You shouldn’t be laughing about it."

But when Harry turned to face the two girls, they saw guilt on his face, and slowly realized that they had been had. As Harry saw their faces gradually understand what had happened, he only laughed harder.

"OOOOHHHH!" Hermione growled, "You invented the whole story, didn’t you?"

Harry could only maintain his sheepish grin and nod. The next thing he knew, several pillows flew in his direction, and finally he allowed himself to laugh fully, Ron joining him. When the pillows hit him, he fell back onto the sofa, then rolled off of it onto the floor, laughing as hard as he ever had in his entire life. The two girls shouted epithets at him that he barely heard, given the noise from Ron and his own laughter. Ron nearly fell out of his chair as well, and the girls directed a few pillows in his direction.

Finally Hermione and Ginny finished their acts of violence towards the boys, and despite their anger at being so thoroughly deceived, they also felt relief that Harry had only been joking.

"You got us, Harry," Hermione admitted while shaking her head, "You REALLY got us." Ginny nodded her agreement, and the two girls finally smiled. Ron and Harry eventually regained control of their abdominal muscles, and Harry pulled himself back onto the sofa.

"That was brilliant, Harry," Ron exclaimed, "Too bad it wasn’t true."

Ginny glared briefly at her brother, but decided to let it pass without comment, instead asking Harry, "So what do you see when your eyes glow?"

He shrugged his shoulders, "Nothing special. Everything becomes a little brighter and blurry, but that’s it." One last pillow hit him squarely in the face.

That same morning, an ashen-faced Rufus Scrimgeour, just returned from his travels, reached out to find the arm of his chair in the Minister of Magic’s office. Unsteadily, he sat down.

"Are you completely certain, Alfred?" he asked, already knowing the answer, for the portraits of former Ministers of Magic hanging in the office had been charmed to serve the current Minister, just as the portraits in the headmistress’ office at Hogwarts serve the current holder of that post.

In general, Alfred Hagen, a revered Minister of Magic from the seventeenth century, acted as spokesman for the two dozen portraits hanging in the expansive office. The very image of dignity, with serious eyes and a long, grey beard, the red-robed former Minister merely nodded slowly.

"I am not in the habit of prevaricating, Minister Scrimgeour," Hagen’s deep voice replied indignantly, "You are free to questions the others if you require confirmation."

Scrimgeour shook his head, "That will not be necessary, Mr. Hagen. I do not mean to insult you. This is just quite a shock. I’ve known Miss Chang for her entire life; her parents are friends and supporters." He sat for a minute in silence, deep in thought, and Alfred Hagen, as usual, did not interrupt. Finally Scrimgeour glanced up at Hagen’s portrait, murmuring, "Thank you, Mr. Hagen. We will do what we have to do." Hagen nodded and returned to his ornately carved throne-like chair.

Within moments, Scrimgeour issued the order to arrest Cho Chang. Unknown to him, Cho at that very moment sat crestfallen in one of the upper bedrooms of the Burrow, with the shades drawn. She knew that the Order of the Phoenix worked frantically to find the best place to hide her, and she lay on the old, uncomfortable bed, feeling completely helpless.

Peter Pettigrew had never seen the dark lord in better physical condition than at this moment. Even before his disappearance after the events at Godric’s Hollow so many years before, Lord Voldemort’s numerous magical experiments on himself had diminished a number of his physical capabilities. His rebirth in the graveyard at Little Hangleton left him even more physically disabled, though he remained a magnificently powerful wizard.

Certainly the dark lord could not have walked through the uneven surface of the Forbidden Forest. Peter and he arrived deep in the forest that Voldemort knew intimately from his days as a formless spirit. For reasons that Voldemort did not see fit to explain, they walked back and forth in the forest, seemingly at random, though Peter knew that the dark lord never acted randomly. Voldemort said nothing during this time, but at times would hold out his arms, as if feeling something in the air. Peter tagged along.

Finally they reached the margin of the wards around the Hogwarts grounds, which extended a few hundred yards from the far edge of the lake. For the first time, Voldemort removed his wand, and Peter saw him flicking it ahead of him, silently casting unknown spells, attempting to determine how to overcome the obstacle.

After fifteen minutes of this, Peter tired and lazily waved his wand to a muttered spell, transfiguring a fallen branch into a chair. He sat and silently observed Voldemort’s back, his long black robe fluttering in the soft breeze of the comfortably warm afternoon. Under the shadows of large pines and alders, Peter chuckled under his breath that he should have brought a picnic basket.

Another hour passed, and neither wizard noticed the keen eyes of two centaurs spying them from a distance. They immediately recognized the dark lord, or better said, sensed his presence. Normally the sensitive creatures would have confronted the two humans, capturing them and bringing them back to the herd, where they ultimately would meet their fate. The two centaurs on this occasion, however, knew better. After silently observing for several minutes, they edged away without creating a sound. The elders needed to be informed immediately.

At last, Voldemort turned around and for the first time acknowledged Peter, who wondered why the dark lord brought him in the first place. As far as he could tell, he had provided no assistance at all, especially now that the dark lord could move more easily on his own.

"I believe I have discovered the secret, Wormtail. These wards are more advanced than I suspected, no doubt devised by Dumbledore. But they can be breached, at a cost. Come. I must make preparations. Tomorrow we shall act."

By early afternoon, Harry determined that he needed to move on to the next horcrux, Hufflepuff’s Cup, located somewhere at the bottom of the lake next to Hogwarts. The four friends made their way down by the lake, sitting in the shade of a small group of trees atop a small rise overlooking the body of water.

Harry explained that he knew that the cup lay somewhere at the bottom of the expanse of water, but he had no idea where. He could "see" in his mind a gravelly area next to a few boulders and craggy rocks, hardly a great help.

"Look, I know the lake is huge," Harry explained, "but I seem to be able to sense the horcruxes when I come close to them, so it’s just a matter of going down there and looking for it. I’m going to need a lot of gillyweed. It may take days, or even weeks, but there is no other way. Unless one of you has a brilliant idea?"

They did not. The view of the lake from their vantage point convincingly displayed the difficult task ahead of them. Apart from its size, the lake had a number of fingers that crept up shallow canyons. This could take forever, and they all knew of some of the dangers that lurked at the bottom. Merpeople, the giant squid, and many more.

"I don’t think there’s any gillyweed here, Harry," Hermione informed him, "After you used Snape’s stash of it, only a little bit remained, and when it dried out, it had to be thrown away."

"You can’t get something like gillyweed just anywhere," Ron added, "I don’t think you’ll find it at your normal apothecaries. Probably you’d need to go to Knockturn Alley or someplace like that."

"Fine," Harry nodded, "I’ll go there today and buy some." He did not seem to be the least bit concerned about entering one of the most dangerous areas of the wizarding world, filled with hags, vampires, and dark wizards of every description."

"You can’t just go there, Harry. It’s far too dangerous," Hermione argued, "And you’d be recognized. Word will get to Voldemort that you bought gillyweed. He’ll figure out what you’re up to." Harry stared at her for a considerable length of time, and somehow the others knew that he did not wish to be interrupted. Finally he leaned back on his arms and answered.

"Good. I want him to know." He stood up, and the other followed his lead. "I’ll just go back to the room to get my money, and I’ll be off."

"But Harry, it’s too dangerous," Ginny warned more urgently, "If you go, you should go with guards." Ron and Hermione nodded their agreement, but Harry merely smiled, turning towards the castle.

"I can take care of myself," he declared matter-of-factly. Not the least bit concerned, he walked ahead. The others ran briefly to catch up.

"If you’re going, then we are too," Hermione informed him forcefully, ready to do battle if Harry resisted. But Harry merely shrugged.

"Suit yourself."

Since they had not yet lunched, the four Gryffindors decided to enjoy the midday meal at The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade, before making the trek to Knockturn Alley. Harry again ate a copious amount, as did Ron, but the girls clearly suffered from nerves. Hermione had been to Knockturn Alley once, Ginny never, and both of them questioned the necessity and wisdom of traveling there. Why not send a house elf or someone from the Order of the Phoenix? Why not someone like Remus Lupin, a werewolf who could certainly take care of himself?

Though they gingerly attempted to raise these points with Harry, he merely scoffed and informed them that they could stay behind if they preferred. Hermione especially found that to be no option at all. After she suffered so profoundly when she left Harry behind in the furnace room the previous evening, she would not dream of allowing Harry to enter another dangerous situation on his own.

Thus the four young wizards and witches soon walked from the wide streets of Diagon Alley towards the narrow paths that wound their way through the section of town known as Knockturn Alley. Ron, Hermione and Ginny wanted to slow down their pace as they walked deeper into the grime, but they had to keep up with Harry, who strode down the middle of the narrow street as if he owned it. Despite his slight physique, he appeared much larger due to the black robe billowing behind him. Glancing left and right, he searched for an apothecary, but initially did not find one.

An especially ugly hag spied them from a narrow side alley and thought she found an easy mark. Short on cash, she thought she would take advantage of the opportunity to relieve these clean-cut youngsters of theirs. Jumping out suddenly in front of them, she contorted her face into an especially horrible expression, intending to scare the pants off of them. She three-fourths succeeded, as Hermione and Ginny screamed while Ron’s heart nearly stopped beating.

Before they knew what happened, however, the hag floated in the air, and her back smacked the wall of a nearby shop, knocking the wind out of her. Harry’s wand pointed directly at her chest, pinning her. Astonished at the speed with which her plan failed, the hag glared venomously at the young wizard, but Harry approached her quite serenely. He lifted her another three feet above the ground, implicitly threatening to drop her.

"I appreciate your greeting, madam," he taunted her with a smile, "and we’ll be pleased to accept your offer of assistance. We are looking for the nearest apothecary. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll give us directions." The smile left his face, and he glared at her angrily. The hag remained silent for a few seconds, half in shock, but the sight of Harry’s eyes glowing briefly convinced her to cooperate.

"Two more blocks," she croaked in a high-pitched voice, "on your left."

Harry lowered her almost to the street surface, but instead of setting her down gently, he flicked his wand, causing the hag to hit the cobblestone surface hard, rolling over a couple of times. By the time she gathered herself, the boy already strode purposefully down the street, the three others hurrying behind him.

An onlooker noticed Harry’s scar, and soon word spread that Harry Potter had arrived in Knockturn Alley, the last place anyone would have expected to find him. By the time they walked the final blocks to Jamison & Simmons Exotic Apothecary, a small crowd lined the narrow avenue, which only increased the nerves of Ron, Hermione and Ginny. They glanced side to side at the various creatures watching them, a man who appeared to be a vampire, a goblin down on his luck, a couple of witches so ugly that perhaps they actually were hags.

As Hermione watched Harry striding unconcernedly ahead, his wand dangling from his fingers, the resemblance dawned on her. He was acting just like Professor Dumbledore. She could perfectly visualize the old headmaster walking down these same streets without a care in the world, completely confident that he could deal with any problems which may arise. Maybe Harry would become another Albus Dumbledore, she thought hopefully.

But of course, Lord Voldemort must have similar characteristics. No doubt he would walk down these same streets without fear. So was Harry becoming another Dumbledore or another Voldemort? Or something in between?

Her musings ended when Harry turned left through the door of Jamison & Simmons, which by Knockturn Alley standards appeared to be a successful enterprise. Larger and better maintained than most of the other nearby shops, Hermione thought that it would not look especially out of place in Diagon Alley. Inside, however, her skin crawled.

Cage after cage of beetles and insects lined one wall, a loud and irritating buzz filling the store. In the center of the shop, numerous bins held ingredients of every kind and character, some of them normal, others of which they had never heard. The narrow aisles could barely allow two people to edge by each other sideways, but the four teens made their way to the counter on the far wall.

An elderly man, barely five feet tall and anorexically thin, peered over the counter, while a taller and younger woman stopped what she was doing when she saw the unexpected approach of the four clean-cut young wizards and witches. Harry stood before the man, placing a pouch full of galleons and knuts in front of him. The man tilted his head back and immediately focused on the tell-tale scar. Harry paused for a moment to allow the man to understand who stood in front of him. The man remained silent.

"I need all the gillyweed you have," Harry announced, "I can pay." The man glanced at the bulging pouch.

"An’ wha’ woul’ yer want with so much gillywee’," the man replied in an accent that Harry could not place and could barely understand. Harry stared severely at him, indicating that he did not appreciate the question.

"I like to swim."

The two men stared at each other, and Harry could see that the old man rapidly calculated a response to the unexpected request. No doubt the man dealt either directly or indirectly with Lord Voldemort and his death eaters, and they may not appreciate him dealing with the boy who famously sent the dark lord into oblivion years before.

"I’m all out," the old man informed Harry abruptly, and moved to walk away.

"Constrictus," Harry said quietly not even a second later, pointing his wand at the man. Immediately he grabbed his throat, unable to breathe and making choking sounds. The woman, who had followed the interaction carefully, immediately reached for her wand, only to have three wands pointed at her. She retracted her hand, and Ginny quickly grabbed the wand. Ron turned around to see if anyone else in the shop may be threatening them, but they were the only customers.

"You might want to search your memory," Harry hissed at the old man, whose face contorted in the effort to inhale, "I won’t be so nice next time." Harry lifted his wand, and the man crumpled to the floor, gasping. But the young wizard only gave him a couple of seconds to recuperate, roughly grabbing the back of the old man’s robe and dragging him into the storage rooms behind the counter. "Where is it?" he snarled.

The old man pointed to his right, and Harry found a large tin tub full of the rubbery plant that would allow him to swim like a fish in the lake. Ron and Ginny stood guard at the door while Hermione approached Harry.

"Take him," Harry instructed her, swinging him involuntarily towards her. Hermione grabbed a handful of robe as well, her other hand pointing her wand at the man’s chest.

Harry quickly removed several galleons from his pouch and dropped them on the floor. He did not bother to count them, nor to ask how much the gillyweed cost. Placing the money pouch back into the pocket of his robe, he lifted the tub with both of his hands and moved towards the back door of the shop. Ron and Ginny left their posts to follow him while Hermione continued to hold the old man. But Harry abruptly stopped and turned around.

"My name is Harry Potter. Maybe you’ve heard of me. Feel free to spread the word." Harry smirked and continued out the door.

Hermione needed to leave as well, but she could not decide what to do with the old man. She did not want to give him a chance to react if she freed him.

"Come on, Hermione," Ron urged her from just inside the door, "We need to go."

"What should I do with him?" she asked, not sounding as sure of herself as she normally did.


The man fell to the floor only partially restrained by Hermione’s hold. Ron’s wand returned to his side, having solved that minor problem. Hermione let go of the robe and rushed after the others. Once outside in a dingy lot behind Jamison & Simmons Exotic Apothecary, the four teens apparated back to the front gate of Hogwarts.

Levitating the tub of gillyweed on the uphill hike back to the castle, the four friends conversed little, still contemplating what they just accomplished. They returned to the Gryffindor common room.

To their enormous shock, they found an extremely uncomfortable Cho Chang waiting for them.

Chapter 25: You Two Are Evil
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Chapter 25

You Two Are Evil

"So that’s what happened. I’ve ruined everything!"

A deeply depressed Cho Chang hung her head in shame after explaining to her former schoolmates the events which unexpectedly resulted in her presence in the Gryffindor common room. The Order decided that she could stay at Hogwarts at least for a day or two until more permanent arrangements could be settled. Instead of shutting her up in a room alone, they saw no reason why she could not join Harry and the others, where at least she would have some company. Of course the members of the Order would not be aware of the interpersonal complexities this would create.

Harry listened silently, but Cho could not help but sense how perturbed he felt at her presence. In fact, Harry could think of few people that would perturb him more in the same circumstances. Draco Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson perhaps. Though he did not dislike Cho, she represented a part of his past that he preferred to forget.

Hermione’s irritation doubled Harry’s. Cho and Hermione intensely disliked each other, and neither of them would have cared if they never saw the other for one hundred years. Never friends, they became enemies when Cho’s friend, Marietta Edgecomb, betrayed Dumbledore’s Army in Hermione’s fifth year at Hogwarts. Cho never forgave Hermione for the unduly punitive hex (in her opinion) that marred Marietta’s face with severe acne, which even now, nearly two years later, still left the skin on her face rough.

Ginny and Ron did not know Cho well, though they certainly had heard enough and participated in Dumbledore’s Army with her. Ron considered her pretty but too petite and fragile for his more robust tastes. Ginny knew enough of Cho’s history with Harry to dislike her on that basis alone. Cho never felt so awkward in her life. Always she had been a popular girl, well-liked and admired. Here she felt persona non grata.

"Well, what’s done is done," Harry opined, not wanting to comfort her but not wanting to rub it in either. "It may be a little uncomfortable here for you, but just make the best of it."

Cho nodded and added, "I don’t have any of my things. Nothing. Only what’s in my purse. The Order can’t go to my house to collect them because the house is being watched."

"You can borrow some of our clothes," Ginny offered grudgingly, "though they may not fit you. You can always transfigure them." Cho smiled at the first demonstration of kindness.

Harry called for Dobby, both to inform him that they were ready for dinner and to ask that an extra bed be prepared in the girl’s room.

Several ancient books lay open on a large table, their tiny antiquated handwriting difficult to decipher. Nevertheless, Lord Voldemort found the information he required after several hours of searching, and now he poured over his own notes of findings he discovered decades ago from his many magical experiments. His notes contained information not contained in any book, even those containing the darkest of dark magic. Gradually he determined how to overcome the wards at Hogwarts.

In the early evening, Peter Pettigrew edged quietly into the room, fearful that the dark lord would not appreciate the interruption. Nevertheless, this news could not be kept from him. Voldemort continued to be absorbed in his studies.

"Master," Peter spoke quietly, "I have important news." He hoped that this would peak the dark lord’s interest and prevent a tongue-lashing. It worked. Voldemort looked up, mildly irritated, but indicated that Peter should continue.

"Harry Potter has been seen in Knockturn Alley today. He purchased a large quantity of gillyweed at Jamison & Simmons. Apparently he made no attempt to disguise himself."

Rarely had Peter seen the dark lord shocked, but he knew from the way in which Voldemort jerked his head away from his notes that the news completely took him by surprise. Peter briefly described the story that filtered its way though the back streets of Knockturn Alley. Apparently, in addition to making no effort to disguise himself, the boy even announced his presence.

"Leave me," Voldemort ordered sharply, "I must think." Peter silently bowed and backed away.

Gillyweed. It can mean only one thing. He knows of the cup at the bottom of the lake. But he does not know its exact location. I must arrive there first. If he knows of the cup, does he know of the trophy? How could he have discovered them?

Voldemort fumed alone for an hour, late at night. Harry Potter had to die, he decided, and the sooner the better. Tomorrow he would breach Hogwarts’ wards and rescue Hufflepuff’s cup. After that, he would deal with Harry Potter once and for all.

"We’re not making any progress!" complained Evan Harrington’s "partner," Veronica Singh, "This shouldn’t be so hard."

"William Oglesby is a bright man, very knowledgeable," Evan countered, "Clearly he used the Fidelius Charm, so we can’t obtain the location merely by asking. Most of the employees are staying at the new site, wherever it is, so it must be a large building. Probably an old castle or mansion of some sort. The owls have been dispersed throughout the country. They’ve done an excellent job of covering their tracks."

Evan’s lack of urgency bothered Veronica, not as secure in her position as an auror. With a resume full of successes, a failure or two would not derail Evan’s career, but Veronica’s career held few outstanding moments, and succeeding at this mission would enhance her future tremendously.

She would have been truly upset if she knew that Evan already determined the location of the Daily Prophet’s temporary headquarters. He managed to follow a Prophet employee to the Ministry apparation site. He noted the exact time of his apparation and then checked for other apparations around the country at that time. He noted four possibilities, checked each one of them, and on the third try, after a little footwork, he found the large manor where Oglesby and company currently resided. A bit of luck perhaps, but not especially difficult.

Of course he told Veronica that each lead he followed resulted in a dead end. Having dealt with her for a day or two now, Evan soon determined that Veronica could not track a mountain troll in a zoo enclosure. He figured that the newspaper would change locations soon, at which time he would "discover" the previous site, showing that they were making progress.

What Singh lacked in talent she compensated in hard work, and she kept Evan busy all day. Unable to spare time to travel to Hogwarts without raising too many questions, he spoke briefly with Harry by means of their mirrors, agreeing that he would meet with Harry and friends the next morning.

The arrival of Cho Chang to the Gryffindor common room created an uncomfortable evening for all five occupants. The four friends could not discuss anything about horcruxes or their activities on Knockturn Alley, and they had little inclination to make small talk with her. Cho decided that she had less history with Ginny than any of the others, so much to the red head witch’s displeasure, they conversed much of the evening. Hermione and Cho barely exchanged a word. Harry and Ron decided to retire to their room once ten o’clock arrived, so the girls decided to turn in as well.

They found a sleeveless t-shirt and baggy grey shorts for Cho to use as pajamas, and soon the three witches slipped into their beds.

"I’m sorry about all of this," Cho apologized, "I know you’re probably not happy that I’m here. It shouldn’t be for more than a day or two."

"Don’t worry about it," Hermione answered cooly but without anger, "We’ll all survive."

The three girls accommodated themselves for a few moments, and Hermione and Ginny displayed no desire to commence a lengthy bedtime conversation with the intruder. Cho, however, had to ask.

"What’s happened to Harry? He’s really different. I know I haven’t spent much time with him lately, but he’s weird now. And what about those eyes? One time, I swear that I saw them glow for a few seconds. Maybe I’m just seeing things."

Ginny grudgingly turned towards Cho and mumbled, "You saw it all right. It happens to him now and again, but we can’t explain why."

"So they really do glow?" Cho gasped, "That’s scary!"

"There’s something you should know about that, Cho," Hermione mentioned quietly. She paused and then reconsidered, "Well, maybe it’s better not to tell you."

"Tell me what?" Cho responded anxiously, "You can’t not tell me now. What is it?"

Hermione bit her bottom lip, apparently deep in thought as to whether she should continue or not.

"OK, I suppose you should know," she finally decided, "It’s about Harry’s eyes. When they glow like that, he sees things differently. He . . . . can see through things."

"What things?"

"Well, when his eyes are glowing, Harry can see through invisibility cloaks. And clothes." Cho’s mouth opened and she stared blankly at Hermione, who briefly glanced at Ginny.

"Through clothes?" Cho finally responded, "You mean he can see . . . ." Hermione and Ginny both nodded.

"In all of our glory. It started on his seventeenth birthday. Something happened to him," Ginny explained, happily joining in on Hermione’s plan, "Something to do with what happened to him back when he was a baby with You Know Who. He can’t help it."

Cho stared wide-eyed at the two younger witches, wondering if it could be true. She had heard about powerful wizards who could see through invisibility cloaks, so the idea of seeing through clothing could not be discounted out of hand. Even more so for a person like Harry, a unique wizard if ever one existed. She looked appraisingly at them.

"You don’t seem too upset about it," she commented, "Can’t you do anything about it?"

"Well, we’re not happy about it, if that’s what you mean," Hermione explained from her bed, "In fact, we were pretty upset when we finally forced him to tell us a few days ago. But after a couple of days, we realized that it’s not that big a deal. Harry can’t help it, and he doesn’t make a big show about it. We just try not to think about it."

"Doesn’t he look away when it happens?" Cho asked, completely astonished.

"He’s a seventeen year-old boy, Cho," Ginny replied caustically, "What do you think?" Cho stared at her for a few moments.

"Good point."

"Look, just don’t worry about it. There’s nothing you can do," Ginny advised, "If you’re lucky, maybe it won’t happen before you leave." They all remained silent for an extended time until finally Ginny added, "Good night. Nox." The lamp above her bed went dark, and soon Hermione followed suit. Cho waited a few more seconds before extinguishing her lamp.

In the dark, she could not see the broad smiles on Hermione and Ginny’s faces.

Up a couple flights of stairs, Ron and Harry lay awake in their beds, laughing over Harry’s ruse of the morning. Harry found that he felt most like his old self when alone in the dormitory with Ron. For a change, he felt like a normal teenager.

Finally they lay down more seriously, allowing sleep to approach, and they entered that stage in which people let down their guard and say things they may not at other times of the day.

"What are you going to do about Hermione, mate?" Harry asked out of the blue while on his back, hands behind his head.

Ron rolled on his side, his eyes scrunched, and responded, "What do you mean?"

"I mean, are you going to start something with her or not?" Ron still had not adapted to the new, more direct Harry Potter.

A long silence followed. In truth, of course, Ron had considered that very question every day of an excruciatingly long summer. What DID he plan to do?

"I don’t know, Harry. I’m not sure what I feel about her, and what she feels for me. Sometimes I want to; sometimes I don’t. It’s hard to think of her that way, if you know what I mean. And then everything started happening a few days ago. Even if I decided what to do, there’s been no opportunity."

"Hmmm," Harry hummed. They lay silently for a minute.

"What about Ginny and you? You know, she cried all night after we left your hotel room the other day."

Harry stared at the vaulted ceiling. He did not know that. Being with Ginny for the past few days, he realized with certainty that he had passed that phase of his life, though he also realized that she had not.

"We’re done," he informed Ron simply, "A lot has happened to me since last term, a lot of water under the bridge. I’m not the same person I was then." He turned his head towards his friend. "I hope you’re not upset about that. I know Ginny probably is having a hard time with it."

"No worries, mate," Ron assured his friend, "Ginny will get over it. She always bounces back."

Sleep crept up on them, and Harry flicked his wand silently to extinguish the lamp above his bed, with Ron following suit a few seconds later to the spell, "Nox."

Before sleep completely claimed them, however, Ron quietly asked one final question, "Why did you ask me about Hermione, mate?"

Harry did not answer, feigning that he had already fallen asleep.

Narcissa Malfoy bowed deeply before Lord Voldemort. Unexpectedly, a death eater woke her early in the morning, told her to dress, and then transported her to face the dark lord. While preparing herself, she managed to write a short note which she stuffed into a pocket.

"You are looking well, My Lord," she greeted him subserviently, noting his improved appearance, "How can I serve you?"

"That will become apparent in due time, Narcissa," Voldemort replied curtly, "We shall be leaving soon. You have not eaten breakfast; you have time for a brief meal." With that, Voldemort left her presence, and Peter Pettigrew led her to the kitchen where the cook placed a plate of food before her.

She did not feel hungry at all, as her stomach had already turned itself into knots. Lord Voldemort did not bring her here to chat, she knew all too well. She also knew that Draco disappeared, presumably defecting. With Lucius killed by the orders of the Minister of Magic, the dark lord no longer had any use for her. Picking up a fork, she forced herself to eat, not wishing to provide any reason for anyone to become upset with her.

Finally, half an hour later, Peter led her into a separate room, where for a few minutes she sat alone, grasping one hand with the other to control their shaking. Her thoughts rested on her only child, Draco, whom she now knew she would never see again. Voldemort entered the room, Peter trailing behind, and briefly nodded at her.

"Today you will serve me, Narcissa," Voldemort informed her, "We are ready to leave."

Peter carried a large sack over his shoulder, and approached the witch. He carefully averted his eyes and placed his hand on her shoulder. They both disappeared, Lord Voldemort following seconds later. The three of them reappeared in the Forbidden Forest where Voldemort and Peter had spent much of the previous day.

"Set up the cauldron, Wormtail. We have much to do."

After finishing their breakfast in the Gryffindor common room, Harry and the others awaited the arrival of Evan Harrington, who promised to arrive on the grounds within an hour. He would contact Harry again through their mirrors, and then Harry, Ron and Hermione would meet him by the lake. Cho, of course, needed to remain out of sight in the common room.

Given everything that had happened to Cho over the past twenty-four hours, she slept poorly, and Harry vaguely noticed that she seemed rather nervous. Not that he especially cared. She stood up at one point and walked in front of Harry, when to her extreme distress, she saw his eyes start to glow again.

Cho gasped and froze for a moment. Harry noticed her reaction and stared right at her. The petite witch remained nailed to the floor for a few seconds when she realized what Harry must be seeing at the very moment. An eyeful. Her first instinct was to run up to the dormitory, but she did not want Harry to know that she had been made aware of his special ability. Finally, she abruptly turned sideways to Harry, figuring that at least he would have less of a view that way. She moved her arm over her chest, unsuccessfully trying to do so in a natural matter. Harry certainly noted her strange reaction.

After ten seconds, his eyes returned to normal, and Cho finally breathed again. From the corner of his eyes, Harry noted a smirk on Hermione’s face, and he turned to look at her while Cho walked in the other direction. Hermione covered her mouth with her hand, but Harry could see the laughter in her eyes. Glancing at Ginny, he noted the same reaction. After a few seconds, he deduced what must have occurred. He smiled at Hermione and shook his head back and forth disbelievingly.

Hermione nodded her head and then put a finger to her mouth, asking Harry not to reveal the truth to Cho.

"OK," mouthed Harry silently, and then looked back at Cho. He could not resist the opportunity.

"Have you been on a diet, Cho?" he asked, "Just now, I thought that you looked thinner than in the past."

Cho’s face turned a deep red, given the natural darkness of her skin, and her eyes opened wide with shock. Harry stared at her as if nothing at all unusual had occurred. Ginny and Hermione again covered their mouths, exerting all of their concentration to keep from laughing. Ron gradually caught on and also suppressed a smirk.

"No, I’m the same weight as before," Cho answered, speaking more rapidly than normal, "Excuse me for a minute." She shot out of the common room, up the stairs, and into the dormitory room where the girls slept. At last Hermione and Ginny could release their laughter, though they tried not to make too much noise so that Cho could not hear them.

"You two are evil," Harry accused them with a smile. At first, the girls could not respond through their giggles.

"We learned everything we know from you," Ginny joked, and all four wore broad smiles. Just then, Harry felt the mirror in his pocket vibrate.

Minister of Magic Scrimgeour’s face reddened with rage after reading the letter from Hogwarts Headmistress Minerva McGonagall. She point-blank refused to allow his aurors onto the castle grounds at this time, citing Hogwarts’ traditional autonomy from the Ministry of Magic. She agreed to lead a delegation of Ministry officials, non-aurors only, through the grounds to explain the wards protecting the castle. Clearly she did not trust the presence of aurors at Hogwarts for any reason, and Scrimgeour knew that word of his plans to occupy the castle must have reached her.

His subordinates continued with their plans to house approximately three thousand witches and wizards at Hogwarts castle, but they desperately needed on-site information about current conditions. They discovered to their horror that the latest maps and diagrams of the castle in their possession dated from half a century before, and they knew with certainty that many modifications to the castle occurred during the Dumbledore years.

"We’ll just have to storm it, then," the Minister muttered to the three aides surrounding them, "Put a force together, twenty or thirty should be enough. We’ll have to keep it quiet, at least for a day or two. Then we can announce our plans. I want something in place in two or three days. We’ll have to detain McGonagall and anyone else in the castle for a couple of days. Then we can make our final plans before announcing the mandatory evacuation of all wizarding residences." The three aides stood impassively, not moving a muscle. "Understood!"

The final word finally snapped them to attention, and the three nodded vigorously and left the office to inform the others. The redness of the Minister’s face decreased a few shades, but inside the anger still churned.

"You’ve made your choice, Minerva. Now we’ll do it the hard way."

"Casting spells while under the effects of gillyweed is possible but difficult," Evan Harrington explained to Harry while the others (minus Cho) looked on, "It takes a bit of practice, but you’ll catch on." As agreed, Harry and Evan wore swimming trunks because the two of them would enter the lake. Evan refused to allow the others to follow, though he lacked any real authority to prevent it.

Harry, however, informed them of his agreement with a tone of voice and facial expression that clearly indicated that no dissent would be considered. In the past, they may have argued anyway, but not with this Harry. This would primarily be a training run, with Evan showing Harry how to cast spells and deal with the hazards of the underwater magical world. Of course, Harry would keep his senses on alert in case he felt or saw something familiar, but now that he stood on the lakeshore, just a few feet from the water, the slate-blue lake appeared as large as an ocean. It could take weeks, he thought.

"Even though we often don’t realize it, when we cast unspoken spells, many times we slightly hum with our vocal cords. That’s fine on land, but with gillyweed, you temporarily lose your vocal cords, so an unspoken spell truly must be an unspoken spell. Do you understand, Harry?"

"Sure," he replied, completely confident in his ability, "Let’s get started."

Evan removed two small pouches from a duffle bag and handed one to Harry.

"Put some extra gillyweed in here. If we start to transform, get to the surface as quickly as you can. You’ll need to wait a minute until you have completely regained your normal form. If you can speak normally, then it’s safe to eat some more." Harry nodded at the auror’s instructions and placed a handful of the rubbery plant into the pouch and then tied it to the strings of his Gryffindor red swimming trunks. After Evan did the same, the two waded a few feet into the frigid water.

"WOW!" Harry yelled, but he controlled himself before any expletives left his mouth. Glancing at his swimming partner, he saw Evan already stuffing a handful of gillyweed into his mouth, wincing at the acrid taste.

Harry turned to his friends and told them with a raised voice, "We’ll be back in an hour or two. We’ll see how it goes." They waved and watched as Harry shoved his handful of the plant into his mouth. After a few seconds, he felt the gills begin to form on his neck and the webs between his fingers and toes, and the irresistible urge to enter the water caused him to dive in. In his normal human form, Harry never learned to swim well, but under the influence of gillyweed, swimming seemed as natural as walking. Quickly he sliced through the water to catch up with Evan.

From time to time, Evan pointed out landmarks on the lake floor to assist them with their return journey, but otherwise they simply swam out to the center of the lake, remaining fifteen or twenty feet above the rocky bottom to avoid the various creatures that lurked below. Always they kept an eye out for the giant squid.

Finally Evan decided to commence a lesson. Diving down to an open area on the lake floor, he pointed at a small log. Taking his wand, he pointed it, and a moment later the log lifted off of the gravelly bottom and moved towards him. Harry understood that Evan used the "accio" spell and wanted Harry to try it too. The auror returned the log to the bottom and nodded at Harry.

He remembered Evan’s instruction to avoid any use of vocal cords, of which he temporarily had none, so he concentrated on "saying" the spell with his stomach. On his first few attempts, the log lifted off the ground a few inches, but Harry found it difficult to sustain the accio spell. Evan merely nodded his encouragement and pointed to his abdomen, slightly higher on his torso than the area in which Harry had utilized. On his next attempt, Harry shifted his concentration on a spot about six inches above his stomach, and instantly the log shot off of the lake bottom, flying through the water as if it were air. Harry tried to smile, but given the transformations from the gillyweed, he could not change expressions.

Evan led Harry through a series of exercises, based on those learned by him during auror training. Every auror needed to demonstrate proficiency in underwater magic, and mastery of the use of gillyweed constituted an important element. After half an hour of work, Harry could cast spells underwater without difficulty, at a level which most aurors could not reach, if at all, until after three or four days of training. Harry’s quick study did not surprise Evan at all. He expected it.

After an hour, they started to lose their gills and regain their lungs, and Harry felt a moment of panic, since they swam some seventy or eighty feet below the surface in the center of the deep lake. Evan however calmed him with his hand and steadily led him to the surface. Harry realized that he could still "breathe" enough in the water to make it to the surface safely. By the time his head broke through to the air, however, he gasped the cool oxygen above the cool waters.

"Remember, Harry," Evan instructed after catching his breath, "Don’t panic. The transformation takes a good two minutes or so to complete, and you can still survive in the water well enough to reach the surface." Harry nodded and then smiled. This was great fun.

After resting on the surface for a few minutes, they consumed their second ration of gillyweed, and the two men concentrated on covering as much territory as they could on the odd chance that Harry may stumble upon Hufflepuff’s cup. Given the expanse of the lake, however, they only covered a small fraction of the total territory, and they stayed well above the lake bottom to avoid the dangers there. They both knew that in the future, more risks may be required.

Exhausted from their second hour under the effects of gillyweed, they slowly made their way back to the shore near the castle. By the time the gillyweed wore off, they swam in relatively shallow water, and Harry surfaced within a matter of seconds. They swam the final hundred yards to the coarse sand of the shore, and Harry dragged himself onto a nearby boulder, breathing heavily.

"It’s tiring," Evan agreed, also inhaling deeply, "but like any exercise, you’ll gain endurance the more you do it. That’s all for today, but tomorrow we’ll do more. I have to get back now. That blasted woman is probably trying to track me down." Harry grinned, enjoying Evan’s frustrations with Veronica Singh.

Harry put on his glasses and looked around, but initially he saw nobody; then off in the distance, perhaps a quarter of a mile away, he saw Ron and Hermione seated together, apparently talking, though at this distance he could not be sure. Suddenly a fire burned in his stomach. What exactly had Ron and Hermione been doing while he swam in the lake?

A couple of miles away, on the other side of the lake, Lord Voldemort busily worked on preparing a complicated potion. To his right, Narcissa Malfoy lay on the hard forest floor, bound and gagged.

Chapter 26: Be Prepared, Harry Potter
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Chapter 26

Be Prepared, Harry Potter

"Murder. It’s a powerful magical force, but weak-minded wizards refuse to utilize it. I, on the other hand, have fully enjoyed its benefits. In my younger years when I immersed myself in the outer limits of magic, I learned of the power of murder, when properly harnessed, and that power will again serve me today."

Lord Voldemort sat patiently in the mid afternoon as the shadows of the Forbidden Forest started to lengthen. An hour before, he added the final ingredient to the potion that he would give to Narcissa Malfoy, but now the mixture needed to brew over a low heat for six hours, being stirred briefly every twenty minutes. He entertained himself with a one-sided conversation with the witch, who could not respond due to the gag in her mouth. Voldemort had no interest in her opinions.

Truth be told, he did not need to treat her so harshly, but she deserved to suffer for the failures of her husband and the treason of her son. When he determined that he needed the power of a murder to overcome the wards around Hogwarts, immediately he knew the identity of the victim.

By now, Narcissa well knew her fate. Since Draco’s disappearance, she wondered when the dark lord would send for her, perhaps to kill her, perhaps "merely" to torture her. After several days passed, she thought that perhaps the dark lord did not hold her responsible, but no such luck. Now as she lay bound and gagged on the bare dirt of the Forbidden Forest, she wished that her fate would come quickly. Having to wait another five hours was the worst torture she could suffer. If only she could find some way to end her suffering sooner rather than later.

"I discovered this potion many years ago, forty at least, from an interesting wizard in Afghanistan. It allows a person to enter most warded areas for a brief period of time, only a few minutes. Not especially helpful. It was I who discovered that combining the potion with the power derived from the act of murder can in fact defeat the wards. The previous wards could not be defeated in such a way as they were personally tied to Dumbledore, but these wards lack that power."

Peter sat away from Narcissa, not wishing to make eye contact with her. He disliked her. Always had, even at Hogwarts. Yet he had also known her since their childhood, and he could not prevent pangs of guilt that he would do nothing to prevent her impending murder. She should not expect him too, of course, since that would necessarily result in his death as well.

Lord Voldemort appeared to be in an excellent mood. Clearly his physical well-being, relatively speaking, improved his spirits as well, and Peter had never seen him in such an expansive mood. Voldemort knew that his continued monologue tortured Narcissa as much as a Cruciatus Curse, and he delighted in every word.

"You should be proud, dear Narcissa, to be able to atone for the sins of your family. Lucius’ failure to obtain the prophecy. Draco’s betrayal. Your family has delayed my ultimate victory, but now you can help me take a large step forward." Voldemort stepped forward to stir the potion at the correct time, two strokes to the left and one half stroke to the right.

While his attention moved away from his victim, Narcissa turned over sharply and stared at Peter. The sudden movement caught the death eater’s eye, and before he could stop himself, he looked at her. The bound and gagged witch’s eyes opened wide with fear, and Peter read their message perfectly: Kill me before he does! Her eyes implored him, but he turned his head away.

Never had he hated himself more than at that moment.

Ron and Hermione had been walking around the Hogwarts grounds while Harry and Evan swam. At first Ginny tagged along, but after a few minutes, she sensed that she should leave the two alone, and she excused herself. As she walked away, she could not help but turn around for a moment to watch the backs of her brother and friend walking away.

Ginny had known for years of Ron’s attraction to Hermione, but she also knew that he held ambivalent feelings towards her. The few times she half broached the subject, Ron brushed her off, not admitting any feelings at all. She fretted for her brother. In the past, Hermione admitted to her that she liked Ron, though she also complained about him. For whatever reason, the two of them never took the next step. Or even the first step. Now Ginny sensed that the moment had passed. She turned back towards the castle and chuckled to herself, Why should I be the only one to suffer?

The two friends meandered for half an hour speaking of the mundane, at times wondering how Harry was faring beneath the surface of the lake. As time passed, they each felt the nerves caused by dancing around the ever-present subject. Finally they tired of walking and sat on a grassy knoll a quarter mile away from the lake, enjoying a spectacular view of the lake and the forest beyond. After a lengthy silence, Ron softly initiated the conversation that they both knew they needed to have.

"Hermione, can I . . . Can I ask you something?"

"Sure, Ron," she replied just as softly, maintaining her gaze over the scene in front of her. Ron paused for a few seconds, not sure exactly how to word it.

"I’m just wondering what you feel about us, I mean, the boys in your life. Victor Krum. Me. And Harry. Or anyone else."

Hermione felt her stomach jump at the question even though she knew Ron would ask some variation of it. Despite Ron and Harry being her best friends, they were boys, and she never felt comfortable discussing her romantic feelings with them, especially because in the past, some of those romantic feelings had been directed at the tall, lanky red head himself. She recalled how she felt when Harry unexpectedly joked about Ron wanting to declare his undying love for her when Harry and she ate breakfast a week earlier. She decided to deal with the easy part of the question first.

"Victor is just a friend, Ron. He liked me, and I thought he was nice, but he’s not my type. We haven’t even been writing lately."

Ron nodded, expecting as much. In the past, he did hold jealous feeling towards the Bulgarian seeker, but a lot of time had passed since those days, and he knew enough about Hermione to understand that she held no romantic feelings. He continued to stare at her, awaiting the remainder of her answer.

Unknown to Ron, she had considered this very question at great length over the past two evenings, ever since Ginny confronted her two nights before. Until the invisible Harry whispered to her so unexpectedly in her hometown a week before, she firmly believed that she maintained no romantic inclinations towards him. For one thing, Harry did not seem interested in her, briefly falling for the exotic Cho Chang and then more seriously becoming involved with the energetic Ginny Weasley.

But spending those days alone with Harry in her hometown changed everything. For the first time that she could remember, she felt nervous around him, and anxiously awaited meeting him each day. When Harry mentioned his time with Melissa Montgomery, she felt a strange feeling in her stomach, and then Harry shocked her by declaring matter-of-factly that he no longer loved Ginny. They held hands. So much had changed.

"I don’t know what to tell you," she finally continued in a soft monotone. She moved her eyes off of the lake and redirected them to the wisps of grass in front of her.

Immediately Ron understood. He had long suspected that Hermione suppressed feelings for Harry, just as he had long suppressed his feelings for her. Seeing them together these past few days only reinforced that suspicion, and strangely enough, he did not feel especially upset about it. Yes, he liked Hermione, but he had to ask himself whether he REALLY liked her. Sometimes, she drove him crazy, and he knew that the feeling must be mutual.

More than anything, he regretted that they had not initiated a romance during their sixth year, like normal teenagers. They could have enjoyed the giddiness of the first days as boyfriend-girlfriend, become more comfortable with each other, enjoyed time together, until finally they would inevitably argue, making up, breaking up, making up, and then breaking up for good. Ron had never truly experienced that (despite his exuberant experiences with Lavender Brown), and even though it may have ended in heartache, he wished it would have happened. Just like it did for Harry and Ginny. Now, however, it was too late.

"It’s OK," he whispered sadly, resignation in his voice, "I can tell. It’s going to be difficult for you; you know that, don’t you?" Surprised by Ron’s words, Hermione turned sharply to look at him.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that I know you like Harry. And I’m pretty sure Harry likes you, though he has a few other things on his mind right now." He looked out over the lake in which Harry swam at that very moment.

A wave of relief flowed though Hermione. She assumed that this conversation would be terribly difficult, but Ron beat her to the punch. For one thing, she had not entirely convinced herself of what she felt, but hearing it from Ron, she knew it to be true. After Ginny confronted her, she began to understand her complicated feelings towards Harry Potter, and at first the realization scared her.

"It WILL be hard," she agreed with Ron’s previous statement, "I don’t know what’s going to happen to him. I’m not sure which Harry I like, the old one, the current one, or the one he’s going to be after it’s all over. And what should I do? Nothing? Should I tell him now? He has so much on his mind." She looked at Ron and could see the sadness on his face and realized that she was acting insensitively to her friend. "I’m sorry, Ron, I shouldn’t be talking about this with you."

"No, no. That’s OK," Ron countered, "I’d rather have it all out in the open. In a way, I feel like we are breaking up even though we’ve never been together. But it would have happened sooner or later. I don’t think we were made for each other."

"Why do you think that?" asked Hermione, a touch of incredulity in her voice. She had similar thoughts over the past days, but it seemed to her that for a change Ron had a better handle on this than she did.

"Well, I’ve been thinking about us lately. The three of us. I thought, ‘What if Harry Potter did not exist? What if you and I came to Hogwarts, were sorted into Gryffindor, and all the rest. Would we have become close friends?’ To tell you the truth, I don’t think so." Ron paused to allow Hermione to think this hypothetical through. "Then I thought, ‘What if Hermione Granger did not exist, but Harry and I were sorted into Gryffindor? Would he and I have been friends?’ And I think that the answer is yes, we would still be best mates. Which leads to the final scenario - Ronald Weasley doesn’t exist but Harry and you do. Would the two of you have become best friends? I think so."

Hermione had never viewed their friendship in quite this way, and she intensely considered the three hypothetical situations. She could not dispute Ron’s version, so she remained strangely silent.

"I’m really happy that you’re my friend, Hermione, but I realized that we don’t have that much in common. If it wasn’t for Harry, I don’t know that we would be more than casual friends. For that reason alone, I’m glad Harry is my friend." Hermione bit her bottom lip, somehow feeling that agreeing with Ron was morally wrong, but she knew that he made perfect sense. She did not like Ron at all when they first met years earlier, and though she may have surpassed that first impression, she doubted that she, a driven and at times insufferable know-it-all, would have connected with a polar-opposite like Ron. "What do you think?" Ron added after a lengthy silence.

"I think you’re right," she whispered, and she did not understand why she had to fight back tears. She did not speak further, and the two friends sat silently for a few minutes, each lost in their thoughts. Then a quarter of a mile down the hill, they saw Harry and Evan emerge from the waters of the lake.

Upon returning to the Ministry, a couple of aurors grabbed Evan Harrington and pulled him into a small meeting room where three other aurors already sat, deep in discussion.

"We found Evan," one of the aurors stated, "Now we have six; that should be enough."

In the next five minutes, Evan learned that Cho Chang, a lowly intern, had copied sensitive documents from the Minister of Magic’s office. When the order issued to arrest her, she fled, and thus far, she could not be located. Someone mentioned that Chang often visited with Kingsley Shacklebolt, so a new order issued to detain Kingsley for questioning. Renown for his skill with a wand, the aurors decided that they should have numbers on their side. Hopefully their colleague would come quietly and would be absolved of any responsibility. Evan knew better.

The six aurors approached Kingsley’s small office, where he nervously dug into the piles of paperwork in front of him. He felt confident that nobody saw him with Cho the previous day, but he also knew that he had publicly met her for lunch on a few occasions and spoke with her from time to time in hallways. Arthur Weasley and he decided that he should return to work in the hope that the Ministry would overlook him. Failure to appear would most definitely alert the Ministry. They would have to roll the dice.

When the first two men passed through the door, Kingsley precisely knew their purpose. Not to arrest him, but to question him, voluntarily or not. He did not resist, unable to apparate from this area of the Ministry. As he made his way to the door, he briefly made eye contact with Evan Harrington, who nodded his head just a quarter of an inch. Kingsley noticed and knew that Evan would try to do something.

"I better hold your wand for the moment, Kingsley," Evan advised as the tall black auror passed by him, "Normal procedure." Kingsley nodded and handed over his long black wand. Evan took the position directly behind the captive with the other five trailing behind. They walked that way for several minutes, and gradually they relaxed. Kingsley clearly did not plan to resist. Probably he would be absolved, and that would be the end of it.

But as they turned a corner, Evan barely whispered, "Now." Kingsley spun around and struck Evan across the face. Evan dropped Kingsley’s wand in front of him and fell backward into the other five as they turned the corner.

In a flash, Kingsley summoned his wand, turned and yelled, "Stupefy." He connected with one of the five, who fell into one of the others. With the six aurors momentarily in disarray, Kingsley shot forward, running as fast as his long legs would take him.

Recovering first, Evan yelled, "GET HIM; STUPEFY." His stunner missed its target by a foot to the left. Another auror threw his own stunner, but Kingsley turned another corner a second before it would have hit him. The five conscious aurors raced forward to begin the chase, Evan at the lead, yelling instructions.

Kingsley still could not apparate from this section of the Ministry building, so he decided he must escape in the same manner as Cho. Darting through a random door, he surprised two witches busy in the Apparation Licensing office. Seeing a coffee mug, he tapped it twice, muttered, "portus," and a second later disappeared. Five seconds after that, Evan and the four others stormed through the door, causing the two women to scream at the top of their lungs.

Eventually the women informed them of Kingsley’s actions, and Evan especially demonstrated anger at the turn of events. Embarrassed and frustrated, the aurors left to check on their fallen colleague and to report to their superiors.

That was a close call,
Evan thought, recognizing how disastrous Shacklebolt’s detention could have been. This would change everything, he knew. Orders would be issued for Shacklebolt’s arrest for having attacked his fellow auror, and no doubt investigations would commence which may lead to the discovery of the Order of the Phoenix. If they learned of the Order, they ultimately would learn about Evan’s role in it. Time was running out.

A few moments after Evan left Harry by the lakeshore, Ron and Hermione came trotting down the hill. Harry eyed them warily, trying to divine what they had been doing.

"How’d it go?" Ron asked, arriving a few steps before Hermione.

Harry shrugged, "Well enough. We didn’t find anything, but I learned how to cast spells under water. Took a few tries, but easy enough."

Ron and Hermione still had not accustomed themselves to Harry’s new-found cockiness, so they merely nodded.

"It’s a little tiring," he commented, "but we’ll give it another go tomorrow. We played it safe today, staying well above the bottom to avoid grindylows and away from the merpeople’s village. We’ll have to look harder from now on." He stripped the wet t-shirt off his back and grabbed a towel that they brought down from the dormitory. As usual, he did not seem at all concerned.

Something had happened between his two friends, Harry sensed, but given their subdued demeanor and the fact that they stood several feet away from each other, he did not sense that a new romance had commenced, in fact quite the opposite. A wave of relief passed through him, which caused him to feel ashamed. But he still felt relief.

"Let’s head back," Harry suggested, but off to his left his peripheral vision noted movement, causing him to pause a moment to look. Sure enough, he saw Hagrid in the distance running towards him, arms flailing back and forth. No doubt the half giant was yelling at Harry as well, but the three friends could not yet hear him. Ron and Hermione stepped forward on either side of Harry observing.

"Harry, Harry!" they finally heard in the distance, "Hold up a minute." Harry waved to indicate that they heard him, and the three friends walked towards him. Hagrid slowed down once he knew that they saw him. Finally they met further down the lakeshore, Hagrid breathing heavily.

"Glad yeh saw me, Harry, somethin’s happenin’. Strange." Hagrid had to stop to inhale a massive amount of air.

"What is it, Hagrid?" Harry responded, more to allow Hagrid to breath than anything.

"What yeh been doin’, Harry?" Hagrid asked, noting that Harry’s hair remained wet and that he stood dressed only in swimming trunks and a white towel draped around his neck.

"I’ve been swimming," Harry replied, "Some business I have in the lake. What do you need to tell me?"

"Shouldn’ be swimmin’ in the lake, Harry. Dangerous down there. Merpeople, grindylows, the squid." Hagrid appeared genuinely worried.

"Thanks for your concern, Hagrid. What do you need to tell me?" Harry used his new tone of voice which informed the listener not to bother him any more but to get down to business.

"Oh, well, strange happenin’s, Harry. I was workin’ in the forest, jus’ along the edge, mind you, where centaurs never go, when out of the blue, one of ‘em comes up behin’ me. Scared me good, I don’ mind tellin’ yeh. Them centaurs can move quiet as a mouse. Was a young male; never seen him before. Said his name was Socrates. Funny name, if yeh ask me. Who ever heard of a name like tha’?"

"Actually," explained Hermione, "It’s the name of a Greek . . . ."

"Not now, Hermione," Harry interrupted, "Just tell me what this Socrates said, Hagrid."

"Right. What Socrates said. Well, he didn’ say much, just told me he needs to talk to Harry Potter. Real important, he said. Urgent." Hagrid turned up his massive nose and added, "Didn’ like him much. Course me and the centaurs haven’ been gettin’ along lately."

Harry considered this unexpected turn of events. Not exactly on the best of terms with centaurs either, Harry had no urge to meet with them, but he also recalled Dumbledore’s letter to him in which he recognized the centaurs’ abilities in Divination. Perhaps the stars revealed something new that they felt he needed to know.

"Where does he want to meet? And when?"

"Now," Hagrid replied, half turning and pointing behind him, "He’s waitin’ right now, down by my cabin, jus’ on the edge of the forest. Don’ think he means any harm, but if yeh don’ want t’ talk to him, I’ll tell him."

"No, we’ll talk to him. Let’s go." He stepped forward.

Hermione tapped him on the back while saying, "Wait a second, Harry. You should probably put this back on." She took the wet black t-shirt off of his shoulder and waved her wand to a drying spell. Harry took the shirt back from her and smiled. The young witch smiled in return, and for a few seconds, their eyes met. Harry saw something in hers that he had never seen before, and it filled him with warmth. He wished he could have stared into her eyes for an hour, but with business at hand, he turned away to walk down to Hagrid’s cabin.

Ten minutes later they passed the cultivated plots behind the cabin and turned towards the edge of the Forbidden Forest where Hagrid left the centaur. At first, they saw nothing, as expected, for the naturally reclusive centaur would have retreated into the trees.

Hagrid took a few enormous strides into the forest and bellowed, "Socrates! Harry Potter is here. He’s bein’ ready to talk to yeh." Almost magically the tall, young centaur emerged from a thicket of trees to Hagrid’s right, cantering cautiously but proudly. The horse-like body bore thick wavy auburn hair which nearly matched the slightly lighter-colored hair on the human-like head. He appeared to be relatively young but in the prime of his physical prowess, not a creature to be considered lightly. Strapped over his shoulder hung a quiver of arrows, with the bow held lightly in his left hand. He passed Hagrid silently and headed to the edge of the trees where Harry and the others awaited.

Seeing Ron and Hermione, Socrates hesitated before informing Harry haughtily, "I have a message for you, Harry Potter. It is only for you; I cannot divulge it in the presence of others." He glared threateningly at Ron and Hermione, clearly expecting them to leave promptly at his insistence. Harry, however, had other ideas.

"You’ll either give the message to me in their presence, or you will not give it me at all," Harry countered calmly but firmly, "They are my most trusted friends, and I will not send them away."

"That’s OK, Harry. We can go," Hermione advised him, "We’ll just walk up to Hagrid’s cabin. You can tell . . . ."

She never finished the sentence due to the glare from Harry which silently but clearly instructed her not to interfere. Given his past encounters with centaurs, Harry had developed a negative attitude towards them and their holier-than-thou attitude. He knew that the message had to be of tremendous importance for the centaurs to take the extraordinary step of sending an emissary to the edge of the forest. Socrates was merely trying to play mind-games, and Harry would have none of it.

"I have my instructions," Socrates insisted falsely, for in fact the centaur council of elders never mentioned the presence of others. At this point, however, the centaur’s extreme sense of honor overcame him, and he would not succumb to this mere human’s resistence.

"And I have given you my answer," Harry retorted hotly, "Let’s go." Turning around, he confidently strode away from the forest’s edge towards Hagrid’s cabin, while Hermione and Ron stood still. Exasperated, they did not know what to do. They knew as well as Harry that the centaur’s message must be important, and they saw no reason for Harry’s show of bravado. Who cared?

Harry cared, and he walked away intently, not caring whether the centaur called for him or not. Socrates sensed Harry’s resolve and knew that the elders would punish him severely for failure to deliver the message, even if at the expense of his dignity.

"Please return, Harry Potter," the centaur called out, "I will give you the message." Harry smirked at Socrates’ irritated voice, but he turned around and returned to face the magical creature, which stood nearly a foot taller than he. Socrates hesitated dramatically.

"The message is this, Harry Potter. The stars are clear. The final confrontation with the forces of evil is approaching soon. Very soon."

Is that all
, Harry asked himself when the centaur paused again, As if I didn’t already know that.

But Socrates continued, "The dark lord, Voldemort, has been seen in the forest. In fact, he is there now. Yesterday, one of our scouts spied him and a servant. Today, we have seen him with the same servant and a woman, who has been bound. The dark lord is brewing a potion in a large cauldron, and apparently has not yet completed it. We do not know his intentions, but given the message of the stars, we must assume that these are preparations for the final confrontation. You must be prepared, Harry Potter. Our most gifted seers are unanimous in their analyses. The confrontation shall be between the dark lord Voldemort and you, within the next three days. Be prepared, Harry Potter."

With that, Socrates turned and sprinted back to the protection of the dense forest while Harry, Ron, Hermione and Hagrid watched him silently.

Hermione and Ron finally turned to look at Harry, worry etched into their eyes. What they saw scared them to their bones.

Harry’s lips formed a smirk. And his eyes glowed.

Chapter 27: You Have Never Suffered
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Chapter 27

You Have Never Suffered


"Blasted woman!"

Evan Harrington hastily wrote a note to Michelle Goldsmith:  Please meet me in fifteen minutes. Apparate to King’s Cross. I will be under an invisibility cloak, and we will apparate to another location immediately. This is extremely important. Destroy this note immediately. Evan Harrington.

Having avoided suspicion following the escape of Kingsley Shacklebolt, Evan breathed a sigh of relief until he met again with his partner, Veronica Singh. Much to his amazement and consternation, she discovered the location of the Daily Prophet. Even as they spoke, their superiors met, piecing together a force to assault the newspaper’s temporary headquarters. Fortunately with their resources spread so thin, it would take a few hours at least before the plan could be finalized and the force could leave. Evan congratulated Veronica and excused himself for a few minutes.

Frantically he wrote the note to Michelle Goldsmith, whom he knew to be a member of the Order of the Phoenix and an employee of the Daily Prophet. He could not wait for an owl to travel all the way from London to the Prophet’s hideout in Scotland, so he stuffed an owl in the pocket of his robe and quickly moved to the auror apparation area, trying his best not to draw attention to himself. He apparated to a spot a mere quarter mile from the Prophet’s current location. Releasing the owl, he watched it flap away for a minute before swirling the invisibility cloak around himself and apparating to King’s Cross.

Luckily for the auror, Michelle was hard at work when the mottled owl flew through the window of her workroom, alighting on her desk. She quickly read the note twice. Gasping for breath and doing her best to avoid a panic attack, she touched her wand to the parchment. She could not turn it into dust like more accomplished witches, but the flames which quickly engulfed it did the job just as well. She checked her watch.

Fifteen minutes later, she slipped out of her area to a secluded spot where she apparated to King’s Cross. Her already pounding heart skipped a beat when from behind her she felt a hand on her shoulder. Within a few seconds, she disappeared again, reappearing in the same secluded spot where Evan released the owl. The back-to-back apparations caused her a pang of nausea, but it soon subsided. Evan removed the cloak and stepped to her side.

"I’m sorry to have call on you like this, Miss Goldsmith," he began politely, for the two had only briefly met at the Burrow a couple of days before. "It’s extremely important, I’m afraid. The Ministry has discovered your location. The Prophet needs to move again. Immediately."

Michelle froze for a second, allowing the unexpected events of the past few minutes to sink in. She realized the importance of this moment, and nodded her understanding.

"How much time do we have, Mr. Harrington?"

"Two or three hours. Four at the most. Forget tomorrow’s issue. Just get out of there."

"Thank you," Michelle whispered. The two looked at each other for a few moments, and each suddenly felt an attraction to the other, completely unexpected for both of them. Michelle would have liked the opportunity to chat with this handsome man, and Evan’s mouth opened slightly as he truly observed the pretty young woman for the first time. Both rued the moment, knowing that events did not allow them to follow their desires.

"Go now," Evan urged her, "Perhaps some time we can meet again."

"I’d like that," Michelle assured him with a genuine smile. A moment later, she disappeared.

"Business before pleasure," Evan muttered, who immediately returned to the Ministry, hoping his absence had not been noted. I’m taking too many chances.

Michelle ran full speed into the office of the Editor in Chief, who at that moment sat with several editors, reviewing proposed stories and layouts for the next day’s edition. Mr. Oglesby jumped from the shock of her entry.

"The Ministry has found us," she blurted out breathlessly, "We need to move right away."

"Calm down, Miss Goldsmith," Mr. Oglesby replied as evenly as he could, "What’s happened." Michelle inhaled deeply and informed them of what she knew.

Within moments, several editors ran though the building, shouting, "STOP EVERYTHING! WE’RE BUGGING OUT."

Harry rushed back from Hagrid’s cabin to the lakeshore where he left the tub of gillyweed. Given the dire information from the centaur, he intended to enter the lake again, and to keep swimming until he found either Hufflepuff’s cup or Lord Voldemort.

"There’s no time to think," Harry responded to Hermione’s pleas to slow down the process.

"Look," she argued urgently, "Let’s at least think what this means. Why would Voldemort be brewing a potion? And why would he have a hostage?"

"We’ve already figured that he wants to protect his horcruxes. He needs to get to the lake. I don’t know what it all means, but somehow he’s getting to the lake. He may already be there. I might be too late!" Finally they reached the gillyweed, and Harry quickly pulled off his black t-shirt, casting it haphazardly to the side.

They knew that Harry made sense, but Hermione did not want to let Harry go. Only minutes before, after her conversation with Ron, she finally came to terms with her feelings for Harry, the fact that she cared for him more than just as a friend. She loved him. But in a moment, he would dive into the frigid waters of the lake, possibly to confront Lord Voldemort. Possibly never to come back again. She could hardly bear the thought of him dying before she ever had a chance to tell him, but now she could not. The importance of his mission far outweighed her personal feelings.

Consumed with the task awaiting him, Harry failed to notice Hermione’s nerves. He stuffed as much gillyweed into his pouch as he could fit, figuring he had at least two extra servings.

"One of you needs to go back to the dormitory," he instructed his friends, "and get the mirror. Tap it three times, left, right and center, and then wait for Harrington. It may take him a few minutes to find an opportunity to contact you. Tell him what’s happened." He grabbed another handful of gillyweed. "And one of you needs to contact McGonagall. If Voldemort is out there, she needs to know. Maybe she can check on the wards or call on the Order for help. But not the Ministry! Make sure she doesn’t contact the Ministry."

Ron and Hermione did not answer for a few seconds. This all was happening too quickly, and they did not know what to say or do.

"I’ll come with you," Ron announced, "You need someone to help."

"NO!" Harry immediately ordered, "I mean, I can’t have you with me. You’ll distract me, and I can’t have that. I need to concentrate on finding the horcrux; I can’t be worrying about you two. But I don’t feel the same about Harrington as I do about you. I won’t worry about him. Besides, I need you to do what I asked."

"Harry," Hermione whispered, her voice choking for a few seconds, "Be careful."

Harry looked into her eyes again, and as before, they captivated him.

"I will," he assured her, emotion in his voice as well. Hermione stepped forward to embrace him, and the two wrapped their arms around each other more tightly than ever before. They lingered for several seconds before Harry gradually and reluctantly loosened his hold, placing his hands on her shoulders. "I’ll be back. I promise." Hermione managed a sad smile.

"Find it fast, mate, and bring it back here," Ron advised, stepping forward to place a hand on Harry’s back, "Remember, we still have to take care of Nagini, so try not to deal with You Know Who if you don’t have to." Harry nodded and looked back at his two best friends kindly.

"Try not to worry," he said confidently, even though he knew they would, "and go do what I asked right away. It’s important." Ron and Hermione nodded while Harry turned away to step into the cold water again, a handful of gillyweed in his mouth. His friends delayed a few seconds until they saw Harry shiver and suddenly dive into the lake. They looked at each other silently for a few more seconds.

"I’ll go to McGonagall," Hermione decided quietly, "You contact Harrington." Ron nodded, and the two ran back to the castle.

The shadows extended further from the majestic trees of the Forbidden Forest, obscuring the sunlight which flickered over the potion cooking in Lord Voldemort’s cauldron. The dark lord no longer taunted Narcissa Malfoy, who remained bound and gagged, lying uncomfortably on the sparsely vegetated soil. No matter which way she adjusted herself, a pebble or twig dug into her.

Voldemort just stirred that brew again, and walked a short distance towards the lake, coming to within a few feet of the point in which Hogwarts’ wards began. Despite his bravado to Narcissa, worry filled him from head to toe. Potter obtained a large quantity of gillyweed, and there could be only one purpose. He would be looking for the horcrux that Voldemort secreted so many decades earlier. Could the boy have already located it? Did he know of the trophy?

Peter Pettigrew at times sat, at times paced, but never strayed far from his master. He refused to observe the pathetic figure of Narcissa Malfoy, whom he knew would soon be breathing her last. How her murder would serve to breach the wards befuddled him, but not for a second did he doubt that it would. The few times he allowed his eyes to stray, he could see Narcissa’s pleading eyes. Kill me before he does, they told him.

He would not! Why should he trade her life for his? She made her choice years ago to join forces with the dark lord, and now she must pay the price, as they all would eventually.

Narcissa long before stopped struggling hopelessly against her bindings and knew that Peter would not help her. She would not have helped him, had their roles been reversed, so she could hardly blame him. Now that she would die a pathetic death, she could only find one consolation. Draco still lived! Perhaps he would meet her fate in the end, but at least he still had a chance. If only she could end her own life now, before the dark lord took it from her. Again her eyes surveyed the ground, seeking any opportunity.

Rolling from her left side to her right, she noticed a jagged branch on the ground, partially embedded in the soil, pointed out at nearly a forty-five degree angle. It had to be some four or five yards away, but she immediately tried to determine how she could move herself there. Even if she could squirm over unnoticed, the chances of lifting herself into the perfect position to impale herself on the three-foot branch were minuscule. Nevertheless, no other options presented themselves.

Arching her neck, Narcissa could just see Voldemort’s back, but she could not see Pettigrew. Inhaling deeply, she decided that she would have to run the risk, hoping that Peter would not stop her. As quietly as she could, she rolled over three times, then stopping to gauge her distance. Two more rolls should be enough, but she also needed to scoot down a few feet in order to line up her abdomen with the ragged tip of the branch. At close range, the branch appeared strong and solid, and she thought that just maybe she could succeed.

Peter observed her all the while, and within a few seconds understood her intention. Why do I get stuck in these situations? he asked himself angrily. He wanted to do nothing, but if Narcissa somehow managed to succeed, or even come close to success, Voldemort would hold him responsible. Having suffered the dark lord’s powerful Cruciatus curse numerous times, Peter did not wish to experience it again. Moreover, if his master lost his intended murder victim, then Peter may have to be pressed into service as the only available alternate. He watched Narcissa roll over twice, bringing her to within inches of her suicide branch.

"Master," Peter called out, "She is moving." He turned away from both Narcissa and Voldemort, once again hating himself with every ounce of his being.

Hearing Peter’s voice, Narcissa desperately lurched a foot down and began to roll to her right, attempting to lift herself onto the point of the jagged branch.

"CRUCIO," boomed the voice of Lord Voldemort, his wand pointed violently in front of him.

Narcissa’s body writhed in pain, and she could no longer control her movements. Voldemort’s full fury transferred through the curse, which he held for an inordinately long time, stopping only because he needed to keep her alive for a short time longer. The gag fell out of her mouth as her body jerked about, and her screams echoed throughout much of the Forbidden Forest. Many denizens of the woods heard her. Word of the dark lord’s presence had spread, and no creature dared remain within half a mile of him.

Voldemort approached his victim, sneering at her intended treason. Roughly turning her over with his foot, he pointed his wand at her to a silent petrificus totalus.

"You are pitiful," Voldemort snarled in his serpentine voice, "You and your entire family. Do not believe that your pathetic son will survive. I will personally assure his capture and oversee his torture. You are unworthy to be called death eaters." He glanced at Peter, ordering, "Tie her to the tree, Wormtail. We only have an hour to wait."

Despite the fact that Narcissa had already been petrified and could not move a muscle, Peter did as instructed, levitating the witch next to the large trunk of a tree, then shooting ropes out of his wand to bind her to it. He then replaced the gag in her mouth and released the spell. Voldemort returned to attend to the potion, but Peter could feel his master’s anger hanging in the air. After finishing his task, Peter accidentally looked into her eyes, which stared at him with poisonous venom. This time Peter stared back, sneering at her for her pointless suicide attempt which could have resulted in his death. He no longer felt any pity for her.

"Think! Think! Think!" Evan Harrington urgently whispered to himself in the dark closet where he briefly spoke with Ron on the two-way mirror. He needed to leave for Hogwarts immediately, but within a couple of hours, he would be expected to participate in the invasion of the Daily Prophet’s hideout. Obviously he could not do both. If he simply did not appear for the Ministry operation, eyebrows would be raised and questions would be asked. Already he sensed that Singh had begun to question his dedication, if not his motives.

He did not want to blow his cover so soon, but on the other hand, it seemed that events dictated that result. Harry needed his help. Soon the young wizard may be facing off with Lord Voldemort himself, and Evan would not allow him to do so alone. Pursing his lips, he made his decision.

"Sir, I’m afraid I cannot participate in the raid," Evan informed his superior two minutes later, having run to his office, "I just received a message from Harry Potter. He wants to meet with me. Now." Evan perfectly feigned an air of astonishment. "I think I need to go, sir. This opportunity may not present itself again. I’m sure you can handle the Prophet operation without me."

Evan’s superior raised his eyebrows at the unexpected news, but life as an auror meant changing on the run routinely. The Minister certainly would want to know why Potter summoned an auror.

"OK, go see Potter. Give me a report. We’ll take care of the Prophet."

"Thank you, sir," Evan muttered, turning to rush out of the office to the auror apparation area.

Harry never knew that he could swim so fast, and for several minutes, the adrenaline in his veins caused him to dart about the lake aimlessly. Soon he realized that he had no idea where he was.

"Slow down," he told himself, "Let yourself feel it." He brought himself to a near stop, allowing himself to sink slowly to the lake bottom, hovering just a few feet above. No vegetation covered this section of the lake, only coarse sand, rocks and the occasional boulder. Since no grindylows would populate such a barren area, Harry sunk down even lower. "Let yourself feel it," he repeated.

But he felt nothing. Searching about in a full circle, he realized that this part of the lake bottom did not conform to the image of the horcrux’s location that he had in his mind. With a kick of his feet, he began to swim a little faster, but well under control.

Despite his efforts to concentrate on locating Hufflepuff’s cup, as the minutes passed, he found his mind wandering. Hermione’s eyes would suddenly appear before him, only to be pushed away in an attempt to remain focused. But something about those eyes had changed. They reminded him of something or someone, but he could not put a finger on it. Up ahead, he saw green grass reaching up several yards from the bottom of the lake, waving ever so slightly in the still waters. Several fish could be seen darting in and out, eating tiny particles floating about. Harry turned away, knowing that the horcrux had not been hidden in a grassy area. To his right, he saw the beginning of a small canyon, so he redirected himself in that direction.

He had seen Hermione’s eyes many times, thousands of times. In fact, he told her more than once that he thought she had nice eyes, usually in response to her compliments about his green eyes. But the way she looked at him earlier . . .

he ordered himself, forcing his eyes to examine every nook and cranny of the ragged wall of the canyon, which dove down perhaps one hundred feet from the grassy area. Still, he felt and saw nothing other than the occasional fish. He swam on.

Maybe she was just worried about me,
he mused, but of course in their six years of friendship, Hermione often had reason to worry about him. Harry remembered her eyes from those adventures - before passing into the final room with the Philosopher’s Stone; before mounting the hippogriff to save Sirius; before facing the dragon during the Tri-Wizard Tournament; before leaving for the Ministry. No, her eyes today differed.

The horcrux! Think about the horcrux!

Feeling nothing, Harry swam out of the canyon.

Lord Voldemort gently lifted a few locks of Narcissa Malfoy’s thin blond hair. With a quick swipe of his wand, he severed an inch of her hair.

"Soon your suffering will end, Narcissa. Soon you will be reunited with your dear husband." Voldemort’s words dripped with sarcasm, for he knew all too well that Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy never loved each other, marrying only for reasons of status and purity of blood. After a few years, they detested each other and largely lived separate lives. Throughout her ordeal, Narcissa never once thought about a reunification with Lucius in the hereafter.

Voldemort examined the lock of hair for a moment before turning one last time towards his victim.

"I know that you will miss your son, Narcissa. I am not unsympathetic. Soon, I will assure that he also can be a part of your joyous reunion." He managed a sneering sort of smile, before turning to step back to the cauldron. After sprinkling Narcissa’s hairs evenly over the top of the bubbling, deep-red potion, he stirred it one last time, causing it briefly to foam. Finally the time had arrived. Dipping a long vial into the mixture, he filled it to the rim.

"Wormtail, untie our guest’s feet and help her to stand." Uncoordinated even at his best, Peter awkwardly approached Narcissa, steeling himself for what he imagined would soon occur. With a slash of his wand, the ropes around her ankles fell off, and he slid his silver hand under her shoulder to help her stand. But Narcissa refused to cooperate, forcing Peter to exert himself fully to lift her to her feet. When he eased his grasp, she attempt to collapse to the ground again, but Peter quickly grabbed her again, angrily pulling her forward.

An ugly smile creased Voldemort’s lips as he thoroughly enjoyed Narcissa’s show of defiance. Once Peter brought her fully under control, the dark lord stepped forward, coming to within a foot of her face. In the past, the witch would have averted her eyes subserviently, but now that the end of her life approached, she stared angrily into Voldemort’s red slits.

"You believe yourself a fighter, dear Narcissa," he sneered sarcastically, "but you have never fought for anything in your life. Everything has been handed to you. You have never suffered, you have never had to prove yourself." The sneer left his face, and an expression of pure hatred replaced it. "I have proven myself, dear Narcissa. I have suffered! While you sat in your mansion with your house elves, I suffered. Today, you have learned what it feels like to suffer." He stared into her eyes with an intensity that the pure-blood witch had never experienced, yet she forced herself not to look away.

"Take her to the edge of the wards, Wormtail." Peter slid his right arm under her left shoulder and dragged her across the forest floor to the spot where Voldemort stood a few minutes earlier, just a yard from where Hogwarts’ wards took effect. Suddenly Narcissa froze in place, and when Peter looked back, he saw his master lowering his wand, having just petrified the witch so that she could not fall. "Come, Wormtail. Pour this down her throat." He handed his manservant the vial.

Both wizards approached her, for they knew this would be a two-man job. Voldemort released the spell a moment before grasping both of her arms in his cold, bony fingers, the feel of which caused Narcissa to shiver. Peter removed the gag and held the vial to her mouth, which she closed tightly.

"Open," Peter growled, but Narcissa determinedly refused, turning her head back and forth. Finally, Peter yanked hard on her blond hair, pulling her head back so far that her eyes looked straight into the sky. Her mouth opened involuntarily, and Peter quickly poured the entire vile down her throat, causing her to cough violently. Finally her resolve broke, and after controlling her coughing, she bent forward, placing her hands on her knees. Tears dripped from her eyes directly to the dirt below.

"You will fail," she uttered through her tears, "I have wasted my life following you, Tom Riddle, but now I know you will fail." Peter again grabbed her hair, pulling upward to force her to stand and to stop insulting his master.

From behind her, Voldemort leaned forward, whispering in her ear, "Lord Voldemort does not fail. Rest assured that I will torture Draco for your impertinence."

"Harry Potter will kill you!" she sneered, "Draco will . . . "

Narcissa never spoke another word, for Voldemort placed a silencing charm on her.

"Brave words, dear Narcissa, but you know better. Now say goodbye to this world. Come here, Wormtail." Peter moved the three steps to stand next to his master, immediately behind their victim.

"Our timing must be precise, Wormtail. I will push her into the ward while reciting the incantation. You must kill her with the killing curse as soon as I start. The power of the murder will enhance the power of the potion and incantation. Do you understand?"

Peter stood mutely with his mouth agape. Despite his years of service to the dark lord, he managed never to kill anyone directly. He had tortured when obligated, he had indirectly participated in murderous activities, he had betrayed James and Lily Potter, even caused the death of more than a dozen muggles when escaping from Sirius Black, but never had he directly taken another human being’s life. Though he would never admit it, he took pride in that fact, counting it as the last vestige of humanity remaining in him. Now the dark lord would take even that from him. Yet resistance would be futile; he had no choice.

"I understand, master," he finally whispered. Breathing deeply, he called up all the hatred in his soul and pointed his wand at Narcissa.

Lord Voldemort allowed Peter a few seconds to prepare and then lifted his own wand towards the witch. Closing his eyes, he directed all of his energy into the core of his body, understanding that this incantation required total concentration. This was magic that only few wizards could perform. Opening his eyes again, his red pupils shone especially brightly.

Alma abiertus, asesinata absoluta, aparta anula.

At the first word, Peter shouted with all of his might, "AVADA KEDAVRA."

A red bolt from the wand of Lord Voldemort connected with Narcissa Malfoy just a second before the green bolt of the killing curse made contact. The combination of the two curses caused her to arch her back in pain, her arms flailing upward. She remained in that position until Voldemort finished the incantation. As if kicked in the back by a hippogriff, Narcissa lurched forward into the edge of the wards.

The combination of the potion and incantation, enhanced by the power of murder, forced her body into the invisible wall. Red flames erupted around her body, as Voldemort held the red bolt steady against her. Already dead, Narcissa felt no pain, but her corpse continued to bore into the wards until finally a snap as loud as a sonic boom could be heard throughout the forest. The witch’s lifeless body fell forward onto her face.

Within the waters of the lake, Harry suddenly rolled over uncontrollably several times, arms flailing, as if falling off a broom from a high altitude. After a few seconds, he regained control and brought himself to a stop. For the first time in months, he felt a sensation in his scar, and he knew without doubt that Voldemort had just breached Hogwarts’ wards.

While floating motionlessly, he concentrated on the sensation of his scar. Unlike past occurrences, he felt no pain, only a feeling of warmth. No pain at all.

In fact, it felt good.

Chapter 28: This May Be It for Me
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Chapter 28

This May Be It for Me


"That’s right, Arthur. We need help as soon as possible."

Arthur Weasley’s head shook an inch in either direction as he pondered this new dilemma, the flames in the fireplace of Minerva McGonagall’s office flickering around his thinning red hair. Hermione silently sat in one of the chairs.

After she informed the Headmistress of the situation, McGonagall immediately took steps to contact whomever she could. It took half an hour, but finally Arthur managed to locate a secure fireplace. Rapidly, he attempted to determine how many bodies he could direct to Hogwarts on short notice. Given the secret nature of the Order of the Phoenix, he could not immediately contact a dozen members and have them at the castle within the hour. It would take some time and needed to be managed in a way that would not blow their covers.

"How urgent is this?" Arthur asked, though he knew well enough. Report of You Know Who in the Forbidden Forest apparently attempting to breach Hogwarts’ ward had to qualify as urgent.

"It’s extremely urgent, Mr. Weasley," Hermione interjected, unable to restrain herself, "You Know Who wants something at Hogwarts, and he wants to kill Harry. The Order needs to act as quickly as possible." Arthur could hear the fear in her voice.

"All right," the head in the flames replied, "I’ll see what I can do. It may take a . . . ."

At that moment, a crack echoed in the ample office, still quite loud but clearly emanating from a distance. Arthur heard it as well as the others, causing him to freeze.

"Wait a minute, Arthur," McGonagall ordered as she rushed to open the door of a closet. Hermione saw her head and upper body disappear behind the door, only to reappear a moment later, the blood having left her face. "The wards are down. They’ve been breached." They all paused for a few seconds to allow the ramifications to sink in. "We’re defenseless."

"Get everyone out of the castle who doesn’t need to be there," Arthur ordered decisively, now understanding the true urgency of the crisis, "I’ll get everyone there that we can."

McGonagall rushed out of the office to evacuate the few teachers and staff that remained at Hogwarts, leaving Hermione behind.

"Harry," she whispered to herself, trembling with fear. Realizing that she could accomplish nothing in the Headmistress’ office, she ran out, deciding that she would return to the lakeshore where she expected Evan Harrington to arrive shortly.

Pacing the floor of their dormitory room, Ron fought the desire to return to the lake, swallow a mouthful of gillyweed, and try to find Harry. He knew Harry specifically instructed him not to enter the lake, but by now, Ron accomplished the task assigned to him, contacting Evan Harrington. He HAD to do something.

Cho Chang peaked her head into the room, knocking shyly on the open door. Confined to the Gryffindor common room, Ron’s return from outside shocked her. He literally jumped through the opening into the common room, sprinting past her without even a nod of acknowledgment. He returned alone, meaning that something may have happened to Harry. Finally she could bear the suspense no longer and despite her nerves, climbed the stairs to the boys’ dormitory.

Her knock caused Ron to turn sharply, staring at the intruder harshly at first before relaxing when he realized what happened. Once she knew that Ron saw her, Cho stepped into the room.

"Something’s happened to Harry, hasn’t it?" she asked nervously. Ron did not want to bother speaking with Cho, but he could not act so rudely as to ignore her completely.

"No, he’s OK, at least when I left him. I can’t tell you any more."

Hardly a satisfactory explanation, but Cho knew that she lack the standing to insist any further. At least nothing had happened to Harry yet.

"Is there anything I can do," she asked, though she knew that Ron would refuse.

"No," he answered helplessly, "There’s not much any of us can do now. . . . I have to go." Without another word, he brushed by the witch and descended the stairs, leaving her staring vacantly out the window.

Ron exited the castle a few minutes later, heading for the edge of the lake, where he arrived just a few minutes before Hermione. The tub of gillyweed sat there, tempting him. Hermione found him staring at it.

"You can’t, Ron. Don’t even think about it."

The red head did not respond nor even avert his eyes from the gillyweed.

"Even if you did, you don’t have any idea where he went. You’d be swimming blind. Mr. Harrington will be here soon. Let’s wait for him, and then we can decide." Hermione gazed pleadingly at her friend. Ron nodded, allowing Hermione to breath a sigh of relief. She sat down next to him, neither saying another word.

Peter pulled on Narcissa Malfoy’s shoulder, turning her onto her back, unnecessarily verifying her death. Lord Voldemort, on the other hand, did not give the witch a second thought, instead striding forward beyond the point where the wards held just a minute before. He knew that the lake shore lay only a few hundred yards ahead, and he meant to reach his destination as quickly as possible. The ancient trees in this part of the Forbidden Forest towered over him, preventing much ground vegetation from taking root, thus he encountered little difficulty.

Gazing into Narcissa’s pale face, Peter pursed his lips tightly as the realization sunk in. He had killed. Why this should affect him so severely, he could not explain, since he had committed many terrible acts during his life, some of which led to deaths, both muggle and magical. Of course, he killed a number of muggles when escaping from Sirius Black, but he did not intend to kill them. He only wanted to escape, and their deaths provided the only means. Not the same, Peter had convinced himself, as cold-blooded murder.

Now that he had committed the murder, the tragedy of his life came fully into focus, as if the lens on a camera had not been properly adjusted before. He grew up normally, a short, pudgy, unremarkable child from a pure-blood family. At Hogwarts, he initially and wholeheartedly opposed the rise of the dark lord, buoyed on by the bravery and bravado of his three best mates, James Potter, Remus Lupin, and Sirius Black. But they possessed one trait that he did not. They were willing to die.

Peter lifted his eyes off the corpse and glimpsed the cape of his master among the trees some fifty yards away. I should follow him, he informed himself, but he had not yet been called. Perhaps I can wait here. No such luck.

"Come Wormtail," Voldemort called, barely audibly since he could no longer raise his voice to a shout. Setting aside his self-loathing, Peter walked forward as quickly as his stubby legs would allow, leaving the crumpled body of Narcissa Malfoy behind.

Once out of sight, two centaurs emerged from hiding to observe the woman’s cadaver. Though centaurs did not suffer the death of wizards or witches, their code of conduct prevented them from leaving the body to be eaten by the forest’s less civilized creatures. One of them lifted her limp body onto the back of the other, and the two slowly walked towards the edge of the forest by Hagrid’s cabin. They knew that the big oaf would deal with the corpse.

By the time Peter caught up with his master, Voldemort already stood at the edge of the lake, gazing out over it. They stood at the crook where the main body of water turned into a finger reaching into the forest. From their position, they could only see the top of Hogwarts Castle far away. As customary, Peter remained silent, several paces behind the dark lord. Voldemort moved nary a muscle for ten minutes. Finally he turned towards his servant.

"Take these. I shall return within an hour." Peter received Voldemort’s cloak and shoes, and watched the dark lord step otherwise fully clothed into the lake.

Suddenly, Voldemort waved his wand violently at himself and transfigured his head and neck into those of a large fish, while his feet added webbing. A second later he dove into the lake and disappeared.

Harry flicked his webbed feet casually and continued to move slowly forward, just ten feet below the surface of the lake. He knew that soon his first hour under the effects of gillywood would end, so he decided to stay near the surface, both to make the transition back to air-breathing mammal easier and to survey the bottom of the lake from altitude.

All he "remembered" from absorbing the horcrux contained in Slytherin’s locket was that Hufflepuff’s cup had been hidded in a craggy area, gravelly with a few boulders. No vegetation. Thus he searched for those portions of the lake devoid of greenery. From his vantage point, he could see several possible areas, and his heart sunk as he again realized how long the search could take.

While waiting, he suddenly felt a shockwave race through the water and right through his body. Immediately, he knew that Lord Voldemort had just entered the lake, and after waiting a few moments, he could sense his direction. Despite not having regained his human lungs, Harry shot to the surface and broke through like a fish jumping at a fly. For the brief moment above the water, he turned all the way around to determine his location. Just before reentering the water, he glimpsed Hogwarts Castle behind him and a good distance away. Thus he determined that Voldemort entered the water from the far end of the lake.

Suddenly, Harry realized he no longer needed to worry about locating Hufflepuff’s cup. Obviously Voldemort would enter this lake for one purpose only - to secure the cup. Tom Riddle would lead him right to it. The fact that he would have to confront the dark lord did not bother him in the least.

Hurry up!
he grumbled to himself, wanting the transformation to occur so that he could consume the next serving of gillyweed. He continued to wait, sensing Voldemort’s location. He was moving in Harry’s direction.

"So Harry is in the water, Voldemort was seen in the forest, and the wards around Hogwarts have just fallen."

Hermione and Ron nodded their agreement with Evan Harrington’s brief synopsis of recent events. Evan paced back and forth vigorously, running an excited hand though his sandy hair while he attempted to synthesize the information.

"We’ve already determined that Voldemort wants to protect the remaining horcruxes," he thought aloud, "By now, he knows that the locket is gone and presumably destroyed. Of course, he already knew about the diary, and he probably knows about the ring. Nagini is by his side, which only leaves the trophy and the cup. He can’t know about the trophy, but he must be worried about it. So first he’s going to collect the cup; then he’ll try to enter the castle for the trophy."

"And he wants to kill Harry," Hermione emphasized, for this aspect of the crisis had taken on much greater importance to her, "He won’t back down, Mr. Harrington. You should have seen him when he heard. He WANTS to fight him. What can we do?"

Evan grimaced at Hermione’s words. Aurors are trained, of course, to place the cause over the individual, but in this case, he had a difficult time separating the two. In a real sense, the cause was Harry. Without him, the destruction of the remaining horcruxes became exponentially more difficult, if not impossible. But Harry could absorb them like a sponge, easy as that.

"I’m going in," he decided, "though I don’t know what good it will do. By the time I find him, if I find him, it may be too late. Voldemort probably is already in there. All we can do is hope. You two need to stay out of the lake! Harry was right. You’d just be a distraction to him. He doesn’t love me like he loves you, and I don’t love him like you do. He and I can work together without those complications." Evan stared at them severely, and Harry’s two friends looked down to their feet.

Taking off his shirt, he stuffed extra gillyweed into the pouch tied around his waist and then grabbed another handful. After wading into the lake up to his waist, he turned around to face the silent pair one last time.

"I’ll do my best. Harry’s luck has held so far." They watched him eat the gillyweed and dive out of sight.

Not only Harry felt the shockwave that passed through the lake when Voldemort first dove into the water. Fishes, both magical and not, swam in the opposite direction. The giant squid dove deep into the lake’s most forbidding recesses. Grindylows hunkered down in their burrows, leaving their hunting for a later time. Merpeople scurried around their village, most retreating into their stone dwellings, but several elders and warriors met in their leader’s residence.

Harry tread water at the surface of the lake, inhaling large quantities of air as he waited for the transformation back to his normal self to finish. He remembered Evan’s instructions that he could not consume more gillyweed until he could speak, and that moment had not yet arrived. He anxiously waited, primarily to be able to continue his search, but also because he swam poorly in his human form, having never received lessons, and found treading water to be difficult, often having to give an extra kick to keep his mouth from dropping beneath the surface.

Through it all, he could feel Voldemort. Fortunately, the dark lord continued to move along the far shore of the lake, away from the Hogwarts side, coming closer to Harry’s position all the time. He wondered if Voldemort could feel him.

Finally, he felt his throat develop a bulge, and Harry tested his voice, "One, two, three." Satisfied, he reached into his pouch to grab another handful of gillyweed, but before placing it into his mouth, he rotated in the water to face the castle, taking a long look at it. Despite his lack of glasses, he could see the huge structure well enough, and he thought he had never seen it look so beautiful as from this angle, just above the surface of the lake. Some movement in front of the castle, closer to the lake, caught his eye, and though he could not focus his eyes without his glasses, he could see a blur of red and a blur of brown. Ron and Hermione. Though pleased that they remained safe on the shore, he felt a lump in his throat that they were not out in the lake with him.

Hermione’s eyes reappeared in his mind. Floating in the middle of the lake, for some reason, made them easier to interpret. Love filled those eyes. Not just worry and anxiety; Harry had seen those expressions before. No. The difference in those eyes was love. And Harry realized that he felt it too. From the moment they first embraced in the back room of her parents’ dental office, he felt a difference in them, but with everything happening all at once, he could not sort it out in his mind. Suddenly, seeing her blurry image from the middle of the freezing lake sorted his mind perfectly. The lump in his throat grew, as he worried about her on the shore, worrying about him.

"I’m coming back," he said aloud, as if speaking to her, and he quickly stuffed the new handful of gillyweed into his mouth. The uncomfortably cold water suddenly felt fine, and Harry dove back in, pausing briefly to gauge Voldemort’s current location, and more importantly his direction. Harry shot off as fast as he could, aiming at a spot ahead of Voldemort, attempting to cut off the angle.

This is it,
he thought, I’m ready.

Swimming as rapidly as his webbed feet and hands would take him, Evan aimed for a portion of the lake that Harry and he had not covered yesterday. That improved his odds a little, but the lake seemed so vast when in the middle of it. Something seemed strange as he sliced through the water, different from yesterday, yet he could see nothing specific.

Of course, there’s nothing,
he realized, no fish, not even the tiny minnows that occupied almost all parts of the lake the day before. He turned his head back and forth as he sped along, when instinctively he banked hard to the left. His peripheral vision caught movement of some sort, and his body automatically followed it. Sure enough, in a few seconds, he could note something moving far ahead. It did not seem like a large fish or move like a giant squid. No, it had to be Harry or Voldemort. One way or the other, Evan intended to follow it.

What he would do when he found whichever of them it may be, he had not decided. Though a talented auror, he knew better than to believe that he could defeat Lord Voldemort in a duel. The goal, he reminded himself, was to allow Harry to obtain the horcrux and to escape alive and hopefully unharmed. In this war, Evan was expendable so long as he served his purpose.

This may be it for me,
he realized as he swam after the moving figure. He held back as far as he could while still able to track the movement in the distance, staying low to the lake floor. He thought of his mother and father, his third girlfriend (the only one that he almost married), and, to his surprise, Michelle Goldsmith. Maybe she was the one, he mused,  Now I may never know.

How did I ever get to this point?
Peter asked himself. Realizing that his master would take an hour or so to return, he sat down near the lake, leaning his back against the trunk of a large tree. I used to be a decent person. James and Sirius used to earn detentions, but Peter tended more along the lines of Remus, generally not causing problems unless dragged along by the others. He received a few detentions that way, and they were worth every minute.

I threw it all away,
he reminded himself, The only friends I ever had. He had convinced himself that it all occurred due to his lack of courage. The sorting hat must have made a mistake, he often argued with himself; he should have been sorted into Slytherin. But as he meditated with his eyes closed, almost asleep, he knew the real reason. He cared about himself first, not his friends. They sacrificed themselves for others; Peter sacrificed them for himself.

A second later, he found himself six feet off the ground with a gigantic hand squeezing the life out of his neck.

"CAUGHT YEH, YEH RUDDY COWARD," boomed Hagrid’s voice, nearly snapping Peter’s neck with his massive right hand, "Don’ even think o’ turnin’ into a rat, o’ I’ll crush every bone in yer bloody body. Yeh deserve no less."

Unable to breathe, Peter could not respond, and the half giant carried him off through the forest at breakneck speed as if he were a duck he had just shot out of the sky.


Given his current predicament, those options did not seem so undesirable to Peter, who finally regained enough composure to reach for his wand. He did not find it and realized to his dismay that it must have fallen when Hagrid first grabbed him. Perhaps he could apparate, he thought, but Hagrid seemed to read his mind.

"AND DON’ YEH THINK ‘BOUT APPARATIN’, YEH RAT, ‘CAUSE IF YEH SO MUCH AS TURN AN INCH, I’LL CRACK YER NECK AND PULL YER HEAD OFF." Given the intense pressure on his neck, Peter did not doubt Hagrid’s sincerity.

When a half giant walks quickly, he can cover a lot of territory in a short time, and before Peter fully appreciated his dilemma, he passed Hagrid’s cabin and moved up the steep slope to Hogwarts, a place he had not visited in his human form since his graduation decades before. He saw several people rushing quickly towards the front gate, apparently fleeing the grounds. In the other direction, he saw several wizards rushing up the hill towards the castle, no doubt in an attempt to protect it. At first he failed to recognize any of them, but gradually he recognized the gait of an old friend.

Remus Lupin and the other Order members with him could not help but notice the huge man storming up the hill with his hand wrapped around the neck of a man. Motioning the others to continue on, Remus veered off to meet Hagrid. Underestimating the half giant’s speed, Remus soon determined that he needed to jog to catch up.

"Hagrid," he called from a distance, "Slow up a second. Who do you have?"

Peter’s feet spun in the air as Hagrid turned towards the voice, not having noticed the men before. He quickly recognized Remus and came to a stop to allow the werewolf to catch up. At fifty yards, Remus thought he recognized the prisoner, and at thirty yards he knew. Slowly he covered the final steps, no longer paying Hagrid any attention. His eyes bored into the eyes of the man who used to be his best friend.

"The centaurs told me that a man that came with Yeh Know Who sat by the lake, so I went over to look. Saw this rat sleepin’ 'gainst a tree."

Remus barely heard Hagrid’s loud words. Rage filled him from head to toe at the sight of the man. The man who betrayed their best friends, who sent another best friend to Azkaban for a crime that he in fact committed, who served a master of pure evil. Quickly he removed his wand and flicked it twice, silently placing spells on Peter to prevent apparation and conversion into an animagus form. Remus knew that normally apparation in Hogwarts was impossible, but given recent events, he could not be sure. He stepped forward again to stare directly at his old friend.

"We’re going to take you up to the castle, Peter," he hissed threateningly, "We’re going to question you and find out what we can. Then I’m going to kill . . . you . . . with . . . my . . . own . . . two . . . hands." He slowed down his speech to ensure that Peter believed every word.

Peter realized that for all intents and purposes, his life had ended. Miraculously he escaped Sirius and Remus a few years before in the Shrieking Shack. Miracles do not repeat themselves. Though frightened, Peter found himself surprisingly calm. At least he not longer had to answer to the dark lord. I am a murderer now, he thought, I deserve to die. Remus has every right to finish me off. Remus turned away, renewing his climb to the castle, and Hagrid followed suit, his huge stride soon moving him ahead.

"Take him to the dungeon, Hagrid," Remus ordered, "I’ll check it to make sure he can’t escape."

After five minutes of swimming, the sensation Harry felt started to confuse him. He seemed to feel two pulls on him, not just one. Before long, he understood. He felt the horcrux as well as Voldemort. Maybe he could arrive first.

Turning to the left, he kicked his webbed feet and thrust his hands back, diving directly for the pull of the horcrux. Voldemort now felt it too, but he could not feel Harry, not having the advantage of his scar. Two hundred yards behind, Evan could see the entire scene unfold. Voldemort, whom he had followed, came from the right at an even pace. Harry, whom he had just spotted, dove down at twice the speed from the left, both headed for the same spot, an uneven rocky area with a few large boulders.

Back on the shore, Ron paced incessantly, driving Hermione crazy. She sat on the boulder, alternately searching over the surface of the lake for a sign of Harry and watching Ron’s nervous movements. Neither spoke a word for nearly an hour. Finally Ron could stand it no further.

"I’m going in," he abruptly informed her, "I can’t stay here any longer. I’ll go mad." By the time he finished speaking, he had ripped off his shirt, kicked off his shoes, and grabbed a handful of gillyweed.

"It’s too late, Ron!" Hermione shouted, jumping to her feet, "You’ll never find him!"

Ron did not answer because gillyweed filled his mouth. Seconds later, the gills formed in his neck, and he dove into the water. Hermione stood a foot from the lake’s edge, watching him disappear.

A moment later, she flung her own shoes away and grabbed a handful of gillyweed.

Chapter 29: Ron Saw Us
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Chapter 29

Ron Saw Us


Michelle Goldsmith and a few others made up the only Daily Prophet employees remaining in their Scottish hideout. They returned from their new location to rescue the supplies remaining, but within a minute of their return, they heard noises. Their designated leader, a former auror, quickly ascertained that the Ministry’s forces already entered the building.

"Quick, quick," he ordered, each of them grabbing what few items they could. The ex-auror stood guard, his wand outstretched. "Go, go!" One by one, Michelle and the others disappeared with a crack.

"In there! I heard something in there," the ex-auror heard from down the hall. Gritting his teeth, he accepted that he would have to abandon the remaining supplies. At least, they succeeded in moving the most important material and equipment. He twisted and disappeared.

The door burst open from a spell, and four aurors rushed into the room just as the echo from the final apparation crack faded away. Two of them automatically cast stunning spells, which harmlessly struck the opposite wall. They quickly checked the room for anyone left behind, but soon they realized that the newspaper had escaped again.

"BLAST IT!" yelled one of the aurors, the squad leader. In a fit of anger, he grasped a work table full of parchment, ink, quills and other supplies, and threw it against the wall.

Hermione swam as fast as she could, trying to catch up with Ron, but the taller, more athletic boy continued to pull away from her. Nevertheless, she remained within sight of him, and did her best not to fall too far behind. As far as she could tell, Ron had no plan in mind but simply swam as fast as he could. From time to time, she tried to look side to side, but she feared taking her eyes off Ron in case he turned suddenly, and she lost sight of him.

Ron never looked back and had no idea that Hermione followed him. Under the effects of the gillyweed, he swam faster than he ever thought possible, looking back and forth for any sign of movement. He remained just twenty feet below the surface so that he could see as much of the lake as possible, but even so, he realized how much territory he would have to cover. The thought merely caused him to pick up his pace.

Little did he know that fortune would smile on him. From the corner of his left eye, he noticed a flash of light. Coming to a stop, he stared in that direction, and sure enough he saw two more flashes, and then two more. They looked like spells; they had to be spells. He turned and dove as fast as he could, keeping his eyes on the continuing flashes.

Hermione saw them too, at almost the same moment as Ron, and she dove in the same direction, at a diagonal angle to Ron, the two friends virtually equidistant from the battle waging far below and to the left.

A minute before, Harry neared the rocky bottom of the lake, his wand at the ready and his senses focused both on the horcrux and Voldemort. Protected by a ledge, Voldemort could not yet see him, but Evan from his vantage could see both. Voldemort did not yet sense any danger and continued to swim at a normal pace. Evan kicked forward, just inches above the lake floor, trying to remain hidden from the dark lord. I may only have one chance.

Harry felt Voldemort approaching but he could not pinpoint Hufflepuff’s cup. After a few seconds, he decided to retreat into a shallow cave carved into the mottled brown rocks. I’ll let Voldemort find it for me, he decided. Unable to see well, he pulled his glasses out of the pocket of his swimming trunks and put them on. For a moment, everything remained blurry before coming into focus, and Harry knew that his eyes must have glowed again. He pushed his back flat against the cave wall, his heart pounding in anticipation.

Voldemort appeared from over the ledge, Harry looking almost directly up at him. Though tempted to throw a curse at him immediately, Harry knew he had to wait. Find the horcrux first, then worry about Tom. The dark lord slowly settled down to the bottom, his red eyes glancing back and forth from his transfigured fish head.

As he settled down to the lake bottom, something did not feel right to him, and he turned all the way around. Almost at the end of his revolution, he caught a glimpse of Evan Harrington hovering a few inches above the rocky bottom.

Petrificus totalus,
thought Voldemort, and a streak of light passed though the water towards the auror, impeded by the density of the water. As a result, Evan had plenty of time to avoid the long-range spell.

Bloody hell,
Evan cursed to himself at the realization that his cover had been blown. Instinctively, he cast a stunner back at Voldemort, though he knew it had no chance of reaching its target.

Harry could see the reflection of the two spells, and he carefully emerged from his cave, at first seeing the back of Lord Voldemort and then the figure of a man in the distance. He knew that the man must be Evan Harrington.

thought Harry, excited that he could cast the first spell at Voldemort with his back turned, but Harry learned again why Lord Voldemort was not an average wizard. Seemingly sensing Harry’s spell before he even cast it, the dark lord flicked his wand to the thought of protego, and Harry’s spell glanced off the shield harmlessly.

The battle begun, Evan saw no need for finesse, and he cast two more spells rapidly as he swam forward in a zig zag fashion. Voldemort jumped backwards to avoid those spells, only to have to erect another shield to block a new barrage of spells by Harry. Evan cast another of his own, trying his best to keep Voldemort occupied and unable to retaliate.

The unexpected ambush in fact kept Voldemort from responding in kind, but only for a few moments. As his enemies moved to cast new spells, he turned and darted more quickly than Harry thought possible, stopping suddenly about twenty feet behind Harry. The dark lord hesitated a moment to turn and then thrust his wand towards Harry. Unable to speak, he could not throw any of the unforgivable curses, which all required more power than an unspoken spell could muster, especially underwater. Instead, Voldemort resorted to one of his own creations, rayatio, which sent a pair of yellow lightning bolts through the water as if it were air. If it hit its mark, the victim would suffer a severe shock which would immobilize him for a minute at least. Or in this case, for the rest of his life.

In that moment of hesitation, however, Harry felt Voldemort behind him and instinctively dove down and rolled to the right. Voldemort cursed to himself when the spell narrowly missed its target, cracking a large boulder fifty feet behind Harry. I could feel it before he even threw it, Harry realized, and instantly he now understood how Voldemort and Dumbledore could duel so magnificently. They both possessed that extra sense warning them of a spell before the caster even threw it.

Emboldened, Harry cast more spells, as did Evan, and again Voldemort needed to erect a shield to fend off the new attacks. Wishing to concentrate on Potter, the dark lord began to consider Evan a nuisance. He decided to rid himself of the auror before turning his attention back to Harry. Again bolting away, Voldemort zigzagged upwards at a tremendous pace. Harry tried to chase after him, but he quickly learned that Voldemort’s self-transfiguration, extremely advanced magic beyond the capability of virtually all wizards, allowed him to move much more rapidly than Harry could through gillyweed.

Unable to sense Voldemort the way Harry could, Evan nevertheless had the sense to erect a shield the moment Voldemort dashed off, and when Voldemort suddenly stopped and sent the rayatio spell his way, it bounced off of the shield violently. The force of the spell, however, knocked Evan off balance, and he could not keep the shield up. Another quick rayatio from Voldemort hit him and knocked him silly. He turned on his side and floated slowly to the gravelly lake bottom.

He had not been knocked unconscious, however, as apparently the unspoken nature of the spell, combined with the density of the water, prevented its full effect. Nevertheless, he could not move, and helplessly watched in a daze as the dark lord turned his attention to Harry Potter.

Hagrid unceremoniously dropped Peter Pettigrew into a small, dingy cell in the dungeons of Hogwarts castle. Peter crumpled to the hard, stone floor, rubbing his sore neck with his real hand. Remus stood at the door of the tiny cell, and after allowing Hagrid to exit, slammed the iron bars shut.

"If yeh don’ want to kill the rat yerself, jus’ let me know," the half giant growled, "I can think o’ a dozen things t’ do with him."

Remus did not reply to Hagrid’s threats, instead observing his old friend, now trembling slightly with fear.

"I’m not going to kill you yet, Peter," the werewolf informed him. Remus by now had regained his normal calm, for the moment repressing his anger. "The Order will need to question you. I have a few for you right now. Where’s Voldemort, and what is he doing?"

Up to this moment, Peter had not spoken a word since Hagrid’s massive hand grabbed his neck. Now he faced the dilemma of either betraying his master, whom he hated but feared, or resisting the Order of the Phoenix’s questioning. Of course, resistance would be futile anyway, as assuredly he would be given veritaserum at some point, and he knew that he lacked the ability to lie under the influence of that powerful truth serum. The fact that Remus would kill him anyway made the decision that much easier. At least Remus would kill him humanely; Peter saw first hand how the dark lord tortured Severus Snape.

"He’s in the lake, looking for something. I don’t know what." Though he tried to act bravely, his voice shook through his false calm. Remus knew him well, and could see how vulnerable he felt.

"Is anyone with him?"

"No, only me, and he left me on the shore." Peter pulled himself to the wall of the cell, and leaned against it. Other than a small bare platform on which to sleep, the cell was empty.

"Where is your headquarters now?"

"We move every few days. Today we are in an old manor in Scotland, but I have no idea where it is or what it’s called. We move so often that I don’t care any more." He spoke in a nervous but defeated monotone. Remus knew him well enough to know that he told the truth.

"How did Voldemort overcome the wards?"

"How? I can’t explain it, but I can tell you what he did. He brewed a potion, gave it to Narcissa Malfoy, pushed her into the edge of the wards, recited an incantation. Then he killed her. Said the power of the murder would strengthen the spell." Peter almost admitted to the murder himself, but at the last second decided to blame it on the dark lord. After all, ultimately all the responsibility lay with him.

"She’s dead, al’ right," Hagrid confirmed, "Couple o’ centaurs brought her body t’ me, t’ bury her. They wouldn’ leave her out in the forest. "Tha’s when I heard about the rat here."

"Narcissa? Dead?" Remus’ eyes widened at the news, and he immediately thought about Draco Malfoy, still imprisoned by the Order, which frankly did not know what to do with him. He would have to view her corpse and pass on this information; it could perhaps be put to good use. Turning his eyes back to Peter, who glumly stared at the stone floor, Remus decided he had heard enough for the moment.

"It’s all over now, Peter. Think what you could have been. A wasted life."

"A bloody coward!" Hagrid added for good measure, and he followed Remus out of the dungeons.

Voldemort turned away from the sinking Evan Harrington to again engage with Harry, but to his surprise, Harry no longer remained where he left him. Looking left and right, Voldemort saw nothing. Thinking that Harry may have swung to the other side, Voldemort spun around to check behind him. At that very moment, Harry dove down from above him and at full speed plowed into his back, knocking the dark lord off his feet.

Stunned by the physical assault, virtually unheard of among wizards, Voldemort tried to regain his balance in the water, but Harry jumped on him instantly, wrapping both arms around his stomach and squeezing as hard as he could. Voldemort flailed his arms, his wand still held by his right hand, but Harry held tight and jumped twice towards the rock wall, pulling Voldemort with him. Placing his shoulder into Voldemort’s back, he thrust the dark lord into the wall, trying to smash his fish head against the sharp rocks. Voldemort managed to keep his head away from the wall, but his left shoulder hit against it hard, drawing blood. Harry thrust again and again until finally Voldemort managed to squirm free, his shoulder in terrible pain, probably broken.

Beyond rage, Voldemort whirled around to attack with his wand, when he needed to react immediately to block a spell from the wand of Evan Harrington, who had recovered sufficiently to give Harry some cover. The younger wizard pointed his wand again, when to the complete surprise of all three combatants, spells rained down on Voldemort from above right and above left. Looking up, Harry and Evan saw Ron and Hermione attacking Voldemort from different directions.

Harry’s friends had witnessed the last couple of minutes of the confrontation, and actually tried to cast spells a minute earlier when Harry’s situation appeared dire; however, they had not received lessons from Evan Harrington regarding underwater spells. In the common room the night before, Harry briefly explained the technique to them, pointing to the exact spot on his abdomen where he concentrated. After a number of failed attempts, through sheer determination they managed to produce a couple of weak spells, unnoticed by the other combatants. Once they learned the feel, casting more powerful spells quickly became possible.

Heartened by the reinforcements, Harry and Evan continued their own assault on the dark lord, who suddenly found himself surrounded. He turned and darted away, but when he stopped to Harry’s left, Ron and Hermione already sent spells down that forced Voldemort to resort to defensive shields. Harry turned, fury in his face, and for the first time Voldemort saw the young wizard’s eyes glow green.

He dove towards his nemesis while thinking reducto, pointing a few feet in front of Voldemort. Rubble burst into the water, throwing the dark lord backwards and temporarily out of control. Evan took the opportunity and cast a stinging spell which he figured would cause enough pain to allow the four allies to attack again. The thin blue line just nicked its target in the calf, causing Voldemort to jerk again from the pain. Ron and Hermione rained more stunners down from above, but at their distance and with Voldemort tumbling unpredictably, the spells missed.

Harry charged forward with his wand thrust out in front, ready to attack again as soon as the water cleared. Voldemort meanwhile struck his fish head against a rock wall, which now joined his shoulder in pain. Frustrated at the limitations imposed by the water and the unexpected four on one odds, he attempted to devise a new strategy, but Evan and Harry determined not to allow him a moment to think, sending two more spells. Harry’s cutting spell hit Voldemort’s right forearm squarely, slicing into the dark lord’s flesh and almost causing his wand to fall. Just as he grabbed at it, Evan’s petrificus totalus hit his already injured left shoulder. The water diminished the effectiveness of the spell, but the dark lord felt a little sluggish, and pain radiated through his body. A weak stunner from Ron hit him in the back, further intensifying the pain and disability.

Voldemort realized that he could not continue. Rapidly he determined that Harry had not yet found Hufflepuff’s cup, and he would be unlikely to be able to locate it easily. Better to retreat now and then return later to collect the cup. Just as a new volley of spells from four directions bore down on him, he found the energy to shoot directly upwards, avoiding all of them. Harry gasped internally as he realized that Hermione and Ron could be placed in danger, and he shot after Voldemort continuing to fire stunning spells as quickly as he could, joined by Evan. A couple of them struck their target, further forcing the dark lord to flee as rapidly as possible. Finally Harry pulled up, satisfied that his friends no longer floated in a danger zone.

The four remaining wizards and witch, hovered motionless for a full minute, watching Voldemort disappear in the murky water, but expecting his return at any moment. Finally, Harry carefully swam back to where he felt the horcrux, while Ron, Hermione and Evan followed behind. Taking charge, Evan pointed for Ron to stand guard to the far right, Hermione to the left, with Evan taking the center.

Without Voldemort’s presence confusing his senses, Harry could feel the horcrux more easily but could not pinpoint its location. He concentrated with all his power, lines forming in his face, but still he could not narrow down the sensation. He turned around and saw the back of Hermione, her wand pointed in preparation for any attack. The sight of her snapped him out of his concentration, and suddenly he wanted to be with her more than anything in the world. He almost forgot about the horcrux all together.

he told himself, Just let it happen. The lines on his face disappeared and the tension left his muscles. Returning to the rocky bottom of the lake, Harry floated along, feeling just as he did when walking among the trophies in the castle. As he meandered by a large boulder, he suddenly knew that Hufflepuff’s cup rested inside of it. Spreading out his arms, he placed both hands of the boulder, and became fully convinced.

He turned to look at Hermione again and quickly swam to her, touching her shoulder. She turned to look at him, and briefly their eyes met. He stood stunned for a moment, but finally he remembered why he came, motioning for her to move away. He pointed at the boulder and made an exploding motion with his hands. Hermione understood that he intended to use the reducto spell to smash the boulder into bits. She nodded and swam away, motioning for Evan and Ron to do likewise.

thought Harry, and the light from his wand squarely hit the boulder, bouncing off it harmlessly, as if Harry merely threw a rubber ball at it. He knew that Voldemort would have strengthened the boulder, and that he would need tremendous power to overcome it, but he also maintained supreme confidence that he possessed sufficient power. He tried again, and merely caused a few small chips of rock to fall to the lake floor. Realizing he needed much more power, Harry focused and directly from his gut again concentrated on the word, reducto. Holding the spell for minutes, the boulder little by little broke into chucks, creating a large mound of debris on the lake bed and a cloud of tiny particles floating slowing with the almost imperceptible current in the lake. Finally, as the bolt of light reached the middle of the huge rock, the light reflected off of metal. Harry lifted his wand and fell to a knee from exhaustion, bowing his head almost too his knees.

Hermione quickly swam to his side and placed her arm around his back, allowing him to catch his breath, so to speak, though he could only breath water rather than air. After a minute, she slid an arm under Harry’s shoulder, helping him off the lake bed. Ron and Evan already hovered over the cup, though the auror kept looking in all directions. Together, Harry and Hermione floated over to the large silver cup which Harry managed to dislodge with a little effort, rocking it back and forth before it broke free. He reached out his left hand to grasp the intricately carved handle, lifting it up for all four of them to see. Again his eyes met hers, and Harry felt his face try to smile, though due to the gillyweed, his lips barely moved. Pointing with his wand, he indicated that they should swim back to shore. Evan and Ron joined them, and the four pushed off towards the surface. Evan swam slowly as a result of Voldemort’s spell, and Ron hung back to accompany him.

Half way up, Harry felt the transformation back to his normal mammal begin, and he picked up the pace, since he remained nearly one hundred feet below the surface. Hermione realized Harry’s predicament, and as his feet and hands lost their webbing, he slowed down, and her heart filled with fear that he might not reach the surface in time. She shot forward and grabbed his arm, pulling him rapidly upwards. Just as Harry felt that he had to take a breath of fresh air, the two of them broke through the surface. Harry gasped in oxygen while Hermione returned to her temporary habitat in the lake.

Harry inhaled deeply several more times before he finally convinced himself that he made it. Lifting the cup out of the water, he smiled and began slowly to kick his feet to swim back to the shore, which he realized still lay a good distance away. Without warning, he felt Hermione’s hand grab his, and she pulled him along, as she had not yet lost her gills and webs. Harry appreciated the tow, and he turned over onto his back to keep his mouth above the water. After a couple of minutes, he realized that only a little over one hundred yards remained when Hermione let go of his hand. A moment later, her head emerged, and she took her first breath of air.

Wrapping an arm around her, Harry helped to prop her up, while she finished the final few seconds of her transformation. Finally she relaxed from the anxiety of experiencing that sensation for the first time, and she turned face to face to Harry. They smiled at each other, but said nothing. Hermione wrapped both her arms around Harry, and the two friends pulled each other close, kicking hard enough to stay above the water. Their eyes met.

Without a word, their faces moved forward, and their lips met in a kiss as spontaneous as Harry’s first kiss with Ginny, though quite a bit wetter. They let the moment linger, briefly parting before renewing the kiss. They momentarily forgot to kick, caught up in the moment, and they both slipped awkwardly below the surface, their lips losing contact. A moment later they resurfaced, chuckling at themselves. Finally the realization of what they had done hit them, and their faces parted a few inches to allow them to examine each other for any signs of regret. They saw none.

"Harry," Hermione finally whispered, "You did it."

"WE did it," he answered softly, "Like we always do." They kissed again.

Some thirty yards away, Ron and Evan watched. Ron stared emotionlessly for a minute, and Evan could sense the tension as the young wizard seemed to undertake an internal struggle. The auror found it difficult to swim from the pain of Voldemort’s spell, but he gamely raised his arm in an attempt to move forward. Ron noticed, and sighing deeply, kicked his feet.

"Let me help, Mr. Harrington," he offered, pulling Evan the last few yards to the shore. Ron lifted him to his feet and helped him to collapse a few feet away from the water’s edge. Evan lay on his back, finally allowing himself to relax. Ron turned back to the water and saw Harry and Hermione embracing again, only this time a little closer to shore. Apparently they could not swim the whole hundred yards without another snogging session, he thought, as he turned away.

Yes, he accepted that Hermione preferred Harry to him, that the two were more suited to each other, but he still had no desire to watch. With his wand, he conjured two towels, handing one to Evan, who merely clutched it to his chest. Ron dried himself with his back to the lake so that he could avoid any further demonstrations of his friends’ affections. Soon he heard the two of them walking though the last few feet of shallow water. He allowed himself to turn around, where he saw Harry pulling Hermione out by her hand, water dripping off of them and embarrassed smiles on their faces. Hufflepuff’s cup dangled from Harry’s other hand. Ron conjured two more towels.

"Thanks mate," Harry murmured, realizing for the first time that Ron must have watched the show in the lake. With Hufflepuff’s cup now held firmly in his left hand, Harry decided to keep the topic on business. "You shouldn’t have come," he scolded Ron with a smile, "That was really stupid. Like something I would do."

Ron smiled and retorted, "I learned from the best. Let’s help Mr. Harrington; we should move him to the hospital wing. Maybe Madam Pomfrey can help him."

"No need," Evan interrupted while recuperating on the shore, "I’ll be fine; I’ve been worse off plenty of times. Lucky we were under water, or Voldemort would have finished me off. He couldn’t use the killing curse without being able to speak."

Hermione toweled off her face and hair, and Harry and she again locked eyes, suddenly oblivious to the rest of the civilized world. Ron and Evan realized that the two lovebirds would prefer to be alone, so the auror attempted to roll onto his side in order to stand. Ron helped lift him, and the two men slowly walked towards the castle. Harry and Hermione watched them for a minute.

"Ron saw us," Harry realized quietly, worry in his voice.

"He knows. He already knew," Hermione assured him with a smile, "Ginny too. They both knew before we did." Harry turned towards her, his green eyes wide with astonishment.

"They knew? Ginny too?" He shook his head in response to Hermione’s nod. After allowing the news to sink in, he smiled and added, "Well, I have an excuse. I’m a clueless boy. But what about you?"

"Girls can be clueless too," she responded indignantly, but her facade cracked immediately, and her smile returned. Harry thought he had never seen anything more beautiful. The two wet teens embraced again.

"Do you think Ron will be OK?" a clearly worried Harry asked quietly into her ear, "He’s my best mate."

"He’ll be fine. Talk to him about it. I’m sure he’ll be fine."

They kissed briefly again, but being on land rather than in the water caused them to feel more self conscious, and they silently agreed to resume their amorous activities at a later time, indoors. They released each other and finally realized that they remained soaked to the bone.

"Could you do a drying spell on me, Harry," Hermione asked, "I’m feeling chilled from the breeze." She smiled lovingly.

For the first time, Harry noticed that Hermione’s thin blue sleeveless blouse clung tightly to her body, as did her shorts to a lesser degree. He smiled evilly.

"I don’t think I know that spell," he answered, looking her up and down, "Must have fallen asleep in that class."

Hermione smiled coyly at the realization that Harry Potter, of all people, was checking her out. She waved her wand down and to the left with a small hook at the end.

"That’s the wand movement," she explained as if teaching a first year, "and the spell is secarius."

"OK, let me try," Harry agreed, "Secarius." He waved the wand just as Hermione instructed, but somehow he "missed" the target. "I think it’s too hard of a spell for me. Sorry." Hermione could barely contain her laughter at Harry’s bald-faced lie and his guilty grin.

"Fine!" she replied with false indignation, "I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then." She turned on her heels and stomped off towards the castle. After three steps, her clothes and hair magically dried. She turned around to see Harry’s wand pointed at her, a huge smile on his face. She waved her wand to return the favor. Now both completely dry, Harry approached her and took her hand.

"That’s blackmail," he complained as they walked towards the castle. Hermione smirked.

"It worked, didn’t it?"

Chapter 30: Is It Too Late to Save You?
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Chapter 30

Is It Too Late to Save You?


As Harry walked back into the castle, hand in hand with Hermione, the momentous events of the past few hours started to sink in. He battled Lord Voldemort under the surface of the lake, more or less holding his own. He found Hufflepuff’s cup and managed to free it from its protections. None of these accomplishments surprised Harry in the least, as he entered the water fully expecting to succeed.

But later he kissed Hermione. While still in the lake. Several times. Passionately. This astonished him, and when he looked down at her hand in his, he had to raise his eyes to her face to confirm that in fact Hermione Granger walked next to him, not Ginny Weasley or even Melissa Montgomery.

Hermione felt equal parts exhilaration and bewilderment. She never intended to kiss Harry like that, not in the lake. Something inside argued that she should have waited, that the right time had not yet arrived. Everything seemed to be moving too quickly - the horcruxes, facing Lord Voldemort, kissing Harry, apparently becoming his girlfriend.

But she would not have changed a thing, and deep down she knew that she would never enjoy a moment like that again, when both Harry and she allowed their emotions to show, pure and unadulterated.

Out of habit, they walked towards the common room when Harry realized that he still held the cup in his hands.

"Cho is in the common room," he noted, "I don’t think she should know about this."

Hermione nodded her head in agreement, suggesting, "Why don’t you wrap the towel around it, and then you can take it to your room."

Harry agreed but added, "I don’t want to go there yet. Let’s go somewhere we can talk."

That somewhere ended up being Professor Flitwick’s Charms classroom, which happened to be on their way. Normally cluttered with cushions, feathers, and other practice items, it seemed too sterile in its summer status, yet Harry enjoyed its ambiance nonetheless. It brought back years of memories, and for one of the first times in his life, he felt nostalgic. They sat next to each other in an ancient two-seater wooden desk. The fingers of Harry’s right hand entwined with the fingers of Hermione’s left hand, and the two friends sat silently, each waiting for the other to speak.

"I wasn’t expecting that to happen," Harry finally admitted quietly, and Hermione knew that he referred to the kissing in the lake.

"Neither did I," she agreed, "but I’m not sorry. Are you?"

Harry smiled, "Not a chance!" They smiled at each other, but looked away from embarrassment. After a short silence, Harry asked, "Are you sure Ron will be OK about this? I mean, I still thought that the two of you . . . ."

"We talked about it yesterday, while you were in the lake. He realizes that we aren’t right for each other. Like I said before, you should talk to him about it. I don’t want to put words in his mouth. He actually figured out his feelings better than I did, amazing as that sounds." She sounded both amused and embarrassed that a brute like Ron could be more in touch with those feelings than she. "I think I never let myself think that you and I could . . . ."

As Harry gradually came to understand the ramifications of their new status, he frowned. Hermione noticed, and squeezed his hand, wordlessly asking him to express his worry.

"I’m not sure this is a good idea, Hermione. For you, I mean. I have to absorb this." He held up Hufflepuff’s cup. "I’ve already changed so much. Dumbledore’s letter, the horcruxes. I’m not even sure that I like myself anymore."

Hermione pulled his hand towards her, and with her right hand she turned Harry’s downcast face towards hers.

"I’m sure," she whispered, and she leaned forward to kiss him, "I know what I’m getting myself into."

"I wish I did," Harry tried to joke, managing only a grimace.

"How can I be surrounded but such imbeciles!" groused a pacing Rufus Scrimgeour to Jeremiah Harrison in the Minister’s office, "Chang escapes, then Shacklebolt escapes, and to top it off, the Daily Prophet escapes. How am I supposed to accomplish anything?"

Dressed as usual in a finely tailored dark muggle suit, Harrison did not immediately answer, deep in thought over the latest troubling events.

"I understand your frustration, Rufus, but you are missing the true concern. You have traitors among your aurors, which is the worst place to have them. They can create great difficulties."

"We’ve long suspected Shacklebolt, Jeremiah. We’ve never been able to prove it, but he’s been at a desk job, not privy to any sensitive information, though he must have recruited Cho. Shacklebolt has known the Chang family for many years."

Harrison poured just an inch of brandy in two large glasses and handed one to Scrimgeour. Both men lived disciplined lives, only drinking moderately.

"I’m not so worried about Shacklebolt," he opined, "because he is not responsible for most of it. He’s had nothing to do with the Prophet mess. Or the Potter mess. It seems to me that there are too many messes to be a coincidence. But it’s not Shacklebolt; it’s someone else."

Paranoid by nature, Scrimgeour quickly latched on to his friend’s idea, especially since Harrison normally shot down the Minister’s conspiracy theories. He sipped his brandy slowly, allowing his bushy eyebrows to crease in thought.

"Harrington was the auror on the Potter case; I met with him a couple of times. Seems like a capable sort; at least he has an excellent file. He’s also part of the team trying to track down the Prophet’s location. And I understand that he was among the aurors that allowed Shacklebolt to escape. Coincidence?"

Harrison pursed his lips, almost upset with himself to be thinking similarly to Scrimgeour, but in this case, he could not discount the idea out of hand. Whether it turned out to be this Harrington fellow or someone else, Harrison sensed that this time the conspiracy theory had a solid basis.

"I think Harrington should be questioned, Rufus. The sooner the better."

Scrimgeour nodded, and both men lifted their glasses to their lips.

Voldemort reached the other end of the lake, having swum as quickly as he could. Nearing the shore, he waved his wand at himself to cancel the fancy transfigurations of his head and feet, and he stood in the shallows. He tried to ignore the pain in his shoulder, arm and head, and immediately he looked for Pettigrew. Irritated that his manservant did not appear promptly, Voldemort walked out of the water and cast a drying spell on himself. After a minute’s search, he found nothing.

Certainly Wormtail would not have returned to their current base without him, and Voldemort felt sure that the pathetic death eater lacked the strength to betray him. Peter hated him, which provided an excellent reason to keep him around. Voldemort loved to be hated and feared, and Wormtail hated and feared him more than anyone.

About to abandon his brief search, a straight twig caught his eye next to the trunk of a large pine. In fact, the twig turned out to be Peter’s wand.

"Accio," Voldemort thought, and the wand flew into his hand. Carefully he examined the area around the tree. Clearly Peter had been sitting with his back against the trunk, as Voldemort could see the firmness of the ground where he had rested. A few feet away, he noticed some footprints in a patch of dusty soil. Fresh and huge footprints. Immediately he knew that it had to be that oaf with whom he attended Hogwarts a half century before, the one that he framed for Myrtle’s death.

What an insufferable girl she was,
he mused, recalling the victim of the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, when he first opened it as a student. She had taken a liking to him, the handsome Head Boy, and despite his attempts to repel her advances, she persisted. In the end, it all worked to the best, as she proved to be an easy victim. Framing the half giant with the murder added icing to the cake, except that Dumbledore managed to get him off the hook somehow. Apparently the worthless Wormtail managed to be captured by the stupid oaf.

Voldemort grimaced. Wormtail knew too much. And he would talk. With a wave of his arms, he disappeared.

To everyone’s relief, Professor McGonagall earlier arranged for the transfer of Cho Chang to a new location, so when Harry and Hermione arrived to the Gryffindor common room with Hufflepuff’s cup wrapped in a towel, the precaution proved to be unnecessary. Harry unveiled the rather unimpressive cup, only a fraction of the size of Tom Riddle’s trophy.

Ginny’s face remained impassive upon the entrance of her older friends. From her vantage point on a hill overlooking the lake, she witnessed Harry and Hermione’s second snogging session in the lake and their interaction on the shore. She could not hear them, but she could imagine their voices. Despite her earlier revelation that something existed between the two H’s, she could not avoid her heart falling into her stomach.

Yes, she knew it before. She felt it when Harry hugged her in his hotel room a few days earlier, and his behavior over the past few days only reinforced it. But a fraction of her spirit clung on to the hope that this could turn around. Maybe he would learn to control his new personality and she would learn to adapt to it. The possibilities still existed. Until now.

Though Harry and Hermione did not hold hands upon entering the common room, their faces could not disguise the giddiness of their new relationship. Ginny remember her first days as Harry’s official girlfriend, free to walk hand in hand with him openly She considered those the happiest days of her life, but now they seemed days from an earlier life.

Evan sat on one of the sofas after having rested for another half hour. By now the effects of Voldemort’s spell had almost completely worn off, and he did not appear much worse for wear. He reached forward to take the cup from Harry, examining the small badger etched into one side.

"We should leave the castle," he informed the others while turning the cup in his hand, "The wards are down. McGonagall stopped by earlier to collect the girl, and told us that the antiapparation wards remain, but all the rest have been destroyed. They cannot be replaced quickly. We can take the cup somewhere else, somewhere safe, and take care of it there."

All of this made perfect sense of course, but Harry initially dismissed it out of hand.

"I’m not going anywhere," he declared, "Voldemort will have to come here. I intend to be wherever he goes."

"But we have to destroy the horcrux first," Hermione noted, "Maybe we should leave at least until then. Besides, why don’t YOU decide where to meet Voldemort for once. It seems like every time, he’s the one who’s calling the shots. Why don’t YOU call the shots for once."

Harry stared at Hermione, dumbfounded, and Hermione’s mouth opened slightly when she realized what she just said. Never had he seen her take such an aggressive attitude towards Voldemort and Harry’s destiny. Harry felt emotion well up inside him. In the past, his friends always stood with him, beyond anything he could have hoped for. But now Hermione went beyond mere support. He now felt that he had a partner.

"The Ministry will find out, Harry. This cannot be hidden. So far, McGonagall has kept it quiet, but she’ll have to report this today. By tonight I expect a force of aurors here to attempt to protect Hogwarts. We simply cannot stay here," Evan argued, though he implicitly recognized that Harry should make the final decision. All of them did. They convinced him.

"Where could we go?" he asked.

"Mr. Harrington, do you know how to protect a muggle house?" Hermione asked.

Evan raised his eyebrows but answered, "I can do a decent job. It would keep Voldemort away for awhile, but not forever."

"That’s good enough," she nodded, "You are all invited to my house." She smiled enthusiastically. "I promised my parents that I would try to visit them, since I had to leave early, and I told them that I might bring Ron and Harry too. They wouldn’t mind Ginny and Mr. Harrington too."

"Your house?" Ron asked skeptically, "Is that any more safe than here?"

He looked instinctively to the one adult in the group, Evan Harrington, as if he had to provide his opinion. The others followed Ron’s eyes and awaited the auror’s response.

"Noplace is entirely safe, but I happen to know that the Ministry placed some protections on her house last year. I learned about them when I was tracking you," he explained, nodding towards Harry. "I can add a few temporary wards, and we should be as safe there as anywhere. Voldemort’s going to be focusing on Hogwarts, so I agree with Hermione. Let’s let him come, only to find that both the trophy and cup are gone. He’ll be desperate, and desperate people make mistakes. Then we’ll take him on our terms, not on his. Once we figure out what to do with the cup, he’ll be mortal again."

Now everyone redirected their eyes to Harry for the final say on the matter. Part of him preferred to remain at the castle, waiting for Voldemort to attack, but he also understood the wisdom of Hermione and Evan’s thinking. He nodded his head.

"Let’s pack and get out of here."

Just minutes after a house elf disappeared with his dirty dishes, Draco returned to his bed, opening a thick book written by somebody named Dickens. A muggle, but Draco read it anyway, having absolutely nothing else to do. He understood little of the novel, something about a boy named Copperfield, but he could tell that the author wrote well. Since he already twice read the last edition of Quidditch Weekly before its seizure by the Ministry, he had to read the novel.

If he did not read, he began to think. He did not want to think.

To his shock, however, his door opened for the first time since Lupin and Shacklebolt left him. The house elves did not bother with doors, simply popping in and popping out when necessary. Again Lupin and Shacklebolt entered, closing the door behind them.

Draco had no idea that Kingsley now lived in the safe house with him, no longer able to appear in public, at least in the wizarding world. Even in the muggle world, he would stick out like a sore thumb, so for the moment, Kingsley felt almost as much of a prisoner as Draco, though at least he had the run of the house. Draco marked the page in the novel, and set it on the bed. He noted that Lupin carried a small pouch.

Kingsley conjured a wooden chair while Remus pulled up the one chair in the room, and both men sat down, neither having even acknowledged Draco with anything more than a nod. Remus held the pouch on his lap.

"We have news, Draco. Bad news, I’m afraid," Remus began, skipping any preamble.

Draco stiffened, and from the expressions on the faces of the two men, he guessed. His heart sank.

"Your mother is dead," Remus continued with little sympathy in his voice. He cared nothing for Narcissa Malfoy, the cousin of his best friend, Sirius Black. Narcissa stood for everything evil in the magical world - muggle hatred, pure-blood snobbery. She only cared for one person, other than herself: Draco. "Lord Voldemort killed her."

A long silence followed. This could be a bluff, Draco considered, but why would they need to bluff? He willingly would tell them everything he knew, and even if he did not, they could give him veritaserum. The two men anticipated Draco’s reaction.

"Here." Remus handed the black pouch to Draco.

Draco received the pouch gingerly, as if it could bite him, and untied the cords. Looking inside, he reached in and pulled out several items of jewelry which belonged to his mother. Her wedding ring, a gold Slytherin ring which she wore on her right hand, a simple gold necklace that she commonly wore, an intricately carved gold bracelet.

These items hardly proved his mother’s death, but he did not disbelieve his two captors. Deep down, he knew he wrote his mother’s death sentence when he betrayed the dark lord. With the two men sitting in his cell, he did not know how to react. Again he stared at them questioningly.

"We discovered something else on her, Draco," Remus added after pausing a minute to allow Draco to examine the items. He pulled a note from a pocket and handed it to the young wizard. Draco opened the half sheet of parchment and immediately recognized his mother’s distinctive handwriting, always impeccably perfect. 

Dearest Draco:

The dark lord has called for me this morning, and if I am not mistaken, these will be my last words to you. I can only hope that fate will allow you to read them, as unlikely as that now appears.

You will grieve for me, but do not feel sorry for me. I am receiving my just rewards for a life misspent. Now it all seems so clear that I marvel at how I could have failed to see the error of my ways. If my errors only served to ruin my own life, I would not despair, but I know that they have destroyed your life as well. Do not attempt to rationalize my actions. I freely embraced the enticements of the dark, and I deserve no pity.

Wherever you are, realize that you cannot return to the dark lord. He will torture you and kill you as he will torture and kill me. He deceived us. We chose to believe that he would save the wizarding world for those of us pure of blood. But what we really desired were the privileges and wealth that come with the subjugation of others. For many years, your father and I enjoyed the spoils of our decisions, but in the end, he and I both will meet early and violent deaths.

Is it too late to save you, Draco? Have we molded you so thoroughly that my words now cannot move you? Let me state it plainly. I was wrong! Your father was wrong! The dark lord is wrong! If given the chance, Draco, you must oppose the dark lord in any way you can, even if it means sacrificing your life. You are the last Malfoy, and only you can rescue our name.

You must reprogram your mind, Draco. Accept that all that we taught you was mistaken. Muggles are not inferior to us. Muggle-born and half-bloods are our equals, if not our superiors. This is so clear to me now; how could I have been so blind for so long? We have blinded you as well, but now I am attempting to grant you the gift of sight. Use it, Draco! If you must die, then die a noble death, not the pathetic deaths of your parents.

The dark lord fears Harry Potter. I know you hate him, but he is the key to the dark lord’s destruction. I do not know why nor how, but the dark lord believes it; therefore, it must be true. You need not befriend Potter, but you must support him in whatever way you can.

In only one way have I succeeded in life. I have loved you with all my heart, even if I have failed you in every other way. You now have the knowledge to change your path. Change it now, and know that whatever fate brings your way, my love will always live inside of you.


The words shocked Draco so completely, that even when he finished the letter, his eyes remained focused on the blank parchment below her name. He could not form a rational thought, his mind overloaded by the death of his mother and her incredible dying words.

Remus and Kingsley had already read the note, and observing Draco’s reaction, they decided he needed some time. The two men stood, and with a wave of his wand, Kingsley vanished the conjured chair.

"We’ll give you some time to think, Draco," Remus informed him, though Draco barely noticed, "We’ll be back later to talk about this." The next thing Draco heard, the door latched, and the bolt clicked shut.

"So my maternal instincts did not let me down, did they?"

"No, mum," Hermione admitted with an embarrassed smile, "Everyone seemed to know before Harry and me."

Mrs. Granger smiled lovingly. Naturally the arrival of their only daughter with a man, two teenaged boys, and a teenaged girl shocked her, but she happily invited them into her home, marveling at how easily the house could be made to adapt. Ginny would sleep in Hermione’s room, and Mrs. Granger could only shake her head when her daughter changed a small chair in her room into a bed, complete with sheets and comforter.

The males would sleep in the small guest room, which only contained one bed. She offered to allow one of them to sleep on the couch downstairs, but the man told her not to worry. How he managed to increase the interior size of the room threefold without changing the outside dimensions of the house would baffle her for the rest of her days.

Not having planned for such a large group, dinner consisted of Chinese takeout, and before they knew it, darkness had fallen. The three men already retired to their room, and Ginny apparently awaited in Hermione’s bedroom.

"You two seem very happy," Mrs. Granger commented, "I hope you have fun together. Just don’t worry about a future yet. If it’s meant to happen, it will happen."

"Thanks, mum," Hermione responded with a wide grin, and mother and daughter embraced. Finally Hermione broke free and informed her mother, "I should go to my room. Ginny is there all alone."

Meanwhile the three males had all quickly prepared themselves for bed. Evan considered returning to his home for the evening, but a sixth sense kept him away. He knew that he walked a tightrope, and today a stiff breeze hit him. How much longer could he keep up the charade? Already on this day, he had been forced into desperate actions, allowing Shacklebolt to escape and lying about having to meet Harry Potter. Sooner or later they would figure it out, though he hoped that the time had not yet arrived.

Throughout the evening, Harry and Ron seemed to enjoy themselves well enough, distracted by the novelty of moving to the Granger residence. Now in the room together with nothing to occupy them, Evan noticed their reluctance to look at or even speak with each other. They needed to get past this stage, the auror decided; they could not allow this baggage to weigh them down in the important days to come. Evan decided to broach the subject himself.

"So, Potter," he smirked, "That was smooth. Right in the middle of the lake. I never thought about snogging a girl for the first time in the middle of a lake. Now I know why I’ve never had a way with women. I’ve no imagination."

Harry could not deny the humor in it, and he chuckled while he shook his head in disbelief. Ron forced a smile as well.

"I wouldn’t recommend it," Harry advised them, "We nearly drowned a couple of times. Take it from me, keep your snogging adventures on dry land." They all laughed.

The topic opened, Harry nervously glanced at his best mate, who sat on his bed with his long legs crossed and his back against the wall.

"Hermione told me you talked," Harry informed him, "She says you’re OK with it."

Ron grimaced, but nodded his agreement, looking down at the sheets beneath him.

"We talked. It wouldn’t have worked between us; we could both see it. If I was OK with my sister, I guess I can be OK with our friend," Ron explained in a slightly pained voice. They paused for a few seconds until Ron smiled and added, "But in the middle of a lake! Really, Harry! Who kisses a girl for the first time in the middle of a lake?"

Harry smiled and knew that Ron would remain his best mate, and a wave of relief passed through him. Sure there might be a few uncomfortable moments, and Harry resolved to attempt to keep his amorous activities with Hermione more private for the time being, but in the end, they would be fine.

"You sure, mate? This just happened, completely unplanned. I gave you your chance; I didn’t try to steal her from you." Harry felt this to be a statement of extreme importance, and he eagerly awaited Ron’s response.

"I had my chances. Many chances, and I wasted them all. We could have had some good times, maybe," Ron mused, "Or maybe we would have argued all day. I don’t know, but I wish we would have found out. But no use crying over spilt milk." He finally stared directly at Harry and asserted, "I’m fine, mate. Really."

Across the hall, Hermione pulled on an oversized t-shirt that she used as pajamas and returned to her bedroom. Ginny already lay on the transfigured bed, staring straight above her with her hands behind her head. The two girls had not been granted a moment alone, and Hermione did not know exactly how much Ginny knew. Did she see anything? Did Ron tell her?

Hermione climbed onto her bed, and sat cross-legged just as Ron across the way. She waited a few moments to see if Ginny would react to her in any way. The younger witch did not move a muscle. Just by observing her, Hermione knew that she must know, or have figured it out.

"I guess you were right, Ginny," Hermione spoke softly, "About Harry and me, I mean. It sort of happened today. I’m not sure if you knew."

"I know. I saw you at the lake."

The two talkative girls remained silent for a extremely uncomfortable length of time. Ginny determined that she would not be the first to speak and continued to stare at the ceiling. Hermione bit her bottom lip, wondering how to approach this situation.

"I didn’t plan it, you know," she suddenly asserted defensively, "It just happened. Harry was just as surprised as I was. But it happened, and I’m happy that it did."

Hermione felt a need to defend herself even though Ginny had accused her of nothing. The younger girl finally moved, turning to her side so that she could see Hermione.

"I know, Hermione. You don’t have to justify yourself. It’s not something I really want to talk about right now. Maybe in a few days, it won’t hurt so much."

Chapter 31: No Buyer's Remorse
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Chapter 31

No Buyer’s Remorse


Lord Voldemort and a band of thirty death eaters rushed into Hogwarts Castle unimpeded. Arriving shortly before midnight, they found the castle and grounds completely abandoned. Rushing as fast as he could up the corridor to the trophy room, Voldemort flicked his wand occasionally, lighting the lamps on the walls to provide illumination.

Previously, shortly before nightfall, he had returned to the lake, entering it cautiously to determine whether Hufflepuff’s cup remained. He found a pile of rubble on the lake bottom.

"Stay here," he ordered those behind him. As usual, he provided no explanation as he turned around and entered the trophy alcove. He walked up and down the aisle between the cabinets and shelves which held the hundreds of plaques, trophies, medals and awards issued by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry over the past centuries. He did not bother looking for the trophy awarded to him a half century before, knowing that he would feel its presence.

After five minutes, he convinced himself that the trophy had been removed. Potter again. He must feel it too. But does he know how to destroy them? Was the boy simply gathering the horcruxes together to keep Voldemort from safeguarding them, trusting that he would be able to determine how to destroy them later?

Or had he already destroyed them?

Losing his temper, Voldemort waved his wand violently, smashing all of the cabinets in the trophy room. He would need to decide what to do, but clearly he needed to do one thing above all others.

Find and kill Harry Potter.

Draco also lay on the bed in his small windowless room, having reread his mother’s note several times. Guilt mixed with hopelessness as he realized that his spur-of-the-moment decision to leave the dark lord’s service directly led to the death of his mother and his own permanent incarceration.

Why didn’t I just stay. I could have remained in the background, doing what I was told. Now I’m stuck.

When finally, shortly past midnight, Remus and Kingsley returned to his room, Draco remained on his bed, refusing to acknowledge his captors. Remus pulled a chair up to the side of his bed while Kingsley remained standing, towering over Draco.

"We may be able to help you, Draco," the werewolf informed him quietly, "I can’t promise you anything, but if you help us, we can make your situation a little better. We have a few ideas that we are working on, and possibly you can be a part of it. We won’t force you."

Draco continued to direct his eyes above him, but he already made his decision.

"I’ll do anything you want. I don’t care if I never get out of here. I want him dead. I want Lord Voldemort dead. Just tell me what you want me to do."

Draco’s use of the name, "Lord Voldemort," surprised both men and helped to convince them of the boy’s resolve.

"OK, Draco. We’ll be back when our plans are complete. Are you willing to risk your life?" Finally turning his head towards Remus, Draco’s lips formed a defeated smile.

"My life is over. There’s nothing left to risk."

Harry lay in his bed in the magically expanded guest room of the Granger home, allowing the previous day’s events to replay themselves in his mind, like a sped-up slide show. Despite the momentous confrontation with Lord Voldemort, he found himself focusing more often on the spontaneous kiss with his new girlfriend in the middle of the lake.

he thought with a chuckle, recalling Evan’s description, Right, I’m about as smooth as Dumbledore’s face.

Dumbledore. He realized that he had not even once thought of his mentor over the past few days. What would he think about all this? he wondered, What would he think about me? He slowly drifted off to sleep.

"You have accomplished much in a short period of time, Harry," the ancient wizard with the long white beard declared. He sat on a large rocking chair, seemingly twice as large as it should be. Though the words seemed complimentary, Harry heard something else in the old man’s tone.

"But what?" Harry asked sharply, "What don’t you like? What have I done wrong that you would have done better?"

"I would not have absorbed the horcruxes. I would have destroyed them."


As usual, Dumbledore did not lose his calm, serene expression, merely answering, "I had my reasons. And I do not mean to imply that my methods are superior to yours. I merely stated that I would not have absorbed them."

"Your reasons," Harry chuckled sarcastically, "Just like your reasons to hide every piece of important information from me. You still don’t trust me. Why should I trust you?"

"You don’t need to trust me, Harry. I am dead. You are on your own now. Isn’t that what you always wanted?"

"No. I just wanted some help. I wanted to be trusted, and just when you began to trust me, you died. When you didn’t have to. You LET yourself be killed, and you wouldn’t let me help you. Together we could have taken Draco and the others. You could have done it alone."

Dumbledore did not answer, but merely leaned back in the oversized rocking chair. He did not appear the least bit disturbed by Harry’s rants.

The reaction of the headmaster enraged Harry, who stood and walked away from the seated figure towards an empty void. Spinning around, he pointed an angry finger at the old man.

"I don’t need you! I don’t want your help! I can do this myself! I’m succeeding where you failed." Harry whirled around again and walked into a restless sleep.

The Order of the Phoenix moved Peter Pettigrew from the cell in Hogwarts’ dungeon to the same manor in which Draco resided as the Order’s prisoner. Members of the Order quickly modified another room to serve as a cell, where Peter passed a sleepless night.

Even before the shock of the failure of the wards and the presumed arrival of Lord Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest, the Order already knew that the castle must be evacuated. Though Cho Chang’s theft of top secret information had been ill advised, the document she copied in fact proved to be invaluable. The Ministry intended to occupy Hogwarts Castle, and neither the Order nor Headmistress McGonagall possessed any means to resist. Better to cede the castle to Scrimgeour than to provide him with prisoners to boot.

Given that she intended to abandon the castle in any event, McGonagall informed the Minister of Magic by floo of the disaster. She requested that the Ministry send a force of aurors as soon as possible. Naturally, the Minister agreed.

Despite his protests, even Hagrid left the castle’s grounds, as did the caretaker, Mr. Filch, leaving nary a house elf inside the huge medieval structure. He joined Kingsley in the Order’s hideout in an abandoned old manor house in Scotland, only some fifty miles from Hogsmeade.

Shortly after the brief discussion with Draco, an urgent meeting of leaders of the Order of the Phoenix convened. Chaired by Arthur Weasley, Remus Lupin, Minerva McGonagall, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Molly Weasley and Hagrid also sat around a large table, Remus having conjured an especially large chair for the half giant. Normally Hagrid would not have attended, but since he had to flee his cabin, the others decided to include him, especially since he had the most first-hand knowledge of the predictions of the centaurs and the capture of Peter Pettigrew. At the moment, none of them knew that Voldemort already was attacking the castle.

After the initial reports of gloom and doom, the group moved beyond self-pity to consider their options.

"Harrington seemed upbeat, strangely enough," McGonagall reported of her brief meeting with the auror in the Gryffindor common room when she collected Cho Chang, "He said that progress was being made, but he would not be more specific. Naturally, I lacked the time to question him further. They left word for me that they have left the castle for an undisclosed secret location. He assured the safety of Ronald and Ginny," she added, nodding to Molly.

"Perhaps we should inform them of the capture of Draco and Peter," Remus suggested, "They may want to question them too. The questions we want to ask may not be the questions they want."

Arthur nodded his agreement, "We’ll send them an owl first thing in the morning. What are we going to do with the two of them? We can’t keep them from the Ministry forever, but they may be of use to us."

"I’ll question Pettigrew," Kingsley announced, "I think Remus is too emotionally involved, understandably." Remus reluctantly nodded his agreement.

After a silence, McGonagall added, "If the centaurs are to be believed, a final confrontation may be upon us." Everyone turned to Hagrid.

"Tha’s wha’ the centaur was tellin’ Harry; I heard ‘em. He said Yer Know Who was in the fores’ and that the stars were clear. A final confrontation is comin’ in the next couple o’ days." Another silence.

Finally Arthur concluded with a nod to Molly, "Contact all of our agents. Everyone needs to be on the highest alert, ready to leave at any time. If this is it, then it no longer matters that we retain our covers."

Voldemort and his forces tarried at Hogwarts Castle in the early morning hours, in no hurry to leave since they met no opposition. McGonagall and the house elves managed to move most of the most valuable or sensitive items, and as far as she was concerned, the death eaters could take all of the ancient desks they cared to have. About time Hogwarts purchased new furniture anyway.

A small group of a half dozen death eaters left the castle and made their way to Hagrid’s cabin. After rifling through the hut for a few minutes, finding little of value, they set fire to the wooden structure. Unknown to them, the fire caught the eyes of a force of one hundred fifty aurors entering the castle grounds in three groups of fifty. Dressed all in black, the aurors slipped the notice of the distracted death eaters who loudly and carelessly observed the burning of the cabin.

Ten aurors broke off from their group, which entered from the forest, and divided again into groups of five, silently surrounding the flaming cabin from both sides. Between the noise of the crackling blaze and their own laughter, the death eaters heard nothing. Seconds later, the six death eaters fell to the ground unconscious, struck by ten stunners silently cast by the aurors. The group leader left two young aurors behind to deal with transportation of the unconscious death eaters back to the Ministry for processing and incarceration. Immediately the two followed standard procedure, casting ropes from their wands to bind the prisoners and collecting their wands. The other eight rushed back to rejoin their squad.

The castle remained almost entirely dark, but dim light escaped through a few windows on the ground floor. When the three squads reached fifty yards of the castle, from three different directions, they stopped, and the officer in charge briefly formulated a plan. He waved his wand for several seconds, barely seen in the darkness.

"Expecto patronum," he muttered, sending the message off to the squad leader to the left. Repeating the process, he sent the same message to the right.

Allowing five minutes to allow the flanking squad again to divide their forces, he whispered orders to his own group. Half of them retreated a few yards and fanned out, seeking cover. Several hid behind the structures of Dumbledore’s grave site. The remaining aurors crept slowly toward several different entry points.

Consumed with his thoughts about the horcruxes, Voldemort let down his guard, failing to take even basic precautions. His undisciplined force of rogues and criminals happily moved from room to room, looting whatever they could, though they muttered that they found little of value. In frustration at the slim pickings, many took to firing reducto curses at desks and furniture, such that every few seconds the echo of an explosion could be heard throughout the bottom floor, followed by boisterous laughter. Only a few more committed death eaters kept their wits about them, keeping their eyes open.

"AURORS," shouted one a moment before a silent stunner felled him. The shout alerted others, however, and they quickly turned around. In the first volley of spells, several more death eaters fell while others had to erect shields frantically. The aurors pressed the attack room by room, and the disorganized death eaters ran in disarray. Finally word reached Lord Voldemort, who had been silently strolling along a corridor, deep in thought.

"WE’RE BEING ATTACKED, MY LORD," a young death eater frantically reported, "AURORS. LOTS OF THEM. WHAT SHOULD WE DO?"

Voldemort failed to reply, instead striding as fast as he could past the messenger, towards the noise that he could now hear. He quickly calculated that his forces were greatly out numbered and had been taken by surprise. In any event, Voldemort saw no benefit in engaging the Minstry’s forces. He never intended to remain in the castle, having no use for it. Unfortunately, the antiapparation wards remained, and he would need time to determine how to remove them.

"Spread the word," he calmly informed his follower, "Return to headquarters immediately. We have no need to do battle today. The time to fight will come another day."

The young death eater quickly nodded and ran, spreading the order to those closest to him, who in turn ran in different directions to inform the others.

By the time word reached the rest of Voldemort’s small force, they had been fully engaged by the aurors whether the dark lord wished for it or not. Having recovered from their shock, the death eaters fought back viciously and managed to injure several aurors. Nevertheless, they could see the hopelessness of their situation. Finally they attempted to flee.

In accordance with the plan, the aurors allowed them to escape the confines of the castle by casting stunners and other spells which intentionally missed their target. The death eaters streamed outdoors, sprinting towards the far end of the lake to the forest beyond Hagrid’s still-blazing cabin where they would be able to apparate. After allowing them to run fifty yards or so from the castle to prevent them from returning, the head officer stood and called out.


"STUPEFY’ responded a choir of voices, and jets of light streaked across the darkness from some seventy wands, many of them striking their targets, others missing and bouncing off the side of the castle. From the illumination of the spells, the next round increased in accuracy, and within a matter of one minute, each and every death eater who exited the castle lay unconscious on the dirt and grass surrounding Hogwarts Castle.

Voldemort had remained in the castle and viewed the debacle from a window. He had not anticipated an attack of this nature by the Ministry. He assumed that a force would already be placed in the castle in an attempt to defend it, and he had strategies in place for such an occurrence. When he found the castle abandoned, he assumed, reasonably enough, that the Hogwarts administration and the Ministry decided that the castle could not be defended. From this massive miscalculation, he now lost his entire force. All he could do now was to manage his own escape.

In this respect, he did not worry in the least. Moving away from the window, he walked quickly and confidently down the center of a corridor.

"THERE HE IS! VOLDEMORT!" shouted an auror. The fear in the auror’s voice caused Voldemort to smile.

Several stunners streaked in his direction, but with a mere flick of his wand, the spells bounced off to the side, never coming near him.

"AVADA KEDAVRA," shouted another auror, realizing that they had to authority to kill Voldemort on sight.

A shield cannot protect one from the killing curse, according to the textbooks, but Lord Voldemort was not bound by such limits, and with another flick of his wand, Voldemort countered the green streak of light, causing it to evaporate into the darkness of the corridor.

"Move back," one auror ordered, realizing that they could not hope to best the dark lord without much greater numbers. They ran to seek reinforcements.

This allowed Voldemort the time he needed. He knew every inch of the castle intimately from his years as a student, and his excellent memory recalled every detail. If need be, he probably could have walked right through the middle of the auror forces without suffering a scratch, but why take the risk. Instead, he soon entered the underground passage to Honeyduke’s in Hogsmeade. He simply walked ten minutes towards the wizarding town until he felt sure that he passed by the edge of the antiapparation wards. He then apparated back to his current hideout, but he arrived short of thirty men.

Though upset that the dark lord himself escaped, the aurors could hardly have felt more excited. For the first time in months, they had a complete and utter victory over the forces of evil. Happy as nifflers digging in soft dirt, some aurors wrapped up their catch and transported them to the Ministry, while other took possession of the castle.

When word reached Scrimgeour, who remained late in his office, he danced a little jig.

After a few restless hours of sleep, Harry left his bed early in the morning, shortly after five. Quickly changing into old black jeans and an older black t-shirt, he walked by the dresser where he set Hufflepuff’s cup the night before. Though he could not see the cup in the shaded room, he felt it and reached out for it as if the lights had been turned on. Quietly opening and closing the door, he tip-toed down the carpeted stairs to the sitting room of the house.

At least the doors and stairs don’t squeak like at the Burrow,
he thought as he sat on a padded armchair. Holding the cup up to the early morning light streaming through the window, he examined it closely. Other than the fact that it purportedly belonged to Helga Hufflepuff, one of the four original founders of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he would not have considered it a notable artifact. Etched into the outside of the small silver cup was a badger, even now emblematic of Hufflepuff House. Yet event the badger did not appear especially well done, in Harry’s amateur opinion.

Couldn’t you have picked something a little more impressive, Tom. This is really quite disappointing.

Turning the cup in his hands, examining both the bottom and inside, Harry could not avoid the obvious question: How am I going to destroy this one? One conclusion he had reached: Each horcrux had to be destroyed differently. That meant no hammers or fire.

His dream of Professor Dumbledore suddenly came back to him, and his eyes squinted in irritation. Why didn’t he just tell me? He must have known how to do it. After all, he destroyed the ring. Why wouldn’t he tell me? Despite his internal frustration with the man, Harry realized that he missed Dumbledore more than ever. For better or worse, it would all be over within a couple of days. He intended to stay with the Grangers only for as long as it took him to destroy the cup and absorb the horcrux. Then he would track Voldemort down to deal once and for all both with him and the snake.

Not completely rested from the previous day’s events, Harry leaned his head back on the comfortable chair and fell asleep. He did not know that Evan Harrington saw him leave his room a few minutes before. Always a light sleeper, a trait learned by almost all aurors, Evan woke the moment Harry left his bed. After brief consideration, he decided to allow the young man to leave on his own. Probably he needed some time to himself.

He did not mention to Harry or the others that he received an owl the previous evening instructing him to return to the Ministry this morning for further instructions. Further instructions. Evan had served as an auror long enough to know that the words "further instructions" carried more meaning than the words themselves. Had the Ministry finally put two and two together?

Who was the auror who "failed" to bring in Harry Potter? Who was the auror guarding Kingsley Shacklebolt when the tall black auror escaped? Who was one of the aurors charged with locating the Daily Prophet? Who had been acting strangely lately, often excusing himself for an hour here or there with little or no explanation? Any one of these questions alone would not be especially problematic, but Evan knew that sooner or later someone would make the connection. Had the connection already been made?

He decided he could not risk it. Harry had the penultimate horcrux in his hand. They would deal with it today, and then they would make plans to locate Lord Voldemort and the snake. At the moment, he had no bright ideas on the matter, but he knew that Harry needed his advice and expertise. Thus he decided to remain with the others in the Granger residence, even though he felt out of place.

Hermione also slept lightly, and despite Harry’s attempt to exit his room quietly, she heard the click of the door. It has to be Harry, she thought, even though theoretically Ron or Evan could have left the room too. She almost jumped out of bed right then and there, but she wondered if perhaps Harry wanted some time alone.

After Ginny’s poor humor when they each went to their beds, Hermione pondered all that had happened over the past few days. Unfortunately, Ginny did not seem to be taking Harry and Hermione’s new relationship well, which made sleeping all the harder, since Ginny lay only a few feet away. Yet, Hermione felt more certain than ever about her feelings for Harry. Seeing him battling Lord Voldemort at the bottom of the lake, knowing that he could be killed, made it all crystal clear. When their eyes locked that first time above the surface, they both knew. That first kiss would live with her forever.

Ginny would just have to get used to it!

Gradually the house began to stir. Hermione decided after half an hour that she gave Harry enough time, and she quietly descended the stairs only to find her boyfriend asleep on the chair, both hands tightly clutching Hufflepuff’s cup to his chest. His hair had grown some since he had it cut short and bleached a few weeks earlier, but it remained shorter than usual. Still slender, she thought that he may have gained a pound or two over the last week, which made sense given the quantity of food he consumed each day. She always thought him handsome, but seeing him asleep on the chair, she thought he may be the most handsome boy she had ever set eyes on. The thought caused her to smile, as she knew that in objective terms, Harry would be considered moderately attractive, but certainly no Cedric Diggory. Of course, she knew that she would not top the list of attractive witches either, and in fact of Harry’s three girlfriends, she considered both Cho and Ginny prettier than she. Melissa too, most likely, from the little Harry divulged about her.

But she did not feel inadequate. They would have a long life together, she felt certain, once the hurdle of Lord Voldemort and his horcruxes could be overcome. For now, that had to be their sole concern, yet she felt less nervous about the impending confrontation than ever before. Harry had changed; she saw it in the lake. With Evan, Ron and her to help, Harry would succeed. She decided not to wake him, so she moved quietly to the kitchen to start on breakfast.

Her mother arrived just a few seconds later, and the two women began to prepare a large meal, as Hermione warned her about the eating capacities of her two male friends. It felt odd to be tending to such routine domestic matters on a day like this. She knew that today would be a momentous one, for good or for evil. Yet a good breakfast is required even on momentous days.

In the Granger residence, none of the guests knew anything about the events at Hogwarts Castle. One by one they appeared, all acting on their best behavior in the presence of Hermione’s parents. They enjoyed a home-cooked muggle breakfast and conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Granger about the latest happenings in the muggle world.

Harry awoke shortly after Hermione and her mother started work in the kitchen, and noticed that he still held the horcrux to his chest. Quickly he climbed the stairs to place the cup back in the guest room, finding Ron and Evan awake.

Throughout the breakfast, Harry and Hermione exchanged glances with each other, wordlessly communicating their desire to be alone together for a few moments. Harry found that the breakfast dragged on and on, and on more than one occasion he suppressed the inclination to stand up and grab Hermione’s hand to drag her to another room. Instead, he acted as politely as he could. These were her parents, after all.

Ginny noticed each and every glance and smile between her two friends, exerting great effort to disguise her displeasure. Ron intentionally averted his eyes to what he knew was happening. Finally the morning ordeal ended, and the guests helped carry the dishes to the kitchen.

"Go on, Hermione," Mrs. Granger whispered to her daughter, "I’ll take care of the dishes. I’m not blind. Go talk to Harry." Hermione grinned guiltily but took her up on the offer. She found Harry’s eyes, not difficult since he had been observing her all the time, and walked down the hall of the bottom floor of the house. Harry followed, and they turned into a small room that served as a home office for her parents, where they kept many files and records of their dental practice as well as their personal finances. She closed the door.

Gently the two friends embraced, and nervously they kissed. Relieved that neither of them appeared to have changed their minds over night, they exchanged relaxed smiles and kissed quickly again.

"No buyer’s remorse, Harry?" Hermione asked softly, as they embraced.

"Buyer’s what?" Harry asked, clearly confused, "What’s that?" He had never heard the term.

Hermione chuckled and tried to explain, "It’s a muggle expression for when you buy something only to wish that you hadn’t the next day." Harry scrunched his eyes, still confused.

"But I didn’t buy anything," he asserted, "Why would I have any remorse?"

"No, Harry," Hermione laughed, "It’s just an expression. I meant, you’re not sorry about what happened yesterday."

"Oh," Harry replied with a laugh of his own, now understanding her, "No, I’m not sorry about it. Not for a second. What about you?"

Given the fact that they had just kissed lovingly, Harry hardly needed to ask the question, but he wanted to hear the answer regardless.

"Not at all, Harry. I’m so happy. I’ve never been so happy about anything in my life."

They kissed again, a little longer this time, but Harry broke it off, looking directly into her eyes.

"I’m happy too, but I’m worried. We have so much to do. I think we need to concentrate on the horcrux today. We need to go somewhere. I don’t want to destroy it around your parents."

"You’re right, Harry, I’ve already thought about it. We all can take a little walk up to the park so that we can discuss it there. Then we’ll decide what to do."

Harry nodded his agreement, and they kissed one last time.

Chapter 32: You're Brilliant, Mr. Granger
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Chapter 32

You’re Brilliant, Mr. Granger


The arrival of an owl destroyed the intended plans for the day. Just a minute after Harry and Hermione emerged from the Granger’s small home office, they heard an owl tapping at the window of the dining room. Hermione quickly slid the window open, and the owl hopped through, and with two more flaps of its wings landed on Harry’s shoulder.

He lifted the large grey bird off of his shoulders, and the owl turned on the back of his hand so that the letter tied to its leg faced Harry. He gently set it down on a counter top and removed the parchment envelope. The owl spread its wings for a second, but remained, apparently having been instructed to await a response.

Ginny and Ron were upstairs at the moment, but Evan and Hermione, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Granger witnessed Harry opening the letter. Within seconds his countenance darkened ten shades, and Mrs. Granger shuddered for a moment. Quite clearly this quiet, friendly young man had a different side to him.

Harry read the note twice, setting his jaw in an expression of pure anger. He looked blankly at a wall, oblivious to the presence of the others, including two muggles. His hand slowly formed into a fist, the parchment crunching under his fingers.

"What is it, Harry?" Hermione asked softly but with great concern. She realized all too well that her parents were witnessing one of Harry’s violent mood swings. Why couldn’t that owl have waited ten more minutes, she thought anxiously.

"They have Draco," he murmured softly, pausing for a second, "And they have Pettigrew." He spat out the last name with a special disdain.

Hermione gasped quietly and took the crumpled letter from Harry’s hand, quickly reading it before handing it to Evan.


The Order has captured Draco Malfoy and Peter Pettigrew. They are being held by us in a secure location. We will make them available to you for questioning if you wish. Send a return owl. I will meet you wherever you want and bring you here.


Mr. Granger observed the reactions of his daughter and the two wizards closely, but he did not seem especially surprised. He peered at Harry intently.

Hermione neared Harry carefully, and she could feel anger emanating from his body. She placed a hand on his tense shoulder.

"What do you want to do, Harry?"

He turned towards her, and it happened. His eyes glowed bright and green, clearly seen by Mr. and Mrs. Granger. Mrs. Granger screamed and Mr. Granger nearly jumped out of his shoes.

"It’s OK, mum," Hermione assured them quickly, "Harry’s eyes do that sometimes. It doesn’t mean anything." She held her breath that her parents would simply believe her and leave it at that. No such luck.

"I think we need to talk, Harry," Mr. Granger declared, stepping forward and standing about an inch taller than Harry. "I know more about you than my wife and daughter think. Hermione is not the only one who reads the Daily Prophet when she is staying in the house. Up to now I haven’t asked these questions, but now I think we deserve some answers."

"Dad," Hermione intervened desperately, "Not now. I’ll explain later."

"I know that you are called, ‘The Chosen One,’ or ‘The Boy Who Lived.’ I know that somebody they call ‘You Know Who’ or "He Who Must Not Be Named" seems to have something to do with you. Now before, even though I knew you were Hermione’s friend, I did not think that this was any of my business. But things seem different now. I believe we deserve an explanation."

Hermione fretted at her father’s inquiry, trying again to derail him, "I’ll explain, dad, but now is not a good time."

"Actually, now is an excellent time," Harry interrupted, then turning towards Mr. Granger, "I understand your concern. You should be concerned. What do you want to know?"

Mr. Granger arched an eyebrow, surprised at the ease with which Harry apparently agreed. He raised his left arm, indicating that they should move into the sitting room.

"Who is this ‘You Know Who,’ and what do you have to do with him?"

"Dad, Harry can’t answer that," Hermione interrupted again pleadingly, "There are some things that . . ."

"‘You Know Who’ is what most of that magical world calls a wizard named Tom Riddle, who later changed his name to Lord Voldemort," Harry explained easily, cutting off Hermione’s nervous attempt to head off her father, "He is what we call a ‘dark lord,’ an evil wizard steeped in dark magic. He is trying to take control of the wizarding world. We are trying to stop him."

Hermione cringed at Harry’s straight-forward explanation. She had worked hard to shield her parents from this information, and now it appeared that Harry intended to lay it all out for them.

"But why do you have to fight this Voldemort fellow? Doesn’t your Ministry have forces able to defeat him?"

"Simply put, no. There is a lot more to the story, Mr. Granger. Lord Voldemort killed my mother and father when I was a baby. He tried to kill me too, but that didn’t work out so well for him."

"That’s how Harry got his scar," Hermione added, deciding that she may as well help Harry with the story, "His mother’s sacrifice saved him."

They spent the next fifteen minutes providing an abridged version of Harry’s life and the situation in which they currently found themselves. They did not go into all the gory details (he never mentioned dementors, for example), but Mr. and Mrs. Granger could easily gather the danger that their only daughter faced during her six years at Hogwarts.

Mr. Granger turned to Hermione, unsure of whether he should berate her for placing herself into so many life-threatening situations or compliment her on her bravery and selflessness. Before he could speak, however, Harry anticipated his concerns.

"It’s all because of me, Mr. Granger. I am the subject of the prophecy; it is my destiny to kill or be killed. Hermione and Ron have been with me every step of the way because they won’t abandon me. If I could do it alone, I would, but I can’t do it without them. We’ve never been . . .  romantically involved until, well, until just yesterday as a matter of fact." He smiled weakly and glanced at Ginny, who had joined the group some time earlier. She did not react to his statement.

"So what is that cup that I’ve seen you with?" asked Mrs. Granger, who had remained silent through most of the conversation, "It seems to be important to you."

Up until this point, Harry and Hermione had avoided mention of the term "horcrux." Harry truly did not wish to inform the parents of his new girlfriend that he had absorbed a couple of pieces of the soul of the dark lord and that his personality had changed as a result. Not exactly the type of thing parents of a young woman like to hear.

"I need to destroy that cup," he tried to explain, "It has dark magic in it, placed there by Lord Voldemort himself. It’s hard to explain, but we have to destroy it in a way that will release that dark magic."

Dark magic? In an old silver cup? The Grangers had managed to follow along well enough until now, but this made no sense. They looked at each other in complete confusion.

"Mum and dad, it’s extremely important that we destroy the cup. I know it seems bizarre, but it has to be done before Voldemort can be destroyed. It’s dark magic that even we don’t really understand. We planned to try to figure out the right way to destroy it today."

Mr. Granger continued to look perplexed, but the assurance of his daughter convinced him that it must be true. He glanced back at Harry.

"Can I look at it?"

Harry saw no reason why he should not, so he climbed the stairs to retrieve it from the guest room. Mr. Granger took it in his hands and examined it. Quite old, clearly, but a relatively soft silver he knew from his work as a dentist.

"Can’t you just melt it down?" he asked, now intrigued by the challenge, "It should not be difficult with the right equipment."

"We’re pretty sure that we can’t destroy it that way. The dark magic would prevent it," Harry replied. "We also don’t think smashing it will release the dark magic either. We need to think of some other way."

The assembled crowd silently observed Mr. Granger holding the cup. They can’t melt it; they can’t smash it. What can they do?

"Why don’t you cut it up then?" he suggested logically, "The right type of saw wouldn’t have any trouble with this." He held the cup up a foot.

Harry’s eyes widened in shock. Just as he knew that Hagrid’s suggestion of fire would destroy the trophy, he knew that slicing and dicing Hufflepuff’s cup would also do the trick.

"You’re brilliant, Mr. Granger," he asserted, still half in shock, "That’s it. I can feel it. Brilliant."

The others had learned to respect Harry’s instincts in these matters, and they all took a step or two towards Mr. Granger who continued to hold the cup.

"Where can we find a saw that would be able to cut through it?" asked Ron, "Or should we use some sort of severing spell?

Harry took the cup from Mr. Granger and held it in both of his hands. He knew that the one constant in each of the other horcruxes involved a personal attack by him.

"We have a special saw in the office," Mr. Granger commented, "It should be able to cut soft silver like this. It’s cut a lot harder things." Harry considered the offer.

"Let’s give it a try. If it doesn’t work, then I’ll have to do it myself. But later." He saw the owl patiently awaiting him on the counter in the kitchen. Narrowing his eyes, he told them, "First I have to pay a visit to some old friends. Do you have a piece of paper?"

"You’re kidding me!"

"No, it’s true. They’re being moved out of the Ministry holding cells right now, then on to undisclosed locations. About thirty of them."

Arthur Weasley could hardly believe the gossip rocketing through the Ministry when he arrived early for work. Voldemort attacked Hogwarts, but a force of aurors attacked the death eaters, catching them unprepared. They captured the whole bunch of them. Only You Know Who escaped.

An energy infused the Ministry with the extraordinarily good news, the first truly positive news in months. Noone knew the exact size of the dark lord’s forces, but without a doubt, the loss of thirty foot soldiers would greatly debilitate his strength. If nothing else, it would delay his attempt to take power. Certainly nobody believed that he would pack up his tent and leave, but the wizarding world may have earned some breathing space.

Scrimgeour exulted in his office. He could hardly believe the news that trickled back from Hogwarts. First a young auror, on his first mission of any note, proudly delivered the stunned bodies of the six death eaters captured at Hagrid’s burning cabin. When a couple of long hours later the bodies of two dozen more began to arrive, the Minister felt giddy with joy.

Unfortunately he no longer exerted influence over the Daily Prophet, and in any event, the news happened too late for it to be included in the morning edition, but the Ministry now controlled all other press outlets. Photographers memorialized all aspects of the evening, both at Hogwarts and at the Ministry, including many photographs of the proudly victorious Minister. When the news finally reached the public, his approval rating would shoot through the roof.

Even more importantly, he immediately decided that the plan to occupy Hogwarts and forcibly transfer the magical public to the castle grounds could be shelved indefinitely. Clearly, You Know Who’s power had been substantially decreased, and the move now would be premature, unnecessary, and most importantly, unpopular. The Minister intended to ride the anticipated wave of popularity all the way to the shore.

While Arthur shared the jubilation of his coworkers, a sense of unease also found its way inside of him. What would this mean? One thing he knew - He Who Must Not Be Named would not take this lying down. He quickly took a moment to apparate to the Burrow, where he quickly informed his shocked wife of the news. She agreed to disseminate the information to other members of the Order. A new meeting would be scheduled to discuss future actions given this new landscape.

Lord Voldemort did not sleep one second after returning to his base of operations. In the past, he suffered losses, some painful, but never had he been so thoroughly humiliated. Left with only a handful of followers who had been occupied with other matters while the rest of the force invaded Hogwarts, he now faced starting anew.

But even more devastating, he now knew that Potter found both the trophy and the cup. With Nagini dead at his own hand, he no longer controlled any of the horcruxes. Could the boy have destroyed them? He could not discount the possibility, but he did not believe that he had. While powerful, the boy lacked the knowledge and experience necessary to destroy a horcrux. Unless Dumbledore taught him.

With a sense of desperation, he paced throughout the evening, attempting to devise a plan to salvage something from this fiasco. Somehow he needed to find Potter and kill him. Now!

"Who do you want to see first?"

Harry considered Remus’ question for a second before responding, "Draco. I’ll save the rat for last." Remus led him up two flights of stairs.

"Take your time. Make sure you bolt the door when you leave, not that I think he’ll try to escape. He knows about his mother," Remus added, having previously informed Harry of Narcissa Malfoy’s murder. Harry nodded while Remus opened the thick wooden door.

Draco sat on the floor with his back against the wall to the right of the door. Upon seeing Harry Potter enter his cell, he raised his eyebrows for a moment, but immediately returned to his emotionless expression. At this point, nothing mattered to him any more. As long as Lord Voldemort did not pass through that door, he did not care.

"Malfoy," Harry greeted him cooly. Draco looked up at him but otherwise did not acknowledge his visitor. Harry pulled out his wand and conjured two simple wooden chairs. Though capable of more comfortable seats, the simple chairs seemed more appropriate. "Take a seat."

Harry sat first and waited. Draco hesitated several seconds, loath to agree to anything that Potter requested, but after a second he recalled his position. He had no bargaining power, and his only hope was to cooperate. He stood and moved over to the chair.

"What brings you here, Potter?" he asked with a hint of his trademark drawl; nevertheless, Harry could hear defeat in his voice.

"Just have a few questions, and then I’ll leave you in peace," Harry explained sarcastically, "I know you have a busy schedule." The barb earned a smirk from Draco. "Why didn’t you kill Dumbledore when you had the chance?"

Draco raised an eyebrow in surprise. He knew that Potter chased Snape and him out of the castle, but how did Potter know about the opportunity to kill the headmaster?

Harry noted his confusion and briefly explained, "I was there, petrified under an invisibility cloak. I saw it all." He could not prevent anger from escaping through his voice.

"I never wanted to kill. I’m not a killer. That’s why I was such a terrible death eater; I just don’t have it in me. I should be running a little shop somewhere, selling quidditch supplies and such," Draco dryly asserted, then raising his eyes to Harry, "You saw it; I froze."

"Yes, but you worked all year long on your little project. You let them in. As far as I’m concerned, you killed Dumbledore." Harry’s anger rose as the memory of that day returned.

"What do you want me to say, Potter?" Draco asked incredulously, "Do you want me to apologize? It’s too late for apologies. It’s all over for me. I did what I did." He looked away from Harry, setting his jaw.

"I don’t want an apology," Harry quickly responded, "I don’t know what I want." He wondered why he wanted to talk with Draco in the first place. What help could he possibly give him? He stood and moved towards the door, pausing a moment. "What does Voldemort say about me?"

"He says that he underestimated you. That we all underestimate you. He asked me about you."

"What did you tell him?"

"That you are a mediocre, arrogant git who can fly. I told him you’d be nothing without Granger’s brains. He seemed to have a higher opinion of you than I." Harry smirked, not disagreeing with Draco’s assessment at all.

"We have something in common now, Malfoy," Harry commented in parting, "We’re both orphans because of Voldemort. I’ve just had a little more time to get used to it." He opened the door.

"I want him dead too," Malfoy snarled, "I’ll do anything you need me to do. Makes no difference if it will kill me; I don’t care." Harry nodded, closing the door behind him. He slid the thick iron bolt shut.

"If it happened, we must report it. Write it up," ordered an exhausted and irritated William Oglesby upon reviewing several reports of the previous evening’s triumph at Hogwarts, "If it reflects favorably on the Ministry, so be it. But don’t accept what they tell you at face value. Dig a little."

William and the entire Daily Prophet staff worked through the night, first bugging out of their old hideout on short notice, and secondly establishing the semblance of an operating newspaper in it’s new location, an abandoned warehouse in Manchester. The site had been identified previously by scouts and protections placed on it. Muggles walked by the large, graffiti-marred building barely noticing it, and of course the Fidelius Charm and other protections had been applied.

Unable to produce an edition for that morning, the exhausted staff took its time, many catching catnaps. Michelle Goldsmith saw the reports as well. Thirty death eaters captured. But she also noted a short fact added almost as an afterthought. Six aurors injured, two seriously. She immediately thought of Evan Harrington and bit her lip in worry.

When Harry entered Peter’s windowless cell, he found his father’s old friend splashing water onto his face in the small sink along the back wall. Upon hearing the door open, he quickly grabbed the small white towel and dabbed the water off. Remus closed the door, leaving Harry and Peter alone. At the moment, neither Harry nor Remus had heard the news of the battle at Hogwarts.

The older wizard hunched his shoulders slightly at the sight of the boy whose parents he betrayed. Other than as a baby, he met Harry on only one occasion, in the Shrieking Shack a little over three years before. Harry thought that he had never seen a more pathetic figure. At least Draco had a little life left in him; Peter appeared to be alive in a physical sense only. Harry did not bother conjuring chairs this time.

Harry had not taken any time to create a list of questions for Voldemort’s servant, so he stood mutely for an extended time. Peter merely looked downwards, with no intention to speak first.

Finally Harry asked in a quiet monotone, "How did Voldemort breach the wards?" He did not especially care, but it served to open a dialogue.

Peter jumped at hearing the dark lord’s name, but answered simply, "Dark magic. The dark lord does not give explanation. We brewed a potion, gave it to Narcissa Malfoy. Then after he gave it to her, he pushed her into the edge of the wards while reciting an incantation, and then he killed her. He said that the power of murder would enhance the power of the ritual. I don’t know anymore than that."

Harry thought that he would have many questions for Peter relating to why he betrayed his parents, but suddenly he discovered that he no longer cared.

"What do you think I should do with you?" he asked sharply.

"Remus already told me that he will kill me. So that’s that. I’m not going to beg like last time. I’ve changed since then."

"I’ve changed too," Harry sneered, "I’m a little older, a little wiser, and a lot meaner than I was before. You might say a little of Voldemort has rubbed off on me."

"Don’t let it!" Peter retorted strongly, surprising both men, "You’re better than that. Whatever you’ve done in the past, keep doing it. He fears you. Only you."

"He fears me?" Harry asked, astonished, "Why would he fear me?"

"The dark lord does not explain," Peter responded, "but I know him better than anyone. I’ve spent more time with him. I know." Harry stared at him for a few moments.

"Where’s Snape? What is he doing?" The desire to kill the man could be felt in his voice. Peter’s response almost disappointed him.

"Dead. The dark lord killed him. Most unpleasantly, I can assure you. He betrayed the dark lord. Apparently he had been a spy for Dumbledore."

Harry’s mouth fell open. Snape a spy for Dumbledore? Surely he played that role for Voldemort, not Dumbledore. Harry saw him kill the headmaster less than two months before.


"Just a few days ago." Peter felt no need to expound; he would merely answer the questions asked. He would not grovel before Harry as he did three years ago, since he could sense that it would do no good anyway.

Harry remained shocked by the news, unsure how to receive them. Certainly he felt no compassion for the former potions master who had done everything in his power to make Harry’s life hell. But if in fact he remained loyal to Dumbledore . . . He looked back at the short, pudgy wizard and decided that he no longer wanted to have anything to do with him. In fact, he wished that he had not come at all.

Turning back to the door, one last thought occurred to him, "Where does he keep the snake?"

Peter did not answer right away, which caused Harry to turn back around to face him. Somehow Peter sensed the importance of his answer, and even though he assumed that he would never see his master again, he had to force himself to answer. The boy deserved the truth, of course, after everything he had done to him.

"The snake is dead. The dark lord killed him two nights ago."

The thought of leaving abandoned, Harry stepped towards Peter, who for the first time saw the young wizard’s eyes glow green, with an intensity that he had only seen in the dark lord himself. Peter gasped at the sight. What had happened to the boy?

"Tell me EXACTLY what happened?" Harry ordered excitedly. Peter briefly described Voldemort’s disabled state after his murder of Snape and the improvement of his physical condition following the sacrifice of Nagini. Harry, of course, understood the significance of the story perfectly, and through a few additional questions, he learned of Voldemort’s excursions to the Gaunt cabin and the cave high above the ocean.

A few minutes later, just before he apparated back to the Granger home, he asked Remus, "Don’t kill Pettigrew. Not yet, at least. Something tells me that I may need him. Draco too."

"I’m not going to kill him, even though I’d like to," Remus admitted reluctantly, "Don’t worry about it. But listen, I’ve just received some big news." He informed Harry of the initial report of the captured death eaters at Hogwarts.

Evan paced rapidly from one end of the sitting room to the other, considering all of the ramifications of the Hogwarts news. In the background, he heard the others excitedly discussing it as well, but for the moment he tuned them out. On a personal basis, he now knew with certainty that the Ministry suspected him and that he could not return. Without a doubt, he would have been summoned to participate in the attack under normal circumstances, and no other reason could explain why the summons never arrived. They no longer trusted him.

But the personal aspect of the situation mattered little at this point. If they played their cards right, they could exploit these recent events to their advantage. When he heard a lull in the conversation of the others, he jumped in.

"Harry, I need to know. Are you ready to go? I mean, are you ready to finish this off once and for all? Because if you are, with a little luck we may be able to bring this all to a head soon."

"I’m ready," Harry responded without hesitation, "But we need to destroy the cup first."

"Right," Evan agreed. Mr. and Mrs. Granger had already left to open their dental office. For them, this was a normal work day, and they had a number of appointments that morning. While Harry was away, they agreed that the others should arrive just after noon, when no patients would be there. He glanced at his watch. "In a few minutes, we’ll go to the dental office. We’ll see if we can destroy the cup there. If all goes well, Harry will absorb the horcrux. Then we can arrange to meet Voldemort. The sooner the better!"

"But why?" Ginny asked, "Shouldn’t we plan this carefully? Why rush into it?"

"Because of what you said before," Hermione asserted, motioning to Evan, "Voldemort will be desperate, and desperate people make mistakes. We should try to attack while he is at his weakest."

Harry smiled at her new-found aggression, reflecting his own mood perfectly. Everything indicated that they should act as soon as possible - the centaurs’ prediction, the Hogwarts captures, the news that Voldemort killed Nagini, Voldemort’s weakened position. There would never be a better time to act.

"I agree," he declared softly, bringing the brief discussion to an end. "Let’s go."

Chapter 33: Come Meet Your Brothers
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Chapter 33

Come Meet Your Brothers 

Mr. Granger demonstrated to Harry how to use the specialized dental saw located in a back room of the office. The dentist took a look at the relatively small cup and adjusted several knobs and dials to provide enough blade on the bandsaw to cut through the entire cup. He then replaced the used blade with a brand new one. Evan, Ron, Hermione and Ginny all hovered a few feet behind them, and thickness from their combined nerves filled the small room. 

Harry merely nodded at Mr. Granger’s instructions. Perhaps it was difficult for intricate dental work, but for his purposes, it could not be much simpler. Turn it on and slowly but firmly push the cup into the blade. 

“I’ve got it, Mr. Granger. Let’s do it.” Again, Harry spoke with a cockiness that still surprised his friends.

“All right, Harry, let me set it up for you.” He tightened a clamp to ensure that the settings would not shift before he stood aside.

Harry turned to his friends, and reminded them, “OK, stand outside the room. You can look through the window, but if it works, stay away from me until I’m done.” He appeared focused but not especially nervous.

Once again, Hermione could not avoid the comparisons. In the past, Harry possessed bravery in full measure, but he suffered when faced with his many trials. How could she forget the agonizing wait with him before he challenged the dragon during the Tri-Wizard Tournament, or before he entered the final room to rescue the Philosopher’s Stone, or in the Ministry. On those occasions, his bravery overcame his nerves; now he seemed not to have any nerves. Just like Dumbledore. Just like Voldemort.

She vaguely heard the others giving Harry final words of encouragement while filing out of the room. Ron patted him on the back, and Evan said some final words of advice which she did not hear. Finally they left the two of them alone, and Harry looked into her brown eyes and could see that she suffered from enough nerves for the both of them. She had suffered for him before throughout their many adventures, but now that more existed between them than mere friendship, her suffering intensified.

Harry smiled, and the two embraced, wrapping their arms around each other with all their might. She buried her face into his shoulder, and they remained in that position for a long time.

Finally Harry whispered in her ear, “I’ll be OK. I know what I’m doing now. It can’t hurt me; you know that. I just hope you’ll still like me afterwards; maybe I’ll turn into a bigger git than I already am.” He smiled at his attempt to lighten the moment. Hermione did not smile, but instead looked into his bright green eyes again.

“It doesn’t matter, Harry. I’ll love you no matter what. Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it, but you’re not going to get rid of me that easily.”

Again, Harry smiled, but at the same time his heart filled with emotion. Until that point in their short romance, neither had uttered the word “love,” and perhaps the moment for such language had not yet arrived under normal circumstances. But these were not normal circumstances. He ran his hand tenderly through her brown hair, and then they embraced briefly again. Wordlessly, she turned around and left the room as well.

Hufflepuff’s cup sat innocently on a white linoleum counter next to a number of shiny steel dental implements. The bandsaw buzzed behind him as he lifted the cup with his left hand, staring at it. Almost staring into it. The last one, he thought.

In a matter of seconds, the extraordinary events of the past six weeks passed before him. Dumbledore’s death, his flight from Little Whinging, Melissa Montgomery, escaping from Evan, bouncing all over Great Britain, Dumbledore’s letter, absorbing the two horcruxes. Now he held the last one.

From the corner of his eye, he saw his friends looking through the window to his left and slightly behind him. He took a deep breath and stepped to the saw, whirring before him. Carefully he grasped the cup with both hands, the open top in his left, the bottom in his right, leaving about four inches between them. Carefully he edged the cup closer to the blade.

When the cup touched the blade, it almost jumped out of Harry’s hands, recoiling backwards. He almost dropped it onto the white tile floor, but gathered himself just in time.

Concentrate! he chastised himself. He could not hear Hermione’s gasp from outside the window, where she stood trembling. His nerves remained calm, however, and again he carefully pushed the cup into the blade, this time tensing the muscles in his forearms to ensure that the cup remained in place.

Red sparks flew off of the silver where the blade met the cup, and Harry held it in position for a good minute before he finally removed the cup to assess his progress. Which was none. Not a scratch appeared on the surface of the cup, which did not even feel warm to the touch where the blade rubbed against it. Hermione gritted her teeth when she saw it, but Harry did not change expression.

In fact, he did not feel the least bit surprised. He tried it the “normal” way, not putting any of himself into the effort. But he knew both from pounding the locket and from the effort he put into the inflammare spell against the trophy, that more would be needed. He had to attack it.

Inhaling deeply, he again gripped the cup with both hands and closed his eyes, concentrating intensely on the space between his hands. Only briefly opening them to locate the blurred blade, he again placed the cup against the blur, and then closed his eyes. He recalled the aggression he felt when destroying the diary, the locket and the trophy, and his face automatically screwed itself into an ugly grimace.

Hermione could just see the side of Harry’s face, but could sense that he meant business now. She bit her bottom lip and moved closer to Ron. He understood how she must be suffering, so he wrapped an arm around her shoulder. She barely noticed, but moved into him another inch or two, finding a small measure of comfort.

A full minute passed with Harry’s eyes squeezed shut in intense concentration. Sparks flew off of the cup just as before, showing no improvement from the first attempt. Hermione’s heart began to sink as she realized that the saw may not work as Harry believed. Her expression of fear changed into one of disappointment.

“It’s not working, Ron. I don’t think it’s the right way.”

Before Ron could respond, however, Evan interjected, “Just wait. He’s feeling it right now. Give it a couple of minutes.” The auror’s confidence buoyed Hermione, and she looked back at Harry, wordlessly trying to convey her support to him.

Harry had little concept of the passage of time, so trance-like was his state. Gradually he felt warmth in his hands which little by little increased in temperature. At some point, he realized that the cup had heated considerably, and he knew he could do it. With that certainty, he pushed slightly harder on the cup.

The sparks doubled both in quantity and intensity, glowing a bright red, and the friction of the whirring blade against the silver cup created a piercing squeal, almost as if the cup were screaming. Harry pushed a little more, and his hands felt so hot that he almost could not hold on to the cup any longer. I’m so close, he thought.

Hermione and the others stood breathless, understanding that a change had occurred. They all gasped, however, when Harry suddenly opened his eyes wide, for they could see the bright reflection of his glowing green eyes off of the metal of the cup and saw and from the corner of his eyes. He screamed like a weightlifter attempting a new world record.

They heard the tell-tale snap, and in an instant the blade cut through the silver cup as if it were a mere branch from a birch tree. Harry pulled the two evenly sized pieces of the cup apart and stepped back, breathing heavily but still conscious. Within seconds, the familiar mist emerged from each piece of the cup, merging together and coalescing in a helix.

“Now they will know that I am still a force to be reckoned with!” sneered Lord Voldemort, observing the huge tongues of fire below. In rapid succession that morning, he destroyed the house of a random wizarding family in Kent, presumably killing its residents, caused a bridge outside Glasgow to collapse, killing and injuring scores of commuters, and created a huge forest fire in a wooded area in central England.

At all three sites, he displayed the dark mark in the sky so that the wizarding world would not doubt that he retained the ability to create havoc. Yet a part of him resented the need to lower himself to such petty mischief-making. He had death eaters for that purpose, except that through his own negligence and the incompetence of his followers, he lost nearly his entire force. Those that remained lacked skill and experience. Worthless hangers-on that he chose not to include on the attack on Hogwarts.

From atop a mountain, he spied the first muggle fire fighters arriving at the devastating blaze, which would take days of toil to control, much less extinguish. Normally, he would have exulted at the chaos he created, reveling in the imposition of his power over them. But he took little pleasure in his handiwork, all a sideshow to the main act. The horcruxes and Harry Potter.

He had planned to invade and occupy Hogwarts only for a day, but he failed to follow the plan that he himself devised. Upon defeating the anticipated minimal forces at the castle, he would then erect wards of his own creation to exclude the Ministry’s aurors from the grounds.

When he found the castle abandoned, he relaxed, and failed to follow the procedure that he himself dictated. Instead of erecting the wards, he moved directly to the trophy room. An inexcusable error. His foot soldiers retained their discipline only until such time that they determined that the enemy had fled. With their leader otherwise occupied, they sunk to their natural base instincts. Disaster followed, and he had to flee.

Thus until he devised a better plan, he decided to wreak enough havoc to remind the wizarding public that he remained a force to be feared. Now what?

By midday, the euphoria that swept through the Ministry evaporated as the first reports of Voldemort’s retaliatory actions arrived. Complete chaos resulted, as the Defense Ministry tried to assign aurors, obliviators, and other officials to the three sites. Already exhausted from the previous night’s hostilities, aurors drug themselves to the apparation point to travel to their designated locations, but they had been given little information or instruction. Essentially, they needed to figure it out as they went.

Everyone thought some version of the same worry: Will there be more? Is this just the beginning?

Evan Harrington’s supervisor vaguely recognized that Evan had not reported for duty that morning, but given the pressing crises, he took no action with regard to the absent auror. With no personnel available, he could do nothing at the moment anyway, so he pushed the thought out of his mind.

Same as his subordinates, Minister Scrimgeour’s mood also returned to earth from the stratosphere. While the news from Hogwarts would still be seen as a resounding success, these latest tragedies would temper any political gain he had hoped to enjoy. Moreover, he intended for his forces to pursue He Who Must Not Be Named and his remaining forces as vigorously as possible. Even if the dark lord himself could not be captured, as seemed likely, if the Ministry could round up most of his remaining followers, his abilities would be greatly diminished. Now, the Minister had no choice but to devote his forces to deal with the aftermath of the dark lord’s attacks.

“Two steps forward, and one step back,” he muttered to an advisor, “At least we are making some progress.”

Little did Harry Potter realize that Minister Scrimgeour could be the beneficiary of his actions, should he succeed in defeating Lord Voldemort. For the moment, he directed all of his attentions towards the image of Tom Riddle which had just coalesced in front of him.

This Riddle appeared significantly older than the Hogwart’s era Head Boy that Harry met in the Chamber of Secrets, but well before the transformations which converted him into an almost inhuman creature. Again wearing a normal black wizard’s robe, Tom appeared to be in his late twenties, perhaps as old as thirty, still young but with the first signs of aging.

The horcrux briefly scanned the extremely unusual room in which he found himself, for Tom Riddle never in his life set foot in a modern muggle dental office. Floating several feet above the ground, his eye level reached about Harry’s neck.

Harry’s wand pointed directly at the chest of the horcrux, and he breathed heavily as he recovered from the exertion of destroying Hufflepuff’s cup. On the other side of the window, Harry’s friends looked on, as did Evan and Mr. Granger. Since they were in his office, they could hardly force him to leave. All of them held their breath.

“Hello Tom,” Harry spoke quietly, “Fancy seeing you in these parts.” The horcrux’s face sneered at the belittling comment.

“Why have you released me, boy? You should not delve into matters of which you have no knowledge. By releasing me, you have doomed yourself to be my servant.”

“Oh, but I do have some knowledge, Tom Riddle, illegitimate son of a muggle father. You’re a half blood, Tom, just like me. I’m an orphan too, just like you were. We have a lot more in common than you’ll ever realize.” Harry smiled at the irony and added, “You might even call us soul mates.” He could not suppress a chuckle.

“Who are you?” Tom asked suspiciously, “You seem familiar to me, but I do not recognize you. You are much younger than I, so we did not attend Hogwarts together, but I feel I know you.”

“And well you should, Tom, well you should. And in a moment, you’ll come to know me much better.”

Hermione gritted her teeth at this far too lengthy conversation, which she could barely follows. Just do it, Harry!

In fact, Harry decided the conversation had ended and directed his wand at Tom’s chest.

“Put that wand away, boy, you have no . . .”

“ACCIO,” Harry yelled, cutting him off in mid-sentence. Immediately Tom found himself moving involuntarily the few feet towards the young wizard who seemed so familiar. At first he tried to resist, but found that to be impossible. Since he needed to possess someone anyway, Tom allowed himself to be pulled.

“This boy has a lot of spark,” Tom thought, “He’ll serve my purposes well.

When it arrived just a foot from Harry’s stomach, the young wizard whispered, “Come meet your brothers.” The horcrux dissolved into a mist and quickly shot into Harry’s midsection. Harry barely felt it this time, suffering no adverse effects. In fact, he found the process to be quite pleasant.

Mr. Granger stood dumbfounded, having no idea what he just witnessed. Hermione rushed away to run into the room, but Mr. Granger attempted to grab her first, afraid for her safety. Suddenly, his eyes glazed for a few seconds, and he stood still. Evan quickly lowered his wand.

“Well, were you able to take care of that little business of yours?” he asked Evan in a most pleasant, unworried voice, “I hope the saw did the job.”

“Yes, quite,” Evan assured him, “We’ve just finished, and I’m happy to say that the saw worked just fine.”

“Excellent, excellent,” the dentist replied, “Well, I must be off. I have a one-ten appointment to prepare for. I’m afraid she won’t find this to be the most pleasant of procedures.” He turned around and paid the wizards and witches no further attention.

Meanwhile, Hermione met Harry and embraced him again with all of her might, fighting back tears from the tension of witnessing the absorption of the final horcrux. Ron and Ginny filed in behind, both slightly wary of how this horcrux may have affected Harry.

“You did it, Harry,” Hermione whispered in relief and admiration, “It’s over. That’s the last one.”

In response, Harry sneered. An ugly sneer, one that his friends had never seen before.

“No. There’s one more to go. It’s time to catch the big fish.”

For a second Hermione trembled, but she promised herself that she would not fear Harry, no matter what. She would accept him for whatever he may become, because she knew that the real Harry still existed and would ultimately prevail in the battle of wills.

“You’re right, Harry. There’s one more to go, and he’s ready to take our hook, if we put on the right bait.”

Harry looked down at her, into her eyes, and that same warmth passed through him. The anger he felt a few seconds before disappeared, and he smiled genuinely.

“Why all the fishing analogies?” he laughed, “I don’t even like fishing.” The four friends laughed, relieved that Harry still displayed a sense of humor.

Their laughter ceased, however, when Harry’s eyes glowed again. This time, however, they brightened and ebbed randomly, and Hermione felt him lose his balance. She tightened her hold on him, but his momentum pulled her backwards, towards the still whirring saw. Ron and Ginny both jumped forward to grab their friends, and managed to steady them before they completely lost their balance. Harry’s eyes continued to glow at differing intensities, as the four friends remained in a huddle.

Evan entered after them and immediately flicked his wand at the saw to turn it off. He stepped forward and examined Harry’s eyes and face carefully, though without the expression of worry on the young wizard’s three friends.

“What’s happening to him,” Ginny finally asked breathlessly, “Is he going to be all right?”

“There’s a lot of magic going on inside of him right now,” Evan answered calmly, “Sometimes it needs a release, and in Harry’s case, the release is his eyes. I think he needs some time to assimilate this new horcrux. Where can he lie down?”

“Follow me, Harry,” Hermione ordered, yanking him by the hand. Ron stayed by his side, with an arm on his shoulder to steady him. Hermione dragged him into the back room where just a week or so before Harry whipped off his invisibility cloak, showing Hermione his short, bleached-blond hair. That seemed ages ago now. She helped him to lie down on the sofa.

Harry lay his head back the padded armrest, and Ginny quickly found a small pad on a nearby chair which she placed under his head. He closed his eyes and relaxed for a few seconds, when again his muscles tensed and he felt dizzy. His friends suppressed gasps, and Hermione bit her bottom lip.

They could see the green glow right through his closed eyelids as he fell asleep.

“You’ve done well, Harry. You’ve been everything I always believed you would be. I could not be more proud.”

Harry saw Albus Dumbledore move behind his desk in the headmaster’s office. To the side, the office blurred in his vision; he could only see clearly straight ahead.

“But I’m losing it, sir,” Harry replied fearfully, “I’m becoming him. My eyes glow like his. I don’t feel like myself anymore. I don’t know who I am.”

The deceased headmaster walked around the desk, leaning on it directly in front of the young wizard.

“Was I wrong all along?” Harry asked, “Was there a different way? Why didn’t you tell me? You destroyed the ring. You knew how to do it, but you wouldn’t tell me.”

“And I lost use of my arm in the process. You had to destroy four more. I could not allow you to use the method I employed. You would have disabled yourself to the point where you could no longer function. No, Harry, I could not allow that. For me, an excessively old man, the loss of an arm seemed a worthwhile exchange for the destruction of a horcrux.”

“But is absorbing them any better? I’m not Harry Potter any more. I’m a stranger. A dangerous stranger.”

“No, you are not a stranger. You are a simple young man placed into an extraordinary situation. That simple young man will never leave you.” Dumbledore spoke with his normal confident calm.

Harry shook his head, arguing, “But there’s so much of him inside of me now. Three horcruxes, plus whatever happened when I was a baby. There’s more of him in me than there is in Voldemort himself.”

Though Harry’s voice ached with despair, Dumbledore merely smiled as he tilted his nose down to look over his half glasses.

“But you forget, that there is no Harry Potter within Lord Voldemort, and THAT is your advantage.” He paused a moment before continuing, “Only one element has been lacking so far, Harry, in what you have accomplished. Can you think what that is? Try to recall our many conversations in this very room prior to my untimely death.”

Harry did not need to consider the question for more than a second. He looked at the aged face of his mentor before dropping his eyes to his feet.

“Love. I haven’t used the power of love. I know it, but I don’t know how. I can’t feel it anymore! There’s too much of him inside of me, too much hate, too much evil. I can’t overcome it.”

“Yet yesterday you admitted your love for Miss Granger, in a most spectacular way. Have you lost it already.”

“No. I love her, but that’s different. That’s . . . ,” Harry could not find the words, “That’s just normal love, boy and girl love.”

“And your mother simply had the normal love of a mother for a child. Her love for you did not exceed the love of any mother for her child, yet you know the power of her love. It countered the killing curse, turning it around on the caster. It protected you in your home until your seventeenth birthday. The simple love of a mother for her child. ‘Normal love,’ as you call it, is the most powerful kind, for it is the most difficult to break.”

Harry stared at him impassively, trying to comprehend Dumbledore’s words. It made no sense to him. He could not feel it.

“I don’t know sir. What am I supposed to do, throw a ‘love spell?’ Maybe that’s taught in seventh year. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I’ll be able to attend that class.”

“You need no instructions, Harry. Love is so much a part of your essence that it can never be separated from you. Allow it to control. When you feel that hatred is overcoming you, pause and focus on your friends, Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley, even Miss Weasley. There are many forms of love, all of them simple, all of them powerful. When the time arrives, you will know what to do. That is the way of great wizards. Do you think that I plan my actions when in battle? Of course not, I simply trust my instincts and my abilities. You have become a great wizard, Harry; you demonstrated that in the lake. Trust your instincts. Trust your friends. Trust the power of love.”

While he spoke, the old man walked back around the desk to his seat, which he stood behind. He faded away as the final words left his mouth.

Hermione simultaneously paced, fretted, frowned and grimaced as Harry slept fitfully on the uncomfortable sofa. Many thoughts passed through her mind, but she most worried that the changes in Harry would somehow change his feelings towards her, that just as his feelings for Ginny dissolved, so may his feelings for her. Would their romance end before it even started.

She could face the possibility of death, but the possibility that they may die without the mutual love they now shared caused her to work herself into a frenzy. The attempted words of comfort from Ron and even Ginny could not assuage her.

Finally after half an hour, Evan placed a hand on her shoulder, preventing her from pacing further. With his other hand, he directed his wand at a metal folding chair, moving it next to the sofa.

“Sit, Hermione. Take his hand. He needs you now. If you take his hand, he’ll feel it. He’ll know.”

The words of the older man calmed her, and she nodded. Sitting down, she lifted Harry’s hand, enveloping it with both of hers. The contact with him settled her nerves slightly, and she gazed thoughtfully at his face. He had accomplished so much in such a short period of time. Less than two months before, when they mourned the death of Professor Dumbledore, she never would have believed that all the horcruxes would be destroyed already. Like everyone else, she assumed they had months at least, maybe years. Now they were speaking of hours.

At times she could see Harry’s eyes glow under his eyelids, while at others, she could not. Even his hand would suddenly warm in her hand, only to return to its normal temperature seconds later. Clearly a lot was going on inside him.

Finally after another half an hour, Harry began to stir, his head moving back and forth a few inches. Hermione increased the pressure of her hands, and Harry squeezed back, lifting her spirits enormously. By the time he opened his eyes, she greeted him with a loving smile. Ron and Ginny moved behind Hermione, so that he could see all three of them. Evan remained off to the side.

“Are you OK, Harry?” Hermione asked softly, “Is there anything I can do for you.”

“You’re already doing it,” he whispered back. His eyes no longer glowed, but he looked about the room quickly, his eyes flitting back and forth across the room. He took a deep breath, and with a pull from Hermione moved into a sitting position. An idea developed in his mind.

“Let’s go,” he finally said, standing up abruptly, “I need to see Pettigrew again. And Draco.”

Chapter 34: Just Let It Flow
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Chapter 34 

Just Let It Flow

“Will you do it?”

Draco immediately nodded his head, “Of course I will. I’ll do anything now. What do I have to lose?”

“You know that it could end up badly,” Harry cautioned him, “You may die.”

“I’m already dead,” Draco retorted, “but I’d like to take the dark lord with me.”

Satisfied with Draco’s response, Harry directed his eyes to the other person to whom he asked the question. “Peter?”

The balding wizard nodded his head nervously as he answered, “Yes, yes, I will do it, but I doubt it will work. The dark lord has powers of which we know nothing. He’ll see through whatever I tell him. His legilimency powers are second to none.” He rocked back and forth, beside himself with nerves. Harry’s plan would almost certainly result in his death, probably after a good round of torture. “But I will do it; I owe it to you, Harry.”

“You owe me a lot more than that,” Harry spat, “You owe me my parents’ lives. But this is the best you can do.”

Ron stood by the wall of the room, flanked by Hermione and Ginny. Anger welled up inside all of them when they saw the two prisoners, and Ron especially wondered again about the wisdom of exploiting them. Evan stood a few feet to the other side of Harry, allowing the young wizard to speak with Draco and Peter.

After Harry awoke at the dental office, he informed the others that he had an idea. Over the next half hour, they quickly devised a plan, filling in the gaps whenever they could. They unavoidably left a lot to chance, but Harry out of hand rejected any suggestion to put off the confrontation any further.

Evan checked his watch and informed the others, “It’s four-thirty now. We should start soon.” He looked with disgust at the two prisoners. “Are you sure about them, Harry. If I had my way, I throw them into Azkaban with their own personal dementor.”

Harry stared at the pair again, and his eyes flickered slightly before he brought himself back under control.

“No, I don’t trust them, in general. But they’ll do what they have to. If they don’t, we can abort the plan and let the dark lord have his way with them. I’ll shed no tears for these two.”

“OK, then we’ll get started. I’ll go down and explain to Remus, Kingsley and the others. We’ll be ready to go in twenty minutes,” Evan declared, turning sharply to leave the room.

With a few minutes to spare, Harry’s eyes met Hermione’s. They stared at each other intensely.

“Ron, can you stay with them? I need to talk to Hermione for a minute.”

Ron nodded understandingly, “Sure, mate. We’ll keep an eye on them.”

Harry led her into the next room over, which happened to be the large residence’s library, which appeared not to have been touched in decades. Rows of leather-bound volumes lined the walls, held in dark walnut shelves. Two small tables sat on a faded carpet, each with two dark wooden chairs. But Harry and Hermione did not use them.

They embraced tenderly, and Harry could feel the tension in the young witch’s body. Since absorbing the horcrux a few hours before, they had not been afforded a moment alone, and both of them knew that this could be the last time. They held each other in silence.

Finally Harry whispered in her ear, “Dumbledore talked to me. Just now, when I was sleeping. I guess it must have been a dream, but it felt so real. In his office.”

Hermione rested her head on his shoulder listening closely to every word, forcing out of her mind all of the negative thoughts that tried to break in.

“It’s love. Somehow I have to use the power of love. Up until now, I haven’t used it; in fact with each new horcrux, I feel that I’m farther and farther away from love. I don’t know if I have enough left in me.” His voice trembled.

Hermione could hear his worry and indecision, but she lifted her head off his shoulder and stared him directly in the eyes, asserting, “You have plenty of love, Harry. I felt it in the lake. When you just let it flow, when you don’t try to suppress it, you have more love inside of you than anyone. That’s what made you go after the Philosopher’s Stone, and into the Chamber of Secrets, and to save Sirius and me from the dementors. And love is why you absorbed those horcruxes, because you did not want anyone else to have to face them. You are willing to sacrifice yourself for us. For me. That is the greatest love of all.”

Harry nodded his head an inch, his eyes still looking deep within hers. Love from inside of her seemed to flow right through her eyes into his, and he felt heartened. One way or the other, it would end tonight, but he knew that he would not face evil alone. He could still love. It was still inside of him.

“How did you get to be so brilliant?” he asked with a smile, “You always know what to say.” She smiled in return, but shook her head.

“No I don’t. All I know is that I believe in you. I know you are not evil, and even though you have been affected by your seventeenth birthday and each of the horcruxes, I know that you are still you. You will always be you.”

They kissed briefly, and then again, more deeply, and both wished they could push the hands of the clock back a few hours. But after a few more seconds, they knew that time would not stand still. They squeezed each other’s hands, and headed out the door.

Another ancient text fell to the dirty tile floor of another large mansion where he moved shortly after returning from the Hogwarts disaster. He had not entered this particular residence for more than two decades, back when it belonged to some of his earliest supporters. He exploited that wealthy family for more than a little money back in those early days when money still mattered to him. But more than anything, he appreciated their library, which contained numerous unique works on esoteric topics of dark magic.

After exhausting his own personal collection, out of desperation, he gave the order to his few remaining supporters to move again. Now he researched furiously for some means of recovering his lost horcruxes. By now, he knew that Potter must have somehow assimilated at least some of the horcruxes, exactly how he could not determine, but he intended to find a method to extract those partial souls from the nuisance of a boy. Then perhaps he could create a new horcrux to ensure his immortality. Certainly he could no longer bear the luxury of six horcruxes, but in the end, one well-guarded horcrux would do the job. As long as Potter lay firmly in his grave.

So far, however, he found nothing in the dim, depressing library of the dim depressing mansion. He knew better than anyone that little had been memorialized in writing with regard to the subject of horcruxes. As a young man, he read every known treatise on the subject, a task that did not take a great deal of time, given that only a handful of books dealt with the taboo topic. But all of the known texts never considered the possibility that the creator of the horcrux may wish require to reacquire it from another wizard who misappropriated it.

While he continued to toss book after book to the floor, he allowed his instincts to inform him. After all, he must be considered the greatest expert on the subject of horcruxes that had ever lived. Ultimately, he would have to rely on his wits.

Finally, Lord Voldemort stood and walked out of the library of Number 12, Grimmauld Place.

“All right,” Evan concluded, “Any last questions?” Hearing none, he turned to Peter Pettigrew and Draco Malfoy. The younger wizard stood tall and proud, summoning the trademark Malfoy sneer, yet he impressed none of the onlookers. Peter did not attempt to put on airs, trembling uncontrollably at the thought of facing his master again.

“Give me you arm,” Shacklebolt instructed Peter. The shorter wizard lifted his arm, allowing the tall auror to push the sleeve of his black robe up to his shoulder, exposing the dark mark. Kingsley strapped a small object, which just so happened to be a thin travel clock used commonly by muggles, to Peter’s upper arm. Michelle Goldsmith provided both the clock and the strap, which she explained that she used to hold a small radio when she jogged. The non-muggleborn among them did not exactly understand this, but the fact of the matter is that the two devices, obtained on short notice, worked perfectly for their purposes.

Michelle came as soon as she could after being summoned, and she trembled at the realization that she would soon participate in a true mission. A dangerous mission. One in which she could possibly die, although she had been assigned only a support role. Normally, the Order would not have dreamed of sending her on such a dangerous assignment, but they had little choice. As it turned out, her muggle way of thinking solved the problem of how to attach the portkey target to Voldemort’s right-hand man.

Kingsley tapped the small plastic travel clock twice, and then pulled Peter’s sleeve back down. Gathered around the room stood all of the members of the Order that could answer the summons: Minerva McGonagall, Arthur and Molly Weasley, Fred and George Weasley, Nymphadora Tonks, Remus Lupin, Cho Chang, Michelle, Kingsley, and Evan. Ron, Hermione and Ginny positioned themselves next to Harry.

Molly refused to allow Ginny to participate, only to be summarily overruled by Harry. They had no idea exactly how many death eaters remained under Voldemort’s control, and they needed every wand they could muster. He agreed that Ginny would join Michelle and Cho in the least dangerous roles, but she deserved that right to participate. Ginny did not know whether to be pleased or not, but she felt deeply affected that Harry showed confidence in her.

Likewise, Harry insisted that Cho be included too. He knew her to be a capable witch, and he no longer could find any reason why she should not lend a hand. After all, she voluntarily agreed to bear the risk of spying on the Minister of Magic himself. Previously, Ginny took her aside and briefly filled her in on the current status of affairs.

“Two minutes,” Evan reminded Peter and Draco, “The first of us will arrive then. We need the dark lord distracted. When we arrive, get out of the way, and then help out if you can. If you turn on us, we’ll kill you without a second thought. If you help, we’ll inform the Ministry. It will be seen as a mitigating circumstance when you are sentenced.” Of course, he did not need to add that their sentence also depended on their survival.

“Enough talk,” Harry interrupted, “Let’s go.” Excitement filled his voice, and again his eyes glowed, as they did every few minutes. Cho did not even flinch, realizing that they faced matters much more important than her modesty.

Draco placed his hand on Peter’s shoulder and could feel the older death eater shivering with fear. For his part, he suffered from plenty of nerves too, but after being locked up in that depressing room for a few days, he would have walked into a den of hungry lions. In a way, he was.

Peter inhaled deeply and held out his real hand. Remus placed a wand into it, the first time he had touched one since losing his when Hagrid grabbed his neck. Only he among all of Lord Voldemort’s servants had been granted this special power, which he divulged to the Order when questioned under veritaserum. Before the dark lord succeeded in regaining his body in the graveyard, thanks to Harry’s blood and Peter’s hand, he had been dependent on Peter for every aspect of his life. At times, Peter needed to leave his side, and the hideous creature that Voldemort had become wished to assure that Peter could find him under any circumstances. Thus he instructed Peter to perform a special spell on his dark mark. He merely needed to touch the mark twice with a wand, on the head and tail of the serpent, to be automatically transported to Voldemort’s side. Before the events at Little Hangleton, Peter often used this method to return quickly to his master’s side. Once Voldemort regained his body, however, he prohibited Wormtail from utilizing this special method except under the most extreme of emergencies. Peter never used it again.

He breathed again, visibly shaking, and touched the head of the serpent. He quickly glanced at the dark mark to find the tail, moving the wand quickly to tap the spot. Just before the wand made contact, he closed his eyes tightly. The two death eaters disappeared with a crack.

After waiting a few seconds, Tonks turned to Remus and silently embraced him. He wrapped his arms around her as well, and caused Molly and Arthur to do likewise. Soon their children joined them in a family huddle, silently imparting their goodbyes, just in case.

Harry turned to Hermione, and the two friends looked deep into each other’s eyes. He intentionally etched the memory of her eyes into his brain, vowing never to forget how they looked at that very moment. They embraced briefly, but did not linger, knowing that the first wave to follow Peter and Draco would leave within seconds.

“Be careful, Harry,” Hermione whispered. Harry simply smiled, as ever displaying no sign of nerves.

While watching the others, Evan checked his watch, and then without thinking found himself looking for Michelle. When his eyes found her, he saw her eyes already staring at him. They maintained the eye contact for several seconds, and more than ever they both knew that something could happen between them. If they ever had the chance. Evan nodded slightly, and Michelle pressed her lips into a nervous smile.

Finally, Evan, Remus, Tonks, Kingsley and Harry moved next to a brass vase charmed to serve as the portkey. Each placed one hand on the rim of the vase, and Evan tapped it with his wand. The five disappeared.

As Lord Voldemort exited the library of Number 12, Grimmauld Place, he jumped slightly at the completely unexpected appearance of two death eaters that he believe to be lost to him forever. Peter’s eyes opened wide at his first view of the dark lord, and he quickly fell to his knees.

“MASTER, WE HAVE RETURNED. WE ESCAPED,” he blurted out rapidly, “We are overjoyed to see you again.” He trembled noticeably.

Voldemort’s narrow red eyes squinted even further in disbelief, and he turned towards Draco, who remained standing and motionless. A few seconds before, the young wizard felt full of valor, but now he froze in fear.

“Explain,” Voldemort ordered Draco.

“My Lord,” he finally managed, “He’s telling the truth. The Order of the Phoenix captured me and has held me since our mission failed. They ambushed us, as if they knew we were coming. Yesterday they brought Peter to my cell. We could do nothing. But something happened just a short time ago. We believe that the Ministry located the Order’s hideout, and somehow the ward on our room lifted. The door suddenly could be opened and we walked out. We heard fighting and knew we needed to escape while we could, but Peter saw an order member that had been stunned. He ran over to pick up the wand, told me to grab his shoulder, and the next thing I know, I am standing in front of you.”

Draco presented a suitably astonished appearance, but the dark lord did not believe either of them for a second. He sneered first at the older wizard.

“How could you have allowed yourself to be captured by the half giant?” he snarled angrily, “CRUCIO.” Peter screamed in pain under the torture of the curse, which he fully expected. Voldemort lifted the curse after ten seconds and sneered at his former manservant with a full measure of hatred.

“You are lying both of you. I have no use for you. AVADA KEDAVRA.” The green bolt crackled out of his wand and struck Peter’s shoulder. He crumpled to the cold tile floor.

He then turned to Draco, who knew that he would soon suffer Peter’s same fate. The dark lord however hesitated for a moment in thought.

By now, several of the few death eaters remaining in the dark lord’s service had arrived to check on the commotion.

“Take him away,” he ordered, “We’ll have some fun with him. I promised his dear mother that I would pay special attention to his torture.” Two death eaters stepped forward to flank Draco.

At that moment, a loud boom filled the wide hallway, momentarily stunning the death eaters. Before they knew what happened, four wizards and a witch appeared out of nowhere and fired several spells each. All but two of the death eaters fell awkwardly to the ground.

Draco hit the floor at the first sound of the arrival of the Order, and he reached deep into the pocket of his robe to pull out his wand that he had handed before leaving. A few more death eaters still in the house ran towards the noise, and soon spells were cast and shields were erected every second for a short time until all of the death eaters hit the floor. In fact, Draco’s stunner felled the last of Voldemort’s henchmen.

Turning to face Voldemort, they discovered to their amazement that he had disappeared. Then they realized that one of their number also had gone missing. Harry Potter was nowhere to be seen. They stood stunned and could not speak for nearly a minute.

Finally Evan’s training kicked in, and he quietly choked out the words, “We better check the house. There may be some hiding, though they’ve probably disapparated by now.”

They began to move when another boom filled the house, announcing the arrival of the second wave: Fred and George, Ron, Hermione, and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. Their wands thrust forward as they expected to enter a battle zone. Instead they found eight or nine unconscious death eaters strewn about.

“Check the house,” Tonks abruptly instructed them, “Go in groups of three.” They could hear despair in her voice. Hermione quickly searched all around.

“Where’s Harry?” she asked urgently. Nobody answered. “WHERE’S HARRY?” Evan finally approached her and placed his hand on her shoulder.

“We don’t know. He and Voldemort disappeared together.”

Hermione’s eyes and mouth opened wide. This was exactly what they wanted to avoid. They thought that they would be able to assist Harry, just as they did at the bottom of the lake. If they could outnumber Voldemort, then Harry would have a fighting chance to take him. But now, he was completely on his own.

“No!” she uttered despairingly, “It can’t be.” She seemed close to collapse until Ron scooped her up in his arms and held her tightly.

“He’s ready, Hermione,” he assured her, and he truly believed it, “Harry’s coming back, and Voldemort is going down.”

Draco stood off to the side mutely, observing the scene. By now, Kingsley had already collected his wand, and anti-apparation spells had been placed on him anew. So much love among them, he thought, thinking of his three nemeses. He made close friends in Slytherin House in his six years at Hogwarts, but nothing like what those three enjoyed. Love. That was the missing ingredient. In fact, that was the missing ingredient throughout his life.

Hermione suddenly bolted from Ron and rushed to Draco’s side.

“Take me there,” she ordered him, “Take me to Voldemort.” Of course Draco had no ability to comply with the order, and he stared at the distraught witch almost apologetically.

Ron reached out and wrapped his arms around her from behind and pulled her away from the astonished young death eater.

“You can’t, Hermione. It’s meant to be. All of Harry’s life has been leading to this moment. He won’t fail!”

When Harry appeared in the hallway of his home, he had only one thought on his mind. Find Voldemort. Thus when his eyes first could see, he did not bother casting spells. Immediately he knew that the dark lord stood to his right, and their eyes briefly met. Glowing green met glowing red.

Voldemort instantly recognized the that his rag-tag band of death eaters stood no chance, so he decided to apparate away to a separate room in the mansion, from which he would calmly pick off the Order members one by one. But Harry understood his intention to apparate, and he dove forward, grabbing his left forearm just as Voldemort turned. The two of them disappeared together.

They reappeared a second later in the master bedroom of the house. Sirius’ bedroom. Harry’s bedroom, though at the moment it contained none of his belongings. Rage overcame him, and he unthinkingly threw a wild left hook, connecting squarely with Voldemort’s jaw, knocking him onto the floor of the dim, dingy room.

The momentum of the swing caused Harry to fall as well, but the fury inside of him remained. Rolling onto his knees, he leaped forward, landing just to Voldemort’s side, again trying to punch his face. Voldemort turned his aching jaw just in time, and managed to push Harry away. The two wizards quickly jumped to their feet, the adrenaline inside of Voldemort allowing him to move faster than he had in decades.

“Now you die, Potter,” he sneered, thrusting his wand forward, “AVADA KEDAVRA!”

But Harry’s new sixth sense allowed him to sidestep the killing curse with a minimum of effort, and he returned the attack with, “Sectumsempra.”

With his own hair-trigger senses, Voldemort just managed to erect a shield to deflect the curse. The two men faced off again, each breathing heavily.

“You’re just a man now, Tom,” Harry taunted, “Soon you’ll join my parents.”

Voldemort smiled slightly, as much as his face would allow, and commented, “You’ve changed, Harry Potter. I can sense the darkness inside of you. Yes, it is quite strong. You cannot deny it. Sooner or later it will consume you, unless you use it. Control it, don’t fight it. Together, we could be unstoppable.”

“The difference between you and me, Tom, is that there is still a lot of light mixed with that darkness. I’ll never give in. I’ll never let the dark consume me.” They each stepped slowly to their left, keeping their wands trained on the other and refusing even to blink an eye.

“Ah, brave words, Harry. But there will be no need to fight, for soon I will kill you. Dumbledore is not here to save you this time.”

Harry laughed, “He wasn’t with me in the graveyard either. That didn’t go so well, did it, Tom? You talk big, but now I see it. You’re a coward! You’re nothing!”

The final insult cut Voldemort to the core. Nothing! He had worked all of his life to be something, someone to be reckoned with. No longer an anonymous orphan, now the entire magical world feared him.

“Enough talk, Harry Potter, say hello to Dumbledore.” And with that he threw caution to the wind, waving his arms wildly in preparation of an advanced spell which would spew molten rock from his wand.

But before he could finish the complicated and time-consuming spell, Harry surprised him with a simple, silent expelliarmus. Voldemort’s wand shockingly flew out of his hand and into Harry’s. Both of them stood in complete astonishment at the success of Harry’s first-year spell.

Harry gritted his teeth and his eyes glowed brighter than ever as he sensed the kill, the moment that would set him free. Voldemort, however, had other plans. He turned, flinging the sleeves of his black robe dramatically, and Harry immediately knew what Tom Riddle intended. Just as quickly, Harry turned as well, and both bodies fell to the floor, apparently lifeless.

Voldemort intended to possess him, Harry realized, just as he had done in the Ministry atrium. On that occasion, the possession caused Harry tremendous physical pain, but this time he did not fear that. The inability to touch Voldemort without pain no longer afflicted Harry, who had wrestled with the dark lord without any pain in his scar at all. In fact, the longer he remained around Voldemort, the stronger he felt. This time, he determined that he would not allow Voldemort to take the lead. Their two souls met in a black void.

Hermione largely recovered from the initial shock of Harry’s absence, and she joined Ron and Arthur Weasley in checking through the house. After a few minutes, they heard the final wave of the Order arrive: Minerva McGonagall, Michelle Goldsmith, Cho Chang, and Ginny Weasley.

At first, they followed Arthur, expecting trouble behind every door, but soon it became apparent that The House of Black had been cleared. Voldemort clearly controlled fewer death eaters than they expected, and the operation which they assumed to be terribly dangerous turned out to be a rout. Finally they reached the door of the master bedroom.

Arthur opened it slowly, only to be pushed aside by Hermione when she glimpsed the lifeless body of Harry Potter lying on his back, his right arm thrown to the side still clutching his wand, his left arm laying on his stomach.

“NOOOOOO!” she screamed as all her fears had been realized. She threw herself over Harry’s body weeping uncontrollably, never even noticing the equally lifeless body of Lord Voldemort a few feet away.

When Arthur and Ron entered the room, their initial horror was soon replaced by the recognition that something strange was happening. A charged atmosphere filled the room, as if on the verge of emitting a lightning bolt.

“Do you feel something,” Ron croaked as best he could, between his shock at Harry’s apparent death and the heavy sensation he felt.

“Yes,” whispered Arthur, “Something definitely is going on here. Let me check.” He stooped down beside Harry’s body and placed his fingers on Harry’s neck.

“He’s alive, Hermione,” he announced quietly, “He’s alive, and so is Voldemort, I’d wager. Something is happening that we don’t understand.”

“They’re still fighting, Hermione. I don’t know how, but they’re still fighting,” Ron concluded encouragingly, “Harry’s stronger. He’s going to win.”

Upon hearing Arthur’s words, Hermione checked for a pulse herself and felt it. A tidal wave of relief passed through her. Harry had not died, at least not yet. In the background she vaguely heard Evan Harrington and perhaps a few others entering the room, attracted by her scream.

She leaned down to whisper in his ear, not loud enough for anyone else to hear, “It’s love, Harry. Remember it’s love.”

Perhaps in the annals of magical history a case of simultaneous possession had been recorded. Or perhaps the texts believed such an occurrence to be impossible. Regardless, Harry and Lord Voldemort found themselves in a most unpleasant and unforeseen situation.

Neither felt pain, for their bodies currently did not house their souls, yet Harry felt a horrible constriction on his mind. Or soul. Or whatever it was that currently found itself enmeshed with Voldemort’s mind. Or soul. For what seemed like an eternity, Harry saw nothing, and his mind seemed to be a void.

Then he saw an image, then another, then another and another, flashing before him like a slide show. The ceiling of the cupboard under the stairs just two feet above his head; Hagrid storming through the door on that island; Dudley hovering over him pumping his fist; and then the image of a dormitory room that he only recognized from Dumbledore’s pensieve - the room of an orphanage; a squalid table around which sat a dozen dirty and hungry children; his hand wrapping its fingers around a snitch; in the back room of a shop, probably Borgen & Burkes; sitting in a classroom at Hogwarts with the distrusting eyes of a much younger Albus Dumbledore gazing at him; a quill etching letters into the back of a hand; a bearded, turbaned old wizard in some exotic land; and on and on, seemingly endless.

Many memories from his life mixed with memories of another life, and Harry felt those two sources of memories merging, almost as if they were thrown together in a cauldron under a strong fire. His mind could barely function, but little by little he determined that Harry Potter was melting away, that Tom Riddle was melting away, and that some new human being would emerge from the pot.

Fight it, fight it, he urged himself, don’t let it happen! Don’t lose yourself. He tried to control the images flashing by, but they could not be halted. No, no, no, he groaned, and slowly he felt his soul being pulled down, whirling around dizzily as if pulled down into a vortex.

Suddenly he emerged into a different black void. How he knew it was different, he could not say, but from behind him, or what he perceived to be behind him, he sensed light. Turning his mind around, he saw the bright white image of Albus Dumbledore standing before him, his long white beard glowing before the pitch black background.

“I’m losing myself, sir. He’s becoming a part of me, and I’m becoming a part of him. I can’t stop it. What’s going to happen to me? What can I do?” Fear, which had been lacking in him for days, caused his voice to quaver. Dumbledore gazed at him severely, peering over his half glasses.

“What are you forgetting, Harry? Think! What is the power that he knows not? You can resist, but you do not have long.”

“But how, sir? How do I harness the power of love? I don’t know how!” he shouted despairingly, “Why can’t you ever tell me?”

“You’ve been told, Harry. Think!” And Dumbledore’s image transformed into a blur of shapeless light.

As if from a mountaintop miles away he heard the echoing voice of Hermione, “It’s love, Harry. Remember it’s love.”

“I know,” he called out to her, “But how? How? I don’t know.”

The blur of light reformed into the image of Hermione, though her hair almost seemed to be on fire against the pure black, and Harry remembered the words that she spoke just before they left, “You have plenty of love, Harry. I felt it in the lake. When you just let it flow, when you don’t try to suppress it, you have more love inside of you than anyone.”

Just let it flow, he repeated, don’t try to suppress it. He relaxed and let himself go, no longer trying to resist. He allowed himself to think of all that he loved, and soon the faces of all those closest to him appeared: Ginny, Molly, Arthur, Fred, George, Sirius, Remus, Ron, Hermione. Those faces faded away, only to be replaced by two ghostly images, which he last saw at the grave yard in Little Hangleton.

They approached him, and Lily Potter smiled lovingly at him while James Potter stood proudly by her side.

“Go back now, Harry,” Lily instructed him slowly, “Now is your last chance. If you wait it will be too late.”

“Think of the one you love most in the world,” continued James, “That love will direct you.”

Fifteen minutes passed. Then twenty. The two bodies remained motionless on the floor of the master bedroom. Hermione sat cross-legged next to him, grasping his hand. At times she thought she felt a change in his grip, but then she knew that she merely imagine it. Ron sat next to her, at times placing a comforting hand on her back.

“He’ll win, Hermione. Have faith. BELIEVE it, and pass it on to him. It will help.”

She tried. Amidst her unavoidable worry, she tried to impart her love and confidence through her hand into his. Whether it helped, she would never know.

Evan had taken control of the room, moving everyone out except those he deemed should remain: Tonks, Kingsley and himself to deal with Voldemort if he should regain consciousness, and Hermione, Ron and Ginny to stay with Harry. Evan hoped that their friendship would somehow assist the extraordinary young wizard. Worry filled him as it had never affected him before, as he fretted over the outcome of Harry’s struggle with Voldemort. He could not understand why this young man should cause him to feel such strong emotions.

Just in case, the aurors used the incarcerous spell to bind Voldemort’s hands and legs. Evan paced back and forth nervously, while Kingsley stood stoically by the window. Tonks sat on the edge of the bed, not having bothered to change her hair color. All three aurors held their wands firmly, ready to act at any moment.

“I FELT SOMETHING,” Hermione screamed, “HE’S COMING BACK!”

The six onlookers witnessed Harry’s body jerk violently for ten seconds before calming, and then from behind his eyelid they saw a bright green glow.

James and Lily melted away. Think of the one you love most in the world, thought Harry, repeating his father’s words, and immediately Hermione’s face appeared before him, more beautiful than he ever imagined, perfect in every way.

“Come back, Harry. Finish what you have to do, and come back.”

“OK, Hermione,” he whispered, “I’m coming. Tell me what I need to hear.”

“I love you, Harry. I love you. It’s love. Remember that it’s love.”

He felt an electricity surge within his soul, and finally he felt an element of control. He turned to move and felt himself flying at an incredible speed, coming to a stop abruptly. Before him stood the image of Lord Voldemort.

“We are becoming one, Harry,” sneered the dark lord, “I am unable to retrieve my soul from you, so I will do the next best thing. We will become one, and my spirit will dominate you. A new dark lord will arise!”

Harry realized that he could see himself now too, and he returned Voldemort’s sneer, only his contained a knowing confidence.

“Have you ever loved, Tom? As a baby, do you remember loving your mother? Or at the orphanage? Or at Hogwarts? If you ever did, you’ve lost that ability now, and you cannot survive in it. I am full of love, Tom. So let us merge, right now. I’m ready. What will be, will be.”

Voldemort did not like the tone of Harry’s voice. He expected fear, or hatred, or resistance. But all her heard was calm acceptance. Confidence.

“Thank you for killing the snake, by the way,” Harry commented with a smile, “That made my job much easier.” Suddenly he felt wonderful, not trying to resist at all, but just allowing nature to take course. Just let it flow, he heard Hermione’s voice again.

The dark lord’s face contorted with hatred, for the glib words of his nemesis only caused him to hate the boy even more.

“You time has come, Harry Potter. The time for talk has ended.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Harry chuckled in his excellent humor, and then added as if speaking to his friends, “I’ll be back soon.”

The two images disappeared, and suddenly they found their souls locked together again, just as when they first left their bodies in the master bedroom. But this time, Harry felt perfectly relaxed, and he allowed the faces of Hermione, Ron, Ginny and others to fill his mind, letting his mind wander. He felt no pain and no anxiety.

Voldemort concentrated with all his might, but immediately he felt a noose constricting around him. His hatred for Harry increased as the noose tightened.

“NO!” Harry heard Tom Riddle yell painfully, “YOU CANNOT WIN. LOVE CANNOT OVERCOME MY POWER. LORD VOLDEMORT WILL . . .”

Harry never learned what Lord Voldemort would do, because with a deafening snap, he felt the soul of Tom Riddle disappear.

“It’s done,” Harry whispered to himself, “Time to go back.”

Hermione grasped Harry’s hand with all of her might while his soul reentered his body, Ron and Ginny knelt beside him, both anxious and fearful of the outcome of their friend’s confrontation with Lord Voldemort.

After five minutes, the intensity of the green behind his eyelids lessened, and Hermione felt his body relax. He seemed simply to be sleeping comfortably.

“Let’s move him to the bed,” Tonks suggested, and Hermione released Harry’s hand only long enough for Evan to levitate his body onto the large bed centered against the back wall of the spacious bedroom. Hermione and Ron straightened his arms and legs, and Hermione resumed her post by the bed.

The three aurors in the room continued to observe the body of Lord Voldemort carefully, but noted no change. An hour passed with no change in Harry’s body either.

Evan finally left the room for a few moments, unable to bear the anxiety which filled him more thoroughly than ever in his life. Several others hovered nearby in the hallway, among them Michelle Goldsmith. Evan’s eyes met hers, and somehow she knew that he wanted to speak with her. She followed him down the hall, and entered the bedroom where Hermione and Ginny used to sleep in past times.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Evan blurted out without preamble, “I’ve never felt so nervous in my life. It looks like Harry will live, but I’m so worried.”

Michelle smiled and replied, “He obviously means a lot to you. More than what you realized. You love him.”

“Love him?” Evan repeated disbelievingly, “I’ve become very close to him, that is true. All I know is that I’ve never worried like this before over anyone. I wouldn’t know if that’s love or not.”

“You’re not a father, Evan,” the younger witch explained, “I’m sure that any father could explain what you are feeling. You care more for his life than your own, right? That is a father’s love for his child. Or a mother’s, for that matter.”

The way she said it seemed so simple, but Evan still could not grasp it fully. He paced from one side of the room to the other, clearly perturbed.

“I never thought I was capable of that,” he mused while staring at the wall, “I thought only other people could feel that way.”

Michelle lay a hand on his shoulder and gently turned him towards her. She looked up at him until his eyes finally met hers.

“I think you are capable of it,” she asserted, “I think you’ve just isolated yourself. If you let someone come close, like you did with Harry, you are capable of great things.”

They continued to stare into each other’s eyes until their heads moved closer as if magnetically charged. Their lips met lightly, as they nervously kissed.

“When this is over,” Evan softly murmured, “I think I owe you a dinner. A man is not supposed to kiss a woman before even having a date.” Her smile matched his.

“I’d be honored, Evan. I know of a lot of wonderful muggle restaurants.”

Suddenly filled with warmth and optimism, Evan embraced her quickly before saying, “I should get back. I just needed to get away for a second.” He paused for a moment as she nodded her agreement. “Besides, I think I blew it. The best place to kiss a girl for the first time is in the middle of a lake.” He laughed at her puzzled expression. “I’ll explain it to you over dinner.”

Another hour later, in the early evening, Harry finally began to stir. The three aurors stood swiftly, wands at the ready, just in case. Hermione displayed no such caution, instead running her fingers through his black hair. At last Harry opened his eyes, seeing Hermione’s eyes before anything else. The two stared at each other without saying a word, and Hermione’s heard soared. She knew he was back.

Finally she whispered, “You did it, didn’t you? You killed him.”

Harry shook his head slightly, correcting her, “I didn’t kill him. Love did. In the end, he couldn’t stand it. His soul is gone forever.”

He turned to his side in order to leave the bed, realizing that the body of Lord Voldemort must still be in the room. Ron helped him to his feet, and Harry immediately turned his attention to Voldemort’s still body. Evan anticipated his question and knelt down by the body, touching his neck.

“There’s still a pulse,” he informed them, “If his soul is dead, then this is just a shell. Like someone who’s received the dementor’s kiss.”

Upon seeing the body, Harry could not prevent a surge of hatred, and his eyes glowed green again. He needed to kill Lord Voldemort once and for all, including this shell of a body. Realizing that he still held his wand, he stepped forward and pointed it downward. His eyes glowed even more brightly, and Hermione suddenly knew that she could not allow him to continue.

“NO, HARRY,” she shouted, “WAIT.” He lifted his wand and turned towards her. “I’ll do it. You shouldn’t kill him, Harry. It may be too much for you.” The others did not know exactly what she meant, but Harry understood perfectly. The act of killing might push him over the edge, allowing the absorbed pieces of Voldemort’s soul still inside to overcome him. Hermione stepped forward, her arm shaking, for she did not want to kill, even the nearly lifeless body of Lord Voldemort.

Evan stepped forward, “No, Hermione. I’ll do it. You’re right, Harry should not, but neither should you.” Breathing a sigh of relief, Hermione lowered her wand, and stepped next to Harry, wrapping an arm around him. Evan glanced at Harry, who merely nodded.

Pointing his wand at the body, Evan carefully spoke the killing curse, “Avada Kedavra.” The green bolt emerged from his wand and struck squarely in the chest. Inside of the body of Tom Riddle, his heart stopped beating.

Chapter 35: Epilogue
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Chapter 35



Harry automatically wrapped his arm around Hermione as they settled into the brown leather sofa in front of the large, unlit fireplace in the Gryffindor common room. Their positions had become routine for them throughout their seventh year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Now in mid June, after having completed their NEWT’s, they sat contentedly as they laughed with Ron about Harry and Hermione’s first argument as a couple.

Word of Harry’s defeat of Lord Voldemort naturally caused uninhibited celebrations throughout the wizarding world, and Harry’s fame exploded as he became the hero above all heroes. As the month of the previous August ended, Headmistress McGonagall received tremendous pressure to name Harry Potter as Head Boy for the upcoming term, replacing the obvious but uninspired choice of Ernie McMillan. She resisted because she refused to remove the badge from Ernie, who met all of the requirements of the office - excellent marks, service as a prefect, and devotion to Hogwarts and its rules.

Finally, however, Ernie apparently solved the problem by contacting the headmistress himself, turning in his badge and encouraging her to name Harry Potter in his place. Though he dearly coveted the prestigious position, he realized that he would be seen as a usurper by many. Besides, after what Harry accomplished, how could he possibly not be named Head Boy.

The notion never occurred to Harry, and when McGonagall sent a letter to him with the Head Boy badge enclosed, his jaw nearly hit the floor. The Grangers graciously allowed him to spend the final weeks of August in their home, so Hermione saw the badge fall out of the parchment envelope. She squealed loud enough for the entire neighborhood to hear, leaping three feet off the ground. In the bemused presence of her parents, she wrapped her arms around her boyfriend and kissed him passionately. Harry, on the other hand, remained quite aware of her parents’ presence and pushed her off as quickly as he could. Hermione quickly reddened when she realized the show she had caused, but her joy over Harry’s appointment overcame her embarrassment.

After excitedly explaining to her parents the import of the position, she finally noted Harry’s less than joyful appearance.

"I can’t accept it," he declared firmly, "I’ll send it back. Ernie deserves to be Head Boy. He’s worked hard for it. Just because I’ve become famous doesn’t mean I should be Head Boy. I’ve never been a prefect, my marks are only average, and I’ve broken more rules than Sirius did. Well, maybe not that many, but I’ve broken my share. Anyway, I don’t want it."

"But Harry," Hermione pleaded disbelievingly, "You can’t turn down Head Boy. It’s not like you were fighting for it. You didn’t do anything to take the badge away from Ernie. I’m sure Professor McGonagall discussed it with him. Probably he turned it in voluntarily. We can be heads together. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?"

"Not really," Harry answered abruptly, "I'm proud of you for being Head Girl, but you deserve it. You’ve done everything you needed to do, and there’s nobody more deserving. But I don’t deserve it, and I won’t accept it."

Hermione felt equal parts devastation and anger, and she pressed her lips together tightly. Finally she issued a declaration of her own.

"OK, in that case, I’ll send my badge back too. If you’re not going to be Head Boy, then I’ll decline Head Girl."

"You’ll do no such thing!" Harry responded hotly, his eyes glowing slightly, "You deserve to be Head Girl more than anyone who’s ever attended Hogwarts for the last thousand years." Mr. and Mrs. Granger chuckled at Harry’s hyperbole. "You’ve wanted to be Head Girl from the first time you walked into the Great Hall. I will not be responsible for you turning it down."

"I’ll turn it down if I want to," Hermione argued, "It’s MY decision to make. It would take me away from you too much. If we were heads together, then we could be with each other a lot more. That’s more important to me than a stupid badge."

By now the couple had completely forgotten the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Granger until the older couple could suppress their laughter no longer. Hermione glanced angrily at them, while Harry looked away, wondering if he had just convinced them of his unsuitability for their only daughter. Instead, Mrs. Granger hugged Hermione happily, while Mr. Granger patted Harry on the back.

"That’s the best entertainment I've had all week," he joked, "Better than anything on the telly." Hermione found no humor in her father’s statement and turned to her mother.

"Tell Harry he’s wrong," she pleaded, "Try to make him understand."

"I’ll do no such thing," Mrs. Granger responded, "I think Harry’s reasons are quite noble, though I know that we don’t know how things work at Hogwarts. If Harry doesn’t think he should serve, then you need to respect his decision."

Harry’s lips turned up slightly at Mrs. Granger’s words, and deep inside of him, he felt an ounce of pride that he may have finally bested Hermione in an argument.

"I’ll just add one thing, Harry," Mrs. Granger continued, now looking directly at the young man, "Given everything that you’ve accomplished these past weeks, I think you are going to be Head Boy at Hogwarts whether you are wearing that badge or not. I certainly do not envy this Ernie fellow who would try to serve in your shadow. And as far as qualifications are concerned, I believe that defeat of a dark lord should count for something."

"Why don’t the two of you take a walk," Mr. Granger suggested, "Settle down a little, come to an agreement and then decide what you want to do."

The young witch and wizard took his advice, walking for ten minutes without saying a word, but holding hands as they always did.

"I’m sorry I became upset," Hermione finally apologized, "It’s just . . . It’s always been a dream of mine that you and I could be heads together. When I saw the badge fall out of the envelope, I thought my dream came true. But I understand your reasons. If you don’t want to accept it, that’s OK." Try as she may, the disappointment in her voice could not be disguised. She stopped Harry and wrapped her arms around him, clearly holding back tears. Harry recalled that day in the hotel room just a few blocks away when she cried on his shoulder after she opened his Hogwarts envelope, discovering that he had not been named Head Boy.

They walked on in silence as Harry mulled it over. He knew that Mrs. Granger hit the nail on the head. Already he discovered the new attitude wizards and witches took towards him, treating him as if he were royalty. Part of him hated it, but part of him ate it up. He almost felt embarrassed that to some extent he enjoyed the adulation, and he knew this to be the effect of the absorbed horcruxes. He tried to convince himself that he hated the attention, that he wanted simply to be left alone, but the truth was that at times he reveled in it.

In the days after Voldemort’s demise, they determined that while the portion of the dark lord’s soul that remained in his body did not transfer itself to Harry, the portion that had previously been absorbed by him, both as a baby and after the destruction of the horcruxes, would stay with him forever.

I am what I am,
he convinced himself, I can’t deny that part of me. Somehow I need to deal with it rather than trying to deny it. He finally made his decision.

"I’ll accept it," he announced, "Not just for you, though that’s a large part of it, but because I want it. Part of me wants it; part of me does not. This time, I’ll go with the part that wants it."

"Are you sure?" Hermione asked, her voice full of surprise, "Don’t do it just for me. We can still be together either way."

"I’m sure," he asserted, and she felt the decisiveness in his voice. They stopped again on the sidewalk of the tree-lined residential street of her hometown, and commenced a serious snogging session which caused more than a few raised eyebrows among the neighbors.

Among his first acts as Head Boy, Harry intentionally violated one of Hogwarts' many rules. He helped Ron move into the Head Boy’s suite above the Gryffindor common room, an act clearly prohibited by the regulations. Not surprisingly, the headmistress overlooked the infraction, and Ron and Harry became closer than ever, spending hours together in their comfortable quarters, which included a spacious sitting room and a bedroom plenty large enough for the two of them.

Back on the common room sofa, after laughing over his friends’ first argument, Ron confided, "I must admit I wasn’t too happy about you being named Head Boy at first. Bit of jealousy, I guess. But I’m glad it was you rather than me."

In fact, Harry proved to be a rather lackluster Head Boy, singularly uninterested in enforcement of rules or delving into the minutia of administering a large wizarding institution of learning. Fortunately Hermione ate it up, and he more or less went along for the ride.

"I can’t wait for the wedding," Hermione interjected cheerfully, "It should be so much fun."

She referred to the upcoming nuptials of Evan Harrington and Michelle Goldsmith, to be conducted just days following the end of term. Harry, in fact, contributed directly to the improved fortunes of the happy couple.

After Voldemort’s demise, the Daily Prophet naturally begged for an interview. After a few requests, Harry agreed, but insisted that he would only allow himself to be interviewed by Michelle. The Prophet initially objected on the basis of journalistic integrity, insisting that it alone should determine who should conduct the interview. In response, Harry merely declined the invitation. Predictably, the Prophet relaxed its standards.

In the end, Michelle’s article was extremely well-received, and contributed mightily to Harry’s surging popularity and her increased status at the newspaper. On his few visits to Diagon Alley, the crowds quickly mobbed him, shouting words of adulation and thanks. The girls literally swooned over him, some even fainting. Again, Harry hated it and loved it, not sure which feeling predominated.

Minister of Magic Scrimgeour seemingly could not win for losing. His popularity increased momentarily after the tremendous victory at Hogwarts Castle, but Harry’s defeat of the dark lord Voldemort soon overshadowed Scrimgeour’s feat. In fact, after the Prophet published the interview, which contained some biting remarks about the Minister, the wave of popularity subsided. He retained his position, but still had to fight for every ounce of support from the public. Fortunately, Harry made no concerted effort to disparage him further, and even on rare occasions found himself in agreement with the Minister’s actions.

Harry informed the Ministry matter-of-factly about Draco’s assistance with their final confrontation with Lord Voldemort, but otherwise he did not intervene in the young death eater’s case. His crimes could not be ignored, but ultimately he received a shortened sentence. Ten years, initially in Azkaban, though plans for a new and more humane prison apparently were in the works. Harry did not give his formal rival a second thought, not after remembering what he had done over the years.

Evan returned to the Ministry and freely admitted his actions. Naturally he became a secondary hero in the press, as did Ron, Hermione, Ginny and others, and the Ministry found itself in a quandary. Clearly the auror violated his oath, and such an act could not be ignored. Moreover, Minister Scrimgeour felt no sympathy for the wizard and pushed for appropriate punishment. On the other hand, his advisors reminded him of the hit he would take when the news become public, especially because Potter and the auror had become extremely close.

Eventually, Evan agreed to resign his position voluntarily in exchange for all charges being dropped, largely because Harry and Hermione already found a job for him. Headmistress McGonagall only too happily offered him the position of Defense against the Dark Arts teacher. Evan accepted immediately, overjoyed to be free of the restrictions of the Ministry and to be close to Harry and his friends.

Harry and Evan soon became more than mere friends. The older wizard became a combined father/older brother figure to Harry, and the two spent hours together, often accompanied by Hermione and Ron, who also became close to him. Combined with his emerging romance with Michelle Goldsmith, Evan had never been happier.

In fact, the two men discussed Harry’s future after Hogwarts. He had offers from almost every business in wizarding Britain - manufacturers, shopkeepers, legal firms, accounting firms (this especially caused him laughter), even the Daily Prophet. Fortunately, Harry did not need a job. His inheritance from his parents and Sirius provided him with more than he would ever need, and after selling Number 12, Grimmauld Place (at an inflated price due to the fact that it was owned by Harry Potter), he had to open three new vaults at Gringotts to contain all of the galleons.

In the past, he considered entering the Ministry as an auror, but after Evan’s experience, he dismissed that option out of hand. Scrimgeour would never allow it regardless, still bearing a great deal of resentment towards the young icon. No career in the Ministry.

Eventually, Harry decided that he could not work for anyone. He would need to go out on his own, and after much discussion, Evan and he decided to create their own business. Ironically enough, when Evan made inquiries as to who might be able to assist them in this endeavor, as both Harry and he recognized their lack of experience, an acquaintance suggested the name of Jeremiah Harrison, Scrimgeour’s old friend. Even stranger, Harrison agreed to serve as a consultant. He could see which horse would carry him further in the long run. The Minister’s term would end sooner or later, probably sooner; Harry’s star had just begun to rise.

Harrison suggested opening a restaurant on Diagon Alley. Harry’s name alone would attract a huge clientele; it could not miss. But the young wizard dismissed it out of hand, refusing to provide any explanation. Ultimately they decided that they would wait until after his graduation to make a decision. He had all the time in the world.

Not a restaurant, however. Though life appeared to be treating Harry splendidly, only Hermione, Ron and Evan knew of the toll that the final horcrux took on him. So little time elapsed between the absorption of the Hufflepuff cup horcrux and the confrontation with Voldemort, that the effect of the horcrux could not be noted. Little by little, however, they noticed Harry’s sudden deep depressions, often accompanied by violent thoughts.

Several close calls occurred during September. Most seriously, when a trio of unrepentant Slytherins taunted him half-heartedly, Harry exploded, instantly pinning the three against the high ceiling of a hallway with every intention to allow them to fall to the stone floor, quite possibly to their deaths. He paused just long enough that Hermione, who fortunately came with him on that occasion, could calm him enough to allow the three down without injury. The Slytherins ran off and never bothered Harry again. Nobody dared report the incident to the administration.

Soon Ron and Hermione agreed that one of them needed to stay with Harry at all times, and he agreed, full of shame, fearful that he would kill someone. He considered leaving Hogwarts all together, and in fact on one occasion, just after Halloween, he entered the Headmistress’ office exactly for the purpose of informing McGonagall of his decision. Hermione chased after him, disconsolate that she could not talk him out it.

When they entered the office, however, the headmistress was nowhere to be seen, and Harry, furious at the derailment of his plans, merely spat at Hermione, "I’m leaving now. You can explain to McGonagall. I’m not taking any more chances."

"No, Harry!" she cried in response, "You should tell her yourself. You’re being too hard on yourself. And after all, nothing happened."

"Only because you stopped me," he retorted, "It could have been a disaster, a blood bath."

"Perhaps the two of you could explain your predicament to an old man," came a deep voice from the wall to Harry’s right, the unmistakable voice of Albus Dumbledore.

The old wizard stood in his portrait, placed in a setting much like the very office where they stood. He walked to the front of the scene to observe the heated discussion, recognizing the two students immediately. In fact, he had exchanged a few words with Harry during the year, but never an extended conversation. In general, portraits in the office rarely spoke more than a few words, usually saving their more extended conversations for the headmistress herself.

"I’m too dangerous to stay in school," Harry explained simply, "There’s too much of Lord Voldemort inside of me. I’ve become too much like him."

"There was an incident at the Halloween Ball a couple of days ago," Hermione added, "Harry took exception to some things that some boys said to me, and well, when Harry takes exception, he really takes exception."

She did not wish to describe the constrictus spell that Harry placed on one student, almost causing him to pass out, or the other one whom he turned into a niffler. Hermione changed him back before any faculty saw, and she rushed Harry out of the Great Hall before he could cause any more havoc. Ever since, he had fallen into the deepest of his depressions.

Dumbledore squinted his eyes in apparent confusion, commenting, "As of yet, I have seen no evidence of Lord Voldemort in your actions. Certainly your conduct is cause for concern, but it does not reflect the nature of Tom Riddle."

These words shocked Harry completely. How could Dumbledore think such a thing? Of course, this was a mere portrait, not the man himself.

"Voldemort, despite the depths of his evil, was a wizard of great discipline. He rarely acted out of passion or uncontrolled anger. In fact, he controlled his anger fastidiously, directing it with great precision towards his goals," Dumbledore expounded, almost sounding like the professor of his earlier years. "No doubt what has happened to you is a result of the sacrifices forced upon you, but your problems are of an entirely different nature."

Whether this was good news or bad, Harry could not immediately determine. His eyes scrunched together as if he had a headache, glowing slightly.

"Is there anything he can do about it, Professor?" asked Hermione, having exhausted her own store of ideas.

"Well, I have a suggestion," Dumbledore replied after a few moments of thought, "You will recall that Voldemort was one of the finest Occlumens in the world. He learned to control his mind. My suggestion is that you practice Occlumency, Harry. I believe it may allow you to exert greater control over you mind, and as a result, your actions."

The chance meeting with Dumbledore’s portrait changed Harry’s life; in fact, it may be reasonable to claim that it saved his life. McGonagall called on the services of an old friend to come to Hogwarts to teach Harry the art of Occlumency, the ability to close one’s mind. Harry immediately discovered that in fact, here lay the key to his survival as a reasonably normal, safe person. He devoted himself to the art with such fervor, that for a few weeks his friends could barely stand him, as he would speak of nothing else. In the end, however, he mastered the art and regained the confidence that he could function. The second half of the year passed without incident.

Hermione rode the roller coaster of Harry’s life. Especially during the first months of their seventh year, she felt the pressure of having to intervene immediately whenever Harry seemed to lose control. She learned to sense those moments, but she could not be with him every moment of every day. On a few occasions, she could not even use the loo for fear of what Harry might do in her absence.

But their pleasant moments still outnumbered the difficult ones, and their love for each other never faltered. Spending many hours of each day together, both in classes and Head Boy/Girl duties, she never doubted that this was the man with whom she would share her life. She helped him learn Occlumency, learning the art herself, and from that moment on, she felt that the corner had been turned. There would always be that dangerous side to Harry, but now he had a means to control it.

Of course, she received offers for every type of employment, but had not yet decided whether to accept a position or not. She considered joining Harry and Evan in their business venture, whatever that may be. In any event, despite her worry-wart nature, she found herself more tranquil than at any point in her life.

In a sense, Harry and Hermione’s romance allowed Ron a freedom that he never felt before. While still Harry’s best mate, he found himself on his own more often and made the most of it. He enjoyed two romances of his own during the year, with a Ravenclaw sixth year and a Hufflepuff seventh year, though neither one ever became serious. He did not mind. Taking over the captaincy of the quidditch team (Harry declined to play due to his various issues), he led the team to another Quidditch Cup and earned a couple of tryouts with professional teams.

The three friends’ minds returned from their reverie as Ginny walked by their sofa and chair. She smiled warmly.

"Off to see Malcolm, I assume?" her older brother asked dryly, "I think this is the first time I’ve seen you without him on your arm for the last month."

They all chuckled, and the red head admitted that she indeed intended to meet with her new boyfriend, the third of the year, a Ravenclaw sixth year. Ron no longer bothered worrying about her, finding it to be useless. Though she finally moved beyond her heartache over Harry, the two of them spent little time together and felt distant even when standing next to each other. They would each go their own way.

After Ginny left, Harry stood and reached for Hermione’s hand, lifting her off the sofa.

"Let’s take a walk," he suggested to her, "It’s a nice day outside." She noted a mischievous gleam in his eyes, but happily complied, and soon the two of them walked along the edge of the towering castle, along the grassy mounds to its side, and finally along the shore of the lake. After a few minutes, Harry eyed his girlfriend guiltily and pulled a pouch out of the pocket of his robe. He then took off his robe and threw it to the ground, kicking off his shoes at the same time.

"Dobby made a purchase for me," he whispered to her evilly while holding up the pouch.

"Harry!" she admonished him sharply, "We can’t go in the lake. It’s against the rules!"

By the time she finished, Harry already rolled up his pant legs and pulled off his shirt, tossing it next to the robe. A small crowd of other students enjoying the warm weather noticed them. He stepped into the lake and turned to look back at her.

"We can’t, Harry!" she hissed, turning her head side to side, "We just can’t!"

But Harry already stuffed a handful of gillyweed into his mouth and tossed the pouch onto the shore. His eyes displayed complete enjoyment of his little plan, and soon his gills grew, and he dove into the frigid water.

"HARRY!" she yelled, but by now, of course, he could not hear her. Again she looked around anxiously, wondering what she should do.

From behind her, the pretty Gryffindor Romilda Vane approached, having witnessed the scene.

"You better go, Hermione," she warned her, "because if you don’t, I will."

Probably a joke, Hermione thought, but with Romilda one could never be sure. The Head Girl threw off her robe and kicked off her shoes, thankful that she wore jeans instead of a skirt. Romilda lifted the pouch for her, and she reached in, grabbing a handful. Moments later she dove into the water as well.

Harry awaited her, just thirty yards from the shore, apparently convinced that she would follow. Though his mouth could not smile due to the gillyweed, his eyes shone with great humor. He reached out his hand, and soon the two streaked off to the center of the lake.

For an hour they frolicked, staying away from the bottom-dwelling grindylows and the merpeople’s village. In fact, for the most part, they stayed within a few hundred yards of the shore next to the castle, feeling no interest in exploration.

Finally the gillyweed wore off, and Harry returned to the surface, less than one hundred yards from the shore. Hermione appeared a couple of minutes later, and surfaced immediately in front of the extraordinary young wizard who would be her partner for life.

Reenacting their first kiss, they embraced and snogged for an extended time, well within sight of the growing crowd on the shore. They ignored the applause, shouts and catcalls from their schoolmates, lost in their own little world.

"I’m so glad that it was you that was crying in the loo when the troll came," Harry whispered to her, "Who knows if we’d be here right now if it was Lavender or Parvati."

She smiled but shook her head, "No, Harry. This was meant to be. It had to happen. I bet there was a prophecy about us somewhere. Probably the centaurs saw us in the stars."

They turned to look up at the magnificent castle, their home for the past seven years, which in a couple of days they would leave behind, facing a new life in the real world.

"So much has happened here," she whispered disbelievingly, "Who would ever believe it? When we tell our grandchildren, they’re going to think we’re senile."

"Grandchildren?" asked Harry, "You’re talking about grandchildren when we’ve never even talked of children. You’re getting a little ahead of yourself, aren’t you?" He laughed happily. She reddened slightly when she realized her gaffe, but merely smiled.

"OK, tell me about our children then," she asked, kissing him again, thereby delaying his response.

He looked at her, with her wet hair clinging to her head and her brown eyes glistening. Behind her rose the imposing castle, and he imagined his own children roaming the halls of the ancient structure. He thought of all his experiences, all he had suffered. Trolls, dragons, basilisks, werewolves, dementors, and more. And Lord Voldemort. He saw the faces of those he lost - Sirius Black and Albus Dumbledore. Finally he gazed back into her eyes, tears forming in his, and spoke with a choked voice.

"All I want for our children is that they live a nice, safe, boring life."

xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx

A/N (updated May 15, 2010):    Well, what do you think?  I finished this story the day before Deathly Hallows was released, following a rush of writing to finish the final few chapters.  I hope you enjoyed it, and even if you have not reviewed up to now, please review to let me know now what you think about it.  I will be happy to respond to any questions or comments you may have.  If you have not already read it, you may also enjoy my other story, A Serpent's Sacrifice, which is a very different seventh-year novel.  Thank you for taking the time to read The Bottom of the Lake.